Literary vitamin pills

Short stories don’t always taste sweet. Strangely—given their brevity—they tend to tax my self-discipline. But lately, a steady diet of short stories has helped me feel stable; and better able to cope in the face of ongoing crises, public and private.

Back in February, I discovered Anton Chekhov as a writer of short stories. Theater-averse, I had—up to then—avoided Chekhov: a figure I perceived as playwright first. But apparently, outside of the United States he is as well known for his short stories as he is for his plays. I set myself the task of reading two story collections simultaneously: the 1994 Everyman edition of The Chekhov Omnibus, translated from the Russian by the extraordinary Constance Garnett; and Bantam’s 2000 edition of Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. While some overlap does exist between the selections in these two volumes, the content differs enough to justify reading both. The Omnibus includes some novella-length stories, for example, which Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated, but chosen to publish separately. Their selection of Stories focuses, instead, on works which are truly short.

cover image of an interier: bottles, cases, and flowers on a table, with a view through a window beyond
Everyman, 1994
cover image of a portrait of Anton Chekhov, surrounded by fire-engine red
Bantam Books, 2000

Written by a practicing medical doctor during the latter half of the nineteenth century, I found little not to love about the short stories of Anton Chekhov. Oddly—for someone I had previously considered just a playwright—this author now stands out in my mind as a master of landscape description; and some of the meteorological events with which he peppers his pages are among the most spectacular I have read. At times, his storms are transformational: both driving and, at the same time, reflecting the internal metamorphoses of the characters who experience them. In the very first novella-length story translated by Constance Garnett, for example, a young boy takes a trip across an expanse of steppe, in the back of an open wagon. The storm he survives is unforgettable; and at the end of the story, the boy realizes that his life will never be the same.

I read these stories around the time that journalists at This American Life released a timely episode titled “Low Hum of Menace.” Invisible threats loomed; and tensions were just starting to build. My personal life was changing as well, and the obstacles I faced felt insurmountable. Alongside stunning landscapes and atmospheric disturbances, Chekhov presents human anxieties triggered—more often than not—by desperate financial, emotional, and mortal situations. Read one at a time, each story serves its own unique inoculative function. But compounded one upon the other, the cumulative impact threatens defenses. Late at night—unable to stomach any more Chekhov—I took to consoling myself with bite-sized, surreptitious doses of Jhumpa Lahiri:

cover image of two lit candles, against a backdrop of henna designs for hands
Houghton Mifflin, 1999

After the Chekhov, reading Lahiri’s first collection of stories Interpreter of Maladies—published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999—felt a bit like sucking on fruit-flavored gum drops: the ones dipped in sugar crystals. And yet, the characters in these stories are also laden with anxieties. But, these are obedient anxieties. Anxieties with boundaries. Anxieties that manage to park—before curfew—inside city limits. Characters suffer; but at times provocation is so negligible, and the concomitant suffering so idiosyncratic, that blows shatter into effervescence. I am thinking particularly, here, of a story called “Mrs. Sen’s” about a boy on the cusp of latchkey independence, outgrowing his babysitter.

Of course, not all of these stories are meant to be funny. Even those that are manage to also feel poignant and sad. But Lahiri’s touch is light; and her voice is calm. I was comforted by these stories; and, when I reached the end of the volume, found myself mourning the fact that it was not twice as long.

After finishing Interpreter of Maladies—and just before leaving Kansas—I met a new friend:

Edith Wharton accompanied me on the strangest flight of my life: on a plane with just eight passengers. Together, we watched the sun set over the Pacific. I’m linking a photo of Edith Wharton herself—rather than an image of her Collected Stories 1891-1910—since my hardbound Library of America edition, dated 2001, is slipcased rather than jacketed.

This first volume of Wharton’s stories, representing her early output, is nine hundred pages long. Unlike Lahiri, Edith Wharton did not seduce, soothe, and summarily abandon me. Instead, she lingered by my side for nearly two full months; and continues to promise more in a second volume. Reading her felt just as comforting as reading Lahiri; although the stories tasted drier and required more savoring, as in the case of an orchid oolong or, perhaps, a fragrant mushroom.

Many if not most of these stories are set in New York City: connecting me in a positive way with a place which has been on everyone’s mind. Of course, Wharton’s New York and the New York of the present day are fundamentally different places. And—given the life of incredible privilege into which she was born—Wharton’s New York and the New York of the vast majority of her contemporaries were probably also different places. But rather than hold this against her, I’m choosing to view the circumstances of her life as fortunate both for her, and for readers; and as something which—in a perfect world—all writers, and all citizens of New York, would be able to share.

Within the stories, money—or, the lack thereof—is omnipresent as a motivating factor. It drives the characters’ actions as well as attitudes, and to Wharton’s credit often enough this is due to genuine need, as opposed to greed. However: unlike in Chekhov, the characters nearly always find relief. Coupled with the humor of the predicaments they create, and of the bizarre terrain they navigate, this makes for escapist reading as—in real time—savings accounts are drained; options crumble; and collective means disintegrate.

Wharton’s tone remains consistent throughout these stories. After awhile, dipping my way in and out of the volume started to remind me of picking up a conversation, even after a lapse of years, with my oldest and best friend. And at times, absorbing this author’s formidable psychological insight felt like acquiring a superpower. A magical secret in: a window on understanding people, and the complex but rational relationships between them. So bolstering. So reassuring.

Backyard roses

We’ve had such a time. In the space of three months, we’ve lost my father-in-law; traveled to San Francisco for funeral services during the first week of the coronavirus lockdown; assisted my mother in Kansas as her right hip was replaced, and cared for my dad while she was out of commission; packed up and shipped literally hundreds of boxes, after returning to Los Angeles; managed to dispose of everything not shipped despite local recycling centers being closed to the public; deep-cleaned thirteen years of accumulated grit before officially vacating our apartment; and, through all of this, continued teaching.

Fortunately, I have not been responsible for the teaching. But my partner remains hard at work, redesigning “United States History Through Reconstruction” for online delivery. And so now we’re delayed at his mother’s house: making extensive use, before we leave, of her functional internet connection.

And I am finally—after so many weeks of frenzied activity—starting to experience the calm of lockdown, of life behind closed doors. The eerie calm of nothing left to do . . .

During our last week in the apartment—between bouts of vigorous cleaning and deeply exertional episodes of hauling—I found something extraordinary: Clear Light of Day, by Anita Desai, published by Penguin Books in 1982. I hadn’t read Desai before, and didn’t know how special the book would be. But the richness of it—the depth, and the sense of immersion in a world of beauty—saved me at what, in retrospect, can only be described as a low point. The book made me feel human again: despite all the scrubbing, the sweating, the bickering and the hauling.

cover image of a painting of birds pecking at seeds and grass in a garden
Penguin Books, 1982

This is a family story, addressing multiple points of view as well as dysfunction, autism, and obsession. Set in Old Delhi around the time of the partition of India and Pakistan, dysfunction extends beyond the confines of immediate family out into neighborhood and community. Problems are political as well as personal. People get by as best they can. No one is perfect; and no experience is without frustration.

But beauty is sought, and found: despite the problems, and despite the frustration. I was reminded of Desai’s novel the other day when I read an inspiring post by Wayne Wolfson, in which we are challenged—right now!—to appreciate and enjoy the beauty we find, without reference to ideal or abstraction. I am not a visual artist; but have always longed for time to sit outside sketching leaves, grasses, and flowers. Now, it seems, I have the time; and access to my mother-in-law’s garden. Here’s what I’ve done so far:

pen and ink sketch of an unknown plant with stripes on long slender leaves

pen and ink sketch of an unknown plant with hibiscus-like flowers

pen and ink sketch of geranium leaves

In addition to geraniums, lavender, myrtle, and a whole host of things I can’t identify, my mother-in-law also cultivates roses. This last sketch was inspired by the roses in Clear Light of Day:

Every morning when the dew still lay fresh on the grass the mother followed the doctor’s orders and strolled up and down the rose walk at the far end of the garden. To Tara it was a long grassy tunnel between two beds of roses. Her father was supposed to have planted them. The gardener was ordered to take care of them. But neither the father nor the gardener knew roses: they put in cuttings and watched them come up, either small, weakly crimson ones or shaggy sick-pink ones, nothing else. Tara sighed, thinking of the sight that met her eyes whenever she peered through the wrought iron gate at their neighbor Hyder Ali Sahib’s house, at the round, square, rectangular, triangular and star-shaped beds filled with roses like scoops of vanilla ice cream, pink ones like the flounced skirts of English dolls, silky yellow ones that had the same smell as the tea her mother drank, and crimson ones that others called ‘black’ and which she always studied with narrowed eyes, wondering why she could not see the blackness but only the rich velvety crimson of their waxen petals . . . Why could they not have such roses, too? Still, this early in the morning, even these negligible pink and crimson buttons gave off a cool, fresh scent. They should have pleased the mother and Tara cried continually ‘Look, Mama, look,’ but she seemed to notice nothing, to be absorbed in other worlds, as invisible to Tara as the black of the red roses.

a pen and ink sketch of a tea rose

The Sea of Fertility, part I

Grasping & sensual attachment

Some people collect old cars. The love of my life—who can’t afford to collect cars—watches videos of other people driving the cars he would like to collect, with commentary in languages he does not understand. Later, he pretends to drive these same cars, while tooling around local streets in his functional if uninspiring modern economy sedan.

Although I take no interest in cars, I can understand his fascination with the obsolete, the classic, and the rare. Lately, I seem to have developed a similar obsession of my own: Tuttle publications from the 1950s through the 1980s. It all started with this book:

Cover image of a Japanese temple exterior in red and purple, surrounded by black with some Japanese characters
Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1982

Michael Gallagher’s translation of Spring Snow, by Yukio Mishima, was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1972. While Tuttle released its first edition of the book later that same year, the copy I purchased a few weeks ago, dating from 1982, represents an eighth printing. This beautifully crafted paperback is heavy for its size, with a pleasing font and page layout as well as sewn rather than glued-in interior signatures.

Founded in Tokyo in 1948, just at the end of the second world war, the Charles E. Tuttle Company appears to have started out as a publisher of Japanese cultural materials in English translation for export to the U.S. and U.K. Later, the company expanded to include offerings from other Asian countries as well. My interest in the Yukio Mishima novel, the first in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, started when I stumbled into a reference to his work while reading a review of something else. The Sea of Fertility, it seems, is a cycle of four interconnected novels predicated on a Buddhist premise . . . or, at any rate, on the doctrine of reincarnation, which has interested me for some time. As an English-language reader, I haven’t encountered much fiction with Buddhist or other Asian-based religious underpinnings. Ruth Nichols’ young adult novel Song of the Pearl, first published in 1976, springs to mind as an exception. But Nichols was a Canadian author with a background in religious studies: borrowing ideas from cultures other than her own. Mishima, on the other hand, was a Japanese author of the mid-twentieth century, writing within the context of his own organically Buddhist and Shinto national culture.

How ironic that an edition of Spring Snow—the first in a series of novels pursued on the basis of Buddhist foundations—would drive me straight into a grasping and acquisitive frame of mind, simply on account of its physical beauty. Its tasteful and restrained design; and calculated appeal to the senses.

Of course, the book didn’t actually do the driving. In reality, I drove myself. To a familiar and comfortable, if ultimately disadvantageous, mental parking lot.

Continue readingThe Sea of Fertility, part I”

Character on Kamchatka

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Last week I was able to read new fiction. This is tends to occur after birthdays and holidays; and would probably start to happen more often, were I to develop patience with library waitlists! At any rate, it was fun to read something new without waiting months for the book to become available; and then feeling compelled to finish it as quickly as possible, in order to accommodate the next waitlisted reader. The book I read last week—on my own terms, and in my own time—was Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2019, this is Phillips’ first novel. I was lucky to read a copy of the beautifully jacketed, hardback edition:

cover image of blue snowy mountains beneath a pink sky, with two very small figures in the foreground
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019

My first impression, confirmed a few chapters into the novel, was that it was not a novel at all but a collection of short stories with a specific time and place in common. A short story collection, in other words, with setting as a unifying element. Near the end of the book, I did change my mind about this; but not altogether. While some of the stories do interconnect, other threads are dropped and never picked up again. This reinforces pervasive themes of loss, disconnection, and disorientation; and allows readers to experience something like what the characters themselves experience. Throughout these pages, people do not know what has happened. They have no choice but to cope with not knowing; and the varying ways they manage to do so are, in large part, what make this such a fascinating character study.

At the very beginning of the book two sisters, ages eight and eleven, go missing in Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. They are abducted by a man driving a shiny, dark-colored car. Their disappearance touches some of the characters in the ensuing sketches directly, and others more peripherally. But it is a jolting event for everybody; and unusual in what remains a fairly insular, if internally fragmented community.

Continue reading “Character on Kamchatka”

A ghostless story

Nancy Pearl’s concept of the Four Doors to Reading goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve sustained excitement about A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter, for so long; without actually holding a copy of the book in my hands. At the end of her first ghost story Dark Matter—set on the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the depth of an arctic winter—Michelle Paver cites A Woman in the Polar Night, Ritter’s memoir of a year on Spitsbergen, as source material. I loved Dark Matter so much when I read it last year, largely because of the setting; and immediately searched for a copy of Ritter’s memoir. Unfortunately, I discovered that Jane Degras’ 1954 translation was out of print, prohibitively expensive, and unavailable through my local public library. I entered the title on a private wishlist, not really expecting anyone in my family to pay so much for just one book. But to my surprise, a couple of weeks ago a copy arrived: hot off Pushkin Press and purchased, it appears, for less than $15.

blobs of snow, white gulls, and an orange sun or moon against a deep blue background
Pushkin Press, 2019

Widely recognized as a “super librarian,” Nancy Pearl proposes the idea that individual readers prefer to enter books through one, or occasionally two, of four available reading doorways. Instead of using subject matter or genre as guides to help readers find books they love, she proposes listening to the way they describe positive reading experiences. As they do, she argues, readers tend to reveal which doorways they prefer. The four doorways Pearl identifies are story, or plot; character; setting; and language.

With language a close second, I am consistently pulled into a text through the visceral doorway of setting. Last year, I loved Michelle Paver’s ghost story because of the beauty of the landscape described. I loved the experience of full immersion in an environment so different from Southern California.

And last week, I loved the experience of reading Michelle Paver’s ghost story again: minus the ghost, and minus the story.

Continue reading “A ghostless story”