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(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

May 11, 2015 | by

How the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction went from utopian to dystopian.

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Near the beginning of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, a 1970 novel by the Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the innkeeper, Alek Snevar, proposes to his guest, police inspector Peter Glebsky, that mystery is always preferable to explanation. “Haven’t you ever noticed how much more interesting the unknown is than the known?” Snevar asks. “The unknown makes us think—it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.”

It’s a strange idea to appear at the beginning of what seems to be a locked-room mystery novel—a genre in which all puzzles are meant to be solved. Soon after Glebsky’s arrival, a blizzard blocks the road to the inn. Right on cue, another of the guests, a Scandinavian named Olaf Andvarafors, is found dead in his room with his neck twisted, the window open, and the door locked from the inside. Everyone at the inn is a suspect: Simone Simone, a nervous, billiard-playing physicist; Hinkus, a “youth counselor” on sick leave; a celebrity magician named Du Barnstoker and his androgynous ward, Brun (“the sole progeny of [his] dear departed brother”); an imperious alcoholic named Albert Moses, and his knockout wife, Mrs. Moses. Then there is Snevar and his maid, Kaisa; a St. Bernard named Lel; and Luarvik L. Luarvik, a mysterious one-armed man who shows up half dead after being caught in the storm. With this bizarre cast you expect to find plenty of red herrings before a hiding-in-plain-sight solution is revealed.

Instead, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery. Read More »

Something Serious

May 4, 2015 | by

Kingsley Amis’s “most unpleasant” hero.

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A still from the 1970 film version of Take a Girl Like You.

It’s fair to say that in the late 1950s Kingsley Amis was riding high. In 1954, Lucky Jim had made him the leading novelist of his generation. He had held off an attempt by a new boss to have him fired for “inefficiency” from his post as a lecturer at University College of Swansea. His marriage had recovered from his wife Hilly’s love affair with one of his friends. (Amis’s mistress also abandoned him for a time, but she came back, too.) Though he mocked them in private and in public, he was identified with Britain’s twin literary insurgencies, the Movement poets and the Angry Young Men. He was much in demand as a reviewer and journalist, and he could afford monthly visits to London, where he would drink from lunch until closing time. Despite his famous capacities, he wasn’t always compos mentis by the end of such nights; after one strenuous lunch he was hit by a passing car. He spent a few hours in Charing Cross Hospital, and was taken home by his friends Geoff and Mavis Nicholson. The next morning, a young neighbor stopped by their house; he was pursuing a master’s in literature, and told the Nicholsons his favorite author was Kingsley Amis. Just then a bandaged man in his underwear staggered into the room. This, Mavis told her guest, is Kingsley Amis. The Nicholsons are the dedicatees of Take a Girl Like You. Geoff was his former student, and Mavis his mistress. Amis led a complicated life. Read More »

On a Pedestal

April 27, 2015 | by

Duras’s The Lover, thirty years later.

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A young Duras on the cover of The Lover.

Early in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, we encounter an indelible image: a strange rag doll of a girl rides the ferry across the Mekong River en route to Saigon. She’s an adolescent, fifteen and a half, and she looks both too young and too old for her age, in a sleeveless, low-cut, red silk dress, a leather belt that belongs to one of her older brothers, gold lamé shoes, and—the most striking piece of her ensemble—a large, flat-brimmed men’s hat:

Having got it, this hat that all by itself makes me whole, I wear it all the time. With the shoes it must have been much the same, but after the hat. They contradict the hat, as the hat contradicts the puny body, so they’re right for me.

That elliptical, dreamlike tone is characteristic of the novel. The book’s narrator is a young woman in flux. She’s outgrown childhood and has poured her body into oversize markers of adulthood; the conclusion of the ferry ride signals the start of her sexual awakening, as she first glimpses the chauffeured black limousine that belongs to the twenty-seven-year-old Chinese businessman, the novel’s eponymous lover.

The Lover, Duras’s forty-eighth work, was published in France in 1984; the English translation arrived in the United States a year later. If the book, at just over a hundred pages, reads like the hazy, disconnected musings of a seventy-year-old writer looking at faded snapshots of her past, that’s because it is. When Duras claimed that the novel was entirely autobiographical, it became something of an international sensation. But, as the New York Times noted, “truth, in the Durasian universe, is a slippery entity”; Duras also went on to say “that the story of her life did not exist.” She and the novel found even more notoriety a decade later, when Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation was released. Duras eventually washed her hands of the film, which focused mainly on the erotic elements of the story—and indeed the novel’s depictions of sex receive an outsize portion of attention. But it’s also a study in the narrator’s fraught connection with her family and the cultural fissures in French-colonial Indochine. Read More »

The Sam Weller Bump

April 14, 2015 | by

Dickens the authorpreneur.

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Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name. Read More »

Dear Mr. Jarecki

March 23, 2015 | by

How Gordon Lish’s first novel anticipated The Jinx.

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From the paperback cover of Dear Mr. Capote.

Like every other sentient being with an HBO subscription, I’ve been riveted by the layers of mendacity, hypocrisy, voyeurism, manipulation, deception, dysfunction, and psychopathology on display in The Jinx. Robert Durst is as compelling a creep as has ever appeared on an LED screen; he seems like a character sprung from Patricia Highsmith’s dark imagination. (The Talented Mister Durst?) Andrew Jarecki, with his distinctly Mephistophelean facial hair, gives off his own aroma of brimstone. As I watched the series—rapt, but with a queasy feeling of complicity—I felt I’d encountered something like this before. Then I remembered what it was: Gordon Lish’s skilled, twisted, and exceptionally prophetic first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983).

The self-proclaimed “Captain Fiction,” Lish is most famous and/or notorious today for his writing classes, which more resembled EST sessions than workshops, and his hyperactive editorial pencil—which, depending on your point of view, either butchered or rescued much of Raymond Carver’s fiction. By 1983, Lish was riding high as an editor at Knopf, but through most of the seventies he’d been the fiction editor of Esquire, where he had almost single-handedly engineered a sea change in the style and substance of American short fiction, publishing the work of such minimalists as Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. Lish also convinced Truman Capote to publish the first two installments in his long bruited-about novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Capote had bragged that it would be his American answer to Proust, and the first of the chapters to appear, in June 1975, “Mojave,” received rapturous praise. Buoyed by this response, he gave Esquire another chapter to publish later that year, the incendiary and staggeringly impolitic “La Cote Basque, 1965,” which spilled a dump truck’s worth of dirt on his high-society friends and exiled him from the fancy circles and acquaintances he had so assiduously cultivated. Its publication sent Capote’s career into a terminal tailspin, perhaps the most disastrous miscalculation by a major writer in our literary history. Lish, too, has his Mephistophelian side. Read More »

Max Blecher’s Adventures

March 9, 2015 | by

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Max Blecher

Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, newly reissued, is not a memoir, a novel, or a poem, though it has been called all those names, and compared rightly with the works of Proust and Kafka. Blecher belongs in that company for the density and lyrical force of his writing, but he is also a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed, but the twenty-first is honoring in the highest degree.

This is a book that soothes without sentimentality. Blecher chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of nonexistence. He made that veil permeable: his words are vehicles traveling through the opaque membrane that surrounds the seemingly solid world. These are the “adventures” of the inside and the outside exchanging places, while being somehow exactly the same in the light of Blecher’s extraordinary sensibility. Nobody knows how to die. Max Blecher, because he was young and a genius, suggests a way that investigates, rediscovers life, and radiates beauty from suffering.

“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.” Read More »