I’ve discussed before the joy that ensues when I turn the page of a used book and find something left there by its previous owner. Child of the Cold War that I am, these little surprises throw me right back into the belief that the presence of any object could be something other than the result of negligence or coincidence– that if you know what to look for, and how to go about it, that seemingly insignificant castoff could take you down a wild rabbit hole of adventure and mind-bending.
The postage sticker I found this weekend tucked in between two brittle, yellowed pages of my copy of George Mills gave off precisely that sort of aura. Its probable origins in Germany or Austria or Switzerland (what about the delicious possibility of Liechtenstein?) means that my book itself may very well have spent time on foreign soil, and in a place where the grudging default to tourist-aimed English was bypassed in favor of French. It’s just the sort of thing the spy I wanted to be as a child might have used, especially since the backing for this airmail label, as time-yellowed as are the pages that had apparently cradled it for years, might be old enough to have been printed back in the days of perestroika.*
I don’t often let go of books once they’re in my possession. But the next time I donate a volume or two, I might just stick something in between the pages, hoping to pass along to the text’s new owner the simple pleasure of finding hidden treasures someone else has left behind.
* Given the current, weird mélange of affinity and hostility being displayed between old-enemy world powers, maybe, in line with my desire to see greater meaning in found objects than they actually possess, the appearance of my very hypothetically-dated sticker may constitute a significant message about to be revealed!
Yuri Trifonov: I’d read some of his short stories before, and remember thoroughly enjoying them– but also, as is often the case with me, couldn’t tell you anything about their contents, or why I found the work so great. But I grabbed another of his books a few weeks back, Another Life and The House on the Embankment: Novellas, and after taking my time with it, was once again solidly impressed. And I also made a note of– was struck, in fact, by– Trifonov’s brilliant ability to bring a story to a close.
I realized that each of the novellas in this volume did in under 200 pages what other authors usually need over a thousand to do: namely, build up a years-long saga that allows us to get to know the characters as believable, full, ambivalently ethical and talented and likable human beings, all the while quietly weaving along a plot until, close to the end, we realize what he’s been constructing, and how it emerges into significance both for the protagonists and for the reader’s sense of how life plays out for our species in general, often even across very different times and cultures. Indeed, if I’m remembering John Updike’s intro to the book correctly, he notes that Trifonov had the ability, writing as he did in the midst of the Cold War, to bring out the humanity and relatability of individual lives many “Westerners” thought could never have been played out on the other side of the easy-to-stereotype Iron Curtain.
I was frankly surprised that Trifonov apparently never suffered any regime censure. The strength of his characters, the unfair, often oppressive, realities they face– and with all the nuance and thoughtful cowardice, if that latter phrase makes any sense, that anyone else would– these people are hardly the joyful defenders of the ongoing class struggle we expect to be the only types of which Soviet authorities approved.
What I found least relatable? The inclusion, in The House on the Embankment, of an old chestnut that makes its way into literature and the arts all over the world: namely, one character offering another agitated one a glass of water, in order to comfort and/or calm the latter. I have never been on the receiving end of this gesture, or even ever seen it played out in actual life– and I’m left wondering where this narrative commonplace came from, and if any real-world person has ever experienced it. How is a glass of water supposed to make anyone feel better, cause her (because it’s usually a her) to stop ranting or crying or to pause in her hysteria long enough to pull herself together and produce a coolly rational sentence? When this ceremony plops its way into a plot, I usually suspect that the author didn’t know what else to do in order to get through the scene, and/or has never actually been in a situation as tense or uncomfortable as the one that wants to be written.
Anyway. That unsatisfactory paragraph was so minor, I think it’s absolutely excusable, and it won’t stop me at all from looking to Trifonov as a master of the novella form. Still: if you’ve ever been treated to the would-be consolation of a glass of water, I want to hear about it– especially whether it did its intended job or not. Happy Christmas, everyone, and have a long tall drink of water for me.
There’s a story going round in my head, which has emerged courtesy of a conversation about personal travel experiences. And I have most of the narrative laid out– the only problem, if problem it is, is that, to be honest to the near-contemporary episodes ripe for examination, this tale is demanding to take place in Nabokovian time, a temporal space that could never rule out the possibility of, say, Walter Benjamin meandering through the gathered ensemble, an old-world, book-bound sort of Alfred Hitchcock cameo.
But the risks of undertaking such a project are rife; although historical accuracy isn’t a matter of concern here, the sort of language that’s forcing its way onto paper is obviously not the stuff of the Twitter era, or even of my own Reaganite childhood, whose idiom perseveres undaunted, sometimes forgetting that Max Headroom died long ago. Imitation of dialects and generation-based modes of speech so often results in sad rigidity, somehow betraying the author as nothing more than a hollow shell unable to thrive in his/her own time.
The good factor here–or bad, depending on one’s writerly skill and ability to compare it accurately with others’– is the presence of works that have brilliantly carried out just such aspirations. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in addition to feeling linguistically alive, is so amazing that I forgave the author for having written The Crying of Lot 49, or at least for what felt there like a misogynist’s take on a literary heroine.* And John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor couldn’t have been written in anything other than would-be 17th-century English. Then again, the other side of the (perhaps not same) coin is a possibly unsound allegiance to bad or inaccurate or otherwise not useful works or translations that employ (now-) dated language: to cite just one example, the King James Bible, in addition to other issues of redaction and translation, is full of terms and phrases that no contemporary person would understand without a good deal of education, and so leaves the field wide open to nutty theological interpretations.
Since my story is really just an experiment in accurately getting across a feeling, a peculiarly situated discomfort, I don’t feel a great deal of responsibility regarding its setting or style, as long as neither detracts from the obvious presence of the sensation itself. If I even finish the thing, I will have scored a minor personal victory– so I’ll only worry at that point about time-bound missteps and false vintages. Until then, maybe some Nabokov is in order for tonight’s bedtime reading…
* In spite of said portrayal, I love, love, love the underground postal system featured in the book. Look again at my Cold War-era upbringing and historically-linked childhood desire to be a spy**; how could I not have fallen in love with such a set-up?
** This career goal lost its charm once I realized just what implications it carried along with it: in addition to fooling enemy no-goodniks, a true exemplar of the profession would also be pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone else, including the people closest to and most important to her. And all this in the name either of venality or of patriotism– the latter skillfully described by Borges as “that least discerning of passions.” Jorge Luis Borges, “The Shape of the Sword,” in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 138.