Content Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’

In dogged pursuit

September 14, 2016 | 17 Comments

Honesty in memoir, ver. 4.0

January 13, 2016 | 16 Comments

What’s the difference, in reading experience, between fiction and nonfiction? Between reading a novel and reading a memoir?

I thought about this during the past week as I reread one of my all-time favorite memoirs, Fierce Attachments. In it, Vivian Gornick braids her story, alternating between the writer’s childhood past, her more recent, adult past, and her relationship with her mother as they talk or walk around New York. Gornick both discusses and dramatizes these realms. She is a master of the reflective persona and also of bringing her experience to life in scene.

I’d read the book probably three times before. What was different this time is I had just slogged through a traditional chronological plotted novel, a traditional plotted and chronological memoir that verged on autobiography, and was trying to read another traditional plotted novel. These books, in stark contrast to Gornick’s, were heavy going. Her thinking and writing—at the sentence and structural level—excite me.

But would I be loving Fierce Attachments if it were fiction? If it had been written and sold as a novel? How much does my enjoyment owe to its labeling as nonfiction?

Let’s get something out of the way first. Gornick once mentioned to a roomful of journalists that she invented in Fierce Attachments a street encounter she and her mother experienced. The reporters were soon baying at her, and the flap spread online. I can’t endorse what she did, but it has never bothered me as her reader because her goal seems only to fully and honestly portray herself and mother. She might have handled her imagination differently, such as cued the reader, but she embroidered.

Still, try to read Fierce Attachments as a novel.

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Upon reading Anna Karenina

January 30, 2014 | 13 Comments

As I said in my first post about reading Anna Karenina, I picked the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky based on its opening line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—liking their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph.

It took me a couple of weeks to read the 817-pager, and in the process I learned that Leo Tolstoy can do anything as a writer. And he wants to do a lot. A couple of times he goes into the mind of a dog and makes it feel easy and natural. I was impressed by the way he traces shifting human emotions, shows how people get embarrassed, get angry, change their minds, rise above ego and fall to it. In Anna, people blush—a lot. I imagine this is historically accurate, and makes me realize one way we’ve changed, our shifting shame points, though the same conflicts remain.

But more than this, Tolstoy excited and touched and astounded me with his depiction of the way people read each other—their feelings and even their plans shifting as they interpret facial expressions, body language, and comments that might say one thing and mean another. This in response to cues they’re picking up from each other or to feelings they can’t suppress. He’s obviously studied himself and others like a scientist.

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[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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