In Which Juvenal & Dostoevsky Lampoon Poets

Writers love to lampoon poets.  They’re easy targets:  the disheveled hair, heavy drinking, unconventional manners, and thrift-shop tweeds…  Are the stereotypes true?

Horace thought so. He caricatured pretentious poets in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). (You can read my posts here and here.)  And I was astonished this week to find similar observations about poets in Juvenal’s Satires and  Dostoevsky’s Demons.

I’ll start with Juvenal, who wrote in the second century A.D.

He explains in his first poem why he writes satire. He begins by mocking poetry readings in Rome:  he wants to get revenge after sitting through so many bad ones.  He criticizes hackneyed poems about mythical heroes, Theseus, Telephus, and Orestes.  He writes (this is my rough prose translation):

Will I always be in the audience? Will I never get revenge, after being tormented so many times by the Thesiad of hoarse Cordus? Will one poet have recited dull comedies, another elegies, and go unpunished? Will a poet have wasted my whole day by reciting his great Telephus or Orestes, which he scrawled in the margins and then continued unfinished on the back of the book?

I have been to a few readings like that.  And Juvenal is so funny!

Dostoevsky also raves and rants in his novel Demons about bad poets, who he says flourish in times of social unrest.  He wrote Demons partly to respond to what he regarded as romantic portrayals of the nihilists in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and the revolutionaries in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?

Dostoevsky fulminates about the times and the mores.

Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way.

He then lists many, many different kinds of people who offend him, the military, the lawyers, the divinity students, and the feminists, and here’s what he says about writers and poets.

People like… Gogol’s Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev,….poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents…—all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom?

At a literary fete, the pompous Karmazinov, a caricature of Turgenev, gives a long, monotonous reading from his new bad book.  This is followed by an incendiary speech by a liberal humanist of the older generation, and then a revolutionary poem by a drunken madman.

Watch out for those literary readings!

Dostoevsky in the Springtime

Imagine a town of wretched winter-blitzed people!  It has been a very cold April, and we were relieved to see signs of spring today.

I planned to sit outside and read Dostoevsky.

But alas!

The cat objects to Dostoevsky.

Shocking, isn’t it?  The cat did it. She has no idea that chewing books is forbidden.  She’s sweet, but clueless.  And apparently she does not like Dostoevsky.

I cannot read a book in this condition.

I’m disappointed.

I was thoroughly enjoying Demons (also called The Possessed, or Devils).  I started reading it after I finished Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, because the translator Michael R. Katz wrote that it is partly Dostoevsky’s response to What Is to Be Done? and to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. (There are also references to other books by Turgenev.)

Demons is a milder psychological novel than, say, Crime and Punishment.  Set in a provincial town, Demons has an almost Turgenev-like atmosphere at first:  much  tea is drunk, characters discuss poetry and politics, and the jockeying for social power is constant.  But then the revolutionaries arrive, and beware!

As in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, there is a conflict between a father and son:  Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensk, a liberal humanist of the 1840s generation, has long been a tutor and hanger-on in the household of the wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stravrogin.  His son, Pyotr Stepanovitch, who has been raised by relatives, is a nihilist–only with none of the nobility of Turgenev’s Bazarov.  And when he shows up at Varvara Petrovna’s, his father does not at first recognize him.

At the same time, the moody, gorgeous Nikolai Vsvelodovich Stravrogin arrives to visit his mother, Varvara Petrovna.  She adores him, but there is gossip about him and a mad woman…and is any of it true? Meanwhile Pyotr Stepanovitch is sowing dissension as part of the revolutionary plot.

The social rivalry and political tension increase as Pyotr Stepanovitch destroys reputations.  There is much decadence–a group of young people go into a hotel room to look at a suicide–and Pyotr Stepanovitch discredits a local politician.

Stepan Trofimovich, who tries to keep up with modern culture,  reads Fathers and Sons and What Is to Be Done?  He (and the cranky Dostoevsky) find Bazarov a completely unbelievable character.

There is a huge cast of characters, and it is a page-turner.  It rambles a bit, but maybe it will all come together in the end.

I found an old Oxford paperback, Devils, to replace the Dover, so I will be able to finish the book.

I swear I used to have a copy called The Possessed, and I think that’s a better title.  Probably less accurate…

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?