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Taking Stock: Reading Turgenev and Stone

What I'm reading these days is Virgin Soil, Ivan Turgenev's last novel, and A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone's first. They are very unalike. Turgenev's social comedy - which, I expect, is not going to be so funny by the end - is dry and understated, prone to refrain from judgment while making it impossible for the reader to do the same. His characters are offspring, legitimate or otherwise, of the upper classes; some are richer than others but all would pass, in the England of the time, as gentlefolk.

A Hall of Miirrors takes place in a New Orleans that is unlikely to inspire nostalgia. For the down-and-out characters whose alternate stories twine through the opening of the book, New Orleans is anything but the Big Easy. It's a gritty, unwelcoming burg at the end of the Illinois Central tracks. Rheinhardt, now a drunk, was at one time a promising clarinetist at Juilliard. Geraldine's face is nastily scarred - car accident, she says. She'd like to get a job as a waitress, but prospective employers have another line of work in mind.

Somewhere in Virgin Soil - I haven't come upon it yet - a character gives the aristocracy another thirty years. In the event, they had forty, which is close enough. Everybody in the book seems to believe that some sort of fundamental change is inevitable; something like a revolution lies ahead. In A Hall of Mirrors, the revolution has already taken place. The air giddy expectation that colors Virgin Soil are replaced by the shut-down self-protectiveness of A Hall of Mirrors.

There is a streak of wild black humor in A Hall of Mirrors.

He tried to think who it was that had developed the surrender theory - and remembered Bruce, the stage Englishman with whom he had worked at WLOX in Chicago. One sad cold night, Bruce had walked into the bar of the Redcliff Hotel, where the radio studio was, and, with his overcoat draped dramatically across his narrow shoulders, announced that he was going to kill himself. He was quite eloquent about it, but the customers of the bar, Rheinhardt among them, had affected not to believe him. The Redcliff regulars sensed the remote possibility that something at last might happen around the Redcliff Hotel and did not want to spoil it. Some of the others perhaps realized that in dissauding a man from suicide they would be taking on a grave and probably improper moral responsibility for him; and that moreover, to dissuade him it would be necessary to listen to him talk at some length. The bartender was in some financial difficulty with the police and declined to sound any alarms. So Bruce, hiccoughing slightly, walked out into the properly snowy January night with a wild oath and an Old Vic flourish of his coattails.

Then, it was told, Bruce staggered across the Clark Street bridge to the Loop, had another Scotch and decided he might yet buy his life with surrender. So he sat down in the snow on the corner of State and Van Buren resolved to offer public surrender to the first authority, vehicle or private person that should happen by. Since it was the coldest of January nights with a blizzard well underway, Bruce waited for some time. But at length, there passed a two-hundred-fifty pound Mississippi cotton picker who had just debarked penniless and fighting mad from the last bus out of Dixie, who, on encountering Bruce asleep on the curb and incapable of voicing surrender, creased him over the top piece with a mail-order blackjack and stole his suicide note and wallet. Somewhat later, the Van Buren Street bus also encountered Bruce and ran over his left foot.

Some people said Bruce subsequently died of influenza. Some said he became a Trappist monk of saintly renown. Other said he had entered the Federal Civil Service. There was a further story to the effect that behind a friend chicken parlor on the South Side, the Chicago Police discovered the mysteriously dead body of a fugitive Hines County stomper - a man of little education and violent background, whose pockets yet contained a suicide note reflecting the most refined and subtle sentiments and concluding, remarkably, with whole passages from Oedipus's farewell speech in the temple at Colonus. In any case, Rheinhardt thought, Bruce had proved the impossibility of surrender on anything like acceptable terms.

I'm sure that several monographs have been written about the Subotchevs - Fomushka and Fimushka - who provide the entertainment in Chapter 19 of Virgin Soil. This elderly couple has never quite moved into the Nineteenth Century. These souvenirs of the ancien régime - the time when it seemed that Russia just might progress peacefully beyond autocracy - have preserved their Queen of Spades style of life, as much as the decay of their fortunes permits. They're both polished and dim. (The translation is Constance Garnett's.)

Then Fomushka began talking of the French of to-day, and expressed the opinion that they must all be very wicked!

"Why so, Foma Lavrentyevitch?"

"Why, only see what names they have now!"

"What, for instance?"

"Why, such as Nozhan-Tsent-Lorran (Nogent Saint Lorraine), a regular bandit's name!"

Fomushka inquired incidentally, "Who is the sovereign now in Parks?"

They told him "Napoleon," and that seemed to surprise and pain him.

"Why so?"

"Why, he must be such an old man," he began, and stopped, looking round him in confusion."

I'm also reading essays by Montaigne, but they deserve their own entry. I haven't read Montaigne since school; now, I feel old enough to appreciate them.


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I haven't read Turgenev in years, and Stone never. A very tempting excerpt though. Next trip to the bookstore perhaps.

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