Friday, April 29, 2005


Irina, Irina, plus William James

Novelist, unfrocked ad-man, and all-around Gallic bad boy Frédéric Beigbeder has won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Windows on the World. I haven't yet read this 9/11 narrative, which Boyd Tonkin calls "the first serious work of fiction to grapple with the horrors of that day and their emotional and cultural impact." (Tonkin adds that the author "takes aim, above all, at the mindless hedonism of his own generation, a hedonism that collapsed with the towers." Sigh. I'm afraid hedonism is sturdier than that.)

Anyway, what really interested me was that the judges named a runner-up: Irina Denezhkina's Give Me (Songs for Lovers). The 24-year-old author first published her stories in an obscure Russian webzine, where they caught the attention of a small publisher. Next came the coveted (I assume) National Bestseller Prize--Russia's rather commerce-minded equivalent of the Booker. Now her collection has appeared in several languages, including a fine English translation by Andrew Bromfield, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I admired the poetic snap and sizzle of her prose, along with her post-Soviet version of Dirty Realism. Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, vodka, cucumbers, nipple rings: she does it all. She also leans too heavily on Boy Meets Girl as a plot device, which is what you might expect from such a youthful author. For that reason alone her runner-up status strikes me as premature. Yet I'm not complaining--better to recognize raw talent than the customary, pan-blackened competence.

I've never managed to read The Varieties of Religious Experience cover to cover: I limit myself to tiny, homeopathic doses. But The Selected Letters of William James is another matter. I was trawling through it this morning and came across this bit, which I couldn't resist sharing. It's July 24, 1896, and James is writing his wife from Chautauqua, where he's been besieged by guys with beards and foxy ladies in hoop skirts. He says:
I've been meeting minds so earnest and helpless that it takes them half an hour to get from one idea to its immediately adjacent next neighbor, and that with infinite creaking and groaning. And when they've got to the next idea, they lie down on it with their whole weight and can get no farther, like a cow on a door-mat, so that you can get neither in nor out with them. Still, glibness is not all. Weight is something, even cow-weight.
To which my response was: moo.

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