Sunday, January 31, 2010

J.D. Salinger, in memoriam ...

A terrific (and succinct) appreciation of the late J.D. Salinger, here:

And another here:,0,578438.story

And an interesting piece on "What's in Salinger's Safe?"

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ladies & gentlemen! The best boxing novels ever !!!

Robert Flanagan has published the novel Maggot (Warners) and story collections Naked to Naked Goes (Scribner) and Loving Power, (Bottom Dog), and has work anthologized in The Norton Book of American Short Stories, Best Ohio Fiction and Bar Stories. Also a poet, he is the author of Reply to an Eviction Notice: Selected Poems (Bottom Dog).

Flanagan was born in Toledo, Ohio, and worked as a dishwasher, night watchman and janitor there. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps reserve, and graduated from the Universities of Toledo and Chicago.

A lifelong boxing fan, he sparred in enough gyms to earn two detached retinas. At present, he is completing a novel, Champions, about boxers and comics. He compiled the following list of Best Boxing Novels for the Book Serf:

1. The Harder They Fall, Budd Schulberg
In this fictional portrayal of the shameful history of Primo Carnera the mob fabricates a heavyweight challenger, Toro Molinos, and then sacrifices him in a title match to clean up on bets. A novel justifiably praised by playwright Arthur Miller and former heavyweight champ Gene Tunney.

2. Fat City, Leonard Gardner
A grim and gritty portrayal of the losers in the world of boxing. Boxer Billy Tully is the squared circle’s everyman, a perpetual adolescent hooked on self-punishment and fantasies of fame and success. The writing is on the mark, painful and relentless.

3. The Professional, W.C. Heinz
An accurate, flatly-told, Hemingway (“Fifty Grand”) style tale of a fighter heading into a big fight, it captures the tedium of training, the obsession with money, the denial of limitations and the decline of a dream into a job.

4. My Father’s Fighter, Ronald K. Fried
When his father dies, Vincent Rosen, a mid-30s English teacher at an exclusive high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan inherits a hypochondriac light heavyweight named “Big” Mickey Davis and worlds collide. Beneath the dark comedy and social satire lurks a clear-eyed but not hard-hearted requiem for the light-heavyweight soul.

5. The Circle Home, Edward Hoagland
Down and out fighter Denny Kelly pursues illusory prizefighting fame in Boston and New York but finally has the sense to pack it in and come home. Heavy on atmosphere, similar to Fat City in plot but quite different in setting. Hoagland is a fine writer.

Honorable Mention:

The Devil’s Stocking, Nelson Algren
His last novel, based on the life of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, follows boxer Ruby Calhoun in his ring, legal and prison battles. Not as solid as his earlier work, the novel still has power. As Hemingway put it: Algren “is a man you should not read if you cannot take a punch.”

Questionable Status:

Cashel Byron’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw
Although playwright/novelist Shaw was a major writer and a man who acquitted himself well in the ring, this novel seems a long slog through a swamp of language. Maybe its perennial appearance on best boxing fiction lists comes from a need to add a great man of letters to the roster, or from laziness in not rereading it. For my money Major Barbara KO’s Cashel Byron any day of the week.
For more information: To learn more about Robert Flanagan and to read excerpts or to buy his books, visit

Next week: Best Short Stories About Boxing

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Becoming Jane Eyre ...

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler (Penguin, $15)

In the mid-1850s, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a letter to his publisher to complain that "America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash -- and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed."

Across the Atlantic ocean, men were just as vehemently opposed to women taking pen in hand, witness a letter the English poet Robert Southey sent to Charlotte Bronte in 1837 that praised her talent but warned, "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life."

Fortunately for the world of books, Bronte promptly dismissed Southey's admonition and went on to pen Jane Eyre, the creating of which so interested novelist Sheila Kohler that she took up her own pen (OK, her own computer) and imagined what might have inspired Bronte to write her classic novel.

The result is the work of historical fiction, Becoming Jane Eyre.

Book Serf: I get the feeling that your choice of the word "scribbling" throughout Becoming Jane Eyre was not accidental. Can you give me the background behind that choice and why you used it more than once in the context of Charlotte, Anne and Emily?

Sheila Kohler: I think the word is often used from the father's point of view and in his mind. I don't think he took his daughters' work very seriously -- indeed, men at that time seldom did. Southey, the poet laureate, of course, told Charlotte that writing was not a business for women. It was only when the father was confronted by the good reviews Charlotte received that he became increasingly the proud papa. Often people do respond more to a review than the book, itself!

BS: In much of the historical fiction I've read it is impossible to escape the author's research. We are bombarded with facts about the era in question. You don't do that. You use period information sparingly. How did you decide what to put in, what to leave out?

SK: I think that we always have to make a choice, obviously. We don't know all, and we can't and write all we know. There were parts of the lives of the Bronte girls that interested me particularly because to some extent they reflected moments from my own: I was particularly interested in Charlotte's relationship with her professor in Belgium and his influence on her work, as I have studied with professors, of course , who have had a profound influence on me, as well as doing a lot of teaching myself.

I was also interested particularly in Charlotte 's relationship with her sisters, and their tragic deaths. I lost a beloved sister myself when she was 39, and I have written a great deal about that. I have three daughters, too, and one of them a novelist, with whom I have often shared my work. They have been a huge help to me as I imagine the Bronte sisters were to one another: that image of them walking around the dining room table in the dark "making up" is such a vivid one.

BS: How faithful were you to the facts as you knew them?

SK: J.M. Coetzee once said to me while talking about writing an historical novel, "Don't stay too close to the truth." I think I found that helpful and liberating. Without falsifying the facts, obviously, I tried to allow myself a certain liberty on the page. In a way one uses these distant lives as a sort of screen, a middle ground which enables one to write one's own life and hopefully the reader, too, to find parts of him or herself in the text.

BS: I finished Becoming Jane Eyre more than a week ago and yet still I hear the echo down a distant corridor in my mind of the "scratching of a pencil against the page." I love that something audible is the first image you conjure. Do you think a reader in, say, 2175 will look back at the sound of the clacking of a keyboard and find it as romantic as we find the sound of pencil on page?

SK: Actually I do write on a computer but I also use pencils often, to tell you the truth, to correct student work. I'm not at all sure why that was the first image except that, of course, Patrick, the father, was blind at that point, in the dark with only his ears and his hands to capture any life around him. I do also have a middle daughter who is deaf -- so sound, words and their function has been very important in our lives.

Who knows why the book starts there, except that I did want to try and fathom how "Jane Eyre" came into life, and that seemed like the first act, the beginning.

BS: This book is, naturally, told from the point of view of a woman or women. One might say it is even for women. A rhetorical question: what is in Becoming Jane Eyre for a man? Similarly, the book takes place long ago. Things have changed dramatically. Women don't have to use pseudonyms to write, for instance. What can a contemporary woman take away from the story of the Brontes and their struggles?

SK: Ah! What good questions you ask! I think that life is very difficult at any period and for men (and we do have Patrick Bronte who starts the book and ends it) and for women, and what I tried to do here was to express that struggle, the bravery of these particular women, but also of all humanity.

I wanted to call the book, No Coward Soul from a poem by Emily Bronte that you may know, one that Emily Dickinson had recited at her death. My wise publisher and editor thought otherwise, and I am grateful, but I suppose I was so impressed by the struggle that these lonely women had in that isolated place and with so little help from the outside world, with so little money and so little power, and yet they went on as long as they could, writing, doing their housework, trying to be good Christians or what they conceived of as good Christians.

I hoped, perhaps, that my words might help others who are struggling onwards in their difficult lives, if only as a momentary respite.

BS: Maybe this is the question I should have asked instead of the previous one: What drew you to the story of the Brontes? You mention in the short interview at the end of your book the quote, "novels come out of the shortcomings of history." Which shortcomings did you identify that you needed to address in Becoming Jane Eyre?

SK: I found a sentence in Lyndall Gordon's biography of Charlotte Bronte where she says that no one knows what happened in that dark room as Charlotte sat by her father's bed, after he had his cataracts removed, and began her great book. It made me want to find out why that situation and that moment in her life brought forth Jane Eyre.

I think novels do come from the questions we might want answered and try to answer on the page. Also, an aunt read me the start of Jane Eyre when I was very young, seven or so, and had just lost my own father and the scene in the red room made a tremendous impression on me. I think some of my desire to write came from that moment at seven when I heard those words read aloud, was equally terrified, fearing the presence of my father's ghost in the room.

BS: You use the phrase early in your novel, "words a woman could not afford to use with a man." We don't have the same sorts of conventions that an Englishman or Englishwoman would have had during the 1840s and 1850s. And yet so much of life is shaped not by what is said but by what can't be said. Can you discuss those conventions, the societal strictures that lead to so much great art?

SK: There are still, of course, many things that we cannot say to one another. There always will be. In a way, perhaps, that is where art comes from, it seems to me, our inability to say things directly to one another, things that are then expressed in other ways on the page.

BS: You're interested in the life of the writer, aren't you? About a woman who is most at home "in her own company." Is that one of the things you wanted to explore in your novel?

SK: Yes, indeed, and thank you for reading my book so carefully. I think I was interested in exploring, too, the links between our lives and our work, such subtle ones. After my first book came out my husband and I went out to dinner and our hostess, who had read the book, politely asked, "How much of it is true?"

My husband and I both answered at once and immediately but he said, "Every word," and I said, "Not one word." In a way we were both right!

BS: Proust (I think) said a work of art is never "finished, only abandoned." Did you finish or abandon Becoming Jane Eyre?

SK: Oh, gosh, I suppose I would say one writes and rewrites and rewrites until one grows too tired of the text to rewrite again -- perhaps that's what Proust meant by abandoned.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Russian titan revealed ...

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler (NY Review of Books, $14.95)

When the KGB raided the apartment of Soviet writer Vasily Grossman after he submitted to the authorities his master work, Life and Fate, the secret police confiscated manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks and even the typewriter ribbons used in its production.
At the time – sometime in late 1959 or early 1960 – a representative of the Soviet government told Grossman his novel (decades later described by Le Monde as the “the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century”) could not be published in the Soviet Union for at least 200 hundred years.
Grossman died in 1964 never knowing if his stories and novels would ever be published.
The New York Review of Books recently published a translation of Grossman's final novel, Everything Flows, a complex and compelling denunciation of totalitarianism translated by Robert Chandler.
Book Serf: When one considers the obstacles to publishing in the Soviet Union at the time, does it border on the miraculous that we have anything from Vasily Grossman let alone books as powerful and deathless as Life and Fate and Everything Flows?
Robert Chandler: In one sense: Yes. During the War, Grossman was often called ‘Lucky Grossman,’ because of the number of occasions that he narrowly escaped death. There was one occasion, for example, when a grenade landed between his feet – and did not explode. And Grossman was certainly lucky that Stalin died in March 1953 – otherwise he might well have been executed during the anti-Jewish campaign that was then gathering momentum. But in another sense: No. The Soviet Union was a society that attached great importance to the written word. There is a great deal of fine work – Bulgakov’s novels, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, Mandelstam’s poetry, most of Platonov’s longer works – that had to wait anything from 30 to 60 years before being published. In each of these cases, the mansucripts were carefully preserved. Bulgakov, Platonov and Mandelstam were fortunate in that their widows were devoted, tenacious and long-lived. Krzhizhanovsky’s lover, on the other hand, entrusted his manuscripts to the State Literary Archive, which took equally good care of them.
BS: This is a rhetorical question: The Berlin Wall is down and the Soviet Union no longer exists as it once did. Why should contemporary readers care about Grossman?
RC: Freedom always has its enemies, in every society. The best answer is that given by a Gulag survivor by the name of Yelena Vladimirova: I write in the name of the living That they, in turn, may not stand In a silent, submissive crowd By the dark gates of some camp.These lines were used as an epigraph to Till my Tale is Told, a collection of women’s memoirs of the Gulag. The translation is by John Crowfoot.
BS: Everything Flows was left unfinished. But as the novel comes to its truncated end, Ivan Grigoryevich is in the midst of an epic philosophical debate between a Hegelian view of history and rationality and a more pessimistic view of chaos espoused by his cellmate. On which side do you think Grossman eventually fell? Was he at heart an optimist or a pessimist about human beings?
RC: Hard to say. I am certain that Grossman thought of himself as an optimist, someone who believed that all life – including human life – was bound to develop towards a greater degree of freedom. On the other hand, the arguments Grossman gives to Ivan’s pessimistic cellmate are extremely powerful ones. In this respect Grossman has something in common with Dostoevsky, a passionate believer who stated the case for atheism as powerfully as it has ever been stated.
BS: At times I felt as I was reading Everything Flows that I'd read my way out of a novel and into a work of history. I decided that if Everything Flows was indeed a work of history, that it was a superb and artful work of history. Does it matter what we call different sections of Everything Flows, history or fiction?
RC: No, I don’t think it matters. Even in the 1940s Grossman was writing works that blur different genres. In a letter that he wrote to his mother in 1950, nine years after she was shot by the Nazis, he says, ‘I knew that you were no more. But I did not know what a terrible death you had died; I learned about this only when I came to Berdichev and questioned people about the massacre that took place on 15 September 1941. I have tried dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times to imagine how you died, how you walked to your death.’ Grossman means what he says. He did everything in his power to imagine how his mother died. He retraced her last steps, he carried out interviews, and he used his imagination. The chapter from Life and Fate that has become known as ‘The Last Letter’, the article ‘The Murder of the Jews in Berdichev’ (included in A Writer at War) and the short story ‘The Old Teacher’ (to be included in The Road – our next collection of Grossman’s writings) are all borne of the same impulse. If we accept Coleridge’s definition of Imagination as ‘the power to disimprison the soul of fact,’ then they are all born of disciplined, passionate imagination. And so is Grossman’s 1944 article about Treblinka. And his evocation, in Everything Flows, of Lenin.
BS: Faulkner said that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. He was writing about the South. But he could just as easily have been talking about Russia, yes?
RC: Grossman’s passionate good sense is more needed in Russia than ever. Unfortunately, he is not widely read in Russia today. He is more popular throughout the English-speaking world and in most other European countries. Worst of all, it may well be that his relative lack of popularity has come about not in spite of, but because of, his good sense. In Putin’s Russia, most people do not want to be told that there was little to choose between Nazism and Stalinism.
Russian nationalists are even more offended by Grossman’s brilliant deconstruction, in Everything Flows, of the myth of the Russian soul. In order to spare themselves the pain of having to attend to Grossman’s analysis, Russian nationalists – entirely without justification – classify Grossman as a Russophobe. The general prevalence of antisemitism makes it easy for them to do this.
BS: Grossman is not a polemicist is he?
RC: Grossman wrote a first draft of Everything Flows in 1955. Between 1961 and 1964 Grossman returned to the novel and inserted a great deal of new material. The Lenin chapters were the last to be written. In a sense these chapters are very polemical indeed. It was permissible in the early 1960s to attack Stalin, but Lenin was still on his pedestal. It is impossible even to imagine the book being published during Grossman’s lifetime - the Lenin chapters would have been far too shocking.
Nevertheless, I agree with my editor, Edwin Frank, who wrote to me after first reading our translation, ‘The Lenin section seems to me not so much a furious denunciation as the outline of a tragedy, Grossman's as much as the Soviet Union's.’ It is entirely possible that Grossman’s original intended simply to attack Lenin but that his intelligence and compassion proved too great. Rather than being the object of a polemic, Grossman’s Lenin becomes a tragic hero.
BS: Anna spends a great deal of time discussing her role as an activist during the Great Famine. That section is followed by a three-page chapter describing the deaths of a mother, father and child. Those three pages are harrowing. Can you discuss Grossman as an artist as opposed to strictly an historian or witness?
RC: Before translating Grossman’s chapters about the Terror Famine, I read Robert Conquest’s fine historical work about this period, The Harvest of Sorrow. Conquest often quotes from Grossman, and he also quotes from a large number of Ukrainian memoirs by survivors of the famine. Grossman and these memoirists write in a similarly bare, factual style and they say essentially the same things – and yet I could always immediately recognize which passages were by Grossman and which were by other people. Somehow Grossman’s selection of details was always more vivid.
BS: Is there anything else about Grossman and Everything Flows that contemporary readers should know about but that I've failed to bring up?
RC: The qualities of Everything Flows and the stories Grossman wrote in his last few years show up especially clearly in comparison with the stories he was writing in the 1950s. 'Tiergarten' (1953-55) is an interesting but not entirely successful story set in a Berlin zoo during the very last days of the war. The story contains perceptive observations about the nature of totalitarianism and the importance of freedom, but these observations are repetitive and ponderous. It is as if Grossman is himself like a caged animal, going over the same ground again and again, unable to break out into the artistic freedom he longs for.
His last works, however, not only extol freedom but also embody freedom. His thinking is complex, and it again and again moves in an unexpected direction. The subject matter is, in many cases, grim, but the liveliness of Grossman’s intelligence makes these works surprisingly heartening. It is also worth saying that Everything Flows is more than a testimony. It is a fine and important testimony, but it is also a subtle examination of the difficulty of testifying. Anna’s lucid account of her involvement, as a low-level Party activist, in the Terror Famine is deeply moving, but Nikolay’s confusion, the lies and equivocations he comes out with in order to avoid speaking truthfully about his own past are no less memorable.

Robert Chandler writes at length about Vasily Grossman at:

An interview with Robert Chandler about his translations of Andrey Platanov can be found here:

Welcome to Book Serf

Welcome to The Book Serf.
I'm excited to get started.
I was going to call this blog The Eucharist of World Literature, after a quote by Saul Bellow, but I thought it might offend Jews and Muslims. Maybe it would even offend Catholics. So I settled on The Book Serf, a nice little play on words (surf and serf) because I am attached to books in the same way serfs were attached to the land. I am, happily, in servitude to books. And in turn, like feudal lords, books sustain me.
Which brings me back to Holy Communion.
In an interview with The Bostonian, Bellow discussed acquiring a “trained sensibility” as a reader, which could only be done, he argued, by taking “certain masterpieces into yourself as if they were communion wafers.”
He continued, “If you don't give literature a decisive part to play in your existence, then you haven't got anything but a show of culture. It has no reality whatever. It's an acceptable challenge to internalize all of these great things, all of this marvelous poetry. When you've done that, you've been shaped from within by these books and these writers.”
To which I say, Amen.
At the Book Serf, we (I'll be assisted by an august cadre of contributors) will write about books we love, regardless of their popularity. We'll be as likely to write about an obscure novelist or poet, or about a reissue of a classic, or about a new small press, as we'll be to weigh in on the latest Stephen King tome.
In fact, we'll probably just skip the latest Stephen King tome altogether.
In a former life, I was the books editor at The Columbus Dispatch newspaper in Ohio. In that role, I had the good fortune to talk to hundreds of authors, including our era's great literary curmudgeon, Harold Bloom, he of the disdain for J.K. Rowling and all things Harry Potter.
When I interviewed him in December of 2001, Bloom told me, “Stephen King reviewed the last Harry Potter book for The New York Times Book Review. And he ended his review by saying, 'This is a great book, and it's absolutely wonderful that kids will read it by the millions.' He said that the very best things about the book is, if kids read Harry Potter at 9 and 10 and 11, then when they're 12 and 13 and 14 they'll be ready to read Stephen King.'
“And he's dead right: After they've learned how to read Harry Potter, they'll be ready to read Stephen King; that's what they'll be good for. They will graduate from Harry Potter to Stephen King.
“I rest my case.”
In his book, How to Read and Why (another potential blog named deemed too pretentious!) Bloom suggested a different path from Rowling to King, “to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.”