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
Riddle me this: how do you find a dozen eggs during a siege that has left people to shoot horses for their meat and boil the glue in book bindings for its protein?
City of Thieves · David Benioff
Penguin, 2009 · 258 pages, paperback
Lev the looter and Kolya the deserter who isn’t really a deserter (he left his unit because his “balls were ringing like a couple of church bells”) are two young men caught up in the summary justice of Leningrad under siege. Looting and desertion demand execution. But a powerful colonel has a daughter who’s to be married. The colonel’s decree? Let there be cake – and cake demands eggs.
With its passages of simple brutality and deadpan humor, the morality of a man’s steadfast nature and a heavy layer of religio-mythic magic (that has just enough truth to lend credence to fantasy), The Enchanted Wanderer has the coziness of an old Russian folk tale and the insightful warning of an age-old parable.
“In a world where God is simply dead flesh, a good man becomes simply an idiot.” – AS Byatt, “Prince of Fools,” The Guardian, June 2004
The Idiot · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1868-’69
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2003 · 633 pages, paperback
Dostoevsky explained in a letter to a friend, and later to his niece, that his project in writing The Idiot was that of portraying a “perfectly beautiful man.” This man, Prince Myshkin, the titular “idiot,” is an epileptic who returns to Russia after four years in a Swiss sanatorium.
Myshkin isn’t an intellectual idiot; his idiocy stems from naivety and simple-heartedness. Myshkin is an idiot because he is foolish to the nastier, baser parts of man and to the cruel reality of an impure world.
Dostoevsky writes goodness with the same attention he gave meanness in Crime and Punishment. He writes it as an otherness, received only with reservations, suspicion and disbelief. Goodness disintegrates, is dragged through the street and becomes tangled up with the coarser parts of society until it is unrecognizable and even damaging.