Banal Sentimentality; Tackling Tolstoy
February 10, 2012 | by Lorin Stein
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 bill—Graham Greene’s The Quiet American for Vietnam, André Malraux’s The Way of Kings for Cambodia, and Christopher Kremmer’s Bamboo Palace for Laos. But I'm really stuck on Thailand. There’s The Beach by Alex Garland, which I’ve read and wasn’t 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 Reading Fieldwork is like discovering an unpublished Robertson Davies novel; as with Davies, you can’t stop reading until midnight (good), and you don’t hate yourself in the morning (better).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.
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?
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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