Saturday, December 19, 2009


My Dostoevsky prof in college was Irwin Weil, a big and joyous man who involved us in his enthusiastic love for the great writer. Though Weil was Jewish, he dismissed claims of anti-Semitism against Dostoevsky (as I recall, by arguing that Dostoevsky used Jews as a literary "type" and meant no particular offense; that's an easier argument to use in defense of Shakespeare, who wouldn't have ever seen a Jew, as they'd all been deported 300 years before, but I think it doesn't quite fly for Dostoevsky). Of Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" scene in The Brothers Karamozov, Weil said Dostoevsky meant to prove that he could come up with better arguments for atheism than an actual atheist could. Though religious, and pretty clear about (as John Gardner wrote of John Updike) "who was buttering his bread," Dostoevsky didn't write didactically.

This week I read (or reread; my memory is a forest at midnight) Tolstoi's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Now there's a didactic story, concerned with how to live a moral life and Who is the one true judge. The preachiness is evident, but Tolstoi couches it so well, it doesn't grate. From the outset, we understand that people's lives are of two parts: exterior performances and interior responses. The first people to hear of Ilyich's death give the proper external reactions, but inside, they think terrible things, and we follow one former friend in all his duplicity for the entire first chapter. The purpose of this section (in which the very denial of death is imperative for everyone's mental wellbeing) becomes clear in the remainder of the story, which concerns Ilyich's life and death (and never returns to those first characters): Ilyich, too, lives a lie, and his death forces him to confront the falseness of his position, though only after he repeatedly dismisses the notion that his life was anything but "correct."

Also last week I finished Carol Emshwiller's science fictional The Secret City, which had very little to do with a secret city. I've like her shorter writings; this was less a novel than a longer work using the same motifs, tone, voice and structure as her shorter work, and it never came together in a satisfying way. Plot threads weren't attended to carefully. The book felt rushed and not thought-out. I liked parts of it, but it needed to stand up, shake itself, and approach its plot with more certainty.


During my break from school, I hope to finish a draft of "Clockworks," a story coming from the same world as "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," which will appear in next month's Asimov's. I have much of it visualized and have made notes for many of the scenes. I'd also like to look at revising "You Have No Idea What I've Forgotten" so I can send it out again. And I'm still waiting to hear back on two other stories, "The Dearness of Bodies in Motion" and "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth."

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