Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Classics that Clunk

Sometimes my reading follows no pattern at all. I've described it as "brownian motion," like the bouncing-off-each-other of certain subatomic particles that seems random even to physics.

I'm living in Moscow. Just a couple of weeks ago I visited the house in which Tolstoy lived here when he was a child. (I believe he hated it.) You might think I'd be prompted by such experiences to read Tolstoy.

Well, been there, done that, as we used to say. There is very little of Tolstoy's fiction that I haven't already read. I've read War & Peace and Anna Karenina at least three times each. Both are on my Kindle, but I probably won't bother with either again. I brought along with me to Moscow my Penguin edition of The Cossacks and Other Stories, which includes the remarkable late novella Hadji Murad...but again, I've read all of that before.
"He wrote as if writing were
a painful duty."

So...what was I reading during my first couple of weeks back in Russia, after all these years?

Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Dreiser (1871-1945) was an American novelist possessed of a peculiar sort of genius.

He couldn't write worth a damn. Even his admirers admitted the fact. I was prompted to read Sister Carrie after reading an essay on Dreiser by the great scholar and critic Joseph Epstein. Of Dreiser's famously clodhopper prose style, Epstein writes, "Finding aesthetic fault with Theodore Dreiser is easy, a game the whole family can play. The very first sentence of [Dreiser's novel] Jennie Gerhardt contains an obvious tautology, where Jennie is referred to as "a young girl of eighteen," (as opposed, one wants to shoot back at the author, to an old or perhaps middle-aged girl of eighteen?") Epstein goes on to cite four or five "strenuous cliches" that turn up "before the novel's first paragraph of seven sentences is complete."

H.L. Mencken, an admirer of Dreiser's, nonetheless famously noted that Dreiser had "an incurable antipathy to the mot juste."

Oscar Wilde once remarked of Henry James that he wrote "as if writing were a painful duty." If Wilde could make a crack like that about Henry James, I can only wonder what he would have said about Dreiser. I managed to get through Sister Carrie, but noted in my journal along the way that reading Dreiser's prose is "like swallowing cod liver oil."

True. But ... believe it or not, there IS such a thing as "good bad writing." Having said that faulting Dreiser's prose style is "a game the whole family can play," Epstein adds further down that making fun of Dreiser's prose is "snobbery, a game no one in the family should play," and he has a point. If a writer has good instincts, and Dreiser did, he or she can compel without charming, create human portraits, dramatic moments and what might be called spiritual or psychological honesty without possessing the niceties of a fine style.

Sister Carrie was a groundbreaking novel for its time. Published in 1900, it overturned some Victorian conventions with its frankness regarding human weakness and the realities of urban life. Some critics objected to what they called the book's "immorality" -- Dreiser's heroine Carrie Meeber lives out of wedlock with two men and suffers no punishment for it. In the 19th century, such "sinning" had to lead to comeuppance or something was out of whack.

Dreiser was having none of such sentimental treacle, and thus earned a reputation as one of the founders of the "realist" school. His urban landscapes are unsentimental, unforgiving, unstinting and capricious. If the plot of Sister Carrie contains few surprises -- the reader watches Carrie triumph while her lover George Hurstwood sinks into degradation and despair -- it also comprises a brutally honest narrative about what it's like to be poor in the big city, sparing no one and nothing. The novel was filmed twice, including a 1952 production starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.

You wonder. What is it about "good bad writing?" How can something poorly-made still manage to work? It's a mystery to me. The young Ernest Hemingway, who had been reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, once asked his friend Ezra Pound if he had any clues into how Dostoevsky could "write so badly and make you feel things so strongly?" With typical Poundian candor, Pound is supposed to have responded by admitting that he had never read "the Rooshians." 
It's a mystery.

As far as I know, Hemingway could not read Russian (I can't either) and knew Dostoevsky through the English translations of the indefatigable Constance Garnett, who starting around the beginning of the 20th century translated just about all of the Russian classics that she could get her hands on. So how did Hemingway know that Dostoevsky was writing badly, if he had to read him in translation? Maybe Constance Garnett was a good enough translator to make badness "come through." I've read her stuff -- just about every English-speaker who doesn't know Russian but is curious about Russian literature has. And I have managed to find Dostoevski as exasperating as he is brilliant, so I guess old Constance did a good job. Those "in the know" will assure you that Dostoevsky's writing is slipshod. Vladimir Nabokov, the great prose stylist who wrote in both Russian and English, absolutely could not abide Dostoevsky.  My Russian friend Nadya, at one time a great reader, loves to talk about the immortal Tolstoy, but if you bring up Dostoevsky she tries to change the subject. As a Russian cultural patriot, I think Nadya finds Dostoevsky slightly embarrassing.

And I don't think this is fair. Dostoevsky belongs to the same tradition as Dreiser: that of writers who wrote in a way that discerning critics might find malodorous, but who nonetheless, as Hemingway pointed out, have the ability to reach deep into your soul and pull things out. But in Dostoevsky's case external circumstances are an important part of the story. Tolstoy could afford to write beautifully. He was extremely wealthy, owned a large estate about 250 miles south of Moscow and possessed the aristocratic leisure (after all, he was COUNT Leo Tolstoy) to take his time with his writing, polish, adjust, edit, polish, and then polish some more. I think I read somewhere that his wife Sonia copied out the entire body of War & Peace three times.

Dostoevsky had no such advantage. He was not wealthy and had to rely on his pen for a living. Consequently he was subject to editors' deadlines -- and was always behind deadline, as writers invariably are -- so that if his writing often appears slapdash, it's because it was: Dostoevsky had to write quickly, and he did. Deadlines are not the friend of fine writing, take it from a former newspaperman who knows what he's talking about.

Speaking of newspapers -- a powerful symbol of the transitory in Sister Carrie -- critic F.R. Leavis once noted that Theodore Dreiser seemed to have learned English from a newspaper. It was as if, Leavis pointed out, Dreiser had no native language of his own. Well, there's the cliche that a workman is only as good as his tools. And it's usually true. But there is also an ineffable quality called transcendence, which seems to be the exclusive property of genius. I don't know how to describe it, except to say that when you're in its presence, you'll know. You'll know it when you look at Michaelangelo's David or listen to Handel's Messiah. Okay, Michaelangelo and Handel are two of "the big guns" -- as genius goes, Dostoevsky and Dreiser don't quite run in their crowd. But whoever passes out genius sometimes passes it out in larger and sometimes in smaller portions. Another mystery. There's no question in my mind that the twin D's had it, each in his own quirky way, and each for all time.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Papa's Got A Brand-New Blog

Heads up, Night Thoughts At Noon fans (both of you.) I have been recently humming On The Road Again (again.) Yes, old KD has broken his old record for peregrination: I've taken up residence in my third foreign country in less than two years. In 2011 I went off to teach English to school children in Tbilisi, Georgia. In 2012 I left Georgia and went to teach in China.

One of my favorite Moscow neighborhoods
...long before I came along.

Well, now I'm in Russia. Arrived in Moscow a week ago Friday, April 26.

In Georgia, and in China, I made my observations about life and work in those countries on the Night Thoughts At Noon page. But Russia has been a part of my life for so much longer, and my experiences here of so much more profound impact on me, that I've decided to create a new blog, exclusively to keep track of my Russian life "this time around."

Entitled Moscow Days, Moscow Nights after a blog entry I put on Night Thoughts some years ago to talk about my experiences in Russia during the 1990s, my new blog is located at

My everyday, non-Russia-related rantings and ravings will continue to appear in this space.