A Group of Readers

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>> Reading: The Collected Tales, by Nikolai Gogol
> Meeting: LOCATION TBD; DATE TBD, 2 p.m.

The Court of Law and Gogol

While many of Gogol’s earliest commentators focused on his quaint humor (positive), his artistic achievement with regards to realism (mixed, but positive by and large), and his representation of his Ukrainian kinsfolk (inaccuracies abound, goes the claim), they didn’t have the final word. Moreover, their responses were primarily in accordance with the critical and nationalistic discussion of the day, which accounts for the numerous testaments in favor of his realism, though a reader today would probably identify absurdity as a more dominant characteristic.

Yet it’s important to remember that whereas present-day taste sees realism as akin to documentary, and labored by the ponderous subject matter the genre often assumes, realism of the mid-nineteenth century was more sensitive to the artistry of mimesis, similar in type to that which Henry James would celebrate later in the century in his essay The Art of Fiction.

As such, the attentive way in which Gogol paints in fine stroke the details of, for example, his odd couple in “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” is very realistic indeed. Anyone who reads that story will not be able to forget the particular way each character offers a pinch of snuff, for instance. This is realism.

But I wish to offer another reading. And hope to invite others to do the same. Not that I’m denying the legitimacy of Gogol’s contemporary critics; rather I’m attesting to the timelessness of Gogol’s art by suggesting an alternative, no less legitimate reading. Specifically, a reading of Gogol’s careful expression of the law and its peculiar force on its subjects. I already sent this out, but I thought I’d include it here, too.

Once again: 

I recommend reading the attached story by Chinese-American writer Ha Jin (b. 1956). In particular, read it alongside (and against) “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich.” Consider the relationships set up by the matrix of each story’s primary characters. Then place these relationships within the context of the system of law each story expresses. You shouldn’t have to consult the historical reality of either system, but if you choose to do so I think you’ll find they’ve been represented in good faith.

I see the Gogol story as concerned with a system that embraces the Rule of Law, whereas the story by Ha Jin is entangled in a system of Rule by Law and Order; that is, the former system is impartial and more or less rational (even if that reason spawns contradictions and absurdities), the latter is arbitrary. This much is probably obvious. Which is why the real focus should be on how these systems influence the story’s action, how the characters are shaped by their respective systems, and how their styles, and by extension the storyteller’s/author’s style, suits the story it tells.

Finally, we can think about what the story might be trying to express about the competing merits and inefficiencies, the shortcomings and tragedies — and perhaps especially the ironies — of each system.

After reading “The Diary of a Madman,” and if you’re able to find it, you might want to read “Lennie Hearts Eunice” by Gary Shteyngart, a short story originally published in the New Yorker 2 years ago, and excerpted from the author’s novel Super Sad True Love Story.

Gogol Readings

Our upcoming readings are three from The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol:

1. “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”

2. The Diary of a Madman”

3. “The Overcoat”

If you have the time, read “The Nose” (1835/1836), a quick tale in which a “collegiate assessor” goes in search of his errant nose.

If you do get through “The Nose,” you may also want to read Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Nose” (1916), Haruki Murakami’s “A Shinagawa Monkey” (2005), and, naturally, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915). Each of these is concerned with a particular type of anxiety — the type you can imagine you’d suffer if you suddenly realized your nose went missing or was hideously transformed, or your name was stolen so that you could not remember it, or you were no longer a person but an insect, your legs now shrunk to such a proportion to the breadth and depth of your newly hardened back that you found yourself at an even greater disadvantage to your surroundings than you’d been just the night before.

Ray Bradbury Probably Deserves Better

We’re supposed to have read Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Now. I haven’t read the book. I’ve read 3 pages but I haven’t read the book. I get the sense that others are similarly situated somewhere between the very beginning and the very middle.

This isn’t necessarily bad.

We can salvage the discussion in a number of ways. First, how about reading his Paris Review interview from 2010 and brooding over it?

Next, try thinking about genre versus literary fiction, and come with an opinion on their individual merits and detractions, your preference (and your justification), and a sense for how Bradbury fits in with one or the other — to what extent, along with where and how he achieves effects with respect to either side, or where and how he fails to.

Depending on your taste, we’re either fortunate or unfortunate to live in a time when a peculiar mix of democratic fairness and meritocratic fitness has allowed certain genres (crime, sci-fi, comics and horror via vampires and zombies) to purchase significant territory situated between the two cultural poles — high and low. Writers like Jonathan Lethem (lit., sci-fi, comics), John Banville (lit. and crime, under the pen name Benjamin Black), Joyce Carol Oates (lit., horror, sci-fi) and Margaret Atwood (lit. and sci-fi/dystopian) have all leant their efforts to the cause for the appreciation of genre. There are legions and scores and, if you’re reading the NY Times, probably throngs of of others.

This emergence in literature is not necessarily new or exclusive. It mirrors the culture at large. And the world. Whatever institutions eventually install themselves in the Arab Spring countries will still have to prove their legitimacy through good governance. Our task is a little simpler: to evaluate the legitimacy of the work produced by authors who would welcome genre into the world of literary fiction.


But generally speaking, it is always more difficult to write four sentences in one, for example, than one in one, as in philosophy. A sentence like “I think, therefore I am” can have infinite repercussions in all directions, but as a sentence it has the meaning that Descartes gave it. While when Stendhal writes, “As long as he could see the clock tower of Verrières, Julien kept turning around,” in simply saying what his character does, he gives us what Julien feels, and at the same time what Mme de Renal feels, etc.

— -Jean-Paul Sartre

I was an anarchist without knowing it when I wrote La Nausée: I did not realize that what I was writing there could have an anarchist interpretation; I saw only the relation with the metaphysical idea of “nausea,” the metaphysical idea of existence.


The above comes from an interview with a 70-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre in the New York Review of Books. The 1975 interview opens with a somber inquiry regarding Sartre’s health, to which he replies “It is difficult to say that I am feeling well, but I can’t say that I’m feeling bad either…” He dies in 1980. In full, the question and answer read:

Q. After May 1968 you said to me: “If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.”

A. That is very true. And it will be evident in the television broadcasts I am preparing. Still, I have changed in the sense that I was an anarchist without knowing it when I wrote La Nausée: I did not realize that what I was writing there could have an anarchist interpretation; I saw only the relation with the metaphysical idea of “nausea,” the metaphysical idea of existence. Then, by way of philosophy, I discovered the anarchist being in me. But when I discovered it I did not call it that, because today’s anarchy no longer has anything to do with the anarchy of 1890.

As an added bonus, this interview was translated by a young Lydia Davis and Paul Auster, both 28 at the time and recently married. The two would become staples of contemporary American fiction beginning in the 1980s, though by then they had divorced (1978).


A tidbit to bear in mind while wading into the Sartrean waters of Nausea.
From the April 1, 1990 issue of Modern Language Review.

A tidbit to bear in mind while wading into the Sartrean waters of Nausea.

From the April 1, 1990 issue of Modern Language Review.


"The Pied Piper" by Crispian St. Peters.

Along with Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You been?” St. Peters’ song appeared in 1966, not coincidentally the year LIFE magazine published its profile of serial killer Charles Schmid, “The Pied Piper of Tucson” (March 4, 1966). A week later, Time would publish a profile of its own, “Growing up in Tucson” (March 11, 1966; it also published a profile the previous fall, on November 26, 1965).

The coincidence is not interesting. For one, this isn’t the sort of chance coincidence storytellers revel in, in which improbable connections bridge the yawning gaps between narrative steps, leaps and bounds, but the everyday coincidence of social phenomena — the seemingly spontaneous combustion of a single topic throughout all forms of media. It’s the kind of contagion advertisers, politicians and hallway gossips hope to effect. And, at least in some instances, the type of phenomenon a writer like Joyce Carol Oates or a director like David Fincher has a special sense for.

Their stories speak to the greater consciousness. Both often work as storytellers of a different, distant vintage, making mythology and cautionary tales by sifting through our cultural trash for the recyclables, which, in fairness, is the way mythology has always been made.

It’s worthwhile to go back and pay closer attention to the stories in which Oates is operating in this mode, as well as in which films Fincher is (he almost always is.) The stories are not without characters, nor are those characters un-relatable. But they do not probe the mind’s depths through that strict form of realism we’ve touched on in relation to Henry James, the high modernists who followed him, and the great majority of literary fiction after the Second World War (postmodernists included). Instead, they keep their cautious distance, too aware of the situation to risk getting close enough to intervene, too helpless against the powers in place — good ones or evil ones, for better or worse — to drum enough heartbeat to stir up action. They can be viewed as instructional, especially compared to the self-made mythologizing of Cheever’s grandiose narrators, or Saul Bellow’s, who speak in the language of individual myth, rather than cultural myth.

Like all lessons following the Socratic line, they’re meant to be pondered and debated. In them, character psychology does not reach very far beyond the archetype. Still, it’s a nice place for fiction to reside, on a sliding scale between journalism and myth.


On “The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well”

First draft finished 1949

Published 1954 (New Yorker) 

Cheever was “rightly pleased with this magnificent story,” his biographer tells us. When he presented it to Robert Linscott, his editor at Random House, it was received in kind, “the best you’ve ever written,” Linscott assured our self-doubting friend. Nevertheless, both were probably privately disappointed by the submission of this brief overture which contained scattershot vignettes of what was really hoped for—the ampler world of an inhabited novel.

For those of you worried that it postdates our consensus favorite, “Goodbye, My Brother,” and was therefore the better regarded, I’m pleased to let you know the opposite is the firm truth. “Goodbye, My Brother” followed, and followed immediately, “The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well.”

Reading them in such close proximity brings a few details forward. The ensemble cast of a family beyond waning that haunts the seaside; the slow unveiling of the key defeats that killed our cast and left us with their ghosts; and the mother’s role as a powerless arbiter responsible for delivering to us readers the final analysis of her wayward family.

By now we’re well aware of a few of Cheever’s most cherished features. I don’t think anyone even notices the pervasive appearance of bottles and glasses of gin anymore. But it’s fun to see Cheever working away on these two occasions with the mother always stalking close behind, watching Cheever’s every move as he plots out the intimate details of her family’s history. You can imagine her looking the part of the haggard matron, and gathering herself as best she can when Cheever finally turns to her and invites her in to have her say.

“I know one thing,” she said hoarsely. “I know that if there is an afterlife, I’m going to have a very different kind of family. I’m going to have nothing but fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children” (“Goodbye, My Brother”).

“Mrs. Nudd looked around her, and the time and the place seemed strangely important. This is not an imitation, she thought, this is not the product of custom, this is the unique place, the unique air, where my children have spent the best of themselves. The realization that none of them had done well made her sink back in her chair” (“The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well”).

It’s too coarse to read this tic with stubborn adherence to biography, but it would also be disingenuous to overlook the personal play altogether. So let it be enough to say that by January of 1956, Cheever’s diabetic mother was “bedridden and helpless.” She would not see the springtime.

“The Chronicle [his first novel] was not published (and this was a consideration) until after my mother’s death,” Cheever told an interviewer. We don’t need to know the extent of the influence, but it’s there. And it’s interesting to see the family dynamics operating in these stories, which Cheever is so good at, and more generous with compared to the other relationships. Finally, the family element has greater sway in the earlier tales, the later tales are more bound by the rope used in the matrimonial tug-of-war, or scoped on the solitary nighthawk, spying in as he gets himself in (and often out of) trouble.

Sorry to keep such a long lens with this first reaction. But I trust that we’ll get closer and closer with each contribution. I’d like to leave behind a few quotes for your consideration. The first about “Goodbye, My Brother,” and the second about “The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well.”

Cheever reflected that the worst side of his nature-the dour, conscience-haunted Yankee who considered all forms of earthly pleasure “merely the crudest deceptions”—was getting the better of him and his work, and he felt a sudden impulse to exorcise this dreary spirit. Thus he contrived the image of “a despicable brother”—himself, in effect—and wrote the words “Goodbye, My Brother.”

It is supposed to operate something like a rondo and I don’t think the chronology can be too exact…. The story is intentionally sketchy—Hartley is supposed to be a good man without my saying so….[T]he story asks a lot from the reader and repays him with the noise of the wind u the chimney.


Joyce Carol Oates, Invisible Woman

From the Paris Review interview:

On the “despairing” life in a Syracuse sorority:

The racial and religious bigotry; the asininity of ‘secret ceremonies’; the moronic emphasis upon ‘activities’ totally unrelated to—in fact antithetical to—intellectual exploration; the bullying of the presumably weak b the presumably strong; the deliberate pursuit of an attractive ‘image’ for the group as a whole, no matter how cynical the individuals might have been; the aping of the worst American traits—boosterism, God-fearing-ism, smug ignorance, a craven worship of conformity; the sheer mess of the place once one got beyond the downstairs. …I tried to escape in my junior year but a connection between sororities and the Dean of Women and the university housing office made escape all but impossible, and it seemed that, in my freshmen naïveté, I had actually signed some sort of contract that had ‘legal’ status…all of which quite cowed me. …I haven’t written about it, and never will. It’s simply too stupid and trivial a subject.

On the “advantages of being a woman writer”:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can’t be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose to do as I like. I haven’t much sense of, or interest in, competition; I can’t even grasp what Hemingway and the epigonic Mailer mean by battling it out with the other talent in the ring. A work of art has never, to my knowledge, displaced another work of art. The living are no more in competition with the dead than they are with the living….Being a woman allows me a certain invisibility. Like Ellison’s Invisible Man. (My long journal, which must be several hundred pages by now, has the title Invisible Woman. Because a woman, being so mechanically judged by her appearance, has the advantage of hiding within it—of being absolutely whatever she knows herself to be, in contrast with what others imagine her to be. I feel no connection at all with my physical appearance and have often wondered whether this was a freedom any man—writer or not—might enjoy.)

From the essay “Where Is an Author?” 

What difference does it make to know that Marcel Proust was a homosexual? … Can it be argued that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by a homosexual, is a more subtle, codified work of fiction than the identical novel would have been had Wilde been heterosexual?

We might say, with Henry James, that the artist’s life is his work, yet this is not quite the same thing as saying that the artist’s work is his life, for of course it can be only part of that life, and possibly, for some artists, even the gifted, not the most valued part of that life.


Joyce Carol Oates Doesn’t like Falconer

Or at least she didn’t in 1977, according to her journal entry for May 4th. It’s the only substantial mention of Cheever in her collection of selected entries between 1973 and 1982.

Read Cheever’s Falconer today. Rather disappointing: the flat stereotyped characters (farragut’s wife, his fellow prisoners), the improbable episodes (not brought into intelligent or witty focus as they are in his more deftly surreal stories), the blatantly “positive”—and unconvincing—ending. Well. Called an “American masterpiece” by my friend Walter Clemons at Newsweek Is it? And am I simply blind to its merits? […] But there are some lovely passages scattered throughout, having to do with abstract ideas or with Farragut’s memories. Some of Cheever’s sentences are certainly beautiful, graceful, uncanny. The problem might be that he is b nature a short story writer and cannot sustain a long work. In a story like “The Swimmer” the single surreal image is wonderfully developed, but in Falconer there are too many images that compete awkwardly with one another and come to no resolution. The prison cats, for instance, are barely mentioned before their slaughter; and then never mentioned again. Why? I suspect Cheever has no idea.) The “resurrection” of Farragut is a crude device, almost corny; embarrassing . It must have some private, powerful meaning to Cheever who himself came close to death and was “resurrected” … but he hasn’t transformed the process into a meaningful work of art here.

Her mention of Cheever’s near death refers to May 12th, 1973, when Cheever awoke in the night, coughing and unable to breathe. He had suffered a pulmonary edema (liquid in the lungs) no doubt due to his alcoholism, and had indeed come close to death.