R. R. Reno
Eugene Vodolazkin's first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, is his most recently translated. It's a story about a young historian whose dissertation addresses the mysterious General Larionov, the commander of White Russian forces who somehow survived under the Bolsheviks. The dreamy general—long dead but alive in historical memory—and impressionable scholar are entangled in shared threads of experience and sensibility. The novel is a commentary on the mysterious character of historical knowledge, which requires empathy and not just information. There are many mordantly humorous scenes, not the least of which concern academic life.
The short stories of John Cheever are a time capsule of New York City in mid-century America. Many are set in the period just before the sexual revolution altered family life forever, but signs of the coming catastrophe pop up consistently. Children are left to half-interested caretakers while their parents drink and socialize; a man eases his way into an unintelligent but beautiful woman's affections while her husband is abroad.
Cheever records the action and delivers the characters' thoughts candidly, but you sense that something more is going on; something unexpected is about to happen. This is the world of people who have lost their moral center and don’t know what to put in its place. They aren't happy libertines, but they haven't the equipment to search for a better way to conceive the universe. As Cheever puts it in the preface to my paperback volume of The Stories of John Cheever, “Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,' sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”
Months after the seventh and critically acclaimed film adaptation of Little Women hit theaters, I have finally opened my copy of the novel, which I received for Christmas. Growing up abroad, I had little understanding of its cultural impact on the American literary imagination, but intend to remedy that shortcoming: The novel’s many adaptations speak to its enduring appeal.
Little Women's charming storytelling and depictions of everyday life offer an appealing respite from the sound of helicopter blades and sirens. One might accuse me of escapism, as Louisa May Alcott has been accused of “glamorizing” poverty, borne virtuously by the four March sisters, in her novel (which reminds me of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess). Alcott’s own family life was turbulent and less picturesque, leading some to call the world of Little Women a “lie.” To that I can only say, in the words of another notable female writer: “I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.”
This “plunge into reality” embraces the light and witty (“Let us be elegant or die!,” “I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now”) as well as the heavy and sobering aspects of life. Jo’s wish “to do something splendid . . . something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead” has no doubt resonated with many aspiring female writers throughout the years. It should come as no surprise that Jo takes after Alcott the most.
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