Life: Bicycle and morality

“Tolstoy had also been in his sixties when he learned how to ride a bicycle. He took his first lesson exactly one month after the death of his and Sonya’s beloved youngest son. Both the bicycle and an introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. One can only guess how Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband teetering along the garden paths. ‘Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,’ Chertkov noted at that time. ‘Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?'”

—Elif Batuman, The Possessed, and I can’t help but notice the way many transportation options take on a moral dimension in the eyes of many commentators.

What would Tolstoy say about the iPhone?

In discussing Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson says “[. . .] Tolstoy’s death still challenges us to ask the deepest political and personal questions. It is hard to think of any of the great public questions facing the world today that Tolstoy did not anticipate and address in some way, whether we speak of the environmental crisis, religious debate (creationist versus atheist) or the anti-war movement.”

I’m most intrigued that he or she (I don’t know the gender of “A”) doesn’t include “how we relate to technological progress or a rapidly changing world,” which might be the greatest question or suite of questions facing individuals in the West today. At 26 I’m relatively young, yet I’ve already seen how computers insinuated themselves in people’s lives, the rise and fall of IM, Facebook addiction, the way we can now fight wars with relatively few troops, the integration of GPS devices into lives, sexting scandals, and probably more—those were generated in a minute. All them of them relate to technology. And the rate of change, as many commentators have observed, appears to be increasing.

Now, Tolstoy may address these questions: I’ve started War and Peace twice but haven’t made it through. But that’s not the point: the point is that A.N. Wilson doesn’t list them as some of “deepest political and personal questions facing the world today” is itself notable, because I think they are the central questions many of us have, and the central questions that many of our other dilemmas spring from.

Life: Clarity edition

“Eventually I was admitted to the emergency rom, where doctors removed the gravel from my knees, x-rayed my arm, informed me that my elbow was broken, and outfitted me with a cast and sling. The bill came to $1,700. This experience caused me to take a cold, hard look at the direction my life was headed. What was I doing, running around this world—a place about which I clearly understood nothing—writing an endless novel about God knows what? A week later, the department head called and asked if I wanted to return to Stanford. I said yes.”

Okay, so it’s funnier in context (humor is the dominant trope in this book), but some of the flavor comes through (“a place about which I clearly understood nothing”), as does the author’s directness. I don’t remember where I read about Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, but I’m glad I took that unknown person’s advice.

Bridge of Sighs

Richard Russo said he’s been in Seattle to promote every one of his books, and I wish I’d been to previous talks, as his droll yet earnest comments at Elliott Bay went on for the perfect length of time—unlike Bridge of Sighs, a quality book made less so by its length. Around page 400 I was ready for the other cover. Still, it’s his third excellent book in a row, and one in which Russo said he identifies more with the protagonist than any of his other novels. That protagonist is Lou C. “Lucy” Lynch, one of the three main characters in a novel stuffed with as many minor characters as Tolstoy. I think Russo would be pleased with the comparison to Tolstoy, though Russo also has the advantage of being funny, though without easy one-liners I can quote without context.

The novel itself is largely about interpreting life. Russo said that he’s rapidly approaching 60—too rapidly, I heard him think—and the time when, according to him, any way you slice it, it’s half over. He says the central question becomes, “What has this been about and how did I get here?” That’s certainly the topic of Bridge of Sighs, a novel partially told by a man (mis?)remembering his childhood. The technique annoyed me as often as it interested me, and yet the annoyance helped build interest as I remembered with Lucy, whose childhood friend Robert Noonan is painting the bridge referenced in the title. It’s too obvious a metaphor for a writer as sophisticated as Russo, and it’s also been long used by Whitman and Hart Crane, though for Russo the metaphor is one that shifts with the characters who observe it, and by the end it has come to have enough meanings that perhaps it has shed all of them and simply is.

His characters—Lucy, his wife Sarah, and their somewhat-friend Robert Noonan–are everymen (and woman) set up as a continuum, with Lucy “hat[ing] the very idea of change,” Noonan being change incarnate, and Sarah the sensible woman between them who has antecedents in Victorian literature. Lucy is attempting to understand all three, including himself, while he is “trying to square the past as I remember it today.” Ah: the past, mentioned again, as you can’t help when discussing this book. What I liked most from Russo’s talk was a comment pertinent to the issues in Bridge of Sighs and one that I’ve implicitly realized and tried to incorporate in my life: if you go back far enough, you see how someone came to be the way they are. Russo said that in his work and life he asks “What’s the initial assumption?” Why do people go down the “stupid, hateful path,” or at least a path that seems stupid and hateful to outsiders. His forceful language struck me because most of the time he hedged his answers in response to the world’s ambiguity, but in this he didn’t, presumably because it is ingrained in his novels. The question he’s always trying to answer gives an impressive texture to Bridge of Sighs and his other novels, and in it he writes about people in a way similar to Robertson Davies; Davies summarizes how he fits with the English tradition of sympathy in part because he writes about people as people—”[…] their sorrows and their distresses are made sometimes more poignant by the fact that they don’t know why things are happening to them[,]” in an interview.

Russo’s asking “What’s the initial assumption?” also explains the characters in his novels, many of whom have failed in the conventional sense of acquiring money, power, prestige, social standing, and usually all four together—if you go far enough back, they have reasons for staying in places that Seattlites and other coastal city dwellers condescend to (imagine New Yorkers’ opinions of upstate, or of Maine). The question scales up, too: if you go back far enough, you might see how a city, state, country, or even world came to be the way it is. Call it the cellular automata of the individual. I heard elements of Davies in this too, as when he says in 1970, “[…] I am depressed by the readiness with which people attribute to the Russians, or the Chinese, the evil passions and tendencies that make them dangerous themselves, without any awareness of what they are doing.” Well spoken: and a reminder of what Kundera writes about concerning the internationalism of literature and the interconnectedness of life that too many overlook.

The reading continued in an ambling way, like the novel, and it helped me see the humor I’d missed in the first 140 pages. Hearing a scene in which a man’s married mistress breaks up with him, followed by a confrontation with the husband and non-friend, gave them the lunacy you can miss from just the text. Still, the novel had flaws that couldn’t be covered up from sound: the dialog sometimes meandered, but perhaps that is the nature of trying to thrash out causation and understand life. It ranges from interpersonal relations to the undercurrent of populist anger at decline of small-town life—although I’m not sure when, historically, small-town life was really healthy and wonderful, especially given books like Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street—combined with the fatalistic realization that not much can be done to reverse the slide. In this respect, small-town life functions as a metaphor for aging: things are changing, perhaps for the worst, but there’s only one way to go. For Lucy Lynch, moving isn’t an option, and I suspect it isn’t for Russo, either.

Bridge of Sighs is worth trying, and my complaints about its length are preempted by Lucy when he says, “If this narrative seems whimsical simply by virtue of its being untrue, all I can say is that it’s even more realistic than the truth […]” Well, maybe, but it seems whimsical mostly because it is often whimsical, like part of Russo’s discussion. I would’ve liked to ask Russo if he knows of or likes Robertson Davies, and whether my supposition about his work defending small towns and their inhabitants is accurate. But time ran out before we could go back and see his initial assumptions, so we are left with Russo’s novels and interviews. Despite the length of Bridge of Sighs, I will read his next one even if it’s 1,000 pages.

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