Dead Souls by Sam Riviere

Believe the Blurbers

Dead Souls (A Novel by Sam Riviere, NY: Catapult, 2021, 289 pp.) is a rare example of a book containing believable blurbs. This wild gallimaufry of a novel, which runs a monologue through almost three hundred pages of text, without pauses for paragraphs or new chapters, is a tour de force of literary mania. Reviewers have pointed to possible influences: Roberto Bolaño, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino. One blurber, Nicolette Polek, describes the novel as “a rare and brilliant pleasure, a coiling, searing fugue of a book that takes our deranged culture and pulls forth from it a box of stars.” She’s right. Or, to put it in the fully neutered style in which the book is written, they are right.

There are chapters of sorts, but you have to figure them out yourself. In the front matter the author provides a kind of contents page—not labeled as such—listing names of characters as names of chapters, along with the pages where they start. Begin with an introductory chapter (not listed in these “contents”), then go, first, to “Zariyah Zhadan,” p. 32: this is, presumably, Chapter One. Proceed from there, filling in the chapter numbers beside the given name and page number. Chapter Six comprises two named characters. We end up with “The Scholastici,” p. 253, which is the last of twelve chapters. Continue reading

Commentary on Analysis by George Saunders of Story by Anton Chekhov


“In the Cart” (Yarmolinsy Translation)

From the book by George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Note: I taught Russian literature in a university for thirty years. Naturally, I was intrigued when the short-story writer George Saunders published a book detailing how he teaches Russian stories in his creative writing classes at Syracuse University. Among those stories are two by Anton Chekhov that I once taught (“The Darling” and “Gooseberries”) and one by Nikolai Gogol (“The Nose”).

I decided that before looking at the Saunders commentary I would publish my own critical remarks on each story. The result would be an interesting contrast: material as presented by a teacher of Russian literature versus material as presented by a teacher of creative writing. The first story treated by Saunders is Anton Chekhov’s “In the Cart.” I have already posted my critical analysis of that story on my blog, “U.R. Bowie on Russian Literature” and on Dactyl Review. What follows below is my commentary on how George Saunders approaches the story.

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“In the Wagon” (“На подводе”), by Anton Chekhov


 Telega (Wagon, Cart) With Wounded Soldiers

[Note: the story has appeared in English translation under a variety of titles; I know of at least three: “The Schoolmistress” (Constance Garnett trans.), “A Journey by Cart” (Marian Fell) and “In the Cart” (Avrahm Yarmolinsky, the translation discussed by George Saunders in his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain). My method, were I to be teaching this story in a course on Russian literature: I would read the original first, then compare translations, trying to pick the best one for my students to read. In quoting here from the story in English I use the Marian Fell translation, which appears in the Norton Critical Edition, Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories (edited by Ralph Matlaw). I have made slight changes in certain passages and have changed her title.]

The Structure of the Story, the Protagonist, the Venality, the “Slice of Life” Continue reading

The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter

The Title, the Epigraph and the Prelude

Somebody gave me a copy of this book (Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love, Random House, 2000. Vintage paperback edition, 2001, 308 pp.). It lay about my house for a long time, the bright blues of the cover occasionally calling out to me, “Read me.” I resisted, probably because the title put me off. “The Feast of Love” promises a light read, maybe a melodrama, nothing serious. The book, however, turns out to be a wonderful piece of literary fiction.

Here’s the epigraph, from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.” Is the novel that follows about forgetting to be? Not really. This book as a whole is about being, and all the messiness of being human in flesh. That epigraph misleads the reader into thinking he’s in for something resembling Kafka, and the “Preludes” part that comes next—first subheading under “Beginnings”—reinforces that expectation of the Kafkaesque. In the prelude the writer Charles Baxter—most people call him Charlie—wakes up in the middle of the night and “cannot remember or recognize myself . . . I can’t manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn’t working, and because it, the flesh in which I’m housed, hasn’t yet become me.” Continue reading

The Songs and Laments of Loömos, by René de Saint-Denis

With his Loömos book (Laocoön Press, 2021, 128 pp.), the author attempts a presentation of art as an integrated whole. As the subtitle tells us, “Text, drawings, paintings, music and sculpture” are included here. We read the words of the book, but, simultaneously, we interact with everything else. We, of course, do not interact directly with the sculptures by Saint-Denis—here we must be content with their visual representations. Nor do we hear the actual music, as this is not an audiobook. But the final section, “Songs and Laments,”—four separate pieces comprising a total of fourteen pages—consists entirely of musical notations.

Therefore, in order to “hear” the music of the final section you have to be a musician yourself, able to read the notes provided on paper. The author may have considered publishing an audiobook, or including a CD of the final section with this paperback. But then again, given certain unique and avant-garde features of Loömos, he may have deliberately intended the final section not to be played. So as to achieve something like what the composer John Cage created when he wrote his famous composition consisting of silence. All the musicians sit in stillness on the proscenium, holding their instruments, while the conductor stills his baton and all his gesticulations. The “music” consists of isolated coughs and throat-clearings from the audience, plus a few car horns blowing and ambulance sirens from the outside world.

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Support Dactyl Review


A Happy New Year to all Dactylians, i.e., supporters of, readers of, and contributors to, Dactyl Review. Once more we have BAM-bam-bammed our way through what looks like a not-so-nice year, 2021. But it was no worse than the one before and possibly much better than many, many other years we’ve lived through in the past. Everything, actually, is relative. Take 1940. For millions of persons worldwide that year was none too swift. For millions more it was a BE year—Before Existence, since they had not yet been born. But 1940 was good to me, for I was delivered into earthly being at the very moment that Hitler was taking Paris.

Hold on, old man. You lost me there. The stuff about the BAM-bam. . .

Yes, well . . . all Dactylians are BAM-bam-bammers, because in versification a dactyl is defined as a metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented (trinary verse). Like all trinary (three-beat) verse, dactyls can tend toward the sing-songy, and, therefore, may be frowned upon. Except in nonsense verse or children’s rhymes: Continue reading

The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer

Being and Ignominy

Time and place. We’re in post-apartheid South Africa, apparently in the largest city, Johannesburg. We’re at the turn of the millennium, early in the new century. The Pickup (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 270 pages) begins with a scene describing a helpless woman and “clustered predators round a kill.” But not to worry, it’s only a modern young white woman, Julie Summers, having car trouble in the midst of a traffic snarl. Her gesture: “hands, palms open, in surrender.” I give up. Help me. They do. Julie Summers is assured of help because she is white and her father is rich. Her social status is that of one who belongs; she is born into privilege, part of the “real” world of Western capitalism. But does she feel that she belongs? Is her world really real? No. So we have, early on, the central theme of the book: identity, or the lack of, belonging and unbelonging. Continue reading

The Brothers Carburi, by Petri Harbouri

Three Brothers

Giovanni Battista Carburi (1722-1804)

Marino Carburi (1729-1782)

Marco Carburi (1731-1808)

The Brothers Carburi  (Bloomsbury, 311 pages) tells the story of three brothers who lived in the eighteenth century. Born in the Greek Ionian Islands, which were at the time in possession of the Republic of Venice, “none of the brothers thought of himself as Greek.” The language they most speak and think in is Italian, although many other languages come into play: Greek, Latin, French, and even a smattering of Russian. Oddly enough, in this, a novel written in English, none of the brothers is conversant in that language. Continue reading

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, first published in 1982, Vintage paperback, 1990, 183 pp.

Sometimes I think I’m not a very attentive reader. I didn’t really catch on to the narrative trick of this, Ishiguro’s first published novel, until near the end. Going back for a second reading—all really good fiction deserves, and sometimes demands a second reading—I found all sorts of clues that I missed the first time through. More on the trick later.

I did not discover Ishiguro until recently; the fact that the won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 makes you stand up and take notice, but plenty of nobelist-writers seem somehow undeserving, while the very best writers are often passed over. Not so Ishiguro; he’s deserving. Continue reading

The Master of Petersburg, by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg (Penguin Books, 1995, 250 pp.). First published in Great Britain in 1994.

Abbreviations used in this article: FM (Fyodor Mikhailovich [Dostoevsky], AG (Anna Grigorievna [Snitkina-Dostoevskaya], his wife), AS (Anna Sergeyevna, character in Coetzee’s novel), Master (The Master of Petersburg)

Note: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821; the year 2021 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Continue reading