The Devil
Leo Tolstoy
Hugh Aplin
Translator

(Hesperus Classics)
The Devil was hidden at the end of The Death of Ivan Ilyich in this Hesperus edition, so we quite skidded into it, thinking it was Chapter Thirteen.

Well, perhaps, but The Devil is for one thing far more racy than the other more famous story. We never suspected that Tolstoy could paint such an inviting portrait of a young girl with a saucy smile and well-turned leg.

Her name is Stepanida, a peasant from the village who carries a "smell of something fresh and strong, and that same high bust lifting the apron, and all this in the same thicket of hazels and maples, flooded with a bright light." (Note the quick turn from the "high bust" to the "thicket of hazels:" Tolstoy was no wimp in the evocative symbol department.)

Evgeny is the young lord of the manor, "four thousand hectares of plough-land and sugar refinery." He has this itch though: "involuntary abstinence was starting to have a bad effect on him." He felt he must find a young woman, "but only for his health."

He consults the woodsman who lives nearby. He comes up with the lady of hazels and maples, "dark eyes and red headscarf." Each time they meet, Evgeny vows the "assignation will be the last," but you and I know about the needlings of Don Juan Lustovanovitch.

Comes Liza, a nice respectable upperclass Russian lady with some assets. She and Evgeny form a merger --- e.g., they get married and he supposes all will be peaches-and-cream forever after. But then, as Liza is laid up with this or that pregnancy (or miscarriage), off in the distance he can see the red headscarf, waving to him, offering a ready cure for his health problems.

In our review of Ivan Ilyich we noted that Tolstoy had his own Evgeny-like obsession, but instead of being of or about a love, it was an obsession over an entire class: the Russian peasant. The only person Ivan Ilyich can communicate with as he is dying is the young and healthy salt-of-the-earth Gerasim. And, apparently, the only one that lights Evgeny's fire is not Liza of the long nose and long face, with her complexion, "very delicate, white, yellowish, with a delicate flush."

    When he thought about Liza he always saw before him those clear, meek, trusting eyes.

To hell with the trusting eyes: it is Stepanida of the smell of the woods, saucy Stepanida with the "high bust."

Once, when the lord of the manor handed her the ruble for her troubles, he asked her why she was so willing to be unfaithful to her husband in Moscow: "I reckon he has a good time there. So why shouldn't I, then?"

But, pity and woe, Stepanida's "carefree bravado" doesn't spill over to the master:

    In the depths of his soul there was a sterner judge who did not approve of it and hoped this was the last time, or if he did not hope, then at least did not want to participate in the matter and prepare it for himself another time.

§     §     §

We were forced to read The Scarlet Letter in high school. I recall it as a lugubrious long-winded didactic plunge into the public consequences of nekkid lust. Had we been assigned The Devil instead, it would, I am sure, have been easier, and made much more sense to those of us in the coils of youthful, inflamed libido.

The Devil runs but fifty pages. The only flaw we could find was Tolstoy's Evgeny-like ambivalence, in this case, about the ending. He wrote one version in 1889 having our noble lord put a bullet through his head because he couldn't handle the ambivalence: comfortable marriage on the one hand with Liza of the long nose, the fires of the groin on the other with Stepanida.

In 1909, however, the author decided at last to punish the lusty peasant; in his alternative ending, Evgeny goes out into the threshing fields and puts three bullets into her back.

There is a trial, but it all ends with a sour moral: being rich, and of the noble class, he gets off.

    And indeed, if Evgeny Irtenyev was insane at the time he committed his crime, then everyone is just as insane, and the most insane are undoubtedly those who see in other people signs of madness that they do not see in themselves.

--- Igor Masarek


    A girl goes to her mother and says, "Ma, I'm pregnant."

    And her mother says, "Are you sure it's yours?"

Our narrator is run over by a car in New York, ends up with a broken leg, has to be shipped back to England with wife, crutches and cast. Later, on the streets of London, he gets tangled up with a dozen or so blind kids who speak their own strange language.

They tell him that they are going to the zoo. He offers to take them there, him on his crutches, them hanging on to him, a strange procession indeed. Once they reach the zoo, one of the girls tells him that they are planning to let the animals out even if they "get eaten."

I am suspecting there is a new novel form working its way in from out there somewhere. It's not Faulknerian, Joycean, or Salingeresque. It's certainly not that ridiculously named "Magic Realism" (all fiction, if it is worth a toot, is "magic realism.") The authors are of the newer generation: Javier Marías, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, José Saramago. And, now, we might include in that number the gifted Nicholas Mosley.

Their characters are uniformly dry, passive, funny, confused, and the men, more often than not, somewhat philander-ish. For instance, in Look in the Dark, while they are on their honeymoon in Africa, our narrator's new wife has to go into the local hospital (appendicitis). For others, it might be a disaster, but her obliging doctor finds him a one-legged African woman for the night, which he finds an acceptable solution for a looming night alone. His first wife's name is "Valerie." Wife number two is named "Valentina." He asks himself, and the reader: "Might there have been some riddling agenda here?

He appears on English and American television, mostly, apparently, to shock or irritate. At one point, he offers viewers the quasi-Zen view that "Americans needed terrorists for the sake of their sense of identity just as terrorists needed America for the sake of theirs." He is by trade an anthropologist. He tells us of a new theory that is "coming into fashion:"

    This suggested that private rather than public discourse had its origin in the way in which apes, our evolutionary neighbours, spend so much time grooming themselves and one another looking for lice and fleas. This was a ritual for social bonding not dependent on hunting or danger. Such an idea appealed to me because it seemed so relevant to the backbiting and indeed nit-picking characteristics of the academic society in which I lived.

The writer --- whose father, by the way, was the notorious Oswald Mosley --- is so sly that I would on occasion set Look at the Dark aside so I wouldn't finish it off in the dark. Towards the end, however, I noticed that he was piling up insights with such fervor that I was getting overloaded, the car heating up, the pistons getting noisy, steam pouring out of the bonnet (as we say in England). I recall other authors doing this (even my beloved Joyce Cary, on occasion) getting so carried away with stuffing everything in the Christmas sock --- nuts, bananas, drawers, bolts, chamber-pots and the hub-caps too. So much stuff that some of it falls into the fireplace and breaks or gets burned up.

Mosley is still worth it, largely because of the comic ideas that pop up, those Barthian stories within stories, thoughts within thoughts. Here we have a semi-retired chain-pulling professor who is writing a novel in which an Israeli and a Muslim are traveling together across North Africa. Why? Who knows?

When they reach the Dead Sea they want to cross it, but they are not exactly sure how it is to be done. They think of floating across but they are afraid of "turning turtle." Then Mosley, or his professor, or the reader, or perhaps all three, asks, quite sensibly, what does "turning turtle" mean. Will we --- you and I and the narrator and the narrator of the novel within this novel --- be facing up or facing down in the water?

At the end of it all, his step-daughter Cathy returns from the Middle East where she has been going into a blockaded church (at the risk of getting shot by the Palestinians or the Israelis), and at one point she asks him if "turning turtle" means your face is up or down.

§     §     §

I try to read at least one Dalkey Archive novel every two or three months. Just to keep my hand in. Because I know that they will fill me with either ennui or surprise.

Mosley, after giving us the Irish Mother joke, finishes the sequence with the question, "Do you think Jesus was a suicide bomber?" Right.

--- Conrad Fox-Pitt
Go to a
reading
from this book


The Mammy
Brendan O'Carroll
(Plume)
How do funny people handle tragedy? Did Bob Hope or Victor Borge or Jackie Gleason ever talk about death or dying on their comedy shows? Were Will Cuppy or S. J. Perelman or J. K. Jerome able to weave agony, hurt, or loss into the narrative flow? It's the old I Paliacci syndrome, no? Should we watch the clowns cry? Do we even want to?

It's funny when you think about it. Or maybe not so funny. Hamlet in the Act V boneyard, Holden Caufield and his dead brother's mitt, William Faulkner's spotted ponies crowding the house, Huck Finn and Nigger Jim the day Huck tries to trick his friend. The mix of joy and woe, fun and horror, the shame and the boff.

Brendan O'Carroll's The Mammy has just such a mix: Agnes Browne and her friend Marion in the middle of Dublin 1967 with their knee-slapping jokes and general poverty. The two of them work the public market selling vegetables and potatoes.

Agnes' husband Redser just died. She cares for, feeds seven children and has her dream of dancing with a singing star by the name of Cliff Richards. Oldest son Mark wants to leave school and work. He's fourteen and strong. She wants him to stay in school and not be drifting about like his father.

It's the stuff of soap opera and you can make it sad or laugh with it (or mock it) but what O'Carroll has decided to do is mix them all up. Mark is depressed. Mother Agnes asks younger brother Dermont why is Mark depressed. "It's not me, it's his willy," says Dermont.

Agnes: "Who? Who is this Willie fellow? Has Mark been fighting?"

With this, all the brothers and sisters "erupted into laughter, and even Trevor joined in. Rory's face turned crimson and Simon had tears in his eyes."

Mark's problem, they all know, there are no secrets in large family, is newly sprung hair. Around his "willy."

The innocent mother, the knowing children: Agnes has never heard the word so we get high (or better: low) comedy. Until she figures it out. Then she, probably less knowing than them all, tells him the new-found hair is perfectly normal: "It's to keep your willy warm when you go swimming."

    She jumped up to the steaming kettle and over her shoulder she said, "Now, out with yeh!"

And the very next chapter? Marion, Agnes buddy, announces, "And I'm after gettin' a lump."

"A lump? What kind of lump? Where?"

    Marion blushed slightly. She glanced around the room furtively, to check that nobody was paying any undue attention to their table. When she was sure, she opened her coat and placed her left finger on a spot between her right breast and her armpit.

    "Just there."

"She closed her coat quickly, picked up her glass of stout, and as she supped it she glanced around the room against to be sure nobody was watching."

In the book trade, Mammy is an oldie. It came out almost eight years ago. Probably so long ago it has been remaindered. But it found us even after such a long time, and I'm glad.

It demands a special wit to artfully blend the happy and the tragic. It puts us in mind of some other novels out of Great Britain and Ireland which have found us over the last few years and knocked us out. Frank McCourt's wistful 'Tis. Anne Donovan's exquisite Buddha Da. And Jamie O'Neill's wholly entrancing At Swim, Two Boys.