I thought, after last week’s post, and with this pic of Tolstoy in mind, that I should share a couple more bits of perspective on the new, battling versions of War and Peace. The unexpurgated version was, by Tolstoy’s own admission an un-novel. He wanted it to be something more – a literary form more encompassing than a mere novel. Of course, he succeeded. Besides the perhaps overlong novelistic story, he worked essays into the mix, all of this leading to his perspective on love, war, Russian society, and, of course, peace. But most readers – including this writer – have never read the complete story, probably because – my case, anyway – it’s been easier to find the abridged versions in libraries and on the cheap shelves in bookstores.
The other version currently being bandied about is by Ecco Press, this one translated by Andrew Bromfield. The attempt here, according to the high muckety-mucks at Ecco, was to prune Tolstoy’s literary experiment into a novelistic size and form. From what I’ve read of it, this version has a different ending, “more peace, less war,” (I continue to be surprised that avid readers shy away from books with a less-than-happy ending – Petya Rostov and Prince Andrei don’t die in this version) – all in a “twice as interesting” book. Well, enough of this – you be the judge.
I’m taking a course in non-fiction writing this semester (the reason for my sudden preoccupation with N-F books in the blog), and it’s a workshop, in which we critique one another’s writing, both long and short pieces. When I signed up, and realizing that N-F is a diverse genre, covering essays, journalism, memoirs, and the like, I thought I would fail to be amazed at other students’ subject matter. This last week, and preparing for next, we have been faced with two manuscripts in which paranormal (out-of-the-ordinary, as the prof calls them) experiences gain prominent display. The first one was by a lady who heard a ghost tell her something in an out-of-the-way motel room, something that brought her to a greater awareness of a more or less normal experience that ensued.
The second is a litany of everything from psychic healing to watching a soul re-enter a body, all oriented toward exhorting belief in God. Now, I’m the last one to tell another to poo-poo religious faith, but this paper portrays a personality who seems to be using these episodes to hide from the limitations of real life. That’s all right, I considered, if the person owns up to such avoidance in the piece; otherwise it’s welll…what is it? Certainly not non-fiction. We’ll see how the critiques go next week.
Two new books appeared on my doorstep this week, the subject of this two-fisted post. The first is a classic, with a twist: a new translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Two new translations appeared in print near-simultaneously, one abridged, this one the whole magilla – 1215 pages – Tolstoy’s complete version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If the hype is anywhere near truth, the new translation, with acute attention paid to both English and Russian languages, it will be well worth the sticker price.
Which brings to mind the future of contemporary tomes. At the moment I can think of a mere few who get away with books in excess of 120,000 words: Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Pat Conroy, occasionally. Tom Clancy did write the long-long stuff, but he’s now in semi-retirement. A few cynics I claim as friends advocate the idea that hot authors are sometimes strong-armed into the 700-1000 page books so the publishers can ask higher prices in order to pay said hot authors’ royalties. Could be – but that’s beyond this struggling lower-level, mid-list writer’s personal knowledge.
What is worth considering is how many short novels now hit the shelves, particularly by the best authors. Steinbeck isn’t remembered for his short novels, but some were his best writing. Ian McEwan, arguably Britain’s current man of letters, writes hardly anything else these days. A pair of my favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy and Ron Hansen occasionally write them. The idea is two-fold: readers’ attention spans are short now, so the novella is an attempt to accommodate that, as well as an attempt to draw men back into contemporary fiction readership. For the writer, it’s something of a challenge. Novels are an occasion for writers to stretch their literary legs, and the novella is a chance to see what a writer can do with the 40,000 to 60,000-word range. Here, economy is a must, as in short stories. Every scene, every narrative passage must count, and they must get to their destinations quickly.
Anyway, I’ll let you know my view of the new Tolstoy, probably after New Year’s
The other book received is Ann Patchett’s new one, Run. I’ve just started it – a one-day novel a la McEwan’s Saturday and On Chesil Beach. Which is why I’m reading it. I’ve written one, too, and after reading a review claiming Patchett didn’t do the form justice, I wanted to see if I can pick up any flaws, and thus avoid them in my own writing. The review may simply be reviewer cattiness, but we’ll see. So far, it’s not holding my interest. Which will mean a comparative re-read of Chesil Beach afterward.
Success in publishing for the struggling writer comes mostly in small, short-piece doses and — alas — has very little to do with publishing book length pieces. As has been reported here before, publishing is a very competitive game. You may be writing great stuff, but with the thousands of small pieces in litmags or webzines, or elsewhere, it’s almost impossible to be noticed. And the publishing process seems to drag out longer and longer every year. So, while I’m eager for the brass ring in publishing, I take my successes however and wherever I find them. Not to demean the sources – but I had one appear on the web this week, at Sport Literate, my subject, Don Larsen’s perfect game in a World Series game some half century ago. Perhaps it was luck of the draw, but my piece became the first in this series.
I‘m working on a short memoir piece – it’s almost finished – subject to some editorial oversight, and it’s to do with my quest to find out about my paternal grandfather. He died, you see, when I was a tot, and my taciturn family hardly kept any family lore for me to explore. In the process, I discover I’ve written it with a nod to its meta-story. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, meta-story is something like a literary archetype. It’s a story that’s been repeated in various forms, cultural settings, and characterizations, throughout history. An example: my epiphany in the story had to do with realizing — possibly because of genetic tendencies — that there is so much of my grandfather in my makeup it’s hardly necessary for me to look for external details about him. In the piece, I allude to the Aeneid and Aeneas’ similar recognition of inner family ties as he left Troy for what was to be Rome. The story —at least that part of it—that I share with Aeneas is, in a nutshell, the meta-story. It might be fun, as you read or re-read the classics, to jot down your recognition of similar stories in contemporary literature.
On the subject of writing and publishing, it’s never a bad idea to look at any life experience as a potential story. Somewhere, there’s a market for any experience, if you can ferret it out. I have another piece coming out in The Externalist. This is a website for nonfiction pieces relating to perspectives on things external to your normal environment. Lest I misspeak, check out the website, and you’ll see in detail its sensibility. My piece had to do with an odd electronic message scrolling downward in Amsterdam’s airport, and…well, I’ll let you know when it comes out, and you can read it for yourself. Incidentally, publishing on the web is no longer a vanity issue. It's as prestigious and as demanding as the print versions.
What with school in session, I have little time for recreational reading these days, so I’m amassing a stack of rec-reading material for the holiday season. I thought I’d list these now as a way of hopefully eliciting comments from you, thereby priming the pump for future posts regarding them.
Mark Twain, by Ron Powers. This one was recommended by one of my old Navy pals, and it shows promise of being an excellent biography. I’ve read only a few pages, but Powers’ prose is just the sort of thing I love to experience.
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read almost all of McCarthy’s works, so I can’t hide the fact that I’m a fan, although I haven’t been happy with one or two of his most recent. This one is perhaps his most widely read, and is the precursor to his Border Trilogy-cowboy stories of relatively modern times, and ultra-realistic to boot.
After Reading Annapolis Autumn a couple of years ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting more by Naval Academy Literature professor, Bruce Fleming. So I have two new ones by Fleming in my hot little hands: The New Tractatus: Summing Up Everything. Apparently a reference to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the title intrigues. The other is an academic publication (thought I’d pander to my academic interests while broadening the blog’s scope), Modernism and its Discontents: Philosophical Problems of Twentieth-Century Literary Theory. I promise I’ll find a way to blog that one without boring you. For the uninitiated. Fleming is something of a gonzo lit prof, who pumps iron, and in class does one-handed pushups to keep his sleep deprived Midshipmen awake. A guy who dares to take academic freedom seriously. Keep it up, Bruce.
The final pair of books are a compilation of essays by J.M. Coetzee, Inner Workings, Coetzee being the South African writer and Nobel recipient. His fiction of late hasn’t enthused, so we’ll see how this goes, as well as his latest novel (not yet in hand) Diary Of A Bad Year.
An eclectic list, no? The better to provoke blog readers with, and that’s a promise.