A classic made current and a welcome addition to the library of Russian literature in translation.

NOTES FROM A DEAD HOUSE

One of literature’s definitive prison memoirs is given new immediacy in this sturdy translation by the team of Pevear and Volokhonsky (Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, 2007, etc.).

Much of Dostoyevsky’s work is yellowed with age, and its mustiness isn’t entirely the fault of earlier translators; as well, he has the gloomy and moralizing air of the proselyte, especially one who’s seen the worst side of human nature, all of which makes him sometimes disagreeable to read. This piece from his middle period, first published in 1861, is an exception. It's a thinly veiled roman à clef: The “dead house” in question is the walled prison within the greater prison that is the Siberian wild to which Dostoyevsky was remanded in 1849 after having run afoul of the czarist regime. “In prison they generally took a dark and unfavorable view of former noblemen,” he writes. Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, the nobleman in question, returns the favor; imprisoned for killing his wife (a crime eligible for parole, of course), he is full of class prejudices and certain that he deserves better company, but in time, he sheds his disdain, having discovered that “in prison there was time enough to learn patience.” Prison occasions its own society, a microcosm in which nobles become servants and another nobility emerges, one that values people such as the inmate who “was self-taught in everything: one glance and he did it.” Indeed, Goryanchikov tells us, all the old categories and classifications fall victim to the reality of prison, where a man who’s killed six people can be less frightening than one who’s killed just one. “There were crimes of which it was hard to form even the most elementary notion: there was so much strangeness in the way they were committed.” Lacking the penitential heavy-handedness of Dostoyevsky’s later work, Notes humanizes the forgotten denizens of the first Gulag, decrying a system of punishment that does not always fit the crime.

A classic made current and a welcome addition to the library of Russian literature in translation.

Pub Date: March 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-307-95959-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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