Friday, May 4, 2012

A Visit from the Egan Squad

As part of PEN's World Voices Festival this year, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan spoke at The New School about the 'rules' of craft. She was asked mostly about A Visit from the Goon Squad and her answers incorporated larger views about the politics and practices of writing. A few memorable moments--

Egan was convinced that everyone who read A Visit from the Goon Squad received some sort of "invisible innoculation" that produced such an overwhelmingly positive response.

Peter M. to whom the book is dedicated, is her "long time therapist."

When exploring Microsoft Power Point as a medium for one of her sections, she discovered it's "'vibe kill' feel." More importantly, she was fascinated by its lack of continuity (unlike what one would find in a book), the way it is structured as discrete pages, or slides, with definite pauses in between them (again, unlike a book). The irony, she said, is that the Power Point section made the book look "terrible" on an e-reader.

Goon Squad and Egan's other works contain bizarre, unconventional characters, but Egan does not identify clinical conditions. "I'm not my characters' doctor," she explains. "You only diagnose in order to medicate," and Egan is more interested in the affective qualities of her characters.

Reacting to the missing Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, Egan promoted Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardener.

For the last twenty-odd years, Egan has been part of an oral workshop where work is read out loud. This way, the feedback and reactions are more emotional and visceral, less studied and technical. It's a helpful technique for the writer, as well, who can hear what is working, and what isn't, in the piece.

Egan described the disparate sections of the Goon Squad, whose beginning four chapters were originally stand-alone short stories, are like separate islands that became connected by larger underlying landmass. A brilliant metaphor, I think!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Do you think Magical Realism comes from Latin America?

Think again, friends. Dr. Malva Filer, a professor of and expert on Spanish American studies, delivered a one hour lecture disputing this topic. The title of the talk was 'Beyond Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature' and even this she took issue with: for a literature to be beyond magical realism means that the literature was originally centered in magical realism, and this is just not the case.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude is a misnomer of South American literature, an accident of the publishing industry. It did well and sold well around the continent and throughout the world, and being a globally translated book placed it on a global map of literature, and denoted it an ambassador from South America. In fact, he wrote several books before and after 100 Years that are entirely non-magical and are grounded in very real tumultuous events. And in 100 Years, Marquez combines civil war with fantasy to show how effectively they can mix.  "Don't forget; at the center of this [book] is a tragedy," Dr. Filer remarks.

Why tragedy? South America suffered every shade of political uprising in the 70s and 80s and the oppressive regimes across the continent generated writing searching for a more peaceful past. The 80s even saw an emergence of a feminist movement, with female protagonists and narrators from history.

Dr. Filer listed a series of writers from across the continent, the names rolling off her tongue like musical notes. She identifies 5 authors from 5 countries to delve into, emphasizing in each case the grounded and reactive narratives in their novels.

1. Ricardo Piglia from Argentina, combines history and fiction and uses an essayistic style in his most famous work, Respiracion artificial. Another novel is a detective story where, at the end, the crime is not solved and justice is not served. It's a haunting affirmation that society does not -- or cannot -- reaffirm its values.

2. Sergio Ramirez, a former politician in Nicaragua, mixes literature with his keen sense of civic responsibility. Dr. Filer looks up from her notes: "it was great that he abandoned politics" because it allowed him to become a successful writer.

3. Laura Restrepo from Colombia was a journalist whose investigative style comes through her writing.  Dr. Filer describes one of her books, Delirium about a dog food salesman whose wife disappears and then goes insane. Someone in the audience pipes up, "these are scary stories!" and Dr. Filer nods -- we have forgotten the fantastical whimsy of magical realism.

4. Carlos Franz was born in Switzerland, lived in Spain and moved back to Chile as an adult. He interprets the Chile "he carries within himself" and in his haunting novel El Desierto, explores the emotional anguish of a mother complicit in the Pinochet regime's crimes and her daughter's confusion about her mother's silence.

5. Jorge Volpi from Mexico helped found the "Crack Movement" of writers who rejected neo- and magical realism and rooted their writing in mystery, history, science and political narrative. He has a "parodic and carnivalistic style," according to Dr. Filer.

South American literature seeks to rewrite history via fiction, to address social and cultural change before and after revolution, to explore the cultural effects of globalization, to hold onto the past and to mix different types of narrative. Sophistication and complexity inform contemporary Latin American work. Nowhere, she concludes, do we see the "innocence of Macondo" (the fictional town in Marquez' 100 Years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Beautiful and the Deb-ed

Readers often confuse fiction for non-fiction and vice versa, with narrators resembling authors, fictional characters resembling real ones and real lives being story-fied. So how does one categorize a book that explores a country of one billion people by following five principal characters, a book whose first person narrative is not explicitly the author’s voice?

We settle into our chairs to listen to Siddhartha Deb read from such a book, his latest work, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of New India, to try to answer these questions.

Deb does not preface his reading with much context, although book includes a touching Introduction about struggling with his slippery north-eastern Indian identity while growing up, “resident of the land that my father had left and that I had never lived in.” Today, he provides a bit of background about each passage he will read from, letting the prose take over from there.

And he does, with flair, turning the pages with the flourish of a piano player. Each excerpt is dramatized as Deb reads slowly, pausing, smiling and inflecting to give us a sense his exhausting and revealing travels throughout India:
Vijay brought his tiny car to a halt, and the man loomed up in front of the windscreen, a dark, stocky figure dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He put his right hand down on the bonnet of our car. In his left hand, he held an automatic pistol, its barrel pointing up at an acute angle. His gaze, as it swept over our faces, was intense, scrutinizing us carefully, meeting our eyes for a few seconds.
Deb frequently takes his eyes off the page to look straight at us and off to the side, and his familiarity with the text makes his reading that much personal, the pistol that much more tangible. Describing this police checkpoint on a highway out of Hyderabad that Deb had driven on, he points out to us that not only was it illegal, it was also in vain. His writing renders this impromptu call to action utterly impotent in an impassive scene of oozing traffic and sense-numbing smog.

“The ‘I’ in the book is not a journalist ‘I’. It’s more a narrator ‘I’ who has a history, has memories,” he says. A combination that gives his characters histories and memories, too, such as the wife of one of the few wealthy farmers in rural Andhra Pradesh:
My attention was drawn to the woman in her thirties, everything about whom suggested that she was the mistress of the house. She was wearing a bright blue sari, from the fringes of which one foot displayed a gleaming golden toe ring. She was slightly plump, and light-skinned – attributes that declared the upward mobility of the man who had married her with as much clarity as the marble and teak fittings of the house.
Deb remarks a paragraph later that this woman does not seem fazed by the charred, dusty state of her house—recently set on fire by angry famers cheated out of their revenue by her husband—nor by her husband’s feckless behavior. The way she carries herself reflects her standing: a woman of higher social class than the farmers in the town, a woman with property, a woman with status and promise.

Less classily portrayed is the infamous and now defamed personality, Arindam Chaudhuri. People told Deb that he seemed “grotesquely fascinated” with Chaudhuri, that he explored—and exploited?—Chaudhuri’s life more critically than he did other characters in the book. Why? Deb argues that he took much care to respect the privacy of his characters, omitting details and changing names when asked. Chaudhuri, however, was already a grandiose figure in India, notoriously ubiquitous, dominating print advertisements and amplifying his voice to the masses. Such a persona could not expect already public information about him to be disguised for the sake of a book.

Deb boldly depicts Chaudhuri as the meretricious scammer that he is, sneaking snippets into his writing that wonder about his unexpected popularity and influence:
The mannerisms gave Arindam an everyday appeal, and it was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success and glamour that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience…He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petite bourgeoisie…after about thirty minutes into the leadership session, as I began to be drawn into his patter, I felt that Arindam was telling the rising Indian middle class a story about itself, offering them an answer to the question of who they were.
Chaudhuri, a business man, business school founder, public speaker, entrepreneur, Bentley owner and global consultant—among other things—was outraged when Deb’s book was completed. He has since sued for defamation, insisting that the chapter about him is inaccurate and tainting. Quite creatively, Deb tells us, he has filed an injunction in Silchur, a dot of a city in Assam in north-eastern India, hundreds of miles away from the courts, publishing houses and newspapers of Delhi. Not only has Chaudhuri taken great pains to travel this far to file a lawsuit for Rs. 500 million, but he is filing it against four parties: Siddhartha Deb, Penguin Publishers, Caravan Magazine (that printed an excerpt from Deb’s book featuring—or exposing—Chaudhuri) and Google India!

Deb deadpans that Google India’s probably auto fills the word ‘fraud’ when someone types ‘Arindam Chaudhuri’ into the search bar, and this must make Chaudhuri very angry.

Anger is prevalent throughout the book, not surprisingly, as Deb talks to the marginalized, the invisible, the unpaid, the evicted, the toiling, the cheated, the rip-offs and the jaded. In the final section featuring a north-eastern girl working as a waitress in Delhi, the anger matures into gritty determination and hard-earned independence. Esther (not her real name) is optimistic about making a life for herself in a metropolis, but she tires of the superficial, ultimately inaccessible, glitz of her job in food and beverages (F&B) The redundancy of routine and responsibility wear her down.
‘I feel like a thief,’ she said. ‘When I come home, everyone’s sleeping. It’s a strange job that requires you to be up when everyone else is in bed.’
Esther’s section is sympathetic and admiring, prompting the reader to wonder, did Deb get more involved with her than with his other characters? The moderator says that many reviewers have suggested a romantic relationship, which Deb corrects: “One!”

Gesturing animatedly, Deb insists that there was no romance: his sole aim was to “dissolve the boundaries between the observed.”
These days Esther spoke differently about her job. ‘I wanted to be a doctor, not this F&B. Sometimes, I want to go back home, but what is there back home? If I go home, what will I do? But this job has no security, no pension.’…what Esther sometimes wanted, after all her independence, striving, exposure and mobility was a simple repetition of her mother’s life.
Questions follow his reading. Deb advocates for his narrator, who is “pretty angry and pretty skeptical about what he’s seeing.” This first-person narrator is a microphone for his characters, for the four years of research he has done all over the subcontinent. “I am not pretending to be objective,” he says.

Deb defends his preference for fiction over non-fiction. “I actually prefer the novel as a form,” he explains, but thought initially that non-fiction would be more effective for such a subject. He thought it would be quicker, too, and that he would “make a ton of money, come back to fiction.” So much for that, he laughs. “Here I am, six years later!”

When asked about the seamless transitions between characters, villages and personal contemplations, Deb describes the tiring, painstaking attention to detail a writer must have, especially since it yields richer, truer stories. “A lot of the shaping happens in the writing as well,” he says—the mark of a practiced and accomplished writer.

Writing a book of such ambitious scope takes commitment, curiosity and, ultimately, a profound need to capture the world in your own words. “If you hit it,” he promises, “it’s the most transcendent thing. It comes alive.” 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anthony Shadid: A Man Of His Word(s)

“You think there’d be more people here,” an old man in the front row whispers to his friend. And he’s right: at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side, five minutes before the tribute to reporter Anthony Shadid begins, people are still trickling in. The empty grey chairs attract mostly grey heads, a gathering in monochrome amidst a rainbow of book covers and posters that seems suitably somber. But the burst of yellow from the vase of roses in the corner and the thick yellow lettering on the cover of Shadid’s memoir House of Stone reminds us that we are celebrating something today as well.

At exactly seven o’ clock the panelists take their seats: Deputy Foreign Editor at The New York Times Michael Slackman; Shadid’s wife Nada Bakri and Foreign Editor at The New York Times Susan Chira. Slackman is tall, bespectacled and wears a kind smile. Bakir is clad stylishly in black—still mourning, perhaps—and otherwise expressionless. Her black scarf, sweater, blouse, pants and flats hug her slim body and even the tattoo on her right ankle peeking through her sheer leggings is in silhouette. Only her hair is brown and cascades on either side of her face, revealing high cheekbones, thin lips, a small nose and piercing eyes in glimpses. Chira’s curly bob and shining eyes convey a warmth with which she begins the evening to remember Anthony Shadid on the page—of newspapers and in House of Stone—and off the page as a friend and colleague.

Chira watched Shadid hop from The Boston Globe to The Washington Post to The New York Times with growing admiration. By the time he was writing for her, she was “struck by the continuity of themes in his work.” A Lebanese-American who grew up in Oklahoma and went as an adult to his ancestral village in Lebanon to resurrect his great grandfather’s home, he relentlessly confronted the notion of identity—his own, and the people about whom he wrote. Identity is a profound question—is it “sect, religion, country,” something else?—and Shadid explored it from all angles. This made his writing deeply honest because it was all about “how ordinary people experience great, epical events; Anthony never lost that lens.”

After the Iraq War began in 2003, Shadid reported not on America’s strategies, successes and mishaps, but about the Iraqi citizens whose lives—and identities—were under attack. “Life is not lived in wartime,” Shadid writes in House of Stone, and whatever takes its place is what he sought to capture, article after article. Appropriately, this won him his first Pulitzer Prize in 2004. His second—a rare feat for any writer—was in 2010, for continued reporting from Iraq in all its searing truth.

Chira concludes by acknowledging the public’s reaction on the New York Times’ tribute webpage. Overwhelmingly, she says, people “felt a connection to his work; it lived for them.”

Michael Slackman continues in the same reverential tone. Shadid’s work was “driven by something missing or lost, something he was searching for in his own life.” Shadid undertakes this personal quest in House of Stone, doing in his novel and in his articles what so many writers and reporters aspire to do, which is to “connect the dots” between personal and global themes.

House of Stone blends the three things Shadid did best, which Slackman spells out for us:
  • Being “on the ground,”;
  • Painting a “larger picture of events that are happening” in the country and region;
  • “Anthony’s ruminations” on war, policy, diplomacy, individual narratives, and every other motif he wove through his book.

Shadid once said to him: “a lot of reporters’ notebooks are filled with drama but they often miss the impact.” He reads a small excerpt from House of Stone to demonstrate this.

During his reading, Bakri, who has maintained composure and taut body language until now, arms and legs crossed and no eye contact with the audience, begins to tear up. Squinting her eyes, she dips her head and lets her long hair cover her face. Her fingers search for a napkin for her eyes and a Barnes and Noble employee discretely places a box of tissues on the table next to her. She silently composes herself, dabbing her eyes several times before she can look up again.

Slackman intends to close with his comment that Shadid celebrated “the enduring nature of the human spirit” but Bakri is not yet ready to speak so he and Chira fill in the silence. Slackman offers the story of how Shadid first Bakri and Chira shares an anecdote about Shadid’s relentlessly polished pieces in spite of the horror and savagery around him in Iraq: “It was just unfurling in this incredibly engaging, seductive way.”

Bakri now looks confident enough to take over the microphone. She begins with a halting whisper, “um” and reads a few sentences from House of Stone, her smooth American speech accented by perfect Arabic pronunciation. This section reminds her of Shadid, who, like the character being described, was “a very generous man with his time and his knowledge.” With a tight, thin-lipped smile, she says, “I guess he just died trying to learn more.”

Now that all three panelists are warmed up, the memories and stories start flowing more forcefully. Slackman explains that “Anthony’s main objective was to get to the truth,” but he was never “an adrenaline junkie chasing after the gunfire.” Rather, he was a “grudging participant” and did whatever was required “in order to bear witness.” When an audience member asks Bakri, “tell us how you met Anthony,” Bakri is able to smile and describe a rally in 2006 when they first met. She turns to Slackman to clarify, showing us her sleek profile. “I think you were with me—you were with me, right? I don’t remember.”

“I remember,” Slackman replies, and even recalls her first words to him: “You’re not Anthony Shadid!” All three marvel at his humility and neighborly friendliness with friends, colleagues, mentees—no one was too small to be cherished, helped or advised.

What about the reporting he did in Syria, someone else asks. Bakri answers that she has Shadid’s four notebooks from his latest trip but “I haven’t the heart yet” to open and go through them. She promises she will, in time.

Inspired by a friend and journalist with Middle East reporting experience, I comment to the panelists on Shadid’s eye for detail. “If you go into a house, find out the type of sugar they use,” he had once told my friend, which she included in her tribute to Shadid in The Indian Express and which I bring up to them. Slackman nods vigorously. It was Shadid who taught him that the ceramic discs the Shiites pray with represent a drop of dirt from Ka’bah, something Slackman had seen for years but never noticed. When Slackman reported on the four American contractors killed in Fallujah in 2004, Shadid remarked to him that Falluja “has the best kebabs.” Slackman grins—only Shadid would know something like that; he typically “knew not more than just you, but more than everybody.”

House of Stone is a journey punctuated with the knowledge of experience, and experience of knowledge. Only someone as fearless and passionate as Anthony Shadid could have written it, and it is up to us to remember him through it.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dickens, Representation and Chocolate Biscuits

When the poster advertised ‘High Tea with Dickens,’ celebrating the author’s birthday, I expected a few pots of hot water and a discussion. But I was mistaken. They were serious about the high tea, and Lang Cafe boasted a sumptuous spread: different types of teas, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, breads and spreads, and even chocolate biscuits. Toothpicks stood in little cups to facilitate retrieval of tea bags, cucumber slices and crumbly chunks of cheese. I happily filled my plate and cup.

Associate Professor of Literature Carolyn Berman presented a talk on ‘Dickens and the Art of Representation,’ which I found more palatable than the food (even the chocolate biscuits). Berman studies 18th and 19th century fiction and is currently working on a book on Dickens, Parliament and the media. The text and images she showed us connected lightly with the research for this book, but are not a part of her manuscript. 

To open a discussion about representation, Berman started with images. She showed us an illustration from Nicholas Nickleby, of Miss La Creevy painting a miniature portrait of Kate Nickleby. As you can see, Miss La Creevy is depicted almost larger-than-life, with an enormous hat, elaborate outfit, and surrounded by her paintings, making very clear to the reader that Miss La Creevy is a painter. The details of the image are inaccurate--one did not use a paintbrush for miniatures, for example--but Dickens and the illustrator were more interested in the representation of the characters by their accoutrements and descriptive characteristics. In fact, Miss La Creevy later describes the difficulty of miniature painting, since heads have to be enlarged, eyes widened, noses diminished and teeth invisible. Cut to a miniature portrait of Dickens when he was 18 years old, painted by his aunt, and those techniques are apparent. At the time that Dickens was writing, stories were printed in installments in publications, and generously illustrated. This allowed for conscious and unconscious collaborations between the writer and illustrator, where prose tried to approximate image, and vice versa. Characters, therefore, came into existence flush with adjectives and accessories, their representation confirmed and compounded by each other.

From there Berman moved to textual representations of characters -- the bit I found most interesting.


She read aloud the second and third paragraph of the first chapter of Great Expectations:
“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, "Also Georgiana Wife of the Above," I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.”
Young Pip probably could not read at this time, and yet he drew information from text, from letters, about his parents -- that we, as readers, similarly were drawing from to learn about the characters. Berman pointed out the refraction of information and experience here: where illiterate Pip is responding to the appearance of the words, the lettering on the tombstone, we are fully literate and converting Pip’s intuitive reactions into realities for his parents’ characters. Dickens found unconventional ways to represent characters to other characters, and, one layer later, to us.
“At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”
Berman marveled at this passage for a few reasons: it being a confident run-on sentence, Dickens’ deferral of the subject (Pip) until the very last word of the last line. I enjoyed it for the wording: I can imagine a long quiet river being a “low leaden line” and the source of the wind, yet unexplored by a young character, being a “distant savage lair.”

Dickens learned shorthand to become a Parliament reporter. His fascination with graphic representations continued as he imagined the ‘arbitrary characters’ of Gurney’s Shorthand as arbitrary characters in his works, playing with the words, the implications, and the characters themselves.

For a man whose vocation was words, art was never far from his mind.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

20,000 Books Under His Roof

You hear about privileged 6 year-olds with educated parents entering school with a 20,000 word vocabulary. But it’s not a given that 81 years later, that privileged adult will possess a home library of 20,000 books. Professor and writer William H. Gass is one such revered bibliophile, even more esteemed for his love of not just books, but grammar and sentences themselves. He spoke at The New School about his love of libraries, sentence structure and Plato’s philosophical writings.

He read aloud from 'Shelf Life,' an essay published in St. Louis Magazine in December 2007, and here I have pasted some bits he did not share in person. To him, “a good library is miserly, as proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from, an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice-rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like.”

A Ph.D student working day after day in Cornell’s library, whose steel infrastructure and dim lighting evoked his days in the Navy, Gass grew accustomed to sharing air with a paginated population rather than a two-legged one. The endless rows of books quickly became his world: “sitting there, day after day in dusky light, my conception of Eden began to change. It had no location on a map, but was a destination determined by the Dewey Decimal System.”

What were the rules of this world, if there could be any in such a diverse and profound environment? He told us a few:
  • A sentence “must not forget its way and wander in the wilderness.”
  • Sentences are like fences, to be “left open...or prudently closed.”
  • A powerful sentence does not require a reader to reflect its intensity: “not even a bored eye can rob a Rembrandt of its greatness.”
There was a reason, Gass pointed out, that in the olden days, elementary and middle school were simply called Grammar School. It sparked Gass' attitude to later declare, I love words and arrangements. I want the reader stopped short at the language.” in a letter to Charles Shattuck, editor of the University of Illinois journal Accent (read it here).

From his 2000 essay collection, The World Within The Word, he expounded further: “Sentences like this create a world in which you very well may turn a corner in a marble hall and find yourself in a shack; in which every custom is a cover for novelty, and novelty is normal; where you may learn to proceed with caution because a wave of meaning may flow back over you and alter everything; that its you and not your husband who is leading a double life.

When asked about his philosophy background -- from his Cornell Ph.D to his teaching experience at the University of St. Louis -- he quipped, “most philosophy is fiction, I think.” He explained that each sentence in a philosophical treatise, or novel, is a microcosm of the work and its argument. For example Faulkner, he said, would produce six chapters riffing off a single sentence, given his style of prose. His favorite philosophers? Hobbes is “magnificent despite T.S.Eliot’s dislike”, and Plato is “unmatched,” he said conclusively.

What about other famous authors? Proust? Gass admitted to only having read Proust in translation, so “I guess I don’t know much of him at all.” Gass shared his deep respect for Henry James, and remembered his fiery writing in The Wings of the Dove, written, as he put it, at “the edge of the First World War.”

Gass ended his speech differently but this part of his 'Shelf Life' essay stuck a chord: 
Collectors who do not care for books but only for their rarity prefer them in an unopened, pure and virginal condition, but such volumes have had no life, and now even that one chance has been taken from them, so that, imprisoned by stifling plastic, priced to flatter the vanity of the parvenu who has made its purchase, such a book sits out of the light in a glass-enclosed humidor like wine too old to open, too expensive to enjoy.”

Not Gass, though. And his extensive, exhausting writing proves it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reviving Tolstoy in a Chelsea Bookstore

Tenth avenue is its usual blur of color, wind and noise, covered in two-legged, four-legged and many-wheeled commuters. Some of the two-legged ones plant themselves on four-legged chairs inside 192 Books, a serene, studio-sized room wallpapered with books and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the cacophony. They are here for a talk organized by The Coffin Factory, the literary magazine whose mission is to bury the “pessimism that literature and reading are dead.”  Featuring Dr. Rosamund Bartlett, translator of and expert in Russian literature (particularly Tolstoy and Chekhov) and NYU Creative Writing Professor Lara Vapnyar, the evening is to discuss and celebrate the legend of Leo Tolstoy: his impact on literature back when he was its contemporary and what resonates today, for his descendants (geographically, literally, emotionally), our contemporaries.

Dr. Bartlett began with Tolstoy’s legacy: while he is best known today for four very long novels (including War and Peace and Anna Karenina), he also compiled a huge religious and spiritual body of writings in the 1870s and 1880s that was as popular as his fiction at the time.  He translated the Gospels and “reinvented Christianity in his own image,” creating for the Russian masses a new narrative of the unrelenting search for the truth and meaning of life--and inspiring Mahatma Gandhi and other pacifists with his famous book The Kingdom of God is Within You.  Not surprisingly, he was excommunicated from the church in 1901.

Bartlett described him as a “walking one man reformation” in a country that had never had a reformation or a renaissance--back in the 1880s, she pointed out as an example, that “it was a bit cranky to be a vegetarian.”  Throughout her research, she was stunned by what a prolific “dissident in imperial Russia” he was.  (As struck by our speaker was Lenin who penned seven essays about him including “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution,” in 1908, which promptly became required reading in schools all over the country.)  Over time, however, and especially posthumously, he has been a “rather difficult figure to deal with.”  2010 was Tolstoy’s centenary and Chekov’s 150 year anniversary, and while the former was barely noted, the latter involved President Medvedev making a personal visit to Chekov’s hometown of Taganrog.

Prof. Vapnyar resurrected him for us with less technical, more personal respect, nostalgic for a childhood growing up with his books.  To her and her generation, Tolstoy was always “more for us than just a writer,” and War and Peace, her favorite novel, was simply “beyond literature.”  Fifteen years old and reading the book, she had one of the most significant revelations of her life: “I am going to die.”  She admired how truthfully Tolstoy treated the “grandeur of the events” of life and death.  Bartlett added that Tolstoy’s “unstinting honesty,” “enormously long sentences” and complete avoidance of rhetorical devices made for a completely unique literary language.  Ever the rebel, Tolstoy did not merely play with language, he reconfigured it.

Therefore it did not seem surprising to hear Vapnyar confess to measuring “what happened in my life by Tolstoy.”  Living a quiet childhood, “I had to fall in love with literary characters,” and found herself comparing real life lovers to the character of Prince Andre--not necessarily a pleasant undertaking.  Bartlett concurred: Tolstoy was a “genius for universalizing” and “going into the tiny gradations of human experience.”  She admired how nakedly he worried about “the thought of his not being alive” and the strength that this fear gave to his writing.  

“It’s not that Tolstoy resolves something...that’s not what literature is supposed to do,” Vapnyar explained, alluding to the questions Tolstoy grappled with in literature and in spirituality.  “You come to the fact that peace is impossible” because “he doesn’t lie to you.”  Having extensively taught Tolstoy, Bartlett admitted that “you get a bit fed up with his moralizing,” but she happily rediscovered her love for him when writing his biography.

A “very mercurial young man,” Tolstoy seemed to steal even language from other nations, speaking “absolutely flawless French,” enjoying Dickens and Trollope (he named his dogs after Dickensian characters) and outdoing language professors in Greek and Hebrew after just a few months studying the languages.  Bartlett was satisfied sticking to Russian.  “For me, translating is one of the noblest activities there is,” she said, and praised Russian for being such an intimate language.  To read Chekhov and Tolstoy in their native tongue is “just a different feel closer to the writer.”  Here, Bartlett shared another tidbit from her research: Chekhov, poor and of the lower class, wrote his short, simply sentences in tiny, “modest” handwriting.  Tolstoy, however, was an aristocrat who chose to identify with the peasants, and employed “huge, very aristocratic” handwriting.

Bartlett taught us that the Russian language has two words for truth: pravda refers to daily, common truths while ista refers to the deep truth.  Tolstoy unanimously wrote in quest of the latter, whether he was interpreting religious teachings or divining some of the longest works of literature known today, and Bartlett connected this single-mindedness to “something perhaps innately Russian about this idea of rebellion.”  Vapnyar was more weary of such writing.  “I don’t think people are looking for deeper truth in literature anymore.  Period,” she said.

But all is not lost.  While Vapnyar insisted that as a writer she is “absolutely not” influenced by Tolstoy, she gracefully concluded that: “there are some writers you can’t learn from because they are too perfect.”  Knowing this, and hearing Bartlett say that “no one who writes about Tolstoy can cover everything,” it might be enough for new writers to know that Tolstoy is better as inspiration than as someone to aspire to.