Characters vs People « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

October 14, 2010

Characters vs People

Somehow I grew up biased against non-fiction.  I suspect it has to do with the libraries of my parents, stacked wall-to-wall with excellent literary and Canadian novels, interrupted only by old university textbooks.  At first non-fiction seemed boring and later, when I came to know a thing or two about the Public’s reading habits, I associated non-fiction with reading celebrity memoirs or true crime accounts.  Non-fiction was either academic or low-brow.  I forced myself to read non-fiction about 1/3 of the time: I considered this a sort of penance paid for self-education.  Mostly these books were about science, politics, environmentalism or food.  Things about which I felt I ought to be Educated.

So it surprises me to some extent to find that, over the last few years, some of my favourite books have been non-fiction: Eleanor Wachtel’s collections, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Deep Economy by Dave McKibbon.  The extent to which I am beginning to prefer a good collection of essays, or a memoir, was made obvious this week as I read Michael Moorcock’s contribution to the Neil Gaiman-edited short story collection, Stories.  Moorcock’s contribution, also called Stories, starts out “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch…” and launches into the history of a group of writers.  It took me three or four pages to realize that what I was reading wasn’t fiction, but autobiographical.  The shift in my perspective, the sudden sharpening of my interest was a physical sensation, like putting on a new pair of glasses.  Suddenly, this was the best story I’d read yet.  A dozen pages in I hesitated and wondered, maybe this is fiction after all?  Can anyone write fiction that true, that compelling?  All those characters, dates, events, histories, relationships!  The depth and complexity of the story Moorcock is telling seems impossible to replicate in fiction.  Maybe it’s the lack of descriptive landscape, and of poetic language.  Maybe just knowing it’s true makes me more curious.  But something is different.

The best book I’ve read in a long time is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.  No, maybe not the best.  Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was amazing.  So was Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators.  But I haven’t been as engaged by any book this year the way The Possessed engaged me.  The books is a series of vignettes of Batuman’s time spent In Academia, from life as an undergrad, to post-graduate assignments in Russia in the dead of February.  She sets out explaining that she wanted to be a writer, but that the right path, for her, was to study literature, rather than to study writer’s craft.  The experiences she subsequently racks up, from a summer in Samarkand studying “Ancient Uzbek” to helping to coordinate a conference on Isaac Babel certainly made for meaty retelling.  Somehow I can’t imagine workshopping stories in New Jersey can provide quite the same anecdotal kick (but I could be wrong).  The Possessed was side-splittingly hilarious, insightful and inspiring.  These were good stories.  The complex connections she can draw between her life, the lives of her beloved Russian masters, and the universal experience of life did justice to her ambitions.  I’d read anything Batuman writes now, right down to a laundry list.  She has authority, experience, insight and style.  What more can a novelist boast?

Now, as a life-long devotee of The Novel, I feel I need to engage with something longer and deeper, with characters I can root for and despise, and longer plots I can follow.  I need something that can reaffirm my faith in the novelist’s ability to write as true and as deep as an essayist or memoirist.   Batuman makes me crave Tolstoy – Anna Karenina? – , Moorcock tempts me to explore Dashiell Hammett – I think I have The Thin Man on my shelf – and Michael Chabon now has me re-eyeing Sherlock Holmes.

What would you recommend?  Who are the best story-tellers, the best crafters of narrative truth and story?  I’m in the market for a new book…

5 thoughts on “Characters vs People”

  1. Kerry says:

    Okay, you’re the third person I know who’s loved The Possessed. I am convinced. And if you haven’t read Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small, I recommend it. Also her Ex Libris, though I haven’t read it (yet!).

  2. steph says:

    I saw The Possessed in Greenley’s the other day and thought, hey! I know this book, and it was because of you. I picked it up and started reading it, but had to put it back on the shelf and keep working. Knowing my town, it will be there when I get back. 🙂 But I do want to read it. Side-splitting is a very good endorsement.

    As for suggestion, it’s hard to know. You and I have different tastes. But if you’re looking for something substantial, one of my favourite books is Kristin Lavransdatter, the 1928 Nobel Prize winner. In fact, I always feel like reading it again this time of year… It’s actually a trilogy but I read it as though it were one novel. I really love my copy, too: http://www.amazon.ca/Penguin-Classics-Kristin-Lavransdatter-Sigrid/dp/0143039164/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1287113563&sr=8-1.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Ooh, I like that suggestion! Actually, I bought Kristin Lavransdatter YEARS ago when I first started working here because it looked right up my alley…. and it’s been buried on some bottom shelf in my office ever since. Talk about your weighty tomes, though! That thing’s a doorstopper.

      ….not that that has ever stopped me before… 😉

  3. Nathalie Foy says:

    I second Kerry’s nomination of Anne Fadiman, of course. I also keep hearing great things about this book, but for some reason I keep putting it off. I was never a big fan of the Russians, so I’m afraid I won’t like it. Re: anything Batuman has written, it’s not a laundry list but it is a list: she had a bit at the Guardian about her kindle and buying books while drunk. Very diverting.

  4. Cat Laser says:

    Dear Charlotte, having only just read the “Stories” anthology, I was also intrigued by Michael Moorcock’s contribution. Like you I was initially uncertain as to whether it was fiction or autobiography/archive. However I suspected it was the former since I had never heard of the publication “Mysterious” and it is not mentioned in the little biography at the end of the anthology. A quick check of Wikipedia and my own googling supported by suspicions {suspicion is an unfortunately value-laden term which detracts from the quality of Moorcock’s piece). In particular if you go to David Hebblethwaite’s blog : “Follow the Thread ” there is what seems a fairly kosher posting explaining the basis of the story. I feel like someone telling a child there is no Santa Claus because ultimately it really doesn’t matter if the piece was autobiographical , semi-fiction or just a plain old story. It remains a great piece about the life of writers of fiction. Anyway: every time we recall an incident from our memory we are reconstructing it so how accurate and correct are any of our memories?
    Kind regards,
    Cat.

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