Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Ryszard Kapuscinski, _The Soccer War_

Does anyone remember the Readers' Subscription? Google does not, it seems. It was a books-by-mail service like Book of the Month Club, with a more selective, intellectual bent. The original version was founded in the 1950s--Auden was involved--and petered out in the early 1970s. It was revived in the 1980s, which is when I joined, but it did long survive the advent of Amazon.

Anyway...I picked this book up via Readers' Subscription, over twenty-five years ago (it appeared in 1991, so I presumably ordered it in 1991 or 1992), and it has simply sat on a shelf ever since. I buy books always intending to read them, but sometimes that crucial trigger that gets it off the shelf and into my hands is wanting.

The book went undisturbed even when Kapuscinski died in 2007 (writers' deaths often spur me to at long last read them).

Then, a few years after he died, there was a blizzard of controversy: debates over whether Kapuscinski's journalism contained some admixture of of "improvement," or outright invention, or just plain fiction. Had he been lucky, this development might have cemented his literary reputation (apparently, he was shortlisted for the Nobel at least once), but it seems it has instead lowered his stock considerably. It's been a while since I've encountered his name, I know. I came close to giving up on the idea that I would ever read the book--almost sold it to used book store once or twice.

So why did I finally read it? I will spare you the full details, but as part of a post-op therapy, I find myself sitting immobilized for fifteen minutes every morning. I could just read the paper, I suppose, but instead I have resorted to a designated therapy book that I read in 15-minute installments, every blessed day. For this purpose, books I have always been curious about, but have no urgent reason to read, and can read without feeling obliged to pay close attention to, are just the thing. So my Kapuscinski moment finally arrived.

And he is as amazing as everyone said. His ability to summon up a scene from an unfamiliar part of the world is like that of Conrad but without the heavy hand of the symbolism, or that of Naipaul, but without the condescension. Many of the pieces were written in Africa during the struggles over decolonization (including a quick, vivid portrait of Lumumba), but there are also several from Latin America (including the title piece, which ought to be a film). Kapuscinski always conveys intelligence, humanity, a kind of dogged, Sam Spade style hope.

That not every scene nor every quoted speech may have been exactly what went down did not, I found, much bother me.

By the way, you'd be surprised how much you can get read in fifteen quiet morning minutes a day, every day. I'm already a third of the way through Ben Fountain's Beautiful Country, Burn Again.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Elif Batuman, _The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them_

I HAD READ a few of these essays about life as a graduate student in Slavic languages when they appeared in periodicals, so I was expecting to enjoy the book, but I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting to...in fact, I may have enjoyed even just the tiniest bit more than I enjoyed Batuman's brilliant debut novel, The Idiot (see January 6, 2018).

The Possessed almost feels like a peculiarly episodic novel, in fact, the three installments of "Summer in Samarkand" creating a spine of narrative for Batuman's excursions in and around Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the 18th century figures who make cameos in "The House of Ice."

For that matter, The Possessed almost seems the sequel to its successor The Idiot, in that the adventures of Elif Batuman, graduate student at Stanford in Slavic languages and kinda-sorta innocent abroad in central Asia, seem to match magically what we would expect to be the later career of the undergraduate Selin Karadag, who took her first classes in Russian at Harvard and spent a summer as a sorta-kinda innocent abroad in eastern Europe. They even both wound up as judges in a leg contest.

I was hoping The Possessed would include "Down with Creative Writing," Batuman's dazzling and hilarious LRB review essay on Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. It does not, but the introduction's salty remarks on how Batuman wound up in a doctoral program in Russian literature rather than in an MFA program concisely address some of the same points.