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A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924
A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924
by Orlando Figes
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.85
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Account of the Revolution, March 7, 2003
This is about as non-partisan a history that you can find for something as ideologically charged as the Russian revolution. But of course, non-partisan is still not impartial: a truly impartial history is impossible and impossibly boring. What's really wonderful about Orlando Figes' account is the coupling of sober analysis with a more sophisticated partiality. It is also written very well, replete with zesty anecdotes. Now let me explain what I mean by non-partisan but partial.

Traditionally, a given history of the Russian revolution divides into the two obvious camps. The leftist account is especially repugnant because it extricates Lenin from the bloodbath that ensued, which is doubtless an exercise in monstrous duplicity. The rightist view is more factually sound but the incessant pounding of the ... gavel gets in the way of analysis. Their black and white view of history is only too quick to blast and their viewpoint is duplicitous in more senses than one, though to a much lesser extent than the leftist apologists.
I've actually liked the rightist view more because it clearly highlights the ... fruit of Leninism called Stalinism. But I've always wondered how they seemed to think that a revolution could be imposed more or less top-down. Granted, there was the galvanizing force called Lenin, but can one man's willpower really dominate a nation of 100 million+ people speaking diverse languages, largely illiterate, and alienated from the intelligentsia? I'm neither Russian nor a historian, thus, admittedly, my opinion carries little weight. But it seems to me that a revolution of this scale requires more willful participation than willy-nilly coercion at gunpoint, that, say, Paul Johnson would have you believe. (And anyone who is content with "Oh, but after all they're Russians" is perfectly irresponsible.)
Figes addresses this point exactly. The thesis of the book is that the revolution is a bottom-up event and not top-down as has been held popularly. This wonderful excerpt from his epilogue hammers the point home deliciously: "Their [the Russian people's] revolutionary tragedy lay in the legacies of their own cultural backwardness rather than the evil of some `alien' Bolsheviks. They were not the victims of the revolution but protagonists in its tragedy ... It was the weakness of Russia's democratic culture which enabled Bolshevism to take root." (pg.808). This is Figes' partiality on which his account of the revolution is built. And build it he does in the whopping 800 oversized pages.
His bias really shows in these three aspects: (1) in the barbarism of the peasants (2) in the countless descriptions of how the populace either willfully or inadvertently misconstrued Bolshevism and (3) in emphasizing the haphazardness and opportunism of Bolshevist policies.
As for (1), the book aims to show that horrific barbarism was not the sole property of the Bolsheviks, but shared in common with the people. It seems to me that apologists of the peasantry take a Dostoevskian populist view that holds the peasants to be, at bottom, upright people. Figes shows that this was hardly the case: the chapter titled "Icons and Cockroaches" contains a gruesome description of peasant mores (the Jewish pogroms are mentioned later). Here, a household maxim will suffice: "'Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she's breathing. If she is, she's shamming and wants some more'" (pg.97). (If you hold to the view that so-called backward societies are angelic, try Robert Edgerton's "Sick Societies".) On the other hand, Figes is also quick to point out that the Red Terror "was implicit in the regime from the start" (pg. 630). Frequent anecdotes of atrocities and atrocities committed in revenge are persuasive in arguing that brutality at least was equally shared.
As for (2), the rightist's argument is that Reds triumphed because they were more ruthless than the Whites in their application of [creating trouble]. But can you really control an entire regiment at gunpoint and hope to win a war? Figes offers a much more reasonable explanation: the very fact that the Reds could claim to be the champions of the revolution and use powerful symbols like the Red Flag gave it the necessary impetus (pg. 668). Afterall, how can a largely illiterate peasantry understand concepts like `socialism' and `communism'? The vagueness of their political position is very clearly shown, to name one example, in the existence of cults of Kerensky and Lenin. All that the peasants ultimately comprehended were land and security. In the end, the people willfully supported the Reds, because they appeared to uphold the crucial land reform, and were therefore the lesser of two evils.
As for (3), a typical example is his opinion of the origin of War Communism, that "much of it was in fact improvised" (pg. 614). Indeed, it would take an almost superhuman lucidity to plan the whole evolution into a police state from the very inception of Bolshevik rule. Figes' history of the revolution will show that Leninism "progressed" by fits and starts, often accompanied by clamorous disagreement among entrenched elements within the Party. Almost always, the external impetus was none other than the momentum of the Russian people.
I am not able to assess whether the numerous memoranda, documents, etc. cited are authentic enough to be called facts. But there is nothing overtly suspicious that I've found. In which case, the above three points point to Figes' conclusion that the revolution was the handiwork of the Russian population. His bias would then merely be the correct perspective.
Maxim Gorky, a writer who witnessed the revolution firsthand, wrote the following heartless indictment: "I do not believe that in the twentieth century there is such a thing as a `betrayed people'" (pg. 808). This may in fact be the chilling truth.


Modern Times  Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Perennial Classics)
Modern Times Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Perennial Classics)
by Paul Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.99
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83 of 108 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Be on your toes ..., January 29, 2003
Johnson is at least honest - he makes his ideological slant very obvious. His programme is laid out most succinctly in the final paragraph where he lists "the underlying evils" of the twentieth century. They are: "the rise of moral relativism, the decline of personal responsibility, the repudiation of Judeo-Christian values, not least the arrogant belief that men and women could solve all the mysteries of the universe by their unaided intellects". In essence, this book is an ambitious interpretation of world history using the four fallacies listed above as the main criteria for explaining the prosperity or demise of nations. Regardless of whether this appeals to you or makes you wince, some words of caution are indeed necessary.
To picture the world through a sharp contrast of black and white has its pros and cons. Where the outrage is clearly warranted, the fervor of his opinion is admirable and infectious. But the clarity of his dualistic viewpoint comes at the cost of oversimplifying history in many areas. As far as I can see, his outline of European history is more or less right. In fact, had he confined himself to the European/American theater, the book would have been more successful. When the author turns his gaze on other nations beyond the pale of the Judeo-Christian world the result is more dubious. Scrutiny of his chapter on Japan produces the following:
"But until the twentieth century there were few references of any kind to bushido." (pg.181)
A: Nonsense. Excerpt from the notorious "Hagakure" (1716) by Tsunetomo Yamamoto: "Bushido to wa shinu koto to mitsuketari / I've discovered that Bushido is the act of dying". This followed by the most radical code of ethics ever uttered by the mouth of man. Also note that this book is in itself a rebuttal to an earlier Confucian definition of Bushido. Unformulated Bushido probably goes back much further.
"But the internal disputes of the missionaries had led Japan to reject Christianity." (pg.177)
A: Try instead the mass persecution of Christians in the early 17th century culminating in the War of Shimabara (1637-8) led by the "boy messiah" Amakusa Shiro.
"... [Japan is] in some respects closer to the society of ancient Egypt than to that of Post-Renaissance Europe." (pg.177)
A: This is a ridiculous comparison. The only reason he invokes this ludicrous analogy is to say that the Tenno was regarded as a living-god. That much is true, but the most cursory glance at Japanese history will show that the Emperor had no power since the samurais took over (end of the 12th century) until 1868. Not much of a pharaoh then.
"Nor did Japan's long isolation imply serenity. Quite the contrary." (pg. 178)
A: From the foundation of the Edo Shogunate in 1600 to its collapse in 1868 the era is known as the Era of Great Peace for a very good reason. Aside from some peasant uprisings (notably that of 1617-8), the persecution of Christians, an odd rebellion by a radical Confucian (1837), there was an utter lack of wars. This in marked contrast to Europe.
"Western importations from mid-nineteenth century onwards left the social grammar of Japan quite untouched." (pg.178)
A: If the eradication of the privileged Samurai class doesn't count in the Civil War of 1868, then I don't know what does.
"The town itself was an import. Even Tokyo was, and until very recently remained, an enormous collection of villages." (pg.182)
A: In the seventeenth century, the population of Edo (old name of Tokyo) numbered over 1 million out of ~30 million as a whole. This would make it one of the largest (and the most overcrowded) cities (let alone villages) in the world...
This also casts a shadow over the rest of the book: how much of it is true and how much is twisted to conform to his thesis? For example, the chapter called "The European Lazarus" focuses the limelight on European prosperity and its Catholic leaders Adenauer, de Gaulle, and de Gasperi. He underscores with little subtleness the link between Christian leaders and a nation's prosperity: that the lack of moral relativism leads to a better society. The damning evidence against this thesis is precisely in the most conspicuous deficiency in his world history: the Lazarus of the Far East. The history of how impoverished nations became indurialized democracies ought to be interesting. Yet the author merely glosses over it in the final chapter. The reason? Possibly that the prosperity of the Far East democracies is largely outside of the Judeo-Christian world and rather inconvenient for his thesis.
What he does say about ethics in the Far East can be summed up by this indictment on Japan "It failed completely to absorb the notions of individual moral responsibility which where the gift of the Judaic and Christian tradition ..." (pg. 177). This is depressing. To claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition alone has a monopoly on moral responsibility is highly contentious. It almost seems that Johnson in his eagerness to dismantle the moral equivalence of multiculturalism, is swinging to the other extreme which multiculturalism was originally meant to mitigate: cultural imperialism.
Love it or hate it, the book at least presents a thoroughly entertaining account of the world, even if you don't share his view. His strength, in my opinion, is in the fulmination against totalitarian regimes. But then again, you could get a concentrated dose of his anti-totalitarian ardor in his more historically accurate 'Napoleon'. I would recommend that book over this one.
The very fact that this book has become an institution suggests that many readers saw what they wanted to see reflected in his book. Unfortunately, this revision of world history is more propaganda than history. If you are willing to delve into this tome - and especially, if you sympathize with his Catholic viewpoint - I urge you: be on your toes. Check the facts.
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The Mystic Masseur
The Mystic Masseur
by V. S. Naipaul
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.54
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Two-Day Read, January 11, 2003
This review is from: The Mystic Masseur (Paperback)
This is a charming novel. And this is his first work, to boot. A literary debut like this has got to make a few would-be writers wince. At least it's hard for me to imagine how writers could paint characters with even less brushstrokes than Naipaul and still succeed in making them so warm and lively.

The magic of this novel is that, even though the setting is in remotely foreign Trinidad-Tobago, it will still secure any reader's attention from the very first page, the idiosyncratic conjugation of the verbs `to be' and `to have' in the native patois notwithstanding. What helps is the abundant humor largely of two types: one where you laugh along with the characters in the sheer fortuitous turn of events, the other where you smile at their forgivably human foibles and the narrator's wry observations.
The plot itself is humorous. A bookish student named Ganesh Ramsumair is wedded to the plucky Leela through the machination of a crafty penny-pincher named Ramlogan. Having found out prior to the wedding that Ramlogan is charging him for his relatives' food without his consent, Ganesh proceeds to swindle his father-in-law, during an elaborate Hindu marriage ritual - details of which are hard to explain. Having realized that he must now make a living, he tries a few odd jobs, before he hits by luck on the one profession that his island needed most: a mystic. A mystic? Even Ganesh himself is half-incredulous, but sooner or later people flock from all over the country, wanting his help in driving some demon out of someone or other. From there on, his fortune never wanes. The final metamorphosis converts Ganesh into a democratic politician (hah!), a destiny that culminates in his transformation into the thoroughly anglicized "G. Ramsay Muir OBE".

What supports this edifice is a wonderful cast of characters, quasi-cartoonish in their presentation, but still very human. To take an example, the Great Belcher is thus named because of her unfortunate habit of eructation. But she redeems herself to the reader through a string of remarkably level-headed advice. Ramlogan is almost a cardboard cut-out villain, but his fluctuation from resentment to respect for Ganesh is so transparently tied to his greed that it's almost understandable.

The exchanges between the characters are also wonderful. One morning Ganesh decides that he and his neighbor should speak grammatically correct English. Neither Ganesh nor Suruj Poopa, his accomplice in literary endeavors, can suppress a smile at their ridiculously polite English. When his wife Leela chides him at night for forfeiting his resolution so quickly, the terse response is that she "cook food good". The stuff is classic.
But the irony of it is that he will end up speaking impeccably correct English and irony is where this novel truly shines. The matter-of-factly narration (peppered with a few general observations) remains fairly detached from his subject, the end result being innocent pokes and wry fun. The sign at his house welcomes the customer with suitably mystic overtones in Hindi, but in English the message is harshly business-like. His "election" is hardly democratic, and very corrupt. His abrupt transformation from a leftish politician to a right one comes not from conviction but from petty affront.
In the end, it would be endless to point out this novel's charms and witty sides. Anyone looking for a fun book should find it for themselves. I can't see how any reader could go wrong with this provided they are not looking for serious profundity. But you can't be reading Dostoevsky all the time. So take a breather.


A literary history of Rome, from the origins to the close of the Golden Age
A literary history of Rome, from the origins to the close of the Golden Age
by J. Wight Duff
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Lost Gem, January 6, 2003
Fellow reader, I have no idea how you stumbled onto this book, but consider yourself quite lucky: you've found a hidden gem.

The very fact that this book is out of print is not surprising. After all, which publisher would be willing to republish a book that is studded to the marrow with Latin quotes, not to mention some scholarly verbiage in four languages, all untranslated? If this weren't enough to scare off the squeamish, then the heavy barrage of high literary allusions would certainly provide the coup de grace. The irony is that the book was definitely written for public consumption. The author obviously makes an attempt to provide translations for longer passages which is very helpful.
But the reading public of now is not that of the turn of the century. It should be clear by now that this book is not for the faint-of-heart. For an admitted classics dilettante like me, the book was definitely hard. Aside from some oases of respite where the author provides English translations, the rest is from the source untainted. The chapter on Marcus Cato was particularly brutal. The literary allusions are extremely varied and erudite. That said, the teeming allusions - as far as I can understand them - rarely strike a strained note (though his own `subtitles' to Plautus' plays were a bit questionable). On the whole, they are not superficial adornment but greatly add color to the stately marble. By contrasting it with modern rivals, the classics really come to life. Examples are so plentiful, but here's a serviceable sample from a passage contrasting Catullus and Robert Herrick: "Each unites artificiality and simplicity. Herrick's `blossoms, birds, and bowers' are present in the Latin poet, though Alexandrinism left him freer from conceits than the `metaphysical school' left Herrick." (pg.239, 3rd ed.) Footnote to this quote provides lines of Herrick invoking Catullus. Lively allusions and comparisons like this abound throughout the book.
So why should you read this book? There are two reasons. The first reason obviously assumes complicity in interest with the title aim of the book - it is not history, but a LITERARY history. But as such it's the best I've read since Gilbert Highet's unforgettable book. In some sense, it's even better, because this book is a learned guide through the very fountain of literature. Thus, you will start from some garbled inscriptions from Roman antiquities. From there on, the author proceeds to the extant fragments of the earliest Roman poets: Livius Andronicus, Naevius, and Ennius. With raw and raucous Plautus on, the author really starts to relish meting out judgment on individual works. A prescription (and rarely proscription) of recommended works continues through: rugged Naevius, polite Terence, the unhappily obscure Tragedians, satirical Lucilius, onto the arch-conservative Cato. After Cato comes the line-up of the `Golden Age': passionate Lucretius, lyrical Catullus, learned Varro, eloquent and verbose Cicero, political and laconic Caesar, Virgil the supreme, genial Horace, the elegiac poets, and finally, lively Livy. Whatever judgment passed is never solely from `antiquitatis causa' (which is someone's insulting assessment of Ennius, a poet whose work later inspired Virgil's masterpiece) but tempered by criticism. So Livy is chided for his lack of scientific method, Cicero for his oversize ego, etc. Reviewing the fragments of Ennius, he even has a little swipe at Seneca: "For one of these plays [Ennius'] with their warm blood and masculine force, to barter five of Seneca's frigid experiments would be sheer gain." (pg.106, 3rd ed.) Ouch. The partisanship is something that brings me to the second reason why anyone with an interest in classics should read this.
And this is because the author absolutely loves the classics. In the closing sections of chapters concerning certain authors, the tone becomes practically rapturous. Take for example his assessment of Lucretius: "His broad appeal to humanity is the secret of the perennial attraction towards this Titanic genius, splendidly intrepid in the search after truth, disdainful of all pettiness ..." (pg. 221, 3rd ed.) Especially after reading the excerpts, the enthusiasm is extremely catching. Thus, many a reader I hope will sigh when the author grows wistful in recounting the lost tragedies of Accius, or stand in amazement with him at Virgil's wizardry, or admire along the genial humanity of Horace.
In short, the book is a marvelous guide for readers with non-scholarly interest in the Roman classics as well as a good (though bit too erudite) gateway drug for initiates. It would seem to me that the book is a must for professionals. In any case, I predict that whoever reads through this book will, like me, blow the dust off of a forgotten Latin dictionary and get cracking.
So get cracking.


Notes from Underground (Vintage Classics)
Notes from Underground (Vintage Classics)
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.80
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Dostoevsky's Best, December 15, 2002
First my confession: the first two encounters with this celebrated novella both ended with the book being rudely dismissed across the room near pg. 30. But ahh, the third reading felt positively as if a portable supernova had detonated between my two hands. My duty then as a reviewer is to tell you how you should approach this book and ultimately convince you to read it.
The most important thing you need to know about this book is that it is a POLEMICAL SATIRE. There is a great ideological distance between the narrator and Dostoevsky - in no way does he reflect the author's outlook. This fact is not obvious seeing that even his contemporaries were perplexed and generations of critics stymied. The opponent of Dostoevsky's polemic is the radical socialist Chernyshevsky, whose novel "What is to be Done?" (incidentally, Lenin's favorite novel) is parodied piecemeal throughout the novella. What the underground man represents is the logical extreme of a man who totally embraces Chernyshevsky's "rational egoism" and its socialist program. Chernyshevsky believed that once man is shown the truth through science and reason, the "new man" will inevitably renounce all irrational behavior. He also proposes that a new society be founded on socialist and materialistic principles, where the individual will is subjected for the betterment of humanity. In this book, Dostoyevsky seeks to undermine Chernyshevsky by showing that a strict adherence to this radical thought ends in a terrible cul de sac called the "man from underground". Where it diverges from being a mere satire is the fabulous and tortuous dialogue-monologue of this embittered man.
Although Chernyshevsky's overconfidence in science seems incredibly naïve to us now, this was certainly not the case in the 1860's. For example, the book mentions H.T. Buckle, an ambitious historian who attempted to "promote" history to an analytical science (for the refutation, consult Isaiah Berlin's "Proper Study of Mankind), as a living influence. The underground man, then, stands as nineteenth century's most heartfelt rebellion against this atmosphere of stifling rationality. But why should belief in science lead to rigor? Take the following reasoning offered by the narrator. Someone slaps him and he feels offended. But the "rational" part of him tells him that, according to "natural law" and scientific determinism, the slap is the result of environmental factors. Thus the offender is blameless because "the laws of nature cannot be forgiven" (pg.9). But then what is he to do with the resentment that he feels? This leads him a little later to the following wonderful outburst: "My God, but what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason these laws and two times two is four are not to my liking?" (pg.14). An entirely logical universe where human action is governed by something "like a table of logarithms" (pg. 24) leads to a false comfort in moral relativism. This still does not mean that the underground man prefers irrationality. He merely points out that what is offensive is precisely the fact that men who would send "all these logarithms to the devil" (pg.25) would attract followers. What this new rational universe lacks is man's freedom of will, and man will have it, the narrator warns, even by losing his reason, "so as to do without reason and still have his own way!" (pg.31).
From the very preface, a dismissive quotation ("Etc., etc., etc.") of Nekrasov's hyperromantic poem, there is a curious inversion of Romanticism that sets the tone for part II. We find, amazingly, that the underground man in his youth was a die-hard romantic! The narrator tells us how he brooded in his youth until he developed an overwhelming urge to "embrace the whole of mankind". Of course, what actually transpired - at the gathering around his schoolfellow Zverkov - is tragicomic: the underground man finds himself shamefully ignored and even insulted. Worse yet, the one truly romantic character, the sympathetic prostitute called Liza, is treated in a most harrowingly heartless manner. So the underground man is merely a romantic gone truly sour. This actually isn't too surprising if you think about it: cynics are romantics. You wouldn't be bitter about something unless you had an ideal in mind.
There's obviously a lot more to this little book. If you're looking for better explanations, what the excellent introduction by Richard Pevear leaves out, the relevant chapter in Joseph Frank's "The Stir of Liberation" will fill in the blanks. This along with Mochulsky's "Dostoevsky" is recommended for further reading.
I'll be blunt as possible: this book is a revolutionary masterpiece, as shocking as Nietzsche's "Zarathustra" and just as daring in composition. Overall, I feel that the book stands less as an advocate for irrationalism but more as a stark warning to romantic utopian fantasies that has a nasty habit of ending in cold murder. You REALLY ought to read this.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 14, 2009 10:30 AM PDT


The Gambler
The Gambler
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.95
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad for a month's writing (or is that typing?), December 9, 2002
This review is from: The Gambler (Paperback)
SYNOPSIS: The novel centers around the career of a natural gambler named Alexei, who, as a tutor in the household of a certain Russian General, is infatuated with two things: the roulette and Paulina, the General's high-spirited niece. The manifold intrigues of all other characters - directly or indirectly - center around the awaited death of the General's aunt, an aged and wealthy Russian landowner who is expected to leave behind a considerable inheritance. In a sense, everyone is gambling. The story reaches a small climax when this landowner pays a surprise visit to the General. In the commotion that follows, Alexei is forced to make a choice between his two loves.
There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding concerning this novelette by Dostoyevsky. Many straightforwardly equate Alexei with Dostoyevsky, and Paulina with Apollinaria Suslova, his one-time cruel mistress. But this is overhasty because there seems to me a crucial difference between Alexei and the author. Namely, the author was wracked by guilt and remorse after every debacle at the roulette table. Alexei had no such compunction. He is truly a natural gambler; throughout the novel we see him taking wild risks, for example, telling Paulina that he would throw himself from the Schlangenberg with her slightest approval. His love of gambling is less a desire to get rich - indeed he seems to shrug off his winnings as nonchalantly as his losses - or a means of building his self-esteem, but more about "an uncontrollable urge to stick my tongue at it [Fate]," (pg. 40) or plain thrill-seeking: "he feels the need for stronger and stronger ones" (pg. 147). What's particularly painful is that even though he has momentary insights into the true root of his addiction, his self-analysis on the whole is about as farcical as his "theory" of roulette. And this will become very apparent with his treatment of Paulina.
Paulina's motives are more nebulous and deserve some explaining. Hysteria and extreme irrational behavior often stems from excessive pride in Dostoyevsky's psychoanalysis. This is true especially of Mme Epanchina and her daughter Aglaya in "The Idiot", certainly Katerina Ivanovna in C&P, and is a favorite theme of Dostoyevsky's. In the case of Paulina, she particularly resents having any monetary value attached to her person. This loathing has it roots in Des Grieux's reluctance to marry her without dowry. It also explains why she turns down Grandmother's generous offer, and, of course, the culminating scene with Alexei. This would help to explain some of the puzzling outbursts.
Of the novel as a whole, there are pros and cons. The whole atmosphere of the novel is much lighter than the usual miasma of nerve-wracking gloom. Alexei's little fling with Blanche, sort of an upper-class call-girl, has some unexpectedly simple tenderness that's rare in his novels (usually they are more melodramatic or heightened). You can certainly get a chuckle out of Alexei's audacity elsewhere, particularly when he plays a pretty brutal prank on an extremely uptight German baron. Certainly, there are enough humorous anecdotes to keep a reader's attention.
But what I find less appealing is the focus of this novel on nationality. As many people have noted, this is the most cosmopolitan of all his novels and yet this may be the one that presents his xenophobic stereotypes in a glaring manner. Alexei and the British Mr. Astley claim an innate gambling streak in the Russian national character. Whatever the truth of the claim, this at least has anecdotal value when Alexei contrasts this with a satirical view of the "German Idol" when he claims that he refuses "to consider myself as an instrument for the accumulation of capital."(pg.45). But in the process both the Russian and German character is heavily caricatured. On top of this, there's Des Grieux, an all-too-generic French villain of the sarcastically polite type, and the slanderous manhandling of the Poles and Jews. The undesirable sum effect of all of these is that it detracts from the psychology not only of the gambler, but of the other characters. My opinion is that his rampant xenophobia had prevented Dostoyevsky from properly fleshing out his characters. Personally speaking, the drama of clashing psychologies is what I relish in reading Dostoyevsky.
In conclusion, the novel is entertaining enough to read and comes with a good introduction. But it is impossible for anyone to resist the temptation of comparing it with his other output. Even if you reject his acknowledged masterpieces for its larger volume, there's still the luminous "White Nights", the masterly "Eternal Husband" and of course the revolutionary "Notes from Underground" to consider. To be very frank, life is too short: you're better off reading any of the above three unless you've read them already.


The Idiot (Everyman's Library)
The Idiot (Everyman's Library)
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.04
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mystery of Myshkin, November 28, 2002
With the third major novel from Dostoevsky's post-Siberian era, we encounter a striking volte-face from techniques and thematic focus employed in his previous works. Whereas works like Crime and Punishment allow the reader to savor the bitter fruit of rational egoism through the actions of its protagonist, The Idiot in sharp contrast revolves around the interactions of a "perfectly beautiful man". What is the outcome of this simulation? Does Dostoevsky succeed in this most ambitious goal?
SYNOPSIS: Prince Myshkin returns to Russia from a clinic in Switzerland. From the very first scene, the Prince makes rapid fire acquaintances, all of whom are affected in varying degrees by his disarming naivete and sincerity. One thing leads to another, and the first part culminates in an uproarious scandal at a party of a notorious kept-woman, Nastasya Filippovna. The next two parts explore the various side-themes developed mostly by other characters, while the Prince mostly languishes, torn between the love for Nastasya and Aglaya. In the final part, the two rivals of his heart head for an inevitable collision course ...
Before I proceed any further, I think some admonition is useful for the would-be reader. First of all, this is probably not a good gateway drug into Dostoevsky. It's obvious that The Idiot is the most chaotic of the great post-Siberian novels (in the straitened circumstances under which it was written, it is not surprising) and so its result is mixed. Whatever the novelistic norm of his day was, the condemning fact stands that the middle two parts smother the Myshkin-Christ plot under loosely tied, though interesting, side-plots. In fact, the first part was brilliant, and can possibly stand by itself as a short story, while the next two diluted it. The idea is ambitious enough as it is, to bury it under subplots is bad.
I also felt that events like Ippolit's confession amidst a raging Champagne party, is too melodramatic even for Dostoevsky, an author who does require some resistance to saccharine scenes from the reader. Compounded to this, is a bewildering web of intrigues, the motivations for which is too vaguely intimated. Furthermore, there are some characters like the sycophant Lebedev or Keller ("gentleman with the fists") who is more cartoon villain than human and mars the human scenery. In the end I'm almost tempted to side with Dostoevsky's friend Apollon Maikov who thought that the characters are lighted with an artificial "electric spark", which casts a "supernatural brilliance" on these fantastic creations. Between the lines, the letters spell `hokey'.
BUT, here is what I think the reader ought to keep in mind when tackling Dostoevsky: the reader should not expect concrete realism from Dostoevsky. A suitable metaphor for Dostoevsky's supercharged characters is what the engineers and mathematicians call a Laplace Transform. In the process, equations are inevitably brought to what is called the "s-domain". It always struck me as being very odd that a totally fictitious space would somehow help in distilling truth out of reality. But this resembles albeit superficially the function of Dostoevsky's "fantastic realism" as I understand it. Many of Dostoevsky's important characters cannot exist (I hope); they are by and large too supercharged, volatile, a bit sappy, and overall too fantastic for the earth. But Dostoevsky is not interested in writing some trite chronicle-of-a-dysfunctional-family. He is after the eternal themes of humanity, which in the context of The Idiot would be: theodicy (consider: why shouldn't the ailing Ippolit rebel against his fate?), and existence of God (the omnipresent and provocative picture by Hans Holbein) among others. These are certainly themes you cannot easily explore by having a bunch of characters, say, eat donuts over coffee placidly discussing the merits of a lawn sprinkler or something. By necessity, the characters are jazzed up and hyper-activated, in order that, once set free, their energetic trajectories would reveal something profound about ourselves we would otherwise have not known. According to this internal logic, then, the near-hysterical encounters are, if not justified, valid.
Lastly, there is the problem of Prince Myshkin's personality. My personal opinion is that it is disjointed. There is a clear discontinuity between Myshkin in Part I and the rest. The original Myshkin - the one I prefer - is nominally "an idiot" but his brutally frank opinions adumbrate a very keen understanding of humanity. He says to Ganya, for instance, that "... you're simply the most ordinary man that could be, only very weak and not the least bit original." (pg.122) This appraisal cannot be more correct though inopportune. The uncompromising sincerity of his tone, manners, and motives form a splendid contrast to that of the hypocritical personages surrounding Nastasya at her birthday party. In the later parts, either the narrator is distancing himself further from Myshkin (until it breaks completely in "... because we ourselves, in many cases, have difficulty explaining what happened." (pg.573)) or the remission of his `idiocy' is slowly fading, either one of these facts must excuse the break in his character. But at least the discontinuity is finite and the transform should still work. Apparently, the author himself was undecided over the nature of his idealized man, but then again, it is only appropriate that he stay enigmatic. After all, the gospels themselves are narrated by people other than Jesus himself, (on a lesser note) Malory does not give us access to Sir Galahad's mind only to Lancelot's, and it is difficult to entertain the mindset of a Pickwick or Don Quixote directly.
In quick conclusion, what damage the over-theatrical elements and the diffuseness of the plot in The Idiot effects, is repaired by the puzzle of Myshkin and the eternal themes that crowd into 500 pages. The book is highly recommended for all people, but with the above warning in mind. Those who prefer down-to-earth and concrete storyline should look elsewhere. I also strongly recommend picking up Joseph Frank's "The Miraculous Years", a literary-historical biography of Dostoevsky to which this reviewer is heavily indebted.
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The Village of Stepanchikovo: And its Inhabitants: From the Notes of an Unknown (Penguin Classics)
The Village of Stepanchikovo: And its Inhabitants: From the Notes of an Unknown (Penguin Classics)
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.64
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Recommended only for die-hard Dostoevsky fans, September 29, 2002
This is the third book of Dostoyevsky I've read in the ongoing immersion experiment. Before starting, I strongly suggest that anyone interested in Dostoyevsky should read Joseph Frank's masterly five volume biography/literary criticism/russian cultural history immediately. I owe all of the background presented here to Frank's "Years of Ordeal" (why ... is it out of print?).
Thomas Mann had claimed that the dominating personality in the book, Foma Fomich Obispin, is "a comic creation of the first rank, irresistible, rivalling Shakespeare and Moliere." Now I read this book, and that was not at all my evaluation. Mann's comment obliges me to delve a little deeper into the text and circumstances.
Synopsis: Sergey, a young stugent, goes to visit his uncle's estate. He thereby stumbles into a total Bedlam; he sees that his extremely meek and kind-hearted uncle, Colonel Rostanev, is held in thrall both by his fatuous and vain mother and most of all by Foma the charlatan. There he learns that Foma had acted the buffoon for a now deceased general but now he relishes tormenting his benefactor, the Colonel, by playing the part of a morally righteous man. Foma's theatrics erode the patience of both Sergey and his uncle until it explodes with a surprising denouement.
Foma can be best described as a Gogolian Tartuffe in a Dickensian setting. The Gogolian parentage in Foma is apparent in his name (Obispin means a "slip of the pen"). He is also a parody of Gogol himself and his works. Like Moliere's Tartuffe, he is a moral charlatan, expounding lofty principles that he himself flouts. Dostoevsky was definitely familiar with some Dickens, and the generally one-dimensional cartoon-like nature of most characters gives an unmistakeably Dickensian feel.
No one will doubt that these are excellent ingredients, but is this '3' better than '1'+'1'+'1'? I don't think so. I'm not familiar enough with Gogol or Moliere's oeuvre to comment in detail, but at least in comparison to Dickens, the sum total seems to me watered down. I think Rostanev can be thought of as a more gullible Russian Pickwick (a bit forced), but comparison with the "Pickwick Papers" comes out to Dostoevsky's disadvantage. More damning is the fact that both Avsey, the translator who wrote a good introduction here, and Frank, in "The Years of Ordeal", more or less rate this book highly because it points to possibilities in Dostoevsky's future masterpieces. In other words, the work by itself cut off from possibilities is not as interesting. This is telling.
So why is it inferior to "Pickwick"? My opinion is this: escapism. Stepanchikovo is a little too idyllic, the people are by and large too simple, and there is something of a poised unwillingness to confront the nastier side of life. Shouldn't Dostoevsky have expounded on Nastenka's poverty and plight (or would this weaken the novel)? What about the psychology of Mizhinchikov who will blossom into an evil flower called Svidrigailov in "Crime and Punishment"? It is very unkind to suggest this, but considering the very trying circumstances in which this book was written - most notably marital dissatisfaction - perhaps Dostoevsky's wish for a more fulfilling life got the better of his superb psychological skills.
Some defence is necessary. The psychology of Tatyana is well-explored. A woman whose mind is so benighted in self-aggrandizing romance that when she finally emerges from poverty to newfound riches is unable to shake them off - this is classic Dostoevsky.
But in summary I would recommend this book only to the die-hard Dostoevsky fans. I notice nothing flagrant in the translation (NOTE: I know no Russian), so it is not the fault of the translator. So if you really want to see the middle stage in the evolution of a great author, you should read this. Otherwise, just go tackle "Crime and Punishment". In fact, EVERYONE should tackle "Crime and Punishment"!


The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature
The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature
by Gilbert Highet
Edition: Paperback
Price: $41.99
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65 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb guide to European literature, among other things, May 12, 2002
In writing reviews I adhere to the policy that five stars should be given only to books that profoundly alter your perspective. In that sense, this book deserves to be spangled liberally with a good sized constellation.
Ever wanted an approachable and informative guide to Western Literature? Have you ever tackled some purported classic that left you wondering why those damn nymphs and fauns keep proliferating? Your quest has ended: this book is the Baedeker of Western European Literature that all you literature addicts have been looking for.
First of all, the author is dazzlingly erudite; he is apparently at home in Greek, Latin, English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian at least. Its primary purpose is to show the hidden scaffolding of Greco-Roman classics in Western literature, age by country, by selecting a choice group of writers with his personal preferences attached. The result is remarkably readable, never ostentatious, and his thesis rarely imposes strain on belief because the proof is always at hand. Thus the reader learns the overtones of classics in Shakespeare, or is made to see the hidden Doric column in Byron's passions fairly concretely.
But in my opinion, this book is truly excellent (1) for the list of influential writers in all ages that he had himself hand selected (I've never heard of Abraham a Santa Clara and now I'm itching for a translation), and most importantly, (2) because it gives the necessary cultural backdrop that anchors a given author to an era with all its advantages and limitations. For example, the book gives a reason why the Augustan poets (Dryden, Pope and friends) were driven to mincing affectations (partly a reaction to the Renaissance, partly a particularly Baroque censorship of vulgar words that comes from a misunderstanding of the classics. Highet provides some choice sample of Juvenal's trenchant and vulgar satires as a counterexample).
Of course, all books must have some faults. First, this book is very anglophillic; when works of two nations are compared, the British are crowned with the laurel with somewhat suspicious frequency. Whether this represents the truth is far beyond my capacity, only I submit that if I were a Frenchman, I would contest some of the outcomes. Second, his preference is certainly open to criticism. I may be alone in this, but I never found a single page of Gibbon's magnum opus soporific. I don't agree with his encomiastic treatment of Byron, either. I thought Coleridge was ushered off the stage too speedily. And sometimes you do get the feeling that an author with extensive classical training is definitely favored in the eye of a very classicist author.
The nettlesome issue of a hierarchy in writers is bound to cause some clashes with readers' opinions. But no matter: I am very certain that this book will still provide an addictively informative read to anyone with an interest in reading a sweeping survey of European literature. This book is a MUST READ for amateur/professional literati, world literature bookworms (me), and ...
... especially the classicists. Because the book's final and most salutary influence is that it reintroduces the Greco-Roman classics to our age where the classics field is increasingly untilled. If the very fact that a millenium of writers have turned - whether coerced by social convention or not - continuously to the Greco-Roman classics does not convince us, after rading this book one can't help but wonder whether, beyond the frigid marmoreal busts that say nothing and the wild raging toga party orgies, the ancients really have something very urgent to say to the present, or that they say it better than any of us alive.


Norwegian Wood
Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.48
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Mirror for Readers, April 8, 2002
This review is from: Norwegian Wood (Paperback)
This is my second Murakami book. The first was his Akutagawa prize winner from a while ago that did not leave enough of an impression to imprint the title in memory.
But now, this book is positively refreshing after trying to wade through the acclaimed Japanese literature of recent years! Notice how simple and unassuming the prose is, contrary to other contemporary work that doesn't make it over here for good reason. Of course, this novel has accessibility going for it. Main character Toru Watanabe is practically immersed in Western imports: he is reading "Magic Mountain", Conrad, Euripides, or Boris Vian, etc. with very scant reference to any Japanese work. Which makes it a relatively easy port to English and the translation loses little.
The main strength of the book I think is the atmosphere that it creates; it is truly one of a kind, more rarefied in effect than Salinger to whom this book owes certain similarities (Toru is likened to Holden at one point). It is a world where sex is narrated often but with cleanly wantonness, a world where time is stagnant and politics recede far to the background (Midori's quip about Marxist-poseurs in a university is exquisite - also shows Toru's apoliticalness, unfortunately very common in Japan), and above all a world where men and women are disarmingly honest about life, sex, and how they truly feel. Now except for the last item, the mindset is not far removed from that of a young contemporary Japanese, like me, which explains the popularity. Many people in Japan condemn Murakami for writing "fluff", but this is not true. Afterall, the core moral is stated in the very beginning of the book, that death is a part WITHIN life and not outside it (curiously Japanese sentiment from a most un-Japanese writer - check Ivan Morris' "Nobility of Failure"), and the book is his attempt to come to grip with this unconsoling truth. That, certainly, is not a trivial lesson to live with and you will live through it, all of it, from enervating boredom down to sexual agony, with Toru.
In conclusion, this book, then, is for readers who are willing to see their own life reflected in the somewhat distorted but wonderful mirror of Murakami's making. Afterall, isn't this the mark of a great novel?
Oh, and to that reviewer who was so surprised by the unpuritanical ethics in a Japanese book: if reading anything by Tanizaki or the first few pages of Kawabata's "Snow Country" (why is he sniffing that finger?) doesn't convince you, consider any chapter of the Genji, or the nastier love-letters in the Man-yo Shu (the bit about the "bag" he will wear until next he sees her). The clincher is the story in Konjaku Monogatari about a man who masturbates with a suggestive looking vegetable and his daughter eats it and ... well, you take it from there. Prudish ethics has never was a forte of good Japanese literature.


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