I started the surfing memoir Barbarian Days while Crime and Punishment still rattled down the corridors of my brain. How soon after can/should you start something else? If you dive right in to something new are you not treating the thing you just finished with a certain lack of … regard? What did it mean, that 550-page monstrosity on the human condition if its only purpose was to launch you headlong into the next completely unrelated reading project?
If you are going to write about a book, then clearly you need time to think about it, to let it sit with you, to nurture your thoughts, to let a pattern emerge, to begin to understand how you feel about what you read. Do you need to do the same thing, though, if you are just reading?
There are analogues in Barbarian Days to the millieu of the Dostoevsky, weirdly enough. For me, they are mainly located in the oppressiveness of the weather. Oddly enough, I have been reading Dostoevsky during the last two summers: The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov last year; Crime and Punishment and, in a few weeks, possibly, Demons this year. Crime and Punishment is very much a summer book, its action taking place during a sweltering fortnight in the claustrophobic streets, dank closet-sized rooms, and overcrowded taverns of St. Petersburg in the summer. There is a momentous cloudburst near the climax of the novel, a thunderstorm of flash-flood proportions, that segues very neatly into some of the dismal tropical heat-drenched jungle rains that seem to follow William Flanagan in the opening chapters of his search for redemption via surf in Barbarian Days. So … is this an example of creative reading, of using two adjacent works to enhance each other, or does it distort and bring out elements in each book that may actually not be analogous, whose connections you are only making because you happen to have read the books in a certain sequence?
This could have been a horrible choice. I might have had a completely different reaction to Barbarian Days if I were to have read it after a different sort of book. And other interpretations of Crime and Punishment might occur to me had I not paddled right into the maelstrom of Barbarian Days. Isn’t this always the case, though? I mean, we have to read something after having finished something else. All we can control, I suppose, is what that something is, and how long after the first something do we start on the second something.
How do we ordinarily decide this? Sometimes we crave variety, choosing a dark, metaphysical novel just after finishing a whimsical Hollywood bio, and other times we binge, reading multiple books by a single author in a short period of time, and still other times we may stay within a genre, gobbling up mysteries or romances or fantasy epics, one after another in fairly short order. Does any of these approaches lend itself particularly well to a deeper appreciation of the books you read, or are they all more or less equally (in)valid?
(Underlying this discussion, of course, is the assumption that, in reading for pleasure, we are not in search simply of mindless entertainment, that we are not attempting to merely divert ourselves from our daily worries, or escape into something which gives us temporary relief from life’s woes. We assume here that the reason we read is to explore, to discover, to plumb the depths of what life means to us, to measure ourselves and the decisions we have made in our lives against the tapestry of what unfolds before us as we scan the pages of the books we choose to read.)
The internet, of course, has a wealth of more or less automated ways to suggest what to read next. Recommendation engines assert that if you like this thing you are likely to like this other thing … it’s about the search and the identification and procurement of what to read next. There’s no sense that what you choose to read next might effect how you think about what you just read and also how that book you just read might color how you feel about the book you’re about to read. Tell me, in other words, internet, what book to read after Crime and Punishment that will both best complement and best be complemented by Dostoevsky’s book.
Barbarian Days conquered, I decided to go small. I would not take on, immediately at least, another big book. The Crime and Punishment epiphany continued to elude me and so I ventured forth to minor works by favorite writers: Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness and Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day at Sea. The Iyer was disappointing … and once I learned it was the product of a TED talk I almost didn’t finish it since nothing worthwhile ever emerged from the bowels of fucking TED. The Dyer was a trifle, curiously jingoistic (if a Brit can be considered jingo by trumpeting the virtues of the American military), and lacking the charm and profundity of many of Dyer’s other book-length peregrinations. Perhaps it was the spirit of Raskolnikov lurking over Dyer’s shoulder, manning a gun-turret, slumming in the mess, smirking in the corridors, that muted the writer’s usual power for me? Raskolnikov don’t do aircraft carriers, son.
So I had now read three books post-Crime and was no closer to gathering my thoughts about the double-murderer in that Petersburg summer. Or maybe my thoughts were as gathered as they were ever going to get. Maybe my reaction to Raskolnikov’s predicament, his breathless twisted ultimately futile journey toward some sort of self-awareness, self-justification, was as developed as it was ever going to be. And I should just move on. I pulled Demons off the shelf, prepared for a day or two to give up on any Crime-engendered revelation, and to move on to the last of the Dostoevskian quartet. And then I got sentimental. Since I do not re-read books and since I would have read the Fab Four of the Dostoevsky oeuvre would I ever again read another Dostoevsky? Would Demons be it for me? Very likely. Best to put it off a bit longer.
I allowed the distraction of a newspaper report on the upcoming sale of a property in Pacific Palisades to consume me. The house in question had been occupied by Thomas Mann during the composition of Doctor Faustus. Faustus is a book that has long frustrated me; begun a half-dozen times, never finished, never even passed the century mark. I regard it as one of the masterpieces that I will one day get to … could that day be now? Should I throw Crime that far under the bus, delay my completion of Dostoevsky, and take a deep dive into the Mann? While slumming with Iyer and Dyer I could still pretend that I was allowing my thoughts on Crime to gestate; taking on the Mann would be an admission that I was done with Raskolnikov, that I had learned what I was going to learn from him and could therefore move on. No. I put the Mann back on the shelf … and wandered over to the 3-volume boxed set of Kilmartin’s updating of the Scott-Moncrieff translation of Proust … another unread but one-day-to-be-read masterpiece. Was now the time for Remembrance of Things Past?
Of course not.
I dithered for another few days. During times when I would ordinarily read, I idled with Trump and Clinton in my Twitter feed, imagined Raskolnikov catching Pokemon in Aleppo, wondered why did Nabokov hate Dostoevsky so much, and played SpellTower while my wife slept beside me. Giving Crime and Punishment one last chance to reveal itself to me in some tangible form, giving myself one last opportunity to sit down and record what the book had meant to me, why I thought it had been worth reading.
Having cut the cable cord recently, I further diverted myself by streaming series (BLOODLINE, BOSCH, STRANGER THINGS, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) of various stripes and quality. And then a few days ago, while scanning the Sci-Fi shelves at the Venice branch of the Los Angeles Public Library for Ann Leckie, I came across Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Never having read it, nor seen the Tarkovsky film adaptation, I resolved to gobble it up as a tonic, since it was at least Russian … might reading it not keep me somehow in the same geo-metaphysical space as the Dostoevsky; could it perhaps allow me to access the closure I so desperately wanted regarding the Raskolnikov saga? I was buying time. I knew the Lem—which is short—would lead to the Tarkovsky—which is long—and that, after that, I’d be ready to leave at last Petersburg’s sweltering summer shimmering in my rearview.
I watched the Tarkovsky via OpenCulture on my laptop propped between my knees for a couple of afternoons while the toddler napped. It left me cold. None of the brooding weirdness of STALKER, none of the inspired poetry of ANDREI RUBLEV, none of the metaphysical depth of THE MIRROR. And then I came across a remarkable passage in a book of interviews published in Poland in 1987 called Conversations with Stanislaw Lem. Lem on Tarkovksy’s movie:
“And secondly — as I told Tarkovsky during one of our quarrels — he didn’t make Solaris at all, he made Crime and Punishment. What we get in the film is only how this abominable Kelvin has driven poor Harey to suicide and then he has pangs of conscience which are amplified by her appearance; a strange and incomprehensible appearance.”
Yikes! What had I stumbled upon? A key began to creak and scrape in a rusty lock in my head; that “only” in Lem’s second sentence above began to show me the way …
Barbarian Days moves from summer to winter, from youth to age, from tropical warmth to bitter biting cold, waves cutting through icy seas, swells that seem to freeze in air mid-break. At the beginning of the book, when Finnegan is Raskolnikov’s age, the water is warm, the surf though large is nurturing, the blood is hot. And the soul is brazen; you can’t talk to it or convince it of anything since it is sure of everything … it’s too sure of itself to be of any real use to anyone. (But still of course glorious and enviable in its youth.) California, Hawaii, Australia, Fiji, Bali, Indonesia. Melville territory. Wounds—from coral reefs, from blows to the head, from ribs bounced off rocks—heal quickly; love’s found easily and moves on just as easily. But eventually age as it always does claims its dominion: San Francisco, Madeira, Long Island. Thundering storms, unforgiving, uncaring seas. Winter surfing. Rather than simple revelry, the object becomes survival in the unforgiving small months of new years. The waves themselves are not necessarily as huge but they are more punishing due to their setting, their delivery system, their location, your diminished skills. It becomes much harder to do much less. Doubt defines your every step, your every stroke. But you paddle out each time as a test of nerve, in a slow-motion panic of finding the bliss that once came so effortlessly as you popped up on youthful knees and cut wicked shapes into the sides of monstrous swells, lethal as Raskolnikov.
Doubt is, ultimately, in its various manifestations, our most productive state. Skepticism, when one doubts the veracity of what one is told, produces the best journalism. Loss of faith, when you doubt what you have always believed in—your faith, the nature of reality, your mind—produces the best art. It is only when one doubts that one begins to pierce the veil of illusion which consumes all our days and clouds the mind from its truth. Ahab doubts. Lear doubts. Raskolnikov, like many other youngsters, doesn’t really doubt. Oh, he can talk … and talk and talk and talk … and agonize … but he doesn’t really doubt. He remains firmly tethered to his original position and though we may thrill to the chase—will he? won’t he?—the beauty of the novel is not really in the passage of Raskolnikov’s soul. (I reject his bullshit “conversion” in the book’s Epilogue which ought never have been written.) It lies more in the majesty of Dostoevsky’s mise-en-scene as he orchestrates the entwining orbits of his marvelous cast. But this is also why Crime is (relatively-speaking, by Dostoevsky standards) a minor work, for me, at this stage of my life: its revelations are not profound so much as thrilling, leading not toward transcendence but instead offering diversion, after all. And diversion is not worthy of doubt, and a book which ultimately merely diverts may be safely abandoned once consumed. It was now OK to move on.
The English translation of Solaris has always been suspect; made not from the Russian but from a dodgy French edition, it has been an object of … concern for many years. But there are gems in it, nonetheless, and none more glittering and soul-piercing than its final line, which speaks to me more with each passing day:
“I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”
I have been happier as I’ve aged and realized the nothing of my knowing; I am still working on my faith in the cruel miracles that we all hope pepper our days.