There’s Gogol, and Then Again, There’s Gogol
Among others, Ivan Turgenev could not believe that The Inspector General, the greatest play in Russian literature and “one of the most subversive comedies ever to appear on stage,” was written by the same man who wrote the bloated and ingenuous sentences of the essays in Arabesques—and, later, the moralizing and preachy epistles, coruscating with derangement, in Selected Passages from Letters to Friends.
Of course, it was not the same man. The Gogol writing fiction was a genius, and that glorious fiction welled up from some genius of a neuron deep in his brain. The Gogol writing nonfiction was a sententious fool. As Karlinsky writes, “nonfictional Gogol is hard going: verbose, rhetorical, convoluted, and all too often beside the point.”
Gogol lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, but the most prominent theme of his fiction is a twentieth century theme: the illusory nature of all human identity. The man who wrote Gogol’s fiction is a twentieth century writer.
“Every time the flight I’m on takes off. Or if I can hear a flight take off.” – From “Come As You Are,” in Harper’s “Readings,” April, 2019. From accounts of nonsexual orgasms documented in “Orgasm Range and Variability in Humans: A Content Analysis.” Study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health, November, 2018
Flights (Riverhead Books, 403 pages) is a fascinating, while quirky, eccentric book, often factual, non-fictional, often clearly fictional. The fiction is mixed in with the fact to the point that you sometimes cannot tell which is which. The ‘I’ narrator informs us early on that she
“started writing a book. It was a story for travelers, meant to be read on the train—what I would write for myself to read.” She continues as follows: “I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer . . . . In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.” Continue reading
CARICATURES BY DAVID LEVINE
“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation or ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting.”
Fifty years after its publication Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is still quite the bizarre little book. “Its parts seem not to fit together. For a book about the defiance of God it is strangely sportive, at once seedy and shiny bright.”
Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage
That “strangely sportive” can be applied to nearly all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. It lends to her stories their special little gleam.
“Good Country People”
O’Connor wrote one of her most famous and memorable tales, “Good Country People,” in only four days. The story practically wrote itself. A quote from O’Connor: “I didn’t know he [the bible salesman Manley Pointer] was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable.”
O’Connor read Nikolai Gogol while she was a grad student in Iowa and admits to being influenced by him. You wonder how aware or unaware she was of the similarity between Manley Pointer, her gatherer of human dead souls, and Pavel Chichikov, wholesale buyer of dead souls in Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. Both characters are traveling rogues, in the employ of Satan. Manley is Chichikov’s little brother.
For the past couple of years I’ve been reading lots of short story collections by living American writers, looking for something that sparks with creativity, not often finding much. Lauren Groff is generally accepted as one of the prime divas of the MFA world of writing. The stories in this new collection, “Florida” (Riverhead Books, 2018), have been previously published in some of the premier venues in the U.S.: The New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Granta, Tin House, among others. They have been featured as well in three different anthologies of Best American Short Stories. Does that mean they are good? Alas, owing to the stranglehold that the standard MFA racket in fiction holds on these once-august publications, I’ve learned not to get my expectations up too high. Continue reading
“I wasn’t sure what he was hinting at, but I had a sense he was offering me something abominable—like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus.”
U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence
The American writer Don DeLillo is the poet of “an insidious and chronic disquiet.” But in what is probably his best novel, White Noise, a wild spirit of rambunctious laughter crashes through the disquiet, dismantles the morbid tentativeness, and roars out its sheer joy in the absurd act of human existence.
“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties [she did] and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves.”
Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
THE ACME OF METAFICTION, THE QUINTESSENCE OF POSTMODERNISM
Some important works of fiction deserve another look, another read, even some forty years after their original publication. Such is Italo Calvino’s tour de force of a novel—published originally in Italian as Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore in 1979, translated into English by William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981). The novel is actually an anti-novel, and one of the most creative works about reading and writing fiction that I have ever read. Continue reading
Originally published in England by Collins, 1988; republished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, a Mariner Books paperback edition, 2015, 246 pp.
Set in Russia in 1913, this is an astounding book. Seldom does a novel so astound me. My first question is “How did Penelope Fitzgerald do it?” In an article on the writer Julian Barnes mentions that everyone asked this same question about her last four novels, all set in foreign locales. Andrew Miller asks it again in his introduction to the paperback edition: “how on earth can someone living in England in the second half of the twentieth century know so much about the minutiae of day to day life in Moscow in 1913?” Continue reading