The Best Turgenev Novel?

turgggFrom his early shorter works ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’ (1850), ‘A Sportsman’s Sketches’ (1852), ‘Mumu’ (1854) & ‘Faust’ (1855), Turgenev went on to write seven novels: ‘Rudin’ (1856), ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ (1859), ‘On the Eve’ (1860), ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862), Smoke (1867), ‘Torrents of Spring’ (1872) & ‘Virgin Soil’ (1877). There are also excellent short pieces written during this period such as ‘Asya’ (1858) & perhaps his best ‘First Love’ (1861).

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But which of the seven novels is the best? Whilst this is a crass question and a pointless task, it is nonetheless a discussion in which we feel obliged to partake, the kind of nonsensical and pointless thinking, egged on by god knows what vague feelings of unease or incompleteness, that particularly interested Turgenev himself. So here we go…

 In chronological order:

  1. ‘Rudin’ (1856)

Rudin depicts a typical man of this generation (known as ‘the men of forties’), intellectual but ineffective, an interpretation of the ‘superfluous man’: someone who possesses great intellectual ability and potential, but is unable to realize them. Turgenev’s own view of human nature is centred on the difference between the egotistical Hamlet, too deep in reflection to act, and enthusiastic and un-thinking, and the active Don Quixote. The main character of the novel, Rudin, is easily identified with Hamlet. In the novel this Rudin turns up and captivates everyone. Then Rudin has his first conversation with Natasha, the love interest, she speaks of him highly and says he “ought to work”, he replies with a lengthy speech: “Yes, I must act. I must not bury my talent, if I have any; I must not squander my powers on talk alone — empty, profitless talk — on mere words’. Rudin eventually confesses his love for Natasha, she too loves him. Problems arise. Natasha wants to know what plan of action is Rudin going to propose, but he does not fulfil her expectations when he says that one must “submit to destiny”. She leaves him, disappointed and sad. Before his departure he writes two letters: one to Natasha and one to Sergei. The letter to Natasha is particularly notable in its confession of the vices of inactivity, inability to act and to take responsibility for one’s actions – all the traits of a Hamlet which Turgenev later detailed in his 1860 speech. The protagonist – not Rudin – defends Rudin’s “genius” while saying that his problem is that he had no “character” in him. This, again, refers to the superfluous man’s inability to act. He then toasts Rudin. The chapter ends with the description of Rudin travelling aimlessly around Russia. In the Epilogue, Lezhnev happens by chance to meet Rudin at a hotel in a provincial town. Lezhnev invites Rudin to dine with him, and over the dinner Rudin relates to Lezhnev his attempts to “act”. In all of his attempts Rudin demonstrated inability to adapt to the circumstances of Nicholas I’s Russia, and subsequently failed, and was in the end banished to his estate. Lezhnev then appears to change his opinion of Rudin as inherently inactive, and says that Rudin failed exactly because he could never stop striving for truth. But we’re not heard the last of Rudin: the novel ends with his death at the barricades during the French Revolution of 1848.

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  1. ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ / ‘Liza’ (1859)

The novel’s protagonist Lavretsky, a nobleman who shares many traits with Turgenev, is brought up at his family’s country estate by a severe maiden aunt, then pursues an education in Moscow, and while he is studying there, he spies a beautiful young woman at the opera. Her name is Varvara Pavlovna, and he falls in love with her and asks for her hand in marriage. Following their wedding, the two move to Paris, where Varvara Pavlovna becomes a very popular salon hostess and begins an affair with one of her frequent visitors. Lavretsky learns of the affair only when he discovers a note written to her by her lover. Shocked by her betrayal, he severs all contact with her and returns to his family estate. Upon returning to Russia, Lavretsky visits his cousin, Marya Dmitrievna Kalitina, who lives with her two daughters, Liza and Lenochka. Lavretsky is immediately drawn to Liza, whose serious nature and religious devotion stand in contrast to the coquettish Varvara Pavlovna’s social consciousness. Lavretsky realizes that he is falling in love with Liza, and when he reads in a foreign journal that Varvara Pavlovna has died, he confesses his love to her and learns that she loves him in return. After they confess their love to one another, Lavretsky returns home to find his supposedly dead wife waiting for him in his foyer. The novel ends with Lavretsky visiting her at the convent and catching a glimpse of her. Lavretsky finds comfort in his memories and is able to see the meaning and even the beauty in his personal pain.

 

3. ‘On the Eve’ (1860)

 About a girl with a hypochondriac mother and an idle father, who is pursued by a free-spirited sculptor (Pavel Shubin) and a serious-minded student (Andrei Berzyenev), and then Berzyenev’s revolutionary Bulgarian friend, Dmitri Insarov, with whom she falls in love, secretly marries, and then off they go to their doom. Though we admire the pair, we are also confronted with their naiveté and fanaticism: Turgenev’s objective approach to his protagonists, his presentation of their choices / life path, and the manner in which he lets their decisions play out, give the reader the job of judging them, a job the reader is never really up to. Oh, the reader thinks, there you go. But there are no answers. Judgement founders.

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4. ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862)

About a pair of friends Arkady &Bazarov who return from university to Arkady’s father’s modest estate. The father gladly receives the two, but the uncle becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called “nihilism” which the young men, especially Bazarov, advocate. The two young men then decide to visit a relative of Arkady’s and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means, who cuts a seductively different figure from the pretentious or humdrum types of her surrounding provincial society of gentry. Both are attracted to her, and she, intrigued by Bazarov’s singular manner, invites them to spend a few days at her estate. While Bazarov at first feels nothing for Anna, Arkady falls head over heels in love with her. Bazarov finds falling in love distressing because it runs against his nihilist beliefs. However, he soon announces his love. Then off to Bazarov’s home, where the pair of friends are received enthusiastically by his parents, and the traditional mores of both father and mother, who adulate their son, are portrayed with a nostalgic, idealistic description of humble people and their fast-disappearing world of simple values and virtues. Bazarov’s social cynicism is still quite clear however, as he settles back into his own family’s ambiance. But Bazarov changes as he turns to help his father in being a country doctor. He cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions….

 

5. ‘Smoke’ (1867)

The German bathing resort of Baden-Baden in the summer of 1862, the young Russian Grigory Litvinov has arrived en route home to Russia to meet his fiancée Tatiana Shestov, who will soon be arriving with her aunt and guardian, Kapitolina Markovna Shestov, from Dresden. One evening in his rooms, Litvinov finds a letter from his father and also a gift of heliotrope flowers on his windowsill brought by a mysterious woman who, according to the servant, did not leave her name; they strike a deep and powerful resonance with Litvinov. Later that night, unable to sleep, he suddenly realizes who might have brought them. And so the story reverts to about a decade earlier to relate the background story of the young Grigory Litvinov and Irina Osinin. Acquaintances in Moscow, the two fall in love when barely out of childhood and promise themselves to one another. Unlike Litvinov, Irina comes from an ennobled family of long pedigree, though in recent times fallen into near penury. One day the Osinin family, in view of their nobility, are invited to a ball being thrown by the emperor on his visit to Moscow. Irina agrees to go though she pleads with Litvinov not to go himself and Litvinov acquiesces to her wishes, though he does bring her a bouquet of heliotrope. Irina’s beauty makes quite an impression at the court ball and her life is forced into a different path. Off she goes. Marries rich. And now, in Baden-Baden in the summer of 1862, is back to once again ruin the life of the protagonist with strong feelings / love. Will he escape this time?

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6. Torrents of Spring’ (1872)

This one centres on the middle-aged Dmitry Sanin rummaging through the papers in his study when he comes across a small cross set with garnets, which sends his thoughts back thirty years to the summer of 1840, when, as a twenty-two-year-old he arrives in Frankfurt en route home to Russia from Italy where he meets a beautiful young Italian woman, Gemma Roselli, the daughter of a baker’s widow. Sanin forgets himself and forgets about his plans to return to Russia. On meeting Gemma’s fiancé, Karl Klüber, he manages to take a dislike to him (which the reader very much shares) and also to upstage him, winning Gemma’s affections and ruining their engagement. The following morning a friend of the offending German officer arrives early at Sanin’s door demanding either an apology or satisfaction on behalf of his friend. Sanin scoffs at any notion of apologizing and so a duel is arranged for the following day near Hanau. For his second Sanin invites the old man Pantaleone, who accepts and is impressed by the nobility and honour of the young Russian, seeing in him a fellow “galant’uomo.” Sanin keeps the planned duel a secret between himself and Pantaleone, though the latter reveals it to Emilio. Departing the Roselli home that night, Sanin has a brief encounter with Gemma, who calls him over to a darkened window when she spots him leaving along the street. As they whisper to one another there is a sudden gust of wind that sends Sanin’s hat flying and pushes the two together. Sanin later feels this was the moment he began to fall in love with Gemma. However, Sanin must now sell up in Russia in order to pay for his planned nuptials and settling down with Gemma. By chance, he meets in the street the next day an old schoolmate of his, Hippolyte Sidorovich Polozov, who has come to Frankfurt from nearby Wiesbaden to do some shopping for his wealthy wife, Maria Nikolaevna. On meeting this woman everything changes: she is too much. In every way. Sanin is hooked by her, drugged, captured: he really doesn’t have a hope. When we catch up with the older Sanin in the here and now we too have learnt our lesson. It has been a painful schooling for the reader; the lesson is one often taught by Turgenev – the dangers of passion.

 

 7.Virgin Soil (1877)

Turgenev’s final novel centres on the lives of a few young people in late nineteenth century Russia who decided to reject the social structures of their time, join the Populist movement, and set about in some way changing the world, fomenting insurrection, going amongst the people, making a difference, and generally being difficult, but always in the interests of a ‘people’ who don’t really want their interests taken up in this way, or at all really. The novel centres on Alexey Dmitrievich Nezhdanov, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, who seeks to radicalise the peasantry and involve them in political action. He is given a job as tutor to Kolya, the nine-year-old son of Sipyagin, a local politician, and goes to live on his country estate. Whilst working there he becomes attracted to Marianna, the niece of the family. In typical Turgenevian fashion Nezhdanov falls foul of himself. He is that recurring ‘superfluous-man’ character of nineteenth century Russian Literature, which Goncharov nailed down so comprehensively in ‘Oblomov’ in 1859, but Turgenev very definitely got the ball rolling with ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’ of 1850. Nezhdanov is so thoroughly unconvincing as a human being who will never amount to anything, but such ‘amounting’ is the stuff of so many great novels by Turgenev. Perhaps ‘Nezhdanov’ isn’t the greatest of such creations by Turgenev; however, he is another convincing and enthralling iteration: maybe he’s crowded out by so much other stuff in this ‘ambitious’ novel; I find the ambition in this Turgenev’s last novel, kind of crowds out what one most cherishes in a Turgenev novel: the superfluous-man going about his business, going around and around in ever decreasing circles, a more subtle tragedy than the Shakespearean, but a better Hamlet because of it.

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Ranking the Seven?

In order of how deeply they might affect a reader, I’d say the novels should be ranked thus:

 

  1. Torrents of Spring’ (1872) – I think this is the one that hurts the most. Knowing that Sanin does it, that he falls victim, does himself in, or otherwise jumps off a precipice; each step in this novel inevitably hurts, each twist is the twist of a rusty crooked knife; Turgenev is enjoying this it would seem, and so are we. By the end of this we are bruised but alive. Such, one supposes, is life. Even if we don’t fall victim in such a way to love.

 

  1. ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ (1859) – it’s hard not to feel a wallop of sympathy for Turgenev’s hapless heroes – this guy – Lavretsky – really gets a going over from life / women / love – each of the three seem to be things that happen to men as far as Turgenev’s protagonists are concerned, so they deserve to suffer – but how they suffer. It seems that the loss of control / volition / agency is the key ingredient for love – only when you’re well and truly caught are you in love. Any love you initiate, control and oversee isn’t really love at all. Learning to appreciate it? Always happens too late.

 

  1. ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862) – there are women in this too – hence the ‘proper’ if less well-known English title – ‘Father’s & Children’ – but it is the boys who take centre stage, and it is very much the boys who make a mess of things and of themselves, thereby garnering the reader’s sympathy. But unlike a character such as Rudin in ‘Rudin’, we do feel that Bazarov really could have done something (though what really does anyone ‘do’) – but alas… I think it’s because Bazarov comes to an untimely end that makes this novel so sad. The death of Rudin is a throwaway comment; the death of Bazarov is truly tragic because he had more or less learnt to live his life, and left behind the juvenile concerns – obsession with new-fangled notions, conceptions of society, the future, progress, the lack there of, and all of that kind of thing – that dominate 19thcentury Russian intellectual life, and very much distract us from the substance of one’s life.

 

  1. ‘Virgin Soil’ (1877) – If ideas and revolution and so on is one avenue that presents itself to us, living your life is more akin to falling in love: it’s always about that particular morass with Turgenev. The other morass, the kind of Dostoevskian quagmire of ‘The Brothers Karamazov, and its twentieth century manifestations where one worries about ideas and society and evil all of that kind of serious stuff, are very much secondary. One feels that Turgenev is feeling obliged in this novel to give ideas, politics and revolution more space than he really thinks justified: I want him to get back to characters properly ripping themselves to shreds. Worrying about the fate of the people, the future of society, poverty, progress, morality and all of that kind of thing seems unimportant in comparison. For Turgenev there’s more substance in your commitment to a woman/man than your commitment to a cause – and women are always better at this: it seems Turgenev has less faith in men such as himself, what with knowing himself so thoroughly and maybe hoping that women weren’t quite so crap. Because of the distraction of ideas / politics that is in excess of ‘Fathers and Sons’, I feel this one must come in fourth place. Less of a tragedy too. But what a shock – the ultimate fate of Nezhdanov

 

  1. ‘Smoke’ (1867) – women are at it again in this novel – in the guise of women – with their eyes and legs and hair – you can’t trust them in this manifestation – men are utterly at their mercy. Apparently, such was to be Turgenev’s own fate, in contradistinction to the fate of his father, who was dripping in will, grit, and that go-get them attitude that Turgenev worshipped and bemoaned. That these Turgenev men keep doing it to themselves, know that they themselves are culpable, and nonetheless keep doing it, wallowing in their pretty shallow but oh-so-deeply felt victimhood, doesn’t in the end seem to excuse the reader from giving a damn: we’re heartbroken too, as we are meant to be – Turgenev, it turns out, is not only very good at feeling sorry for himself, he can pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes too, as we wallow in our own self-pity.

 

  1. ‘On the Eve’ (1860) – with this novel the difference is that it’s the woman who’s at the centre of our experience; this one is all about the girl, and surrounded as she is by a clutch of those Turgenev men, she too is in very dangerous waters. This is what gives this novel the edge over ‘Rudin’ in terms of the impact it makes: Oh Elena Stakhova, to be lumbered with the great man Insarov! But being thus lumbered gives her life substance. Being unencumbered – or being only weighed down by vague romantic notions, a clutch of abstract concepts that seem huge, but are in fact of no real substance – mean that Insarov, the Bulgarian nationalist, can shuffle off the stage, Rudin fashion, and the reader sill merely shrug their shoulders: well, at least he was happy, with his pretty notions.

 

  1. ‘Rudin’ (1856) – the epilogue should be excised from every future edition, but otherwise it’s still hard to care for the Rudin type: just get over yourself. Everything you’ve stood for has amounted to nothing. Such is life. You should have loved. That said, it is nonetheless a profoundly moving novel, and sets the marler down: the Turgenev protagonist will miss chance after chance after chance to live their lives.

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Virgin Soil (1877)

Virgin SoilTurgenev’s final novel centres on the lives of a few young people in late nineteenth century Russia who decided to reject the social structures of their time, join the Populist movement, and set about in some way changing the world, fomenting insurrection, going amongst the people, making a difference, and generally being difficult, but always in the interests of a ‘people’ who don’t really want their interests taken up in this way, or at all really. The novel centres on Alexey Dmitrievich Nezhdanov, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, who seeks to radicalise the peasantry and involve them in political action. He is given a job as tutor to Kolya, the nine-year-old son of Sipyagin, a local politician, and goes to live on his country estate. Whilst working there he becomes attracted to Marianna, the niece of the family. In typical Turgenevian fashion Nezhdanov falls foul of himself. He is that recurring ‘superfluous-man’ character of nineteenth century Russian Literature, which  Goncharov nailed down so comprehensively in ‘Oblomov’ in 1859, but Turgenev very definitely got the ball rolling with ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’ of 1850. Nezhdanov is so thoroughly unconvincing as a human being who will never amount to anything, but such ‘amounting’ is the stuff of so many great novels by Turgenev. Perhaps ‘Nezhdanov’ isn’t the greatest of such creations by Turgenev; however, he is another convincing and enthralling iteration: maybe he’s crowded out by so much other stuff in this ‘ambitious’ novel; I find the ambition in this Turgenev’s last novel, kind of crowds out what one most cherishes in a Turgenev novel: the superfluous-man going about his business, going around and around in ever decreasing circles, a more subtle tragedy than the Shakespearean, but a better Hamlet because of it.

Mr A

‘Spring Torrents’ by Ivan Turgenev (1872)

Spring TorrentsOn reading another Turgenev novel, I’m always asking myself, is this the best one. There are only 6. This is the fifth full length novel that Turgenev wrote, along with the earlier four novels: ‘Rudin’ (1856), ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ (1859), ‘On the Eve’ (1860), and ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862). Followed only by ‘Virgin Soil’ (1877). Along with such beautiful shorter pieces as ‘Mumu’ (1854) and ‘First Love’ (1860), Turgenev has left us such a swathe of beautiful writing, stories that are deeply affecting as they are so well crafted.

 What most stands out about ‘Spring Torrents’ is how profoundly sad it is, how well it captures the most ethereal or fevered of human emotions and states of being: we are as heavily invested as the protagonist, as badly done over, and as hollowed out by the end of it.

Mr A

Both Henry James and Joseph Conrad preferred Turgenev to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. “James, who wrote no fewer than five critical essays on Turgenev’s work, claimed that “his merit of form is of the first order” (1873) and praised his “exquisite delicacy”, which “makes too many of his rivals appear to hold us, in comparison, by violent means, and introduce us, in comparison, to vulgar things” (1896).

 

It makes one smile that Nabokov praised Turgenev’s “plastic musical flowing prose”, but criticized his “labored epilogues” and “banal handling of plots”. Nabokov stated that Turgenev “is not a great writer, though a pleasant one”, and ranked him fourth among nineteenth-century Russian prose writers, behind Tolstoy, Gogol, and Anton Chekhov, but ahead of Dostoyevsky.”

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Turgenev

 

 

Unless by Carol Shields

‘The Stone Diaries’ I remember as being a great novel. It should have been – it won The Pulitzer Prize (shortlisted for the Booker). And ‘Unless’ is meant to be ‘Breathtaking’ Daily Mail. And ‘as poised and wise a novel as any you will read this year.’ Observer. But I can’t be getting on with it.

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…by this point in the novel I’m already a little irked by the narrator (I think you’re meant to be – but maybe not), but when she goes on like this, about books being a “gathered treasure aboard the deck of a schooner… catching warm bars of light” I wonder why she is expressing herself in this over-written manner. I’m sure the narrator is not meant to be a bad writer, although she is meant to be an unsuccessful one, by her own judgement.

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…”a smile that cut like a crescent through her whole body”? Though there are bits that are quite good… “the concentration of perception and silence that the library has promised each of its visitors and that has accumulated during the long sleepy afternoon” – though the “concentration of perception and silence” is a little over.

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…’these fake jewels’ indeed… a ‘tidal wave of sensation’?

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Skepticism and belief: “Twin babies in snowsuits.” – The reader really needs to want to buy into this, but by now i’m just not.

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Ultimately, it feels like this is writing that’s just ‘trying too hard’; it draws attention to itself more than it does anything else, which is why, for me, it ultimately fails, and why i had to stop reading.

 

I feel this goes to show just how hard writing good prose is: you have readers who need to be convinced, and someone comes along in between reading Elizabeth Strout and going on to a Turgenev novel, and they’re thinking: really?

 

And the answer for me, for this novel, will always be: no

First Stories by Clarice Lispector (1940s)

Clarice LispectorLispector’s first known story ‘The Triumph’ (1940) is a strange taste as well as a good introduction to Lispector’s writing. Perhaps the phrase “crucified by lassitude” gives an inkling of what Lispector’s early fiction is like: by turns startling and also a tad much (over-written, purple prose, ‘kill your darlings’ (a reported remark by William Faulkner (1897-1962), advising authors they must kill their “darlings”, by which he meant “suppress overuse of favourite expressions, tropes, characters” according to Wikipedia, but which has come to mean “get rid of flowery bits, prosaic baubles, fancy flashes that you’re fond of in and of themselves, but that draw far too much attention to themselves, certainly over and above their place/function/contribution in the piece of prose or poetry” – at least in my mind)). Perhaps expressions such as “little by little the day enters her body” show Lispector’s true genius. She has a way with simple no-nonesne, hum-drum language (how language ordinarily works) turning it to such astonishing effect, at least in translation. Witness: She always lived there with him. He was everything. He alone existed. He was gone. And things hadn’t entirely lost their charm. They had a life of their own. Luisa ran her hand over her forehead, she wanted to push away her thoughts. From him she had learnt the torture of ideas, plunging deeper into their slightest particulars.

Indeed, the early stories are full of good stuff, but unlike the stories that come later, these stories are bloated: the fact that they’re overlong almost ruin a few of them. ‘Obsession’ (1941) being a good example: an amazing opening few pages, but then it trundles on, and if it doesn’t quiet get lost, it still doesn’t get anywhere either. That said, the working’s out of the story’s problem, as introduced in the opening few pages with such flair, retains the interest. That Lispector’s later writing tends towards shorter and shorter stories is a good thing; however, the reader wants as many opportunities as possible for falling on writing such as this:

“ …during nights of insomnia, unable to reconstruct him mentally, already exhausted by these futile attempts, I’d glimpse him as you might a shadow, huge, with shifting contours, looking oppressive but also distant as a threat. Like a painter who bends the treetops in order to capture a gust of wind on his canvas, sending hair and skirts flying, I could only ever manage to recall him by transporting me to myself, to the version from that time. I martyred myself with accusations, despised myself and, hurt and broken-hearted, lodged him vividly inside myself.”

I think the reader can put up with over-long stories for prose such as this. Stories such as ‘Excerpt’ and ‘Gertrude Asks for Advice’ are more interesting in and of themselves than merely as insights into Lispector’s development as an author, and for that reason they are very much worth reading. But they are engaging too. And full of little wonders.

Mr A

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Obsession by Clarice Lispector (1941)

 

Utility 10/10
Plausibility 9/10
Credibility 9/10
Depth 8/10
Subtlety 8/10
Engagement 8/10
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 7/10
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 8/10
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9/10
Defamiliarisation 9/10
Total/100 85/100

 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (2019)

Olive, Again“It’s been more than a decade since the US writer Elizabeth Strout introduced us to Olive Kitteridge, the cantankerous eponymous heroine of her 2008 novel, which won a Pulitzer prize … Since then, Strout has written two acclaimed novels: ‘My Name Is Lucy Barton’ …and ‘Anything Is Possible’. She returns to Olive’s world with Olive, Again, a deeply affecting book that cements Strout’s reputation as one of the best writers of her generation.

“Like its predecessor, Olive, Again is made up of interconnected stories all set in a small town in Maine. It is two years since Olive’s husband, Henry, died, and grief has not mellowed her: she is still brusque, unforgiving, formidable. But beneath the hard carapace – and this is where part of Strout’s genius lies – is compassion, empathy and vulnerability, as Olive starts to feel aware of her own mortality…

“Olive, Again is a tour de force. With extraordinary economy of prose – few writers can pack so much emotion, so much detail into a single paragraph – Strout immerses us in the lives of her characters, each so authentically drawn as to be deserving of an entire novel themselves. Compassionate, masterly and profound, this is a writer at the height of her powers.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/03/olive-again-by-elizabeth-strout-review

Whilst there were one or two twee moments in the first novel, there were fewer in this. for a novel that deals with death, lonliness, love, and all the other areas of human interaction plauged by sentimentality, Strout manages to skirt the affected touches that ruin so much writing, and gives us such a beautiful, honest and spare account of the existence of Olive Kitterage, who may well be my favourite character from modern fiction: a cantankerous old woman, a retired maths teacher, a woman whose failures and successes are as modest as they are great. Best novel (if it is in fact a novel) of the last twenty years?

 

Mr A

 

 

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu (2016)

The Paper MenagerieThe title story ‘The Paper Menagerie’ (2011) is such a lovely story, so well crafted and affecting; it’s strange that everything else could leave you feeling cold. For example ‘The Bookamking Habits of Select Species’ doesn’t quite make snese, never mind work as a piece of fiction – though its pretentiosn to a Borges-kind-of-clever seems to have dazzled quote a few (thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of…) readers, as well as a host of reviewers. Of course, one may be missing something. Every reader could be said to be missing something; so i’m missing what’s required to appraciate most of these stories, many of them also prize winning, many ripping beautiful phrases out of well known literary masterpieces (Prufrock) to little effect other than annoyance, and with central conceits that don’t work (sould as an ice-cue one must keep cool and close by), magical realist flourishes that leave one cold, and ‘meanings’ with capital Ms that ring hollow.  So are these stories, for the most part, sentimental pap with little or no merit? Do you think that the sentence: ‘A kitten’s tongue tickles the inside of my heart’ has, standing there on its own, in all its figuraitve figuraitveness, any literary value? An interesting question.

Mr A

 

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (2011)
Utility 8/10  
Plausibility 8/10  
Credibility 8/10  
Depth 8/10  
Subtlety 7/10  
Engagement 9/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 8/10  
Defamiliarisation 9/10  
Total/100 83/100  

 

“Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection… With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards). A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.”

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24885533-the-paper-menagerie-and-other-stories