27 April 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Speak, Memory", "This Present Darkness", "Bend Sinister", "The Wisdom Books", "Coonardoo", "A Field Guide to Edible Plants of New Zealand", "Valla-Ljots Saga", "A Princess of Mars", and "Eugene Onegin"

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Most autobiographies are either reworkings of history or tedious lists of miscellanea. It is a sad fact.

Some autobiographers try to justify their misdeeds or improve their image, by explaining context or the "truth" behind events. Of this sort we can find President Bush's Decision Points, Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, or Donald Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown - all of which focus aggressively on justifying widely-maligned actions. Others are personal propaganda, giving a personal history to glorify the writer, like President Obama's Dreams from My Father or John McCain's Faith of My Fathers. The vast majority of those that remain are vanity projects. Bruce Campbell's If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, Rue McClanahan's My First Five Husbands, The Autobiography of Mark Twain... the list goes on. They're poorly written, formulaic, and inevitably a lot less exciting than their authors would like.

Vladimir Nabokov, surprisingly, does not indulge in tedium. He never does.

As I have worked on my postgraduate dissertation, I have of course been reading an enormous amount about Nabokov and his work. Like most authors, his writing was essentially personal, and so his life and history can explain a lot of his themes and meanings. When a character of Nabokov's feels the grit of a particle of leaf, ground into scraps between finger and thumb, that leaf almost certainly came from someplace like Vyra, the wooded estate of Nabokov's Russian youth. Often, to know what Vyra meant to Nabokov is to know more about what that leaf means to his character.

Typically, an author's autobiography is not the most useful resource for this kind of research. Even worse, it's typically not even very interesting. It's unfortunate, but there is a human tendency to rewrite rather than recount when we speak of our lives. When Mark Twain wrote his autobiography, he rambled on with a tale that essentially cast himself as Tom Sawyer - meaningful from a psychological standpoint, but hardly the best story of Twain's life (that honor perhaps goes to Emerson's Mark Twain: a Literary Life).

It was surprising, then, to read Speak, Memory and find an autobiographical account that is almost as useful as it is wonderfully interesting. In this story of an opulent boyhood and the people of his early years, Nabokov is both fascinating and introspective. He grew up trilingual and pampered, the favored son of a central figure of the Russian Revolution: his father Vladimir Dmitrivich Nabokov was a leading Constitutional Democrat and helped govern Russia during the brief period of freedom between the ousting of the tsar and the bloodbaths of the Bolsheviks. But despite this romantic setting, most of Nabokov's tale is about smaller and more detailed studies. He writes about his passionate love for lepidoptery, his fledgling love affairs, and the curious lives of his intimates. And the detail!

Nabokov is a sensual writer. In all of his books, you can find descriptions of people and places and events that are vivid and splendid with detail. He paid attention in his life, and struggled ardently to find just the mot juste to express the sensations he had felt. In Speak, Memory he mentions the bittersweetness of writing this experiences into literary reality. They faded from him, he says, as he laments the paleness of his memory of his Berlin apartment (which he has given to a character, to sit in and light a candle) or a stolen kiss from sweetheart Lyussya (transformed into an embrace of ink on a page).

It is very seldom that you can find an autobiography that is worthy of being read for itself, not just for information or derision. This is one such worthy volume, and I recommend it for anyone.

This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti

I have a weakness for bad writing, as anyone who has been reading my blog well knows. Bad writers have something in common with the best writers: they reveal things that are deep in themselves and in us.

The best writers do this through skill and cleverness, teasing out the threads of shame or joy that are snarled in the folds behind our thoughts. When Hemingway wrote of a clean old man who drank without spilling in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", he was writing about the true assumption of dignity that is possible for a man. Like all of the best writers, he was telling you something that was true at its core, and that rang in harmony with your heart.

But a very bad writer reveals so much, too. They do it by being unable to hide what they really mean and what they're really thinking. Their story is transparent like the lie of a small child, and it makes a window into their mind that you don't find with other writers.

Frank Peretti is a very bad writer, and his book This Present Darkness is a very bad book. And as such, it is delightful.

A mediocre writer is schooled in the finer points of how to craft a plot, develop a character, and create dramatic tension. He might work out the motives of characters and how they will interact, pausing along the way to consider whether or not it makes any sense. Peretti lacks this encumbrance of competence.

This Present Darkness is about a small town, Ashton, that hosts an unseen battle between angels and demons. Two Christians, a journalist and a pastor, try to wipe out the rampant corruption in the town's institutions. Their efforts mirror the unseen supernatural world, as a small group of angels try to fight the overwhelming force of demons that infest the people.

Now, Christian writers inevitably face the Problem of Evil: how can evil exist if an omnipotent God is a good one? In Christian fiction without explicit intervention by the deity, they usually solve this problem by having a happy ending: i.e., if someone is in an accident and loses their vision, it eventually happens that they are only able to live a fulfilling life because of this disability. Through fiction, the writer justifies the divine plan.

But in books like This Present Darkness, angels and demons are explicitly at work disabling car engines and shoving trucks off the road (seriously), so the problem gets stickier. Evil exists, in the form of demons. The good guys have to fight them. And obviously, the forces of good can never lose.

In regular fiction, the forces of good can lose. In some books, the good guys lose and it's tragic and that's that. But this can't happen in Christian fiction, because God and his angels have to win. But how can you make it interesting in the meantime? If the angels are fated to win, then how do you create drama - isn't the reader just going to be frustrated and waiting for them to arrive, wondering why they're permitting all this suffering?

In Peretti's work, it's implied that angels are sometimes scared of demons, and they don't help us sometimes because they're afraid. Also, he's a deist.

This isn't what Peretti meant to say, of course, and no doubt he would be horrified at such an interpretation. Nonetheless, that's the setting.

In the book, Marshall Hogan goes about trying to expose the demonic corruption of his daughter's college professor and the police force, while Pastor Hank Busche tries to reform the people of his small church and lead them away from liberal Christianity and back to the true faith. Simultaneously, the angel Tal and his comrades are working to protect them from the demons of the town, who infest the people and make them think and do bad things. When Marshall Hogan's daughter accuses her father of molesting her, and is tormented by false memories, that's the work of the demons that are possessing her. Similarly, when a junkie attacks Hank Busche's wife and tries to rape her, it's the demons that make him do it. And these are powerful demons, it seems. The ones inhabiting the junkie, for example, have been there for many years and it takes a prolonged and arduous exorcism by Pastor Busche before they can be cast out. Tal and the angels help with the exorcism.

But this last part raises the question: why didn't Tal just kill the demons long ago, and free the boy? Why permit years of horror and a near-rape?

Well, it turns out that the angels need "prayer cover." They're powered by the prayers of the faithful (the true faithful, not the liberal Christians), and without that power, the demons might destroy them. So throughout most of the novel, Tal and the angels concentrate on a ludicrous and circuitous plot that leads to Marshall Hogan and Hank Busche both being arrested and finally meeting each other, and then working together to free the town from demons. They can't just drive out the demons, because the demons might win. Aha! Drama! Suspense! Fun!

Alas, Peretti doesn't seem to realize that he has unwittingly revealed that human beings suffer and God is absent in the meantime. His deistic God has some sort of plan, but even the angels only look upwards with vague hope, and then return to their terrestrial best efforts. If the angels make a mistake, we are left to conclude that innocent humans would suffer (suffer even more, that is) and die and Satan would own Ashton. This is a question, accidentally promoted by Peretti, that he does not and cannot answer. Likewise, we must question culpability and free will. When Marshall Hogan's daughter bears false witness against her father and puts him in prison, is it her fault? Can she be said to have sinned when it was a demon controlling her? Peretti shies away from this question, too.

The established reality of the supernatural leads to some strange events, moreover. Imagine if a preacher laid hands on a young rapist and drug addict, and then commanded demons to leave. The man shakes around, shouts about demons leaving, and then suddenly slackens and seems all changed into a nice guy. If you heard about this preacher then welcoming this guy - who recently tried to rape his wife! - into their home and working with him, you would strongly suspect the man's intelligence. But here, it's perfectly normal and sensible, because with the demons gone, he's okay again. The reality of the demons is established, and so it makes sense. But at times like this the novels "real world" setting seems bizarre: we might know people of very strong faith, but I think we'd rightly question their sanity and love of their wife if they undertook these actions.

This sort of book will appeal to only two kinds of people: the devoted Christian and the snickering atheist. If you are one of the two, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, back away and seek saner fare.

Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov

Dystopian books are the next hot thing in Young Adult Literature, as noted by Laura Miller in The New Yorker:

Collins’s [Hunger Games] trilogy is only the most visible example of a recent boom in dystopian fiction for young people. Many of these books come in series, spinning out extended narratives in intricately imagined worlds. ...
Publishers have signed up dozens of similar titles in the past year or two, and, as with any thriving genre, themes and motifs get swapped around from other genres and forms. There are, or will soon be, books about teen-agers slotted into governmentally arranged professions and marriages or harvested for spare parts or genetically engineered for particular skills or brainwashed by subliminal messages embedded in music or outfitted with Internet connections in their brains. Then, there are the post-apocalyptic scenarios in which humanity is reduced to subsistence farming or neo-feudalism, stuck in villages ruled by religious fanatics or surrounded by toxic wastelands, predatory warlords, or flesh-eating zombie hordes.

But of course dystopias have always been popular, even before this boom in adolescent interest. George Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are perennial bestsellers, and deservedly so. The reasons for their popularity are the same, for both young and old: they are literary hyperbole, able to create scenarios of oppression and heroism on scales impossible in other genres. It's the contrast, you see... and nowhere can you find sharper contrast than when an entire world is explicitly wrong.

Nabokov disdained hyperbole. He thought it was crude, and hated Orwell for what he deemed clumsy clichés. So his dystopian novel Bend Sinister is a subtler species.

The book takes place in the aftermath of a revolution in a tiny Eastern European country. A philosophy devoted to sameness has led to an absurd authoritarian state helmed by a thoroughly mediocre tyrant. In the tumult, a famous philosopher - the only international celebrity in the country - named Adam Krug tries to make his way with his young son.

Part of what makes the book interesting is that Krug is uninterested in the oppressive dictatorship and all of its nonsense. He scarcely pauses to register his contempt for authorities, for the recent unrelated death of his wife wholly consumes him. The spectacle of a society in the grip of madness is meaningless to him next to the madness of a world without his spouse. This leads to the reader being gifted with only scraps of information about the dystopic world at large, and the whole story of the philosophy of mediocrity ("Ekwilism") is revealed only near the end of the book.

The writing is masterful, as usual with Nabokov. With graceful understatement he writes of the grief of a loving husband. He was absolutely devoted from first to last to his own wife, Vera, and the power of that passion and a vision of its possible loss is writ into the shaking of Krug's shoulders as he weeps. And the only glancing hints at the dystopic world also help ensure its realness to us; for all the excellence of Orwell and Huxley, their work is very much fantastic in nature, while Nabokov's book feels much closer to possible.

It is an excellent book, and I recommend it.

The Wisdom Books, Robert Alter

Wisdom literature is a genre of writing that uses traditional storytelling methods to offer wisdom about life and God, often taking the form of collections of proverbs. In the modern era, they've taken the form of commonplace books or things like Poor Richard's Almanack. But they were also a distinct form of writing in ancient times, and feature most prominently in some of the most beautiful books of the Bible. Robert Alter, a scholar who has been steadily retranslating and annotating the Old Testament, has in this book offered up his version of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

I have always loved Job and Ecclesiastes the most, and reading this deeply erudite, careful, and poetic translation has been extraordinary. Each book is prefaced with a foreword regarding general themes, the construction of the book, and some of Alter's analysis. The analysis reveals some aspects of each work I had never contemplated. As an example, Alter writes about Proverbs:

Very often in biblical poetry, the second verset does not simply echo the first verset, as it does in the three lines quoted above, but instead introduces some sort of heightening or focusing development of it, which in Proverbs frequently is a small surprise or discovery. “A door turns on its hinge / and a sluggard on his bed” (26:14). Here, as in many other proverbs, the relation between the first verset and the second is that of a riddle to its solution. That is, the assertion in the first half of the line is either so obvious (of course, a door turns on its hinge) that one wonders why it needs to be said at all, or it is perplexing, which makes one wonder for a different reason. The second half of the line then provides a sharply focused (and sometimes satirical) explanation. In this instance, the sluggard is revealed turning back and forth on his bed and getting nowhere, like the door, while the comparison also invites us to think of the contrast between people going in and out of the doorway as the door opens and closes and the sluggard unwilling to move from his bed. Here is a different riddle-proverb about the lazy man, in which the riddling first verset is enigmatic, to be explained in the second verset: “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, / thus the sluggard to those who send him” (10:26). In formulations of this sort, the riddle form of the line is especially prominent: what is as noxious or irritating as vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes?—a lazy man whom you have the misfortune to use on an errand. A third proverb on the sluggard illustrates the lively variety of the riddle form. The line begins, “The sluggard hides his hand in the dish.” This action sounds bizarre, and one wonders why anyone would want to do such a thing. Then the second half of the line explains, “he won’t even bring it up to his mouth” (19:24). This is, of course, an extravagant and amusing satiric hyperbole: the man is so lazy that, having plunged his hand into the dish, he is incapable of exerting the effort required to bring the food to his mouth. Thus, the fantastically exaggerated image becomes a representation of how laziness leads to a failure to provide for one’s own basic needs, a notion couched in more realistic terms, such as having nothing to harvest when crops are not planted, in other proverbs. The satiric perspective, to round out this sampling of proverbs on the sluggard, is not limited to riddling but can be brought to bear through a technique of miniaturist caricature: “The sluggard said, ‘A lion’s outside / in the square. I shall be murdered!’” (22:13). These words, of course, are a trumped-up excuse for his not leaving his house (or, perhaps, his bed): in the wonderful extravagance of the dialogue that the poet puts in the mouth of the sluggard, he fears that the fictitious lion prowling in the streets threatens not to devour but to murder him, as though it were a malevolent assassin and not merely a beast of prey.

But even better is his new translation. While there will always be a tremendous majesty in the King James Version, which reverberates through the western canon, Alter's new version is clever and sparkling, and it's accompanied by fascinating notes that discuss his choice of translation and the background behind the different verses.

Here's a sample of his new translation; Proverbs 16:17-26 :

The upright’s highway is to swerve from evil, who guards his life will watch his way.
Pride before a breakdown, and before stumbling, haughtiness.
Better abjectness with the humble than sharing spoils with the proud.
Who looks into a matter will come out well, and who trusts in the LORD is fortunate.
The wise of heart will be called discerning, and sweet speech will increase instruction. Insight is a wellspring of life to its possessors, but the reproof of the foolish is folly.
A wise man’s heart will make his mouth clever, and lips’ sweetness increases instruction.
Pleasant sayings are honeycomb, sweet to the palate, and healing to the bones.
There may be a straight way before a man, but its end is the ways of death.’
The toiler’s self toils away because his own mouth has compelled him.

One thing I didn't like was that the notes became too comprehensive in places for anyone's interest but the most ardent scholar of Hebrew grammar, but the layout of the book makes this only the most minor of problems; in a pinch, the reader can simply skip past the explanatory footnotes and read the verses by themselves. In fact, one would be well-advised to do it this way first, and only on a second reading interrupt oneself to turn at intervals to the notes. This better allows an appreciation for the true poetry of these marvelous books.

There are many ways in which this can appeal: to the poetry lover, the Biblical scholar, or the literary historian. But even if you're none of these, you will still enjoy the simple beauty of Alter's work.

Coonardoo, Katharine Prichard

Like Katharine Prichard, I am fairly liberal for my time - most of America lies to my right, politically speaking. I am concerned with things like gender sensitivity and racial awareness that would be considered overblown by most - I do things like worry about preferred pronoun use for a sometime-transvestite. But I wonder how I would be perceived by future generations. I suspect I would seem varying degrees of naive, hypocritical, or patronizing, no matter how hard I try. It's simply very difficult to think outside of one's society with any thoroughness or genuineness - human beings are surprisingly not that good at empathy, no matter how we flatter ourselves.

This isn't to say it's not good to try, of course. But when I read something like Coonardoo, I see the results of self-satisfied liberalism and chuckle.

Coonardoo is an Australian novel about a ranch in Northwest Australia, where a gruff widow, her clever son, and an aboriginal girl all grow together over the course of some years. The son and the aboriginal girl grow to love each other, a plot development that was considered shocking at the time of publication (1929). Much of the book's treatment of aboriginals seems to be an intended sort of swan song by Prichard for these First People, since she alludes to her certainty that they will soon all be gone. She was mistaken, although not by much (aboriginals constitute 1 or 2 percent of Australians).

Some aspects deserve praise, of course. The avant-garde and forbidden relationship between the races was ahead of its time, as was Prichard's sentiments about aboriginal personhood. But too often a reader will cringe at the good-natured racism that slips past Prichard's progressivism. Critic Anne Brewster has written how she "struggled against being implicated in Prichard's racialised 'compassion', which I found profoundly offensive and patronising, but I simultaneously recognised my own inscription in the historicity of the novel's race politics and Prichard's left-wing inflected concern with social justice." It's hard not to feel the same way and let it turn you off of the book completely, especially when combined with the tepid writing.

Ultimately forgettable and deservedly so, you can safely skip Coonardoo without guilt.

Mushrooms and Toadstools in New Zealand, Marie Taylor, and A Field Guide to the Edible Plants of New Zealand, Andrew Crowe

"I want to forage," I declared. But I haven't. It is damn hard.

Part of the problem is one of scope. "New Zealand" is a big place, and the dozens of listed plants are almost all completely foreign to me. I've never had much of an eye for plants, having ignored flowers for the most part and only noted some of the edible species in Florida (a land not known for biodiversity in its suburbs), and so I begin with almost a blank slate and little idea of the general identifiers for plants. Because like so many things, it's a serious skill.

How do you identify the quality of a bound book? You check the binding method, acid content of the paper and its discoloration, prevalence of foxing, wear on corners and edges, printing method and regularity, and so on. How do you pick out a certain cigar from others? You note size and shape, the origin of the wrapper, origin of the tobacco seed and place of growth, age, maker, and other characteristics. But when it comes to plants, I find myself often flummoxed.

The general principles are easy, of course. Blossoms, leaves, stalk, and so on are all distinguished between families and species in a patterned and learnable way. In Linnaean fashion, you can break things down to ferns and shrubs and herbs and trees and fungi, and then further. The problem is that I lack a significant portion of background information to build on. When I walk with my wife and listen to her identify a flower, she leaps to match it with the closest thing she can identify based on characteristics that to her seem the most obviously important. Without smelling, she can identify lavender and rosemary and thistles and clover, and all their near relatives. But I laboriously watch and try to remember, and so while she's already chattering about how the hollyhock looks different than the hollyhock at home, I am still working my way from "things with purple flowers."

While I don't think there's anything I can't learn and I have high hopes, I won't be making a salad from my woodland finds any time soon.

The Valla-Ljots Saga, Anonymous

The book's title is actually Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland, but it is the only place I have been able to find a translation of one of my favorite medieval sagas, the Valla-Ljots saga. You can see the original Icelandic here.

Valla-Ljots continues the Svarfdæla saga, and constitutes one of a set of dozens of Icelandic texts relating the family histories of prominent groups in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Valla-Ljots is a fascinating examination of a way of life and system of morals that are a wholesale departure from our own. Only very recently had Christianity been introduced to the area and made law, and so as in Beowulf it is seen as only a new set of rules added on to the ancient traditions of kinship and blood. It is wrong to divide inherited land on the new holiday of Michaelmas, for example, but rather than it being a sin to be forgiven by God, it is instead just another cause of complaint at the traditional þing, the regional meetings where laws and courts were made. And when men have complaint with each other, one meets the other with an axe, lying in wait in the woods, and it is a fair matter. Restitution for a murdered life is made with a pig, and the conflict between clans is ended.

For all its intriguing cultural indicators and curious phrasing, however, Valla-Ljots is pretty poor poetry. It is not recommended except for the bizarrely curious or bizarrely masochistic.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs

This book and most of its successors can be summed up in the fantastic line that served as frontispiece on my boyhood edition:

With my back against a golden throne, I fought once again for Dejah Thoris.

John Carter of Mars was Burroughs' first great hero, coming before Tarzan - and indeed, in many ways surpassing Tarzan and the other swashbucklers of Burroughs countless books. He is noble, brave, and humble - and he sets aside everything in an instant for the love of his lifetimes, Dejah Thoris, in her fantastic world.

It's often not a good idea to return to the books of your youth. You can revisit the Redwall series and still find it charming, but you're just as likely to come back to The Chronicles of Narnia and wonder why you ever had such terrible taste for propagandizing schlock. But the Burroughs books just make me feel the same way they always have: thrilled.

My father had a big box set of the Tarzan books and the Mars books when I was growing up, and I devoured them over the course of a week after I found them crammed into a closet. When my father was clearing out some things during one of his moves (he changed apartments almost every year) he donated them, and I kept only one as a memento. I wanted to remember how they made me feel.

Burroughs took the popular idea of Mars of his time - a planet once similar to Earth, now dry and dying - and turned it into a sweeping vision of a land rich with varied peoples and cultures, where the scions of an ancient race struggle to sustain the last dregs of resources as their planet dies. Barsoom, as the inhabitants call it, is peopled by many races: red-skinned men who huddle in their walled cities and voyage out only in their fantastic airships; green monsters with four arms who ride brutish beasts and wage constant war; and pale manipulative remnants who engender false religion and sustain their own twisted vision of superiority. John Carter, a Virginian veteran of the Civil War, is flung onto this alien world. He finds adventure of the highest kind.

All the stakes are raised. Thanks to Barsoom's lower gravity, John Carter is stronger and faster than anyone else, and his skill with weapons and fearlessness make him a god of war, able to outfight three of the best swordsman on the planet at once or kill a monster with a single righteous uppercut. But his new powers are matched by a world of unparalleled danger, where violence is everywhere and all men are enemies. Martians are all immortal, and the only reason the planet isn't swarmed is that continual war and planned suicide keep numbers in check - those few Martians who live to a thousand go "down the dark river Iss" - a euphemism for death.

The writing is frequently hammy or downright silly - Burroughs is given to pompousness and bombastic language. The plots are uniform and predicable. The Barsoom books have been lampooned by many, ranging from the erudite mockery of Tad Williams' Otherland series to the tongue-in-cheek imitation by Marvel Comics' Planet Hulk. But I will probably spend the rest of my life striving to imitate John Carter of Mars, and it was a pleasure to revisit that. It's an adventure for anyone of any age.

Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin

Eugene Onegin is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian literature, and many think it the apex of Russian poetry to this day. It tells the story of the eponymous Eugene, his friend, and a woman. It contains love, a duel, and rejection. It is extremely good.

The version I have read is the translation by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my studies. Since Nabokov's translation is his scholarly commentary on another's poem, it is closely related to the book he wrote at the same time and the topic of my studies, Pale Fire, a book that takes the form of a commentary on a poem. But even aside from its value to my work, the poem is worthwhile of itself.

I am given to understand that while there have been many translations of Pushkin's poem since its publication in 1833, and the standard is Walter Arndt's of 1963, which was faithful to the unusual rhyme scheme - a scheme which is so important that it founded its own genre of "Pushkin meter," analogous to the Shakespearean sonnet of British literature. But Nabokov explains in his foreword that he thinks no English reader really needs the meter preserved - of what use is a leaden translation even if it is in perfect meter? Rather, Nabokov published a year later his own ten-year epic effort, that translated instead his best rendering of the meaning of Pushkin's words, and abandoning entirely the rhyme scheme.

His result is a dancing and delightful poem. One of the best features of Pushkin is his skill at allusion: he had just the right strength of hand in it, being neither so heavy as to make us roll our eyes nor so light as to be missed. His references are amusing and cutting, as in this allusion to the Iliad:

But here we shall congratulate
my dear Tatiana on a conquest
and turn our course aside,
lest I forget of whom I sing...
And by the way, here are two words about it:
"I sing a youthful pal
and many eccentricities of his.
Bless my long labor,
O you, Muse of the Epic!
And having handed me a trusty staff,
let me not wander aslant and askew."
Enough! The load comes off my shoulders!
To classicism I have paid my respects:
though late, but there's an introduction.

Pushkin's story is philosophical without being tiresome, as well, which is a difficult thing for any poet to achieve. When he spends time on examining the nature of friendship, he is sharp-witted and fun as he paints a picture of bloodthirsty Zaretsky, a false friend easily recognized in our own lives whose eagerness to witness tragedy induces him to skate along just within the borders of gentlemanly behavior, pretending to virtue while practically panting for his friends to duel and die.

Nabokov's translation is in four volumes, but the latter three are notes: you should pick up the first volume and enjoy the short poem, and you will find yourself richly rewarded for having read what is probably your first Russian piece of poetry ever - if you're anything like me, that is!


  1. This Present Darkness is was best book ever in my life.....

  2. I thought it was very poorly written and a little silly, I'm afraid. The theology works to justify prior beliefs, not answer any serious questions. I am not sure I'd recommend it even to a devout Christian - I'd suggest, if you enjoyed it, you might want to check out C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.