when you want them to fail

I’ve just started listening to The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which is about a missionary family traveling to the Congo. I’m only a short way in, but I’m feeling a sort of anticipation for all the horrible things I know are going to happen to these people.

They are described with just the right combination of naivety, arrogance, western chauvinism and old fashioned racism to make me itch to see everything go wrong.

Nabokov does this with his characters quite often, but with him it’s a slow build up to realize just how full of themselves and incompetent the character is. With The Poisonwood Bible, almost from the first pages I’m rolling my eyes and wanting them to learn hard lessons.

This is really good so far!

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Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

I just finished this one, my first Tolstoy, chosen because it’s the shortest novel he wrote. The story is about a nobleman in 1880, Nekhlyudov, who finds himself on a jury. One of the accused is a woman he knew in is past, and who he wronged when he was young. While watching the trial he recalls how he treated her, and blames himself for how her life turned out. He vows to do whatever he can to help her out of her situation, as a way to earn her forgiveness.

The story, while well written and engagingly told, is not so much about the characters, but about the politics of the era. Tolstoy uses the story to rail against the justice system, the church, the rich, the prison system, and the way humans treat each other as if they are objects. There are several very eloquently written rants that feel as if they could have been written about the state of the world today.

While I enjoyed it, I probably only did so because it was preaching to the right choir, and I cheered on all his statements about the world. But for someone else not so into political thoughts, it is pretty light on drama and story.

A clear idea of right and wrong

I’ve been listening to Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, my first Tolstoy, and am enjoying the lack of moral relativism. It’s somehow refreshing to have a narrator with a clear opinion of what is evil and what is good, and a character who also knows this and is trying to be good. All the shades of grey in current fiction, though realistic, leave a bit to be desired as far as inspiration goes.

The story is about a nobleman in 188x, Nekhlyudov, who is on a jury, and sees that one of the accused is a woman he was in love with, and wronged, in his youth. She has since become a prostitute, and he blames himself and the way he treated her for her decline over the years. After at first wanting to ignore the situation, he decides he wants to ask her forgiveness, and help her, and do anything he can to make it right, he will even, he thinks, go so far as to marry her.

The drive to do good, and make things right, and make up for a past error are appealing in a character. And its sort of a spark of light among all the antiheros of the day.

We’ll see where it goes, though, I’m only at the start…

The Castle, by Franz Kafka

This is the first writing by Kafka I’ve read that I haven’t been impressed by. And unlike the Trial, when they say it is unfinished, they really mean unfinished, like it cuts off in the middle of a sentence. I don’t understand why this was published, or why people continue to read it today.

The story is about ‘K’, who arrives in a nameless town, and at the center of this town is a ‘the castle’ which may or may not be an actual castle, but contains offices and officials who may or may not have influence over people in the town. K wants to get into the castle for a reason we never learn, and makes nearly zero progress toward this goal for the entirety of the writing.

think the point of it was the paranoia and confusion of impenetrable bureaucracy, but I’m not totally sure. Similar to The Trial (which also features a character called ‘K’) K is overwhelmed at every step by incomprehensible rules, but unlike the Trial, in which he is trying to find out what he’s been accused of, or at least be done with his trial, in the Castle we have no idea what his objective is other than ‘get to the castle.’ We have no idea who he is or where he came from, what was his life before.

The only part of the book that I really liked was when the story of Frieda’s father trying to remove what he sees as a ‘black mark’ on his daughter because she did not meet an official who asked her out for a drink. After she does this, every wrong thing that happens to the family, he perceives as being because the officials have them on some kind of the list. He expends all his energy trying to contact these officials in the castle (which he, like K, cannot get into) and spends all his money trying to bribe them, all when they have not even confirmed that the family has any black mark at all.

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend it. There was too many long, seemingly meaningless conversations, and not enough of K being foiled to make it as claustrophobic as The Trial was. Mostly I was just bored.

The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

Another terrific read by Nabokov, I have yet to be disappointed by his novels. This one follows a chess player, but you don’t have to know a single thing about how to play chess in order to enjoy it. It’s more about the mental states, and how imagining all the possible outcomes in a game can send your brain down an unending maze of possibilities.

Aside from Nabokov’s usual wonderful prose and lovable characters, I found the slow, creeping insanity that Luzhin endures to be very believable and a bit unsettling. And even though I saw the end coming, that didn’t lessen the impact and effectiveness of it.

Another great read, and anyone who hasn’t read Nabokov please pick up one of his books, you won’t regret it!

dying, now or later…

The Plague has been getting more interesting. One part I enjoyed was, as the characters are now all quarantined inside the town, and death is all around, one character is sitting in his house trying to write a book, and rewriting the same sentence for days and weeks, trying to find just the right words. He’s asking his friends for advice, agonizing over it, switching out words for similar ones, and then putting them back, and so on. All while hundreds of people are dying all around him every day.

But we’re all dying, right? Even if these characters survive the plague, they’ll just die five or ten or twenty years later. So why not spend your time fussing over the first sentence of a book you’ll never write?

Life is strange…

A cool glass of sweet water

Every time I finish a particularly difficult book, be it bad, or odd, or just confusing, I take a break with a Nabokov novel. They are always so clear and crisp and enjoyable, it’s like drinking a nice glass of cool water after a tiring time in the sun.

This time I’m reading the Luzhin Defense, the story of an anti-social, obsessive chess player who goes mad. As all Nabokov novels I’ve so far read, it is just a joy, and the prose is so delicious, my brain thanks me in much the way in thanks me for a good meal. And it always makes me smile, with little bits like this for example:

Little Luzhin would go away, trailing his satchel over the carpet; Luzhin senior would lean his elbow on the desk, where he was writing one of his usual stories in blue exercise books (a whim which, perhaps, some future biographer would appreciate), and listen to the monologue in the neighboring dining room, to his wife’s voice persuading the silence to drink a cup of cocoa.

Can you not just see that so clearly… the over optimistic father, the pouty child and coddling mother… all in just a few sentences.

Something about the way he writes is just very enjoyable and smilingly good for me…