“[T]hat sort of buffoonery is sometimes tragic in the extreme.”

The book group will discuss Book XI this week, but Theater of War will present Oedipus at Colonus, at the same time, so I must miss a meeting.

Having finished The Brothers Karamazov a few weeks ahead of schedule, I’ve begun to review some resources, including Harold Bloom’s essay in The Bright Book of Life (2020) and the fourth lecture in the course “Life Lessons from the Great Books,” in which J. Rufus Fears outlines historical context that, in this reader’s opinion, is essential to appreciating the novel. After describing the influence of orthodoxy and autocracy, Fears notes, “In Dostoevsky’s mind, each of the four sons represents a part of the Russian soul: the violent and sensuous (Dmitri), the misguided (Ivan, trying to import Western ideas), the strong in faith and conviction (Alexei, the true spirit of Russia), and the mysterious and vile (Smerdyakov).” (See the course’s supplementary text.) This sorted well with an observation I proffered in one of our early meetings, that the sons seemed to represent body (Dmitri), mind (Ivan), and soul (Alexei), an idea I refined as I read further.

Aside: In a neat bit of readerly synchronicity / synthesis / serendipity, I recently (re)read the following passage in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

Body, soul, mind. To the body belong sense perceptions, to the soul impulses, to the mind judgements. The receipt of sense impressions is shared with cattle; response to the puppet-strings of impulse is shared with the wild beasts, with catamites, with a Phalaris or a Nero; having the mind as guide to what appears appropriate action is shared with those who do not believe in the gods, those who betray their country, those who get up to anything behind closed doors.

So if all else is held in common with the categories mentioned above, it follows that the defining characteristic of the good person is to love and embrace whatever happens to him along his thread of fate; and not to pollute the divinity which is seated within his breast, or trouble it with a welter of confused impressions, but to preserve its constant favor, in proper allegiance to god, saying only what is true, doing only what is just.

Dostoevsky clearly intended Alyosha (Alexei) to be the novel’s hero, but I am with Bloom in preferring Ivan:

Doubtless because of because of my own peculiarities, I prefer Ivan: enormously intelligent, skeptical, tragically caught between a Western regard for cognition and his own Russian soul, whatever that is. (p. 246)

In the second meeting of our group, I suggested that Dostoevsky’s depiction of women was not particularly charitable. I was heartened to read Bloom’s comment, “Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky seems to me uneasy in representing women.” (p. 246)

For the commonplace book:

Book X: The Boys
Chapter IV: The Lost Dog
“Oh, no; there are people of deep feeling who have been somehow crushed. Buffoonery in them is a form of resentful irony against those to whom they daren’t speak the truth, from having been for years humiliated and intimidated by them. Believe me, Krassotkin, that sort of buffoonery is sometimes tragic in the extreme. His whole life now is centered in Ilusha, and if Ilusha dies, he will either go mad with grief or kill himself. I feel almost certain of that when I look at him now.”

“I understand you, Karamazov. I see you understand human nature,” Kolya added, with feeling.

Chapter VI: Precocity
“[…] But I am convinced now that you don’t despise me; it was all my imagination. Oh, Karamazov, I am profoundly unhappy. I sometimes fancy all sorts of things, that every one is laughing at me, the whole world, and then I feel ready to overturn the whole order of things.”

“And you worry every one about you,” smiled Alyosha.

“Yes, I worry every one about me, especially my mother. Karamazov, tell me, am I very ridiculous now?”

“Don’t think about that, don’t think of it at all!” cried Alyosha. “And what does ridiculous mean? Isn’t every one constantly being or seeming ridiculous? Besides, nearly all clever people now are fearfully afraid of being ridiculous, and that makes them unhappy. All I am surprised at is that you should be feeling that so early, though I’ve observed it for some time past, and not only in you. Nowadays the very children have begun to suffer from it. It’s almost a sort of insanity. The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation; it’s simply the devil,” added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. “You are like every one else,” said Alyosha, in conclusion, “that is, like very many others. Only you must not be like everybody else, that’s all.”

“Even if every one is like that?”

“Yes, even if every one is like that. You be the only one not like it. You really are not like every one else, here you are not ashamed to confess to something bad and even ridiculous. And who will admit so much in these days? No one. And people have even ceased to feel the impulse to self‐ criticism. Don’t be like every one else, even if you are the only one.”

Chapter VII: Ilusha
“I don’t want a good boy! I don’t want another boy!” he muttered in a wild whisper, clenching his teeth. “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, may my tongue—” He broke off with a sob and sank on his knees before the wooden bench. Pressing his fists against his head, he began sobbing with absurd whimpering cries, doing his utmost that his cries should not be heard in the room.

Book XI: Ivan
Chapter IX: The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare
“C’est du nouveau, n’est‐ce pas? This time I’ll act honestly and explain to you. Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sees sometimes such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, such events, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented. Yet such dreams are sometimes seen not by writers, but by the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests…. The subject is a complete enigma. A statesman confessed to me, indeed, that all his best ideas came to him when he was asleep. Well, that’s how it is now, though I am your hallucination, yet just as in a nightmare, I say original things which had not entered your head before. So I don’t repeat your ideas, yet I am only your nightmare, nothing more.”

“You are lying, your aim is to convince me you exist apart and are not my nightmare, and now you are asserting you are a dream.”

Recent acquisitions

It has been two weeks since Mr. Nerdishly and I received our second vaccine dose, so even though the semester is concluding, I decided to accept my music teacher’s invitation: This afternoon, I attended my first in-person music lesson in fourteen months. That plus a box of books? It was a pretty good day.

Reading notes

In search of succor, people adopted pets and plants during the uncertain and difficult months of the pandemic. In March 2020, we already had two cats and several houseplants, but successfully splitting the sansevieria, propagating the inchplant, and harvesting pilea sprouts contributed to the increasing number of the latter, as did, yes, a few gifts and purchases. Although the heart of the collection (above) thrives in the girl cave, we now keep plants in the Annex and dining room, too. (And, yes, the orchid has bloomed again.)

Speaking of collections, since my last annotated list, I have read fourteen books, putting me at seventy-three total, fifty-five of which were from my shelves. Right now, I’m reading Book Eleven of The Brothers Karamazov and Joyce Carol Oates’ The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. On my shelves since 1998, these short stories earned a spot on the nightstand after Tyler Keevil mentioned that they were not only an inspiration for his most recent novel but also works he teaches in his university classes.

The (Other) You (Joyce Carol Oates; 2021. Fiction.)
For a program with the Chicago Humanities Festival.

The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban; 1967. Fiction.)
Comforting and devastating.

Elegy for Mary Turner (Rachel Marie-Crane Williams; 2021. Graphic non-fiction.)
Related article here.

The Dog Stars (Peter Heller; 2012. Fiction.)
Review here.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling; 1999. Fiction.)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling; 2000. Fiction.)
Soothing rereads.

The Glass Hotel (Emily St. John Mandel; 2020. Fiction.)
Excellent. Review here.

The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers (Stephen Mitchell; 1993. Non-fiction.)
Mitchell is a genius.

War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (Christopher Logue; 2015. Poetry.)
My selection for National Poetry Month.

Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty (Maurice Chammah; 2021. Non-fiction.)
Although somewhat drily and awkwardly written, this meticulously researched history is both timely and important. Related article here.

p. 192
Then came the DNA. Beginning in the 1980s, the analysis of genetic material started to be marshaled by defense teams to prove, with an unprecedented degree of scientific certainty, that their clients could not have committed the crimes for which they were sitting in prison. The legal system had always aspired to establish truth, while hedging with language about “reasonable doubt.“ Now the actual truth appeared within reach, and the public and politicians could no longer dismiss innocence claims as desperate efforts to avoid execution. In case after case around the country, men were freed from death row when DNA helped them prove their innocence, and in late 1998, at a conference on wrongful convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, more than two dozen people exonerated from death row appeared together on a stage. “Had the state of Illinois gotten its way, I’d be dead today,“ one said. The political implications were big: Even if the justice system had not killed someone innocent yet, it had gotten awfully close, over and over again.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith; 1955. Fiction.)
A reread, for T Book Club. The June selection is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

p. 89
They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground. It was too much: the foreignness around him, the different language, his failure, and the fact that Dickie hated him. He felt surrounded by strangeness, by hostility. He felt Dickie yank his hands down from his eyes.

Your Still Beating Heart (Tyler Keevil; 2020. Fiction.)
For the Cardiff BookTalk. The second-person narrative point of view hasn’t worked this well since Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, which I must now reread.

Measure for Measure (William Shakespeare; 1604. Drama.)
As part of my effort to reread all of the plays this year and in advance of the Goodman Theatre stream.

The Burning Girl (Claire Messud; 2017. Fiction.)
Accidental and worthy complement to Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides, which I read earlier this year.

p. 111
Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you in habited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.

p. 197
[B]ut this is what I think: you only see what you expect to see. Your brain lets the rest go. Because life’s tumult, with its infinite sounds and smells and signs, rushes around you like a river in flood: you can only take in, you can only grasp, so much.

Recent acquisitions

The second dose of the covid vaccine mid-week rendered us pretty sluggish until Friday, although we still managed our daily walks, if a bit more slowly than usual.

The Karamazov reading group called an unplanned break, which was fortuitous for me: Over the weekend, I read Book Ten in anticipation of our next meeting and may end up finishing the book this week, as it has become harder to set aside.

My music practice routine took a hit — every bone in my body seemed to ache on Thursday— but because I am not participating in the upcoming recital, I cut myself some slack. I could blame the shot, but really, this was just a sit and stare week. And that’s okay.

“Stupidity is brief and artless….”

Attendance in the book group picked up after the holiday weekend, so I am hopeful that at least five readers (maybe more?) will make it the end of this journey. This week, we will discuss Book IX.

Book V: Pro and Contra
Chapter III: The Brothers Make Friends
Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward. I’ve led the conversation to my despair, and the more stupidly I have presented it, the better for me.

Book VI: The Russian Monk
Chapter I: Father Zossima and His Visitors
The thing is so simple that sometimes one is even afraid to put it into words, for fear of being laughed at, and yet how true it is! One who does not believe in God will not believe in God’s people. He who believes in God’s people will see His Holiness too, even though he had not believed in it till then. Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have torn themselves away from their native soil.

Chapter II: The Duel
He had said, “Mother, my little heart, in truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once.”

Reading notes

A few more new books.

This weekend, I plan to finish Joyce Carol Oates’ latest short story collection and Book Eight of The Brothers Karamazov. (Book group participation has been dwindling, but this week’s meeting, the seventh, was jarring: For the first fifteen minutes, it was only the two moderators and yours truly. Eventually, two other readers logged in, but one left early.) I have pulled a few other books from the shelves, but I’m not yet ready to commit to a plan.

Between March 14 and the end of the month, I read eleven books, bringing my year-to-date total to fifty-nine.

As part of my effort to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays in 2021, I tackled:

Love’s Labour’s Lost (William Shakespeare; 1598. Drama.)
Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare; 1597. Drama.) RFS
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare; 1596. Drama.)
This time through I was struck by the rages into which Capulet and Egeus fly when confronted with the preferences of their respective daughters. Apparently, each would prefer a dead daughter to one with agency.

CAPULET:
But, as you will not wed, I’ll pardon you:
Graze where you will you shall not house with me:
Look to’t, think on’t, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near; lay hand on heart, advise:
An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good:
Trust to’t, bethink you; I’ll not be forsworn.

EGEUS:
Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:
With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart,
Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness: and, my gracious duke,
Be it so she; will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie; 2007. Fiction.)
Following Tommy Orange’s excellent There There, I browsed my shelves for other works by Native American writers.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (Damian Duffy; 2017. Fiction.)
A follow-up to Butler’s novel.

The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa; 2019 (1994). Fiction.)
Years ago, I read and loved Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which is also concerned with the nature of memory. This is just as wonderful. Reviews here and here.

Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout; 2019. Fiction.)
No, it is not as good as Olive Kitteridge, but it is a terrific book.

Pursuit (Joyce Carol Oates; 2019. Fiction.)
While awaiting my copy of The (Other) You, I pulled this slim thriller from the Oates collection. The Chicago Humanities Festival hosted a talk with the author on March 25, archived here.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Kate DiCamillo; 2006. Fiction.)
Gorgeously illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, this was a lovely, if bittersweet, story.

Drawing Lines: An Anthology of Women Cartoonists (2021. (First published in 2006, as Sexy Chix.) Graphic fiction.)
Picked it up for the JCO content.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking (D.Q. McInerny May; 2004. Non-fiction.)
Think The Elements of Style for logic.

March

A few new books.

I haven’t read much this month.

When the last gray-white mounds melted, we swapped snow shovels for yard tools in order to rake and dethatch the lawn, pull leaves from beneath bushes, scrub squirrel baffles, and scrape winter seed from beneath the feeders. The house wash team scheduled our roof and hardscape cleaning, taking advantage of the sun and warm temperatures earlier this month. Later this year, the house will be painted. The color selection process, which began in earnest just after the winter holiday, alternately interested and irritated me, so our painter paired us with a knowledgeable consultant, after which, I promptly selected the color I had chosen back in January. I do not recall my parents or the parents of my friends washing their roofs or agonizing over shades of paint. Did they? I was a terrifyingly observant child who grew into an adult with a terrifyingly reliable memory. I do not think they did. They didn’t wash roofs. And while they may have debated light or dark blue, green or gray, they were not confronted with an infinite crayon box of shades. They had their troubles, our parents did, but roof washing and “greige” were not among them.

Why haven’t I been reading more? Between walks in the neighborhood, exercise videos, and the stationary bike, I move two or more hours daily. Previously, I read while on the bike, though, and lately, I’ve been talking with my daughters, listening to the news, or watching a show (recently, Olive Kitteridge and Allen v. Farrow).

And it’s not just reading. My flute practice schedule has also been somewhat inconsistent. My plan calls for 90 to 100 minutes daily; I have been doing 60. My current selections are wonderful, and my tone quality has improved markedly over the last six months. I’m nearly ready to record my contribution to the virtual spring recital, Joachim Andersen’s Scherzino. But I feel I’ve done enough once I’ve prepared for my weekly lesson.

It’s something about March, I think. A restlessness, maybe. The sort that leads to misguided romance — or spring cleaning. Washing the windows and screens. Scouring the woodwork. Scrubbing the bathroom walls. Reviewing the budget. Determining garden purchases.

March also lends itself to more standing and staring than, say, June or November.

When I stand and stare, I think about what L. asked in the last meeting of our book group — How do we gauge the sincerity of Fyodor’s various pronouncements about his own character? — and my own comments about the role of women in this complicated novel. (Dostoyevsky’s is not a particularly charitable view, is it?) I remember the rituals and rhythms that were the hallmarks of Marches past, like ordering praying mantis egg cases and looking for signs of spring in the neighborhood and nearby conservation areas. I recall that March signals the conclusion of winter swim season, a cycle that defined our family’s calendar from 2004 until 2016. No evening practices, no weekends at meets for nearly two months. Bliss. I watch the dog across the street. Does the neighbor know he’s having hip trouble? I notice the juncos whose arrival each fall and departure each spring inspires a blend of sorrow and delight that is a close cousin to the caressing ache I experience when looking at baby photos of my children. What is that feeling? The acknowledgment of time’s passage, yes, but I taste a pinch of something else. Is that… regret? No, not exactly. Fear? No. It’s… what is it? I consider my daughter’s observation that the tone of the piece she will illustrate is not quite right. How will I rewrite it? I’ve been stymied for months. Is this how creative projects die? I play scales in my head; rather, I say them in my head, around the circle and back. Again. Again. Again. And again. Learning music as an adult is hard work: repetition until it becomes (if it ever becomes) part of you.

Repetition.

Comments, rituals, rhythms, signals, cycles, bliss, sorrow, delight, ache, time’s passage. Again. And again.

I haven’t read much this month.