This year’s top 5.

Three Guineas – Virginia Woolf

Not a book of a year but of a lifetime. Every segment of British society in examined. She champions girls’ education, exposes corporate greed, challenges the rituals of the patriarchy down to the very clothes men wear in the military, the university, and the workplace, quotes Jesus, sings with Antigone, and made me laugh out loud in an airport. Writing in 1938 she combats fascism. She critiques Hitler, Mussolini, and the thinkers in her own country who share their views on the sphere of women, by name. She proves in 145 pages (and many footnotes) that the cause(s) of women in our society–maybe in any society–are at the very heart of the pursuit of justice, peace, and freedom from tyranny.

Sermons for Farmers – Charles Spurgeon

I don’t know if I’ve heard a male preacher whose sermons this consistently provide illustrations first for women and then for men, or for poorer folks and then for wealthier. He makes inclusion–and everything else…cracking jokes, saying fourteen breathtaking things about a three-word image, quoting Shakespeare–look doable.

Gilead – Marylinne Robinson

I tuned in late to the game, but they’re still playing baseball in the furniture of their minds, trying to forgive each other and believe in joy, laughing in the rain and weeping in pantries, rereading sermons, watching the sun go down and the moon come up at the same time, and handling, rearing back, and hurling the world’s biggest questions down to the last inning of the last page.

Teaching to Transgress – bell hooks

I also have come to bell hooks late. Among so many things this book has taught me about race, class, feminism, and American schools, this book has shown me that teaching is an embodied practice, that theory is a social practice, and that learning is a liberatory practice.

Boule de Suif – Guy de Maupassant

I do not have words to describe how hungry, literally hungry this short story made me feel, or how I had to look away and, figuratively, catch my breath because the language was so beautiful, or how it made me angry, how it explored every class-based interaction, and jolted me to amazement in every paragraph, how it foresaw today’s microbrewery culture (the phrase “le Pale-Ale et la Revolution” actually occurs), and how as I constantly tried to orient myself and gain some footing, it kept me guessing till the last word. Most of French literature is about war and class. This is as good as it gets.


Justice and ancient storytelling: The book of Jonah

The book of Jonah is a remarkable work of storytelling.

There is urgency, an immediacy. God’s word is given in the first line, and it feels like it is everything we need to know: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” We are thrust into the concerns of God, and the storyteller gives it to us in straightforward prose. He does not linger or waste space. He does not have time for poetry—yet. The wickedness, cruelty, and oppression of the great city have risen up—like Abel’s blood—before God, but we cannot even pause to consider these things, because Jonah is already on the run, feeling from God, paying money, boarding a ship, and—before we can think about where he is going and what he is doing—falling asleep. We, however, cannot rest because already a sea storm is rising. People are crying for salvation. And Jonah is neglecting his responsibility (his shipmates’ words) to join them in prayer.

Here we see the shipmates asking a string of questions we would have been asking all along if we had had space to take a breath. By virtue of the shipmates’ insight or by a device of the storyteller, the text gives us language for our questions, and it is in the language of justice: “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” How does your corporate identity square with your responsibility to do right by your God and your people?

Jonah responds with unimaginative facts. This isn’t the earnest truth-telling of a prophet, not the overflowing revelation of God’s word, not even the unfolding of hot information or breaking news. It is the reductionist claim to be a “Hebrew”—(but the outsider’s expression for it, a foreigner’s word for a people whom he has already disowned)—and the reductionist description of God, who made the sea and the land. (There is a stirring when he mentions God’s name, but when he says he “worships YHWH,” how can we believe it?) And he offers a reductionist view of justice: throw me overboard and you’ll be safe because I am the one who deserves this punishment. Filled with fear, both for the storm and for the wickedness of such an action, they grant his wish, and Jonah, no longer committed to his people and hardly committed to his God, expects his death in the abyss of the waves.

To our great surprise (and the storyteller has a full store of discoveries to make), Jonah’s words are effective. He has opened his mouth to spout out half-truths, and all around him, people are saved. The storm stops. The shipmates make sacrifices, they make vows, and in a way Jonah could not, worship this new God. And God, who has surprises of his own, provides a fish that by swallowing Jonah keeps him alive.

Now–at the center of this short book—the storyteller takes time to give us poetry. Here, finally, we hear Jonah speak like a prophet, and his words read like one of the psalms of his people. There is the crushing water. There is the grave, not just an evocation of it but a startling imagining of it—the “roots of mountains,” “weeds wrapped around” the prophet’s head. There is salvation in looking to the temple. And, like a psalmist, the singer comes to a decision: “Salvation,” he says, “comes from the LORD…what I vowed I will make good.” And the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.

As the storyteller continues, the events sound strikingly similar. Reaching Nineveh, Jonah speaks one sentence of prophecy and everywhere people turn and are saved. They pray for salvation. They acknowledge God. And—the parallelism is brutal—to the great sadness and confusion of listeners and readers everywhere, Jonah slinks back once more into his bitterness, his chosen selfishness, his rejection of a people God has called him to. Once more, this time on the outskirts of town—east of the city, in the path of the dry desert wind—he flirts with his own destruction. And once more, he speaks to God.

Here the storyteller turns over another card: “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” Jonah asks. “That is why I was so quick to flee…I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God–(These are not the words he used for God on the ship)–slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

It was for this moment that we see the storyteller has crafted his biggest surprise, the grand revelation, the subversion of expectations. We had thought we knew Jonah. We had thought we knew why he had run from God. We had thought we had figured it all out. We had thought Jonah’s was a fear of others (the very real threat of the people of Nineveh). We had thought he had a death wish. We had found all this understandable. Be we had also thought that he was reckless, lazy, spiteful, a rejector of his identity as a Hebrew and his commitment to be a prophet for God, and we had thought that this could never be excusable. We had distanced ourselves.

But we had gotten something wrong about Jonah. And what we had missed about Jonah was that he had missed something about the justice of God, that God’s justice makes space for compassion, that God in his justice rescues wicked people, that God, who once saw the wickedness of a people come up before him, could also see when this oppressive people turned from their evil ways, and that God, in having this compassion, was still good.

“Shouldn’t Jonah have known all that from his own story?” we ask, accusing him. “We would never act as Jonah did,” we claim. But as we start to talk to the text, it fires right back: Do we really believe God is gracious and compassionate when dealing with the violent people in our world, in our communities? “But surely the oppression of the Ninevites is nothing compared to the violence we see today,” we argue. Now that the story is asking challenging questions about God’s justice, we want to make it about Jonah and Nineveh again. But the story has shifted. The storyteller has provided us—the readers and hearers of Jonah across the centuries—a new entry point, and with that, he resumes his narrative.

God “provides” a vine that “eases Jonah’s discomfort.” Here is another stitch in the pattern of storytelling. We have already been told that God had “provided” a fish to rescue Jonah. Now, even in this economy of words, we see that God “provides” three times—first the vine, then a worm to eat the vine (we start to imagine the mythic potential of these images, the underworld poetry from the belly of the fish still fresh in our minds), and then, coming like a punch to the gut, God “provides a scorching east wind.”

“It would be better for me to die than to live,” Jonah says to God.

And God responds in the language of justice: “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” Jonah answers. “I am angry enough to die.” He does not mention the vine.

But God does not seem to waver in his focus. Again he brings up the vine, and though his words do not ring in our consciousness with the symbolism of myth, they stir our philosophical imagination. “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow,” God says. There are suggestions here of God’s sovereignty over creation, but also of a tenderness, the role of a nurturer. “It sprang up overnight and died overnight,” God says, echoing the most ancient psalms in their wisdom of the transience of creation and the frailty of all human life. God continues: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many cattle as well.” We cannot yet pause to wonder at this somewhat strange declaration that the number of cattle should be a factor at play here, because God’s words conclude with an even sharper question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

And so concludes the narrative, abruptly. We lurch forward. Was Jonah listening? There is much for Jonah to hear in these words. Does he rejoin the city? Does he return to Judah? We assume that he does not die in the desert, because who would tell his story otherwise? And then we ask the broader questions: Is this really what God’s justice looks like—forgiving a people’s wickedness because of their ignorance and their many cattle, planting a vine and destroying it to prove a point? Why, we are still asking, should God be concerned with this great city of violent people? And does God, we ask—the readers and listeners to the story of Jonah across the centuries—still concern himself with our own great cities—willfully violent, depraved, and filled with people who do not know their right from their left?

We do not know what to do with these questions. Where is the poetry, the rousing prayers we find in later prophetic works? Where are the lamentations, the mind-bending apocalyptic visions, the intimate promises? What happened to the storyteller who rushed, prodded, and guided us through this story so knowingly?

Perhaps an ending like this requires something else from the listener, not merely emotional engagement (in the sense of a catharsis—we cannot feel relieved until Jonah does) or intellectual engagement (in the sense of solving a puzzle—the lack of information cuts us off), but the actual work of completion. The unsatisfying suddenness, the sense of not having closure when our questions about Jonah and God’s justice are at their peak become a provocation that forces us to dig deeper.

Our questions remain, but maybe it is the storyteller’s intention that we enter Jonah’s story and imagine the rest of his conversation with God ourselves. And God’s emphasis on the vine could be our starting place.


Jonah could not have taken God’s challenge lightly.  Here is God, meeting a prophet at the moment of his greatest weakness and need, speaking in words that resound with the imagery of his people’s scriptures.  He could not have shrugged it off. “You have been concerned about this vine,” God tells him, “though you did not tend to it or make it grow.” But as God begins to make the connection between this vine and this great city, does Jonah have a rush of feeling and thought? It feels almost as though Jonah should cut God off. He waits to hear the rest of God’s word, but then, does he respond? “But Lord, I was not concerned about this vine.” We have scene Jonah’s bluntness before. We cannot imagine it takes either him or God by surprise. He was only concerned about his discomfort in the sun and the wind, he argues. Of course he did not tend to the vine or make it grow. The life of the vine meant nothing to him. And neither is he concerned about the life of the city—or of its cattle—and maybe God shouldn’t be either. Is Jonah bold enough to utter these last words?

But God’s words keep challenging Jonah. Maybe the vine is–more than a symbol–a parable for the people of Nineveh. Jonah had not tended to the vine or made it grow, but now God was tending to this city with his compassion. To kill the vine, to “chew at it until withers” would be more unbearable for Jonah than he could have seen, as bitter as he was. Does Jonah here at last discover the pain of his selfishness? Or does God have to show him that he alone—the prophet whose word of warning had saved the city—was getting a taste the destruction he had prophesied? Jonah was by his choice sitting in the path of the “scorching east wind” on the eastern edge of a city whose citizens had by their choice turned from their violence and received God’s compassion.

The parable of the vine challenges further. Maybe God is saying that Jonah’s rejection of God’s compassion can result only in suffering. If God’s compassion was effective in his own life–he had only recently been rescued by a fish–why not for the lives of the people of Nineveh (and our own)? “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs,” said Jonah in the belly of the fish.

Maybe God is saying that this vine, which God had grown and tended to, was a poor substitute for the shelter of a city whose people God is concerned about, that this plant, a passing shelter, cannot compare to a city whose one hundred twenty thousand people had turned from their violence. (It is hard for the readers of this story at any period to imagine the world’s perpetrators of violence as a future source of safety, but the image sticks with us.) God cares more for this city than for the vine, Jonah ponders.

Maybe God is even directly challenging Jonah’s system of justice: Jonah may be willing to sit under a vine and watch a city be destroyed or to sleep while a ship full of innocent people goes under, but for the sake of the one hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right from their left—even for their cattle (This is what reductionist justice sounds like, God suggests)—God is not willing to neglect his purposes of compassion. You in your selfishness did not tend to the vine or make it grow, but should I not have compassion for this city?

These are only possibilities. We still have our questions. We still do not know how Jonah reacted or what he did next. We still may not understand God’s justice or feel the compassion that it requires. We are still aware of our own complacency and, if we admit it, our own hatred. We still wonder if the vision of justice proclaimed in this story applies to the most violent places of our cities today. The rest of Jonah’s life may have been brief or it may have been long enough for him to have told, maybe even have written out, his story. We do not know. But the master’s stroke of a masterful storyteller—who gave us urgency of narrative; who gave us all the parallels, the ship and the city of Nineveh, the fish and vine; who gave us poetry, and who asked us all the right questions in the right moments, in the words of people and in the words of God—was to leave off at the moment of Jonah’s decision and by so doing to force us—the listeners and hearers across the centuries—to respond.


Another love letter to Balzac, I think


Head of Balzac (1901)
Auguste Rodin

Sometimes I don’t know how to read the great French author Balzac. As I’ve suggested before, this tends to bother me. A few weeks ago my aunt asked me what Cousine Bette was about, and I answered: “It’s a trashy French novel.” Adultery. Money entanglements. Despair. Luxury. It’s not that this isn’t true, but what bugs me is I have described almost every French novel I’ve read in these terms. (Sometimes I say this affectionately, as with the early European novel The Princess of Clèves, the first sentence of which, according to my favorite translation reads, “There was never a time with more seduction.”) But it tugs at my heart: I want Balzac to have more common sense than Marguerite Duras when she is at her most scandalous, to open his eyes a little wider than do George Sand or André Gide, to be less lustful than Flaubert, but just as thoughtful and as radiant.

Balzac’s use of language, particularly in moments of emotional crisis–which occur by the page–has un undeniable appeal for me. I hesitate to acknowledge this because I believe that although his powers of expression are masterful–he is not a master. My understanding is that his beautiful words rely less on the simmering of reflection as on the strength of a constant practice akin to guzzling coffee. His worth is in the cloud that hovers above the words, that surrounds his phrasing. Or to put it less spiritually, he unearths wonders of lived experience, but language somehow is not his primary tool. Like Dickens, the value exists elsewhere. But boy, could he turn a phrase. Of jealousy: “The torrents of dizzy, lovesick potions that are spilled by this wild feeling began to run through his heart in an instant.” Or the beauty of a secondary character: “It was altered, poetically distant, by the soft shadows of a hidden melancholy.” Or the “good laments, spoken at length, like cigarettes smoked down to the edge of the tongue, by which women put to rest the little miseries of their life.” (This chapter passed the Bechdel test.)

There is a moral component to Balzac’s work, which he perhaps jokingly insists upon with headings like “Moral reflections on immorality” or “To what extremities men reduce their wives.” When Balzac locks in on an injustice, however small or big, his gaze can be painful. However captivated I might be by a character’s reckless pursuit of social standing or by a character’s painstaking exacting of a pleasurable revenge, the result is rarely pleasurable for the characters. Cruelness (like everything else in Paris) takes a toll. Goodness, truly, is rewarded. And yet, the city keeps pressing on.

And it’s this outlook on the stratification of Parisian life, this seasoned articulation of the sweep of history, that–when I notice it–makes me feel like I’m getting to the heart of a Balzac novel. Whether its the head-hurting account of how unmarried women have to earn their wages or a throwaway critique of the extravagance of the bourgeoisie, like this gem –“In revolutions, solid values go to the bottom and the tide washes up the light things”–Balzac keeps social class at the forefront of his vision of humanity. This is why, for instance, so many of Balzac’s characters are corrupted by the slave trade. Or why, in the beginning chapters of my current novel, Balzac takes us to the old palace grounds where his characters live, yes, but also where he pauses to comment on the concerted growth of  luxury edifices on the old Louvre. Are they, Balzac asks, a testament to the hope of a people who have endured three complete revolutions and want to make nice with the rest of Europe? No, because there is something dark here–destructions, demolitions, ruins of neighborhoods–a darkness that resides not underneath it all but in full view–an “eternal shadow” that the people exiting the operas and galleries cannot rid themselves of. Here we recognize “the intimate alliance of misery and splendor” from which the characters’ stories proceed.

And here I see a hint of Balzac’s intention that however wide-ranging, however grandiose and immense is his view of Parisian life, he is concerned most with the grandiosity and immensity of his characters, of Parisians, of us. He does not merely remark on the harshness, the coldness, the “silence” of homes that are more like “living graves,” but takes us inside them, showing us not just the emotional tumult, the moral degradation, and the personal struggle against large-scale inequities, but the joys, the dreams, and the kindnesses of lovers and companions and among families.

From an early chapter: “All is there, the rich, the poor, the envious and the envied, the philosophers and the people who chase after illusions, all groups like plants in a basket surrounding a rare flower, the bride. A wedding ball is a glimpse of the world.”

This is what I want art to be. What I want fiction to be. And halfway through my third Balzac novel, I think it fits the bill.

This is just to say or Why I’m not reading a Marilynne Robinson novel right now


I love you, all of you friends who have told me how beautiful the world is, how much there is to cling to, how much hope there is to savor, how much sadness there is to weep when you are reading Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and you haven’t talked about Lila really yet, but I’m gonna put it on here. But it’s my spring break, and I’m going to read something that has been on my list since before I knew I had a list, when I was curled up on my little oversized twin bed with my flannel oversized twin sheets in my dorm room my senior year shuddering, mostly from the frosty window that let out too much heat but also because I was reading about Rastignac returning again and again to the casino bringing back to Delphine large sums of money that she said she needed to survive her marriage and about Madame de Beauséant weeping at the window of her mansion when she sees her fiançé speeding off in his coach in the wrong direction and Balzac commenting “The most horrible catastrophes are nothing but this in the great world,” which at first I thought meant “First-world problems” but then was reassured by my cousin that he was speaking the straight truth. After all, I might have been jaded. I bought my French copy of Le Père Goriot at the used books store in Lewisburg from a Marxist ex-economics professor, and there were other things I missed, as I discovered the next summer when talking to David about Thackeray and comparisons between the melancholy  solitude of his characters and the apparent, according to Barnes and Noble introductions, gaiety of Balzac’s world–it is a world, a “buzzing beehive,” an “ocean,” but I must have focused too much on the measured but still reckless-feeling cruelty of, like, Vautrin and the muddled loneliness of Eugène to notice the liveliness, the joie-de-vivre of the characters when they sit at the dinner table and dance with words and passions and possibilities, which I must have felt but which still came as a shock when, again, I read the Introductions at the front of these books I was purchasing. I had read Balzac before–Eugènie Grandet, which I recommended not once but twice: “It’s the story of a greedy,” I said the first day back in America, then corrected myself because adjectives can’t just become nouns in English. “It’s short,” I said, “for Balzac.” Crucial. And “Its redemptive.” Literally redemptive. I won’t give away the ending, but it was so firmly planted in my memory that the other day when I lay in bed listening to the Blood on the Tracks album I was certain Bob Dylan was talking about it: “Then he started into dealing with slaves / and something inside of him died.” Could have been about anyone. But reading Le Père Goriot on all those Saturdays senior year cemented two things, one was related to my ego which is obviously still blossoming, but the other was that I loved Balzac and no matter what they say he has a piece of my heart. Even if I disagree about how apparent is his gaiety. And really, considering the evidence, how could something in him not have spoken to me? It was a crisis when I thought I missed something so permanently fixed in the imaginations of his readers across the two centuries. I felt a wound.


So, when I was in New York last November and I came across La Cousine Bette which had been recommended on Yahoo answers as a good place to start Balzac if one is not ready for Le Père Goriot–(I had great French professors, but I was in a literary and social delirium my senior year, returning again and again to that bookstore, looking for French titles, buying “Tom Jones,” feverishly writing poems I’d like to share with someone but probably never will, because of their eroticism, and I apparently couldn’t bother to find a credible source on a favorite author)–I was pleased to see on the back cover the following review from André Maurois–whoever he is–but he said: “Balzac never wrote anything more atrocious or more beautiful,” and I felt like a curtain was opened for me and André Maurois’s steady French hands were beckoning me through, not to my first love, but to a love, a very special one.

I waited patiently until Christmas break to read it, and then Ryan bought me a very nice Christmas present, Gabriel Garcìa Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was breathtakingingly beautiful–so beautiful that I recently told my pastor that even though I was reading it in translation I felt like I was reading Spanish, which is probably a lie because the only time I’ve ever read in Spanish is when I was leaving a restaurant and the Open/Abierto sign ticked against the glass door. It was a book that began like an obligation to a dear friend and ended like a dear friend.

So I am ready to read Balzac again. Guiltily. Unguiltily. I’m still deciding. Actually the Marilynne Robinson jury is still out deciding my guilt. But I don’t think I can bear it–I don’t care how beautiful the world I’m missing is–if I have to wait one more night to be back in Balzac’s arms, to hear his radiant jokes, his whispers, to listen to his outrageous sentences on Paris (in both senses), his characterizations of the provinces and her sad pleading people, to feel the surging power some might call gaiety that he brings to the story. Some books are puddles. Some let the rain fall. Some boil. Some drip like leaky faucets. Some hiss like tea kettles. Balzac finds his stories in a giant doormat left out in the rain. With great strength he lifts the heavy mat, holds it to our faces (never his), and he rings it out–violently, tenderly, knowingly. He rings it out–the sometimes putrid, sometimes saturating dampness collecting underneath our feet–in order to tell the truth, to find the water (all truth is water), to let us into our own home.

Why I Read Fiction or “George Eliot’s Done It Again!”


Carnforth, England

I had some difficulty finding the books I wanted to read at the library today, so I picked up Felix Holt: The Radical. I hadn’t gotten to it yet. I think most of us can recognize that feeling of homecoming but at the same time of unfamiliarity–like in a dream when we talk to a family member whose face has somehow changed–when we return to a favorite author. And most of my readers will remember that since age nineteen I have been in a relationship with George Eliot–and it’s not complicated.

Having read George Eliot’s preface, I’m feelings things that I usually only feel at the last page of a Hemingway novel. It’s the sensation of being arrested more than jarred. Not of being shaken but of being woken up. The light was turned on. The music was silenced.

Here are the concluding paragraphs to the preface of Felix Holt, coming at the end of a beautiful narration of a man’s journey northward by coach across the unfolding landscape (topographical, political, and religious) of an England whose culture (for better and for worse) has all but disappeared, where I imagine the narrator has just lifted her pen before setting it down to chart the most political of all landscapes–the human heart.

There is much pain that is quite noiseless; and vibrations that make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurrying existence. There are glances of hatred that stab and raise no cry of murder; robberies that leave man or woman for ever beggared of peace and joy, yet kept secret by the sufferer — committed to no sound except that of low moans in the night, seen in no writing except that made on the face by the slow months of suppressed anguish and early morning tears. Many an inherited sorrow that has marred a life has been breathed into no human ear.
And then she keeps going:

The poets have told us of a dolorous enchanted forest in the under world. The thorn-bushes there, and the thick-barked stems, have human histories hidden in them; the power of unuttered cries dwells in the passionless-seeming branches, and the red warm blood is darkly feeding the quivering nerves of a sleepless memory that watches through all dreams. These things are a parable.

I’m almost too terrified to turn the page.

Reading Dostoevsky: The Russia we want to be

A strange sensation gained possession of him in that dingy and stuffy corridor, a sensation that strove painfully to become a thought; but he still could not guess what that new struggling thought was.

Last night, when I was consuming by the handful the final pages of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin is unflinchingly justifying his choice in marrying one of two women–Nastasya Filippovna, the captivatingly beautiful kept woman with glittering eyes and Aglaia Epanchin, the recklessly innocent youngest daughter of a respectable Petersburg family–I began to understand the climax of this feverish story in a different way than I had, up until this point, been reading it.


When I was reading The Brothers Karamozov a few years back, my uncle suggested that one has to be knowledgeable in Russian history to fully understand the Dostoevsky novels.

Agreed. And though there may be much that I am missing in my reading of this nightmarish, philosophically probing, spiritually penetrating, rapturous labyrinth of human souls (Virginia Woolf calls Dostoevsky’s novels “seething whirlpools”), I began to view Prince Myshkin’s painful love of two women with an awareness of Russia’s long and struggling history.

Nastasya Filippovna (yes the names) feels suffocated by a blanket of shame, a blanket which she lifts at various junctures in her much-gossipped storyline–whether to escape a wedding or to escape the man she ran away with–both dazzling and shocking the community and heaping on more public disgrace. She is described as the kind of woman who thinks every time she looks at her lover: “I’m tormenting him to death now, but I’ll make put for it with my love, later.” Her raving choices seem to be more about her own sense of worth, but they always inflict wounds on the men in her wake.

Aglaia lives a secret life of whispered commitments and private love notes. She herself can’t seem to decide whom to love–the middle class Ganya who has violent emotions and a family to care for, the rich, worldly and somehow wise Yevgeny Pavlovich, or the saintly but embarrassingly honest Prince Myshkin. Aglaia’s romantic impulses seem more about spiting her parents than asserting the freedom she is grasping at.

What became shuddering clear to me last night was the possibility that these characters are not just women caught in the web of social stratification and the constraints of gender politics in their St Petersburg world. Maybe they are allegories for two kinds of Russia–old and new.

One is barbaric, disgraceful, and disgusting, yet with a beauty that can hardly be overlooked, much less forgotten. The other is a sophisticated but troubled offshoot of a culture that loves its libraries and laws and longings but yearns for originality and railroads and protection from the outside world.

To Aglaia, the dreamed-about modern Russia, Myshkin says, “You are exceedingly beautiful. You are so beautiful that one is afraid to look at you.” Aglaia is the one Myshkin more readily trusts and desires, but she is a riddle to him. What drives her? Who will she become?

Of Nastasya, the difficult ancient Russia whose spirit is entrenched in every institution, in every family, in every town (and maybe in every soul, for as one character observes, “The Russian soul is a dark place”), Myshkin marvels:

Whether she were a woman who had read too much poetry…or simply mad, as Myshkin was convinced, in any case this woman–though she sometimes behaved with such cynicism and impudence–was really far more modest, soft, and trustful than might have been believed. It’s true that she was full of romantic notions, of self-centered dreaminess and capricious fantasy, but yet there was much that was strong and deep in her…Myshkin understood that.


In the moment when the two women have their inevitable showdown, Aglaia is overcome by her hate of Nastasya. New hates old. Possibility hates reality. But by her very rejection of her she can never escape.

And the decision rests with Myshkin. Which Russia will he choose? Who as a people, I hear Dostoevsky asking, will we be? And do we still have a choice?

There’s another extremely popular novel in which a choice is made between to lovers, this time in America. I’m thinking of Daisy Buchanan. Will it be her husband or Jay Gatsby? Old money or new? Alliances, power, and prestige, or honesty, aspiration, and originality. Both are extravagant. Both are falsifications of what America truly is, or of what America can be.

This is just a side thought. I wonder for how many novels that explore nationalistic identity we can take this way of reading. Daniel Deronda? Absalom, Absalom? Certainly. The California novels of John Steinbeck? Some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works?

I’ve even begun to ask (and if you’re not familiar with The Idiot, go ahead and skip this paragraph) who else is a metaphor for something. Is Myshkin meant to represent Christian Orthodoxy? Is Rogozhin secular Russia?  What does it mean that they exchange crosses early on and that at the end they lie down together on the same couch in tender, brotherly affection after an extraordinarily dark act of violence?

And so, back to Prince Myshkin’s choice. Which Russia will he choose? Which woman will it be?

“But what are you doing, prince?” Yevgeny Pavlovich cried with horror. “So you’re marrying [Nastasya] from a sort of fear? There’s no understanding it! Without even loving her, perhaps?”

“Oh, no. I love her with my whole heart! Why she’s…a child! Now she’s a child, quite a child! Oh, you know nothing about it!”

“And at the same time you have declared your love to Aglaia Ivanovna?”

“Oh, yes, yes!”

“How so? Then you want to love both of them?”

“Of, yes, yes!”

“Upon my word, prince, think what you’re saying!”

I’m still thinking what he’s saying. One hundred forty-eight years later, I’m still thinking what he’s saying.

A Translation

For Christmas, my sister gave me a book by Nina Bouraoui, who is becoming one of my favorite authors. I told my sister that this book, called Mes Mauvaises Pensées (or “My Bad Thoughts”) was changing the way I perceive both the world and language. I also admitted that I had just had a huge cup of McDonald’s coffee. Attribute it to whatever you will, but as I was walking through Walmart the morning after reading a little chunk of the book, I felt like I was swimming in a world of untouched motives, of violences hidden inside violences, of new loves and old identities, of DVD racks, children’s clothing, and women buying children’s cough medicine.

I thought I’d translate a couple of passages to share some of what has been touching me lately in my reading.

…from Garçon Manqué (the Franco-Algerian protagonist’s reflections about an oppressive experience of aloneness at the beach while visiting her French family).

Who here will say: Are you okay, Nina? Are you figuring it out? It’s not too hard? What do you dream about at night? What are your images? Have you come to accept them? To live with it? With these moments? With what you brush against every day? With what defines you? And why this sadness in your eyes?

…from Mes Mauvaises Pensées (my favorite quotes about writing)

I’ve always wanted to run away from life; writing and love are the ultimate means.
* * *
With you, I am in life, in my life, within its folds, and it’s a way for me to rediscover writing.
* * *
I could write my own history book and make myself a subject with deep roots; books are like arms–I put myself to sleep in their warmth.