In Paperback!

New In Paperback Spring 2016

The Woman in the Window manages to cross numerous boundaries with enviable ease. The result is not just intellectually stimulating, but eminently readable.” —Eliot Borenstein, Russian and Slavic studies, New York University

“Provocative and wide-reaching, The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel seeks out sometimes distant and unexpected contexts in which to reread Russian classics. This point of view is refreshingly original, and these juxtapositions, often not obvious at first, are explained pithily and convincingly.” —David Herman, Slavic languages and literatures, University of Virginia

In The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel, Russell Scott Valentino offers pioneering new insights into the historical construction of virtue and its relation to the rapidly shifting economic context in modern Russia. This study illustrates how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With chapters on Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well as Pasternak and Nabokov, The Woman in the Window argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of “mixed-up men.” Such characters, according to Valentino, reveal that in a world where social reality and personal identity depend on consensual fantasies, the old masculine figure loses its grounding and can easily drift away. Valentino charts a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world: those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep afloat—a woman in a window.

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Recap of NYU Event

A sincere thanks to Eliot Borenstein for the invitation and the introduction two weeks ago for my talk at the Jordan Center at NYU. And to Anastassia Kostrioukova for the recap and summary at the above link, which begins like this:

“On April 3, 2015, the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia welcomed Russell Valentino – professor and chair of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University – to speak about his latest monograph The Woman in the Window, published by Ohio University Press in October 2014. Valentino stated that the image of a woman in the window was ubiquitous in the books and films with which he has been working for many years. When writing about this trope, Valentino added, it is hard not to write about male fantasy.

“With the European financial revolution of late 17th and early 18th centuries – the creation of the Bank of England, public and national debt, and replacement of land interests by money interests – the notion that a man’s virtues were found in property and land began “to give way to a more ambiguous conception of the self.” The establishment of a credit system was greeted by some as a potential improvement of well-being, while others saw it as the onset of corruption. A similar dual response, according to Valentino, can be traced to the onset of our present-day virtual culture….” (More at the link.)

Lovely to see some dear friends in the crowd. I hope at least my jokes were funny.

More Substance

Okay, yes, that last post was a little fluffy, even if the quote is from a weighty personage, so here’s a bit more substance. In the book’s introduction, I make an extended comparison of the  images of the U.S. and the Russian Empire at about the time that Alexis de Tocqueville made the following memorable statement in his Democracy in America: “There are now two great nations of the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.”

The extended comparison is intended to answer the question, Why might Tocqueville and his contemporaries have seen the two countries as following a similar path? There were of course basic differences, especially in terms of their nineteenth-century governmental forms. Some of these Tocqueville notes, and I point out others that seem to me more important for the project of the book. But the similarities are at least as striking (there are many and they’re in the book), and today I remembered another.

That is the Marquis de Custine’s long (very long) treatment of Russia from 1839, Empire of the Czar. Tocqueville’s book came out in two parts, one in 1835, the other in 1840, straddling in effect the Marquis’s, which was also the result of an extended stay, also something of a travel account, long, analytic, philosophical, and reflective of an entire political philosophy. The good Marquis’s treatment is of course not so laudatory towards his subject as Tocqueville’s. In fact, his treatment is as full of Old World snobbery and French aristocratic chauvinism towards backwards Russia as Tocqueville’s is filled with democratic hopes for and admiration of the new American republic. But both big long French travel accounts set a tone–or maybe two tones–for  intellectuals and cultural figures of the day.

Their size and weight also makes them quite useful at the ends of the books that line my shelves.

Looking up to her window

In looking for images for the book cover for The Woman in the Window, The Woman in the WindowI stumbled upon something both surprising and depressing at the same time. Most of the images that come up through the various major search engines if you enter “the woman in the window” are of a particular sort. I’m not talking about pornography.

What I was looking for were images in which a man is standing before an imposing facade, probably stone but at least tallish and dark and rather cold looking, from which a woman looks out from a window above. Or there might just be a window but no woman, but we all know that she’s back there somewhere, just as we all know this image in our mind. It’s at least Shakespearean, maybe Medieval, and if you start trying to think of examples from various famous and non-famous books, and then films on top of that, it’s hard to stop. This is where the title of the book comes from.

But it’s hard to find images from that angle. Most of them aregirl-in-window of women at a window but seen from inside, by someone in the room with her. This is not at all the same thing. This was the surprising part.

Why it should be depressing comes from the analysis of one of the treatments of the woman-in-the-window trope that I explore in the book. When Humbert Humbert looks at Lolita at the window, he is in the room with her, swoman-window-24595030pying on her, noting down aspects of his perverse infatuation in tiny scribbles in a notebook that he keeps hidden and locked inside his desk. He looks at her as she leans over the casement, talking with Kenneth Knight, a boy from her class who has exactly the right sort of name to be standing below her window in the traditional pose, and he realizes that he (Humbert) is seeing her somehow incorrectly. It was as if, he admits, he were seeing her through the wrong end of telescope.girl,window,inspiration,back,dark,hair,woman-8e148f1b9d41d95791a0ae830037b577_h

Nabokov was a very smart writer. He knew how to work a trope. He also understood what was gathered up inside this particular one. And he destroys it and all that’s supposedly inside it in his lovely and terrible book. What does it say about our society that looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope, spying on her in effect from inside her room, is no longer perverse but utterly mundane?

The Man Between the Woman in the Window

Man_Between-front_largeOne of the reasons The Woman in the Window took so long to finish is that I was always working on other things at the same time. I think all seven of the books I’ve translated came out during the time I was writing WiW, suggesting that it might be a very good thing for my translation work to start on another long book project! (Why this is so I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve made a mental note and plan to verify at the first opportunity.)

I’m not going to list the many other projects that germinated and in some instances matured during the same period–it helps me to think of this as a period–because doing so would probably make me feel tired, but one project has the opposite effect. It makes me feel warm and inspired, and it is a volume I co-edited on the life and work of Michael Henry Heim, which is called The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life in Translation.

Heim was my teacher at UCLA, a dear friend, and an academic father for me and many others. He served as a role model translator and public intellectual. His English title for Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a title he fought for against the wishes of the American publisher and the author, serves as the basis for this blog’s subtitle. My variation is just one of hundreds that are currently searchable online, a fact that Sean Cotter, one of the co-editors for the book, has written about at Words without Borders.

Sean and our other co-editor, Esther Allen, put a lot of work into the book, and whatever success it might have is due to their efforts, and of course those of our publisher, the indefatigable Chad Post at Open Letter Books, who first wrote about the project at Three Percent. It will come out, like WiW in October of this year. (I don’t think it is possible to plan to have two books come out in the same month at two different publishers, one beginning with “The Woman…,” the other with “The Man…,” but if there’s a publicist reading this who might find it a happy coincidence, please feel free to drop me a line.)

There will be multiple launches, which are in the works–one at the annual ALTA conference in November, another in New York in, we think, April. Possibly another before that, also in NY, in December. This is a book for anyone who likes to read books about how books are born, especially books that were not born in English until someone like Heim worked his magic.

The publisher’s website

I have now received the page proofs from The Woman in the Window — hurray for page proofs! — as well as the link for the publisher’s new website for the book, which is here. I now need to provide some links that are recommended by the author. I have to decide what the author recommends first. I’m thinking of something by the author, and then something by Deirdre McCloskey, and after that I’m not sure. Suggestions welcome!

The cover is also an issue. I’ve been asked for suggestions. We could go with the Vasily Tropinin painting of the Woman at the Window that I use in the first chapter, but the angle is not exactly what I was hoping for, and it’s not a terribly suggestive painting to me. I much prefer the shot of the hero of Cinema Paradiso standing on the empty street at night, staring up at Her window. But putting that on the cover would probably be prohibitively expensive. There are lots of Edward Hopper paintings of women at windows that might work, but again, they don’t make my heart beat much.

I’m sure there is a perfect image for this. Just need to find it. Or maybe make it…

The jacket cover, etc.

I’ve just sent a suggested revised version of the short description that will go on all the promotional materials for the book, and here it is:

In The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel, Russell Scott Valentino offers pioneering new insights into the historical construction of virtue and its relation to the rapidly shifting economic context in modern Russia. This study illustrates how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With chapters on Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well as Pasternak and Nabokov, The Woman in the Window argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of “mixed-up men.” Such characters, according to Valentino, reveal that in a world where social reality and personal identity depend on consensual fantasies, the old masculine figure loses its grounding and can easily drift away. Valentino charts a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world—those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep afloat—a woman in a window.

Now some of this was culled directly from the reader reports solicited by the press (I won’t say which parts), but other parts have come into focus — it’s amazing how this can still be slowly clarifying itself in my head–only recently, namely, when I was composing the rest of the above statement.