This Time, It’s All In The Technique



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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The Moving Picture of Ethics in Literature



I think Leo Tolstoy had a hard time with ethics in his culture, particularly in his day, when the socio-political ground was shifting, much as it is today. A devout Christian, he found himself excommunicated for saying that one should gain one’s guidance from within, not from the Russian Orthodox Church, and for likening the church’s rituals and theology to witchcraft.

I’m tempted at this point to write a rant about the rigidity, the inability of all religions to mirror the best practices of human culture, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I think Tolstoy had it exactly right.

He was forced to turn to literature to depict in real life-like characters and stories how the Russian people spontaneously act by ethical rules, which are largely adapted to the minute, the specific cases, of human drama.

The book of his linked above, Hadji Murat, as relevant a story of the interactions of Islamic and Christian cultures as could be written today, is a shining example of how a deep study of the best of literature brings to life the malleability of true human ethics. Literature is also a moving picture of how literature, particularly the novel, has become the ethical device for human interaction, something literature has taken on by default because of the intransigence of religion in promoting ethics as the world continues to change.



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Looking for the Universal in Literature



It’s so very tempting as a writer to have an agenda, to put your own personal set of ethics up front in whatever your write. This is the thrust of many religious writers, who get a serious case of “feel-good” by doing so. But are you underestimating your readers in doing this? Take Tolstoy, for instance.

You can look long and hard and not find a writer who was/is more devout in his/her faith than Leo Tolstoy. Still, he had the good sense to look for universal truths in his writing, as he made plain in this very short book of his. To my mind this accomplishes a very good thing – the one thing literature is all about: he puts his story and characters into a cultural context, but he couches the issues of the story in such a way that just may urge the reader to dig deeper than the personal, the current ethos.

Doing this is the heart of literature and, I believe, the thing that continues to urge readers to keep turning pages.


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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:


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.


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

Dated, but Still Relevant

Stories, by Anton Chekhov – Part 1

(Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

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I’ve had this book of stories for a while, waiting, I suppose, for the time and mood to be right to not only read them but to study them. If you aren’t familiar with Chekhov, he was a ground-breaker in story style, up there with de Maupassant and Hemingway.  Tolstoy sang young Chekhov’s praises (Why? Keep reading.) and every writing class in the northern hemisphere makes much of these stories (and deservedly so). The book is voluminous for one who insists on studying it, so I’m reading it in halves; hopefully I won’t miss much of significance.

To generalize, and counter to Pevear’s assessment of Chekhov as one with no social agenda, I found him much like Tolstoy – critical of those in power in the last years of Tsarist power and grudgingly supportive of those on society’s lower rungs.

But these stories are more complex than that. Chekhov bemoans ignorance, superstition, and blind faith in his lower and middle class characters. He tends to become mildly outraged at those who spurn science and rationality for all those famous emotional fig leaves Russians in that era tended to drape over their foibles.

While extremely dated, there are universal characteristics here, as we’ve grown to expect from our greatest writers. The stories are heavy on character, but they begin and end without the moral points readers no doubt sought in that age. Not that Chekhov is a nihilist; he simply depends on his characters to render situations the reader can use to make those points for him.

Favorites? A couple stand out from the rest in these predominantly present tense stories:

The Malefactor” is a very short piece written in 1885 in which Denis Grigoriev, a hapless peasant is hauled before a magistrate to answer for his stealing bolts from a railroad track.

“A Boring Story” is a much longer piece, in first person present tense (begun in faux-third person) told by one Nikolai Stepanovich, a well-known professor. This is both Chekhov’s opportunity to depict academe in late 1800s Russia, but also to air philosophical bits on family life.

More when I get back to these stories.

My rating 17 of 20 stars

Family Redux

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Okay, why write such a hardboiled post concerning family? Tolstoy said it best, in Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Still, this insightful and broadly applied commentary on family is overly simplistic. There are happy moments for unhappy families, but they don't last; instead, they're the past, hopefully the future, and they go almost unnoticed in the present, because they're all but drowned out by the loneliness of the past, the fear of the future. 

Here's an example: Three generations back in an imagined family, a great-grandfather is an abusive drunk. As a result, the children join the American Temperance Union, and no one drinks from that moment forward. But the behavior handed down from great-grandpa at the business end of a fist, the sting of a belt, or simply the bite of words, persists in the hands of grandparents and parents. Or the children of succeeding generations are pummeled by religious threats of eternal damnation. 

What's a family to do?

What can they do?

This is the dilemma Tolstoy intended, I think. That is, there are no common answers; each person in each family has to work such things out for themselves, probably alone. 

Does this sound bleak?

I don't mean it to. 

But do you begin to see how many stories there are  here? How many possibilities are wrapped up in Tolstoy's fourteen-word summation of family reality?

Can you write some – from imagination, or experience – without victimizing? Without writing off hope and happiness?

Then write. 

It’s Tome Time


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Being summer, albeit near-Indian summer this time, I’ve made a practice of pulling out a major volume to read within the afternoon’s refrigerated inside air.  This year I’m digging into a new edition of Leo Tolstoy’s second major work, Anna Karenina, by my fave translators, Volokhonsky and Pevear.


The book was serialized over some three years in Russian publications during the 1870s, and it caused as much of a stir as some of Dickens’ serialized work. Had Tolstoy written it within today’s genres and with today’s sensibilities, it would be publicized as a daring Russian literary novel of history, family, and personal failure – something similar to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Not surprisingly, it was considered a grandiose romance work by wags of Tolstoy’s time. (Remember, writers, once you have a bit of success, someone will come along to throw rocks at you – often in the form of some demeaning categorization or other.)

But where Madame Bovary (publ. 1856) focused almost exclusively on that woman's assets and emotional nature, Anna Karenina (publ. 1877) is much more. 


Since it’ll take a while to read Anna Karenina, I plan to blog on it, much as it probably appeared in the Russian publications of that day. That means: there are eight sections to the novel, and I’ll report back on the story, my general impressions of Tolstoy and his work here some eight times.


So stretch out, kick back and enjoy it with me.