When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia

Some time back I wrote a review of The Conductor, by a writer from New Zealand, Sarah Quigley—the review is available here on the site of Dactyl Review. Set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege of WW II, the book details the life of a rather unassuming and humble musician, who gets his chance to conduct Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the besieged city. Quigley’s novel is good, especially sparking for its insights into classical music and its depictions of Shostakovich, but it is full of details that produce unintentional comic effects.

These details are indicative of a writer who knows little about Russian life and culture, speaks no Russian, and may not have ever set foot in the city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). In one of the biggest howlers in the book, The Bronze Horseman—that statue of Peter the Great in Petersburg and the most famous monument in the whole country—is described as waving a sword in one hand. The fertile imagination of the author conjures up that sword and describes it in some detail: “His sword had a greenish hue towards the hilt, but its tip was bright from the touch of many hands.” Nice sword, except that on the actual statue it does not exist.

I’ve recently read two other novels set in Russia: (1) David Benioff, City of Thieves (Viking Penguin, 2008) and (2) Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016). Both books have been well received, attracting favorable reviews and scads of readers. And with good reason, since they both have appealing characters and fascinating plots. Continue reading

The Best American Short Stories, 2017

The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.

Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh. Continue reading

On Literary Translation

These remarks are based, largely, on Emily Wilson’s book review of Mark Polizzotti, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press, 2018). The review appears in the New York Review of Books, May 24, 2018, p. 46-47.

Assuming that most of us are not bilingual or trilingual, without literary translation we cannot read novels, stories, poems written in foreign languages. But practically no one seems to agree on what makes for a good literary translation. The crucial question always seems to be how much leeway the translator is given. Must he/she (1) remain very close to the original, producing a literal translation that may not read well in the target language? (2) diverge from the original to produce a kind of imitation? (3) push the imitation so far that it amounts to a traducing of the original (even though it may read well and be a work of creative art in the target language)? Continue reading

On Writing Fiction: The Case of Philip Roth (1933-2018)

“We must read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow to the head, then what are we reading it for? A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”  …Franz Kafka

Some of the best writers in world literature—Kafka in German, say, Isaac Babel in Russian, Philip Roth in English—are the kind of writers who love to inflict blows to the head of the reader. In so doing they must, however, be ever aware that someone smacked upside the head will yell, and yell loudly.

Nathaniel Rich discusses this issue in regard to Roth (NYRB, March 8, 2018).

Philip Roth had “to defend himself and to explain himself to the paranoid assimilationists of his father’s generation who berated him for ‘informing the goyim that some Jews might not be paragons of virtue and might even possess human qualities.’” Roth told his detractors, “Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold.” This was in response to the reaction to his story, “Defender of the Faith,” published in The New Yorker in 1959. Continue reading

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

 

Given that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of “The Virgin Suicides” (Warner Books, 1993, 249 pages) is about to appear in print, now is a good time for another look at a novel that has become a modern classic in American literature.

Set in Wayne County, Michigan, in and around Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, “The Virgin Suicides” is steeped in gloom. Since it is narrated, however, with verve and humor, you don’t quite comprehend how sad it is until you’ve read the final pages. You put the book down and that’s when the melancholy grabs you by the soul. Continue reading

All Things All At Once, by Lee K. Abbott

Recently I’ve decided to read and review what are generally accepted as the best short story collections by living American writers. With publication of All Things All at Once (Norton, 365 pages), Lee K. Abbott, widely acknowledged as a “writers’ writer,” has seven collections of stories in print. His work has appeared in some of the most highly regarded literary journals. In addition, his stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry awards. This most recent collection features new stories, plus several previously published.
Continue reading

The Trick of It, by Michael Frayn

 Two professors of literature, old friends, one in England (RD, our narrator), one having emigrated to Australia (R), are writing letters to each other. This suggests one of the many metaphors in The Trick of It (Viking, 1989, 172 pp.): “Forgotten questions and meaningless answers passing each other somewhere over the Indian Ocean at thirty thousand feet—an image of human communication. Of love and literature and life.” So is this an old-fashioned epistolary novel? Far from it. The Trick of It is a marvelous, sparkling-new one-way-epistolary and modern piece of metafiction. I would rank it right up there with Don DeLillo’s White Noise as one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. Continue reading