International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire

International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire

For some reason (possibly because I’m very lucky or because I have the habit of ignoring the world around me), I get surprised when men say sexist stuff to me about my work. I was in a Moscow bar recently on a dark and stormy night, and a typical twatty overpaid British expat man of the sort that should be displayed at the zoo with a plaque reading Typical Twatty Overpaid British Expat Man told me it must be “quite nice” to have “such a fashionable hobby” as writing plays – with zero irony, of course, because I must be a bored rich girl (ahahahaha) who must go through a phase of thinking she’s the next Beckett before moving on to pottery or adult coloring books or whatever it is that bored rich girls do. Oh, and he “used to have a girlfriend who wrote plays” but “she’s in marketing now.” I do hope that “in marketing now” is a euphemism for “slept with his best friend.”

Anyway, although sexism with regard to women writers surprises me every time, and although I rarely pay attention to whether or not the author I’m reading is a woman, it must be said that not everyone thinks like me. So here’s a list of some of my favorite female writers, and their books and plays, because it’s IWD, and because whatever. They are great not because they are written by women. They are great because they are great.  Continue reading “International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire”

On the work of Kate Atkinson

On the work of Kate Atkinson

When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “Human Croquet” after reading about it in a magazine for girls (unexpected choice by the editor, I’ve come to realize). I had the original receipt for a while and jotted down the exact time, down to the minute, and place where the book was purchased.

I came back to that inscription in my senior year at Duke, when I was writing my (let’s face it, terrible) honors thesis on “Human Croquet.”

“Acquired at 7:33 p.m., May 17, 1998, Barnes & Noble, Arboretum, Charlotte, NC.”

There wasn’t much I understood at twenty, but I did understand why I wrote down the contents of the receipt. I was recording a life-changing moment. I met Michael Cunningham once when he came to give a talk at Duke, and he jovially discussed having his life upended by Virginia Woolf, and I was grateful for that, because it meant I wasn’t weird. Kate Atkinson just happened to split my particular atom.

Her work has changed over the years, gone both wide and deep, but some familiar themes have circled back this year: the handsome RAF pilot, the complete disaster of men and women, the cruel and lovely ambivalence of nature, the question of death and stepping sideways out of time, the tedium of children and how there’s nothing more important, Englishness (and how observing it changes it), the strange way men separate passion and love (like unspooling threads), the importance of getting on with it even when you’d rather lie down and melt back into the landscape again, lying down and melting into the landscape at a later date (though perhaps having helped someone in a way, so as to not have your existence be entirely without point), the fact that we are all so fragile as to almost be fiction.  Continue reading “On the work of Kate Atkinson”

My Christmas present to you all: two short translations from Alexei Ivanov and Vyacheslav Kondratyev

Ivanov and Kondratyev are two Russian writers that you probably haven’t heard of (unless you read Russian, of course).

“When Volodka the Lieutenant got up into the back of the tram, everyone recoiled from him. Understanding why, he immediately grew furious and turned against the public.

There was, actually, one woman who got up and offered him her seat.

– Sit down, army comrade… – He looked at her with such dead eyes that she flinched and muttered to herself – My God, and he’s so young…

Muscovites rarely saw men like him – straight from the front lines, processed and minced by the war, in bloody coats with bullet holes, in boots covered with burns and month-old mud. And so they gazed at Volodka. They gazed at him with sympathy. Some older women grew teary-eyed, but he was annoyed by this – what the hell were they staring at? Yeah, he wasn’t exactly coming home from a resort. Perhaps they thought that war was like what they saw in the movies. The men irritated him especially – clean-shaven, with their little ties.

When he took the seat that the woman had given up for him, the people nearby drew away from him, which added to his irritation – oh, so he was a bit dirty, huh? He sat, biting his lips and not looking at anyone, until he felt so utterly uncomfortable – it wasn’t as if he dreamed of coming back to Moscow like this – that he tore at the collar of his coat, exposing his brand spanking new For Courageous Service medal. Here you go, check it out! You noticed the dirt and the blood, but paid zero attention to the medal! Getting up quickly, he walked away from the seats, pushing a well-dressed man with a briefcase in a move that wasn’t entirely accidental.” – Vyacheslav Kondratyev, “Convalescent Leave.”

“There were so many stars in the sky that it seemed as though one could not take a step up there without hearing them crunch underfoot. Although, apparently, no one walked there, because it was so quiet that one could hear how tomorrow’s waves were gathering in the river deep, how the moonlight rustled as it softly settled down upon the earth, how Tata’s little heart beat beneath the warm blankets, how metal corroded with a crackle, how the spring grinned as it strode tirelessly from afar, how the wind ruffled the weightless feathers on the wings of dreams, how the tears that would not be wept ripened in the soul, how a wave lightly rocked the boat which was not, after all, untethered from the dock, how it rhythmically rocked that boat – from the bow to the stern, from the bow to the stern, from the bow to the stern…” – Alexei Ivanov, “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away.”

Kondratyev served in WWII, engaging in heavy combat by Rzhev in what was a horrible, horrible time for Soviet troops. He was wounded, he got a medal for courage, he got time off, was wounded again – spending six months in the hospital – got a disability discharge. He began getting published when he was already in his late 40’s.

Kondratyev shot himself in 1993. He was very ill. Like many of his fellow citizens, he was also impoverished. And, according to at least some of his friends, he was dismayed and disgusted by what was happening to Russia.

Alexei Ivanov was born in 1969, in Perm, in the Urals. A lot of people (many of them people I quite like) say he captured the “indistinct hero” of the 1990s. “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away,” which is set in Perm, was recently made into an excellent film starring Konstantin Khabensky.

I took liberties with the Kondratyev’s translation – in terms of purging the ellipses he was fond of, and making it more colloquial-sounding in modern English (it’s pretty colloquial in Russian – and while some of the language is dated, a lot of it is still the kind of language you can hear in the streets).

I take a lot of liberties with translations.

(I take a lot of liberties in general.)

Incidentally, it’s my opinion that anyone who wants to at least try to understand Russian masculinity ought to begin their journey by reading Kondratyev and Ivanov. Sadly, these two haven’t been translated into English. (This, of course, can only mean one thing – someone really ought to give me a grant. We can call it the “Understanding Russian Masculinity” grant. We won’t be dealing with an exact science, but who cares about that, right?)

There is a very particular, bittersweet joy in reading and translating these two. And that’s my gift to you guys. Merry Christmas.

dance baby dance

“The Goldfinch”: stars are beautiful because of the space between them

“…You are not mad, or wild, or grieving! You are not roaring out to choke her with your bare hands! Which means your soul is not too mixed up with hers. And that is good. Here is my experience. Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to live and be happy in the world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.” – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Boris, the Tweedledee to the protagonist’s Tweedledum, kind of has a point. Loving someone or someone too much usually comes with a host of unpleasant consequences. So it’s probably a bad thing, this love I have for The Goldfinch. A bad thing – and an irresistible thing.

Like most people, I first fell in love with Donna Tartt’s writing when I read “The Secret History,” a voluptuous, gorgeous, improbable novel. Unlike most people, I didn’t howl with rage at her unexpected follow-up, “The Little Friend.” It was an unsatisfying, brutal sort of book, but I respected what the author was trying to do with it. Living in Russia these last few years, I have gained new appreciation for “The Little Friend,” because of the idea that life is weird and abrupt, and not all sad stories have a resolution, and not all ends can be seen.

The one genuine complaint I had about “The Little Friend” was the recurring feeling that the author was firmly keeping her characters at an arm’s length, never inhabiting them fully. That kind of clinical approach worked well for Nabokov in his later years, but when it comes to a literary mystery, it makes the reader feel a little cheated. “The Little Friend” is a fine example of masterful prose that’s also a little too cold and shiny and, therefore, ultimately a bit lifeless.

So when the months of anticipation were finally over and “The Goldfinch” had arrived, I kept wondering, as I read, when Tartt might smack me over the head again. I steeled myself. I made copious notes as I read – waiting for the inevitable emotional letdown.

And then, of course, the sublime happened and kept happening.

Donna Tartt is one of the most important writers of our time, and important writers are always more than just skilled and precise. Their great works are always just a little crazy – all of that over-quoted stuff about Nietzsche’s internal chaos giving birth to a “dancing star” is no less true for being featured in too many Facebook profiles. And “The Goldfinch” is a deliciously mad, courageous sort of work.

Tartt’s prose still has that glinting edge to it. She hasn’t lost the hoodoo or the sarcasm. But “The Goldfinch” also covers great expanses – of joy, sorrow, the geography of the world and human love and longing – and does so fearlessly and with the kind of abandon that is reminiscent of the brush-strokes of its celebrated namesake, painted by Carel Fabritius shortly before his death at 32.

Out of all the motifs running through the book, one of my favorites (and one that I haven’t really seen many critics mention), is the repeated comparisons made between protagonist Theo Decker and Harry Potter, otherwise known as The Boy Who Lived. “The Goldfinch” is far from a fantasy – but in its references to Harry Potter, it recognizes the human need for the magical and fantastic, for what Kate Atkinson calls “the golden mountain, the fire-breathing dragon, the happy ending,” at the end of her own modern masterpiece, “Human Croquet.”

The magical in this instance is art, both high art in the traditional sense and the art of what Theo refers to as “beautiful things” (and is there really that much of a difference? The book seems to suggest that no, there isn’t). While nobody comes along to usher Theo into a parallel, Hogwarts-like universe – there is this perfectly articulated sense of the inevitability of being forced to step sideways out of one’s own existence, into a dimension that’s darker and stranger. Tartt’s instruments here are painful and powerful, and her ultimate scope is astonishing. I have the sense I’ll be thinking about this book for a decade (and won’t stop thinking about it when, hopefully, the next Tartt book arrives).

A lot of good novels are like monuments. The best ones are like old houses – humming with internal energy, lit up from the inside. “The Goldfinch” is one of those – the place you want to stay for a long time, and not because you’re escaping from anything. Within “The Goldfinch” you’re always moving toward some understanding, trying to bridge some distance. Like a great painting would, the book bends time – reaching out and addressing the reader. And it makes you feel as though these words are meant for you alone.

My great reads of the year, so far: Kate Atkinson, Justin Cronin, Ali Eteraz, Graham Joyce

Life After Life: I’m a Kate Atkinson groupie and I love her recent spate of crime novels, but was so glad when she came back to playing with time and family and gnarled old fate in “Life After Life.” Maybe it’s the groupie in me talking, but I feel that Atkinson so rarely gets the kind of ecstatic praise she truly deserves. I think people don’t quite allow themselves to understand how truly brilliant, how landscape-altering her writing is, because it’s commercially successful and hits all of the right notes and has a robust plot. Atkinson walks along the raggedy edge and dips her toes into the sublime. “Life After Life” is a novel of starts and stops on the surface – but the closer you look at it, the more you see that this is the kind of book that takes the idea that the universe is “elegant” and applies it to the novel and wins.

The Passage and The Twelve: Thanks to an agent friend in NY, I fell in love with Justin Cronin this year. His apocalyptic vampire trilogy is fantastic so far, and I can’t wait for the final book. Cronin doesn’t just get horror – he gets people. He gets what it means to bring a child into a terrible, terrible world. I’m a parent – and Cronin hits me where it hurts. He reminds me of the idea that the apocalypse is not some single event fixed in time – rather, its a narrative told and re-told every time an innocent is killed. There is nothing escapist about his writing – the “escapist” label is actually one I truly despise, particularly when it gets slapped onto genuine works of art that grapple with the issues we face every day by utilizing an imaginative set of devices. There is a brilliant paradox at the heart of “The Passage” and “The Twelve,” the idea that a single life is nothing – and everything.

Children of Dust: The dude who blogs under the name Ali Eteraz is someone I consider an online friend – though while I’ve always been a fan of his wonderful writing, there was that performative aspect to it that made me feel resigned to the fact that I’m never going to see him fully. Forget about Russia being a mystery wrapped in an enigma – Eteraz totally has that notion beat. Well, his memoir “Children of Dust,” which came out a few years ago, doesn’t make me feel any closer to “the real Ali Eteraz” – and that doesn’t matter, because I discovered Amir in its pages (Ali Eteraz is a pseudonym, in case you are wondering). I still don’t think the memoir genre exists so that we can cozy up to the author – but damn, I felt close to Amir. And I loved “Children of Dust” for its cleverness, it’s humor, the longing contained within its pages, the philosophical debate the memoir has with itself. There are brilliant snapshots of Pakistan, the States, the Arabian desert. There is much sadness and joy and masks getting ripped off and new masks showing through – and the kind of artistic daring that people in the West rarely associate with Islam (which is a huge oversight, incidentally).

The Silent Land: Although this book also has the kind of robust plot structure I am a fan of, what it reveals in the end isn’t nearly as important as the way in which it portrays marriage and the transience of physical existence. This is the kind of writing that I would compare to a symphony that features this second track, this gentle murmur about death and dying and atoms coming apart and love being the only thing there is.