The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There are not enough hours in the day (or night) to read all the books I want to, as evidenced by the TBR (to be read) stacks threatening to take over a corner of my study. Reading one book leads me to read others, as The Rings of Saturn which I blogged about a few weeks ago sent me searching for a copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.

One area where my attention has been deficient is the Russian authors. I somehow missed reading them in school and, apart from Nabokov, never got around to reading them until recently. Prompted by my nephew, I did read War and Peace a couple of years ago, and now, driven by one of my book clubs, I’ve dipped my toe in Dostoyevsky’s oeuvre. Unfortunately I missed the discussion, but I’m grateful for the push.

This book precedes his famous novels. According to the Introduction (which, as always, I read only after finishing the story), it is a pivotal novel in his development as an author, leading him to find his own voice and themes. There is a brief chapter describing how the narrator meets a quiet, withdrawn man named Alexander Petrovitch Goriantchikoff. When the man passes away, the narrator is given the pages of the narrative that make up the rest of the book. It turns out to be an account of the ten years Alexander Petrovitch spent in prison in Siberia.

As a nobleman, Alexander Petrovitch fears the other convicts while envying their camaraderie. He thinks that now they have a nobleman within their power, the men will take out on him their rage at the whole social class. Yet, as he gradually gets to know them, he is able to distinguish good characteristics from bad. The joy of the story for me lies in these vivid portraits of his fellow prisoners and the people who run the prison. It was this appreciation of the value of the lowest of the low that gave rise to his later novels.

Though it is called a novel, this story is based on Dostoyevsky’s own experience. He spent nine years in Siberia after being arrested for supposedly being a member of a revolutionary group. According to the Introduction by Nikolay Andreyev, in writing this book “Dostoyevsky was circumspect in his descriptions.” He toned down both the brutality of the conditions and the hostility of his fellow inmates.

There are a couple of lessons here for memoir writers. Dostoyevsky called the book a work of fiction at least in part to avoid retribution by the authorities. Many memoir writers worry—as they should—that by telling their own story, they will hurt family members or others. I believe that telling someone else’s story, as we inevitably must in telling our own, is a huge responsibility, not to be taken lightly. One solution is to call your book a novel, changing names and recognizable details to hide the identities of the other people.

Another solution is to treat the other people in your memoir with respect and compassion. While I wouldn’t go so far as Dostoyevsky’s decision to hide the truth of his experience, I do think we owe it to the other people in our memoir to present them objectively. No matter how badly they may have behaved, we can try to understand why they did what they did. I personally found that making that effort benefited me as well. It made me see them with new eyes and wiped out any remaining resentment.

This book is a good example of an episodic plot. As we follow Alexander Petrovitch’s days (and nights), we meet various people and incidents, but there is no overall rising action that leads to a climax and resolution, the more common plot structure for novels. Nonetheless, it held my attention and introduced me to characters I will not soon forget. I’m looking forward to reading more of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other Russian authors.

Which Russian novel do you recommend?

The Black Narrows, by S. Scott Whitaker

This poetry chapbook from Broadkill Press caught my attention at the CityLit Festival last week at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Black Narrows is an oyster shack town on an island in the Chesapeake Bay, an island slowly being submerged by the rising water level and the erosion of its edges. It is a fictional island, but based on actual islands now lost beneath the Bay.

Whitaker’s spare and strong poems describe the people of Black Narrows, and a way of life that has almost disappeared.

At least at the edge of the land,
before ocean swallows all hope,
we know what we want . . . .

There are young boys skating on the ice on Narrows Marsh that cracks like “the snap of crab-backs over thumb”, joyfully racing down the sawgrass-lined channels. And Ally with her rum flask and cigar. There is John Max who “stole / the backside oysters off the beds laid by Smith, / Sharp and Floyd.” And Marie Countee who came as a new bride to live a fantasy of being a waterman’s wife, who has to learn to pry oysters from their beds and pace within the narrow limits of her walls. Folks so poor they save scrapes of material in Mason jars to use as patches.

There are work songs that capture the rhythm of the old sea chanties. And songs about unruly drunken nights. There are some poems about those who leave, going up the coast to cities where they can make their lonely money, and those who stay behind, “who will not leave the marsh until it is broken.” Those too old to leave light their stoves and drink chicory and make meal from horse corn.

Together the poems build a portrait of a place now lost, or nearly so, and its people. Whether they are yelling their drinking songs or quietly going mad, these people will touch you. You will not soon forget them.

What other books have you read about the Chesapeake Bay, its islands or its borders, such as Virginia’s Tidewater or Maryland’s Eastern Shore?

The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time. It’s ostensibly a travel memoir, a record of a walking tour of Suffolk, on the east coast of England, that Sebald took in August, 1992. However, the narrator sometimes seems to be someone else. The title comes from one of the epigraphs, a quote from the Brockhaus Encyclopedia explaining that Saturn’s rings are probably “fragments of a former moon” that was destroyed when it came too near the planet.

The image works on several different levels, not just his circuitous route around Suffolk but also the wanderings of his mind. Each location prompts a memory, some bit of arcane knowledge or history which Sebald shares with us. For example, sitting on the beach near Southwold, he is reminded of the Battle of Sole Bay, when the Dutch fleet attacked in 1672 and of the painting at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. He imagines the scene in rich detail, the powder magazines exploding, the hulls burning down to the waterline, the yellowish-black smoke. He says that the body of the commander of the English fleet, the Earl of Sandwich, washed ashore a few weeks later, “the seams of his uniform had burst asunder, the buttonholes were torn open, yet the Order of the Garter still gleamed in undiminished splendour.”

In another chapter, the bridge over the Blythe reminds him that the train that first ran on it was originally built for the Emperor of China. The story of how that came to happen is spun out through the Taiping rebellion, the Opium Wars, several emperors, Charles George Gordon (later of Khartoum fame), a scheming dowager empress and her silkworms.

In other chapters we learn about herrings, an Anglo-irish rebel, Joseph Conrad, Norfolk’s silk industry, and a housekeeper who obeyed her employer’s injunction never to speak to him and as a result was left a fortune, among much else—all of it fascinating. And almost all of it tinged with melancholy. He visits the once-thriving towns of Suffolk that are now run-down, remembering the luxury hotels and mansions that have now disappeared or become schools or hospitals. He walks across scrub that was once fields for the flocks of sheep required by the booming wool trade, now gone. His stories are illustrated by grainy black and white photographs, quirky evocations of a remembered past.

He ruminates about the things that are lost, things that have been destroyed or have disintegrated, such as the windmills “whose white sails revolved over the marshes of Halvergate and all along the coast”, dismantled after WWI. It is not surprising that he checked into a hospital at the end of his tour.

The narrator is working on a translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, a 1658 philosophical “Discourse” prompted by the discovery of some Bronze Age burial urns in Norfolk. While talking about various burial customs, Browne, a devout Christian, reflects on the transitory nature of our achievements in this life. References to Browne crop up in Sebald’s narrative, from his presence at an anatomy lesson in Amsterdam, recorded by Rembrandt, to his catalogue of remarkable books and other artifacts that Sebald believes were mostly imaginary.

The fashion these days is for memoirs to be built primarily of dramatic scenes, held together by as little narration as possible. This book is an interesting hybrid because, though it is all narrated by the author, he infuses his stories with plenty of drama, enough to keep me reading through the night. Even with his stories of what has been lost or forgotten, I loved this book. It is one I will long treasure and return to. Saturn’s rings made of fragments of a moon also make a fitting image for these themes of memory and decay.

What comes to mind when you think of the east coast of England?

Natural Flights of the Human Mind, by Clare Morrall

This quirky novel revolves around two people. One is Peter Straker, who lives in a decommissioned lighthouse on the Devon Coast, haunted by an event from his past. His only company consists of the voices from that event. Although he goes into the village via bike and boat to purchase groceries, he does not speak to anyone. He has not spoken aloud in years. The cliff is eroding at an ever-faster rate, ensuring that the lighthouse will soon fall into the sea. Straker, however, views this prospect with complacence. He hopes he will be in the lighthouse when it falls.

The other is Imogen Doody, a loud, prickly and inexplicably angry woman who works as a school caretaker. She has been left a dilapidated cottage in the village by her godfather and begins coming down on weekends to fix it up. She also begins to be curious about the godfather she never met, a friend of her parents whom they lost touch with early on. Fired by an ongoing love of the series of children's stories featuring Biggles, , she is intrigued to discover that her godfather was a pilot.

There are several mysteries to untangle. What events so damaged these two people? What happened to Doody's husband who inexplicably disappeared 25 years earlier? Can Straker ever come to terms with his past? Will these two people, both seriously lacking in social skills, ever come to communicate with each other?

Recently I came across the notion that all modern fiction may be about overcoming the personal isolation that is a consequence of urban life. While I know the cosy village life referred to as “Merrie England” never really existed, there was a certain groundedness in living in the same small area all of your life, among the same people. The need to find a way to get along with each other and to depend on each other's help is lost when we can change jobs and homes and even countries with ease. Our fractured existence, the idea goes, leaves us feeling rootless and alone.

Perhaps I have just been lucky, but I have have always found multiple warm and welcoming communities wherever I have landed. The community may be a neighborhood, or just as easily a book club, a writers' group, regulars at the skating rink, a community dance, or even people at your job. Any activity collects like-minded people who tend to take an interest in each other and can easily grow into a community as you meet again and again over the years.

Still, I agree that isolation and overcoming our fears and hesitations in order to connect with each other are important themes. They do not weigh heavily on this book, though. I quickly became invested in these two people and even in the others around them, their families, their adversaries. The pacing is good, with twists as they strike out in different directions trying to find answers or perhaps peace. The descriptions are outstanding, such as the booming wind that pummels the lighthouse and makes the suicides who regularly show up have to fight their way to the edge; they really have to want it to throw themselves over! Best of all, the ending satisfies.

Have you read any books that seem to trail off or stop abruptly without a satisfying ending?