Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.


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

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“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

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“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

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“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.