Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lem, Gogol, and Tolstoy

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe.

I also want to give my condolences to George Floyd’s family, and express my wishes that we as a society can put aside our differences for the sake of our common humanity.

With that being said, here are the books I’ve read this week:

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

Water Gif

“I went closer, and when the next wave came I held out my hand.  What followed was a faithful reproduction of a phenomenon which had been analyzed a century before: the wave hesitated, recoiled, then enveloped my hand without touching it, so that a thin covering of ‘air’ separated my glove inside a cavity which had been fluid a moment previously, and now had a fleshy consistency.  I raised my hand slowly, and the wave, or rather an outcrop of the wave, rose at the same time, enfolding my hand in a translucent cyst with greenish reflections.  I stood up, so as to raise my hand still higher, and the gelatinous substance stretched like a rope, but did not break.”

Solaris is about a psychologist named Kelvin who travels to a planet called…Solaris. This planet is covered by an ocean. The ocean is sentient. It molds itself into forms according to the subconscious yearnings of the people on the planet.

Just that idea alone makes the book super cool. Also, the way Lem uses tension is great. Everything feels like it’s angled towards a certain point, and things that he leaves you in suspense about in a previous chapter gets resolved later on. Basically, everything builds up to something else.

The book also has a lot of interesting philosophical ideas, but the ideas aren’t shoved into the book for the sake of being there. They’re relevant to the characters, and so they add another layer of enjoyment.

The end is kind of anticlimactic, though, but Solaris is still worth reading, just for the idea of a sentient ocean planet.

The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol

russianproblems: St. Petersburg | Paris snow, Winter wonder ...

“They offered the mother her choice of three names, Mokiya, Sossiya, or that the child should be called after the martyr Khozdazat. ‘No,’ said the good woman, ‘all those names are poor.’ In order to please her they opened the calendar to another place; three more names appeared, Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy. ‘This is a judgment,’ said the old woman. ‘What names! I truly never heard the like. Varada or Varukh might have been borne, but not Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!’ They turned to another page and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy. ‘Now I see,’ said the old woman, ‘that it is plainly fate. And since such is the case, it will be better to name him after his father. His father’s name was Akakiy, so let his son’s be Akakiy too.’ In this manner he became Akakiy Akakievitch. They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.”

My god this book is hilarious. It’s about a guy named Akaky Akakievich who lives in Russia and loves his work as a titular councillor. The only problem is that he has a super-shabby overcoat that his fellow workers tease him about, and that stands no chance against the frost of St. Petersburg. Akaky’s solution is to try to get a new overcoat.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. This is one of those books where the plot wouldn’t work without an engaging voice. A lot of people could have written the same story, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to make it as entertaining as Gogol did. He uses caricatures, but not to the point of unbelievability, and he writes in a satirical voice, but not to the point of hitting you over the head with his views, and not to the point where his wordplay gets in the way of enjoying the story itself.

It’s short, it’s funny, and it’s not to be missed.

What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy

10 GIFs That Perfectly Encapsulate Writer's Block

“Voltaire said that ‘Tous les genres sont bons, hors le genre ennuyeux’(all styles are good except the wearisome style); but with even more right one may say of art that Tous les genres sont bons, hors celui qu’on ne comprend pas, or qui ne produit pas son effet (all styles are good except that which is not understood, or which fails to produce its effect), for of what value is an article which fails to accomplish that for which it was intended?”

Later on in his life, Tolstoy had a crisis about the purpose of art, so he wrote this book to sort things out. Along the way, he made all sorts of controversial statements (like that Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony weren’t real art).

Even so, the first half of What is Art? is amazing. It touches on all sorts of interesting ideas, like sincerity (people shouldn’t aim to reproduce the effects they’ve felt from someone else’s art, but rather to convey something they themselves have felt), and clarity (people shouldn’t have to work to feel affected by a piece of art). The book is worth a read for these ideas, as well as a hilariously scathing review he gives of Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle.

The second half of What is Art? seems like it’s more of Tolstoy’s own subjective opinion than anything. He says the aim of art should aspire to some Christian brotherhood, which is all well and good for art that wants to aspire to that, but might be less relevant to art that has other intentions. How does he reconcile this? He doesn’t. I doubt anybody can.

Weirdly enough, though, Tolstoy does predict the advent of GMOs in one of his book’s chapters.

In the end, What is Art? is one of those books that will make you think. It will make you question a lot of what you know. It’s definitely worth a read.

Until next week. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay hopeful, and stay human.


4 thoughts on “Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lem, Gogol, and Tolstoy

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