The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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 Surprising Place by Malinda McCollum

McCollum

Good book titles play with a reader’s expectations. A short story collection called The Surprising Place (University of Massachusetts Press, 197 pages) might seem to imply an emphasis on locale, a Winesburg, Ohio-ish evocation of a town and its inhabitants. And, in fact, this volume of stories takes its title from a former promotional slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, which provides the backdrop for most of the action. Still, what is “surprising” in Malinda McCollum’s excellent new book and winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction is not a matter of geography, in the prosaic sense. Rather, it concerns a different kind of space, a province of heart and mind. For lack of a better term, you could call it interiority. McCollum offers intensely observed portraits of her characters’ internal struggles which are often unsettling and full of contradiction.
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

Citadel by Jack Remick

Citadel (Global, 372 pages) is a much needed, unforgiving and unapologetic evisceration of the idea of female inferiority we have so primitively accepted today and throughout history. Remick shows tremendous skill in the way he attacks such a heated and complicated subject. He never shies away from the atrocious acts of violence against women, but neither does he lose the magic of his whirlwind storytelling in favor of lecture. Citadel is an honest, sometimes savage look at the relationship between men and women, and what the world could be like if women were in control.

Trisha de Tours is an editor at Pinnacle Books and has been directed by her boss to find a bestseller. When she finds out the new resident in her condos, Daiva Izokaitis, has a manuscript called Citadel, she agrees to read it. Trisha soon finds out Daiva is a literary rebel, refusing to adhere to the fundamentals of writing and later refusing to participate in the editing process, yet she has created a revolutionary novel that overcomes Trisha so completely we see her drown in the story, and reemerging a different woman. 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