SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)
CHALLENGER: just kids (patti smith)

below the chelsea

though i'm inordinately fond of several russian writers (and any number of nonlethal soviet-era oddities) and took a few grueling quarters of first-year russian in college,* count leo and i didn't cross paths until i saw the last station (the '09 movie about tolstoy's life at yasnaya polyana with his wife and followers; it's excellent) in the run-up to last year's academy awards. truth be told, i didn't really understand the scope of his cultural significance; i knew he was a heavyweight, sure, but the idea that he was ben franklin plus jonathan franzen plus oprah plus, like, elmo to nineteenth-century russians...was new.

reader, i grok that now. one disappears with a shoomp, coke-bottle-into-the-burren-like, into tolstoy's personalities and relationships: as i marveled to paul when i first finished the book (long ago, when cthulhu was young enough for justin bieber), he separates his characters' interactions and reactions into their component urges, like, teaspoon by teaspoon. moscow, st. petersburg, and the russian countryside are plush settings, as satisfying in tolstoy's hands as england ever was in jane austen's - but his characters come to life in a way that's shockingly modern. here are anna and her husband, just after her admission that she loves vronsky:
'Perhaps I am mistaken,' said he. 'In that case I beg your pardon.'
'No, you were not mistaken,' she said slowly, looking despairingly into his cold face. 'You were not mistaken. I was, and cannot help being, in despair. I listen to you but I am thinking of him. I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot endure you, I am afraid of you, and I hate you....Do what you like to me.'
i'd have overturned my samovar and started a fight if i read that sort of thing in 1875;** it's devastating, and it more than compensates for tolstoy's lengthy meditations on collective farming (which he supported quite energetically in his life beyond the page). it should be noted that the noodly agricultural solos had their fans; in an 1875 letter, turgenev wrote that
I don't like Anna Karenina, although one finds some truly magnificent pages (the race, the mowing, the hunt), but it is all sour; it smells of Moscow, of incense, of old maidishness, of Slavophilism, aristocratism, and so on.
more for me, turgenev; more for me. i've even arrived at a sort of peace about resenting anna at the end of the book because she reminds me of the overcooked heroine i imagined myself to be in my late teens and early twenties; meeting real people in one's reading, even and perhaps especially the sort of people who make one realize one was a shit, is the best sort of reading i know. the only thing keeping me from being unequivocally team anna karenina is the absence of an equally detailed account of anna's first days with vronsky; while we hear all about their affair's middle age and death throes, we're denied the delirious early scenes we get with charming foils like kitty and levin. where's the beef [tea], count leo?

speaking of delirious early scenes, here's what it was like to be miniature patti smith in chicago in the '50s, according to just kids, her national-book-award-winning account of being young in new york with robert mapplethorpe.
Not contented with my child's prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own. I was relieved when I no longer had to repeat the words If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could say instead what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions, and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.
i found patti smith's easter in the bargain cassette bin at the ratty old tower records on bay and columbus in san francisco, the same tower records to which i sprinted one night when joe and i had a huge fight and i needed a copy of let it bleed to play over and over while i chain-smoked inside and made all of our stuff stink (see the aforementioned anna karenina phase). the stones CD is still with me, but god knows where easter ended up; i listened to it straight through on a road trip which became by virtue of its awful patti smith soundtrack the mathematical opposite of a road trip in a volkswagen commercial (even the one with nick drake's "pink moon," which...do your research, madison avenue), and i put as much distance between it and my person as i could.

why, then, did i shell out for her memoir? because one of my favorite blog-ladies loves patti to pieces. because just kids won the national book award. because i wanted to qualify for super saver shipping. one finishes tolstoy and, satisfied, needs to feel...cheated?
We did not have enough money to pay our bill. At first light I woke Robert, helped him dress, and walked him down the fire escape. I left him there on the sidewalk so I could climb back up and get our portfolios. All we had in the world.
When I looked up I saw some of the woebegone residents waving handkerchiefs. They leaned out of windows calling "goodbye, goodbye" to the children who were escaping the purgatory of their existence.
I hailed a cab. Robert slid in, followed by the portfolios. Before ducking into the taxi, I tood a last look at the sad splendor of the scene, the waving hands, the Allerton's foreboding neon sign, and the morphine angel singing from the fire escape.
Robert rested his head on my shoulder. I could feel some of the stress leave his body. "It's going to be all right," I said, "I'll get my job back and you'll get better."
"We're going to make it, Patti," he said.
We promised we'd never leave one another again, until we both knew we were ready to stand on our own. And this vow, though everything we were yet to go through, we kept.
"Chelsea Hotel," I told the driver, fumbling through my pockets for change, not completely certain I could pay him.
in a recent review of a new modigliani biography, peter schjeldahl notes that
No starving-artist myth ever propogated lacks a case in point involving Modigliani. [His biographer] notes, "Occasionally he curled up in the street, as his friends discovered one morning. He had found a cozy corner underneath a table on the terrace of the Lapin Agile and was dead to the world." Getting thrown out of a restaurant for causing a scene (as by stripping naked, on more than one occasion) beat having to pay the check. He ran up boundless tabs, or paid with then-worthless drawings, at establishments that valued his charm.


A spoiled mother's boy, Modigliani was a magnet for parental impulses. Such dependency was readily dissembled, in the imagination of the day, as an artist's superior claim on the world's solicitude. Nietzschean Supermen don't do dishes.
just kids reeks of that entitlement, the sort of entitlement that makes me hate penniless artists and then hate myself for hating penniless artists. i would like to be the sort of person who could thrill to the tale of how twentysomething patti nursed hustlin' robert through a crippling bout of fever, gonorrhea, and trench mouth (seriously?), but i twisted up with disdain: if you called your dad, as jarvis cocker put it, he could stop it all. i can respect the fact that leaning on her conservative parents would have compromised patti's integrity - very well, starve for your art - but i can't imagine it was especially fun to be, say, a cab driver in new york in the seventies, and getting stiffed by artistic types like patti and robert must have made it even better. what made their needs more important than their creditors'?

then there's the dress-up, and the weird lifestyle plagiarism. i respect borrowing from your heroes - lord knows the night i swanned around as david bowie was one of the highlights of my life in new york to date - but smith's rote mimicry of brian jones, rimbaud, and others reads like bad fashion blogging, and i think her pilgrimages to charlesville (rimbaud's birthplace) and paris's pere-lachaise*** (where jim morrison is buried) actually shrank my soul. on that pere-lachaise scene, where she meets an old woman cleaning the graves:
[The woman] shook her head, muttering. I was amazed at her disregard for the torrential rain. Suddenly she turned and gruffly cried in English: "American! Why do you not honor your poets?"
I was very tired. I was twenty-six years old. All around me the messages written in chalk were dissolving like tears in the rain. Streams formed beneath the charms, cigarettes, guitar picks. Petals of flowers left on the plot of earth above Jim Morrison floated like bits of Ophelia's bouquet.
"Ehh!" she cried again. "Answer me, Américaine! Why do you young people not honor your poets?"
"Je ne sais pas, madame," I answered, bowing my head.
"I do not know."
the violence of my snort as i read that scene in bed frightened both of the cats and roused joe from sleep. "whuh?" "patti smith. jim fucking morrison."

VICTOR: anna could take patti with one plump white arm tied behind her back. i think kitty scherbatsky could take patti, to be honest.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 if you've read anna karenina, does it rank among your favorite books?

02 do you think cthulhu would appreciate justin bieber?

03 why doesn't tolstoy tell us more about how anna and vronsky fall in love?

04 in his new yorker review of the pevear/volokhonsky AK, james wood contends that "Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, while carrying the germs of male blame, produce their own antibodies, so that their doomed heroines are finally sympathized with rather than judged, written into rather than written off." do you agree? (as i recall, i pitied tess.)

05 would you drink beef tea?

06 do you own any patti smith albums? do you play them?

07 were patti and robert justified in skipping out on their bills?

08 if you've read just kids, did you find the prose purple?

09 have you ever been to jim morrison's grave?

*i've mostly stopped pretending to speak russian, though i can still read cyrillic and occasionally have dreams about meat salad.

**AK was published in russky vesnik, a monthly, between 1875 and 1877.

***full disclosure: i insisted on visiting jim morrison's grave when i went to paris. i was sixteen.


Rachel (heart of light) said...

Hmmmm ... Just Kids is on my library hold list (um, I am 132 on the list for 67 circulating copies) but now I'm wondering if it is going to drive me crazy. I have zero patience for unnecessary angst, even if it relates to artistry. I'm woefully boug-y in that way.

Haven't read Tolstoy, should.

If beef tea is plain beef broth, yes. As a kid, I liked drinking it and pretending I was poor and only had broth. Most of my childhood daydreams involved a) being poor and having to do manual labor or b) being abandoned in the wilderness and having to fashion things out of sticks and hunt for food. I have a thing for self reliance, I guess.

kidchamp said...

my vehemence about this one surprised me; i think part of it is that i finished the book a long time ago, and it fell between books about people who had really big problems. i also let my irritation with the poverty-flashing eclipse some actual fondness for some of PS's anecdotes (she did in fact meet a lot of really interesting people, even if their names were the most interesting parts of her anecdotes most of the time). 

that said, i call bullshit on the morphine angel singing from the fire escape. 

megan said...

1) I have. I took a course in college entitled The 19th Century Russian Novel and went through a Big Novel phase. It's not my favorite, though I liked it. I liked War and Peace better, Tolstoy-wise and (at the time at least) preferred Dostoevsky in the great Russian doorstop contest. I was both more pretentious and smarter then though.
4) I remember very much liking Tess (the book and heroine), but I read it a while ago and can't remember it well enough to answer your question.
5) Emphatically no.
6) See #5
7 + 8) I hate that shit too. I was looking forward to reading Just Kids, but now perhaps I'll just save my time.
9) Nope. I have been to BF Skinner's and Edgar Allen Poe's. And HP Lovecraft's (as you know). I only visit the graves of famous people with 3 names.

kidchamp said...

now i'm worried that i'm waving you guys away from a book which should be read. either way, it's quick? 

did anyone leave interesting stuff at skinner's grave? what about poe's? i think i would give them each a pellet.

Amanda said...

01 It does. Shoomp, indeed.
02 I imagine they're in a club together.
03 Writing Russian voting tutorials just takes it out of one.
04 Emma Bovary is THE WORST ONE. But certainly for Tess and...sort of for Anna.
05 Certainly. I'm with Rachel on the Hansel-and-Gretel childhood fantasies. Can there be stale bread, too?
09 Accidently, though I thought he might be more likely than Oscar Wilde to keep me safe(-ish) if Pere-Lachaise closed for the day and I was thrown into a crypt and LOCKED INSIDE FOREVER.
10 Kitty and Levin. 

megan said...

well, there's this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poe_Toaster
i didn't know that they had stopped.

kidchamp said...

i'll cop to being immature enough that i would've wanted to stop by the evening before the birthday to leave a box of post toasties for the poe toaster.

anonymous said...

I have never read Patti Smith, and Anna's story I founf was so long ago and far away that I probably still believed love warranted railroad tracks.

anonymous said...

And that guest making typos was me. Lisa. Found. I found it a long time ago.

Katherine Cortes said...

I can't believe these two books are battling! One of my book clubs (don't ask) just read Just Kids and I think I was the only one who was like, Barf Me Out The Door And Back In Again. SO TERRIBLE. It should definitely not be read, if only because somebody might start to think that's what poetry is, and poetry has a hard enough time. And then a friend in my other book club lent me Anna Karenina, and I am 550 pages into that, and feeling like: aaaah. I guess I don't hate the Russians after all.

And here I thought your DFW jones made us irreconcilable.

ps, what's question 10 that Amanda's answering?

wabes said...

oh, my dear, my dear, i just adore every hair on your head right now.  i'll read vicariously through you until this beast of research is done, and there'll be some actual comfort in it.  i think i deserve some detailed countrysides and nicely-wrought characters, or i will in other month.

i read AK so long ago that i didn't get to sink into tolstoy quite as i could've, but i do remember being frustrated (by anna - perhaps in the same family as your thinking about love, in one's 20s, etc., i think) and still engaged by it.  but having re-read austen more recently, i'm not averse to revisiting.  i'm now thinking, though:  would tolstoy best updike?

i also think your snort was spot on, but i have a serious, deep-seated antipathy toward the doors, full stop.

god, i miss novels...i think i'll have a contest to choose what my first one should be, once i'm back down to earth.

kidchamp said...

you're probably right; wilde would throw down bons mots and be eaten. (i think i assumed there were ghouls in the crypt. not sure how that happened.)

kidchamp said...

lisa, have you ever heard the magnetic fields' "born on a train"? it's one of my favorite songs. (if you have that anti-cilantro-esque gene which prevents you from appreciating stephin merritt, the lyrics are here.) that video is kind of a cross between anna karenina and just kids, now that i think about it. 

kidchamp said...

it makes me feel much better that you agree, katherine; if folks on both sides of the DFW divide can agree on patti smith, perhaps she should look into a new editor. 

my email to paul when i was halfway though anna was something like, "i don't have to be afraid of this at all! it's just austen with sleighs!" which isn't true at all, but i get that same comfort-food feeling from his brand of realism. i do like russians (gogol, bulgakov, and mayakovsky in particular), but i was very wary of tolstoy. i wonder if i'd like chekhov; scarlett thomas's comments on his understanding of poverty make me suspect as much.

amanda's 10 is, i think, general enthusiasm for the acronym-courtship in the kitty and levin scenes, but you'd have to ask her to be sure. 

kidchamp said...

tolstoy knows a hell of a lot more about women than updike does, for sure. updike's appeal for me is so wrapped up in word choice that i'd have to have mad russian skillz to compare them meaningfully, though a one-on-one fifty-word sprint about farming would be a fascinating meet. 

i think most people who aren't sixteen or weren't sixteen in the sixties have antipathy toward the doors, but i do like "peace frog." that said, put a shirt on, dude.

jacob said...

there's a laura lippman novel that revolves around a murder at the poe grave. lippman is fun, though moreso if you are familiar with baltimore.

jacob said...

01 i have read it, but have (like megan) forgotten most of it. i remember being more interested in the liberal landowner tolstoy stand-in than anna, but i'd probably have a different reaction to the book now.

05 does pho count?

06 i'll cop to listening to 'because the night' on youtube, but that's about it.

08 i have not read it, though my mom selected it for her book club, enjoyed it, and passed it onto us when we were in CA last month. so there it sits, unread and forlorn on our bookshelf. thanks a lot, lauren.

kidchamp said...

oh, go for it. think of her as chuck klosterman without boobs.

maggie said...

1) Yes.
2) ? Still working Lovecraft references.
3) I don't know.  If this were Proust, I say it was so we couid feel our own lack of knowledge and hopeless desire to possess the characters all the more acutely.  Not sure about Tolstoy.
4) I judge Anna, but I judge all literary characters.  It's my own problem.
5) no
6) No, and this review makes me think I'm not missing much.
7) no!  The only excuse for skipping out on a bill is sheer absent-mindedness . . . maybe that's self-serving . . .
8) I haven't read it . . . I respect Emily Gould's taste though, and she likes it.  But the parts you quote are pretty irksome.  
9) no

maggie said...

working ON Lovecraft reference

anonymous said...

Lush, pretty, kind of like the Monkees. In a good way.

anonymous said...

01: All I know is in a surprise move, Russ Meyer films and Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature combined one night in a forgotten suburb of Denver when a remarkably chesty and considerably drunk (and uninterested) young Russian lady spent fifteen surreal minutes begrudgingly trying to teach me how to pronounce Gogol’s name properly.  She did not Spock Drop-Kick me or anything, though, sadly (R.I.P. Tura.), or illuminate any obscure passages from The Master and Margarita. 02: As they plunge from world to world through the sky?  The only Young Ones the Great Old Ones like were on BBC2 back in the early ‘80s. 06: As an aural illiterate, may I ask whether or not I’m supposed to say yes or no to save face? 07: Fuck no.  09: All I know is that scene in The Doors near the end where Val Kilmer invites a band mate to admire his growing belly and mumbles something about being “like a beast” or something, that is just where Jim started growing on me. 0?: I also can’t pronounce fin de siècle.  I’m like, “J K Huysmans’ La-Bas is great!  He wrote it after hanging out with a deranged priest in fin’d’sickle… er… fan duh s… sss… at the tail end of the 19th century, France.”

anonymous said...

re: 01, i once saw a drunk beauty pageant type rain blows upon a bunch of harvard lampoon staffers with the very wiffle bat with which they, the poonies, were to play ball against the hebrew club while she, the pageant type, sang "deep in the heart of texas." i, in my turn, strove mightily to speak russian to a bunch of polish hipsters at some party in soho a bunch of years ago and was more or less indulged.

re: 06, it's probably more stylish to say yes. fuck 'yes,' though. 

re: 0?, i was saying mapple-rhymes-with-apple-thorpe until joe informed me it's supposed to be maple-thorpe, or maypole-thorpe, or...i hate that guy. 

kidchamp said...

balls! that was me. seriously, comment platform, could you be any worse?

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

And that was me (battering myself about the head a la Chris Farley: I’m so stupid!). 09: I once spent a grave evening in mock-up mountain town Morrison CO eating Mexican. Why? God’ield you, pretty lady, je ne sais pas.

holli. said...

this post both confused me and prompted me to purchase the tolstoy. you should be commissioned.

jamie said...

hm. i added "one little owl" to get free shipping. sigh.

"why doesn't tolstoy tell us more about how anna and vronsky fall in love?" this does not help to making me want to read it.

esb said...


clearly i need to read it.

kidchamp said...

yes. he buys her stuff.