Story #1: "How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials"
I've also concluded that the purpose of schooling is to make people never willingly pick up a book again. You captured the painful analysis of 'literature' well. It got me to re-up my subscription.
"If you have to ask what an author is trying to say, it seems clear he or she is not saying it well."
Bingo. When it's not just incompetence complexity is often camouflage for a bamboozle.
Such a joy reading your writing!
Laughing out loud, "... same thing as Catholic church, another operation I was souring on."
That’s one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Thank you very much.
I'm presuming Matt must have read his conversational buddy Walter Kirn's memoir, Lost In the Meritocracy. For those who haven't I offer the following two relevant excerpts (skip if you're planning to read the book yourself). The first is from very early in the story:
[Kirn:] If my buddies from Minnesota could see me now, they wouldn't have a clue whom they were seeing, and I wouldn't be able to help them. Four years ago my SAT scores launched a new phase in the trajectory that I'd been riding since age five. One morning I opened a test score sheet filled with questions concerning synonyms and antonyms and the meeting time of trucks in opposite lanes, and the next thing I knew I was showered with fawning letters from half the colleges in the country. ... A natural-born child of the meritocracy, I'd been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, vying for forensic medals, running my mouth in mock United Nations, and I knew only one direction: forward. I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars, and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor role. Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?
The second excerpt follows Kirn's graduation from Princeton and closes the book:
[Kirn:] My cynicism was creeping back, but later that summer something happened that changed me--not instantly but decisively. A few weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Scotland to spend a few days before I started at Oxford (Adam was staging Soft White Kids in Leather in a secondary venue at the Edinburgh Festival), I came down with a drippy summer cold that lingered, festered, and turned onto pneumonia, forcing me to spend ten days in bed inside a fog bank of mentholated steam. One feverish night I found myself in the living room standing before the bookcase containing my mother's classics for the masses. I'd passed right by them a thousand times, scanned their titles no more than once a year, skimmed a couple of them, finished just one (and hilariously misread it--The Great Gatsby), but that night, bored and sick, I took one down and held it tight: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Then I did something unprecedented for me: I carried it to my steamy bedroom and actually let it absorb me, page by page, chapter by chapter, straight on to the end. A few days later I repeated the feat with Great Expectations, another canonical stalwart that I'd somehow gotten through Princeton without opening. Shockingly, I already knew the story: Miss Havisham, a lunatic old woman, is thought to be the secret patron of Pip, the waifish boy who becomes a London gentleman.
And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education. I wasn't sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete (forever, I had an inkling), but for once those weren't my first concerns. Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.
I wanted to find out what others thought.
"If you have to ask what an author is trying to say, it seems clear he or she is not saying it well." Matt just invalidated 50 years of The New Yorker's fiction section
2 home runs today, Matt. Make that grand slams. Thanks for the laughs and, especially, the wisdom.
Great story. Russian irony is in a class of its own.
I enjoyed the discussion you had with Walter Kirn about "The Machine Stops". I did an adaptation of it for radio in the 1980's but was unable to get anywhere with Forster's publishers. I was young and naive.
From the same collection is Forster's short piece titled "The Other Side of the Hedge". That story has stayed with me my whole life as a warning against taking anything too seriously.
I realize this is totally off the point of your story, but a fifty cent book!! OMG. I’m old enough to still have a few 35 cent classics on the shelves. Amazes me every time I see that.
Thanks Matt...you are slowly convincing me to read more fiction and less non-fiction.
Best sentence I’ve had in a while:
“Like perma-scrolling New Yorkers who walk up and down 6th Avenue so engrossed in Current Thing controversies that they’ll walk groin-first into parking meters or traffic even, the ink-stained clerks of the Tsarist era had heads so pumped full of propaganda that there was scarcely room in there for anything but directions to the office.”
О! Спасибо. Моему мужу мама читала Салтыкова-Щедрина на ночь, когда ему было лет пять или шесть, он до сих пор вспоминает и целыми параграфами на память цитирует.
Пойду куплю своим us born детям. Нехай сначала на английском прочитают.
Out of curiosity, I looked to see if "Great Russian Short Stories" was still in print. It is!! Published in 1967. This appeals to me because, while I'm not particularly enamored of fiction, the short story is a form I really like. In addition to Gogol and Chekov, I have Irish, Bengali, Arabic, and American short story collections.
Amazing. Would you take requests? How about an article on Soviet era Russian jokes? They will probably be excruciatingly applicable, and therefore hilarious, to life in the US, in our current era of the Official Narrative.
Maybe it was the mild dyslexia that prevented me from catching on quickly that urged me into a life of reading.
It was the very first real struggle I faced, and when I actually started to get the hang of it, I went from young adult to trashy horror in less than a year.
It was a very empowering feeling to move out of the lowest reading group into the highest in my 3rd grade class. Some of the Stephen King and Dean Koontz was labeled "pornography" by my little old lady teachers, but I didn't really care.
Those trash novels opened up a whole world for me, one in which I got a taste of the adult world at 8.
I wish I had more time as an adult to while away a summer or two reliving that feeling....
I have to admit, I disagree with, shake my head about or roll my eyes over a lot of the positions you take on politics, Matt. But I love books, I love literature, I love thinking about books and I love this piece. Talented one you are!