Sunday, July 26, 2009

Summer reading update

Some stuff I've been reading:

Chekhov's short novels. trans. Pevear/Volokhonsky.
This book collects five of Chekhov's stories that are long enough to be novellas. I like Chekhov's work a lot -- he's the only sensible Russian -- and these novellas are more engaging than most of his short stories because you can assemble a richer cast of characters in a hundred pages than in ten. The Duel, in which an effete former aristocrat and his mistress lead amusingly miserable lives in provincial Russia until he ends up fighting a duel with an explorer who wants to kill him on eugenic grounds, and Three Years, in which an unattractive and uninteresting but rich man ends up marrying a country girl who accepts him to get away from the country, are particularly good. The translation is iffy, and has some peculiar bits of tone-deafness, as e.g. when people's eyes "grow unctuous" when they look into the distance.

Arthur and George. Julian Barnes
Arthur is Conan Doyle; George is the half-Indian son of a country pastor who ends up getting arrested for allegedly mutilating horses and sending his dad batty anonymous letters signed "God Satan." The first half of the novel follows Arthur's life and George's in parallel until Arthur is famous and George is discharged from prison; after that, Doyle takes up George's case and, after making a sufficiently vigorous fuss in public, gets George exonerated. The characterization is solid (Doyle is particularly good as a somewhat goofy amateur), and the writing's always good and occasionally very good. Lots of entertaining turn-of-the-century social history as well, esp. about seances and such (Doyle apparently had mystical tendencies).

Orley Farm. Anthony Trollope
This is not one of Trollope's Barchester novels: it's a very long novel about a lawsuit that has to do with a forged will. The main plot isn't of great interest -- it's all quite predictable -- but some of the subplots and characters are very good. The good-hearted but somewhat buffoonish local aristocrat, the evangelical seller of worthless metal furniture, and the various kinds of lawyers are very sharply drawn; one gets a much more tangible impression of Victorian social life from Trollope than from, say, Dickens. That said, one needs to be tolerant of the preachy bits.

Middlemarch. George Eliot
Should've read this long ago, but the length always put me off. On the whole I really liked the novel; on the other hand, I'm not sure it had to be as long as it is. There are two main plots -- in the first, a girl looking for enlightenment marries an old scholar-clergyman and ends up miserable and in love with the clergyman's nephew; in the second, a doctor with newfangled ideas and a vague interest in medical research tries to set up a practice in a backward provincial town, and ends up heavily in debt and married to a woman with expensive habits. The trouble with the book is that the first plot, which is well-handled while it lasts, loses its interest around p. 200 when the pedantic old fart dies; after that, the heroine just kind of hangs around as a dea ex machina for the rest of the book. The second plot -- the deterioration and eventual disgrace of the doctor -- is fascinating and beautifully done; however, it alternates with a fair amount of less interesting material, like the courtship between a feckless and tedious young man and his plain, penniless, and tedious childhood sweetheart. Eliot's more of a psychological novelist than e.g. Dickens, but Middlemarch is very good on the politics of the Reform Bill etc. And the heroine's practical but intellectually limited sister is a minor triumph.

The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame
Had to read this, seeing as stoats are involved. There are some very pretty passages on the river and the seasons and such, but by and large Grahame's prose is a little too lush. Also, the book suffers from a serious lack of ermine. That said it does get at a lot of "universal" themes, like the meaning of home and the nature of friendship, in a pleasantly oblique way. And there are amusing bits, like the episode with the seafaring rat. I'd probably have liked this book a lot better as a kid.

The Emigrants. W.G. Sebald
If you're new to Sebald, The Emigrants isn't the ideal place to start; I'd suggest Austerlitz, which is at least formally less peculiar, being a novel. The Emigrants consists of four stories about people whose lives were bent out of shape permanently -- and in two of the cases somewhat indirectly -- by the Holocaust. As usual with Sebald there's tons of good stuff -- I'm particularly fond of the shock-therapy patient in the asylum in Ithaca, and the painter in decaying Manchester who was obsessed with dust. I started this book a long time before I got around to finishing it.

A Tale of a Tub. Jonathan Swift
Johnson thought this was greatly superior to the rest of Swift, and I tend to agree; it's bracingly insane and the writing's a lot more vigorous -- a lot closer to good 17th cent. prose -- than in e.g. Gulliver. The "tale" is a transparent allegory about the theological differences between the Catholic church, the Dissenting (Puritan) churches, and the C. of E.; most of the fun is, however, in the digressions and footnotes. A "tub" is a Puritan's pulpit.


James said...

Is The Duel the one with a fly drowning in a cup of coffee? I remember reading that as a pre-frosh visiting Amherst, because I was writing something about a Virginia Woolf story. Man, that brings back memories.

Zed said...

That might've happened, but I didn't register the detail. The plot of "The Duel" is that this guy runs away from Petersburg or Moscow with someone else's wife, signs up as a military something in the provinces, and is miserable and broke. Then he tries to get the money to go back to Moscow and ditch his mistress; this precipitates a duel. Etc. Does that sound right?

James said...

Yeah, I've definitely read that story, but I'm trying to remember if it is the one with the fly in the coffee. Pretty sure it is.

James said...

Ah, no, not coffee - inkpot.

Zed said...

Yeah I remember the inkpot now that you mention it. What does Woolf have to do with this, btw?

James said...

Woolf referenced it in Mrs. Dalloway (or maybe a story with Mrs. Dalloway in it?). In that instance, it was a saucer of milk I think.