Book Review: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Translator: Ruth L. C. Simms

Original Language: Spanish

Year of First Publication: 1940

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003

Number of Pages: 103

Publisher: The New York Review of Books

Genre: Fiction

Sub-genre: Fantasy

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.


Casares with his future wife, poet and novelist Silvina Ocampo, 1939.

While reading things by and about Jorge Luis Borges, the name Adolfo Bioy Casares comes up fairly often. He was a close friend and collaborator of Borges’s and shared many of his writing interests, among them fantasy literature, adventure stories, and metaphysical fiction. His most famous book, The Invention of Morel, combines elements of all three into 103 brief pages.

Unfortunately, to say all that I want to say about this book requires that I give much of the plot away. So, consider yourself warned.

After being wrongfully convicted of a crime, our unnamed protagonist (sometimes referred to as “the Fugitive”) escapes to a deserted island somewhere around Polynesia. All is very quiet until one day when a boat arrives carrying a group of vacationers. Initially, the main character tries to avoid these people, afraid that they might turn him in to the police. Soon, though, obsession surpasses paranoia when he finds himself falling in love with one of the vacationers, a woman named Faustine. He tries to speak to Faustine and to give her gifts, only to find every time that she behaves as though she can’t see or hear him. After following the group for some time, the Fugitive learns that these people aren’t really people at all: they are projections of people. Morel, the man who organized the trip, is a scientist who has invented what he calls “a new kind of photograph”: a machine that records people and places, with all of their sensory details, in three dimensions, then artificially recreates that particular moment in time. What the Fugitive has been watching is not a group of people on vacation but rather the “record” that Morel took of their vacation, played over and over by machines hidden on the island. Continue reading “Book Review: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares”

Book Review: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Translators: James E. Irby, Donald A. Yates, John Fine, Harriet de Onís, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts, L. A. Murillo, and Anthony Kerrigan

Original Language: Spanish

Year of First Publication: 1962

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2007

Number of Pages: 256

Publisher: New Directions

Genre: Fiction and nonfiction

Sub-genre: Fantasy, short stories, essays

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.


In C. S. Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy, he recalls his first time reading Phantastes by George MacDonald and what a huge impact that novel had on him: “it is as if I had been carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.” Words like that come to mind when I think of Labyrinths. It feels like a sort of Rubicon has been crossed, like I’ll never read any book—and especially not any book of fantasy—the same way again.

One of the things that makes Borges a unique writer is that, similar to John Donne in poetry, he considers thinking to be an aesthetically important act in itself. So where Donne likes to play with the implications of an outrageous comparison, Borges explores the contours of an outrageous idea. What if a man could remember every minute detail of everything he had ever seen? What if the universe was one enormous library? What if a man could create another man by dreaming him into existence? Big, strange, impossible ideas like this occupy the majority of this book, giving it the kind of upside down and utterly new vision of the world that I love to read about.

These stories infinitely reward rereading. It’s only on the second or third time that you start to notice the extremely subtle foreshadowing and the little details that reveal even further depths of the characters and the situations they face. At least one of those rereads should be done with Google (or a pile of reference books, if that’s more your thing) on hand to find out what all of the allusions and references mean. Borges was an incredibly well-read man, practically an expert in English- and Spanish-language literature, as well as having vast knowledge of many more obscure areas of study. Once you begin to unravel some of the references, you uncover yet another layer of meaning to the story. It’s true that many of these stories involve similar themes, images, tropes, and even the same characters sometimes. At the same time, this book has a vastness to it that is inexhaustible.

To point out a few stories that especially stand out to me:

“The Circular Ruins” – It’s one thing to write about creation, hubris, and the limits of human achievement. It’s another thing entirely to make a person feel genuine awe and terror at these things. Loosely based on the myth of Pygmalion, this story concerns a sorcerer who travels to the remote ruins of an ancient temple where he hopes to create a man by dreaming him. It is easily my favorite story in the book.

“Death and the Compass” – Borges’s parody of/homage to the detective fiction genre. Borges was an ardent admirer of G. K. Chesterton, and this story is slightly reminiscent of Chesterton stories like “The Blue Cross.” Of course, the weird metaphysical twist at the end is all Borges.

“The Zahir” – This story concerns a man who falls under the diabolical influence of a mystical coin. It takes part of its inspiration from Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” one of my favorite poems, and explores Tennyson’s ideas about God and reality in more depth. I’ve probably reread this one more times than any other story in the book.

Borges at L’Hôtel in Paris in 1968.

Labyrinths is not only stories though: Borges was a prolific essayist and this book collects ten of his essays as well. Not only do these help to give a fuller picture of Borges scope as a writer, many of them also act almost as companion pieces to one or more of the stories. “The Mirror of Enigmas,” for instance, recalls “The Zahir,” while “Valéry as Symbol,” about the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry, brings to mind “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Ultimately, I ended up loving the first few stories I read in this so much that I bought Borges’s Collected Fictions and began reading that before I was even halfway done with Labyrinths. I am quite in love with these books now and I plan to remain so.

Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1945

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015

Number of Pages: 160

Publisher: Zondervan

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Speculative fiction

Subjects: Heaven, Hell, damnation, death, desire

Buy it here (disclosure: I use affiliate links).


I glanced round the bus. Though the windows were closed, and soon muffed, the bus was full of light. It was a cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then—there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus—I caught sight of my own.

And still the light grew.

Chapter 2

As I mentioned in last month’s “Bookish Links” post, I’m participating in an online book club started by Joy Clarkson of the podcast Speaking with Joy. Basically, we read two chapters of The Great Divorce every week, Joy posts questions about the chapters on social media, and then we answer them and discuss what we read. Joy has studied this book inside and out, so the discussions she starts and the insight she provides—through her blog and her podcast—are incredibly illuminating. It’s also really fun to study this book with other Lewis fans.

The club is currently up to chapter eight out of fourteen, but since this book is so short and the material was so interesting to me, I decided to read it straight through.

The story begins with our narrator (who, though he is never named, appears to be Lewis himself) wandering around a dreary gray town at sunset. He comes across a group of people waiting at a bus stop and decides to join the queue, if only so that he won’t be alone anymore. When the bus finally comes, it whisks these lost souls away to a new and strange place, one that is larger, brighter, and feels altogether more real than anywhere else they have ever been. The narrator soon finds out that he and his fellow passengers were in Hell before and have been allowed to take a sort of “holiday” in Heaven. They can even stay in Heaven if they want to; the problem is most of them don’t want to. Between their misguided loves, their cynicism, and, most of all, their selfishness, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get these people into Heaven for good. Continue reading “Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis”

Book Review: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

Year of First Publication: 1967

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: 613

Publisher: Random House

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography, history

Find it on the Book Depository. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)


It appears that my interest in Russia is starting to come full-circle. First it was their literature, then their language, and now their history. Olive, one of the most enthusiastic Russophile bloggers I’ve seen yet, highly recommended the work of Robert Massie—and this book in particular—to anyone who is just beginning to study Russian history.

It turned out to be a great recommendation: despite having little prior knowledge of Russian history before the Soviet era, I didn’t find this book at all intimidating or inaccessible. Massie’s almost lyrical prose makes it an even greater pleasure to read. From the very first paragraph, his gifts as a narrator are evident: Continue reading “Book Review: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie”

Book Review: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Year of First Publication: 1944

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003

Number of Pages: 314

Publisher: Vintage International

Genre: Fiction

Disclosure: this post contains an affiliate link.


The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. … But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature. [pg. 3-4]

From The Book Depository.

At the center of this story is a young man named Larry Darrell. Following his service as an airman in the First World War, he returns to his old life as the adopted son of a prosperous Chicago doctor and the fiancé of Isabel Bradley, his childhood friend and one of the most eligible young ladies in the city. American industry is booming and Larry’s friends, particularly Isabel, can’t wait for him to take his place in it. Henry Maturin, a successful stock broker, has even arranged a well-paying job for him in his firm. But Larry isn’t so interested in going to work at the moment. The things he saw and did during the war have left him plagued by questions about life, death, and the universe itself. In order to answer these questions, he plans to lead a life of study and contemplation, to the horror of Isabel and her family, for whom money and status predominate over virtually everything else. After ending his engagement, Larry begins a quest for truth that takes him across the globe and back.

Maugham begins this novel telling us that all of the events and people in it are real, just with the names changed and the dialogue fictionalized. To what extent this is true I do not know, although Maugham does write himself into the cast as the first person narrator through whose eyes we view the entire story. Certain points of the story, and especially of Larry’s life, apparently were drawn from Maugham’s own life as well, such as Larry’s stay in India to seek enlightenment at the feet of the swamis.

The Trouble with Larry

There’s a lot to love about Larry: his generosity, his wit, his love of wisdom. Most of all, I love his refusal to compromise his convictions. I love that he won’t allow himself to be forced into the vain and vapid life that Isabel and others urge him to pursue. That’s what drew me to this book in the first place: the young protagonist who rejects the world’s materialism in exchange for truth which can’t be bought or sold. There’s just one thing that really bothers me about Larry: his story seems too idealized.

For one thing, barring his arguments with Isabel early in the book, Larry encounters almost no external resistance on the path he’s chosen. He has plenty of money stashed in the bank, so he’s not pursuing education under the threat of poverty and hunger, and he has no friends or family to whom he is beholden, so he’s free to spend ten years doing basically whatever he wants. This makes for a nice story, but not an exceptionally powerful or compelling one. I think it would have given Larry’s story more interest if he had had to struggle just a bit more on his “path to salvation.”

Besides that, Maugham takes care to stress throughout the story, in a number of ways, how unlike the rest of the world Larry is. His aloofness, his secrecy, his habit of packing up and leaving with little or no warning—they all serve to tell the reader over and over that Larry is special and not like the dull, greedy, unoriginal people around him. The character of Maugham too is pretty convinced that Larry is a saint who’s going to change the world one day, and he doesn’t mind saying so. All in all, Larry sounds just a little too good to be true. I probably would have enjoyed this book more if he had been treated more like a flesh-and-blood being instead of some kind of mythical creature.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this book, though. In addition to Maugham’s beautiful prose, the rest of his characters are intriguing in their own ways. Isabel, for instance, turns out to be a kind of villain, but one you can still feel for. While Larry is seeking his fulfillment in study and spiritual experience, all Isabel asks is nice clothes and a fashionable home. It becomes apparent almost immediately that she and Larry will never see eye to eye, but that doesn’t mean that she stops loving him, even after she marries Henry Maturin’s son Gray. Eventually, her passion for Larry and her despair at not being with him begin to lead her down a dark road.

Isabel’s uncle Elliot Templeton regularly steals the show as well. Elliot, through whom Maugham meets Isabel, Larry, and the rest of the cast, made his fortune selling art and dedicates his life to being one of the smart set, going to all the right parties, learning and spreading the best gossip, etc. He’s ridiculous enough to be funny, but his vanity masks a very generous and caring spirit.

That’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed my nitpicky thoughts on this novel. Let me know in the comments if you’ve read it, what you thought, and where I went wrong in my critique.

Book Review: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1917

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2004

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Fiction


A few weeks ago, I read my first Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. I liked it so much, that I decided to read some of Chekhov’s short stories as well, beginning with the Project Gutenberg edition of The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories.

I never know how to write about collections like this where there’s not much of a common theme, so instead, I’ll write about each story individually.

“The Lady with the Dog”

One of Chekhov’s most famous stories, it concerns a banker who feels trapped in his middle-class Moscow existence. While on a trip to the resort town of Yalta, he meets a young woman who is equally unhappy in her recent marriage. The two begin an affair that, despite their promises otherwise, never really ends, and the story closes on the two of them in a hotel in Moscow desperately trying to think up a way for them to be together. It’s a stroke of genius on Chekhov’s part, leaving us hanging with the fulfillment of our expectations indefinitely deferred, similar to the predicament of his two protagonists. Combine that with the gift Chekhov has for mapping the interior space of his characters, and you have yourself a fabulous story.

“A Doctor’s Visit”

A very socially conscious Chekhov tells us a story about a physician who is called to tend to the daughter of a rich factory owner. Upon visiting the factory, just next door to the owner’s home, the doctor is appalled by the conditions in which the laborers are forced to live and work. He sees the daughter’s physical illness as a reaction to the moral and spiritual degradation around her. Preachy? Maybe a little.

“An Upheaval”

A day in the life of a household struggling to cope with its controlling, eternally-suspicious matriarch. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book, and yet in that tiny space, the husband’s desperation and the tension of the whole house become palpable.

“Ionich”

Dmitri Ionich Startsev is young doctor who has set up a practice in a small town. He befriends the delightfully ridiculous Turkin family, and falls in love with their daughter, Yekaterina Ivanova (Kitten for short). He would marry Kitten, but she intends to study music and doesn’t want to be tied down to a house and family. Instead of moving on, Startsev lets Kitten’s rejection turn him bitter until he’s incapable of loving anyone or anything. It’s a very simple plot, but still moving, with excellent characters

“The Head of the Family”

Basically “An Upheaval,” but with the gender reversed: this time, it’s a father who terrorizes his family with constant outbursts of temper, then cannot understand why they’re all so afraid of him. It gets even sadder when you find out that the character was probably modeled after Chekhov’s own father.

“The Black Monk”

Another very famous story, about a monomaniacal philosopher’s slow descent into madness. This story made the book for me. It’s so beautifully done, so vivid (especially that ending!), and so delicately walks the line between realism and fantasy. It’s my favorite in the collection.

“Volodya”

Reading this after Turgenev’s First Love was a little bit of déjà vu, and not just because the protagonists have the same first name: a teenage boy falls in love with an older (and in this case, married) woman and her rejection sends his life into a tailspin. While I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the story, it was interesting to see how quickly Chekhov could take his reader from sympathizing with the main character to recognizing him for the petty, self-centered child he really is.

“An Anonymous Story”

This is a long one: a young man named Vladimir goes to work as a valet for a man called Georgy Orlov. Orlov is in a relationship with a married woman named Zinaïda Fyodorovna, but only stays with her because he finds her physically attractive. One day, Orlov is shocked to find that Zinaïda has left her husband and wants to move in with him. He does everything he can to make Zinaïda feel unwelcome, and when that doesn’t get rid of her, he begins lying to her, telling her that he’s going on business trips when he really intends to spend the week at his friend’s house across town. As his valet, Vladimir becomes an accomplice in these deceptions, a job he hates doing because, while Orlov was trying to get rid of Zinaïda, Vladimir was falling in love with her.

This ended up being my least favorite story in the book. For one thing, the character of Vladimir is a little odd. When we first meet him, he’s a member of a radical political organization. His whole reason for taking the valet job in the first place was so that he could get closer to Orlov’s father—a prominent politician whom Vladimir’s group opposes—and learn things about him that could later be used to blackmail him. That all seemed a little contrived to me, and the references to Vladimir’s association with that group felt like a distraction from the real story, his relationship with Zinaïda. The second thing that bothered me was the tone of the story overall. Like all of the other stories in this book, “An Anonymous Story” ends sadly; unlike the other stories in the book, it seemed Chekhov was working extra hard here to make you pity his main characters. It just felt too forced and sentimental over all.

“The Husband”

Ah yes, the good old Russian trope of the bitter old man who feels that he is unworthy of happiness, and therefore tries to destroy it every chance he gets. As a character study, I think it’s one of the stronger stories in the collection: very simple and straightforward, but still compelling and real.

That’s all for today. If you have any other recommendations for short story collections, Russian or not, leave them in the comments below.

Book Review: First Love by Ivan Turgenev

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1860

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: The University of Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Download the ebook here or buy the paperback here. (Disclosure: I use affiliate links.)


I’m on a bit of Russian literature kick lately. Maybe you noticed. After sampling a bit from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, I next set my sights on Turgenev, having heard him described as one of the greatest Russian novelists who ever lived. The first thing I read from him, though, was not a novel but a novella. There’s apparently some division among book bloggers as to the worth of the novella as a form: while many people prefer the shorter format that eats up less time than novels do, others find novellas too brief to allow the reader to form an attachment to the characters. I for one love novellas, and especially ones like this, that, for all their brevity, still have you feeling with, and hurting for, the characters.

Like many of Turgenev’s stories, this one begins with a frame story: three men are all sitting around the fireplace one evening, where they’ve all been asked to tell the story of their first love affair. After two of them deliver lackluster stories about how they met their wives, the third man, Volodya Voldemar, asks for time to go home and write his story out. He returns the next day and reads to his friends the story of how, when he was sixteen years old, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Zinaïda. So captivated is Volodya with Zinaïda that he barely even notices how cruel she can be, or that she’s merely amusing herself with him and her five other suitors. His dreams of loving her, however, come crashing to the ground when he discovers that Zinaïda is secretly having an affair with his father.

***

There was a long time where I was reading mostly nonfiction and poetry, and when I tried to read fiction, I would quickly lose interest. After reading so many poems where practically every word contributed in palpable ways to the meaning and the effect of the piece overall, prose just seemed too … prosaic. I was disappointed by fiction because it didn’t have that same (or similar) intensity of language. As it turns out, Turgenev is just the sort of fiction writer I wanted: his prose is rich and lyrical. His words flow effortlessly. His ability to create a mood and an atmosphere too is breathtaking:

The air blew in a gust for an instant; a streak of fire flashed across the sky; it was a star falling. “Zinaïda?” I wanted to call, but the word died away on my lips. And all at once everything became profoundly still around, as is often the case in the middle of the night. … Even the grasshoppers ceased their churr in the trees—only a window rattled somewhere. I stood and stood, and then went back to my room, to my chilled bed. I felt a strange sensation; as though I had gone to a tryst, and had been left lonely, and had passed close by another’s happiness. [From Chapter 16. Ellipsis in the original.]

Turgenev, in a photo by Félix Nadar.

Not only is the prose beautiful and vivid, the characters are as well. One of the things I love most about Russian books (the ones I’ve read, anyway) is that, while they may not always fit the modern-day criteria for “realism,” their characters still feel more real than most. By that I mean, though the circumstances that these characters find themselves in may sometimes seem very dramatic, there’s a core of truth in these characters that lets the reader form a deeper connection with them. Their actions and circumstances might not be “reality” for most people, but the emotion and the feeling behind them is universally human. Maybe it’s because First Love is so heavily autobiographical—Turgenev himself wrote that it was his favorite of his own work because “it is life itself, it was not made up”—but the characters have an emotional richness to them that is hard to find elsewhere.

That’s all for now. Which other Russian books or authors would you recommend? And how do you feel about novellas? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: “A Gentle Spirit” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1876

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: The University of Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Subjects: Greed, love, selfishness, suicide

Find the ebook here and the paperback here. (Disclosure: that last one is an affiliate link.)


So, remember a few months ago when I published a review of Dostoevsky’s novella “White Nights”? The one where I fawned over the hero and his unselfish concern for the woman he loved? “A Gentle Spirit”* is almost the exact opposite of that story.

It concerns a pawnbroker (unnamed throughout the story) who marries one of his more frequent customers. She (also unnamed) is sixteen years old, an orphan, and living in abject poverty with her two abusive aunts. He is forty-one, not rich but well-off, and the only person who has ever proposed marriage to her save for the drunken slob next door. The girl agrees to marry him and tries her best to be a good wife, but this pawnbroker is not satisfied to be merely loved by his wife. No, he wants to feel superior to her. He also believes that her love is not true unless it comes unmerited: unless she continues to love him even when he’s given her no reason for doing so. He begins a regime of strict rules—about their money, their house, everything—and harangues his wife when she can’t meet his exacting standards. He is cold and distant with her, not wanting to get too attached until she has proven herself. Once he’s convinced that his wife really does care for him, the pawnbroker begins to treat her kindly again, professing his love and promising her that things will be better in the future. It’s shortly after this that his wife jumps out of the window of their second-story bedroom to her death. The story, then, is narrated by the pawnbroker as he tries to make sense of all that happened.

Portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872.

At this point, my knowledge of Dostoevsky is still fairly limited: two novellas, parts of novels, and a handful of short stories. Even so, I think Dostoevsky is the keenest observer of human nature that I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. Not only do his characters feel spectacularly real (despite whatever bizarre things they might say or do), they also reveal things in the reader that he/she may have chosen to overlook up until now. Even in a character as strange and outlandish as the pawnbroker, there are times where he seems, in an odd way, almost relatable: not in his actions, of course, but in his attitude toward them, and toward the people around him. His conclusions are ridiculous, but the self-centered, pride-centered reasoning by which he reaches those conclusions sounds uncomfortably familiar. Dostoevsky is one of those writers—similar, I find, to Flannery O’Connor—who is merciless in his portrayal of human evil, and not just on a large scale: in these stories, the petty grudges, the unreasonable anger, the idolatrous self-consciousness, and the insipid arrogance to which most of us give way practically every day are presented as the deeply destructive forces they really are.

To elaborate on that, I find it interesting that, despite all of the deprivations that the pawnbroker’s wife suffered before marrying—losing her parents, being beaten and starved by her aunts, etc.—she didn’t kill herself until she was living in a physically safe, relatively comfortable home. I also find it interesting that she killed herself not while her husband was abusing her, but when he began to be kind to her again. This tells me two thing: first, that withholding love does more damage to the soul than any physical deprivation can do to the body, and second, that without a firm grounding in that love, life is impossible. True, she lived without love under her aunts’ roof as well, but what she suffered with the pawnbroker was, in a way, even worse because the denial of love was compounded by uncertainty: she never knew where she stood with her husband or whether his newly-proclaimed love would last. And as a result, she threw herself out of a window, clutching the last of her parents’ belongings—a cheap icon of the Madonna and Child—to her chest. Is it always the case in real life that selfishness and pride produce such a dramatic result? No, but it does make you think about the effect that one’s pride has on the people around him/her and how it destroys the potential for love.

As for the writing itself, fans of unusual or unreliable narrators will likely be intrigued by the pawnbroker’s erratic storytelling. In the original preface to the story (sadly, not included in that ebook I linked above), Dostoevsky explains that the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” is not meant to refer to the story’s events, but instead to the way in which the story is told: Dostoevsky imagines the story as coming from the notepad of a stenographer who is recording the pawnbroker while he speaks to the policemen investigating his wife’s death. I like this framing for the story because it highlights the pawnbroker’s eccentricities even further. At times, he seems to be trying to save face with the officers, trying diligently to avoid saying anything that might implicate him, while at other times, he pours his heart out, telling the officers everything about his late wife and how he felt about her. He’s obviously an ill man: repeating himself, contradicting himself, even telling the officers directly that he’s mad (only to backtrack later and say that he’s not mad anymore). This story is sometimes pointed to as an early example of stream-of-consciousness writing, and it does have a certain disjointed, free-associating feel to it. Taken all together, both the story and its form give a penetrating portrait of a man driven insane by his own self-obsession.


* This story generally has a slightly different title depending on who’s translating it. Constance Garnett chose to render the original title (“Кроткая”) as “A Gentle Spirit,” but elsewhere it’s called “A Gentle Creature” or “The Meek One.”

Book Review: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Year of Publication: 2004

Number of Pages: 56

Publisher: Tupelo Press

Genre: Poetry

Note: this post contains an affiliate link.


The first thing to strike me about Ilya Kaminsky: that he could be so well-known after publishing only one book. Dancing in Odessa is Kaminsky’s first and, to date, only full-length poetry collection, with his second book Deaf Republic due out in 2019. But for several years now, it seemed like everyone who knew poetry knew this poet, raved about him, and believed that he was one of the best and most promising poets currently writing in America.

Having read that one poetry collection, I can now say that they were all right.

Kaminsky was born in Odessa in the late 1970s and immigrated to America with his family in 1993. Though Russian is his first language, he writes in English because, as he put it, “no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

And “insanely beautiful” is exactly what these poems are: ethereal and visceral, sometimes joyful, but sometimes dark, holding the things of heaven in one hand and the things of earth in the other.

The book is divided into four sections, with a poem proceeding the first and ending the last. That first poem, “Author’s Prayer,” is one of Kaminsky’s most famous, and for good reason. Here are the first two stanzas:

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body.

I must write the same poem over and over,
for a blank page is the white flag of their surrender.

This poem puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”: it’s that perfect piece of writing that lets you know who this poet is, where he’s coming from, and what his aims are for his art.

The first section of the book, “Dancing in Odessa,” focuses on poems of war, family, and homeland. These can be very bleak, disturbing poems, especially as the speaker describes the ways in which civilians are brutalized by an opposing force, and yet, there is a bit of light shining through all the darkness:

. . . The city trembled,
a ghost ship setting sail.
At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.
We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream. [“Dancing in Odessa”]

The second section explains itself: “Musica Humana: an Elegy for Osip Mandelstam.” Combining verse and prose, as well as the voices of a few different speakers, this section tells of the life of the great Russian poet and his struggle to survive under Stalin’s regime. Being only passingly familiar with Mandelstam’s poetry, I’m probably not this section’s ideal reader. Even so, the beauty of Kaminsky’s lyric isn’t lost on me, as he describes the plight of this “modern Orpheus” and his journey to becoming a poet.

The third section, “Natalia,” is a sequence of love poems. Like “Musica Humana,” it is written in both verse and prose and uses multiple speakers. I’ll be honest, I found it a little difficult at times to tell who was saying what to whom; nevertheless, these are gorgeous poems, full of passion and containing some of my favorite lines in the collection:

I want her to imagine our scandalous days in Odessa when we will open a small sweets shop–except for her lovers and my neighbors (who steal milk chocolate in handfuls) we will have no customers. In an empty store, dancing among stands with sugared walnuts, dried carnations, boxes upon boxes of mints and cherries dipped in honey, we will whisper to each other our truest stories. [“Natalia,” 1]

 

bless one woman’s brows, her lips
and their salt, bless the roundness
of her shoulder. Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life. [“Envoi”]

The fourth and last section is titled “Traveling Musicians” and consists of poems about and to four writers: Paul Celan, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, and Marina Tsvetaeva. This is another section where I think some more background knowledge might have been helpful (I’ve only read Celan, and him just barely), but I still enjoyed these poems too, in large part because of the author’s skill at rendering characters. I often feel that people in poetry seem very airy and insubstantial. I can’t imagine meeting these people in the flesh because I don’t really know what they are like: I only know how the poet feels about them. The poems in “Traveling Musicians,” however, feel like meeting actual people, instead of imaginary beings. In these poems, Kaminsky exhibits not only a capacity for praise (these are his heroes, after all), but also an insight into people themselves that allows him to put them down as living, breathing beings on the page. Not all poets can do that.

Finally, the book ends with a long poem called “Praise,” tying together all of the main threads running through this book: childhood, family, love, outsiderdom, Kaminsky’s own growth as a poet, and finally, peace and gratitude. After putting our emotions through the ringer, Kaminsky saw fit to give us this little respite, and send us off feeling emotionally and spiritually refreshed. Or at least, that’s how I felt reading these final lines:

I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation–

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.

But you asked
for a story with a happy ending. Your loneliness

played its lyre. I sat
on the floor, watching your lips.

Love, a one-legged bird
I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.
O the language of birds

with no word for complaint!–
the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness
drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscurer thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats,
over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

You can count me among those who wait eagerly to see what Kaminsky does next.

Book Review: Miłosz by Andrzej Franaszek

Translators: Michael and Aleksandra Parker

Original Language: Polish

Year of Publication: 2017

Number of Pages: 526

Publisher: Belknap Harvard

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography

Find it on The Book Depository (disclosure: I’m an affiliate).


One of the side effects of my reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones was a desire to read more by and about Czesław Miłosz. Heaney spoke glowingly of Miłosz in those interviews, calling him a genius and saying that, from the first time he read him, “I was in thrall,” an experience I can certainly relate to. Though I had known about Miłosz and his poetry for I can’t remember how long, I didn’t know very much about the man himself or even about the historical background against which some of his poems are set. So it was a lucky coincidence that, just as I was finishing Stepping Stones, I learned about this book, the first full-length biography of Miłosz in English.

First full-length biography, but not the full length of this biography: translators Michael and Aleksandra Parker have cut down Andrzej Franaszek’s original 1,000-page tome to just over 500 pages. What remains flows together pretty seamlessly, though there were a few spots where it seemed like something should have gone before. (From a section dealing with the infancy of Miłosz’s oldest son Antoni: “[Mrs. Miłosz], instead of writing film reviews, spent endless hours feeding him, changing him, and washing nappies.” Except there was no mention of her writing film reviews previously.)

However, a few editorial oversights are not nearly enough to detract from Franaszek’s superb work: this book was over ten years in the making and its beautiful prose, the depth of its research, and its attention to detail prove that the time was well-spent. Best of all, it relies heavily on original sources, including Miłosz’s poetry, essays, fiction, and even some unpublished work.

Of course, none of this would matter if the subject of the biography was not a person worth reading about. So, why read about Miłosz? Much has been written recently about the prescience of his nonfiction—in particular his 1953 study of Marxist totalitarianism The Captive Mind—and how it can help us understand and respond to politically tumultuous times. But, while I have no wish whatever to discount the worth of Miłosz’s political writing, I think focusing solely on his role as a political commentator will only give you part of the picture. As far as I’m concerned, what made Czesław Miłosz great was not only his political acuity (though he certainly had that too), but also his wisdom, his spiritual awareness, and his conviction. The world will always need astute intellectuals to help us make sense of political realities, but just as much or more, it needs people to help us make sense of historical, social, and metaphysical realities. It needs people who can not only see the truth, but who are also willing to speak up for it no matter what. This is what Miłosz, both in his life and work, was striving toward. This is what makes Miłosz an essential author in a time when things like truth, goodness, and beauty are quickly slipping away from us. And that’s why I recommend anything that will help you understand this author and his work better.

Book Review: Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll

Year of Publication: 2008

Number of Pages: 522

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genre: Interviews, biography

Find it on The Book Depository (disclosure: I’m an affiliate).


As far as I know, there exists no full-length biography of Seamus Heaney. I thought that was an odd omission for the world’s biographers to make, until I heard about this book, a marathon series of interviews covering the entirety of Heaney’s life and career, from early childhood to the publication of what was then his latest book, District and Circle.

While this book does aim to be a “biography in interviews,” these interviews go far beyond strictly biographical material: in addition to that, we also get commentary on Heaney’s main influences and contemporaries, meditations on Irish politics, thoughts on the craft of poetry, etc. If you’re just starting to get into poetry, or if you’re fairly new to Heaney’s work, all of the minute detail about people and poems could start to bog you down. (Pun not intended, unless you like it.) If, on the other hand, you already love poetry, this is the book for you.

Right from the beginning, O’Driscoll’s questions are penetrating and wide-ranging, while Heaney’s answers are thorough, insightful, and rather poetic in their own way, especially when he talks about the poets and poems he most admires: R. S. Thomas, for example, is described as a “loner taking on the universe,” while poems like Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and Ted Hughes’s “The Bull Moses,” he says, “put me through the eye of my own needle.” Heaney and O’Driscoll knew each other well even before embarking on this project, so they play off of each other brilliantly. (If you want an idea of what these conversations are like, the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico filmed one of these interviews and later posted the video on their website.)

Over the past few years, I’ve been keen to learn as much about poetry as I can, so it was wonderful to hear someone who lives and breathes poetry talk about what makes it work for him: things like the importance of the word “now” in the first line of Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” or the example that Osip Mandelstam–the Russian dissident poet who spent years dodging Stalin’s secret police –sets for poets living in times of political turmoil. I find that Heaney is better at talking about poetry than most, so for me, the analytical parts of the interviews were fascinating.

I had been wanting to read Heaney’s biography for a while, but in some ways, this is better than a traditional biography: it’s more free-ranging, more thorough, and it gets down deeper into the poetry itself. It has also made me eager to read more biographies, interviews, and memoirs of authors, so if you know of any good ones, leave them in the comments.

Book Review: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1960

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2012

Number of Pages: 141

Publisher: Mariner Books

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Theology, Philosophy

Note: this post contains affiliate links.


I think it was the C. S. Lewis scholar William O’Flaherty who called The Four Loves one of Lewis’s least-read books. I call that a crying shame. Not only is it a great book, it’s also an important one, I think. Especially now, when it’s easier than ever for our ideas about love to run awry, books like this are helpful in eliminating some of our misconceptions and teaching us to love in a more God-honoring way.

Before going on to the actual review, I thought I might write a bit about how this book came to be written in the first place. I enjoy odd trivia like that, and I thought some of you guys might too, but none of this information is necessary for understanding the book, so if you want to skip straight to the review, go right ahead.

Background

Similar to Lewis’s earlier book Mere Christianity, The Four Loves began life as a series of radio addresses. In 1957, the US-based Episcopal Radio-Television Foundation (ERTF) asked Lewis to record a series of talks for their network on any topic he chose. Lewis recorded ten episodes on “the Four Loves” over two days in London, though not quite to the producers’ satisfaction. As Abigail Santamaria records in her excellent biography of Joy Davidman, the network didn’t care for the matter-of-fact style of presentation that Lewis had perfected in his 1940’s “Broadcast Talks” for the BBC. “But we want you to give the feeling of embracing [the audience],” one of the producers told him, to which Lewis replied with, “If they wanted an embracer, they had the wrong man.”

It wasn’t just Lewis’s tone that upset the station: his casual references to alcohol and tobacco use did nothing to endear him to the very conservative producers, and when he came to the section on erotic love, the network was so scandalized that they didn’t even air the program as originally intended, deciding to publish the transcripts of the talks as pamphlets instead. Three years later in 1960, Lewis published The Four Loves as we know it today, expanding upon the original radio talks and adding both an introduction and a chapter on “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human.”

A side-note: copies of the original ERTF recordings are pretty easy to find these days, but beware that these are the original talks without all of the material that Lewis added to the book The Four Loves. So if you want his complete thoughts on the topic, you’ll have to read the book.

Now, the review…

Reading The Four Loves, I was again amazed at the agility of Lewis’s mind, as he jumps from point to point without missing a beat. Everything is clear, above-board, and in the open. And as always, Lewis’s prose is concise, stylish, and eminently quotable. (Speaking of quotes, stayed tuned Wednesday for a post on one of the most misquoted passages in Lewis’s oeuvre.)

It’s a great book overall, but I was especially drawn to the chapter on “Friendship,” likely because I can’t remember the last time I heard a Christian teacher treat the topic with any amount of seriousness. And that’s a problem, because friendship is one of those topics a person never stops learning about.

The older I get, the more it seems to me that society as a whole is losing the concept of friendship. It appears to have forgotten what friendship is, what it looks like, and what its purpose is. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the sexualization of pretty much everything. I know from personal experience how confused some people are by the idea that two people of opposite sexes can discuss things with each other without wanting to date each other. And even some of the pairs of same sex friends I know are sometimes mistaken for couples, simply because they appear to enjoy each other’s company. In the culture’s obsession with Eros, it has lost Friendship almost entirely by declaring it just another manifestation of Eros.

Another part of it, I think, has to do with a devaluation of friendship. More often than not, I think we tend to view friendship mostly as a type of insurance against future boredom—friends are the people you go shopping with or gossip with, never anything more. What Lewis presents in this book is a much grander vision of friendship, one whose primary goal is not sex, networking, or temporary amusement, but rather to “seek the same truth.” Seeing as Lewis knew quite a lot about having good friends, I was glad to get his perspective on this woefully neglected topic.

***

The book ends with a chapter on agape, or “Charity,” which encompasses God’s love toward us, our love toward Him, and our love for our neighbors. It’s the “charity” that the Apostle Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. And of all the loves that humans are capable of experiencing, this is the one that brings us nearest to “Love Himself,” to use Lewis’s phrase.

The great thing about this chapter is that, while it is truly and completely impossible to write about heaven in a way that does it any justice, Lewis is able to discuss the future communion with God that awaits all Christians in a way that feels more immediate than descriptions of heaven often do. The problem with writing about heaven is that, while it is the most attractive thing existing other than God Himself, its attractiveness is so other and so unworldly that we are not able to comprehend it. As Dr. Karen Swallow Prior noted in a recent talk (drawn in part from another Lewis book, The Weight of Glory), “we cannot desire what we cannot imagine and we cannot imagine what we have not seen.” It’s hard to really be excited about heaven when we can barely even understand what it is or what it means.

If you’ve read Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy (or my review of it), you know how important the concept of “Joy” was to Lewis. This “Joy,” this longing for the completeness and the perfection that could only be found in God, is a constant theme running through Lewis’s writing, and it makes its appearance in The Four Loves as well. Rather than try to describe heaven and the presence of “Love Himself” in abstract terms, Lewis instead makes his appeal to Joy, to the innate conviction that, much as we love our fellow creatures, such earthly pleasures can never be enough to satisfy us completely. In the book’s final pages, Lewis taps into that sense of incompleteness and helps to point it in the right direction. He describes not the hoped-for thing itself, but rather its absence, and in doing this, gives us a much better idea of the thing itself than we might have had otherwise.

For such a short book, The Four Loves has given me a lot to think about regarding not just love between people, but also the love between people and God, the ways we talk about God, and how He works in and through our loves. I highly recommend this very underrated book to any and all.