An excellent way for an author to quickly give the reader a sense for his characters is to describe how and what they read. In Eugene Onegin, for example, Alexander Pushkin tells us that Tatyana Larina kept the romantic novels of Samuel Richardson under her pillow, and that Vladimir Lensky had his soul “fired by the flame” of Goethe and Schiller’s poetry. Those small details say volumes about the characters, so to speak.
The problem, of course, is that we readers can only understand the full import of the characters’ reading habits if we, ourselves, are well-read. Knowing that Lensky’s soul was refined by Goethe and Schiller is only helpful if we know anything about Goethe and Schiller’s writing. The more one reads, the more one needs to read.
Beer of the week: Framboise Rose Gose – This Anderson Valley brew is something else. It is not quite clear, pinkish-straw in color, and pours with a very quickly dissipating head. The aroma is very fruity and floral, with loads of berry. The flavor follows the aroma, with tart, slightly astringent raspberry doing all of the heavy lifting. The finish is relatively long, with floral notes hanging around in the back of the throat.
Reading of the week: Middlemarch by George Eliot – Pushkin, of course, is not the only author to have used the technique discussed above. In her description of the character Dorothea Brooke, Eliot mentions that “Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart.” Dorothea also “had strange whims of … sitting up at night to read old theological books!” Later in the book, Dorothea adopts the habit of “getting down learned books from the library and reading many things hastily” so that she might be better prepared for elevated conversation.
Question of the week: If somebody wanted to describe you in this way, what reading habit or favorite books of yours would they mention?
The top ten earning films of the 2010’s consisted of four Marvel superhero movies, three Star Wars movies, two animated Disney films (The Incredibles 2 and the “live action” Lion King remake,) and the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise.
These films have a lot in common. For one thing, Disney and it’s subsidiaries produced and distributed nine out of the ten. Additionally, aside from the Lion King remake, each film was a sequel.* (Not to say that there is anything necessarily bad about remakes or sequels. The Wizard of Oz is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time, but the novel on which was based had been adapted for stage and screen several times before. And several of Shakespeare’s plays are sequels or retellings of old stories.)
The most interesting similarity to me, though, is the fact that the movies all have prominent fantastical elements. None of the films are about ordinary humans interacting with the world as we know it. Aside from Jurassic World and Lion King–which feature invisible dinosaurs and talking animals living in an interspecies hereditary kingdom, respectively–the movies all have space magic and/or superhumans. (There is probably a fair distinction to be made here between science fiction and fantasy, but I am not the person to make it. And, as Arthur C. Clark famously put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)
At the risk of being predictable, I’d like to compare these blockbuster movies with a couple classics of Russian literature.
At a glance, Alexander Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is also fantastical. It has a vengeful ghost and a magical formula to make certain playing cards into guaranteed winners. However, only one character, Hermann, sees the ghost. Hermann is also the only one who attempts the winning trick or sees the titular playing card wink its eye. And before all of that happens, the narrator tells us of “the disordered condition of [Hermann’s] uncontrollable imagination.” At the end of the story, Hermann is committed to an insane asylum. The story is overtly fantastical, but it is possible that Hermann is simply insane, and that all of the supernatural elements of the story are the products of his disordered imagination. That ambiguity, in my opinion, makes the story more compelling.
Similarly, there is an overtly fantastical story embedded in Dostoyevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha a tale about Jesus returning to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus heals the blind and raises a young girl from the dead before being imprisoned and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor. Notably, Jesus is not mentioned by name, but is only referred to as “He” (spelled with a capital “H” in every English translation that I’ve seen.) At one point, Alyosha interrupts to ask whether this is all in the Grand Inquisitor’s imagination or whether he has somehow mistaken some ordinary person for Jesus. “Take it as the last,” replies Ivan, “if you are so corrupted by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic. If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so.” Ivan goes on to explain that isn’t important whether the prisoner really is Jesus or merely “the delusion of an old man of ninety, over-excited by the auto da fe of a hundred heretics the day before.” What matters is that the appearance of Jesus (real or imagined) presents the character of the Grand Inquisitor the opportunity to give voice to his deepest thoughts.
The same is true of The Queen of Spades. Whether Hermann saw the ghost because he was insane or went insane only later is not really important. What matters is that the appearance of the ghost gave Hermann the opportunity to yield completely to his avarice and advance the plot of the story.
Who knows, maybe the fantastical elements of blockbuster films are also intentionally ambiguous devices that ultimately reveal the souls of the characters.
Beer of the week: Smittytown ESB – This fantastic Extra Special Bitter comes from Temperance Beer Company in Evanston, Illinois. It is dark gold in color, with a slight haze. The beer is very effervescent, with an aroma of caramel malt. The caramel malt leads the flavor as well, and is followed by a nice hops kick in the back of the throat. Smittytown is a great, well-balanced brew.
Reading of the week: The Grand Inquisitor from The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski – This excerpt is from the beginning of Ivan’s tale, when Jesus first appears in Seville and performs miracles. (Note that I do not hesitate to call the visitor Jesus. This is because 1) the story makes it clear that everybody can tell who He is just by looking at Him, and 2) Ivan says that it doesn’t matter if it is really Jesus or not, so it isn’t worth any effort to avoid using His name.)
Question for the week: Why are fantastical stories occasionally thought of as juvenile and lowbrow? After all, many bonafide classics are highly fantastical, such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Divine Comedy, and several of Shakespeare’s comedies.
*A couple of the movies are not generally referred to as sequels, such as Rogue One and Black Panther. But the fact that they are stories that take place in the same universes as earlier movies makes the distinction pretty tenuous.
Act II of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov begins with these lines by Charlotta: “I haven’t a real passport. I don’t know how old I am, and I think I’m young. When I was a little girl my father and mother used to go round fairs and give very good performances and I used to do the salto mortale and various little things. And when papa and mamma died a German lady took me to her and began to teach me. I liked it. I grew up and became a governess. And where I came from and who I am, I don’t know. . . . Who my parents were–perhaps they weren’t married–I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” Charlotta is a woman with an uncertain past.
Shortly thereafter, Epikhodov speaks these lines: “I’m an educated man, I read various remarkable books, but I cannot understand the direction I myself want to go–whether to live or to shoot myself, as it were. So, in case, I always carry a revolver about with me. Here it is.” Epikhodov is a man with an uncertain future.
(Although Charlotta caries a hunting rifle in this scene and Epikhodov shows his revolver to the audience, neither gun goes off by the end of the play. This scene is the exception that proves the rule of “Chekhov’s gun”: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”)
Charlotta and Epikhodov present the audience with two questions that are central to the play: What is our past? and What is our future? These questions, although presented by two separate characters, are inseperable; our futures are intimately tied to our pasts.
This principle is easy enough to recognize. What is more difficult is determining just how much the past dictates the future. To over-emphasize the past is to abdicate one’s own volition and agency. (“I must do such-and-such because I am fated to do so.”) But to ignore the past is to give up our most valuable teacher, experience. As they say, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
We must find a way to learn from the past without becoming slaves to it. And that sounds a lot easier than it is.
Beer of the week: Rewind Hefeweissbier- This brew comes from Chicago’s Around the Bend Beer Co. The name is a reference to the fact that Rewind is a classic German-style wheat beer. THe brewers at Around the Bend clearly intend to learn from the past. It is orange and cloudy, with a nice foamy head. The aroma is totally classic for the style, with very prominent banana notes. The flavor is packed with banana and spice, and finishes very smoothly.
Reading of the week: The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov called this play a comedy, but it is actually a sad story about the demise of a once-prominent family. At the end of the play, the bank forecloses its mortgage on the family’s estate–including the titular orchard. This week’s reading, from the end of Act II, is a very charged discussion of how the characters have to reckon with the legacy of Russian serfdom before they can move forward as members of an increasingly egalitarian world.
Question for the week: Are there times when it actually is best to completely forget or ignore the past?