How the Two Ivans Quarrelled by Nikolai Gogol

 Nikolai Gogol cracks me up.  Our senses of humor are so in-tuned that I think we’re kindred spirits.  Maybe we’re even related somehow.  It could be true.

I’ve heard it argued that comedy once came from those on the lower rungs of the social ladder looking upwards at the antics of their social betters.  You can see this in Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, even in Moliere, and certainly in Nikolai Gogol.  I think the comparison with Moliere is most fitting.  More on that later.

In How the Two Ivans Quarrelled,   Mr. Gogol tells the story of two life-long friends, both named Ivan, who live on adjoining estates.  Both are among the richest, most prestigious men in their small Russian village.  One day, after cleaning out a long forgotten trunk, one Ivan hangs his old military gear, uniform and gun, on the line in his yard to air out.  (Yes, he airs out his gun.)  Because the other Ivan admires the gun, he asks if he can have it, offering to trade a sow and two sacks of grain.  The first Ivan is offended at the implication that is gun is an old pig, an argument ensues ending with one Ivan calling the other a goose.  This is so insulting that the two never speak to each other again.  Instead, they each file competing lawsuits, accusing the other of everything from defamation to attempted murder.  The townspeople are aghast.

The situation is ridiculous on its face, much like those in Moliere’s plays such as The Miser which features a wealthy man so tightfisted his home is literally crumbling down around him because he is too cheap to pay for repairs.  This makes it easy to dismiss the characters in Moliere and in Gogol as so extreme they are outside the realm of believability.  We can’ t learn anything from their behavior because they are not enough like us.  What they’re doing doesn’t apply to people like us.  The fact that Gogol’s Ivans and Moliere’s Miser are all  rich adds to their distance from everyday audiences.  It’s safe for us to laugh at them without fearing recognition of our own foibles.

Or so I thought.

My spouse C.J. used to work as house manager for Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  One season they staged a production of Moliere’s The Miser that was so funny I went to see it four times.  Moliere’s Miser  is so cheap and so money-grubbing that he is willing to marry his daughter off to a man decades older than himself in order to get his hands on the man’s wealth.  All he intends to do with said money is add it to the chest of gold he secretly keeps buried in his garden– he is too miserly to spend any of it.  In the one of the production’s funniest moments, a servant tells the Miser that the town’s people think he is “tighter than a dead chicken’s ass-hole.”  (I hope that line is present in the original French.)

This character is too extreme to truly offend anyone, I claimed one night.   C.J. promptly informed me that The Miser had more walkouts than all but one of the shows he managed in the two plus years he worked for Berkeley Rep.  Many people found it hit much too close to home, became insulted and left.

I think How the Two Ivans Quarrelled works the same way.  On the surface, it’s a very funny story with characters so extreme they can’t possible apply to everyday readers.  Look a little closer, not at the story but at your self, and you may find they hit very close to home.  How many times have you ended a relationship because someone called you a ‘goose’ or something just as ridiculous?

Wait, don’t answer that.

I first posted this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are C.B. for  The Art of the Novella Challenge hosted by Nonsuch Book back in 2011.  I thought I’d run it again now since I’m spending the month of October trying to make a serious dent in the stack of novellas my TBR shelves.  A few years ago I stopped keeping all of the books I buy after I read them. My house was well past maximum book storage.  I decided only to keep books I seriously thought I might want to read again after I retire.  I’ve got just about all of Gogol’s books now, saved for retirement. He’s one of a handful of authors I probably will read again.  He’s fantastic.  

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The Poor Clare by Elizabeth Gaskell

the poor clareIf you’re wondering whether or not Elizabeth Gaskell had the chops to pull of a truly Gothic novel, and I know you are, I am pleased to say, yes, she did.

Ms. Gaskell dabbled in the Gothic for publication in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1856.  She was a regular contributor to Household Words where her masterpiece Cranford first appeared.

I must admit, I had my doubts with The Poor Clare.  Things didn’t start off with a bang, just a rambling plot with more detail than I care to start a novella with.

Then the local lord shot the dog dead and my jaw dropped.

Bridget, the local woman who may have more power than the reader realizes, had a daughter whom she lost to the world.  The daughter left nothing behind when she left home except a beloved dog.  Bridget kept the dog for years, her only companion and her only reminder of her lost daughter.  While out walking with her dog one day, she encountered the local lord.  The dog starts barking, the lord quickly loses patience with it and shoots it.

This grabbed my attention.

Then Bridget lays a curse on the lord that had me shaking:

“Those never throve that did me harm….I’m alone in the world, and helpless; the more do the saints in heaven her my prayers.  Hear me, ye blessed ones!  Hear me while I ask for sorrow on this bad, cruel man.  He has killed the only creature that loved me–the dumb beast that I loved.  Bring down heavy sorrow on his head for it, O ye saints!  He thought I was helpless, because he saw me lonely and poor; but are not the armies of heaven for the like of me?…..You shall live to see the creature you love best, and who alone loves you–ay, a human creature, but as innocent and fond as my poor, dead darling–you shall see this creature, for whom death would be too happy, become a terror and a loathing to all, for this blood’s sake.  He me, O holy saints, who never fail them that have no other help!”

I did mention this is a Gothic novel hence the over-the-top language.  Gothic novels are fun that way.

From this moment the novella picks up speed.  Years quickly pass and we meet a stranger who has come to town and fallen in love with the local lord’s grand-daughter.  But, he soon discovers that she suffers from the curse Bridget laid on her grandfather.  A demonic double follows her, taking her place when she is absent, behaving in ways that estrange her from everyone she knows.  Despised in spite of her innocent goodness, the lords grand-daughter lives a miserable life, unloved and unwanted by all but the stranger who must avoid her as much as he can in case she is really the demon-double who will surely turn him against her.

It’s a bit confusing, it’s very twisted, it may say something profound about the class struggle, but it’s a very successful Gothic novel.

Nicely done, Ms. Gaskell.

Posted in Classic, English Literature, European Literature, Fiction, Novella, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Suspicion by Friedrich Durrenmatt translated by Joel Agee

Suspicion is the second of two novels featured in The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Durrenmatt published by The University of Chicago Press.  Getting your hands on a copy probably won’t be easy, but it will be worth the effort.  Both feature cynical, ailing Inspector Barlach, diagnosed with a terminal illness in The Judge and His Hangman, with just a few months left to live in Suspicion

While in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, waiting to get well enough to undergo surgery, Inspector Barlach receives a visit from an old friend, a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps.  His friend tells him about a particular doctor infamous for performing experimental surgery without anesthesia.  Barlach’s friend is the only prisoner known to have survived treatment at the hands of the notorious Dr. Nehle.  Dr. Nehle escaped the invading Russian army only to commit suicide a few years after the war.  The only known photograph of the living Dr. Nehle was taken during surgery while the doctor was wearing a surgical mask.

Except Inspector Barlach’s friend insist that Dr. Nehle is still alive and is practicing under the name of Dr. Emmenberger at a nearby health spa where the very wealthy go to receive his special treatments.  Inspector Barlach will let neither ill health, forced retirement, nor impending death keep him from investigating the case, and he is soon convinced that his friend is correct, that the successful Dr. Emmenberger is really the notorious Dr. Nehle.  To prove he is correct, Inspector Barlach arranges his own transfer to the health spa where he will be cared for by Dr. Emmenberger/Nehle and where he will have the chance to interrogate the doctor about his past.

As pure thriller, seldom have I found anything as hard to put down as Suspicion.  Imagine a laconic Hercule Poirot crossed with the urgency of Sorry Wrong Number.  At just over 100 pages Suspicion is a detective thriller stripped down to its essence.  There are no McGuffins here, no quirky characters diverting our attention into subplots, no forays into local color for the sake of travelogue.  Every action, every character serves the purpose of developing the plot as Inspector Barlach rushes into danger in spite of his confinement in his own death bed.  He practically solves the case from beyond the grave.  As a police procedural, Suspicion works quite well, but here even Inspector Barlach eventually reaches the limits of police work.

In the end, he has just about nothing to go on but his own suspicion.

I first ran this review back on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., in 2010.  I saved my copy to reread once I’m in retirement, but I don’t know.  Maybe I should give it another go for German Literature month in November.  It was really, really good.

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Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

Alexander's BridgeI think Willa Cather gets men.

During her life, and in the critical response to her work after her death, she took her fair share of heat for not writing often enough from a woman’s point of view.  Even when the book was about women, like My Antonia, her narrator had a male voice.  I think it’s fair to ask  why she made this choice, it may even be fair to take her to task for it a bit, but she really does it well.

Her men are not rugged men’s men, not her narrators at least.  They tend towards the intellectual, the arty.  Even in a book like O, Pioneers where so many of the men were farmers on the American prarie I had the feeling that they would have been happier in a college town somewhere.  (Much of her fiction is set in college towns on the prarie.)  Jim Burden, the narrator of My Antonia, ends up a lawyer living in New York City.

But I always believed Willa Cather’s men.  Fully believed them.  Not just as characters, but as male characters.

Many people today make the case that only a member of a specific group can fully and accurately represent that group because you have to live it to understand it.  I think many of use like to think that our experience makes us different from the rest of the herd; you can’t understand me if you haven’t been through what I have.

I’ve never really bought that.   I read too much to believe it.  A great author, a great artist, can make that leap of empathy well enough to portray multiple perspectives.  Ones who can write from a point of view not their own should be admired for that level of skill.  It’s not something everyone can do.

Alexander’s Bridge is Willa Cather’s first novel/novella, but even this early in her career she succeeds in presenting a male point of view.  Alexander is Alexander Bartley, an engineer from the prairie states who has become a world renowned designer of bridges.  His life has taken him back east where he has married above his station, the daughter of one of the first men to hire him.  His work takes him to London where he encounters his first love, an actress, whom he had nearly forgotten.

Though his marriage is a happy one, Alexander begins an affair which continues whenever his work takes him to London.  The time is early 20th century so a business trip to London means an absence of weeks at least.

Alexander’s Bridge is not Willa Cather’s best work by any means.  It’s a good book, one that fits well into her body of work, but her best stuff would come later.  But it reveals from the start that she understood the men and the women she wrote about equally well, well enough to write in either voice most likely.  I think, in the end, her decision to write so frequently from a male perspective added to the quality of her work.

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Sunday Salon: Are You Banned in China?

Is your blog banned in China?

Turns out one of my blogs is banned, the other is not.

You can find out on the Great Firewall of China.  I learned about this website at my final Stanford class on Friday.  A group of colleagues and I have been learning about various topics in Asian history with the SPICE (Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education).  Friday we presented our lesson plans. Mine was on The Pillow Book.  Another teacher showed us the Great Firewall of China, a website where you can find out if a website is banned in parts of China as part of his presentation.

It’s kind of fun in a slightly disturbing way.

Turns out this website is available in China but my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. is not; it’s censored.  Good thing I’ve been moving my old reviews over here.

So I thought I’d check some of my regular blogging haunts to see if they are banned or not.

Wuthering Expectations – Censored.  Sorry, no articles on classic literature.  Who knows what damage posts about Knut Hamson could do to Chinese society.

Shelf Love is available.  Congratulations.

Library Jim can be read in China which surprises me since he’s a school librarian and we all know how radical they are.

Dolce Belleza who specializes in translated fiction and runs the Japanese Literature Reading Challenge can be read in China.  However, the Japanese Literature Challenge itself, is banned.  Go figure.

Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity, to my surprise, is available.  I thought at least one of those three would have gotten Trish in trouble with Beijing.

Savidge Reads,  Farm Lane Books, and Hogglestock can be read all over China.

In general, if you’re on Blogspot, there’s a very good chance that you are censored in China but if you’re on WordPress, or some other host, you’re probably not.

For now.

Are you blocked in China?  You can use the link above to find out.  Please let me know in a comment below.


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