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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Literary Favorites

Who are your favorite authors, and what about their works appeals to you most? — [Bill Kowaleski] Tolstoy, for the sheer beauty of his prose and for his characters...

[Gary Inbinder] Speaking of Tolstoy, I recommend The Last Station, a film about his last days. I also recommend Henri Troyat’s biography. I read it more than forty years ago, but I’m sure it holds up quite well today..

[Bill Bowler] Tolstoy is one of my favorites, too, and I, too, find his prose to be beautiful, certainly in Russian and not bad at all in Constance Garnet’s translation. But not everyone agrees.

Henry James famously called War and Peace a “loose, baggy monster.” And in Russian, compared to, say, the austere clarity of Pushkin or the refined eloquence of Turgenev, Tolstoy’s bulky prose can suffer by comparison.

Russian critics remark on some strange usages and odd word choices, and his sentences are very long and full of subordinate clauses. But that’s what it takes to pack in all the content of his vision and depth of thought.

And interestingly, later in life, Tolstoy devoted himself to education and literacy of the peasant class, and opened his own school. He wrote “primers” to teach reading, and those brief stories, almost flash fiction, are beautiful models of simple, terse, straightforward prose.

[Bill Kowaleski] I can’t read Russian, so I depend on good translators. The first time I read the chapter in Anna Karenina about the wheat harvest, I immediately went back and read it again. It is just breathtaking!

I’m a fan of Chekhov, too. But give Margaret Atwood a chance if you haven’t already. She’s one of the best.

[Don Webb] I was impressed by the amount of French I saw in a Russian edition of War and Peace. It was dutifully translated in long footnotes. French was the prestige language of the time, and it retains some of its former glory.

[Gary Inbinder] French was spoken at the Russian court from the time of Catherine the Great onward. From the late 18th century through the end of the Romanov Dynasty in 1917, upper-class Russians spoke French as their first language. And Catherine’s contemporary, the Prussian Frederick the Great, always favored the French language and culture. Like Catherine, he modeled his court on the French. Both Catherine and Frederick had interesting relationships with Voltaire, which are too complex to go into here.

[Don Webb] I’ve heard a story in which Diderot thumped so much on Catherine’s knee, allegedly for emphasis, that she moved a small table between them. I’ve sometimes wondered if the story didn’t get the table backwards.

As for Margaret Atwood, I can tell a funny story. Her famous — or infamous — remark about science fiction’s being “talking squids from outer space” prompted a retort in Jörn Grote’s short story “Home, to the Sea.” I esteem it one of Bewildering Stories’ classics.

[Bill Bowler] Atwood was certainly referring to Lovecraft, who detested seafood and described his alien monsters pretty much as talking cephalopods.

[Bill Kowaleski] Ms. Atwood seems to bristle at the idea that she might be a science fiction writer, though Oryx and Crake made many lists of best of the year science fiction, and, if O&C isn’t science fiction, just what is it? She prefers “speculative fiction,” and I would agree that that term more accurately describes her writing. But almost all science fiction is speculative, so I guess it’s just a matter of her perceptions of what science fiction is.

In Oryx and Crake, Ms Atwood describes a world where bioscience has run amok, creating life forms that ultimately escape into the wild. And the central plot line is classic science fiction: an Asperger’s-afflicted mad scientist creates a bio-monster. The scariest thing about the novel is how believable it is. What makes the novel so special is how well you get to know the characters and really come to care about them.

[Don Webb] I wouldn’t know how Ms. Atwood feels about Lovecraft, but her shotgun critique — “Science fiction is rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space” — seems to be aimed a “hard” science fiction. She may feel that the kind of social satire she often writes is something completely different.

Responses welcome!


Copyright May 16, 2016
by Bewildering Stories

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