This Time, It’s All In The Technique

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I’ve had the experience of watching a movie in a local theater, the person in the row in front of me busy whispering aloud, explaining what transpires on the screen to his or her companion. Yes, such prattle may add to your own understanding of this cinematic event, but it’s damned annoying. And so we’ll talk soon here of the narrator of Amor Towles’ latest, A Gentleman in Moscow.

To be fair at the outset, Towles takes a lot of risks in this novel, in subject matter, in its telling, and in the story’s structure. And as with most risks, some of his work and some don’t. His protagonist, Count (now Comrade) Alexander Rostov, is now a waiter in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, an edifice to which he’s been confined by a Bolshevik tribunal for seeming not to have his politics right. The story thus reduces Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s Russia and its grand scape to a mere hotel, a device not unlike the trope of shipboard drama, from Moby Dick to Master and Commander.

Rostov, despite his demotion to waiter, seems affable in managing to live the life of one of Russia’s former uppercrust with few hints of typical Russian angst, within and without him. Until, that is, the child, Sofia, he’s been given responsibility to raise, grows to be a beautiful late teen and a talented pianist. Rostov’s concern here is Russia’s past and the way its previous artistic culture seems to be stunted by communism. He thus seeks to spring Sofia loose from such sociopolitical chains and seeks to place himself back in the good old days of a Russian aristocracy served by scores of quiescent serfs.

And to the writing: Towles’ strength here lies in his narrative passages, many of which display a literary elegance that’s to be admired. It’s at the periphery of these passages, however, where Towles segues into scene, that my earlier paragraph comes into play. He seems to feel uneasy about his dialogue (more on that in a moment) and seems compelled to have his narrator play the moviehouse busybody, explaining things that are likely obvious to the reader. Beyond annoying, it serves to diminish the effects of scenic activity and talk, and this is unsettling to say the least. His dialogue displays little in the way of advancing story or deepening his characters. Such storyline talk seems to this reader to be rather inane, uninformed, and not the witty bits of writing it was probably meant to be. Factor in his bratty narrator, and you get a plodding story with superficial characters.

In the end, I’m sad to say, it seems to this reader that Towles is more interested in creating an artsy piece of writing than in developing his story idea into something grand, something that could push this era’s haggard literary efforts into more memorable territory.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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Hard-bitten Tenderness

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Stories, by Anton Chekhov

I have some 30-40 pieces of short fiction under my belt, most of them published. That this is so may be testimony more to the desperation of litmags and zines than to my prowess in writing such stories. But I promise – after slogging through edits on three novels I have in draft mode – to return to the shorter version of fiction. This isn’t to make excuses. To the contrary, I can feel the impulse building with every chapter page I turn in these wannabe novels. But this time, I’ll have the benefit of having read extensively of some of the masters of the short story. Beginning with Anton Chekhov.
This particular collection of his work has been translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whom I trust to the ends of literary earth. In their hands Chekhov emerges as a writer with an unerring insight into the human psyche. Without listing storied examples ad nauseum, his tales lament the current version of the human condition, its foibles, its toying with the modern world’s newness and challenges. He writes in hard-bitten style, but the tenderness lying in wait beneath his frustrations is undeniable. He knows the limitations the form imposes, and he makes the most of them. Were he to have lived in the past fifty years, he would challenge Vonnegut and Roth and their tongue-in-cheek roastings of contemporary society. As it is, he fails to escape Russian melancholia. Still, there is much to be amused with as well as to be challenged by in his stories. In essence, were it not for writers like Chekhov, literature would be of little use.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

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Intrigues and Tedium in the Russian Court

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The Winter Palace – A Novel of Catherine the Great, by Eva Stachniak

Among the concerns novel writers must contend with in order to provide stimulating reads is the development of characters. Ms. Stachniak’s book, The Winter Palace, has many strong points – and I’ll enumerate some of them in a minute. In order to develop characters in an appealing way, one much first decide which characters lie at the center of a story and provide a layering to distinguish them from the rest. That is, those at the eye of the storm, so to speak, must have the most details about their reasons for being in the story, their physical and emotional characteristics primarily. As other characters fade to lesser importance, details should be less specific.
In this book there are three main characters: Empress Elizabeth, Catherine (Sophia) of Zerbst, and the book’s narrator, Varvara Malikina, a friend of Catherine’s. Throughout the book’s first half, the character resonating most brightly is Empress Elizabeth. It’s only in the book’s last quarter that we see a fully fleshed Catherine emerging. Too, Varvara seems a pale character throughout, but this is sometimes the fate of first person peripheral narrators. Among the questions that seem to go unanswered, or inadequately answered, are:

1 – Does Catherine seem the stuff of a ruler, i.e., does she command the presence of those about her?
2 – Has she ordered a palace coup through her own will to power, or is she merely cast into it as a pawn by forces beyond her control?
3 – Is she as manipulative throughout as she is ultimately made out to be?
4 – Does she truly love her arranged marriage-husband?
5 – Does she love her children, or are they simply more pawns in the power game of rule?

Much of my concern with these issues lies in the amount of emphasis placed on the details of palace intrigue, the clothing, habits, and customs of the book’s range of characters. However, there is much to this book to crow about. Ms. Stachniak has clearly done her research, has placed her imagination within the history and personalities between these book covers, and that alone makes the book an appealing read. Her prose occasionally dazzles, and her voice lends itself easily to the baroque nature of this historical era.

As with many cover blurbs one reads these days in order to entice one to buy a book, this one’s are a bit misleading. The book isn’t about Catherine’s reign; in fact, she only achieves personal control of Russia in the book’s final pages. The book would have been better advertised as one about her rise to power, which would make the above five concerns all the more imperative.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

Russia, Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, St. Petersburg, character, pacing, history

The Folly and Fog of War

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I’ve often heard that the ones who see the wort of war don’t talk about it; it’s the “hang-backs” who see the glory, the romance to such nasty business. Still, time can heal somewhat, and so can a decades later memoir of conflicts such as the horrendous ones on the Eastern Front of WWII. 

Such a book is William Lubbeck’s At Leningrad’s Gates, a German infantryman’s recollections of the German siege of Leningrad. The siege was eventually unsuccessful, despite Hitler’s desire to raze Leningrad and to turn the city’s site into a lake. Lubbeck waited until 2006 to have his book published and gave as much of an account of both sides’ experience as I’m sure he could manage. 

Military types are almost never long on viewpoint in such cases; the duties and trials of combatants all but forbids it. But Lubbeck gives as broad an experience as he can manage, and it’s a much better read than that of many historians. I urge you to read it; in Lubbeck’s hands this conflict tells much about the folly – as well as the fog – of war.

 

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A Rarity – History and Cultural Affairs You Can Enjoy Reading

Eastern Europe!, by Tomek Jankowski

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It’s been my experience that books filled with history – and I think this applies doubly to the density of European history – can boggle and bore. Not so with Jankowski’s book. It’s indeed filled with close to two millennia of history, both western and eastern European (it is hard to separate the two) but the author uses an inventive writing structure and style that kept this reader turning pages. Too, it’s filled with charts, graphs, photos, and other visual apparatuses that not only break up the text, but serve to further inform the reader. Heck, he even provides a recipe for pierogi in the book’s epilogue.

The author begins with a bit of European prehistory, traces the migrations of Europe’s early people, and then embarks on the evolution of European culture in general. His project here is largely the effect of western European development on that of the east, how the west, the Asian and Muslim cultures lent a richness to that of Eastern Europe, but at the same time caused eastern Europeans a multitude of problems. This began to be manifested in the development of nation states, and of course, most of these cultures were eventually absorbed into the U.S.S.R. via the Warsaw Pact, only now struggling for parity with western European nations. But what’s clear here as well is that these pre- and post-WWII nation states have never fully resolved the diverse tribal and cultural differences within their borders.

To add to this rich text, Jankowski has added what he, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, calls “Useless Trivia.” These are largely anecdotal passages that often made this reader smile and even laugh at times. Some of these are not so delightful; after all, European history has its share of pathos and depravity. But the effect of these asides is to reach deeper into the details of such a broad-brush history. Thus Jankowski’s writing structure shines and vibrates with both overview and the deeply personal.

But of what use is this book? Certainly it would make a fine college text, or at least adjunct college reading matter. And if you’re going to do business in either the west or east of Europe, this book will afford you a basis for understanding the people, the cultures, even the languages (the author does yeoman’s duty in providing pronunciations of many names of people and places, names that might otherwise twist the English-speaking tongue) of this culturally rich area of planet earth.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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New World, Old World

This has been another movie weekend for the missus and me as we do our best to ignore omnipresent songs trying to lure us into the season’s commercial orgy. So last night, we watched Terrence Malick’s The New World on HBO (that one was a freebie). I think we were both surprised at this relatively “old” flick on a couple of counts:

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First, it was Malick’s usual artful fare, but it was both eminently enjoyable and informative. Colin Farrell played Capt. John Smith, and an actress I wasn’t familiar with, Q’orianka Kilcher, played the most attractive Pocahontas imaginable. Second, our usual movie routine at home is for the missus to bombard me with trivia questions during a movie’s course, which I gladly and quickly GOOGLE on my trusty iPod Touch. In this case, we both learned a lot of the minutiae about this seminal bit of American history.

As far as the movie’s presentation is concerned, we both loved the disjointed scenes, the (apparently) historically accurate English clothing and the nature of the Jamestown settlement, the Native American habits, clothing, culture, and language. Malick goes in for visual character studies and scenic moments, and these were clear and beautiful. And the sound track, which I always pay attention to (this time incorporating music ranging from Carlos Nakai to Mozart) made the music a wonderfully sensory experience.

My Rating 19 of 20 stars.

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And today, I, being an avid reader of Leo Tolstoy, cajoled the missus into going with me to see the new version of Anna Karenina. Here again, surprises abound:

The screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, who clearly wanted to project to be (like) a stage play, even to the point that scenes morphed from a pseudo stage theater into movie scenery. To fully appreciate Stoppard’s take here, it’s a must for a viewer to have recently read the book, as each scene begins and ends rather abruptly, without explanation or lead-in. Toward the end, Stoppard’s screenplay hops and skips about in offering Tolstoy’s story sequence, giving it a non-linear feel that would grate on avid Tolstoy readers. And for me this ruined the book-ending’s impact.

Keira Knightley is spectacular in scene after scene, and Jude law did yeoman’s work in portraying the stolid husband, Karenin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was perfectly cast as the foppishly blond-and-handsome County Vronsky, Anna’s Lover, and Matthew MacFayden as Prince Oblonsky could have stolen the limelight, had the acting been less disciplined than director Joe Wright obviously demanded .

The most glaring omission? The eventually consummated romance of Levin and Kitty, and their most happy marriage, which Tolstoy holds up as a counterpoint to the fated love of Vronsky and Anna.

This was a bold and somewhat flawed experiment in movie making, and one not everyone will appreciate for what it is. Still, I look for it to garner an Oscar or two in the next go-round.

My Rating: 15 of 20 stars

An Escalating Self-Disclosure

Medea, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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There's an urge among magazine editors to publish short fiction by writers outside the U.S., particularly those from beyond the "traditional" western world. Most of them seem to this reader clumsy imitations of tired MFA stylistics. Petrushevskaya's story here – published in the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine – seems a well advised and most welcome throwback to Anton Chekov.

Self disclosure is usually reckoned to be the conscious and unconscious act of revealing more about yourself to someone else. This story, almost totally in dialogue, takes place between a Russian cabbie and his fare, and is one such exercise in self disclosure. 

There's not much I can write about the story without spoiling your enjoyment, but let me say this: The fare, a woman, climbs into the cab, complaining that her poor grandmother, due to scheduling foul-ups, has missed her train. The cabbie counters with an escalating series of his own plaints, which leads to, as the fare/narrator says in the first sentence, "an awful story."