Classic Corner: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera’s most well-read novel recounts the lives of four interconnected lovers—Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz—and a dog named Karenin.

Tomáš can’t commit to a life of monogamy, even though he desperately loves his wife, Tereza.

Tereza, though she loathes her mother and the Soviet occupation of Prague, finds she can’t remain in democratic Zurich and must return to both out of incomprehensible love and loyalty.

Sabina, Tomáš’ closet friend and mistress, struggles to create art that is not politicized just because she is a Czech dissident.

Franz, a Geneva professor, loves Sabina but can’t love her authentically or fully, pigeon-holing her as a romantic figure—just as the rest of her audience.

Karenin is a dog.

In this modern classic, Kundera reflects on what it means to be Czech in a Europe torn apart by fascism and communism, pulled toward the moderates of ideal conservatism, represented by well-meaning Americans, and ideal liberalism, represented by European socialists.

He also reflects on concepts of censorship, kitsch, responsibility and, of course, the “unbearable lightness of being,” the idea that whatever happens only once, such as human existence as we know it, ought not happen at all.

Tomáš’ answer to this unbearable lightness is a German phrase he attributes to Beethoven: “Es muss sein,” which translates as “It must be.” If there’s no way to improve upon our mistakes in this life, then Tomáš concludes we must rely on fate. Our actions are our actions because they must be. Therefore, he abandons safety in Zurich and follows Tereza back across the iron curtain to Prague.

The rest you will have to read for yourself.

This is a fantastic novel for anyone interested in Eastern European history, Western philosophy, or the art of the novel. Throughout, Kundera deconstructs his narrative as he tells it, drawing attention to the artificiality of the form and offering insights into the craft of fiction. Despite these post-modern digressions, the narrative remains compelling and infinitely readable.

Art of the Sequel: Silence of the Lambs

As I finish up what is hopefully my last round of edits, I find myself thinking more and more about my next project, a sequel to my current novel. Sequels can be tricky, and they often pale in comparison to the original, so I thought I would look at a novel that is so exemplary that many don’t even realize it’s a sequel: The Silence of the Lambs.

I can’t recall when I first met Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, but I do know it was the movie rather than the book and I was likely too young.

I recall better my first time reading one of Thomas Harris’ novels, Red Dragon. The first book in the series, it begins shortly after Hannibal’s initial capture. An FBI agent, Will Graham, must consult with the doctor to solve a murder. Unlike the protagonist of Lambs, Clarice Starling, Graham has a long history with Lecter. They worked together profiling killers before Lecter’s incarceration. In fact, Graham is the reason Lecter is behind bars.

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I devoured this book (pun intended), but didn’t pick up Silence of the Lambs until just this year. Now, having read all three of the original series (there’s also a prequel, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet), I can confidently say Lambs is the strongest. Let’s look at why.

Rather than follow up with disfigured Will Graham in the sequel, Harris retires Graham and introduces Clarice Starling, an up-and-coming trainee. He does keep Graham’s mentor Jack Crawford, though. Plucking Starling from Quantico, Crawford sends the trainee to interview Lecter and glean what she can about a recent killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill. While Dragon feels like an in medias res opening, Lambs has the aura of new beginnings. Starling’s relationship with Lecter is also more dynamic than Graham’s. Rather than wanting her dead and plotting toward that end, Lecter falls in love with her—while also kind of wanting to kill and eat her.

While the original Lecter book followed detective Will Graham and killer Francis Dolarhyde, Lambs gives us Lecter’s perspective as well. In a real sense, this POV overshadows the other plot lines. The technical climax of the novel comes as Starling tracks down Buffalo Bill in his home (the night vision goggle scene). But Lecter’s climax is perhaps more memorable: he must escape from Memphis authorities while handcuffed in a roofless cell in an ornate hall on the fifth floor of a building with only one, heavily guarded exit. I won’t spoil it if haven’t read Lambs, but it is a masterful scene—albeit a bit gory.

The best sequels build on what works from the original. They go deeper into the world the author created while also giving readers something unexpected. Silence of the Lambs does this and more.

As I begin to brainstorm and outline for my sequel, I’m on the lookout for sequels that outdo the original. If you have some favorites, drop their titles in the comment section below. Who knows? I just might review some of them here on my blog!

The Sanatorium

With motives and methods so convoluted it takes the antagonist ten entire pages to explain them to our detective, The Sanatorium is certainly not a mystery you’re going to crack on page two. The author, Sarah Pearce, is able to blend together misogyny, archaic medical treatment of TB patients, modernist architecture, abuse of the mentally ill, bribery, serial murder, and Swiss resort life in such a way that this reader came away nauseated. Oh, also modern approaches to depression and anxiety, plus sibling rivalry and repressed memories. One imagines Pearce choosing keywords for her book.

“Which ones would you like?”

Pearce: “Um, all of them, obviously.”

In a typical mystery/thriller fashion, our detective must move from likely suspect to likely suspect. The difficulty inherent in The Sanatorium, however, is the suspects become increasingly unlikely until we are left with a pair of murderers who’ve been given so little attention and motivation that their capture rings hollow. Let me get specific—and warning there are spoilers ahead:

  1. The killings are a two-woman job. That’s right, lady serial killers, so you know their motives must be big.
  2. The primary killer is reeling from a date-rape. This attack, by her brother’s friend, leads her to bind, torture, and murder a series of uninvolved young women. Wait, what? I can’t have written that correctly. Let me check…nope, that’s right.
  3. The secondary killer is all in it for revenge. Namely, she seeks to avenge her great-grandmother’s grisly…wait, great-grandmother? I don’t even know my great-grandmother’s name! The idea that someone would know what happened to their great-grandmother and then take any action whatsoever is far-fetched. That the distant trauma would turn them homicidal is laughable.

Then comes the epilogue. There we learn of a super-secret character lurching around the sanatorium this entire time, watching our detective and intervening when necessary. Either Pearce is covering her bases and tying up inconsistencies or she’s planning a sequel. Let’s hope it isn’t the latter.

I made the colossal mistake of not reading reviews beforehand. I should’ve checked Kirkus Review, at least. Their pithy verdict says it all: “Oh, dear.”

Story Analysis: A Good Man Is Hard to Find

In this classic 1953 story by Flannery O’Connor, a grandmother subtly navigates her family’s travel plans…with disastrous results.

Read the story here first.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an absolute favorite of mine to teach. Unlike, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” or “Revelation,” it resists a straight-forward moralistic reading. While O’Connor’s Catholicism is overt in those stories—and many others like it—here it comes to the reader at a slant, and a disturbing slant at that. Though the story resists an easy moral, it offers writing students a great look at escalation, intention, and irony.

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida,” the story begins and everything that unfolds from that point onward is a direct result of her desires and meddling. In order to avoid the terrible fate of Floridian travel, she warns her son Bailey about a dangerous outlaw nicknamed The Misfit who has broken free from prison and is supposedly headed to Florida. “You read here what it says he did to these people,” she tells Bailey. “Just you read it.” From this point forward, she uses fear, deception, and filial and Christian obligation to steer her family toward absolute tragedy.

One thing I noticed the last time I read this story was the cat. Because her son doesn’t want to bring the family cat, the grandmother must hide it beneath her valise in a basket. Once the grandmother has guilt-tripped, tricked, or otherwise manipulated the characters onto that fateful dirt road, hilly with “sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments,” the grandmother realizes the house they’re looking for with it’s mythical silver-filled “secret panel” is located elsewhere.

“The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting the valise.” What comes next is a beauty of escalation, cause-and-effect, and payoff. Pitty Sing, the cat, leaps onto Bailey’s shoulder who is driving the car. He sends the car turning over and its occupants flying.

There on the side of the road, the family waits for help, but are met instead by The Misfit himself. At this point, all of the grandmother’s conniving and cajoling fail. In the end, she gives up trying to control others and has a transcendent moment, seeing the Misfit not as a tool for her use (to strike fear, to persuade, to comment on the state of the world) but as a human being with a soul: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

The theological implications of this moment and the stark critique of the grandmother’s brand of Christian judgment are profound, but what I am most drawn to as a teacher and writer is the ironic cause-and-effect that drives the narrative forward. In nearly every action, the grandmother inadvertently causes their meeting with The Misfit to come about. It is all her fault. O’Connor makes no concessions about this. The grandmother begins with a simple argument—If you don’t listen to me, we will all be murdered by this monster—and develops and complicates it throughout.

A simple set of rules for a devilishly ironic story could be derived at this point:

  1. The protagonist is her own antagonist.
  2. Her actions necessarily push the story forward to the climax.
  3. Finally, the end is the exact opposite of what she wants or said she wants.

Concerning #3: What does the grandmother want in this story? She wants to tag along and she wants to call the shots. In the end, she does just that. The irony arises, not because she meets the Misfit or because she feared the Misfit. Rather, she has used him as a boogeyman to achieve her far less profound goals. If her true goal was to be a part of the family’s trip and determine its destination, then voila, she has succeeded. We laugh or recoil or toss the story across the room because through all of her fear mongering she has produced the very monster herself.

In the end “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a critique of the entire family—the fear monger most, but also those people willing to be lead by the fear of bad ends, as improbable as they may be.

Saunders Takes on the Russians

American short story master George Saunders takes on four Russian masters, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol in his new book. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is part story collection, part master class, and part meditation on the writing life.

I’ve always struggled with the short story form, which is ironic, at least to me. I’ve read hundreds of novels with relative ease, written several of my own—the most recent one of which is in the process of being published—and I’ve taught a dozen or so to my high school and college students over the last few years. One would think the novel, with its length and grandeur would be less approachable than the humble short story, yet I have found these narratives in miniature nearly incomprehensible at times. The more straight-forward the story, the less I’m able to grasp it.

So, the publication of George Saunders’ new book sent my writer’s antennae straight up. I purchased it immediately and devoured it.

The book tackles four of the greats, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, one story each from Gogol and Turgenev, two from Tolstoy, and three from Chekhov. I think we can see the clear winner in Saunders’ mind. After reading the stories, I’d have to agree. While Gogol appeals to my absurdist bent—Donald Barthelme might be the first short story writer I ever really connected with or understood—and Tolstoy has a command of epic narration, Chekhov writes with a subtle complexity I find most enviable.

Saunders approaches Chekhov first with “In the Cart.” Rather than merely discuss it or present the story and then analyze it, he opts for an imitation of a genuine class. I often stop my students every few paragraphs to check for understanding. Here, Saunders stops every page. We receive a page of Chekhov and then several pages of analysis, breaking down what the master is doing. “In the Cart” is eleven pages long but, with the interruptions, it reaches 46 pages! If your goal is to read these seven stories as quickly as possible, this is not the book for you. If, however, you’ve read Anna Karenina with no problem but stumbled through “Gooseberries,” you must read this book. What the analysis and brief afterthought (three more pages) offers is a key to unlocking Chekhov’s nuance and purpose, which in my mind is well worth the time.

“What makes Saunders such an authority on these texts?” you might ask. While he’s not Russian or a reknown literary scholar, he is a master of the short story form and has been teaching a class on Russian literature in translation for twenty years. Furthermore, he’s consulted numerous Russian scholars and translators over the years. Also, and this is the most important aspect, he genuine gained insight as a writer from these very stories. We have all read literary scholarship about the symbolism of color scheme or bilingual word play or cultural/historical/religious significance in a body of work. These may expand our body of knowledge and ignite interest in other literature or literary scholarship, but I don’t know how helpful they are to the writer in their pursuit of developing the craft. Here Saunders does not break the stories down as Russians or because they’re Russian or the in the context of that culture or language, but merely because they represent a sampling of great stories.

For example, in his thoughts on Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” he mentions the author’s involvement in a Christian-anarchist religious movement and then drops it almost entirely, turning his focus instead to Tolstoy’s use of factual narration, as opposed to authorial opinion, to create an believable reality. He then dissects the plot point by point to explain how the author achieves what he calls “cinematic propulsion.” Reading the story, we are thrust forward, but only afterward through Saunders’ expert analysis do we see how each action and reaction propelled the story to its unforgettable conclusion.

This book, for me, has been a Godsend. Before I was halfway through, I began gathering all my Russian short story collections and searching the local libraries for more. Susan and I took a trip to Kansas City to visit her sister and I made it my mission to find a collection by Gogol, the only author I didn’t own and couldn’t locate (his short stories, that is). I read that almost as rapidly as I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and thanks to Saunders, I actually understood it.

Classic Corner: Murder on the Orient Express

Perhaps the most popular mystery novel of all time, this classic novel pits a nearly superhuman detective against a nearly unsolvable mystery—all in the claustrophobic confines of a snowed-in train. What makes this novel so popular and adaptable? Let’s take a look.

Neither of the film adaptations I’ve seen do this fantastic novel justice. As wonderful as Kenneth Branagh is, his portrayal of famed detective Hercule Poirot came off more cartoonish than superhuman. (That being said, I will be first in line for Death on the Nile, which is set to release later this year.) For me Poirot will always be Sherlock Holmes plus age and experience and a soul and mustaches and a Belgian accent. He isn’t a joke—although, I do have a number of Poirot novels to read.

If you haven’t read any Christie, this is a great introduction. And Then There Were None is arguably her best novel, but it doesn’t star Poirot. The first novel to feature the Belgian detective is A Mysterious Affair at Styles, but I argue this can be read after MOTOE. There are at least three reasons for this:

  1. By the time Christie wrote this one, Hercule Poirot was established as a character and his keen senses are a wonder (at one point he reveals a character’s true identity by deciphering that an “H” we readers have been holding in our minds as a major clue is actually a Cyrillic “N.”)
  2. The evidence and interviews are handled systematically in a highly teachable method (Poirot travels from train car to train car, establishing an easy to visualize chronology).
  3. The climax and wrap-up are highly logical and highly surprising, and Poirot’s role is incredibly human rather than legalistic.

Furthermore, the characters, not just Poirot, are intensely fascinating in ways that characters from mysteries of that time period often weren’t. Frequently, a character existed for the sake of their clue or a telling anecdote or their role in the murder. Here, every person has a soul. Perhaps this is in part due to the historical context in which the book takes place. The kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby serves as a necessary backdrop for the novel.

Readers are still drawn to Agatha Christie today because of the brilliance of her detectives, her ability to render their thought processes intelligibly to her audience, and the complexity of even seemingly minor characters. For the aspiring mystery novelist, each of her novels serves as a master class in of itself, but especially this one.

Some take-aways after reading MOTOE:

  1. Don’t forget to let your reader in on the detective’s thought process. Most of us won’t get there with just a list of clues.
  2. Don’t forget to make your detective (whether they’re actual law enforcement or a curious/courageous individual) human.
  3. It’s okay to make the make the crime nearly impossible to solve so long as when the detective reveals the answer, your reader feels that same joy one feels upon hearing the solution to a complicated but perfectly obvious riddle.

Haven’t read it? You must! Get a copy here.

Award Winner: The Stranger Diaries

Last year’s Edgar Award winner for best novel, Elly Griffin’s The Stranger Diaries looks at what happens when love turns deadly.

Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Diaries-Elly-Griffiths/dp/1328577856

This was a particular favorite of mine from this year. For one, Clare Cassidy is an high school English teacher obsessed with a mystery writer, and it’s always nice to see oneself in print. While I am not a woman, and teach in America, not the UK, there was still plenty for me to relate to.

After a colleague is murdered, Clare’s life becomes entangled with the investigation headed by Harbinder Kaur, a detective sergeant who must hide her sexuality from her Sikh, immigrant family. While the novel is told primarily from Clare’s POV—her family and dating life, relationship to the victim, work on R. M. Holland’s short story “The Stranger,” and her diary all play key roles in the mystery—DS Kaur really stole the show for me. She is funny, insightful, and interesting whereas Clare is fairly straight-forward and, at times, stereotypical. It’s no surprise to me that Kaur has garnered her own series. (I just added the second book on Goodreads.)

In some mystery novels, the twists and turns feel predictable, the killer obvious. In others, the details are so well buried that the conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, and the detective seems like only a genius because the author made it so. The Stranger Diaries finds a happy middle ground. I was surprised by the ending, but not in a way that felt altogether satisfying. The killer’s motives felt underdeveloped and I didn’t hit my forehead and announce to my wife, “Of course! I should’ve seen it!” However, it did make sense, and the rest of the novel worked.

The school dynamics, the literary allusions, and the intriguing DS Kaur make The Stranger Diaries an incredibly readable novel that keeps you curious and guessing up to the last page.