Robert Coover’s “Matinée”: Projection, Distortion, and Just Maybe, Infection

This morning (with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony spilling out of my desktop MP3 player, because the Wagner was interesting but when it’s playing I can’t think), I’m sipping at a cooling cup of coffee and trying to decide whether or not I liked Robert Coover’s story “Matinée.”

Lyubov Popova, "Two Figures" (1913-1914)

Having read it only once, I probably shouldn’t make a decision about liking or disliking it.  My knee-jerk reaction to it is about the same one that I get every time I look at a Cubist painting:  Wow.  That’s really cool.  But was it necessary to do it like that to get the point across?  It’s still cool…but I don’t think I like it.

On an initial reading, it seems to me that Coover is doing much the same thing with story that the Cubists did with the human form.  He’s breaking up a story (or maybe two stories) about the relationships between an unnamed man and a woman, shaping the pieces into little cube-ish bits, and reassembling it in an abstract way from a bunch of different viewpoints.  It’s my first Coover story, as best I recall, so I don’t know if this is typical of his writing or not.  I went into the story cold – wasn’t sure what to expect.

I quite liked the opening sentence:

Weary of the tedium of her days, her lonely life going nowhere, she skips work and steps inside a half-empty old movie house showing a scratched and grainy romantic film from her youth; she takes her favorite seat in the middle of the seventh row, hoping to experience once again the consoling power of sudden uncomplicated love, even if not one’s own, love that has no trajectory attached to it but is a pure and immediate enrichment of the soul and delight of the body.

The first part of the sentence, on the left-hand side of the semicolon, leads of with a couple of modifying phrases that tell us about the female protagonist’s state of mind and her relationships (or lack thereof); knowing that the film, from her youth, is scratched and grainy places her in a particular age group.  I felt anchored in this woman’s character, invested in her, even, before I hit the semicolon.  The second part of the sentence adds more:  she takes a favorite seat, forward but in the middle, which also says something about her character.  She’s looking for a certain kind of love. Coover piles on its qualifications with adjectives and appositives:  sudden/uncomplicated, even if it’s not one’s own, doesn’t have a trajectory attached to it, pure and immediate enrichment of the soul, delight of the body.  The way that Coover stacks all these qualifications tells us that “she” once had this, and doesn’t have it now, and probably hasn’t had it for a long time, and she misses it.

That’s a heckuva wallop in one little sentence.

The verbs in the sentence are in the present tense, which add to the sense of being present with “her” in the immediate moment, in the theater, waiting for the movie to start.  That was the setup:  my expectation was that I would be in the present with this “she,” whatever her experience in the theater or afterwards would be.

Bruce Davey, "Vicky's Hall of Mirrors" (2008; digitally altered photograph). You can see more of Bruce's work at

The next few paragraphs are, or appear to be, scenes from the movie “she” is watching.  And then I felt like I’d entered a kind of funhouse Hall of Mirrors, in which Coover was nudging me from one slightly distorted image of “he” and “she” and “love” to the next, finally spitting me out with:

“‘You are chasing phantoms,’ she says…. ‘Though the past may once have existed, it does not now exist.  Something has taken its place.’  She feels certain that she has said this before.  Or heard it said.  She wants to explain what the something is, but it’s too late — even as she steps out of her underwear the film is breaking and rattling in the projector.”

I want to know what that “something” is, too, and I have a feeling that Coover was showing it to us without explaining.  That maybe the “something” is a life breaking and rattling like the film in the projector.  I feel like I should have understood it, if only I’d taken the time to diagram out the nested stories and movies and projections to see what really happened.

And who’s the projector, anyway?  Because in this story, the projector is not just a “what.”  It’s a “who.”  It’s the storyteller, or it’s me, or it’s “she,” and we’re all distorted images of one another, all looking for a kind of love that’s gone.

By Tolstoy’s standards, Coover’s story hits the “art” button:

“If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art. To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in  oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art. Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”

When the story digressed into a series on nonlinear fragments with no clear relationship (on a first reading, anyway), I felt lost.  Frustrated and tricked and jerked around.  And maybe that was the experience or “trajectory” of love that Coover was trying to communicate:  that’s it’s not linear, but fragmented – and that it’s frustrating, tricky, jerks you around, and leaves you feeling deserted, lonely, broken, and flapping in the breeze just as you take off your underwear.

That’s cool.  And yet…the story was about the projections and distortions and an abstract idea of the nature of love, not really about the story of some particular “he” and “she” whose experience I was being invited to share.  At the end of the story,  I wasn’t sure if I was back with the woman in the theater or not, and which “she” was the one taking off her underwear.  The narrative seemed as if Coover had designed it to wave a kind of red flag over the cleverness of the fragmented narrative and a theoretical, naked “bottom line” about the nature of love.

It seems to me that Tolstoy would have been less pleased with this aspect of Coover’s story.  Tolstoy lists four characteristics of “bad” art:  borrowing, imitation, “striking effects,” and “interesting-ness.”  “Matinée” seems to me to squarely into the category that Tolstoy labels “interesting”:

“To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible, and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning, and experience a certain pleasure in this process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist.  But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, by distracting him, hinders the infection.  And therefore the interestingness of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression.”

Just as I haven’t decided if I like or dislike “Matinée,” I’m not yet sure if I agree or disagree with Tolstoy that a work’s “interesting-ness” can make it “bad” art.  I stand in awe of Coover’s cleverness at narrative construction, and of his beautiful, powerful sentences.  Both of those things may have, in this case, distracted me from the emotion that Coover was trying to convey.  I’m itching to take a break from Tolstoy to diagram out all the little story-cubes in “Matinée” to see if I guessed right about the meaning – and that perhaps means that the story failed to “infect” me sufficiently with its feelings.

But, with apologies to Lev Nikolaevich, there may be more to art than being “infected.”  I removed “Matinée” from the magazine for my “keepers” binder.  There’s just something cool about the story, whether I like it or not.

Posted in Leo Tolstoy, Literary Criticism, Reading, Stories | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What Art Isn’t – Tolstoy Disses Beethoven and Wagner

Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, May 1908. Color photograph by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.

I spent a considerable chunk of last week reading Leo Tolstoy’s lengthy post-conversion essay What Is Art?

In the essay, Tolstoy pontificates on aesthetic questions that are still being wrestled over in the modern blogosphere.  What defines “art”?  What is the value of art criticism?  Can graduates of art schools (or, in this day and age, the MFA program) create real art?

(Tolstoy’s answer to this last question is a resounding NO! – “In these schools art is taught! But art is the transmission to others of a special feeling  experienced by the artist. How can this be taught in schools? No school can evoke feeling in a man, and still less can it teach him how to manifest it in the one particular manner natural to him alone. But the essence of art lies in these things….The one thing these schools can teach is how to transmit feelings experienced by other artists in the way those other artists transmitted them.”)

By the time Tolstoy finished What Is Art? some eight or nine years after his “religious conversion” in 1880, he had developed a deep disdain for the artistic “canons” of the time.  He disliked the works of the Greek tragedians, Dante, Tasso, Milton, Shakespeare, almost all the works of Goethe, Zola and Ibsen.

In music, Tolstoy particularly disliked the later works of Beethoven – feeling that the musician, having gone deaf, was creating patterns devoid of feeling.  He devotes a couple of pages to dissing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including this indignant and regretful passage:

“…not only do I not see how the feelings transmitted by this work could unite people not specially trained to submit themselves to its complex hypnotism, but I am unable to imagine to myself a crowd of normal people who could understand anything of this long, confused, and artificial production, except short snatches which are lost in a sea of what is incomprehensible. And therefore, whether I like it or not, I am compelled to conclude that this work belongs to the rank of bad art.”

He also greatly disliked the music of Wagner:

“It is the same when listening to an opera of Wagner’s. Sit in the dark for four days in company with people who are not quite normal, and, through the auditory nerves, subject your brain to the strongest action of the sounds best  adapted to excite it, and you will no doubt be reduced to an abnormal condition and be enchanted by absurdities.

Chapter XIII of the essay is a criticism of both the poetry and music of Wagner’s opera The Ring of the Nibelung.  Tolstoy rants for five pages (see pages 132-137, or pp. 176-181 of the .pdf file) about the miserable experience he had while attending a single day of the opera’s performance in Moscow.  It reminded me of Mark Twain’s invective against the German language, except that Twain intended to be amusing, and dear old Lev Nikolayevich was dead serious:

“…around me I saw a crowd of three thousand people, who not only patiently witnessed all  this absurd nonsense, but even  considered it their duty to be delighted with it.” 

I prefer Mark Twain’s more generous assessment of Wagner’s music, which he summed up with a quote from his fellow humorist Edward Wilson Nye: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

What Is Art? raised several interesting questions and ideas about art, and I may blog more about some of them next week.  But overall, I found the tone of the essay to be so crotchety and complaining that I didn’t really enjoy it.  So, for the rest of the month, I’ll be listening to The Ring of the Niebelung and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony while I read more of Tolstoy’s short fiction.

Take that, you grumpy old geezer!

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Torment and Ecstasy, Pleasure and Punishment: Reading Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus”

Last week I read several fables and tales from a large number that Tolstoy compiled to use in teaching his serfs to read.  Although they’re not exactly “short stories” in a modern  sense, they were a delightful way to ease back into reading Russian: they’re short, and Tolstoy’s language is simple and direct.

My goal for this week is to move on to Tolstoy’s longer “short works.” Having been in Russia from 1999 to 2002, when war flared up between the Russian government and its ethnic Chechen citizens, I have a particular interest in the Caucasus region and therefore decided to start with “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (1873).

Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837). Portrait by Vasily Tropinin.

According to Russian literary historian D. S. Mirsky, Tolstoy’s story “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” was a kind of spoof on a Byronic poem of the same name, written by Aleksandr Pushkin in 1822.  Because I’m apparently incapable of just reading a story without diddling around its margins first, I gritted my teeth and pulled out my copy of Pushkin’s “Selected Works” to read the original Pushkin poem (eighteen pages long).

Pushkin is now considered to be the father of Russian literature,  and Russian kindergarteners cut their literary teeth by memorizing long passages of his poetry.  However, according to Mirsky, his work was not held in high esteem by his nineteenth-century successors.  I totally get that:  I have had a love-hate relationship with Pushkin’s narrative poems for more than twenty years.

As an undergraduate student of Russian literature, I found reading Pushkin to be a kind of ecstatic torture.  We spent seven weeks of a senior lit seminar on Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse:  389 stanzas of iambic tetrameter, most with a complicated rhyme scheme based around masculine and feminine word endings that some critics call a “Pushkin sonnet.”  The class met three times a week, which meant that we had to read seventeen or eighteen stanzas for each class.  It was torture.  On the morning that we were to complete our
discussion of Eugene Onegin, my six seminar classmates and I met at 9AM and opened a bottle of Stolichnaya that had been in the freezer overnight.  For an hour we chased vodka shots with kosher dill pickles.  We then went to class in a very…convivial mood.  The discussion was most lively.  Our professor was astounded by our enthusiasm, and  complimented us on our perspicacity.  (I suspect that he knew exactly what we’d been up to, if not what had driven us to drink.)  The lectures and discussions in the seminar were conducted in Russian, but I usually took notes in English; when it was time to study for the final exam, I was shocked to find that my notes from that morning were in Russian, and that I needed a dictionary to translate them.

General Rayevsky. Pen-and-ink sketch by A. S. Pushkin.

The opening lines of Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” in which Pushkin dedicates the poem to Napoleonic War hero General N. N. Rayevskiy, were as painful to read as  anything in Eugene Onegin:

Primi s ulybkoyu, moi drug,/Svobodnoi muzy prinoshen’ye:/Tebe ya posvyatil izgnannoi liry pen’ye/I vdokhnovenniy svoi dosug.

 The first two lines are easy:  “Take with a smile, my friend/The offering of the free Muse:” (at least I think that’s right; grammatically “free” modifies “Muse,” even though I want to read it as the free offering of the Muse because even after reading the entire poem, thinking about Pushkin’s treatment of the themes of slavery and freedom, and knowing that Pushkin wrote it while in exile, I still don’t fully understand why he would choose the adjective“free” to describe his Muse.

"Chechen Scene" - pen-and-ink sketch by A. S. Pushkin

The next two lines are harder:  “I dedicated to you the song of the banished lyre/And its inspired leisure.”  The word “song” is usually spelled “peniye,” and substitution of one letter – a soft sign in place of the letter “i,” makes it look like a different sort of word altogether, perhaps some odd declension of the word pen’, which means “stump.”  It took me about thirty minutes of reading entries beginning with “pen-”  in Smirnitsky to decide that Pushkin’s lyre was singing instead of stumping.  There are all sorts of spelling substitutions in Pushkin’s poetry to get the meter to come out right:  “khladniy” for “kholodniy” is easily understood, but substituting “glava” for “golova” suggests initially that Pushkin’s captured soldier had a busted chairman instead of a busted head.

Then there are the adjectives and descriptive verbs.  Pushkin was a Romantic, and he uses a flowery vocabulary set that I never heard anyone use conversationally in the three
years I lived in Russia: words like “tletvorniy” (putrid, noxious), “nevnyatniy”  (inarticulate), and “zatmyt’sya” (overshadowed).  Every emotion in the poem is extreme: gloom (ugryuma), brooding (vzvolnovat’sya), oblivion (zabvyeniye), entreaty (mol’ba), languor (tomlyen’ye) and ecstasy (vostorg).

I’m just not a huge fan of the Byronic tradition.  Its excesses make me cringe.  In “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” Pushkin indulges in long descriptions of fierce Circassians, and longer pastoral passages that extol the wild beauty of Nature (excerpt courtesy of – an awkward translation, but it will give you the idea):

"Shamil's Village, Dagestan" (1904 photograph by Prokudin-Gorskii)

The two protagonists – a nameless captured Russian soldier serving as a slave in a Caucasian village, or aul, and an equally nameless “black-eyed” Circassian maiden who saves his life and falls in love with him – are, by modern standards, two-dimensional.  She is innocent, sweet, loving, and brave.  He is jaded, “used to voluptuousness,” unable to love after his heart was broken by a beautiful woman somewhere back in Russia.  She declares her love for him, and begs him to take her away:  her strict father and brother are going to sell her to a strange husband in another village.  He refuses her, saying that he is dead to love.  Over time, despite being kept a slave, he comes to appreciate the Circassian culture and sort of “goes native.”  Then one night, while the men of the village are out raiding a Cossack village, the Circassian girl brings a saw and cuts away his chains to free him.  He declares his love for her and asks her to come away with him.  She turns his own words back on him, tells him to find love with another and not to mind her cruel fate, walks him down to the river he is to follow back to Cossack territory, and then (if I read correctly what appears implicit in the final stanzas) commits suicide by jumping in and drowning herself in the rushing mountain stream.

“Prisoner of the Caucasus” is about as realistic and as psychologically deep as a Barbara Cartland romance.  Its claim to art lies in its construction.  The language is elegant – you have to hear Pushkin read aloud by a well-educated native speaker to get the full effect.  Despite all the embellishment of rhyme, high diction, and alliteration, there are no  metaphors – a nod to the Classical French poetry that Pushkin liked best.  Four stanzas of “Chechen war songs” sung by women the night of the raid differ drastically in meter and tone from the rest of the poem:  they’re earthy, threatening, and barbaric, with a chant-like, end-stanza repetition of the line “Chechénets khódit za rekói” (The Chechen walks beyond the river) that reminds me of Wordsworth’s depiction of noble savages in “Hiawatha.” And I can’t help but admire the balance of his-and-hers romantic rejection in the narrative.  Never mind that it has the all emotional sophistication of a teenage girl’s fantasy revenge when she has just been dumped by an adored “older man.”

And so:  on to Tolstoy’s version.  In stories of war and the Caucasus, says Mirsky, Tolstoy sets out  “to destroy the existing romantic conceptions of those two arch-romantic themes. To be understood…these stories have to be felt against their background of romantic literature, against the romances of Bestuzhev and the Byronic poems of Pushkin and Lermontov.  The unromanticizing of Caucasus and war is achieved by Tolstoy’s usual method of ever advancing analysis and of ‘making it strange’….It results much rather in the glorification of the unconscious and unambitious at the expense of
conscious and ambitious heroism, of the private soldier and professional army officer at the expense of the smart young officer from Petersburg who has come to the front to taste the poetry of war and to win his St. George’s Cross.”

I open my new volume of Tolstoy to “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” and read the first, short, prose sentence:  Sluzhil na Kavkazye ofitserom odin barin  (“A nobleman was serving as an officer in the Caucasus”).  Simple.  Direct.  Clean.

I sigh in relief.

Posted in Aleksandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Quest, Reading, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bookstores, Banya Hats and Baltika 7 in Brighton Beach

"Preshpekt Alley," birch allee on Yasnaya Polyana Estate (courtesy Yasnaya Polyana official web site)

In a perfect world, I’d have begun my month of reading Leo Tolstoy with a day trip to Yasnaya Polyana, the historic Tolstoy family estate near Tula.  The countryside around Moscow is beautiful in late July and early August – a land of vast, dark pine forests and fields of golden wheat and sunflowers.  Historic country estates that belonged to the royal family and the nobility, like Yasnaya Polyana, have been lovingly preserved as national treasures through decades of disruption and corruption.  In my mind’s eye, I stroll a birch allée with a fistful of ripe cherries in one hand, a leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina in the other…a gentle breeze flirts with my long, gauzy, pastel skirt…the  samovar is gurgling on the terrace and it’s almost time for afternoon tea….

Oh, well.  Couldn’t quite get there – either when we lived in Moscow a decade ago, or this August.

Brighton Beach Avenue

My little sister, who lives in Manhattan, suggested a very acceptable substitute:  a “girls’ day out” in Brighton Beach.  The hustle of Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa” is worlds away from the Russian countryside.  The B and N trains rattle their way to Manhattan and Coney Island on elevated tracks above Brighton Beach Avenue.  The local Russians are neither nobles nor serfs; they are elderly Odessa Jews, “biznessmeny” muttering into cell phones, and young adults waiting tables and hoping for green cards.  Like Russians in the  homeland, they ignore Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking ordinances and light up  whenever and wherever they please.  It’s noisy, and crowded, and overwhelmingly working-class.

But there are bookstores.  And having just picked up a copy of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, I was feeling a desperate urge to upgrade my collection of Tolstoy’s works in Russian.  My sole Russian-language volume of Tolstoy’s short works, a 1995 edition printed cheaply in Paris and sold briefly through Barnes & Noble, lacked three stories I want to read this month:  “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “Hadji Murat,” and “Alyosha the Pot.”  Its margins are niggardly.  It is printed on paper the quality and consistency of Tula train-station toilet paper.  These stories are classics!  They deserve better!

The first bookseller we found in Brighton Beach sold stacks of used paperbacks – quick- and-dirty translations of American genre fiction – from a five-foot-wide stall between two brick buildings.  The second, an older gentleman, had set up a table of beautiful children’s books and forty-page, pamphlet-style volumes on home cooking, beauty, and religion that would not have been out of place by a supermarket checkout.

Then we found St. Petersburg Trade and Publishing House – very much like a “Dom Knigi” or “House of Books” in one of Russia’s provincial cities.  Souvenirs, from classy Lomonosov porcelain tea sets to kitschy faux-Soviet-army bling, filled the front of the store and the display case at the cashier’s counter.  Multiple editions of Russian classics and contemporary literary fiction lined one entire wall, faced by a long shelf of Western classics translated into Russian.  The next long aisle contained genre fiction:  detective novels were enjoying great popularity in Moscow when we lived there, and appear to be a particular favorite of emigrés and expats a decade later.  A third long aisle was home to nonfiction, books in Ukrainian, and books in Georgian (I recognize the alphabet even though I can read only one word of the language:  “Borjomi,” a brand of sparkling mineral water).  The final aisle was filled with CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes, helpfully labeled “PAL” and “NTSC.”

I agonized over various editions of Tolstoy’s collected works for 45 minutes while my sister, who doesn’t read Russian, waited patiently.  The first fat volume I chose contains the Sevastopol stories, “Cossacks,” “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “Hadji-Murat,” and some critical essays.  The second, one of a three-volume set of Tolstoy’s collected works, contains “Alyosha the Pot,” the plays Tolstoy wrote late in his life, and every fable and fairy tale the great man collected and wrote down “dlya chteniya” – to teach the serfs on his estate to read.  It was a struggle not to spend another $40 on the second and third volumes of the set, but I know I won’t read either Anna Karenina or War and Peace in Russian this year.  I did add a volume of Tyutchev’s poetry to the basket, though.  Can’t get that just anywhere!

Our his-and-hers felted-wool banya hats, or fetroviye

I can’t resist Russian souvenirs, either.  I needed a tablecloth for our predbannik – an après-sauna room we put together when we built a Finnish sauna in our basement – and there was a nice linen one printed with a strawberry pattern in the traditional red, black and gold of the Khokhloma dishes a Russian friend gave us.  They also sell fetroviye (singular – fetrovaya), felted wool banya hats.  Russians wear them in the steam sauna, which is often heated to 200F-230F, to protect their scalp, hair and ears.  We’ve never had our sauna up over 170F, but all the same  I had to get the “Napoleon”-style hat for my husband.

The Turkish coffee served here is wonderful.

Such financial excess called for refreshment.  Just down the street, the smell of good coffee and chocolate drew us to Vintage Gourmet Specialty Foods, a Turkish grocery.  I can’t recommend their fresh Turkish coffee highly enough – better than Starbucks swill any day!  We also picked up dried figs, pressed into little round loaves, and “Three Bears” and “Korovi” (Cows) wrapped candies.  My sons loved those when they were little shavers in Moscow.

We were disappointed in M & I International Foods, which recently got a decent review in The New York Times.  We found it stocked in a way that reminded me of Soviet-style grocery stores in Murmansk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy:  lots of empty space on the shelves and in the deli counters.  It brought to mind the most useful sentence I learned in my first two years of Russian language classes – “Tomorrow there will be no French cheese.”  We did find a kind of white puffed-corn snack there, a Russian treat that my husband had requested: “You know, the kind we used to get in Moscow – the ones that come from People’s CheezDoodle Kombinat Number One.”

We decided to bypass the little café on the second floor and headed out to the boardwalk.  At Café Restaurant Volna, which has been in business at least since the early 1980s, we  had delicious red borshch, blini with strawberry jam and sour cream, and Baltika 7.  (Baltika beer, made in St. Petersburg under the auspices of a German-trained brewmaster since the early 1990s, comes numbered.  I like #5, golden lager, and #7, export lager.)  It wasn’t quite black tea from a samovar on the terrace, but we had a break from the heat and the weather was perfect for a seaside lunch:  warm sun, cool breeze, salt in the air.

After a ramble down the beach, we stopped in the Black Sea Book Store.  It’s a smaller bookstore, dark and long and narrow.  A small room at the back, “Orthodox Books,” is devoted to religious works in Russian and Old Church Slavonic.  There are prayer books, Bibles, lives of the saints, and enough volumes of religious philosophy to please a Patriarch.  An older gentleman reading inventory to a young man with a computer greeted me, “Devushka!” – “Miss,” or “Young lady!” – which, at my age, warms my heart.
Leo, the young man who rang up my purple fetrovaya and a read-aloud CD of Pushkin fairy tales, was happy to discuss e-books in Russian (not widely available, but there’s a guy on the second floor of a store down the street who…) and the local banyas (“The one
two blocks from here is a real Russian banya – I go there every Monday – but I don’t know the name of it…Lots of people like the Mermaid Spa, too…”)

My sister and I stopped at one last grocery store.  We loaded up on sushki, which are a kind of hard-sweet pretzel ring; pryanniki – dark, heavy Russian gingerbread; black bread; a bottle of khmeli sumeli, a curry-like Georgian spice blend containing crushed marigold petals; and a few oversized bottles of Baltika 7.

Like real Muscovites, staggering under our load of heavy plastic bags of groceries, we trudged up the steps and caught the B train back to Manhattan.

It was a book-buying expedition....Really! It was!

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A Month of Questions; Danger Zone, Here I Come!

For the first two months of this project, I posted a list of “things I learned from reading [the author of the month]” at the end of each month.  I’d kept a page in my journal set aside to log in ideas as they came up, and by the end of each of the first two months I had eight or ten possible “lessons learned” to play with.

This month, the “things I learned” page was empty.

At first I thought the reason might be that I was mostly reading from an anthology of very diverse authors.  The stories were unique.  The voices were unique.  The only thing that connected them was that the writers had ties to “the South,” a nebulous concept that appeared to be defined loosely as a combination of geography, culture, and use of language.

Then I started noodling with my pen while I thought back over my July reading experience.  I was surprised to see a list of questions emerging on the page:

1.  Amy Hempel says in her introduction to New Stories from the South that she choice stories that struck her “as distinctly Southern in character, stance or voice.”  If literature is supposed to be about “the human condition,” why are regional and even national differences in literature apparent?  Are the differences significant?  Why or why not?

2. Does easy Internet access change anything about the relationship between “information” and “story?”

3.  My list of reasons to tell stories still feels inadequate.  Why do we tell stories?  What do we tell, to whom, and why?  When do we lie actively, and when by omission?

4.  Why did I keep Ship Fever for fifteen years without trying again to read it?  What other story collections are hiding and silent on my “keepers” shelves, and why haven’t I looked at them again?  Am I really going to get around to reading all those books some day?

5.  I still don’t feel like I have a handle on the “human condition” or “human complexity” that is supposed to be at the heart of a story.  Why are some kinds of human conditions, like failing or failed relationships, deemed more appropriate than others as subjects for literary fiction?

I think I’m okay with a month of questions instead of answers.  Maybe even better than okay.  It’s probably a sign that this reading project is stretching my thoughts, moving me outside of my comfort zone.  I’m growing as a reader and as a human being.

This is not totally unfamiliar territory.  When I was on active duty, I changed job assignments every 18 – 24 months.  The first couple of months in a new military assignment are commonly understood to be “drinking from a firehose” – being overwhelmed by information overload.  Every day brings new challenges and frustrations; every day, one runs like a hamster in a wheel just to catch up.  Around the third month, a set of “big questions” begins to coalesce from the flotsam and jetsam.  The next couple months are spent attempting to answer them.  By the sixth month, one starts to feel competent and in control of the demands of the assignment: this is the “danger zone,” in which lack of true understanding and overconfidence usually cause a major screw-up.

Fortunately, reading short stories and blogging about them isn’t likely to get anyone killed.

It’s time to slow down, though.  In July, because concentration was difficult – YOU try taking notes on literary fiction by flashlight in a bug-filled canvas tent when it’s 98 degrees outside! – I read a great deal, but made very few notes.  I suppose this is the point of “beach reading.” Regrettably, the stories I chose were not intended to be mindless entertainment, and even though I enjoyed them, I don’t feel like I was able to give most of them my best effort.

But Scout camp season has ended, my air conditioner is working nicely, and the shorter works of Leo Tolstoy are on the calendar for August.  (And the kids go back to school on the 24th, which will free up some time in the middle of the day.)  I intend to plow through as much Tolstoy as I can in the original Russian, starting with “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which I loved in translation.  Time to dust off the Smirnitsky.  I need to get back to work if I’m going to know enough about reading short stories to be dangerous three months from now.

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Information vs. Storytelling: What We Know, and What We Want

I love bumblebees.   But last weekend, on the first day of Cub Scout camp, one crawled into a fold of the beach towel I’d tossed on the poolside grass before I took the mandatory swim test.  After a refreshing swim, unaware of my apian hitchhiker, I picked up the towel and headed back toward the campsite.  The bee, probably desperate for sunlight and air, fumbled its way onto the outer edge of my left hand.  Its little bee-feet tickled.  Absentmindedly, I swatted.  The bee stung me.

Sometimes reading others’ blog posts is a bit like being  stung by a bee.  Something I read piques  my interest.  Gets under my skin.  Causes a kind of swelling and discomfort.  Won’t let me forget what I read.  For a day or so after the bumblebee stung me, I couldn’t bend my pinky finger without pain. But after I sucked down half the ibuprofen in my first aid kit and forced myself to flex and bend my hand repeatedly to work out the stiffness, I
felt the sting not as pain, but as pressure: an internal reminder of the bee and its tickly little feet, a warning to look before swatting the next time.

Such was the recent post on the difference between information and storytelling – a not-entirely-favorable comparison of Jim Shepard’s use of scientific detail in “The Netherlands Lives with Water” to Andrea Barrett’s in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” – at Reading the Short Story.  At first the post stung:  I quite liked “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” and especially all the odd details of Dutch water management that Shepard included.  I didn’t see a problem with his use of “information,” and I didn’t think I’d been so “intrigued by mere ‘information’” in the story that I’d neglected “the complex human
experience the language of the story attempts to create.”

Or…maybe I had.  I decided to flex the analytical muscles by reading both stories closely, with special attention to the use of “information” – which May, after Walter Benjamin, defined as something that “must be accessible to immediate verification.”

Mouse-ear Hawkweed

The title of Barrett’s collection containing “The Behavior  of the Hawkweeds,” Ship Fever, was awfully familiar.  I scanned my “keepers” shelves and was astounded to find a copy.  I remember buying it soon after it was published at a newly-opened Barnes and Noble in Virginia Beach, browsing one or two of the stories, and then adding it to a to-be-read-later pile in the floor of my spare bedroom. I don’t remember which stories I read from it, though, or why I stopped reading.  I must have liked something about it: the book survived four military moves, a house fire, and dozens of bookshelf purges.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” was the first story in the book.  I read it with immense pleasure, and off the cuff decided that I also liked it better than “The Netherlands Lives with Water.”  When I re-read Shepard’s story more closely and took notes on both, though, I was less sure.

What caught my attention first in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” was Barrett’s elegant, complex use of layered flashbacks to weave together four distinct stories:  how the
geneticist Mendel was distracted by a colleague’s study of hawkweeds; how the narrator’s grandfather (whom she calls, in Czech, “Tati”) meets and studies under Mendel; how a perceived sexual assault on her by Tati’s boss leads to her  grandfather’s death; and the story of changes in the narrator’s relationship with her biologist husband Richard.

Mendel's Garden at the Augustinian Abbey in Old Brno, Czech Republic. Note the beehives and the brick apiary in the distance.

The narrator also offers differing versions of stories within her narrative.  Her husband
Richard tells the story of Mendel in two installments – one for his students’ “information,” at the beginning of the semester; the other, at the end of the semester, a more human and complex story of how Mendel allowed a German colleague’s work with hawkweeds to destroy his confidence in the results of his own research: a story of science unappreciated, “bent by loneliness and longing.”

The incident that led to Tati’s death is told four ways: from her grandfather’s likely perrspective, in which she was about to be sexually assaulted; from her own, adult perspective, in which her grandfather’s boss was simply a lonely old man wanting a peep at her chest; in a watered-down version, omitting the assault and her role in grandfather’s arrest, to Richard and his German protégé Sebastian; and from her mother’s perspective, in which the incident was prompted by old-world Czech-German rivalry.

The narrator also offers different versions of her bout with depression.  To her, the world simply “went gray.”  Her doctor’s assessment:  menopause.  Her daughter’s:  the stifling life of an academic housewife.  And her husband’s:  she just needed exercise.

Finally, there are two versions of her relationship with Sebastian:  his (and Richard’s), in which she is romantically and sexually attracted to Sebastian; and hers, in which her
intentions are outwardly innocent (she calls Sebastian prase, or “pig” in Czech, when he rebuffs her request for a personal relationship) but secretly admits, to herself and to her audience, that Sebastian and Richard were correct.

By contrast, Shepard’s narrative is straightforward and mostly linear – a story about the disintegration of his marriage during a major flood of Rotterdam, which is caused by global warming and a rise in the sea level.  Flashbacks to the narrator’s childhood and to his mother’s trauma during the 1953 flood are brief and direct.  The narrative may also be read as three interwoven stories, however:  a story about the Netherlands’ centuries-old battles with water (and, coincidentally, with its German neighbors) and a flood caused by global warming; a story about the stereotype of the stoic and frugal Dutch national character; and the story of the narrator’s relationship with his wife Cato.

Statue of "little Dutch boy" in Madurodam, Netherlands - a tourist attraction.

There is one reference to a story within Shepard’s story:  Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates, an 1865 children’s book by American author Mary Mapes Dodge.  That story contains within it a story about a little Dutch boy (NOT Hans Brinker) who saved his town by plugging a leaky dike with his finger overnight – a tale invented by Dodge that has become part of the Dutch national mythology.  (Temporary emergency measures, says Shepard’s narrator, are called “Hans Brinkers.”) This reference, I think, is no accident:  temporary emergency measures will save neither Rotterdam nor the narrator’s marriage; it is sheer fiction that one can hold back the sea with a fingertip and stoic heroism.

It seems to me that the difference in the two narrators’ ages is the cause of the apparent disparity in the complexity of the two stories.  Barrett’s narrator is nearing the end of her life.  Her stories are told with variations and nuances because she has changed over time, as has her understanding of events.  Barrett is therefore able to play with time and memory in her story.  Shepard’s narrator, a young engineer, learns something new about emotion and human relationships over the course of “The Netherlands Lives with Water.”  At the end of the story, we learn that he is reflecting back over his relationship with Cato in the moments or hours after he has (perhaps) made a decision to risk death by staying in his Rotterdam office during a cataclysmic flood.  He is telling his audience a story about how he has arrived in the place that he has, physically and emotionally; but he cannot afford the luxury of ambling about in time and memory like Barrett’s narrator.  Water is already leaking in around the windows.

Memory, for Barrett’s narrator, is affected by time and by human growth.  Through her storytelling, we are able to see the changes in memory over time and with experience.  For Shepard’s narrator, memory is affected by disaster (for example, the narrator’s mother has suffered from memory loss problems since she saw her brothers swept away in the 1953 flood, when she was six years old).  The effect of trauma on memory, we learn, is severe and abrupt.

While all these aspects of the stories jumped out at me during a close comparative read, the central question I’d intended to explore was the two authors’ use of nature and science in their storytelling.  Both authors are using natural phenomena to comment on the  experience of being human; somehow, the effects vary.

Barrett’s title is a clear signpost for a reader that the story she is about to tell is about the apparent irrationality of the human experience.  Hawkweeds do not follow the laws of genetics discovered by Mendel – they hybridize irrationally, often forming seeds without fertilization (parthenogenesis).  This irrational behavior caused Mendel to believe that his work was useless and invalid. Barrett’s narrator, too, has doubts:  she says, “Sometimes I wonder where we have misplaced our lives.”  Ironically, the juice of the hawkweed is supposed to induce sharp vision.  While the hawkweed obscured Mendel’s scientific vision, time and experience have lent a kind of clarity to the narrator’s vision.  Through her eyes, we see that the human story varies.  It is irrational and complex.

Shepard uses science and nature differently by telling parallel disaster stories, one environmental and the other human. What drew me to the story initially was the way that the approaching environmental disaster commented on the approaching human disaster.

The Maeslant Sea Barrier (Maeslantkering), closed.

In Shepard’s story, the products of Dutch engineering and construction are rational.  I love
this assertion about the Maeslant Barrier, from the Deltawerks web site:

“The Maeslantkering is operated by a computer. In the case of a storm flood, the decision of whether or not to close the barrier is left to a computer system (BOS). The chance of mistakes is greatly increased if people were to make the decision. A computer will only follow predefined procedures, it doesn’t get its own ideas and it is not affected by poor environmental conditions.”

Royal Dutch Shell refineries in Pernis (Rotterdam), Netherlands

But by following the pattern of images of construction in  the story – cranes, dredging barges, the chemical factories and refineries of Pernis – the reader can see that construction contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.  Road construction
produces holes in the pavement.  The Maeslant barrier door joints, a marvel of Dutch engineering ingenuity, cause all 52,000 tons of the barrier’s foundation to move.  Dredging and creation of the Maasvlakte 2 landfill undermines Rotterdam’s water defenses.

The narrator’s relationship with Cato also carries within it the seeds of its own  destruction.  Cato turns down  her first job offer from Royal Dutch Shell for her relationship with the narrator, the sex is great, and they conceive Henk – but in the end, a job offer from Royal Dutch Shell is a catalyst for her relocation out of Rotterdam
and away from her husband.  And their inability to communicate, which they ignore from the earliest days of their relationship, is another factor in the failure of their marriage.

Shepard does include so many details about water control, flooding, and the Dutch national character that I thought briefly, after my second read, that perhaps not all of them were essential.  And Charles May could be right, I thought, that it’s possible to get so intrigued by the mere “information” in a story that one neglects the “complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.”  (Though I suspect I could get equally lost in trying to concoct a timeline of all the flashbacks in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.”)

Rijkswaterstaat (Storm Surge Barrier), Netherlands.

The repetition of various aspects of Dutch national character in “The Netherlands Lives with Water” is comical, but after a few pages I felt as pounded as the Maeslant sea barrier in a storm: battered by wave after wave after wave of frugality, practicality, and stoicism in every character, from Cato to Kees (whose love life is, oh well, “back in the yellow basket”) to both sets of in-laws.  The effect may have been deliberate – perhaps a comment on the incessant repetition of themes in marital disputes?  If so, it was certainly effective.

And then there were the various water control devices.  I’ll admit: I spent a couple of hours surfing the web, looking at satellite photography and handheld shots of dams and sea barriers and dikes. I’d always pictured the dikes of Holland (perhaps because of the engravings in the 1945 edition of Hans Brinker I found in my grandmother’s attic when I was Henk’s age) as long mounds of grass-covered earth, broken occasionally by huge steel flood doors of the sort that held the Ohio River out of downtown Huntington, West Virginia – a few miles from my grandmother’s house.  The water control structures of the Netherlands are simply, without question, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

But then it hit me: Shepard’s story is about failed communication, construction and  destruction, national character – and barriers.  Barriers as creative and complex and varied as the water control structures around Rotterdam.  The barriers that we humans throw up between one another, and the barriers that we erect between ourselves and our deepest emotions.  And it’s a story about the failure of those barriers to stem the tide of human emotion in a crisis.

And, in the end, both stories were about storytelling:  Barrett’s overtly (I hate the self-indulgence behind the idea of “metafiction,” but the label, less any negative connotations I attach to it, seems to apply to “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds”); and Shepard’s more subtly.  Both narrators conceal the truth from their spouses:  Barrett’s narrator never tells Richard about Leiniger’s assault and her role in her grandfather’s death; Shepard’s  never tells Cato either that his father left behind a large Rainy Day Fund, or that his sister died of influenza after swimming with him in the river in winter.  Both stories raise the questions, “To whom to we tell what stories? To whom do we tell the truth, and to whom do we lie?  What do we omit?  Why?  With what results?”

Ultimately, I found Barrett’s story to be more static.  The narrator is near the end of her life, and her story, in all its variations, is told. She has processed the irrationality of life, with wonder and acceptance.  She has her answers, even if the answer is sometimes that things seem irrational and we cannot yet (or ever) discern their pattern.  Neither she nor Richard seems likely to change.

Shepard’s story struck me as being more dynamic.  This was partly because it moved through a linear conflict-crisis-resolution pattern, but also because the author left the
“rest of the story” up in the air.  Will the narrator die in the flood?  Will his new knowledge about what he lost through “risk management” enable him to repair his marriage to Cato?  We are left with the possibility of change.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” tells us what we all know:  life is chaotic, irrational,
layered, multifaceted.  Things go wrong, and we sometimes misplace our lives.  “The
Netherlands Lives with Water” – a phrase that means things are all screwed up, something else we all know – is a story about what we want:  the possibility of change, improvement, and redemption.

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The Hidden Agenda(s) of Storytelling

I’m doing my laundry from Boy Scout camp tomorrow & putting it right back in the duffel – I’m accompanying my younger son to a five-day resident Cub Scout camp this Thursday.  Lacking any real direction in my personal and reading life this week other than laundry and repacking, I’ll be reading a few stories on my July list with an eye to the narrators’ motives for telling their stories.

Thanks to two interesting posts at Reading the Short Story and Critical Mass, I’ve expanded my list of reasons to tell a story:

Narrators’ Reasons for Telling a Story:

  • teaching/counsel
  • entertainment
  • persuasion
  • self-justification
  • creating/shaping experience (as May says, “constructing reality”)
  • transformation of self, other, or event
  • explaining/understanding a mystery

Authors’ Reasons for Telling a Story (or at least for writing literary fiction):

  • possibly any of the above, plus:
  • exploring connections between or among things/ideas
  • “throw[ing] light on basic human impulses and conflicts” (May)

I suppose that most authors of literary fiction – at least the successful ones – aren’t in the game in pursuit of filthy lucre.

This week, I’m going to try to avoid guessing what the authors’ motives might have been in writing the stories I’m reading; I’ll try to stay in the realm of imagination and stick to the narrators’ motives.  Maybe something interesting will happen.

To the English majors and professors (and perhaps the psychologists and sociologists) out there:  Did I miss any reasons for telling stories?

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