Monday, December 10, 2012

Got to Start Somewhere

Two American authors of stature, Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are on record speculating how long a writer should continue to be read after his death to qualify for the honorific of being substantial.  Twain set the barriers high at fifty years.  In typical Twain fashion, he'd arranged for his autobiography to be published a hundred years after his death in 1910.  Fitzgerald was the more modest of the two, stating his belief that a writer who is still in print and being read thirty or forty years after death had earned the credentials of significance and substance.

Many scholars agree that there was no single "Homer," referring to the composers of The Iliad and The Odyssey as "the Homer poets."  "They" are not only still in print--a thing they'd not likely considered during their lifetimes--they are as well still being "translated," rendered in more modern poetry.  The Iliad dates back about eight hundred years before the Common Era, edging it toward immortality rather than mere significance and substance.  You are not even close to having necessary expertise to weigh in on the "one or many Homer's" argument, so you read and reread and on occasion re-listen to the stunning performance of The Iliad as read by Sir Derek Jacobi.

Eight hundred B.C.E, however, makes Geoffrey Chaucer, who died around the year 1400, seem substantial, but not quite immortal--yet.

This speculation has come about because of a writer who outlived Mark Twain by seven months (seven months and one day, to be exact).  You are once again not close to being able to weight in on this individual who outlasted Twain, even though you can quote from memory the opening line of his second most famous novel, in which he expresses his belief that happy families are all alike.  You don't accept that judgment at all.  If holding forth on a topic, drunk and sober, over the years, in addition to coming from a happy family, gives you any standing, you are only too willing to hold forth again.  If not, well then, not.

Truth to tell, you have assiduously avoided most Russian novelists, pouncing on two--one quite remote and the other by a near accident--whose names are not heard at the tip of the Russian literary triangle.  The two are Ivan Gancharov, whose novel. Oblomov, struck your fancy to the point where you'd thought with some seriousness about doing an American version.  You were big on satire for satire's sake at the time, which is a salient reason why your version of Oblomov scarcely reached a hundred pages.  The other Russian novelist, Nikolai Gogol, fell into your lap as a result of your teaching a course on Joseph Heller's stunning satire, Catch-22.  You were able to argue, with some degree of success that Gogol's Dead Souls had many elements similar to Catch-22.

By the time 1910 had ended, the world had lost two of its major storytellers, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.  Twain was the more humorous of the two, or so you believe, for you have not read enough of Tolstoy to be able to weigh in on the comparison, nor can you, beyond a five- or six-word vocabulary in Russian, make a creditable judgment. Vladimir Nabokov, whose native language was Russian, did say of Tolstoy that he was the greatest writer of Russian prose fiction.  Since you find Nabokov by degree funny and insightful, you are willing to take his recommendation of Tolstoy to heart.  Virginia Woolf makes no ethnic distinctions.  She calls Tolstoy "the greatest of all novelists."  Gustave Flaubert considered Tolstoy accomplished as an artist and psychologist.  Thus the judgments of Tolstoy continue to convince you that this writer, too, shall appear on your bucket list.

Twain and Tolstoy, their possible divergence in humor to the contrary notwithstanding, were both men of passions, cholers, and moral convictions.  The least you can do, in the face of this equation, is give some Tolstoy a close reading.  Besides, as you perused the bookstore today in search of a title for next week's "Golden Oldies" book review, you happened on a convenient package, Three Novellas by Leo Tolstoy.

Were this a course in geometry, even at this remove from your early struggles with the subject, you'd have no problem establishing congruence of a literary sort, with no small thanks to your fondness for the novella format.  At the moment, you find Of Mice and Men a near perfect specimen.  True enough, you are fond of The Metamorphosis.  You can and will argue James Joyce's The Dead to be a novella, Philip Roth's excellent Goodbye, Columbus  fits the novella rubric, and for sheer variety (not to mention its own internal music), Don Delilo's Pafko at the Wall is yet another example of perfection.  You could save as a trump card William Faulkner's mischievous Spotted Horses, and so you will.

The three Tolstoy novellas included in this collection are, A Landowner's Morning, The Devil, and  Family Happiness.  In an interesting turn of happenstance,  the first two of these novellas enhance the comparison between Tolstoy and Twain in that they are both about serfs, which is of a piece with Twain writing about slaves, in particular, as in Huckleberry Finn, slaves as chattels.

You'd be broadcasting a cliche were you to say the die is cast because there is not one but three of them.  You've just read the opening line of the first novella.  You're clambering aboard.

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