Dirda on Books
The Washington Post
Hosted by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2000
Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST, Dirda takes your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.
Michael Dirda's name appears weekly in The Post's Book World section. If he's not reviewing a fat literary biography or an ambitious new novel, he's likely to be writing a lighthearted essay about the joys and burdens of living in a house filled with way too many books. Although he holds a PhD in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda is still smart enough to be an unabashed fan of "The Simpsons," noting that "the show's genius derives from its details." He also loves P.G. Wodehouse, intellectual history, children's books and locked-room mysteries – just the sort of range you'd expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished criticism.
These days, Dirda says he spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth and daydreaming ("my only real pastime"). Otherwise he just reads books and writes about them, with occasional visits to secondhand bookstores in search of treasures. He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer working on his reviews and Readings columns. "Do not imagine that I regard my taste for literary artifacts as anything but shameless and vulgar," Dirda says, "I have sunk so low as to covet Edward Gorey coffee mugs. I yearn for a bust of Dante to place on a bookcase."
For those of you interested in keeping the discussion going even when Michael's not around, we've set up our "Books and Reading" message board. Registration is easy, confidential, and most importantly, FREE. Jump into an existing conversation, or start your own topic! You can get there by clicking here.
Hi Mr Dirda,
More from browsing my shelves and stumbling upon old favorites: do you think that Walker Percy -especially Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and Thanatos Syndrome-and Peter Taylor -especially Summons to Memphis and especially especially the short stories- will be remembered or are they likely to fade from the collective literary consciousness? And what is your opinion on the works of the two of them? Thanks
Michael Dirda: Hi, welcome to Dirda on Books. Time for another hour in which we discuss all things literary.
I confess to enjoying the work of Taylor and Percy without being really passionate about it. People I respect--from Randall Jarrell to my colleague Jonathan Yardley--are great fans of Taylor, but his magic has hitherto eluded me. I've read at least seven or eight stories--1939, Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, others--with pleasure, but never the sense that this is My Kind of Writer. Percy's Moviegoer strikes me as a wonderful, if slightly elusive novel. Don't know why. Perhaps I'm not sufficiently Southern to appreciate their subtleties. I do tend to be the sort of person who prefers his fiction to be either deeply experimental or highly plot-driven. And funnier.
Silver Spring, Maryland:
I would appreciate your opinion of the new biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Well researched? Well written? Valuable addition to a library? Thank you.
Michael Dirda: Havnt read it, but the book has received extremely enthusiastic reviews--and I'm told been optioned for the movies. I suspect it's pretty good.
St. Petersburg, Russia:
It was perhaps as hard to read your Sunday review of Frances Saunders' The Cultural Cold War as it was for you to write. It is sickening to see those hidden, dirty paws come to light.
But I wonder if there could have been an easier, more upright way. There were plenty of Russian emigres - Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov, for instance - who wrote and tried to persuade others about what was going on in the Soviet Union.
Have you read Vitaly Shentalinsky's The KGB's Literary Archive. The book is a -really sickening- chronicle of the arrest and execution of writers such as Isaac Babel, and the harassment and humiliation of writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov.
Michael Dirda: The KGB's Literary Archive sounds fascinating, being a great admirer of Babel and Bulgakov. I love Babel's supposed final words, as he was being hustled away by the secret police: "I was not given time to finish." And, of course, Bulgakov is one of the most sheerly enjoyable of all 20th-century Russian writers. Many would choose The Master and Margarita as the best Russian novel of the century.
Why was it hard to read my review of The Cultural Cold War? Certainly it was a book about which I had mixed feelings.
I am resubmitting this from last week.
Has anyone out there heard of a second written ending to Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres? If so, how would I get a copy of it?
Michael Dirda: I haven't heard this, though there is an alternate ending to Lawrence Norfolk's fine historical fantasy, Lempriere's Dictionary. The US edition edited out much of the fantasy content and tried to turn it into a historical novel.
Will Book World review Saul Bellow's new book?
Michael Dirda: Of course. Should be out this Sunday.
What would be a top five list of best books to read as we approach the summer?
Michael Dirda: This is a big question. You might want to try some "hot" books: Camus's The Stranger; Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely; Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands; Alan Moorehead's The White Nile and The Blue Nile; J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World.
I just finished reading "The Turn of the Screw," my introduction to Henry James. Being a big Hemingway fan, I found James's convoluted sentence structure maddening; however, it WAS a good story -- even with its ambiguities.
To better my understanding of the story and those ambiguities, I searched the Net for an essay and thankfully found a good one. Its author opened my eyes to a lot in the story. Do you generally hold with such attempts to find-explain symbolism, or do you hold with the sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar philosophy? An illustrative story: When asked about symbolism in "The Bear," Faulkner once said, "Oh, that's just a story about a bear."
Michael Dirda: Turn of the Screw is notorious for its interpretive ambiguities: Is the governess crazy? Are the ghosts real? Does the governess induce a kind of hysterical death in her young boy charge? What happened at the boy's school? Etc. etc. I've always suspected that ambiguity was, in James's view, the essence of the ghost story: One could never know whether one had seen a real ghost or not.
In general, I hold with reading primary texts and ignoring most criticism--at least once one has left school. HOwever, if a book tantalizes enough, then, sure, go search out the interpretaions. Why not?
Writers, like all artists, can be more subtle than they consciously know. But The Bear is a story about a bear. It's just that a lot of other interesting stuff enters into that story.
I have seen a book by Shentalinsky called "Arrested Voices", which deals with the same issue as the book mentioned earlier. Are these the same book with different names?
Michael Dirda: Don't know. Anybody know?
Is there any early word on how the new Saul Bellow novel measures up to his other works?
Michael Dirda: Ravelstein is supposed to be a first-rate book, as good as most of Bellow's best fiction.
Chevy Chase, DC:
Re: 2 1-2's of 20th Century: -1-If you've read, what did you think of A. Scott Berg's biography of Maxwell Perkins, with its terrific stories about Fitzgerald-a generous spirit who recommended Hemingway to Perkins-, Hemingway-catty about other writers, including Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Davenport, Rawlings, etc.? -2-What do you think of Toni Morrison and John Irving of the second half of 20th Century?
Michael Dirda: I haven't read the Perkins biography, but I did read a lot of Perkins's letters at one time, as well as bios of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. And yes, Scott was a generous, big-two hearted guy, while Hemingway was anything but a great and kind spirit.
I think of John Irving as a first-rate popular writer. I think of Toni Morrison as a writer who understands her time.
I have always been squeamish about reading foreign literature in translation, so I have stuck to originals in the -Romance- languages I know. This leaves a serious gap in my knowledge of other literatures, especially Russian. Last fall I did read Gogol's Dead Souls, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and enjoyed it very much. I know Nabokov thought there was no such thing as a good translation of Russian into English, but I'd like to try. What are your recommendations for good English versions of Russian classics -Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, etc.-? Thanks.
Michael Dirda: If we don't read translations, we cut ourselves off from most of the world's great books. Of course, we will miss subtleties and nuances, but still--not to know The Tale of Genji or Crime and Punishment or The Leopard!
For Tolstoy, the Louise and Aylmer Maude translations are standard.
Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is most admired in the translation by Charles Johnston; Nabokov's is too literal. There's also another English version that's very good, but its translator's name escapes me. The Tales from Belkin and The Captain's Daughter are, I believe, translated by Natalie Duddington in what are pretty much the long established English versions. Penguin doubtless has somebody new doing them.
Dostoevsky--Pevear and Volokhonsky may be the new standard here. You migth use the Norton Critical Editions for Crime and PUnishment and The BRothers Karamazov; these tend to be reliable and come accompanied by useful scholarship.
Nabokov actually liked Bernard Guilbert Guerney's translation of Dead Souls.
Re: Faulkner's Bear. Rather than read criticism of it, read instead it's fictional reinterpretation, Elkin's novella "The Making of Ashenden." Elkin wrote his PhD thesis on Faulkner and claimed in an interview that Ashenden was an act of subterfugic homage. It's an anti-mirror of Faulkner's bear, and as outrageously laugh-out-loud funny as Faulkner's isn't. Thanks again
Michael Dirda: Yes, good advice. It's always time to read Elkin. Mistah Main, Mistah Main.
Have you read Russel Banks' Cloudsplitter? If so, what did you think? Also, how does it compare to your previous understandings of John Brown--the myth and the man?
Michael Dirda: No, didn't read Cloudsplitter. Most of my knowledge of John Brown comes from Stephen VIncent Benet's poem and from a section on the Raid in a book about my old college town of Oberlin OHio. A number of Brown's compatriots had Oberlin connections. Did you like Cloudsplitter?
I recently read V. Seth's "An Equal Music," found it rather cheesy but with erudite sections on music making.
Are there any great novels that deal with music?
Michael Dirda: That was something of my reaction too. Great novels with music: Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus comes first to mind. There've been a number of modern novels about soloists and quartets--none of which I can recall. Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata is partly about the power of music to inspire lust (an idea that Plato probably started). But for some reason I"m blanking on other titles. Any help?
To the extent you can make such a statement, what is the trend in publishing trade fiction. What books are being published outside that trend? And what advice can you give to unpublished novelists attempting to get published in the era of "sameness" and the incredible shrinking mid-list?
Michael Dirda: The trend in publishing trade fiction is the same as it has always been: To publish books that make money, ideally a lot of money. If they can be good books, all the better, but this is not a necessity. As it happens, there are so many small presses these days that almost any kind of book, of merit, can be published somewhere. Doesn't, of course, mean that anybody will read it, though. The only advice I can give is to be a very, very good writer.
Mr. Dirda: I used to be a huge fan of James Purdy. I particularly liked Malcolm, Mourners Below, and On Glory's Course among others. I've also read two of his recent novels: Out with the Stars and Garments the Living Wear. Although there are some fine points in the later novels--the boy walking Sousa back to the train following the hometown concernt, e.g.--I wonder. . . . QUESTION: What do you make of Purdy and his place in 20th century American fiction?
Michael Dirda: A small sidetrack in American literature--a camp novelist, something of a cult figure. Will probably be forgotten in a generation. Malcolm is probably his best bet for survival, but a lot will depend on his readers and whetehr they can keep his name and fiction before the public. So far they haven't been doing much of a job. Personally, I think Purdy is funny, brilliant writer, but that doesn't assure immortality.
Walter Arndt's translation of Eugene Onegin is first-rate. Arndt made a point -as in his other translations of Pushkin and Rilke- of following the rhyme scheme and form of the original as well as trying to capture the sense, and was quite successful in doing both.
Michael Dirda: Most people seem to prefer Johnston's. Interestingly, Douglas Hofstadter--Godel EScher Bach and Le Ton BEau de Marot--recently brought out a version too, after studying all those currrently on the market. Arndt's did win a Bollingen Prize, to the consternation of Nabokov.
In the process of reading Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and finding it fascinating. Are there other biographies on Zelda I should read? Joint bios of Scott & Zelda? Should it be easy to get my hands on a copy of her novel Save Me the Waltz?
Michael Dirda: So far as I know, Milford's is still the standard bio, though other scholars have examined Zelda's relationship with Scott. Save me the Waltz used to be in paperback and fairly easy to find; though I haven't seen a copy recently. One would think it would still be in print though.
Have you read Danzy Senna's novel Caucasia? What are your thoughts on it?
Michael Dirda: Don't know this book at all. Tell me about it.
I recently read "The Seville Communion" by Arturo Reverte-Perez. I couldn't remember whether or not you had liked it, but I enjoyed it as introduction to his work. I am now reading "The Club Dumas," which I know you recommend highly, and am enjoying. I stayed away from "The Flander's Panel" for the reason I avoided the game Myst -- I don't play chess. Is it worth trying, or will I not get a lot of enjoyment out of it? Incidentally, my copy of Dumas has a sticker advertising the film "The Ninth Gate", which I assume is loosely based on the book? Can't imagine it, but I'm not that far into the book yet.
Michael Dirda: Flanders Panel and Club Dumas are generally regarded as his two best: He's a lot of fun, though I'm not that ardent a fan. Yes Ninth Gate is based on the book; only saw the trailers and thought Johnny Depp looked really cool.
It seems in the last few years, there has been an abundance of popular releases by black women writers -which seemed to take off with Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale-. Do you think that this is just a passing fancy in the publishing world?
Michael Dirda: The publishing world is all passing fancy; there's nothing else to it. If a book is a hot number, publishers will always seek to duplicate it. Most of these books will disappear and no one will read them 10 years from now.
Last time today, I promise:
Two good novels with music as major theme: Rushdie's Ground Beneath Her Feet and Dennis McFarland's The Music Room.....
Michael Dirda: Ah yes, should have remembered the Rushdie. THanks.
Re: Novels About Music. Anthony Burgess was a classical composer. I haven't read it, but isn't his Napoleon Symphony--I think that's the title--about music?
Michael Dirda: No, but it has a musical structure, Burgess wrote a lot about music, as well as composing himself. Another giant slowly vanishing away.
Finally got around to reading Terry Pratchett recently. The early Discworld novels are being re-released at a lower price so it's a great time to start. It's great fun not only read them at the "slap stick" level, but also to identify the famous fantasy characters he's lampooning. If you like Prachett, try Glen Cook's fantasy detective series. A really fun combination of hard-boiled detective fiction and fantasy.
Michael Dirda: Only the early books directly lampoon figures like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. But Pratchett is a god--very funny, amazingly prolific, intelligent, and utterly irresistible. Don't know Glen Cook except by name.
Well, that's it for this week, folks. Till next Wednesday, keep reading!
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