Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.


  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

Anna Seghers, Transit

Half the posts on this blog begin by apologizing for not posting much. This is one of them. I spent 2016 increasingly preoccupied with and anxious about the news, then really preoccupied and anxious when the country decided to drive itself off a cliff, a situation for which my entire coping strategy consists of making the occasional dumb joke. My attention span has not been great and what books I’ve been able to finish include a lot of comfort fiction–game tie-in novels, mediocre Sherlock Holmes pastiches–that hasn’t inspired interesting thoughts.

So I need to occupy my mind and get it back into shape. Which means reading more seriously again (which is not always the same thing as reading books that are Serious, although this one is, a bit).

I have a shelf of unread NYRB Classics, a series with a good hit rate. So to distract myself from the news I picked up Anna Seghers’s Transit, a novel about a refugee crisis and the threat of fascism. I may not be very good at this.

Cover of Transit

Transit is set in 1937; the narrator escaped from a German concentration camp, and then a French prison camp, and finally washed up in Marseille under the name Seidler. (We never learn his real name.) Seidler is asked to deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, who turns out to have killed himself. Seidler tries to deliver Weidel’s effects to the Mexican consulate–Weidel was trying to escape to Mexico, and Seidler figures the guy’s wife is already there. But the consulate staff think he’s Weidel and start arranging for his visas. Meanwhile, Seidler notices a woman who keeps showing up in the same cafés looking like she’s searching for someone. It’s Weidel’s wife, Marie. People keep telling her they’ve just seen her husband.

Seidler is oddly unconcerned at being one step ahead of the Nazis; he doesn’t feel fear until late in the novel upon seeing a few in a local hotel. Danger bores him: “Aren’t you sick of all these suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger by a hair, about breathtaking escapes?” he asks. Seidler would rather hear about everyday life: work, ordinary things. Some days when I know what he means.

Marseille is the last stop on the Continent for people on the way to Mexico, or Lisbon, or Brazil, or anywhere they can reach. What interests Seidler’s fellow refugees are visas, what you might remember from Casablanca as “Letters of Transit.” Refugees need a lot of visas. They need a visa to live wherever they’re going, and an exit visa to leave France, and a transit visa to pass through the countries in between. They all take effect and expire at different times, and if a refugee wants to move on–and avoid ending up in an internment camp–the dates have to line up exactly like the tumblers in a lock. Seidler just wants a residence permit that will let him stay in Marseille without getting arrested. France will only renew it if he’s working on getting a visa. So Seidler can only stay if he shows he wants to leave. It’s like somebody hired Franz Kafka to work on a prequel to Casablanca.

Transit as a whole is less interesting than this summary suggests. Not that the parts I just summarized aren’t fascinating. But Seidler is less interested in this stuff than he is in Marie. Marie appreciates Seidler’s friendship but isn’t that into him. Despite this he spends hefty chunks of novel obsessing over her, and feels aggrieved when she associates with another refugee, a doctor.[1] So Seidler tries to help Marie, but he’s trying to help her in some way that means he’ll leave with her, or she’ll stay with him, or at least she and the doctor will leave at different times. And he never quite tells her the truth about Weidel.

This plot–the man who fixates on a woman who isn’t mutually attracted and badgers or manipulates her until he gets the relationship he wants–drives me up the wall when reflexively dropped into a story by a writer who unthinkingly assumes this is what romance looks like. That’s not a problem Anna Seghers has–it’s not the main point of the novel and Seghers doesn’t put up a flashing neon sign to make sure every reader Gets It, but in the end it’s clear even to Seidler that he’s been wasting Marie’s time as well as his own. He’s looking back on his obsession with a certain amount of ruefulness. But if I wasn’t as bothered by the specific implementation of this plot as written by Anna Seghers, I was still impatient having to read through it.

In recent years a lot of online criticism–some of mine included–has poked at and mulled over plots and plot elements that treat as normal attitudes or stereotypes we’d like to get away from. Earlier I used the word “reflexively,” and that’s key–these plots are default narratives. They usually worm their way into stories when writers go with their first thoughts without moving on to the second. They define and reinforce stereotypes because they’re ubiquitous and rarely challenged by alternatives.

That ubiquity has an interesting side effect–or maybe an uninteresting side effect. Let’s assume for a moment you’re not interested in the question of whether stories reinforce stereotype or normalize dubious attitudes. When I see an argument take this turn, a question occurs to me that I never see asked or answered. Maybe you don’t care about the politics, but once you’ve seen the same plot unendingly reiterated in the same pattern in all corners of pop culture… at a certain point, aren’t you bored, as Seidler is with the suspenseful tales he’s heard from every fellow refugee? I was impatient with Transit not because Seidler is an entitled ass–it’s not like the novel rewards him for it. But he’s entitled in a way I’ve already seen in all kinds of older[2] fiction–novels, movies, every possible genre. The obsessed wannabe lover plot can be, and has been, dropped into any genre, format, or situation. It never changes, never tells us anything new.

This is my problem with, as we say nowadays, the problematic: when writers turn to these ancient chestnuts it’s usually in lieu of some more specific and interesting things they could have done if they’d had a second thought. When Transit foregrounds the obsession plot it’s not attending to the specific circumstances it’s set up or the unique questions and thoughts they might lead to. Seidler is thinking about Marie, or trying to arrange Marie’s life, while actually interesting things go on off to the side. That’s one of the points the novel is making, but this point is less interesting than what gets shoved into the margins to make it.

Having spent several paragraphs on that complaint… I still wouldn’t call Transit a bad book. When it focuses on its actual subject, it’s great. First, it’s an interesting window into a different world. Seghers was a refugee herself and wrote the novel not long after her experience, so the details of time and place are authentic–I was struck by Seghers’s description of pizza as an exotic novelty: “It’s round and colorful like an open-face fruit pie. But bite into it and you get a mouthful of pepper.” On a larger scale it’s remarkable that the world is falling apart–a foreign army has occupied the country, people are lining up to buy sardines, everybody’s juggling paperwork trying to avoid getting arrested and thrown into internment camps–yet everyone is so composed. People go to work, hang out in cafés, visit their lovers, and calmly discuss how they plan to flee the country. The greatest emergency of their lives is the new normal.

At the same time Transit has an allegorical streak. The first thing Seidler tells us is that he’s heard a refugee ship sank, and there may or may not be survivors, and a couple of people he knew were on board. Once the novel gets going it isn’t hard to guess who those people will be. Before then, though, Marie is already talking about Mexico as though it’s the afterlife: “When it’s all over, will there finally be peace as the doctor believes? Will we see each other again over there?” She hopes to see the husband she still doesn’t realize is dead. Seghers herself fled to Mexico to escape the Nazis. Maybe the upheaval really felt like the end of one life and the beginning of another. Seghers compares Seidler’s existence as a refugee in Marseille, his time in transit, to his life: uncertain, contingent, subject to absurd rules. In more than one sense he’s just passing through. His biggest problem is figuring out where and when he needs to stop moving.

But the best reasons to read Transit are the stories of the refugees Seidler meets, the ones he resents having to listen to. The woman who agrees to babysit two Great Danes so she can get a visa to deliver them to their owners, the couple who can’t work out compatible dates for their visas and alternate getting arrested, the family who decide to risk staying in France so they won’t have to abandon their dying grandmother… every chapter has a fascinating little story about a life sliding into absurdity. On the whole I’d recommend Transit, I think, if it sounds like your kind of thing. Just be prepared to skim a lot.


  1. We never learn the doctor’s real name, either, and I spent the whole book imagining him as Peter Capaldi.  ↩

  2. I think the “sympathetic stalker” plot is starting to die out. I mean, there’s that recent movie Passengers–when I heard the premise I immediately guessed the twist, then thought “Nah, they wouldn’t.” Except they did. But the encouraging thing is that the critical reaction has been almost unanimously “What were they thinking?  ↩

Mosaic Novels: Speedboat

As I explained in my last post, this is part of a short series on mosaic novels–novels made up of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. For a lot of people the classic example will be Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Speedboat is a literary cult classic and its recent reprint by New York Review Books Classics got the kind of reviews and attention most new novels only dream of. Most of Speedboat’s vignettes are less than a page long, and many are single paragraphs. They’re written in the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist in the 1970s. Unlike The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat was deliberately ordered, not pulled out of a trunk. It’s also more arch, less introspective, and much more elliptical. According to its afterword, when Adler wrote Speedboat she often found herself stopping before she’d reached a section’s planned ending. The result resembles a book of compact essays suggesting more than they say outright, with a journalist’s eye for telling details.

Cover of Speedboat

Speedboat is a portrait of a particular social milieu (white, educated, upper middle class New Yorkers) at a particular time (the early 1970s). Speedboat is dryly funny and self-deprecating (which may be important for some in an age when it’s harder than it used to be to have patience with feckless privilege). I love its specificity. I said this was a book with exactly the right details but it also uses exactly the right words, in exactly the right order. Every page has several perfect sentences and at least one surprising sentence. Some characters who appear for a few paragraphs have enough comic presence to carry stories of their own. Says Jen, “Hardly anyone about whom I deeply care at all resembles anyone else I have ever met, or heard of, or read about in the literature.” (Which is, there, one of those perfect sentences I mentioned: the way “at all” might equally well belong to “care” or “resembles;” the way it doesn’t end with “read about” but with “in the literature” as though she’s checked scientific journals.)

Like The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat allows anecdotes and observations to stand on their own without having to squeeze themselves into a plot. Vignettes don’t have to justify their presence in utilitarian terms to avoid getting cut. The mosaic novel is the perfect format for authors who don’t want to kill their darlings. Speedboat is the Good Parts Version of the 1970s Great American Novel, minus the filler. But that doesn’t mean the parts don’t add up to a whole, or a hole.

Speedboat takes its name from the story of a woman taking a speedboat out for a spin who happily bounces up and down with the boat until suddenly one sharp bounce injures her spine. This is the structure of the book in miniature. Jen cruises on the amusing foibles of the upper middle class but keeps suddenly veering into anecdotes where someone gets murdered or rides a bicycle off a cliff. By the end she’s describing schoolmates who got sick on field trips, how they apologized for ruining the trip for the other students, how they’re still politely apologizing to each other even though anymore it seems everybody’s sick. Jen’s people seem silly because their money, education, and social status allow them to insulate themselves from the least silly parts of reality… most of the time. Speedboat is about what privilege will not protect you from. Accidents. Illness. Having to make really big life choices. “Even our people who stay fit with yoga seem to be, more than others, subject to the flu.” You can’t keep reality out.

Another novel with Speedboat’s theme might have been heavy, or maudlin, or just whiny. Speedboat stays light and funny because its touch-down-and-take-off-again structure lets it circle its theme without looking straight at it. You’re aware of certain subjects from the holes they leave, the way the novel flinches from them, as its characters flinch. The way Jen keeps changing the subject is the point. (Remember how Adler kept stopping her vignettes before she’d reached the most obvious ending.) It’s like a puzzle book. You triangulate Speedboat’s real subject from the themes its disparate vignettes approach but never baldly confront.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

Dezso Kosztolányi, Skylark

I was trying to think up more creative titles for these reviews, but I’m not sure I’m that good at it… so, back to the author and title. And from half-written reviews of books I read ages ago to one I read recently…

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi is about a week in the life of an aging married couple in Hungary at the end of the 19th century who live in a self-contained world with their awkward, unlovable daughter Skylark. When she leaves for a week in the country, the break in their routine forces her parents to reconnect with the community and shocks them into reevaluating their lives.

This is, obviously, not science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless I’m going to spend a large chunk of this essay writing about SF. My running theme lately seems to be “Why does the SF genre as a whole seem so disappointing, when I still love so many individual SF novels?” And here’s another clue!

Cover of Skylark

Most of the non-SF novels I read are somewhere between a few decades and a couple of centuries old. This is because the world of mainstream fiction is bigger than any given genre, and harder to keep track of, and if I filter it by what’s good enough to have stayed in print a while it’s easier to find the books I want to read. But it’s occurred to me that I also read older novels for the same reason I read SF: I want to read about how people live in environments unlike mine, and also unlike any place I could theoretically, given unlimited time and money, travel to. For my purposes it doesn’t matter if those places don’t exist because they never existed, or because they exist only in the past.

Skylark is a concentrated dose of this. Because it’s about reconnecting with life, much of Skylark just shows how people live in Sárszeg, a small Hungarian town, at the turn of the 20th century. Mother and Father Vajkay eat at a restaurant, and the food is described so well you can imagine the taste. They meet neighbors they haven’t spoken to in years. They see a lousy play that nonetheless delights them. Father visits his club for a chapter’s worth of innocent debauchery and gets drunk for the first time in ages.

Skylark describes everything in meticulous detail–not lengthy detail, but well-chosen detail, so in less than 150 pages Sárszeg feels like a place you’ve visited. Kosztolányi can tell us in a few words things that other writers would spin out over chapters:

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.

There’s an entire biography in that single sentence, and those last four words are devastating.

Skylark is a compelling novel about very small things. Which raises a question. Why do the science fiction and fantasy genres, no different from Skylark in that they’re about other times and places, insist that as soon as fiction steps away from the here-and-now it must turn Epic?

SF writers think the only fit subjects for the genre are wars and high body count disasters. The rest of literature creates drama from family conflicts, ordinary crimes, personal troubles, and small crises. As I’ve complained before, the only way most SF writers know how to generate that all-important Sense of Wonder is to go big. Apocalypses! Invasions! Mass death! As a result most SF novels focus on the least interesting aspects of their invented worlds. Wars and deaths in fantasy are all pretty much alike. I want to know how people in Magic World live.

How would a plot like Skylark’s would work in cultures with different underlying assumptions, including completely invented underlying assumptions? That would be fascinating. I would totally buy a book that showed me what a story like this would look like in Dungeons and Dragons world.

Skylark at once acknowledges the ridiculousness of everyone in Sárszeg–the theater is amateurish, Father’s drinking buddies are aging buffoons–yet sympathizes with everyone. To the extent that Skylark is laughing it feels with more than at.

That’s crucial to why Skylark works. A more condescending, less empathetic novel with the same plot would seem upsettingly cruel. Because the Vajkays’ ultimate realization is that their daughter, who they genuinely love, who has never intended them any harm, has ruined their lives. Under Skylark’s care the family drifted away from the community. They never eat out because Skylark disdains spicy restaurant food. They don’t go to the theater because the atmosphere makes her ill. When Skylark is present, they’re Mother and Father; only when she leaves do they regain their names, becoming for a few days Ákos and Antonia. Drunk and disinhibited, Father finally admits he hates what his life has become, and as much as he loves Skylark he also resents her.

On the other hand, the last scene of a novel is often a point of emphasis, the part the reader comes away thinking about and remembers later. And Skylark’s final pages are the one part of the novel not given to Mother or Father. For the first time the narrative inhabits Skylark’s point of view. She’s aware the people around her are miserable, and she’s grieved by it, but doesn’t know what to do. She’s not a bad person. She is how she is, and everyone else is what they are, and they just don’t fit together. Skylark gives its final words to the character who for most of the narrative was absent but, by the effect of her absence, constantly judged. It’s a measure of this novel’s kindness that its final, most important point is a reminder that Skylark has feelings, and a story of her own.

A Turtle-Related Existential Crisis

When you’ve read as many novels as I have you start to appreciate the stories that don’t settle into predictable shapes. Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary is one of those.

Really, it’s Turtle Diaries: two narrators alternating chapters. One is William G., a lonely middle-aged bookstore clerk living in reduced circumstances after a divorce who gets an urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. The other is Neaera H., a lonely middle-aged children’s book author bored with the limitations of her career who gets a simultaneous urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. Together, they… uh, liberate sea turtles!

Cover of Turtle Diary

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there’s a fashion in genre fiction for structuring novels like Hollywood movies. I even see writers reflexively use film vocabulary–scenes, acts, beats–when discussing their writing. These books borrow not only the structures from Hollywood, but also their focus on action and their tendency to pare away anything that doesn’t serve the plot. I usually give up on a novel when it starts to feel like the mathematical average of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Robert McKee’s Story,[1] and Save the Cat. I like novels that let their characters ruminate, philosophize, and wander off the path of the narrative whenever they find an interesting side alley. William and Neaera think interesting, meandering thoughts and aren’t too concerned with single-mindedly and mechanically fulfilling their plot functions. The changes in their thoughts are the point of the story–really, are the story. The plot is a framework for the characters to grow on.[2]

William and Neaera seem bemused by how important the turtle project becomes to them, but the reader understands. They identify with the turtles. William and Neaera are stuck; somehow their lived dumped them into a tank. They swim in circles when they should be swimming towards… well something. William and Neaera don’t know what it is, but it’s got to be there, right? For a while freeing the turtles can be their goal.

You think you know this story, right? It’s one of those standard middle-aged catharsis deals. Hollywood loves them; they go all the way back to Bringing Up Baby.[3] Beaten-down, dead-inside protagonists stumble into quirky mysteries, or weird new hobbies, or manic pixie dream girls and/or boys, and, bam, they’re reawakened to life! If Turtle Diary followed the plan, William and Naera’s turtle release would be the climax. At the moment they let the turtles out of their crates they’d solve their stuckness. There’s never any doubt the heist will come off. William and Neaera have the cooperation of the reptile house keeper, who thinks the zoo ought to free their sea turtles on a regular schedule. So the release goes off without a hitch… well before the end of the novel.

So now what? The question for the rest of the novel is not just what William and Neaera will do next, but whether there will be a next thing or just a blankness. Is the turtle release catalyst or capstone? Stories end in epiphanies, and tell us their protagonists will live happily ever after, and we don’t have to worry about what, exactly, ever after looks like. Lives just have more days, like all the other days, until they don’t anymore. And the epiphany you have halfway through does not, by itself, make the days that come after substantially different; you’re just more awake to them. William attends a new age seminar that turns into a rebirthing ceremony; it’s a comic set piece, not a revelation. Turtle Diary is skeptical of instant renewals.

So the epiphany created by the metaphorical turtle adventure didn’t solve everything. You may think you’ve guessed what Turtle Diary does next: romantic comedy. It’s not just that “fall in love” is, in popular culture, the preeminent solution to the fictional midlife crisis. Most movies, and a hell of a lot of novels, pair a couple of characters off by the final chapter. Given all the ways two people could relate to each other it’s odd that pop culture resorts so predictably to romance subplots. Sometimes it seems like our culture devalues friendship, and indeed any relationship that isn’t romantic. Turtle Diary doesn’t feel the need to pair William and Neaera off. Neaera finds a relationship, William doesn’t; Neaera’s relationship won’t single-handedly solve her problems any more than their adventure did, but by the same token William’s singleness won’t doom him.

So what does get William and Naera on track? No one thing. The turtle release is a turning point, but also an opportunity for them to realize that finding something to swim towards is an ongoing, lifelong process. The standard pop culture depression story presents recovery as happening in three to five acts with dramatic unity. One of the little self-esteem-crushing things about depression is that recovery isn’t as automatic as our stories tell us it should be; it’s rarely solved by having a wacky adventure, getting back to nature, or find a quirky new job with eccentric colleagues. Turtle Diary acknowledges that finding reasons to get out of bed every morning isn’t that simple, and still leaves room for hope.


  1. I got burnt out on novels that feel like they want to be movies years ago after reading too many mediocre Doctor Who novels of just that sort during the BBC Books era. I have heard that, despite the fact that they published novels, the editorial staff advised their authors to read Story.  ↩

  2. Turtle Diary was made into a movie. I haven’t seen it and it doesn’t seem to be readily available, but Hoban himself didn’t think it captured the book.  ↩

  3. The genre also includes Harold and Maude, because “middle-aged” is in this case a state of mind.  ↩

Saki, The Unrest-Cure

Despite my good intentions, I haven’t managed to write much lately. I did come up with a short review inspired by a book I wasn’t expecting to dislike.

Coverof The Unrest Cure

I bought The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories because it was an NYRB Classics reprint illustrated by Edward Gorey. The only Saki stores I had ever come across in anthologies were “Tobermory,” “The Open Window” and “Sredni Vashtar.” It turns out there’s a reason for that. Once you’ve read those three stories, you have read all the Saki you will need for the rest of your life.

Judging from The Unrest-Cure Saki had exactly one trick, which he rehashed every time he put pen to paper: brief and often plotless vignettes of upper-class English people being politely horrible to each other. The blurb explains that “Saki’s heroes are enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty and fatuousness of a decorous and doomed world,” by which it means they are assholes. Saki’s favorite story–it is the same story every time; only the details vary–is the tale of a young person who gets one up on an older person through a mean-spirited prank. It felt as though there were more of these in The Unrest-Cure than there were actual pages in the book.

Saki’s saving graces are his dryly understated prose and ability to come up with the occasional genuinely witty line. (i.e., “Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.”) But there aren’t enough of these to make up for the numbing monotony of Saki’s upper-class prank fixation. Get this one if you’re an Edward Gorey fan, but don’t try to read more than one of these stories in a row.

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx

Book Cover

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Lately in the interest of preserving my mental health I’ve avoided reading any SF that seemed the least bit apocalyptic or dystopian. Which these days is pretty much all of it. But this is another old half-written review I’ve just now finished, so The Slynx slipped in last year. Anyway, it’s the kind of post-apocalypse E. C. Segar might have invented for Popeye to sort out: a world of mangled language, kinetic brawling, and ubiquitous foolishness. This book is too colorful to depress.

Generations after “the Blast,” the world is divided between the ignored minority of Oldeners–people alive during the Blast, who stopped aging in that moment and remember the world before–and the Golubchiks, born after the Blast. The Golubchiks act like feral toddlers on a sugar high. They steal and brawl and only half pay attention; anything the Oldeners tell them comes back garbled. A Golubchik’s idea of a fun game is “smothers”: “you stuff a pillow in someone’s face and smother him, and he flails and sputters and when he gets away, he’s all red and sweaty, and his hair’s sticking out like a harpy’s.”

The Slynx’s voice is as far as you can get from the flat, monotonous prose that oftens seems standard in science fiction:

Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet.[1]

It’s unusual for an SF novel written in third person to have a narrator with a personality. Readers aren’t encouraged to think of third person prose as having a narrator at all. A story is being told, but not told by anyone. But all fiction has a voice; modern fiction just hides it behind a curtain. (So we never wonder what hidden assumptions that hidden voice might bring to the story… but that’s another argument.)

Reading The Slynx it is like meeting a weird but charismatic and funny storyteller and getting so engrossed in conversation that hours pass and you don’t notice. The Slynx is written in the rhythm of voice. The narrator slips into second person (“If you wander into the forest…”) as people do when talking. The Slynx speaks in a voice from out of the world it’s created, a storyteller with an eccentric worldview and a vocabulary of malapropisms. That voice is the main tool The Slynx uses to create its world.

The Slynx tells the story of Benedikt, a scribe in a village near what used to be Moscow. Benedikt copies out the poetry and philosophy of the local ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe. Most of it’s plagiarized from once-famous Russian authors. When Fyodor Kuzmich resorts to his own words they’re drivel.

Like the work of another Russian author published by NYRB Classics, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Slynx is preoccupied with text and ideas. But what matters in Benedikt’s world aren’t the ideas themselves so much as how they’re perceived.

B. Kliban once drew a cartoon of a king standing on a balcony telling his subjects “I’m the king, and you have to do what I say or I won’t be king anymore.” If The Slynx followed the standard clichés of the post-apocalyptic genre it would have set the Oldeners up as an ossified elite for a fresh-thinking hero to knock down. That’s not what we have here–the Oldeners are marginalized. As stewards of civilization they’re ineffectual, and not because they fell from some earlier height. The survivors of the blast were perfectly ordinary. Their children just never paid them attention.

The saying goes that knowledge is power, but in Benedikt’s world what’s powerful is what people can be convinced to respect as knowledge. The Golubchiks scorn the Oldners’ ideas, but they’re impressed by what they see as culture. Fyodor Kuzmich is head of the village because as long as the Pushkin holds out he sounds wise and literate.

Pre-blast books are treasure, albeit treasure with an aura of danger: for years after the Blast, the surviving books were radioactive, which is the official reason they’re confiscated by officials called Saniturions. Unofficially, the Saniturions just don’t think the Golubchiks can take care of them. They might read them with dirty hands, or use them as pot lids! When Benedikt rises in the world and gains access to the Saniturions’ library he’s impressed by the pristine, unread books. The worn, well-read books, he thinks, must not have been important enough to take care of.

Benedikt isn’t a careful reader. Neither is The Slynx’s narrator, who thinks like Benedikt and often gets inside his head. Nor are the Saniturions who, for all the books they’ve collected, don’t understand them better than any other Golubchik. They take stories literally. They filter them through their worldview and culture without understanding that other ways of thinking and living exist. No need for a Slynx; Benedikt lets his reason run away by itself. Near the end of the novel Benedikt thinks he sees the Slynx in someone else’s face; in reply he’s told to look at his own reflection.

But The Slynx is not one of those dystopian novels in which the author spends 200 pages ranting that everyone else is stupid.[2] The Golubchiks aren’t what this book considers civilized, but it’s not sour or angry and it lets the Golubchiks tell their own story. We laugh with them as much as at. And The Slynx is a book in love with books, and an argument that books are worth loving. Whether he understands them or not, Benedikt is amazed at how books bring voices and images and experiences into his head. He’s distraught when he discovers he’s finally read the whole library.

And in its final chapter The Slynx suggests that no matter how long stupidity holds power, or how scorched-earth their rule, the spirit of civilization survives to, eventually, rise again. What’s great is, despite everything, how uncynical this book is. That’s something recent science fiction hasn’t given me enough of. I’ve sworn off reading about apocalypses, but for The Slynx I’ll make an exception.


  1. For some reason the excerpt on the Powell’s Books website doesn’t have apostrophes. The book itself has all its punctuation.  ↩

  2. Hello, Brave New World!  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Letter Killers Club

Cover art

Memories of the Future, a collection of stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, was among my favorite books of 2010. Krzhizhanovsky was a 20th century Russian writer of absurdism, surrealism, magic realism, and science fiction. Bad luck and Soviet censorship kept all but a handful of stories out of print in his lifetime. His work was buried in an archive to be unearthed decades later. The NYRB classics imprint has begun slowly translating and publishing his work in English.

The Letter Killers Club is a novel and a frame for several stories, quasi-stories, and narrative fragments. I could say many of the same things about it as I said about Memories of the Future–the prose is startling, the ideas come at rapid fire, and Krzhizhanovsky draws vivid characters in very few strokes. I’ve seen Krzhizhanovsky compared to Borges and Kafka, but he reminds me more of Stanisław Lem. The Letter Killers Club recalls A Perfect Vacuum, Lem’s volume of reviews of nonexistent books–conceptions of books that don’t exist and don’t need to because Lem boiled them down to their essences.

The narrator of The Letter Killers Club is friends with a famous author who for two years has written nothing. One night, the author explains: in his youth, a financial emergency forced him to sell his library. He afterwards spent hours reimagining the books that stood on his empty shelves, and in doing so found the inspiration to write books of his own. Years later he acquired a case of writers block and returned to what worked before, setting up a room of empty shelves. But now he found he preferred keeping his ideas in his imagination: fixing his conceptions as letters on a page killed them. [1] Now he’s the president of a club of “conceivers,” the Letter Killers Club, who gather every week to share stories that will never be set down on paper. He invites the narrator along.

By the end of the first chapter you might expect a straightforward collection of club stories. But the meetings of the Letter Killers Club are… intense. The conceivers use nonsense-syllable aliases and skulk in like they’re attending a combination conspiratorial conclave and Ph.D. thesis defense. If a conceiver is gauche enough to read from notes, the president throws them into the fireplace. The meetings aren’t so much storytelling sessions as conflicts. The audience seems anxious to challenge the speaker–each week’s featured conceiver is on trial. The stakes are left unspoken. They feel pretty damn high.

Krzhizhanovsky is dealing with the same preoccupations that dominated many stories in Memories of the Future: writers with no outlet for their work, stories treated as matters of life and death. One story in Memories of the Future argues that writing isn’t just an occupation but the thing the writer owes the world, payment for his or her existence. That’s serious. You can’t blame Krzhizhanovsky for coming back to these themes. They’re his life. Barring those few precious published stories, the only people his writing connected with were the audiences who gathered to hear his own private readings. He had no publisher, and he must write, and I sense in his stories a feeling of bottled-upness. The malaise that hangs over the Letter Killers comes from their inability, or refusal, to fulfill their purpose. A story never read is never complete.

The conceptions vary in tone and content. The longest story, and the one that most put me in mind of Lem, is a science fictional tale of a machine, the “ex”, that can posses people’s bodies, working them like puppets, leaving their minds aware but sidelined like passengers in vehicles out of their control. At first its creators sell it as a way to deal with the insane: their care is an economic burden, goes the argument, but putting them under the control of an ex will turn their bodies, if not their minds, into productive workers. As you might expect in a story like this the exes’ influence spreads. They become the tools of a government that sees citizens as economic units rather than human beings.

Another story deals with an actor playing Hamlet who enters a world inhabited by previous performances of Hamlet to steal Richard Burbage’s mojo. Another is about a priest moonlighting as a jester, changing costumes as needed, whose career goes haywire when his vestments are stolen. With the dystopian tale, they share a thread that runs through some (though definitely not all) of the stories in The Letter Killers Club: the mismatch between the outer and inner life, actors and the parts they play, people’s real selves and the roles imposed by society. Like the characters in these stories, the Club members live in a world that expects one kind of story from people with other stories inside them. The Letter Killers Club doesn’t pay much attention to the world outside the president’s doors, but you can’t forget these people are meeting in the Soviet Union–near the end one member observes, in reference to the empty shelves, that the police can’t search what isn’t there. The members of the Letter Killers Club can speak their ideas in their empty library, but can’t give them to the outside world. The friction between their inner selves and their outer roles is wearing away at them.

Apparently five volumes of Krzhizhanovsky’s collected works have been published in Russian. I hope we don’t have to wait long for more to appear in English. His writing spent too long bottled up, and deserves to be read as widely as possible.


  1. An idea familiar to anyone who’s been unable to work because they can’t stand the thought of substandard results. Part of the reason this blog was so rarely updated in the last year is that most of what I tried to write was in my own personal opinion too inane to share.  ↩

Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip

Cover Art

Sometimes a book comes late to the party. It walks in bearing beer and waving a hot new album it’s discovered, to find that very CD blaring from the stereo and the guests already drunk. That’s Poem Strip, Dino Buzzati’s graphic novel retelling of the Orpheus myth. I gather Poem Strip was an important comic in Italy; according to one review it was the 1970 winner of the Paese Sera Best Comics of the Year Award. But in English Poem Strip made its first appearance in 2009, and entered like an aging swinger who’s never revised his mustache and still wears forty year old polyester bell bottoms.

Here’s the problem: Poem Strip is absurdly, distractingly sexist. Buzzati drew many pictures of women for this book, and most are at least half and generally some smaller fraction of naked, and even while ushering guests down staircases or staffing the front desk in an office they tend to pose as though for girlie mags. Derek Badman, in his review at MadInkBeard, speculates that these women were in fact traced from girlie mags. He also complains that some of Buzzati’s drawings are crude. I think we have to cut the guy some slack on the art; he was obviously drawing one-handed. It’s a lot like the often-adolescent and now mostly embarrassing underground comics of the 1960s; you get the sense that this is the work of a guy who’s just realized standards have opened up to the point that he’s allowed to publish sexy drawings, and in all the excitement has forgotten that sometimes it’s better not to.

Much of the early part of the book is taken up with a song from Buzzati’s Orpheus—here a rock star named Orfi—called “Witches in the City.” Orfi alternates paranoid ramblings about all the women he thinks are out to seduce him with chanted litanies of names—“Barbara Yvonne Leda Fiorella,” et cetera, as though implicating the entire other half of the human race. Not only are women sirens luring men onto sharp rocks, they’re all in on it together, man. I hope Buzzati got into therapy at some point.

It’s too bad Poem Strip is hiding behind this huge stumbling block, because there’s also a lot to like. Stylistically, it looks like a collaboration between Fredrico Fellini and Glen Baxter, colored with a limited palette. Buzzati references Fellini directly at one point, as well as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Arthur Rackham, and a number of other artists who he credits in his brief forward. He fits his style to the tone of the page, swinging from realism to expressionism and back and still managing to keep Poem Strip a unified whole.

You know the story (at least, you should). Orfi, despite his weird gynephobia issues, has somehow managed to keep a relationship going with Eura. Who dies. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is Euridyce. So Orfi follows her into the underworld, reached through a strange door in the Via Saturna. He’s met by a talking overcoat that at one point calls itself “Kruschevian.” An interview with the translator confirms that the overcoat is a reference to the Soviet premier but unfortunately doesn’t explain the connection. (I wish Poem Strip had a new introduction, or maybe some footnotes.)

Life, in the overcoat’s view, is like an ocean whose tides are set by death’s huge gravitational pull. In the afterlife, the absence of death creates a different emotional landscape. The dead can’t die again, can’t be injured and have no need for physical pain, so they have fewer things to fear. They have less to lose, and fewer reasons for sadness. With all of eternity to play with, anything can happen; life’s possibilities never close off. Knowing the answers to the ultimate questions, they have no sense of the uncanny. They have no need to pass on their genes to a new generation, so no need to feel passion.

To placate the dead Orfi sings to them about what they can no longer feel. This is the best and most substantial passage in the book. Buzzati illustrates an old man who “checks his mailbox for the hundredth time but there’s nothing there,” dried leaves on the wind forming “strange ghosts in the sky,” a bogeyman floating over the city. Every image gets at least a page to itself. The art here is mostly at the expressionist end of the scale, as much designed as drawn, and weirdly evocative. A thing that rises by the side of the road and reaches out to a traveler is depicted pretty much as a blob, but it’s scary as anything.

Finally, Orfi finds Eura, and loses her again—but not the way you’re thinking. This is where Buzzati kind of redeems himself in terms of gender politics. Usually this myth treats Eurydice like the rope in a tug of war. She dies, Orpheus drags her out from Tartarus, then she’s yanked back because of something Orpheus does. But in Poem Strip Eura refuses to follow Orfi out of the underworld at all. Eura doesn’t mind being in the afterlife. She’s in the right place. She’s dead.

And maybe, Eura hints, the afterlife isn’t a cold, passionless place after all. Love is not absent, and she and Orfi will be together again when the time is right. It’s Orfi who’s yanked away from the flatly prosaic afterlife to the land of the living. Poem Strip returns to the themes of Orfi’s song in the last few pages, depicting swirling storms and “turreted clouds of eternity.” the disturbing, uncanny world of the living goes about its business as Orfi stands in the Via Saturna, holding the promise of Eura’s ring.