The Love of the Canon: The 150th Anniversary of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment & Do We Need Booksellers’ Recommendations?

Dostoevsky at the Iowa City Writers' Festival.

A Dostoevsky reading at the Iowa City Writers’ Festival.

The lineup for the Iowa City Book Festival, Oct. 4-9, is stunning:   Robert Olen Butler, Leslie Jamison, Roxanne Gay, Nathan Hill, Michelle Hoover, Suki Kim, and many international writers.  And, Russian literature fans, there will be a celebration of Dostoevsky.

Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, is a natural for literary festivals. It is  home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936, the first MFA program in creative writing.  Growing up in Iowa City I took the literary culture for granted.  The writers were there, their readings were boring (my mind still wanders during readings), I missed Stephen Spender (I know!), but we kept up with the work of the faculty:  John Irving, Gail Godwin, Kurt Vonnegut,  T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut…

One of the best things about the University of Iowa was taking multiple creative writing classes for credit. I loved my Fiction Writing class from T. C. Boyle, a helpful teacher and a very kind grader indeed. (It was before all the creativity was slapped out of me in the workplace.)  A lesbian with a quirky sense of humor confided over coffee that her girlfriend wrote her stories for her:  she needed an A!   Shocking, but fascinating.

If I  attend the Iowa City Book Festival this year, it will not be for the authors’ readings. Instead, I will support the canon:  I want to attend the three-day public reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in honor of the classic’s 150th anniversary.  It is organized by Anna Barker, an adjunct who teaches the “Tolstoyevsky” course (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), and, yes, they will read the whole book.  The reading will take place at the Old Capitol,  Oct. 4 and 5, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Oct. 6, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. (or until finished). There is also  a panel discussion, “Dostoevsky’s Notions of Criminality and Redemption for 21st Century Readers,” at the Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 6.

I probably won’t go, though.  Well, maybe for an hour.

ARE YOU MESMERIZED BY BOOKSELLERS? We all miss Doug (1949-2012), who worked at Borders and chatted endlessly with lonely readers.  Sometimes, in my Anita Brookner moods, I wasn’t in the mood for conversation and ducked him.

Perhaps there are “Doug”s at Heywood Hill, an independent bookseller in Mayfair I read about in The Guardian this morning.  It is sponsoring a “Library of a Lifetime Prize Draw” to mark its 80th anniversary, with a free book of the month, chosen after interviews with the customer-winner.

According to the website:

Enter our spectacular 80th anniversary prize draw for the chance to win one of three incredible literary prizes. First prize is a lifetime’s subscription to our famous A Year in Books service. The lucky winner will never need to buy a book again. They will be sent a new hardback book, individually chosen to suit their particular reading taste, every month FOR LIFE. This competition is a free to enter prize draw. To enter simply tell us which single book has meant the most to you, published in English since Heywood Hill opened in 1936. You can enter the prize draw by filling in the form below. This prize draw closes at midnight on Monday 31 October 2016. Scroll down to find out more about the fantastic prizes on offer and our famous book subscriptions, A Year in Books.

Oh dear, why didn’t I know about this bookstore in London?

There are other bookstore clubs with similar programs.  I’m thinking of the The Apple-a-Month Club at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

Here’s how it works: We pore over stacks of soon-to-be-released fiction to find the paperback original we’re most excited about. The only guiding policy is that every book we pick will be new, fiction and what we think will be appealing to all types of readers. Why take the risk? Well, we’re hoping you might discover something you never would have picked up elsewhere. You can then look forward to getting a new book with a handwritten note about why we love it in the mail once a month. As publication dates vary, so will the delivery date — that’s part of the fun.

It does sound like fun, doesn’t it?

But I must admit, I’ve read widely in the canon, and I don’t need anyone to curate my reading for me.  I have enough trouble not buying every book that gets a good review.  I also have a weakness for the blogger Jacqui Wine, and thus cannot regularly visit these fabulous book sites.

My Russian Lit 101 Office!

Russian 101 Office (My Bed!)

                      The Russian Lit Office:  My Bed!

My Russian lit office is set up for the winter.  Actually, it’s my  bed.

We had our first snowfall today, so I retired to my warm bed to read a Russian novel. The wintry scenes in Russian novels brace me to endure the cold. I picture myself as Natasha in War and Peace, mischievously dressed up as a Hussar, riding in a sleigh at Christmas with the mummers;  Chichikov in Dead Souls, driving through the provinces in a “rather handsome, smallish spring britzka, of the sort driven around in by bachelors”; or Eugene Onegin (in the Mitchell translation) dealing with winter ennui under his lonely roof because:

What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.

Here’s how Russian lit-crazy I go in winter:  this week I’ve reread  three Russian novels, Gogol’s Dead Souls and two by Turgenev, The Home of the Gentry and  First Love.

And I recently found an old college notebook (that tatty green thing in the snapshot above) with my notes for a class in Russian Literature in Translation.  My sketchy  notes are strangely touching–I do like myself as  a young woman discovering Russian literature–and  have also inspired me to go back to the nineteenth century.

fathers and sons turgenev 51FN7Uw7+BL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_We spent a lot of time reading Turgenev. I am very fond of Turgenev.  I recently reread Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev brilliantly personifies the split between humanism and nihilism as a generational conflict.  The hero, Bazarov,  is a nihilist, a recent science graduate who dissects frogs and despises art and literature.  On a  visit to the country home of his nihilist friend  Arkady, Bazarov clashes with Arkady’s uncle and patronizes Arkady’s  father, both humanists.  Bazarov’s father and mother cannot understand his views.  And he comes to a tragic end.  Some of my notes on Turgenev are quite interesting, but I am most impressed by  scribbled questions (perhaps to consider for an essay? Or  class discussion?  God only knows.):

  • Is the novel really about generational split?
  • the use of philosophy and political discussions
  • Integration of love affairs
  • which characters truly similar and dissimilar
  • In what respects is Bazarov a positive hero?
  • Is Bazarov a victim or suicide?

By Dec. 3, near the end of the semester, my notes were mere hieroglyphs.   They reflect a bullet-list undergraduate ennui:

  • Dostoevsky spokesman for conservatives:  THE Christian writer, but also convincingly presents views of radicals.  Polit left to polit right, possibly because of experiences in prison.
  • Question of existence or non-existence of God.
  • intellectual and moral honesty in novels.
  • religion helped him endure his hard life.
  • Belinsky thought D’s works should do for Russia what Dickens did for England.

Could I possibly have elaborated on those topics! What was I thinking?   I can only hope I read the introductions to my Dostovesky books!

To supplement my erratic  notes, I got out Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature.   He did not like Dostoevsky, who was never one of my favorites.

My position in regard to Dostoevski is a curious and difficult one.  In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me–namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius.  From this point of view Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one–with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.

And here I thought it was just the translations.  Well, perhaps I’ll try the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations.  Or perhaps I’ll skip the rereading of Dostoevsky.

My Horse Came in Second, Russian Translators, & Did Dickens Meet Dostoevsky?

Golden Soul

Golden Soul

Isn’t Golden Soul gorgeous?

We got home just in time to watch the Kentucky Derby. Every year it starts when–5:25?–and I watch the horses and jockeys and pick my winner.  I picked Golden Soul minutes before the Kentucky Derby started.

He was such a long shot that everyone thought I was being stubborn for no reason.

“I like a long shot,” I said.   “I just think he’s the most beautiful horse.  I don’t care if he wins or not!”

He came in second!

Hurrah, Golden Soul.

Now if only I had bet–there’s win, place, or show–I could apparently have made some serious money!


war-and-peace-briggs-bigI am reading War and Peace for perhaps the seventh time.

I am delighted by Anthony Briggs’s wonderful 2005 translation, and recommend it to those of you who are making the difficult choice of which translation to read.  Of course I have also enjoyed the Maude, the Constance Garnett, and the Pevear and Volokhonsky, so it’s safe to say I’m not fussy.  (Or is there a bad translation of War and Peace somewhere?)

At my house the general opinion is that reading War and Peace may save my mind from the internet.   Blogging is bad enough, they think, but far, far worse is Twitter.

“I don’t get it.  You’ve read War and Peace six times and now you’re on Twitter?”

Am I on Twitter?  I don’t know my Twitter address.  (Far more likely that I’m on  War and Peace.)

If you don’t believe I prefer Tolstoy to Twitter, let me tell you that I even love his shorter works.  You think Tolstoy’s Resurrection is bad?  Try me.  I’ve read it and will be happy to read it again.

Hadji Murat by tolstoyMany novels and stories by Tolstoy have been translated in recent years to great acclaim.  When Oprah chose Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina for her book club, no one thought anybody would read it.  May I just say that my book group, who aren’t always reading Tolstoy, read and loved it?

In the March/April edition of of Humanities,  Kevin Mahnken interviews Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky about their translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  They have finished Tolstoy’s major works: Hadji Murat was the last they translated.

The married couple’s process is interesting:  Volokhonsky, who is Russian, translates the Russian word for word, and then Pevear, who is American, smooths it out into literary English.

They started with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, because they thought a new translation was needed to convey the humor and irony.

The couple are thinking about translating Turgenev: I hope they do.


Naiman_Commentary_336746h Dickens and DostoevskyIn the TLS, Eric Naiman’s article,  “When Dickens Met Dostoevsky,” will divert both Dickens fans and Dostoevsky fans.

Did Dickens meet Dostoevsky?

Naiman begins his article, which actually reads like a mystery:

Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. In a letter written by Dostoevsky to an old friend sixteen years later, the writer of so many great confession scenes depicted Dickens baring his creative soul…

But it seems that no one quite knows where this letter is.  Hmmm.  Was it a hoax?