[Leo Tolstoy.]

Tolstoy’s paragraphs of the week

December 19, 2013 | 9 Comments

You have to wonder about when, in his writing process, Tolstoy came up with Anna Karenina’s killer first line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—seemingly one of the truest and certainly one of the most famous in all of literature. Did it always launch his 800-page novel, published when Tolstoy was 49, or did it arise during composition and end up placed there? (Scholars?) In any case, does it not refute the maddening “kill your darlings” commandment? It adds an expository moralizing signpost atop a great paragraph that could open the book. There’s every nasty neat reason to cut it—and one not to, bound up in the category called genius.

I’m struck too by how Tolstoy starts in long-distance mode, referring in the second paragraph to “the wife” and “the husband,” but in the third paragraph he’s moving the camera closer; soon we’re right up in their nostrils. I’ve always loved Tolstoy’s simple but elegant sentences, on full display here.

But of course I’m reading him in translation, in the new edition edited by the hottest Russian-literature translating team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If you poke around on the web and read Amazon reviews, you’ll see even these lauded midwives dissed—someone swearing an older translation is better. Basically I picked Pevear and Volokhonsky based on Anna Karenina’s opening line: I liked their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph; you can read several using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I might have read the Constance Garnett version with an opening line almost identical—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—though Garnett’s second sentence, truer to Tolstoy for all I know, feels slightly less felicitous: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.”

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Breaking Bad’s prologue pays off

September 18, 2013 | 13 Comments

In literature, prologues establish a story at some wiser remove, as in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Or they promise the reader an exciting story by jumping into a dramatic moment, as in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (analyzed). Often a prologue does both, offers a survivor’s perspective and a taste of the drama of his surviving.

A few weeks ago, AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad opened its fifth and final season with a revelatory and risky prologue, puzzling for what it revealed. By last Sunday ’s episode—with only two more to go—viewers have seen the power and utility of this move in intriguing them and shaping their reactions. The prologue that has weighed on our minds exploded like a time bomb Sunday night.

Breaking Bad is the story of how Walter White, a meek, resentful, and broke high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, becomes a meth-maker after he’s diagnosed with cancer. In the past four seasons, viewers have watched White edge into evil as he becomes a drug kingpin. We see him learn to live by the cruel parameters of his criminal world. And become trapped by his own ego—a brainy man who underestimates others at every turn—as his intelligence turns to hubris.

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Time to kill your manuscript?

September 3, 2013 | 15 Comments

There’s a paradox in book-writing. While it’s a true feat just to finish the draft of a book, few rookies and no civilians have a clue how hard it is to make that draft publishable. Yet even when the manuscript is ready, some of the would-be author’s advisors, usually fellow writers—not to mention those he’s pitching, the editors, agents, publishers—will still hate it. Or just be uninterested because it doesn’t do what they need or what they would’ve done. Once technique is under control, which of course is another matter of opinion, loving or hating a book comes down to taste or to preference or to market. Sometimes to character, on both sides of the equation: the writer’s and the reader’s.

And once in a while, because there are so very many ways to go wrong, the writer himself decides to put his manuscript out of its misery, to file it in the darkness under his bed. I’ve heard it said you’re not a true writer until you do that. Give up. Admit defeat. Start something else.

That’s what Dinty W. Moore did with a book he worked on for five years, according to his fascinating essay in a new book, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press, 224 pp.). I’ve heard Moore refer to this lost project, or read his references to it, and have always planned to ask him some day what happened. What was the problem he couldn’t solve? He wasn’t a rookie, having published a book of short stories and two nonfiction books, including his very successful The Accidental Buddhist.

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In praise of reading

August 19, 2013 | 9 Comments

Novelist Anakana Schofield’s essay in The Guardian starts with a lament about reporters’ fixation on writers as personalities and about the odd hustling landscape in which writers now dwell—

“These days, an author, especially an unknown author, must—in order to entice any readers to her work who aren’t blood relatives—write endless unpaid blogs, articles and responses for newspapers and magazines and random people creating things in basements. What results is the subsidising of publishers by outsourcing the marketing of the book to the writer, and now and again the subsidising of often giant media corporations, who in times gone by would have had to pay her.”

—and builds to a powerful statement about the primacy of reading:

“There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.”

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Lindbergh, 1927

Ray Bradbury: “Style is truth”

August 3, 2013 | 6 Comments

I’m on the road as I post this, headed for Berkeley, California, where our son is entering graduate school; one of my sisters just moved across the way, to San Francisco. My wife and I are driving cross country from Ohio. An adventure! We’ve stopped for the night in Miami, Oklahoma, which is hot and crowded with casinos. I feel at home, though, because the folks are friendly and because my Mom was from Oklahoma. This afternoon in central Missouri I knew we were getting into the West because when we stopped in the backwater of Buffalo for a soda, I noticed in the McDonald’s a row of stools had real leather kids’ saddles for seats.

We reserved a modest vehicle for this trip, but the guy at the rental company said we’d probably be uncomfortable crossing the desert and might have difficulty getting over the mountains. In fact, he implied, we might die. So we rented, for only $20 more a day, a huge (to us) Lincoln Navigator. It is black, and terrifying. We feel like real Americans at last. But will we be safe in San Francisco ensconced in such an SUV? We look like Secret Service, or drug dealers. Or both.

I’m working on a book review on the road, and meantime here is a summer roundup of stuff I’ve found interesting.

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James Thurber on memory & memoir

June 18, 2013 | 7 Comments

It is his own personal time, circumscribed by the short boundaries of his pain and his embarrassment, in which what happens to his digestion, the rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationships with six or eight persons and two or three buildings is of greater importance than what goes on in the nation or in the universe. He knows vaguely that the nation is not much good any more; he has read that the crust …

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Noted: T. C. Boyle on creativity

June 3, 2013 | 10 Comments

In order to create you have to believe in your ability to do so and that often means excluding whole chunks of normal life, and, of course, pumping yourself up as much as possible as a way of keeping on. Sort of cheering for yourself in the great football stadium of life.” — T. C. Boyle, The Barnes & Noble Review

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