My quest to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays this year is going well: I’ve completed nineteen at this writing. Right now, the last two books of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the feverishly unreliable narrator of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs have captured my attention.
If ever there were a plant in need of rebranding, it would be the dandelion, right? They have always filled me with such delight, but in my little corner of the world, letting one’s yard o’ergrow with the humble yellow heads and later their happy puffs is generally frowned upon. Still, on our daily morning walks in and around the neighborhood, we encounter patches here and there.
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 the meeting.
Having finished the book ahead of schedule, I’ve been reviewing a few resources, including the fourth lecture in the course “Life Lessons from the Great Books,” in which J. Rufus Fears outlines helpful historical context; for example, how orthodoxy and autocracy defined nineteenth-century Russia.
In the course’s supplementary text, 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).” This sorted well with an early observation in book group that the sons seemed to represent body (Dmitri), mind (Ivan), and soul (Alexei).
(Related 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.
Oh, the unintentional parallels that occur in the reading life, eh? I love the way one book can inform another.)
I also read Harold Bloom’s essay on The Brothers Karamazov in The Bright Book of Life (2020). While it seems apparent that Dostoevsky intended Alyosha (Alexei) to be the novel’s hero, 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)
To me, Dostoevsky’s depiction of women was not particularly charitable, so I was heartened to read Bloom’s comment, “Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky seems to me uneasy in representing women.” (p. 246)
(Speaking of Tolstoy, last night I read “Master and Man,” the fourth story George Saunders discusses in his wonderful A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021). After spending the last two-plus months (trying to) decipher Dostoevsky, I found Tolstoy startlingly… clear. As Saunders writes:
Some stories — let’s admit it — we read from a sense of duty, the way we walk through a middling local museum: noting things we should feel interested in but aren’t, really. Reading such stories, we are merely reading them. They keep being a series of words we’re dutifully decoding. They’re a clever dance the writer is doing, which we are politely enduring. Reading “Master and Man“ we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and the decisions we have made, or might have to make some day, in our actual lives.
That’s the kind of story I want to write, the kind that stops being writing and starts being life. (p. 223)
At the Chicago Humanities Festival, Joyce Carol Oates observed that Tolstoy offers readers sweeping vistas while Dostoevsky remains primarily in our heads, his characters talking, talking, talking. She stopped short of specifying a preference, but when Saunders later used the phrase “cinematic propulsion” to describe Tolstoy’s story structure, I realized that maybe I have one. By the way, I highly recommend A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, which is drawn from the Russian short story class Saunders has taught at Syracuse for two decades.)
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.”
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.
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.)
■ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling; 1999. Fiction.)
■ Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling; 2000. Fiction.)
■ 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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
We planted daffodil bulbs years ago, but I think these are the first blooms. Ordinarily, I don’t care for this variety, but today they seem simply splendid.
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.”
My reading month is not going exactly as I had planned: I signed up for three book talks after the month was already underway, and two library holds came in. That’s all right; change is fine.
By the time we finished our chores, errands, and late lunch on Saturday, it was raining steadily, so we had the two-mile loop at the state park to ourselves — unheard of on the weekend. We saw cormorants, a teal, an American coot, a great blue heron, and several sandhill cranes.