Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
What is not to love about a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking? If it's Lemony Snicket's Christmas children's book for adults The Lump of Coal, I assure you, it is all lovable - even the copyright page (laid out concrete-poetry style in the shape of Christmas tree). The Lump of Coal tells the story of holiday miracles: not the ones you probably know ("the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision"), but the story of (you guessed it), a lump of coal, who "like many people who dress in black... was interested in becoming an artist. The lump of coal dreamed of a miracle - that one day it would get to draw rough, black lines on a canvas or, more likely, on a breast of chicken or salmon filet by participating in a barbeque."I will hardly spoil the ending by assuring you that these dreams come true - and that the path to them is charmingly illustrated (as were the Series of Unfortunate Events) by Brett Helquist. And that the lump's adventures are marked by Mr. Snicket's signature narratorial interruptions of his story for cryptic personal revelations, his idiosyncratic definitions of words possibly not familiar to his audience, and his winning mix of the fantastic and the depressingly mundane. For any of you who know Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (which includes several Christmas offerings - my favorite, "James," features a Burton drawing a Santa-suited arm offering a teddy bear to a doubtful looking little boy who has several parallel gashes across one eye; the text reads: "Unwisely, Santa offered a teddy bear to James, unaware that he had been mauled by a grizzly bear earlier that year.") - The Lump adds another volume to the genre of Edward Gorey-ian cynical, morbid, and eccentric illustrated works that take the form of children's stories but are really much more for grown ups.(Oh, yes - and a final note: The Lump of Coal is elusive (which in this case means it likes to hide from employees and shoppers in bookstores). An indefatigable Vroman's employee did managed to find it for me yesterday, but it hid from him for a good fifteen minutes, and this was the second bookstore I'd been to in search of it. At the first, The Stanford Bookstore, not one of the twenty copies in stock could be found.)
I When I graduated from high school, my English teacher and advisor gave me The Berlin Stories, a New Directions paperback, with a note inside. The note said the book seemed right for me. It was written on the back of a Wallace Stevens poem. I was very lucky, and I had a great many fine teachers in high school. But this teacher glowered and stalked and had an ancient cat. He assigned The Whitsun Weddings. He was empathetic and caustic and kind. I was a difficult student (a terrible student), but he was always on my side. I think of him often. Largely because of this teacher, Philip Larkin is the only poet for me. Philip Larkin puts his finger in an aching, adolescent spot and presses just hard enough to leave one with a lingering delicious pain. Even so, I love that Wallace Stevens poem, the one tucked inside my graduation gift. It's called "The Poems of Our Climate." Here's how it goes: Clear water in a brilliantbowl, Pink and white carnations. The light In the room more like a snowy air, Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow A the end of winter when afternoons return. Pink and white carnations--one desires So much more than that. The day itself Is simplified: a bowl of white, Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round, With nothing more than the carnations there. Say even that this complete simplicity Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed The evilly compounded, vital I And made it fresh in a world of white, A world of clear water, brilliant-edged. Still one would want more, one would need more, More than a world of white and snowy scents. There would still remain the never-resting mind, So that one would want to escape, come back To what had been so long composed. The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight, Since the imperfect is so hot in us, Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. I'm so impatient, I'm a bad reader of poetry. I read poems like I read novels, rushing to find out what happens. A poem is what happens, though, and I usually arrive at the end of one breathless and flummoxed. It's like sprinting to the flight gate, heart bursting, only to find you've got the wrong day. The wrong month, even. So I read this poem a number of times before I understood that it had been written especially for me. I keep the note inside the book. They go together. They go together because I got them together and because "The imperfect is our paradise" could be the book's epigraph. It would make a hell of an epitaph, too. II The Berlin Stories is two short novels, published separately in the 1930s. New Directions put them together in 1945. It was an inspired pairing. The novels support one another. Together they flesh out the world Isherwood describes: Berlin of the very early 1930s, imperfect in the extreme, but a paradise for Isherwood's hitherto uneven talent. The first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is an affectionate panegyric to an old reprobate. Mr. Norris is into petty crime, BDSM, and poorly written porn. He wears an almost-convincing wig, and has two doors to his apartment: "Arthur Norris. Private" and "Arthus Norris. Import Export." A most unlikely communist, he's also an inveterate double-crosser, fooling no one but himself (and, sometimes, Isherwood). The details the novel provides about the Communist Party of the period are interesting, but mostly they lend to the farcical aspect of Isherwood's story. It's almost as silly as Travels With my Aunt, but it feels real. Perhaps it is. Goodbye to Berlin provides fine counterbalance. Its subject is the city, as it was gearing up to participate in one of civilization's greatest horrors. On the first page Isherwood tells us, in an rare meta moment, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed." This novel is something like the first cantos of Inferno. Pre-war Berlin is the outskirts of hell, and its people, through Isherwood's lens, are its lesser sinners--the lustful, the slothful, the avaricious. In the Nowaks' cramped attic flat, Isherwood seems literally to inhabit a part of hell, what with the suffocating stove and the freezing draughts, Frau Nowak coughing out her lungs, fat Grete and piggish Otto and Nazi Lothar and Isherwood's suspicious rash and the sounds of the tenement all around him. They eat lung hash, cooked by the consumptive Frau. I don't know what lung hash is, but it sounds like hell. Even Bernard Landauer, the doomed department store scion, is something out of the first circle--a gentle, urbane philosopher, damned only for falling outside Jesus' jurisdiction. Like Dante writing Inferno, Isherwood knew the worst as he wrote. If Otto and Peter and Sally Bowles (later of Cabaret fame) are Isherwood's lesser criminals, there are intimations of the coming inner circles: the violent, the treacherous, the Devil himself. Isherwood left Berlin in '33. The writing was on the wall. But for all that these stories anticipate an onslaught of death, they celebrate life. Isherwood celebrates the lowlifes of Berlin, the bizarre modes of sex and romance, the vicissitudes of fortune, the indignities of poverty, the shabby glamor of his writer's life. I love when he gets a five mark piece from a wealthy pupil, tosses it in the air to celebrate, drops it, and scrambles to find it in a pile of sand. I like how he goes to bed drunk and worries about his rash. I like how he speaks German and listens to his landlady lament her large bosom. III I read this book every year. It is a good book for the end of December. It is piquant and sad, like New Year's Eve. Bittersweet is not the right word, it's too pat and saccharine for Isherwood and for this Berlin. When I began to think about the book for this essay, I wondered if there is something awful in enjoying a story that heralds the death of millions. But I don't think of it as a holocaust novel. (It's my privilege not to, I understand; it was Isherwood's privilege to leave Berlin, too.) No, I think of it as marking time. It's about storytelling and memory, for all it is about hell. It is a story about time and how it passes, and it reminds me of time that has passed. Isherwood used his story to call out to friends long-disappeared, to remember a part of his life that was gone. It was a way to remember a time when everything was uncertain, and better for that uncertainty. The worse had yet to happen. This book is one of my most treasured gifts. For me it is the dear memory of that teacher, and leaving school, and leaving adolescence. When I first read it, this book was a harbinger of freedom, even if freedom turned out to be different than I expected. I can't say it right, what it means to me. The imperfect is so hot in me, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
Has there ever been another writer of dark, morbid, surrealistic fiction who is as warm and humane as Nathaniel Hawthorne? I just finished reading The Marble Faun, his final novel, and what struck me is how much he cares about the people in the story, how fully he feels their isolation and estrangement. From Poe to Kafka, from Melville to W. G. Sebald, alienation and the uncanny have usually come to us with a chill, a coldness that questions not only the nature of human relationships but even the possibility of them. So it was a shock to read this surprisingly rich story about alienated friends and lovers, who are eventually drawn closer to each other by the very coldness that has separated them during their heightened, trancelike experiences. The Marble Faun was published in 1860, and it’s very different from anything in Hawthorne’s famous earlier novels – The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It deals with expatriates in Rome, and is generally considered the start of the “Americans in Europe” genre that Henry James would later develop. It’s not a ghost story, and doesn’t draw much on the old gothic elements that Jane Austen, for instance, parodies in Northanger Abbey. The eerie, imaginative side of The Marble Faun comes less from the events than from the alertness Hawthorne brings to his characters’ perceptions. The novel is surreal largely because Hawthorne sees the world with disorienting vividness: There is a singular effect, oftentimes, when out of the midst of engrossing thought and deep absorption, we suddenly look up, and catch a glimpse of external objects. We seem, at such moments, to look farther and deeper into them, than by premeditated observation; it is as if they met our eyes alive, and with all their hidden meaning on the surface, but grew again inanimate and inscrutable, the instant that they become aware of our glances. This is a good description of how the novel works. Hawthorne catches his characters at the moments when they “look farther and deeper” into their surroundings, and then at the opposite moments when they feel everything grow “inanimate and inscrutable.” He is masterful at describing the psychology of guilt, the texture that despair can give to every detail. As part of this texture, he also excels at showing how the same street or statue or room can mean different things to different people at different times. Often the settings and the characters seem to seep into each other, merging and then coming apart. The story revolves around a murder and its impact on the four main characters. Two American artists – the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda – become friends with the painter Miriam and a young Italian man, Donatello. Characteristically, Hawthorne describes Miriam, the novel’s heroine, as a walking illusion: She resembled one of those images of light, which conjurors evoke and cause to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp; we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion, but find it still precisely so far out of reach. Nearly everything about Miriam’s past is unknown, and many important questions about her remain unanswered at the novel’s end. She has taken up a new identity in Rome after some unspecified involvement in some obscure crime. Hawthorne refuses to ever clear up the mystery, and pretends at one critical point not to know what Miriam is discussing with a monk who has started to follow her around the city. Eventually, Donatello kills this monk because he thinks the man is persecuting Miriam and deserves to die. The murder – as impulsive and ambiguous as Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart – sets in motion the novel’s vision of guilt and despair passing from one person to another. Anticipating The Brothers Karamazov, Hawthorne creates a situation where everyone ultimately feels responsible for the murder, and where guilt spreads so wide and deep that nobody remains innocent. Hawthorne traces the course of this guilt as it moves through the characters. The Marble Faun uses many of the techniques we find in self-consciously experimental fiction: unexpected time shifts, deliberately misleading narration, elaborate literary references, labyrinthine ambiguities, a constant awareness of conflicting viewpoints. Yet while reading the novel I never thought of it in these terms, because Hawthorne is so focused on using his techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s essential that the history of Miriam’s earlier guilt remain unclear, for instance, because this is how she experiences the past – she’s no longer able to say where her innocence ends and her responsibility begins. Similarly, Hilda develops a bizarre sense of complicity in the monk’s murder, even though all she did was witness it from a distance. Hawthorne involves us in these changes with lavish conviction. I simply hadn’t expected the emotional and psychological fullness that the novel brings to the transformations of Miriam and Hilda and Donatello. The paradox of The Marble Faun is that it’s the most nihilistic of Hawthorne’s books at the same time as it’s the warmest and most sympathetic. The characters work their way towards each other through their worst encounters with desolation and self-doubt. As Melville recognized, Hawthorne is one of the great writers of negation. He is peerless at dramatizing darkness and loneliness and evil. Everyone in The Marble Faun becomes lost, wandering in destructive and hopeless alienation. Each character suffers from “an insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate communication, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart, which finds only shadows to feed upon.” The novel offers no easy hope, no simple consolation. Miriam never escapes her guilt. Donatello goes to prison. Hilda’s doubts about her innocence and the darkness of the world stay with her forever. Yet the final paradox is that all the characters come together in their loneliness, and are united in their separation. They still have “only shadows to feed upon,” but they know this about each other, and they do their best to see beyond their individual tragedies and to share whatever comfort they can. Hawthorne loves them for this, and loves them for salvaging their humanity even after they’ve been broken by their nightmarish personal failures, and by the wild, irrational malevolence that haunts all the story’s events. The Marble Faun is intellectually rigorous in its refusal to surrender to the temptations of sentimentality, and emotionally rigorous in its even stronger refusal to surrender to the temptations of cynicism and despair.
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There has been a resurgence of interest in Robert Walser in the last few decades, but for many years preceding that, his readership was limited to those with a particular interest in early German modernism. Walser is something of a peripheral figure in the prose landscape of the 20th century, especially for English-language readers. I attribute this in part to the unclassifiable nature of his work, and also to the fact that he neglected to leave behind a magnum opus, or meisterwerk. Walser instead left us with an armada of what he called “little prose pieces” -- over 1,000 in fact -- and poems. Such fragmentary oeuvres are often neglected in favor of easily identifiable “great novels” by the more celebrated writers of last century. This is especially the case when the author eschewed the literary scene of his or her day, as Walser did. In all senses, Walser’s life was one lived on the margins of society. Born in Switzerland in 1878, Walser grew up in Biel, then a small town of around 15,000 inhabitants that marked the border between the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Walser left school at the age of 14 and spent the next 40 years in a peripatetic existence across Europe. In 1933 Walser was admitted to a sanatorium where he remained until his death in 1956. While Walser published a considerable volume of work up until his confinement, he was never a member of any literary or artistic milieu and one can only assume that this has contributed to his current lack of renown. One can think of other foreign-language writers whose scattergun approach and hermetic habits ensure they will keep Walser company in relative obscurity amongst today’s Anglophone readers. Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese author of the fantastically disjointed The Book of Disquiet, comes to mind; as does the hugely underrated American master William Gaddis. Thankfully for those of us who cannot read Walser in the original German, The New York Review of Books is working to re-introduce the writer to the English-speaking world. NYRB currently has three Walser titles in its "Classics" stable, the most recent of which is A Schoolboy’s Diary. Comprising more than 70 of Walser signature short prose pieces, A Schoolboy’s Diary deserves special attention for the fact that the majority of its contents appear here for the first time in English. Damion Searls does the honors translating and Ben Lerner provides a concise yet crystalline introduction. I must admit that I originally picked the book up on seeing the names of Searls and Lerner rather than the author himself. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Searls’s translations of Rilke and formed something of a crush on Lerner after reading his first novel and a number of his critical essays on art and poetry. But back to Walser... The first thing one notices on opening A Schoolboy’s Diary is the extreme brevity of the pieces within it, most running for only a page or two. The book is divided into three parts. The first is titled "Fritz Kocher’s Essays" and consists of an ingenious introduction by Walser himself followed by 20 essays purportedly written by an adolescent schoolboy on topics ranging from friendship to poverty to Christmas. Part II of the book collects a large number of pieces from Walser’s most productive period -- 1899 to 1925. The final section is dedicated to a single piece, the longest at 25 pages, titled "Hans." I will take the Walserian approach of discussing the pieces in reverse order for no other reason than it pleases me to do so, and for the sake of leaving the best until last. The Part III story, "Hans," is the longest piece in the book and it opens with a suitably long sentence, of which I will give you only this: "When Hans, somewhat later, after much in his life had changed and he found himself occupied with entirely different things, thought back every now and then..." This sentence, so Proustian in its combination of clauses and its thematic of memory, sets the tone for a story that revolves around the twin tropes of imagination and recollection. Indeed, in this story Walser ploughs much of the same fertile territory as his renowned French contemporary. The eponymous hero of the piece is described luxuriating in a series of recollections about his distant and not-so-distant past. The memories themselves are at times quaint and at times entertaining, but the beauty is in the prose’s celebration of memory itself. The usually coy Walser is at his most unrestrainedly poetic in the following passage: This and other things came to mind again and again in later years … To see an object again at a later hour purely through mere reflection may perhaps be more beautiful than the moment itself of actual experience and perception... But Walser departs from Proust in his exploration of the author’s presence in his own fiction. Proust allows himself to use his own name just twice in his million-word epic, A Recherche du Temps Perdu. Walser, on the other hand, is constantly referring to himself as the author of his texts. In fact, Walser even has occasion to chastise himself for such ostentation in "Hans," saying that as author he "would do best just to stay in the background and keep the most scrupulous silence, rather than pressing forward, which doesn’t look good at all." A subtler move in this regard is made when Walser digresses from the narrative, saying that he has become distracted from writing by the scent of rösti potatoes. The narrative is soon resumed, but only two pages later the protagonist, Hans, steps into a grocery store redolent of rösti. The astute reader cannot miss Walser’s game here as he masterfully comments on the tendency of the writer to imbue his stories with elements of his life, not least the environment in which he is writing. The stories in Part II are unlike "Hans," and more typically Walserian, in that they read like notebook jottings of an eccentric dilettante. They range from memoir to travel writing to fiction, though often they are simply notes towards these things. Indeed there is something refreshingly different about the pared back quality of the pieces. Walser economically inverts the classic axiom of "show rather than tell" and prefers to clearly enumerate the feelings and motivations of his characters rather than leave the reader wondering about them as in the micro-parody of Scandinavian fiction, "A Devil of a Story." But like the more fully realized "Hans," these small pieces are characterised by the same authorial self-consciousness. The writer repeatedly interjects into the narratives and descriptions as if he is embarrassed by having to keep up the charade that there is some omniscient voice dictating the words. After one particularly ornate description of a Swiss lake, Walser inserts a hyphen before addressing the reader directly, almost abashed at how sappy he sounded in the preceding paragraph. At another time, the reader gets a running commentary on how the author believes the story to be progressing, none too well in the light of Walser’s exclamation: "Behold the intricate and involved story I have so rashly embroiled myself in!" The role of the author in Part I is more complex. The reader of NYRB edition is afforded the same calligraphic frontispiece that would have met the German or Swiss reader opening the original in 1904. Beneath the ornate German text is the translation: "Fritz Kocher’s Essays -- Relayed by Robert Walser." The text opens with an introduction by Walser that begins: "The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school." Then follows 20 essays on discrete topics all written in the voice of an adolescent boy, albeit one with an exceptional grasp of language. Despite the disguise and the constant reference to the teacher, it should not take today’s reader long to realise that this is merely Walser in disguise. What a disguise though! This is the kind of chicanery one would expect to see in fiction after the Second World War, but here Walser is deploying it at the start of the century. There are many other things to like about Walser and this book, not least the beauty he locates in the quotidian and the almost spiritual appreciation he exhibits for nature. But it is Walser’s subtle self-referentiality that I wish to highlight, as I believe it is the quality that marks him out as truly ahead of his time. I was continually surprised at the brazen nature of Walser’s authorial interjections and the familiarity he exhibits with the reader. So much so that at certain times while reading the book I felt as if the sentences could have been the work of a late modernist or postmodernist writer. Take the following: "And so our story has reached a happy conclusion -- that’s the main thing, now the weather will be nice tomorrow." How difficult it is to square such writing with that of Walser’s close neighbors in France, Austria, and Germany. Not in Proust, Kafka, or Hesse will you find such point-blank piercing of the fourth wall of fiction. It comes as no surprise that Walser has long been considered an anomaly in the literature of the 20th century. He is entirely anomalous, but he is a beautiful anomaly and one who anticipated certain trends in avant-garde literature by half a century. Aside from all, this A Schoolboy’s Diary is damn fun to read, it feels like peering into a mind of fantastic imagination. Seldom do authors come along who can do so much with so little. In a world where attention spans are getting shorter by the minute, Walser’s micro-sketches may yet drag him out of obscurity and into the limelight.
His prose feels most alive when he’s pursuing those images and plot twists tied to the minutia of his created world, even if their thematic importance to the story at hand remains cloudy. What does it mean to rewrite the Bible in slang? And how does that redress the sting of police profiling? An answer is there, perhaps, though it has yet to find its fullest articulation.