December is here–and already flying by. This is always a busy time of the semester and, even though I am not preparing students for exams or furiously grading papers to meet a deadline, I feel busier than I ever have been. This is because I have finally broken into a good stride in terms of writing, namely that I am spending most waking moments doing so, with a cup of coffee in front of me and surrounded by piles of library books. At the moment I am cleaning up the last few points on about eighty pages of dissertation revisions that I turn in on Monday, and have the review notes for revisions on an accepted article (plus one more job application) to tackle immediately after that. Then more dissertation revisions (I would like to get another 40 pages done in two weeks), work on two conference papers, a conference abstract, and edit another article for submission. I guess what I am saying is that I am staying busy but that progress is taking place. I also very much enjoy what I do. However, this also means that I have not had much time to focus on reading for fun, much less on writing here, though I did finish two books in November.
Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky
I may get around to writing longer thoughts about this behemoth, but haven’t yet both because of the aforementioned writing tasks and because I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in the story. I have mentioned before that I sometimes struggle keeping tabs on whoiswho and whatiswhat in reading Russian novels, and that was particularly the case in Demons, which careens between a large number of characters, sometimes being a close character study of individuals such as the intellectual Stepan Trofimovich, his patron Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, and her son Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, other times commentary on the Russian Marxist vanguard committees, and still other times giving a sweeping impression of the interplay between the aristocracy and the common folks in the town. It is a dark, funny, examination of a political assassination (or set of assassinations, really) in an isolated Russian town where the people who look the best are often the most twisted, things that look too good to be true certainly are, and where there is a pervasive, exhausting tension at every level of society that is liable to break open. Things could be worse (as several characters note, they were once workers in America), and while the leading aristocrats play deadly idle games to maintain their position, the disaffected aspire to bring about a revolutionary future without having any idea what to do should they succeed. Perhaps most damningly of all, Dostoevsky sets this revolutionary committee squabbling amongst themselves in this provincial town where the threat to their lives from the state is still real, but where they seem to have no chance of affecting change.
Another Russian novel, set in 1920s Moscow. The Letter Killers are a collection of writers who now aspire to set free their conceptions by expounding in narrative form upon a theme every Saturday night. Letters and books, they say, inhibit the individual from having his own conceptions and thus the pure form is direct communication from conceiver to audience. The Letter Killers Club consists of a frame story told by the interloper (i.e. non-professional conceiver), and then five of the conceptions, one for each week of the story. Thus, when reading the book, one is reading the writings of a non-writer who both has his own narrative and transcribes five conceptions that were not meant to be written down. It is a dense little book that builds layer upon layer. I cannot claim to understand all of the themes so well as the narrator, but enjoyed it nonetheless. I also must applaud the New York Review of Books series for the attractive format of their books and for helpful introductory material.
I am now reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book that I once picked up but am not sure I ever finished.