Workshop Meets Gogol

The fifth of the seven chapters in George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which, I will repeat here for those who have not been following, I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot from) features Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This was a risky move on Saunders’ part because the basically rational and construction-focused approach he has adopted, exploring “the physics of the [short story] form,” for his book does not seem to match up well with much of Gogol’s work, “The Nose” perhaps least of all, with its tendency to veer away from rationality and structural consistency, to exhibit — let’s call them — bulges, protrusions, and assorted eccentricities that make it difficult to analyze from any sort of efficiency-minded standpoint.

In part this is because Gogol’s language is idiosyncratic, which highlights issues of language per se, making it difficult to translate, on the one hand, but also difficult to discuss without invoking language, on the other. Saunders appropriately brings in the notion of skaz here, and remarks, parenthetically, that there are “American variants” of this narrative technique in Mark Twain, Sacha Boren Cohen, and others: an intriguing idea, but this supposed parallel is mostly about point of view, not language. And if one is approaching the text as if it were written in English (see this earlier post), then we’re left with a conundrum, something Saunders indicates with disarming frankness when he remarks, “It’s kind of problematic to be talking about the language of a piece we can read only in translation” (p. 286). My inner translator wants to agree with him with something like what he writes in response to the narrator’s admission that “there is much that is improbable in [“The Nose”]”: “‘Uh, yeah.” But another, more rational voice has a better response: “Well, it depends on what you want to say about it.”

I recall the rigorous reading practice of a fiction writer colleague of mine, who used to help me evaluate stories for publication at The Iowa Review: if he noticed a rich, exuberant style at the beginning of a submission, he would immediately be on the lookout for structural flaws; if he read through the whole of it and found the piece structurally sound, he would read back through it to see whether the language held up all the way through. This is a version of Saunders’ approach, which is focused on the form’s perfection, its lack of superfluousness, where every detail is where it is for a reason, and one can always ask the question, as he does often in the book, usually to good effect, “What is this doing here?” Saunders refers to this as a “rather hard-ass model of a story [that] says that every part of it should be there for a reason” (91), an idea of the form that is consistent throughout the book — except for in the chapter on Gogol, where it falls apart.

Notions of rationality and efficiency anchor this approach to writing, which some have critiqued as the “workshop model” or, in Mark McGurl’s formulation “program era” fiction, a sort of institutionalized high Modernism whose best precursors include writers like, well, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. This approach is on display in Saunders’ attempts to read “The Nose,” which comprise the only twenty pages or so of the 400 plus in the book that seem to ring false. He asks many perfectly reasonable and rational questions about how and why things are the way they are here — “How did [the nose] get out of the river?” “Why does the nose feel the need to leave town?” “Why is Kovalyov thwarted [at the newspaper office]?” “What caused [the nose’s] reversion to nosehood?” And so on. Much of this is the sort of questioning that would take place in a workshop, where, as Saunders notes, “one of the first critiques that will be made about a story is that it doesn’t make sense.”

This story, says Saunders, again in a perfectly rational comment, “doesn’t add up.” All this is fine and correct enough, but by comparison with the nuanced analyses of the formal aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy that we might have got used to in the earlier portions of the book, here one could easily lose patience. The amount of time spent on this somehow does not seem worth it, such that when he notes, about a short segment in the newspaper office, that it is “not essential to the action of the story,” I even grow a bit frustrated: What in the world is essential to the action of this story? The question, which comes out of the particular method of writing short stories, has completely overtaken the manner in which we read short stories, and with this story it is inadequate and mismatched.

The method of reading we’ve grown accustomed to in earlier portions of the book, where we analyze pieces and see how they fit, does not work well here, and Saunders is left making grand generalizations about how Gogol is a “supreme realist,” but for no demonstrable reason other than that, for example, “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.” Well, yes, that could be, but the person making the claim hasn’t offered evidence of the same quality as that used for the other big claims regarding Chekhov and the others. The basic problem here is that this story doesn’t align with the conception of the short story introduced in this book. It doesn’t fit.

And when Saunders tries to make it fit by attempting to make “sense” of the irrational in Gogol’s story, he essentially makes the rather sweeping argument of Vissarion Belinsky regarding the stretching of reality via the grotesque, which, Belinsky claimed (in the 1840s), was a way of making a social critique that reached into the everyday and reflected its distortions. Life was so out of whack (because of serfdom and the other deformations of humanity produced by the Russian autocratic state) that everything in the world was distorted, and Gogol was simply describing that distorted reality: he was a “supreme” realist. While Saunders updates this idea of what it all means to include the horrors of the mundane in the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and Stalinist purges, it is still a version of Gogol as a social satirist who uses the grotesque in ordinary life as his primary tool.

This could be a reasonable way to make sense of Gogol’s work — others have used it — but it is just one way, and the narrowing of Gogol’s rather open-ended verbal slapstick, nonsense, lyricism, sloppiness, caricature, absurdity, sound painting, and sometime carnival wackiness down to this one idea is unfortunate. The strengths of other parts of the book, moreover, come from the closeness of the connection between the manner of reading, the specifics of the details analyzed, and the claims about the overall effects of the stories, their broader meanings, expressive richness, and emotional impact. That connection is largely lost in these twenty some pages, I think, because there’s no real way to do it well without delving into the language.

But then, just as I find myself giving up hope that Saunders might have anything new to tell me about Gogol’s story, he has an afterthought (No. 5), and in the course of the six pages that follow, a bit like a Bach chorale in the St. Matthew Passion, he gathers up the loose threads and launches me into the next section. It is almost not even about Gogol, at least not ostensibly, and feels more like a set of free associations on his own writing practice, where he “follows the voice.”

An idea for a voice appears, and off you go. You just ‘feel like’ doing that voice. (And you find that you can.) Sometimes the inspiration for that voice might be a real person. Sometimes it’s a tendency in myself that I’ll exaggerate […]. Sometimes it’s a fragment of language that came from elsewhere” (306).

Here I’m making associations with things I know about Gogol’s writing practice: his tendency to keep lists of unusual words and expressions; his notoriously entertaining readings, where he would do the voices of his characters; his inability to come up with plots of his own, imploring his friends to give them to him — all he needed was a start and off he would go. And I’m waiting, for three pages of this afterthought I wait, and there’s no mention of Gogol, only reflections on Saunders’ own practice, on stories he’s written through this method, until he gets to this:

So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have an original conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, (and, I like to imagine, for Gogol, when he was in skaz mode) that method is to “follow the voice.” (p. 308)

This little remark, in a parenthetical aside no less, seems the strongest part of the entire analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose,” a story so clearly rooted in voice that structurally it would not hold up in workshop. Because it does not make the right kind of sense or exhibit the typical coherence, measure, and balance of the workshop’s models or pristine products.

Teaching Tolstoy’s Master and Man

In the three decades or so that I have been teaching works by Tolstoy, I don’t remember ever teaching the one known in English as “Master and Man.” This could be because it didn’t speak to me when I first read it or because I have consistently felt there were other, more effective works that I already had in my classes, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it more seriously as I’ve been reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which I’ve already written about a few times in these posts (with maybe two more to go–I can’t skip what he has to say about “The Nose” and “Gooseberries” so more soon). Having thought about it, I still think I won’t teach this story, but the exercise has clarified some things for me.

First, the existing best-known translation has some serious flaws, not least of which is the title itself, which I don’t want to delve into too much at this point: titles are always tricky, and this one appears to have been filtered through the “Tolstoy the great spiritual thinker” prism, distorting it a bit from something in fact rather mundane into the grand sounding (please imagine my voice dropping a full register to pronounce) MASTER AND MAN! Well, it could be that, but Хозяин и работник could also be “Owner and Laborer” (Tolstoy the anti-capitalist) or even “The Owner and the Worker” (Tolstoy the fabulist). But this is for another discussion.

Now, I have frequently written about my distaste for the translation police tactic of cornering a single word or phrase to pronounce a translation inadequate, and I refuse to do that here. But there is a key line in the story, in fact the line on which the entire story pivots, when the main character appears to be transformed. So getting this line right is very important.

The two principal characters, lost in a blizzard, are in a crisis. One (the worker) appears to be near death. The other, the hitherto selfish owner, opens his coat and lies down on top of the first in order to warm him. This is done, as Saunders characterizes it in his reading and I agree, as “kind of a miracle of writing,” after Tolstoy has put himself “in a tough spot,” needing “to pull off a transformation [of the character] in which we can believe, one that mimics the sort of transformation a real-life stinker might actually undergo” (239). So far so good.

But then Vasily Andreevich speaks a line that overwhelms him and makes the transformation meaningful: “‘There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way….,” upon which “tears came into his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only not unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy as he had never felt before. ‘That’s our way!'” he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness….” This is the Maude translation, which is what Saunders uses, and the passage is on pp. 211-212 of his book. (I’ll have more to say about the translations Saunders uses in another post.)

I sensed there was something off about the awkward phrase “that’s our way” even before looking at the source text. Tolstoy’s writing is nothing if not natural sounding, including in dialog, and when it isn’t, there is generally a reason for it in the characters. Here “that’s our way” takes readers, as it does Saunders, down a side path that leads away from one of Tolstoy’s constant preoccupations, a combination and complication of the internal and external states of a character that often makes it hard to say where an apparent transformation comes from.

Saunders wonders, “What does he mean, ‘that’s our way’? The Russian way, the way of Russian masters, the human way?” and notes “It’s beautiful: it doesn’t occur to him that this has never been his way, not at all, until this moment right now.” The problem with this line of interpretation is that the key phrase, Вот мы как (Vot my kak), doesn’t have anything about a way in it and is actually rather hard to pin down in terms of its meaning. My sense is that it has more of an emotional aspect than a denotative one (and thanks to Tatiana S. and Vika T. for confirming this for me). It strikes me as the sort of thing that a parent might say to an ailing child, comforting the child and trying to make him feel better. “There now” might do it, or maybe “Here we are then,” all comfy and warm, no need to be afraid anymore, just lie still, and you’ll feel better soon…. In other words, it’s mostly emotional, an endearing little flourish tacked on to V. A.’s, “There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm….” It does not hinge on anything especially Russian, on a Russian way, or a Russian master, or even on an explicitly “human way.” But it is a trigger for the character, as if the action of comforting another, saying these words aloud, makes him feel something has hasn’t felt before, or at least for long enough not to remember it anymore.

How to interpret this is, as often in Tolstoy, a good question, and Saunders quite rightly wonders more about the “transformation,” including the possibility that Vasily Andreevich might be being consistent with his previous self in this behavior and not really exhibiting any especially radical change at all, though he himself interprets it as such. This is a good line of inquiry for a Tolstoy work. Vasily Andreevich’s emotional state here could be seen as akin to that of little Tanya Oblonsky, in Anna Karenina, when she secretly shares her dinner with her brother Grisha, who’s being punished for misbehavior, and a sense of her own “noble action” brings tears to her eyes.

Tolstoy routinely taints moments of apparent spiritual transformation, making them “real” by embedding them in specific sets of conditions that might have been different, sometimes linking them to bodily injuries, lack of sleep, and misinterpretations of someone else’s words or the natural world. This case appears to be another example, rather understated and mundane like the story’s title, complexly interwoven with the outside world (the raging snowstorm), and the imperfect but powerful words we use to say things, especially the most intimate kind, to others and to ourselves.

On Fairytales, Folktales, Wondertales, and… Tales

Vladimir Propp makes clear in his Исторические корни волшебной сказки (Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki) that the subject of his study is indeed the волшебная сказка [volshebnaia skazka] announced in its title. However, in his exposition, he often uses the term сказка [skazka] without any attribute. This term happens to be the word used for “folktale,” “fairy tale,” and simply “tale” in English, which led my colleagues and co-translators Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and me to a lot of discussion about how best to render the term in our on-going translation of Propp’s book. Alternate translations for the term volshebnaia might be “fairy,” “magical,” “enchanting,” “bewitching,” or “fantastical.” As “wondertale” has gained currency in translations into English, and as the author’s use is primarily technical rather than poetically descriptive, we have been using it as both the title of the translation and in many of the initial instances of the term skazka in the text, where it is clear he is using it as something of a short-hand for the longer, more descriptive term. But this only helps a bit around the margins and does not provide a definitive strategy for rendering the much more frequently and variously encountered skazka (without attribute) throughout the book. 

Propp’s Morfologiia skazki is known as Morphology of the Folktale in English. It is regularly cited and has come to occupy a central place in global folklore studies as such. This title rests upon an interpretive move that is not often remarked upon, an assumption about what the author intended without noting explicitly, namely, that the word skazka was an abbreviated version of narodnaia skazka (folk tale) and therefore equivalent to “folktale” in English. This is a reasonable assumption and a reasonable interpretation, but it is an interpretation all the same, as the word “folk” is not to be found in the Russian title of that book. 

While such an observation might seem on its face inconsequential to the overall translation of the work, it gathers additional weight when we turn to the translation of the continuation of Propp’s earlier begun study, which is in fact this work, with its more explicit title: Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Historical Roots of the Wondertale). Here, in his introductory chapter, the author explicitly notes, “By ‘wondertale’ [volshebnaia skazka] I shall intend those tales whose structure I examined in The Morphology of the Folktale [Morfologiia skazki], a book that sets out the genre of the wondertale [volshebnaia skazka] with adequate precision.” 

Now, it could be assumed that the previous book delineated a variety of folktale categories in equal measure, naming the wondertale as one of them but leaving the specifics of analysis for later. This is not the case. Actually, in fact, the entire book known by the English title Morphology of the Folktale was concerned with the wondertale (or, as rendered by earlier translators, the “fairy tale”), and the issue of the title’s ambiguity was not only known to earlier translators but remarked upon, as in Louis A. Wagner’s preface to his revised version of the book for its second edition: 

The expression narodnaja skazka has been rendered as “folktale,” volšebnaja skazka as “fairy tale,” and the words skazka (noun), skazočnyj (adjective) simply as “tale.” The chief departure from this practice is in regard to the title itself (Morfologija skazki), since a change here might have led to undue confusion. The morphology presented by the author is, of course, a morphology of the fairy tale specifically and he is careful to make note of this fact in the Foreword and in Chapter II. Thus the title of the work is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. It is evident from the text that the unqualified word skazka is used by Propp both in the sense of tale in general and in the sense of fairy tale, depending upon context. The reader must infer the appropriate meaning in each instance. (Propp 2009: ix, emphasis added) 

In other words, Morphology of the Folktale perhaps should have been called Morphology of the Fairy Tale in its first English translation since that was its subject, and indeed the first edition’s introduction, by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, opened with the clear declaration, “The subject of this study, the Russian fairy tale…” (Propp 2009: xix). 

What is not clear is why the first edition’s translator, Laurence Scott, or perhaps that volume’s editor or publisher, chose to specify “folktale” in the title when everyone seems to have understood that the book’s subject was actually narrower and more specific. This strategy, moreover, had a long-term impact on the field, as evidenced by one reader of our text, a prominent folklorist who does not happen to work with Russian sources, emphasized in his comments that “skazka equals folktale.” Well, no it doesn’t, even if it might look that way from the English title of Propp’s earlier book.

The opposite tack was taken in the 1984 translation—by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin—of an excerpt from the Historical Roots of the Wondertale published as part of the book Theory and History of Folklore. Here the translators chose to render every instance of skazka in the source as “wondertale” in their translation, despite Propp’s sometimes more expansive use of the term. Actually, Propp uses the same word (skazka) to refer to the tales collected by Russian nineteenth-century ethnographers as well as the “fairy tales” of the Brothers Grimm, Native American stories collected by Boas, Micronesian, African, and Australian tales, and stories from the Rig Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By contrast, he uses the full “wondertale” [volshebnaia skazka] relatively infrequently in his book—many times in the first chapter, then not at all from chapters two to nine, then again a few more times in chapter ten—and as we asked ourselves upon encountering each successive instance of the much more commonly used skazka whether he had in mind “wondertale,” “folktale,” or a broader and more general “tale” or even “story,” we found ourselves occasionally hesitating. It is clear that it does not always simply refer to “wondertale,” but it is not always clear from context what he might have had in mind for each instance.  

Essentially, we have found ourselves in the hermeneutic dilemma set out by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century: namely, whether to bring the text closer to readers in the receiving culture, by interpreting for them (the strategy adopted in the Martin and Martin translation), or bring the readers of the receiving culture closer to the original text, by introducing aspects of the source, including its very ambiguity and polysemy, into the English. Faced with this choice, the Scott translation, in effect compromised by translating skazka as “tale” without differentiation and leaving it to readers to decide based on the context of its usage what Propp might have meant in each case. Except for in its title, that is.

Recent translation practice has favored different interpretive and expressive strategies on the part of translators, who, recognizing the implicit cultural power and expressiveness of particular words, phrases, and other linguistic features, often leave them untranslated in the new text. We considered this idea and even partially revised our version leaving skazka or the plural skazki in the English wherever Propp used those terms without an adjective but then pulled back: it’s already a complicated text with lots of terms in it; did we really need to add another? Do we?

Intentional Fallacy, Meaning It, and Generous Ways of Reading

Robert Allen Papinchak’s LARB review of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is mostly filled with praise. Among the two objections he notes (the other being Saunders’ tendency to be overly self-deprecating) is what he characterizes as his “bête noire” and the “one persistent objection” he had, in his many years of teaching, to discussions and analyses of fiction. This is the intentional fallacy, which students committed when they “claimed to know what a writer had in mind,” “when they presumed an understanding of a story that even its writer might claim not to have.” Papinchak points out a number of occasions where Saunders’ does precisely this.

In commenting on Turgenev, [Saunders] wonders if “technically rickety” parts of “The Singers” make it a “clumsy work of art” by intention. Did Turgenev “intend” the story to “serve as an apologia for his lack of craft”? With Chekhov, he surmises that the relationships in “The Darling” were “intentionally” carrying forward “some set of variables.” With Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” he brings up intention at least six times, even attempting to rewrite the story to what he considers Tolstoy’s intentions might have been.

In response, Papinchak notes that “a story is what it is” and “it has a mind of its own,” and quotes D. H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” I suppose he means by this that what we have access to is the story itself and any presumed understanding of the author’s ideas outside of that is speculation on our part, something Tolstoy once suggested in a response to a reader who asked him what he meant in a particular passage of Anna Karenina: “If I wanted to tell you want I meant in that passage, I would have to write the whole book again from the beginning.” In other words, the story is on the page. Read it. Don’t ask me to reconstruct what I “meant” to say, especially after the fact, when I might not even remember what I had in mind at the time. There’s a similar, perhaps apocryphal, line attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what I was thinking, myself and God. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that!”

Papinchak moves on rather too quickly for me, but fine, it’s a relatively brief review, and, as I noted to begin with with, a basically positive one — indeed he calls his objections “minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book.” The reason I find the observations too fast and perhaps based on too cursory a reading is, mainly, that Saunders brings up the intentional fallacy almost immediately after one of these instances, in “Afterthought #2” to “The Singers,” where he notes:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. ¶The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. (p. 110)

What I find so interesting in this passage is how, by the end of it, the point of view has shifted from that of reading to that of writing. This, I think, explains the page-before instance of what looks a lot like the intentional fallacy:

Did Turgenev intend ‘The Singers’ to serve as an apologia for his lack of craft? While he was writing it? After he had written it? I’m pretty sure he didn’t ‘aim’ to produce an apologia–didn’t start out to do that. I doubt he realized what he’d done, and I don’t know that he’d necessarily bless our assessment of it. But here’s the important thing: I don’t think it matters. He did it, and then he let it stand. Which is a form (the ultimate form, for an artist) of ‘meaning to do it’ (of taking responsibility). The blessing an artist gives the final product (which he gives by sending it out into the world) is his way of saying that he approves of everything within it, even parts of it that may, in that moment be hidden from him. (p 109)

Besides the fact that “he did it” isn’t too clear (he did what? produce an apologia? or write what he wrote?) and that there are a lot of male pronouns here standing in for “the artist” (let’s just assume this is Saunders writing based on his own experience), what I find especially remarkable is the pull of perspective from reading to writing, which is constant throughout the book, such that sometimes, if we’re not paying close attention, we might get stuck squarely between the two.

The book’s pattern is to begin with reading, and this makes it look like it’s about about how to read, how to interpret, and this is where Saunders’ references to what Chekhov or Turgenev were “trying to say” look like instances of the intentional fallacy pure and simple. But this reading is always in the service of how to write, and its intended primary audience is writers who want to create their own stories. So he consistently moves quickly past these interpretive moments and turns them to the service of writing. When, for instance, he writes about “the actual process” in the passage above, he has shifted over to the process of creation, away from where he started, which was with the process of discussing art (“we often discuss art this way”). Well, of course, one might object, since this is a book billed as a master class for writers. But that is only partly the case: it might have emerged from a fiction writing class, but somewhere in the process of taking on its final form, it became a “master class on writing, reading, and life” (my emphasis, but it’s the subtitle of the book, so it’s not at all unfair). This is where it raises larger questions.

When you’re the one doing the creating, you’re faced with different questions from those of all other readers, mostly about your own intention, and these will include how much control you need to feel you have over the story you’re creating, and the responsibility you take for what you leave on the page as the final version. This, I think, is what Saunders means by “meaning it,” confronting those moments “when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve” (108). I understand this, and I certainly appreciate both the sense of responsibility it seems to want to emphasize authors should take for their creations, and the way that it complicates the intentional fallacy for them in their practice. Not so much for readers who aren’t thinking of writing, where I agree with Papinchak: it’s the intentional fallacy.

What I’m still trying to fathom is a habitual manner of reading the words of others that is so implacably turned toward expressing oneself. As Saunders jokes (“and yet not”) on the opening page, “we’re reading to see what we can steal” (p. 3). The book is certainly consistent in this sense. A writerly approach to reading, I suppose, one perfectly suited for a fiction writing workshop, where the works explored are there as models and examples. This is the master class on fiction writing.

But reading and life? I suppose one could argue that life is like a short story, but that is not an argument Saunders employs. In fact he frequently points out the opposite, the starkness and efficiency of the form as such, which is highly artificial. This reading-for-writing-fiction clearly counts among the various ways one might read, and it wouldn’t preclude learning other things from the texts read that might be helpful to one in life, if only by happenstance. But it’s not a generous way to read. In fact, in its own way, it is as narrow as that used by students and scholars when they are focused on writing an analysis, where they ignore all the parts of the story that don’t support their argument and emphasize only those that do. Aren’t these stories worth reading in a more open spirit? For their history, and beauty, and critique, and richness, and subtlety, and tragedy, and all the other things you might discover if you weren’t focused on taking something to use? This is the biggest problem I see: I have doubts about being able to read both ways at once.

To put it more bluntly, I’m afraid that you narrow down the stories when your readings turn, again and again, to what you can use as part of your “own” stories? The approach reminds me a bit of those people we have conversations with sometimes who (we can sense it) are really only listening in order to be able to respond, a little like if someone learned a foreign language only in order to tell people things in it. I find myself hoping for a more generous approach, in which one is ready for anything the text might bring, because, I think, this kind of reading is what results in challenges to one’s accepted notions, in deeper engagement with the perspectives of others, in discovery and empathy.

This would be the master class on reading and life.

Prelim Praise for Kin

Here, from the Calvert Journal, is one of those pre-release teasers about “books to look forward to in X year” (which, in this case is the year 2021). Matt Janney calls it, appropriately, a “time-travelling, place-hopping epic, […] at once a history of family and an ode to Yugoslavia.” This is, well, a teaser.

Kin_PRH_Rev2.jpg (450×540)

Of a bit more substance is a starred Kirkus Review published on Feb. 10, which calls Jergović’s book a “vast, generous-spirited story of family across the face of the 20th century in the turbulent Balkans” and a “masterwork of modern European letters.” I can agree with this assessment too, and especially appreciate the notion of its “generosity of spirit.” It’s one of the reasons I have long been attracted to his work.

Both of these gesture towards the rather difficult question of the book’s genre, what it is and how to approach reading it. An epic of sorts, yes, certainly in terms of its vast size and historical scope. A history of a family, yes, especially through the domestic lenses it uses to look at what Mikhail Bakhtin, in another context, calls “great history.” An ode to Yugoslavia perhaps, but also, I would say, to the Habsburg Empire, to pre-1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Sarajevo of the author’s youth, and to the Dubrovnik of his family’s history there in the early 20th century. A masterwork of European letters, yes, this too, through its embeddedness in European literature and thought, its many references and allusions to historical and contemporary works of architecture, art, literature, music, and to the figures–some real, some imagined–who created all this.

We in the English-reading world often have trouble with this sort of expansiveness (which some might call amorphousness), feeling the need to pin it down as either “fiction” or “non-fiction.” This is a distinction that doesn’t apply consistently enough to be helpful in reading such a book, it seems to me.

There also appears to be a longish excerpt from the beginning of the book available at its Amazon page, and while the formatting is not especially attractive, it’s possible to read a bit there and get a sense of what the prose is like, at least in this part of the book.

Lontan Da

This piece, which at the moment I’m calling “Lontan Da,” just flowed out of me and still feels like it’s flowing. I couldn’t tell whether I was working with a melody or the counter melody first, then the acoustic section expanded with the guitar and oboe d’amore, then the choir oohs and strings, and of course it’s not a Ba Ren Chi piece if it doesn’t have any drums in it. Anyway, just put it on Soundcloud, which seems to be the easiest for a lot of people. It’ll go to Spotify and the others eventually (and as soon as I can figure out an uploading glitch at Jamendo, there too).

Shared it with boy no. 1, who said, “If Game of Thrones didn’t already have theme music, this could work.” (Boy no. 1 is into fantasy.) Found this cool pic by Fabian Struwe that seems to go well with it.

As If Written in English

In a previous post I mentioned how excited I was to take up George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain as I prepared for my Russian short fiction class. I still am, and there are plenty of strong points I have discovered so far. The book comes out of a fiction writing context, and Saunders’ approach focuses most often on questions of how the stories he’s chosen do what they do, how we experience them as readers, and how the choices made by the author create the various emotional responses we have as the stories move from one line, paragraph, and page to the next. There are plenty of quotable passages, short descriptions of technique, and clever analogies to help students understand such principles as when a story feels like a story and when it might not yet, why not, and what might still need to happen in order to get to the point at which it is, in fact, story.

But (you knew that was coming), it also has some drawbacks, the main one, which is rather a global concern, being its conflicted approach to the fact of translation. While Saunders notes from the beginning that he is not a scholar and doesn’t approach these stories from a scholarly standpoint (fair enough), he only mentions in passing that these stories were all written in Russian and that he’s working with them as translations. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. He seems to want to approach them as translations and, at the same time, as if they were written in English, and this presents a conflict as we read claims about the “effects” of certain word combinations that the author created. Here is a key moment in the opening frame:

The stories were, of course, written in Russian. I offer the English translations that I’ve responded to most strongly or, in some cases, the versions I first found years ago and have been teaching from since. I don’t read or speak Russian, so I can’t vouch for their faithfulness to the originals (although we’ll do some thinking about that was we go). I propose that we approach the stories as if they were originally written in English, knowing that we’re losing the music of the Russian and the nuance they would have for a Russian reader. Even in English, shorn of those delights, they have worlds to teach us.

p. 6

The acknowledgment of the Russian source and the author’s lack of access to it is fine and good, and I really don’t have any misgivings at all about using the translations that speak most to you (indeed, why would anyone in this context use translations that were somehow less evocative to teach from?). And I suppose admitting that he’s not going to have much to say about the accuracy of the translations he’s using is also fine. But then the paragraph, and the thinking, goes down a rabbit hole and gets lost in it, as if this “faithfulness” bugaboo flipped a trap door. Now we have shifted to a “rhetoric of loss” that clashes with the book’s overall tenor and, it seems to me, purpose. It’s as if he’s saying this is the best we can do, these texts being in their derivative Englished form, “shorn of the delights” of the Russian sources with their attendant “music” and “nuance.” I mean, are we going to approach them as if they were written in English or not?

If we do in fact approach them as if they were written in English, then they haven’t “lost” anything. We are looking at what they do in English, how they resonate in and by means of the English language, among the body of English-language literature. There is a source context we need to be aware of, that of the period and the place where they were created, but we’ve now put the language outside of this domain by approaching these works as if they were not written in that source language context but in this one.

Questions of effect now take on a different aspect. An example will help, I hope. On page 5, in the context of arguing for the renewing power that “fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” (those of well made short stories) can have on the ways we appreciate our place in it, Saunders quotes Isaac Babel: “‘No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.'” That’s a great line. The thing about it is that the right place might be different in different languages. Thinking that the sentence period works the same in one language as in another would be like thinking the music and rhythm of one language are the same as another’s. And who decides where to put the period in the English text? Not the author of the Russian text, certainly not the author of the nineteenth-century Russian text.

The English stories we are now working with, in this rhetoric of fullness and effectiveness that we’ve adopted to sell the idea of this book, comes from the way all these periods have been placed in the English texts. And obviously not just the periods, but the titles, the possible synonyms, the word order, sometimes the paragraphing, the dialog markers, the dashes, and commas, and more. Who made these decisions that have created these English-language effects, the phrasing, the pace, and so on, in short that have helped these English stories to be effective as stories in English by means of the language itself?

Sixty-two pages in, and I haven’t read one of their names mentioned even once.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction

I’ll be teaching what is called a “second 8-week” class this semester. This is a special format that my university came up with to address two problems. The first one is that sometimes a professor offers a class that doesn’t get enough students to sign up, such that it has to be canceled. The second is that some students find that the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the term are not for them, so they need another class to take (often in order to maintain their full-time student status, which is important for such things as financial aid, scholarships, and so on). I was hoping to teach a graduate seminar, but I didn’t get enough students, so instead I’ll be teaching “Russian Short Fiction,” an intro-level course that I taught once before. The title sounds like an oxymoron to some, but there’s actually quite a bit to choose from, and I’m looking forward to it.

As part of my preparation for the course, I began George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which just happens to include four of the stories I use in the class: Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and “Gooseberries,” Turgenev’s “The Singers,” and Gogol’s “The Nose.” The book is based on a course he has taught for over twenty years in the MFA program at Syracuse, which means it is perfect for the sorts of students who are likely to take my course: interested in a general way, probably without Russian language or at least not enough to read the stories in the original Russian, and likely to respond to a practical approach that asks questions about what Saunders calls “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?'”

I have been surprised in the past by how a new book can come out just at the moment when you can use it in one of your classes, and this one has me really excited. While I know the material from having studied and taught it for many years, and from having written about it in a scholarly vein, I anticipate learning things from Saunders, who comes at it from a different perspective. I also anticipate sharing more here as I find little gems of concise, effective writing like this:

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind” (p. 4).

Black History Month and Beyond

I served for a number of years as an associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and one of the things we struggled with was the culture of demographic sameness that academia often creates. Faculty tend to have contacts in their circles for long periods of time, which can be a good thing in terms of stability, of course, but if you’re trying to innovate and diversify, this virtue of stability can be a major impediment, leading to stagnation. It can also result in an institution’s loosing touch with its students and the community within which it exists: undergraduate students cycle through fairly quickly, while faculty stay for long periods of time, so as the country changes and the students change, the institution can get stuck in the past.

One of the things we tried was to mandate that all new job applicants provide a statement on diversity and inclusion as part of their job application materials. This was as much about encouraging a new, more “in-touch” cohort of incoming faculty as it was about getting those faculty already in place to consider their own assumptions and behavior more carefully.

Our idea was to give departments a lot of leeway in exactly what they ask for and how they evaluate what they get. They could, for instance, focus on inclusion in the classroom or lab, or on research, or just ask about a candidate’s plans for the future. The main thing is that they should discuss this among themselves and come to a shared understanding of (a) their own internal values, which includes as a discipline (e.g., anthropology is going to be very different from dance), and (b) how they will evaluate the statements they receive (not simply, “I think this looks good,” or “the person says nothing about hierarchy so it’s not a good statement”). These sorts of statements have become common at a number of institutions, not just in higher ed: just do an internet search for “how to write a diversity statement,” and you’ll find many examples.

But there has been occasional pushback. A former Harvard dean tweeted this some time ago, which people are still talking about:

As a dean of a major academic institution, I could not have said this. But I will now. Requiring such statements in applications for appointments and promotions is an affront to academic freedom, and diminishes the true value of diversity, equity of inclusion by trivializing it.

Jeffrey Flier (@jflier)

I am not positive what Flier means by trivializing in this case. Perhaps he has in mind a kind of lip service. If so, then I can’t help but agree with that part of his criticism, by which I mean if an institution doesn’t really mean it and is only creating such a policy out of a perceived need to appear to be doing something, then that is indeed trivial. That is not why we instituted our policy, and I hope not why others have done so either. But ensuring the seriousness and effectiveness of whatever one does also has to be part of the process, or else you’re liable to get exactly the opposite of the result you hoped for, as people see you didn’t really mean it and check out one by one.

The “affront to academic freedom” part is more complicated and has to do with how one defines the institutional mission. It strikes me that the main question is whether fostering inclusivity via diversity of various kinds is understood as core to the mission or not. I could imagine a Quaker or other religious institution, or one founded as part of a broad social infrastructure for addressing social inequality, defining itself and its mission with a central social justice aspect. In such a case, it would be natural to ask candidates to tell you about their teaching, their research, and also how they foster appreciation for others’ perspectives and backgrounds, which could be thought of as a community imperative, a national (democratic) one, or one that encourages healthy social mobility for everyone. Some might also see this as a moral question that has to do with redressing past wrongs. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and can certainly co-exist and reinforce one another.

But something else is assumed when one pulls out the “academic freedom” card. In such cases, diversity, equity, and inclusion are clearly imagined as outside of the core mission of the institution. They might be thought of as peripheral to it, maybe even a positive byproduct, a potential social good that comes from people learning together. There’s a good deal of research on the benefits of fostering diversity in higher ed (as well as in business and the military for that matter), but that is about how one best educates, not the desired outcomes. An analogy with the military might help, where the core mission (defense), questions of effectiveness, and potential byproducts have slightly sharper outlines: it would be unusual to expect those who join the army to state their commitments to diversity as a condition of service, but in achieving their mission, they need to be able to form cohesive internal units, work together, and so on, which is about effectiveness. Beyond this, there’s good research to indicate that such service has had a positive effect on helping nations to create a cohesive social fabric, as people learn about other areas of the country, other people’s experiences and backgrounds, ways of expressing themselves (a national language), and so on, which is about a positive byproduct.

Separating the commitment to diversity and respect for the experiences and perspectives of others from the mission of the institution is the only way I can see getting to this “academic freedom” argument, which allows someone to think that when an institution expects such a commitment from its employees, it is somehow infringing on such freedom. But what a silly distinction to make if you are thinking of the health of the institution! Do you really want to hire people who are not committed to such values? Or, what might be worse, to hire people who refuse to tell you that they are committed to such values? Why in the world would you? Personnel issues are already among the most difficult an administrator faces. Why would you hire jerks (this is a technical term among administrators) to make your work even harder?

Whether or not a commitment to diversity is part of the core mission is a decision the institution has to make. At some places, like Harvard, which was not constructed with such ideas in mind (probably the opposite, in fact), the possibility of seeing it like Flier does seems more likely to me. It’s a school that arose from elite culture for the training of elites. Obviously, times have changed, and many people from outside such circles have both studied and taught at Harvard in recent decades. But institutions have weight, and institutions of higher ed are famously unchanging, as I noted above. There are other kinds of institutions, some of which arose in the U.S. with a core mission at least partly, and sometimes more than partly, rooted in the desire to effect democratic principles, fair treatment, and social mobility.

I suspect that the sorts of hiring and training regimes that encourage such values to thrive and be reflected in people’s behavior in all their interactions, not just with those above them in the hierarchy and not just on certain special days of the year (e.g., Black History Month, which starts in the U.S. tomorrow) will continue to be important for students as they choose the schools they want to attend, and for faculty as they choose what sorts of institutions they want to be part of and what sorts of values they want to live by.

2000 listens

I’m very pleased that Ba Ren Chi’s music on Jamendo has close to 2,100 listens at this point, only a few months after the first release back in October of 2020. By far the favorite piece so far, according to the stats, is Lalo Sí with a little over 700 listens on its own. That’s great, and I’m pleased the song has resonated with so many people.

But I’m not as pleased when I re-listen to it now, some fifteen years after first creating it. I hear too prominently what one music blogger reminded me of: it sounds like a midi track. Well, that’s because it IS a midi track, but that’s also only part of the reason the sound sticks out today. It’s also because I made it fifteen years ago, and a lot has changed since then in terms of playback. By comparison, more recent pieces, such as Da Levante or Oni Daiko, which are in fact no less midi than Lalo Sí, sound so much better, so much more natural, that they almost don’t even appear to have come from the same place.

Unfortunately, I no longer have access to the original Finale files I used to create Lalo Sí. They are too old for me to update, it seems. Either I’ll have to re-compose the whole piece, or I’ll need to re-mix it using updated sections and an overall re-mastered score. This is possible, I know, but it’s not something I’ve spent enough time with to really do well, at least not yet. At this point, I’m re-composing individual sections and using Soundtrap to mix them in. Landr is also helping me with mastering and, as of a week ago, distribution (one can now find Ba Ren Chi’s music on iTunes, Tidal, Deezer, Spotify, and occasionally elsewhere). This process is slow but not unenjoyable. The tech has changed so much over the years. It is still fun because every little thing is about learning something new.