Sunday

Sep. 9, 2012

Fargo

by John Updike

"The fertillest soil this side of the Tigris
and Euphrates"—so the schoolchildren
of the countryside are taught, of their land
flat as a checkerboard to the hem of the sky.
The giant sky, pale green at dusk, stays black
long after morning cow-milking time.
Wind is incessant in winter, so
that snow falls sideways, like arctic sunshine.
...
This land of Lutherans and sugar beets
thickens its marvelous thinness here at the edge
of a Red River whose windings alone
betray the rectilinear. Downtown,
parking space is no problem, and grain-fed health
rewards those God's grandeur does not drive mad.

"Fargo" by John Updike, from Collected Poems 1953-1993. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of an early writer of the American Southwest, Mary Hunter Austin (books by this author), born in Carlinville, Illinois (1868). From a young age, she collected fossils and loved geology. She went to college in Illinois, then moved with her family to homestead in California.

She spent most of her life there, in the desert on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. She was fascinated by everything: the geology, the plants and animals, the Native people, the weather, and the intense landscape of the desert. She wrote The Land of Little Rain (1903), a book of sketches about that part of the California desert.

The Land of Little Rain was a big success, and Austin wrote many more books — novels, plays, and essays, including The Arrow Maker (1911), Experiences Facing Death (1931), and One-Smoke Stories (1934).

It's the birthday of novelist Leo Tolstoy (books by this author), born into nobility near Tula, Russia (1828). Besides the pain of losing his mother as a young boy, his childhood was one of relative ease: He read books from his father's extensive library, went swimming and sledding, listened to stories, and played in the fields and woods on his family's large estate. After his father died, he lived with relatives and then enrolled at the University of Kazan. His teachers thought he wasn't very bright, and although he managed to teach himself about 12 languages, he was less interested in academics than he was in gambling, drinking, and women. He dropped out of college and spent years visiting brothels, binge drinking, and racking up such huge gambling debts that he had to sell off part of his estate. Finally Tolstoy's brother suggested that he needed a change and encouraged him to sign up for the army. He agreed, joining his brother's artillery unit in the Caucasus in the spring of 1851. The following winter, 23-year-old Tolstoy wrote his first novel, Childhood (1852). It was praised by Turgenev and established Tolstoy's reputation as a writer. Over the next few years, he published two more novels in the same vein, Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856).

In 1854, he was promoted and sent to the front to fight in the Crimean War. He was horrified by the violence of war, and in 1857, he witnessed a public execution in Paris, which affected him deeply as well. He wrote: "During my stay in Paris, the sight of an execution revealed to me the instability of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head part from the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world had held it to be necessary, on whatever theory, I knew it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is my heart and I."

By 1863, he had finished a draft of what would become the first part of a novel he was calling 1805. It was set during the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russia, but he channeled his experiences in the Crimean War. A version of 1805 was published in 1865, but Tolstoy did not like it, so he went to work rewriting and expanding the novel. He gave it a new name: War and Peace. In 1867, the first three sections of War and Peace were published, and sold out in a matter of days. Tolstoy began writing furiously, publishing the sections as he wrote them, and finally, in December of 1869, he published the sixth and final volume. He said, "What I have written there was not simply imagined by me, but torn out of my cringing entrails."

Tolstoy did not think of his new book as a novel. He published an article in 1868, even before the final parts of book had come out, called "A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace." In the article, he wrote: "What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." Tolstoy published Anna Karenina between 1873 and 1877, and he declared that it was his first true novel.

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