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Banal Sentimentality; Tackling Tolstoy

February 10, 2012 | by


I’m planning a trip to Southeast Asia later in the year, and I’m looking for fiction set in the countries I’ll be visiting. For the most part I've managed to find books that fit the billGraham Greene’s The Quiet American for Vietnam, André Malraux’s The Way of Kings for Cambodia, and Christopher Kremmers Bamboo Palace for Laos. But I'm really stuck on Thailand. Theres The Beach by Alex Garland, which Ive read and wasnt a huge fan of. Aside from that all I can seem to find are some fairly nasty-looking crime novels. I’d prefer something slightly more on the literary side of things if possible, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Thanks (and kap koon kah).

John Burdett’s not your speed, eh? In that case, I recommend Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. Set in Chiang Mae and in the jungles of northern Thailand, it tells the story of an anthropologist and a family of American missionaries battling over the hearts and minds of an animist village. No less an authority than Stephen King raved about it in Entertainment Weekly:

This is a great story. It has an exotic locale, mystery, and a narrative voice full of humor and sadness. Reading Fieldwork is like discovering an unpublished Robertson Davies novel; as with Davies, you can’t stop reading until midnight (good), and you don’t hate yourself in the morning (better).

King didn’t like the title (“Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing”). As the editor in question, I may be biased—but I promise it’s the book you want.

Bon voyage!

Dear Lorin,

Perhaps you can assist me with a delicate matter. Having lately fallen in love, I find I have been inspired to address to my particular Phoebus Apollo a string of flamboyant sonnets, which, although they genuinely come from the heart, are, I suspect, really terrible. True, they scan quite well and, of course rhyme, but in their slightly banal sentimentality they make John Betjeman seem highbrow. So, mindful of the possibility that such a dubious body of work might someday come to light, is it better, do you think, to run the risk of being labeled as an awful poetaster who’s heart is in the right place, or disconcerting Phoebus Apollo by engaging in ruthless self-censorship?


Dear Daphne,

Why not take a page (a very famous page) from Sir Philip Sidney?

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite—
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

As Sidney writes, a love sonnet needn’t be good—just induce a modicum of pity. Your limitations can only be a strength.

The time has come for me to read Tolstoy, but his classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, intimidate the hell out of me. I know he penned short stories, essays, and plays, and perhaps these are a good place for me to start. Can you recommend any of his shorter works? Or should I just tackle his epic novels (the rewards of which I know would be great)?

Not long ago our Southern editor recommended Tolstoy’s late great novella Hadji Murad. It is a terrific book. So are The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Illych. If Tolstoy had never written a long novel, they would still be read as classics—two of the toughest books around on the subjects of jealousy and dying. That said, do yourself a favor, and dive into Anna Karenina. Thanks partly to the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, it has enjoyed something of a vogue in recent novels: the main characters in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station grapple with its greatness. You should, too. It is the novel people talk about when they talk about the Novel. As for War and Peace, well, a person feels funny even recommending it. It is so original a piece of historical fiction, so deeply postmodern, so much fun to read, that you almost never see anyone try to rip it off. It will change your head.

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  1. john | February 10, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Saint Jack by Paul Theroux. About an expat American who dreams of opening a brothel in Singapore. One of his best.

  2. em | February 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite—
    “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

    That is one of my favorite Sidney excerpts…sigh.

  3. Eamon O'Byrne | February 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    John Burdett’s Bangkok novels are not Man Booker prize material certainly, but they are atmospheric, well-written thrillers featuring one of the most original characters in genre fiction – a mixed race “third world cop” who is also a practising buddhist, and whose disquisitions on the nature of good and evil alone are worth the cover price. You could do a lot worse..

  4. Lorin Stein | February 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Whoops! I meant Burdett! (And I agree.)

  5. Joe Carlson | February 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Might also try Andre Malraux’s first novel, The Conquerors, which is less gassy than his later work. It’s available on Amazon with this excellent summary:
    “The Conquerors describes the struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communists in the Cantonese revolution of the 1920s. It is both an exciting war story and a gallery of intellectual portraits: a ruthless Bolshevik revolutionary, a disillusioned master of propaganda, a powerful Chinese pacifist, and a young anarchist. Each of these “conquerors” will be crushed by the revolution they try to control.”

  6. Michael Muller | February 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    For Vietnam try A Dream of Heaven by Michael FitzGordon. Set in 1970 and 2000, this love-and-war novel depicts the cat and mouse conflict between an American advisor and the commanding Viet Cong guerrilla in his district.

  7. Suzi from Packabook | February 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Another one to try for Thailand is Cross Currents by John Shors, set on Phi Phi island in the lead up to the Tsunami. Not super-literary but very revealing about what life is like for Thais in touristy places like Phi Phi…

  8. Jonathan Wells | February 11, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    To the list of books for SE Asia I’d add for Vietnam Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham. For Burma, Orwell’s Burmese Days is strangely contemporary. And, finally, although not technically SE Asia, but worth knowing about if you go to Bali or any of the Indonesian islands, The Ten Thousand Things, by Maria Dermout, one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read regardless of setting.

  9. Susan Thorndike | February 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    How about The Rice Mother, set in Ceylon and Malaysia.

  10. heidib | February 13, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Platform by Houellebecq

  11. Martin | February 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Silly fact-check: in Franzen’s “Freedom,” the characters discuss “War and Peace,” not AK. (It’s not Anna’s adultery, but Natasha’s preference for glory-bound Andrei, that sets Patty alight.)

  12. Lorin Stein | February 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Doh! I’ve spent the last two years thinking it was AK — and saying and writing so. How? Why? The shame.

  13. Shelley | February 14, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I can’t speak to the books, but I’d love to see that painting above hanging in every elementary school in the country.

    And instead of a “prayer,” a moment of silence, contemplating reading.

  14. Stephanie | February 15, 2012 at 4:37 am

    For Vietnam: you could have a look at ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Peace’. It’s the diary of a woman who fought with the Viet Cong and was later killed during the war (translated by Andrew Pham who someone else recommended). Also ‘The Boat’ by Vietnamese-Australian Nam Le (it won the Dylan Thomas Prize). Whilst it doesn’t focus on Vietnam, he’s a great writer & I especially appreciated its breaking out of traditional views of what constitutes ‘Vietnamese literature’.

    For Laos, have you looked at works by Outhine Bounyavong? At least one of his works have been translated to English (Mother’s Beloved – collection of short stories). Here’s a description of it:

  15. Marc De Faoite | February 17, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Anthony Burgess’ Malayan Trilogy(beds in the east, time for a tiger, the enemy in the blanket)
    Anything by KS Maniam
    Amitav Ghosh – Glass Palace – Burma and Malaysia

  16. Eugenia Betterley | February 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for your justification. I like to make out the print Marcy Lu

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