Tag Archives: Russian literature

New Year’s Resolution or Delusion?

I started reading the classic gothic tale “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins.  The story is always referenced as one of first of its genre and certainly enjoys a special place in literature.  I was dismayed, however, to find that I could not drag myself through the long and excruciatingly detailed descriptions, the painfully stiff dialog, and the dragging pace.  I am ashamed of and disappointed in myself.  Have I become that type of reader?  Someone who has to have snappy dialogue or an act of sex or violence on every page, and who cannot read a description which exceeds two lines?  Have I indulged in too regular a diet of commercial fiction that I can no longer enjoy the slower pace of a 19th century work?  I was a Russian literature major, for goodness sake!  I was weened on long, long novels wherein absolutely nothing happened and that was sort of the point.  Ultimately, I have not given up entirely on the Woman in White, despite its massive bulk…(I put it aside at about page 50 of its more than 500+ pages.)  I haven’t quite given up on myself, either, and promise to get back to some more challenging reading this year (alert: sounds like a new year resolution).  In the meantime, I’m indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading Robert Parker’s “Melancholy Baby.”  Don’t judge me!

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An American Classic: Hamlet Redux

edgar sawtelleI finished reading “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski last week, and that alone is  worth crowing about.  The tome comes in at over 560 pages, and afterwards I found myself still scratching my head over the point of certain scenes.  Yes, yes, I get it–it is the re-imagined story of Hamlet set in a rural Wisconsin farm, featuring a mute boy, Edgar, who is the only son of a family who has for generations bred an outstanding breed of dog, epitomized by the faithful Almondine (Ophelia).  Events unfold, resulting in the death of the boy’s father by his evil uncle Claude (Claudius), who then takes up with his mother, Trudy (Gertrude).  After a dangerous turn of events, the boy, unable to face his father’s murderer, runs off with a pack of young dogs into the wilderness.  The  climax of the story comes only in the last fifty pages, when the Edgar, unable to resist the pull of home and his devotion to the family’s dogs, returns at last to confront his uncle.  The length and pacing of the novel is trying at times, and I am someone who cut her literary teeth on the tomes of Russian literature, slogging through and enjoying such works as the back-to-back reading of “Quiet Flows the Dawn” and “The Dawn Flows to the Sea,” followed by “Anna Karenina.” I am used to a story that unfolds gradually, quietly, but despite that, I did find myself sometimes speed-reading through some of the more lengthy descriptions of the dog training, or other scenes which neither moved the plot nor advanced the characters.  It was over one hundred pages before Edgar’s father dies, at which time I thought to myself, “Finally, we’re getting somewhere!”  It was another hundred or so before Edgar flees the farm… The whole work is like reading a lush poem–you have to let the beauty of the scenes just wash over you and not worry too terribly much what the heck it all has to do with the story.  And the author is a masterful wordsmith, weaving a colorful quilt of life through the seasons on a rural farm, the beauty of living closely with nature, the iconic image of the red barn, the unique companionship which comes from being truly close to an animal.  I enjoyed all of it, but still wondered if so much was necessary.  It seemed to me that the author perhaps fell in love with his own words so much he couldn’t bear to leave a single one on the cutting room floor.  And I also loved the examination of the outer reaches of communication–how a mute boy could “talk” to his dogs.  The book has been criticized by some for being to anthropomorphic, but I believe those critic are wrong on that account; when the author tells a scene from the dog Almondine’s view, it is clear that he is speaking through the dog only to give us a different view on human behavior, and I found the observations held a remarkable amount of truth.  Although the work is long, the pivotal scenes are so well done–especially the appearance the Edgar’s father as a ghost–that it is worth the read overall.  The long-awaited ending, however, is bizarre and so unsatisfying as to make this reader feel as if she were somehow cheated having persevered all the way to the end. The book has been hailed as a new American Classic.  I wonder, does the new American reader have the patience for this type of story any more? Comments welcome.

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