Nikolai Gogol, keen-sighted imp

With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.

Gogol, Collected TalesThe Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback

To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own. Continue reading

The Adolescent: Dostoevsky the dramatist

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 AdolescentThe 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

Oedipus Rex

We all know the basics: Oedipus offed his father and married his mother.

Three Theban PlaysThe 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

Sickness, Thomas Mann and the nihilism of reality

Mann, the Magic MountainThe 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

The makings of a man

This Side of Paradise forces the tremendous personality Amory Blaine into extreme dissipation and, finally, a man.Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise 2

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

Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

Dumas was sometimes an ass to his heroes. They became better men for it.

Three Musketeers 3The Three Musketeers · Alexandre Dumas · 1844
Richard Pevear translation · Penguin, 2007 · 704 pages, paperback

Judge it by its cover, so long as it’s this one: Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers contains within its pages a gallantry offset by buffoonery, and each quality falls to perfect measure. Continue reading

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Ivan Ilyich is a comer. Promotion after promotion, he’s making a steady climb in the government. And though each promotion is accompanied by extra roubles, he and his wife are in constant straits. With each rise in status, they’re moving in ever more opulent circles.Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilyich · Leo Tolstoy · 1884-‘86
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 52 pages, paperback

To Ivan it’s a headache. To Ivan it’s fakery. To Ivan…well, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other.

Like much of his work, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich snubs affectation in all its guises. With  Ivan Ilyich though, this putting on of airs is a suffocation when time is running short. Ivan Ilyich is dying, so please will you stop pretending?

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Fools rush in

The legno trundles through the turns in a wood that lead, ascending, to the small, picaresque, dirty Italian town of Monteriano and, within its walls, to Lilia and to Gino, devil’s temptation.

A Room with a ViewWhere Angels Fear to Tread · E.M. Forster · 1905
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 250 pages, hardcover

Philip Herriton is half-mad with indignation that Lilia, widow to his brother Charles, should have her head turned by an ass with all the charms of precocious desire. To put a stop to a very bad and very thoughtless marriage, Philip leaves behind the straight-laced ways of  England and comes out on the side of a village whose character is one that throbs with impulsivity and slumbers in its laziness.

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