Posts Tagged ‘fyodor dostoevsky’

Monday Medley

What we read while disqualifying ourselves from the Masters…

A Book By a Songwriter: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles

Bob Dylan did some amazing things and lived through some amazing times: He was labeled, by some, the voice of the 60s. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival. He met The Beatles. He converted to Christianity. He hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Johnny Cash.

Should we be surprised, then, that none of that stuff made it into the first part of Dylan’s planned three-part autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One? Should we be surprised to find out that Dylan has instead devoted nearly half of the book to recounting the creations of New Morning and Oh Mercy, two albums that are, shall we say, less than canonical? Not really. Dylan has never been one to conform to expectations, and he has never really played into the commonly accepted narrative of his own life. He ran away from being labeled “the voice of a generation,” he retreated from the spotlight at the moments of his greatest fame, and he has rarely been open about many things that fans seem the most interested in, like his conversion and disillusion with Christianity.

In fact, Dylan spends most of his autobiography talking about other people. He talks about Dave Von Ronk and Daniel Lanois and Suze Rotolo. He likes history too. Often, Dylan simply retells facts from history class, or relays the biographies of historical figures: Continue reading

The Eternal Husband and Dostoevskian Simplicity

The Eternal Husband is the kind of novel I imagine Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with in a weekend. It could even work as a one-act play with its three basic steps: Take a wife who cheats on her husband, kill her off (before the start of the novel of course), and put the husband in the same room with the adulterer. And oh, nobody’s sure how much the husband knows.

This is the simple plot in Dostoevsky’s short novel(la).* Of course, many of Dostoevsky’s short novels have plots built on simple premises. The Double is about a guy who sees his double, The Gambler is about a guy who gambles, etc. These shorter works also tend to start from the same set-up, focusing on a mentally unstable protagonist who lives in a confined residence in St. Petersburg. Yakov Petrovich Goliadkin of The Double and, more famously, the Underground Man from Notes from Underground come to mind here.**

*I don’t know exactly where the cut-off between short novel and novella is.

**As, of course, does Raskolnikov, but I can’t really call Crime and Punishment a “short work,” can I?

The Eternal Husband is different from its predecessors—it was written in 1870, before only Demons, The Adolescent, and The Brothers Karamazov, none of which really fit the above pattern—in two key ways. First, it is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most economical novel. The secondary characters—you know, the kind that get entire books dedicated to them in The Brothers Karamazov—are, for the most part, negligible. The tertiary and quaternary characters are non-existent. I suppose there are a maid and a little girl who doesn’t talk much, but it isn’t really a Dostoevsky novel without a maid and a little girl who doesn’t talk much.

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In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace

DFW 1

 

One year ago today, David Foster Wallace killed himself.

I can remember where I was and how I found out, but not any real emotional impact. I was of course disappointed that a writer I had read and enjoyed was dead, but it was an abstract sense of disappointment; I mainly remember feeling surprised.

Now, however, it doesn’t seem weird or surprising at all: Reading Wallace’s fiction, pretty much any of it, is to become intimately acquainted with a mind that contemplates death and dread and depression on a fairly regular basis. This, of course, is in addition to the public knowledge that Wallace battled depression for twenty years. Wallace was, it turns out, a prime candidate for suicide.

Instead of surprise, I now feel intense and profound sadness about the death of David Foster Wallace, the kind of sadness that borders on anger. Almost every time I read or re-read one of his pieces now, I think about how terrible it is that the mind that wrote these words is no longer with us. I think about how many more years, and consequently how many more books, he should have had. I think about the things he might have written about the world as it has changed just in the last year, and would have written in the coming years. I think about the implications of a man that brilliant being so hopelessly depressed.

The only things that can make us feel so angry and upset, however, are the things that make us proportionally happy. And the truth is that these emotions make up only a small fraction of those I feel while reading Wallace: What I feel most of all is happy.

“Happy” is one of those prosaic and overused words that are hard to properly define, but it seems quintessentially appropriate here. The feeling I have while reading Wallace is akin to that of listening to the climax of your favorite song, or being in the company of a really good friend. It is the feeling of being completely and utterly at peace with the world.

Wallace’s writing is intelligent and complex, and engaging on an intellectual level in a unique way; it is funny and clever and insightful—but all of this was clear to me from reading his first book of essays. What his fiction showed me, though, was a narrative voice that is all of these things, but also transcends them. His writing is not just intended to be funny and smart and insightful, but also to make us happy (in a way that is also funny, smart and insightful). His writing is good because it inspires the morally good, nonhedonistic kind of pleasure (more on this to come).

At the time of his death, I called Wallace my “second favorite living writer.” In hindsight this feels absurd. Not only had I read far too little of his work to make that kind of judgment, but upon reading more I would realize that he is, for me, the best writer who has ever lived. Continue reading

I Think My Logic Is Beyond Reproach

First off, John, thanks for pointing out that you’re kind of a contrarian. Based on your posts earlier this week that attacked typical American villains in Atticus Finch and checks and balances, I was afraid you were going too mainstream. I was waiting for your next post: “How To Strangle Puppies.”*

*With special co-blogger… that’s too easy.

Second, it is interesting to note, as I did oh so long ago, that it’s far easier to hold the stance you do—that some things’ greatness is ineffable—when those things are considered great by the general populace. It’s not often that one really challenges you on your love for The Beatles, Dylan, Shakespeare, The Godfather, or The Wire. They are all part of the cultural canon by now, perceived as the best of the best. (It’s also notable that another work of culture that you once explained in your typical terse “You just don’t get it” manner, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” didn’t make this list; maybe because it’s not considered part of the canon, and you know how ludicrous it sounds now to claim that the song is great because it just is.)

The point is it’s a lot harder to say these things about less beloved artists; someone along the lines of, oh I don’t know, Barenaked Ladies. Individuals with non-conformist tastes are forced to defend them far more often; how many times have you or Josh condemned my preference for BnL? And how many times have you been condemned for your disbelief in God?

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