Reading Books While Considering Whether I Was a Russian in Another Life

Me with dog outside my wife’s yoga studio. The redone patio looks a lot better than the “before” picture, eh?


I am trying to slog through Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Why? William S. Burroughs, a writer who influenced me, said Conrad was one of the most consequential writers we have. Others he named were Kafka and Beckett. (I loved The Metamorphosis; I can’t make sense of Beckett.)

I liked Heart of Darkness, which inspired Coppola’s Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, more than I’m liking Lord Jim. It’s too slow unveiling what happened to Jim that caused his disgrace. I wait, and I wait, and it’s work absorbing all these long sentences and subordinating clauses. I’d compare it to Henry James, except I like Henry James, particularly The Turn of the Screw, which became Deborah Kerr’s best role, in The Innocents, a thinking man’s scary movie.

Does anyone write like Conrad and James anymore? People are in a hurry. All those commas throw us over the handlebars as we bicycle through the prose.

The Conrad is a handy paperback, I’ll give it that. It’s getting to where a book’s physical size will be a determinant of my interest, pro or con. I’m lazy. I like lying down with a pillow or two under my head and a light enough paperback to prop in one hand. Big fat books must be laid on your lap, table, or desk, and you peer down and study them. Lord knows how I got through Infinite Jest.

I have a sneaking suspicion my stepping down from teaching English has lent me the distance to admit that, like my former students, I’d rather do something else, something easier.

I was talking to my therapist about how the self-styled intellectual and autodidact might be slipping. I used as an example how I’d read The Brothers Karamazov on my Kindle. One problem was the delivery system; you can’t flip fore and aft to re-align and reaffirm what you think is going on, like with a paper book. Why didn’t I put it down halfway and give up if it was a compromised enjoyment? You got me.

My favorite Dostoevsky is the novella Notes from Underground, an orgy of self-excoriation. I’m sure the reason I love this poignant, painful tale is that I’ve been in the business of robust, unflinching self-excoriation myself for quite some time. I don’t believe Dostoevsky wrote it to make a statement about such individuals living in squalor and self-embitterment in cobwebby garrets in St. Petersburg. No, I believe he wrote it because he suffered from this hell of hyper-consciousness, leavened by mystical transports equally his and his alone. It’s a book that speaks to me … much the way a far different type of novel, The Catcher in the Rye, speaks to me. It’s painful and it’s honest and the humor comes from the honesty, and it’s not for everybody. Crime and Punishment, I found ponderous; Raskolnikov didn’t compel my interest, even near the end when we sense some sort of Christian redemption circling about him. Notes moves me, with its brave, sweaty truthfulness.

I often think there is something Russian in my soul, my temperament. One of the greatest gifts I ever got was from my mother, who turned me on to Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of The Pathetique. The CD also has “Marche Slave” and the bombastic but irresistible “1812 Overture.” Something about Tchaikovsky’s perfect airs and swelling violins stirs me. As I listen, I imagine the Steppes, the vast teeming nation that poses itself as an enemy to the U.S., and indeed is responsible for horrific violence against Jews, yet fought on the Allied side during WWII and in the process lost 27 million people, both civilian and military, dwarfing the blood sacrifice of any other nation. Somehow this grandson of Russian Jews – a much maligned people standing outside the “national character” – finds himself yearning to know more about Russia. This might partly explain my absorption in the spy show The Americans that got done running on FX last year.

This is a freeform blog, but there’s a reason I’m writing about reading but veering off into music and TV. I often wonder, as I write or read, if any artistic moment can touch in power and immediacy Hendrix’s agonized guitar on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

But books remain an important technology and cultural medium.

And something funny. When you’re ready for a book, circumstances put that book in your hands. I was all cluttered and congested trying to read “important works,” as I’ve discussed above. Then, walking through Habitat for Humanity with a wife bent on buying cheap decorative stones, I strayed through the cheap book section, and happened upon James Herriot’s Dog Stories. Excuse the pun, but it was just what the doctor ordered.

His name was really James Alfred Wight; Herriot was a pen name. I liked the story collection’s humor (or should I say humour?) and compassionate heart. It’s a bit science-y in its polysyllabic references to drugs and treatments used then and now, but never cold or distant. When I took our charged-up Airedale in to the vet’s for a checkup, after the great fatigue scare (valley fever and Lyme disease, both), I mentioned this book to the animal doctor who’d saved Rosa with her pills and treatments. She said she’d had the pleasure of hearing Wight lecture at her college. I said I’d bring her the book. She’s eager to see it.

People communicate through books. Books are an effective medium for information and entertainment. They’re part of a cultural constellation that embraces all art forms.

Why am I following up a blog about manual labor and home remodeling with this ramble about books? Because it explains what I do with my scarce and precious “free time.” I read. My eyes are strained with age, but then again I’m not worried about completing my tour of The Canon anyway. I mostly read for pleasure. Please tell me that’s okay.

That’s okay, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “Reading Books While Considering Whether I Was a Russian in Another Life

  1. Becket dwells on the meaningless, hopelessness of all and any endeavors – very unpleasant reads. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, much maligned by some as a racially influenced book is a good read. But for me Lord Jim is overwritten, Much like a person who puts on a well taylored suit or dress, and then ruins the look by wearing over-wrought jewelry, chaotic ties and far too fussy shoes.
    I loved Crime and Punishment, but labored futilely and finally left The Brother’s Karamazov, arguably the better book. I adore Henry James,probably because he explores the minds and souls of people, always a fascinating topic for me. The Herriot series always makes me laugh , and then I feel much better about everything. By the way, don’t bother reading his son’s biography – tedious, spiritless.

    As to the Russian muses, well, hell we are Russian, so of course you possess the soul and temperament of a Russian. There’s a Jewish underlay. or maybe an overlay, but you are Russian down to your socks.
    My, I have rattled on. Finis!


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