Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

Book #116: The Cancer Ward

I liked Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward much, much more than I thought I would.

It takes place in a cancer ward in a hospital in a city in the USSR, sometime in the 50s – after Stalin’s death but before the Khrushchev “thaw,” though I don’t think it was ever specified. The men in the ward are a colorful cast of characters, from the self-important, bureaucratic Pavel Rusanov, to the young student Dimka, whose leg needs to be amputated, to the main protagonist Oleg Kostoglotov, who was allowed to come back from exile somewhere in the steppes to seek treatment, they are a diverse group.

Solzhenitsyn moves in and out of these – and many other – characters’ minds as they grapple with their mortality and illnesses, while in the background Stalin’s death and the fall of the secret police chief Beria have the USSR roiling.

The book is somewhat autobiographical – like Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn was a political exile. He also based the events of the book on his own experience in the cancer ward during his own treatment.

The book is almost the perfect combination of events and plot and reflection on mortality, the government, and many other things. Sometimes the Russians tend to wax a bit too philosophical in their fictions, going on and on and sometimes abandoning the plot for way to long. Solzhenitsyn found a good balance though, and all reflection felt natural, but the characters were still important and real, and I still found myself really caring what happened to them.

It was a pretty long book – about 800 pages in my edition – but I read it pretty quickly and was sad when it was over.

If you’re thinking about reading it, I say go for it. I think it’s much more accessible than some 19th-century Russian novels like those by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Plague

Book #108: Lolita

Wow.

That’s about all I have to say about Nabokov’s Lolita.

Wow.

Its reputation definitely proceeds it, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. I assumed the scandal was just because the novel was racy and the girl was a bit young. I was thinking maybe she was 17 or 18 and the guy was in his 40s.

I was not expecting the book to be, “My name is Humbert Humbert and I’m a dirty old man who likes 11-and-12-year-olds.”

But it was. It was and I had a much harder time dealing with it than I expected. It just kept pinging on my “wow this is really freaking creepy.” radar. Maybe I went into this book with a bit too much bravado. I was sure that it wasn’t as scandalous as I’d heard and totally confident that I wouldn’t be grossed out or disturbed by it.

But I was. I just…no. So much no. I can’t even begin to actually review the book or think about it analytically because it raises my No, HELL no! reflex too much. So I guess this post is more reaction than review. Hope that’s okay because I want to think about Humbert Humbert as little as possible.

Some people would say that “there’s no need for that” and that Lolita shouldn’t have been written because there’s no place for such stories in literature, but as much as this book truly disturbed me, I don’t agree. Would Nabokov have evoked such strong, visceral reactions from me (and so many other people) if Lolita had been 18 and a consenting “adult”? I highly doubt it.

For me there was the constant battle where I naturally wanted to sympathize with Humbert, or at least semi-relate to him, just because he was the narrator and reading makes you put yourself in the narrator’s shoes a lot of the time, but I’d be going along, starting to come around to him and then I’d stop and thing, yep, yep, you’re talking about having sex with a pre-teen.

It was wild. Not in a good way. I didn’t hate Lolita the way I hate books like The Scarlet Letter, because Nabokov is a freaking good writer. I just hated the experience of reading it. I wound up rushing through the last 30 pages or so just so I could finish and say, “I’m sure glad that’s over with!”

Here’s to never having to share brainspace with a creep like Humbert Humbert ever again!
I hope.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Kafka On The Shore

Book #91: War and Peace

I was really excited to start this set of books, because it was leading up to Book 100. And then when I went through and selected them, it looked like it was going to be the worst. group. ever.

First I had to read War and Peace, then two books later Ulysses. I wound up losing the rest of the list, but I know that Sartre and Beckett were also on there. Definitely tested my resolve.

Anyway, I’d never read Tolstoy, but I had some experience with the Russians and I had some idea of what I was getting into here. Lots of suffering and cold and philosophizing mixed in with some plot. I wasn’t wrong. That’s pretty much what War and Peace is. There’s some war, then there’s some peace, then there’s more war, people die, there are some Freemasons and some rich people then there’s some tragedy, and everything ends eventually.

I had a bit of trouble getting into War and Peace for the first 100 or so pages. It’s the story of a couple different Russian families and their experiences during the Napoleanic Wars. I had trouble keeping the characters separate and figuring out who went with which family and how they were all connected. The edition I was reading didn’t have one of those handy “Here are all the characters” things in the front. I tried to make notes to sort it all out, but it was too confusing. I just went with it and by the time I was 300 pages in, I had it mostly worked out.

For all the impenetrability of the Russian names and Tolstoy’s insistence on bursting out of the narrative at particularly symbolic points to be like, “Hey, see what I did there? Did you get that? Did you? This is what I meant. See? Get it?” I really liked War and Peace. Probably because it dealt a lot with the questions of how history is recorded and interpreted. I go nuts for that kind of stuff.

A big focus of the novel was how lots of smaller events and individuals eventually lead up to the huge events we see as “history,” but historians hardly ever study the causes of history, mostly just the effects. Given that I want to be a historian, it was really interesting to think about.

I’ll end with one “practical” bit of advice for anyone who wants to read Tolstoy (or probably any other books written in this time period): If you have to read something like War and Peace (and I noticed that Hugo did it in Les Miserables too), but you got too busy with other things besides reading a 1000-page confusing Russian novel and you really need to understand the point of it well enough to discuss it in class, just read the epilogue.

Tolstoy spent probably the last 100-150 pages of War and Peace being like, “Hey. Hey this is what the books is about. Hey. This is the point of the book. This is the moral. Didja get it? Didja? Didja? Hey. See what I did there. Hey. This is what this means. Reader, reader, reader, reader…hey…hey…this is my point.” He rehashes pretty much every major take-home point of the book in that epilogue, in case you weren’t paying attention for the last 900 pages or so. That was actually my only real beef with the book, in the end. I found myself wanting to scream GET ON WITH IT at Tolstoy because I read the book. I got it. But I guess he just wanted to make really sure.

So there’s my helpful “study” tip for anyone out there who may be desperately trying to get caught up on reading for English class. Just skim the epilogue. It won’t help with the plot, but you’ll get ALL the interpretation.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Time Machine

Book #55: Notes From Underground

I didn’t enjoy Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground nearly as much as I expected.

Dostoevsky is one of those literary names that I always associate with greatness. I assume that anything of his is going to be mind-blowingly good. I found that that is not necessarily always the case.

Maybe I didn’t enjoy Notes From Underground because I read part of it while sitting in a cafe in Vienna with freezing, soaking wet feet after I’d been walking around for 5 hours. I read the rest in my hostel when I couldn’t sleep.

But basically, Notes From Underground is the story of a bitter, misanthropic man. He thinks too much, longs to be important and intellectual, but instead he’s filled with self-loathing and spite. So, Notes From Underground is pretty much his thoughts. And his thoughts are mostly rants about philosophy, the sublime, modern society (modern for him, so 1860s St. Petersburg), and everything else. Basically, the dude’s a cynic.

He claims that every man who is well-educated should, in the end, be just as miserable as he is. Although he’s basically resigned himself to being miserable and maligned, he wants to change his life, but whines about how nothing can ever change. He will never become anything, because he’s stagnating.

I wish I could say more about the book itself and my thoughts on it, but I just didn’t like it. I will say, though, that I think I’d be willing to give it another go. I just don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to want to interact with this type of book. It does seem like the sort of thing I’d enjoy in a different time and place, though.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Drowned and the Saved

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