School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.
The Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback
Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading
We all know the basics: Oedipus offed his father and married his mother.
The Three Theban Plays: Antigone – Oedipus the King – Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles · c. 441-406 BC
Robert Fagles translation · Penguin, 2008 · 430 pages, paperback
Oedipus the King, though, isn’t about the incestuous prophecy, but instead about Oedipus’ relentless pursuit – no matter the cost – of the truth, what he does with that truth and how he’s treated in spite of it all.
More than the story of ancient myth and its piecemeal modern echoes – thank you, Herr Freud – Sophocles gave us the measure of the man: integrity unmatched, good intentions to the last, a sense of justice that places no king above the law.
It’s a shame we only remember the sullied reputation. Continue reading
For Hamlet, death was the great equalizer: kings and slaves decay just the same. But for Lois Lowry, in her regimented community of The Giver, it’s life that’s the leveler of men.
The Giver · Lois Lowry · 1993
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 · 225 pages, paperback
The Giver peeks into a hermetically sealed life, one lived entirely, to use today’s jargon, within a safe space. The Giver shows us that the results of strict equality and protected contentment are extraordinarily far from the imagined kumbaya.
Reading Jason Matthews’ spy novel Red Sparrow is like wrapping Le Carré around a dime store romance, a reputable disguise for when you’re embarrassed to be seen with it. Red Sparrow is a thriller for appearances’ sake only (and because CIA men don’t write romance)? A shame – because Matthews has real talent.
Red Sparrow · Jason Matthews · 2013
Scribner, 2014 · 431 pages, paperback
The Magic Mountain · Thomas Mann · 1924
John E. Woods translation · Vintage, 1996 · 720 pages, paperback
There are few novels that give sickness its due. There are even fewer that play with it as a state of mind or treat it as the defunct policy of nation states.
Though Thomas Mann began work on The Magic Mountain in 1912 when he visited his ailing wife at a sanatorium (which served as the model for the Berghof of his novel), his writing soon bent to a different angle when war broke out two years later. By the time he completed it in 1924, the sickness of the body had become further distorted into the sickness of the body politic, and his novel became a reification of the period’s irrationalism. Continue reading
Comemadre feels like a troll, and we can’t figure out if Larraquy is an actual proponent of the prurient and the shocking, of the crass and irreverent, in modern art, or if he’s cleverer than all of us and having a damn good time with parody. Either way, Larraquy took exhibitionist art and made it literary.
Comemadre · Roque Larraquy · 2010
Heather Cleary translation · Coffee House Press, 2018 · 129 pages, paperback
Where is the tipping point that turns life into unlife? What does that infinitesimally small tick on the clock feel like, sound like, taste like? And can we replicate it for the living?
Argentinian author Roque Larraquy’s novel is a century’s quest for understanding the in-between. Larraquy sweeps religion aside, turns a deaf ear to the philosophers and rejects blasé methods of questioning. Instead he approaches the metaphysical realm from a purely physical standpoint, dabbling first in guillotines and then moving on to live installation art. Through the length of his novel, the body is central to his question: what is the moment of death like?
Fifty-four pages of “pimps, cuckolds, lovers and clever women” (so advertises its rear ) – a mere snippet to the full Decameron: a handful of minutes is all we need to romp about in these short and saucy tales.
Mrs. Rosie and the Priest (from the Decameron) · Giovanni Boccaccio · 1348-‘53
Peter Hainsworth translation · Penguin, 2015 · 54 pages, paperback
This pocketsize book from Penguin, first in the publisher’s line-up of 126 minor works from major writers, includes four stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron. No introduction, nor even a whiff of context, substantiates its content, and the result is a picture of Boccaccio as a street bawler in tight leggings, pulling the ears of passersby and peddling lewd tales.
It’s quite delectable.
The Makioka Sisters · Junichirō Tanizaki · 1946-‘48
Edward Seidensticker translation · Everyman’s Library, 1993 · 498 pages, hardcover
The year is measured by the Kyoto cherry blossoms, the uptick in cases of beri-beri, the annual visit of the Kabuki actor Kikugorō and the failed miai coloring Yukiko’s pursuit of marriage.
The Makioka Sisters has a steady cadence.
It’s good then that Junichirō Tanizaki was meticulous with his pen because his Makioka Sisters also has a steady repetition. Its mark is subtlety. Its direction is stagnant. Its view is inward. Its tone is one of depressive anxiety. Emphasized is the passage of time for a family that cannot wrench itself from the past and which, far from moving forward, only eddies its descent.
And finally, one year, it is too late even for the blossoms in Ormura. Continue reading
This Side of Paradise forces the tremendous personality Amory Blaine into extreme dissipation and, finally, a man.
This Side of Paradise · F. Scott Fitzgerald · 1920
Penguin Classics, 1996 · 267 pages, hardcover
This one’s got swagger to it, and it’s got the necessary snark for dividing Princeton’s student body into try-hard intellectuals (Slickers aka hipsters) and moneyed followers (Big Men on Campus aka basic bitches). Continue reading
Nasty, brutish and short…Stephen King’s The Stand is 20th century Leviathan in its treatment of mankind after an engineered super flu kills most of the world’s population.
The Stand (Uncut) · Stephen King · 1975/1988
Anchor Books, 2012 · 1153 pages, paperback
Society is forming anew and, as Glen Batemen muses with the cynic’s air, all of man’s old toys lie discarded and just waiting to be picked up – the cars, yes, but the guns, too.
And there also lies the playground of the Nevada desert, and its toys – baking in the heat, winking in the sun – are stamped with three downward triangles and positively radiate ill will. We’re given the chance to start anew and where we take that chance determines our direction: East…or West. Continue reading