November 2015 Reading Recap

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
Tweeted quotes.

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.

The Letter Killers Club, Sigizmund Krizhazhonvsky
Review and Tweeted quotes.

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.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, The Letter Killers Club

In 1920s Moscow, a secret society meets every Saturday night, identifying each other by nonsense syllables such as Rar, Zez, and Das. The ritual is the same each week: they arrive to a bare apartment with empty shelves and take their accustomed seats, a fire is lit in the fireplace, and the appointed member begins to speak. More precisely, he begins to “conceive” of themes while the others listen. Nothing is written down since, as the President of the club maintains:

Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip.

and

Oh, how I hated all those people slitting open the latest literary journal with their paper knives, surrounding my flogged and exhausted name with tens of thousands of eyes. I’ve just remembered a tiny incident: a street, a little boy on the frozen pavement hawking letters for galoshes, and my immediate thought: both his letters and mine will end up underfoot.

Then I made up my mind: to shut down the inkwell lid and return to the kingdom of free, pure, and unsubstantiated conceptions.

The Letter Killers Club is told from the point of view of an interloper, someone without experience either as a storyteller, writer, or conceiver, who has been included in the group to determine if he is able to grasp the meaning behind the conceptions or if the club is simply a group of eccentrics sitting in a room once a week. After a series of upheavals strike the group the narrator sat down to record the five conceptions he saw. First, there is the conception of Hamlet whether the actors Guilden and Stern are competing for the Role (the lead part), then one about The Feast of the Ass, in which a love story is hijacked by profane rites. The third conception (my favorite) is a dystopian future where biochemists discover a way to create “exes,” decoupling the mind and body so that the body becomes a clumsy automated machine–first as a measure deemed moral to protect society from and use madmen, later an experiment run amok. Fourth is a conception about whether the mouth is for speaking, kissing, or eating, a crime punished by forcing abstention from the preferred action, and the equivalent withering of each mouth. Lastly, there is a conception about a dead Roman scribe who was buried without his obol and is therefore no longer alive, but cannot afford to be dead.

The setting, with the conceivers sitting in a solitary room with nothing but chairs and a fire is also suggestive of an oppressive regime without actually being politically subversive. Each of the conceptions is poignant and touching in its own way, but the amalgam is faintly bizarre. Moreover, there are layers of irony in reading a book built on the premise that:

libraries have crushed the reader’s imagination, the professional writings of a small coterie of scribblers have crammed shelves and heads to bursting. Lettered excesses must be destroyed: on shelves and in heads. One must clear at least a little space of others people’s conceptions to make room for one’s own.

The conceivers talk about theme and draw from each other’s stories and their immediate surroundings, but even though only Rar (who is considered something of a deviant) draws from an explicit text, they all rely on things that they read to generate conceptions. They do not refer to the texts, though. The conceptions are not meant to rest on anything concrete or oral tradition, but be a direct, fleeting transfer of theme invoked by the speaker into those who hear it.

The Letter Killer’s Club is an odd little book that is densely webbed together. The president of the club asks the narrator on multiple occasions if he understood the theme of the individual conceptions (he answers in the affirmative) and while I enjoyed most of the vignettes quite a lot, I am not so sure that I did understand their themes so concretely. There is a broader theme that Krzhizhanovsky broaches about the importance of one’s own conceptions, but also the importance of letting the letters out when it is time for them to come, for they cannot in fact be killed.

Live Tweet The Letter Killers Club

The fourth installment of tweets from novels: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club.

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Previously in this series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons.