Monthly Archives: July 2009

Dostoevsky. AGAIN!!

My best laid plans of blogging daily throughout the summer on my Dostoevsky experience is all for naught.  I had dreams of blogging a couple of pages a day on my thoughts, attitudes and experiences related to GREAT RUSSIAN.  In truth, however, if I stopped to write about my reading, I’d have no time to read at all, then what would I have to write about?  Nevertheless, since my last post on July 2, I’ve gorged on Dostoevsky–all/most of the early work and in to the middle period after the period in the labor camps.  What follows is the reading list and my three sentence reviews.

The Double–Absolute best of the early Dostoevsky.  A kafkaesque tale of a poor clerk’s descent into madness as he loses his station in life to a man who appears in every respect to be himself.  Which begs the question, why do we call Dostoevsky kafkaesque when we do not call Kafka Dostoevskian.

Netochka Nezvanova–Dostoevsky’s version of the stock poor orphan story of nineteenth century fiction.  Defenseless girls, brutal and unfeeling fathers, sickly mothers.  Haven’t we been here before?  Sometimes I feel like D. is trying to work against convention, which keeps things interesting, but it’s only a fragment and so impossible to tell what the achievement might ultimately have been.  For Dostoevsky addicts only.

“The Landlady” (a novella)–The early Dostoevsky makes me think he must be the master of the novella or short novel, at odds with my picture of him as the writer of the big book.  An eerie, nearly surreal tale in which our hero falls tragically for a young woman who is apparently in some kind of demonic sexual thrall to an elderly spiritualist.  The fallen woman as irresistably attractive is a feature of others of Dostoevsky’s early stories as well.   Then again, of what writer’s work is the fallen woman not a feature.

“Mr. Prokharchin” (short story)–too slight to remember.

“White Nights” (short story)–I ought to remember it but can’t.

The House of the Dead–Not really a novel, though presented as one.  More of a sociological study of life in the labor camps.  Competent and interesting, but probably only of interests to Dostoevsky fanatics.

Humiliated and Insulted–A Dickensian novel of the poor oppresssed — humiliated and insulted — by the rich.  Brings back Dostoevsky’s fascination with doubling, and for my taste ties things together all too neatly in the end.  I feel Dostoevsky trying to work agains the conventions of the sentimental novel, but not entirely successfully.  Still, a decently good read.  I see why some critics say D is too repetitive by half.

Well that’s it.  Hardly astutue observations, but I’ve done my duty.

One thing I’ve discovered during the last four weeks–it is indeed possible to read a book while doing the elliptical trainer at the Y and not fall flat on my back.  I’m sure D never imagined himself as reading material for the sweating set of baby boomers trying to beat back the flab and hold off impending old age.

I keep thinking about buying a Kindle.  But then, again, maybe not.  News of the Orwellian variety from NYTimes.

In George Orwell’s “1984,” government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”

On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm,” that were dropped down the memory hole — by

In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.

Librophilia; or, How I’d like to spend my retirement

As some of you know, I’ve occasionally posted links Rachel Loew’s BookPorn shots over at A Historian’s Craft.  I think Rachel may have a competitor for my attention.  The pics of libraries over at Curious Expeditions are just astonishing.  If I had the time and money for a world tour.  A sample:

Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland

Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland

Michael Jackson, Bookworm. Who Knew??

Just doing my bit to add to the overkill about Michael Jackson.  This bit from the LA Times.

Largely an autodidact, Jackson was quite well read, according to Jackson’s longtime lawyer. “We talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues,” Bob Sanger told the LA Weekly after the singer’s death. “But he was very well read in the classics of psychology and history and literature . . . Freud and Jung — go down the street and try and find five people who can talk about Freud and Jung.”

Hours after his death, Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, “Moonwalk,” despite being out of print, entered the Amazon bestseller list for biography and memoir at No. 25.

“I’ve always wondered if there was a library in Neverland,” Doug Dutton mused. Indeed there was — Sanger told LA Weekly that Jackson’s collection totaled 10,000 books.

Alas, I couldn’t find a single image of Michael reading a book, but maybe they are out there.

Intellectual Praise

I really like this bronze from C. Malcolm Powers, an artist I don’t really

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

know much about, but then I don’t know much about contemporary artists at all.  I like how the arms are books, suggesting that intellectual work is a kind of praise, and it has a kind of angelic feel to it.  May be somewhat grandiose, but I like the notion that reading can be a form of praise.

Poor Folk Redux

In the last ten days I’ve read most of Dostoevsky written before his sojourn to the penal colony, and a little written in its immediate aftermath,  but just a couple of more words about Poor Folk.  I’m intrigued by two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work as an artist.  For a first novel it strikes me as being remarkably sophisticated in terms of it’s narrative technique.  His use of gaps and empty places where the reader has to fill in the blanks keeps the reader working.  In this sense it seems to me that reading Dostoevsky is a thoroughly active process, something quite different than the passivity that people sometimes attach to reading.  We’re constantly being given bits of information in the letters that imply a world of fact, of allusion to a life beyond the text (though, of course, that life is a fiction of the text) that the reader must construct and fill in in order to make sense of the text at hand,  the “narrative” then is a process between the reader and the text itself.  We understand the text both by reading what is there, and by filling in what isn’t there.  The reader’s active participation is necessary for making means.

I hope it’s not just a deconstructive turn of some sort on my part, but I’m struck by how Doestoevsky is obsessed with both reading and writing throughout this text.  To this degree it strikes a fairly common tone in first novels—we don’t know what else to write about, so let’s write about writing—Joyce’s kunstlerroman “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” being the exemplar here.  But I find it intriguing in Dostoevsky that this isn’t embedded in the life of a young man struggling to find a voice, but in the consciousness of a middle-aged and aging man who never found a voice, whose struggle with language will, by his own lights, has proven fruitless even while writing is his stock and trade as a kind of scrivener.

I know I that I can earn but little by my labors as a copyist;  yet even of that little I am proud, for it has entailed work, and has wrung sweat from my borw.  What harm is there in being a copyist?  “He is only an amanuensis,’ people say of me.  Bust what is there so disgraceful in that?  My writing is at least legible, neat, and pleasant to look upon – and his Excellency is satisfied withit.  Indeed, I trtanscribe many important documents.  At the same time, I know that my writing lacks style, which is why I have never risen in the service.  Even to you, my dear one, I write simply and without tricks, but just as a thought may happen to enter my head.  Yes, I know all this;  but if everyone were to become a fine writer, who would there be left to act as copyists?

Who indeed? I’ve commented somewhere else on this blog of the peculiar cultural imperialism of writing in our own day, but perhaps every day.  I increasingly get English majors who have no interest in reading, who even claim to dislike reading, but who are obsessed with writing.  Everyman his own author.  So much so I have no time left for reading Dostoevsky since one must keep busy updating one’s blog, twittering one’s feed, and textings one’s faves.

But this is beside my main point for the day, which is the fascination I find in Dostoevsky who turns in a first novel to Poor Folk as his subject, not because they have a superior or natural style—as Rousseau or Wordsworth or Whitman might suppose—but because they have no style at all.  His work doesn’t seem intent on disproving that claim.  At the end of this text, one isn’t led to declaim endlessly on the natural style of poor folk that Dostoevsky has managed to produce.

No.  What’s fascinating is that he has made interesting and plausible the story of two people who are not of their own accord self-consciously interesting or stylish.  I am not sure what lesson of the day to draw from this, but when I come away from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, I find that I respect them, but I do not admire them.  This is terribly politically correct these days, but it strikes me that it is pretty clear-minded.  I’m reminded, for some reason, of all those Christian artists who go about romanticizing the middle ages, and refuse to recognize that the life really was nasty brutish and short, even for most of the most exalted, and none of us would for one instance trade in our latte’s and air conditioning for smallpox, plague, and roast pig on a spit.

Well, I’m drifting now, but thought I should come back to this particular element of Poor Folk before moving on.