Reading slumps are never fun, and mine, which has lasted for a month or so, depending on how you count, has been doubly enervating because it’s covered a series of Russian and English books that didn’t inspire me much. Even the bright spots – Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042 and Theodore Odrach’s Wave of Terror – have asterisks. The funny Moscow 2042 (which I wrote about on my other blog) is a reread so hardly qualifies as a discovery, and Wave of Terror (see below), though intriguing, is an unfinished book.
I’m hoping the last book in my English-language slowdown was Douglas Kennedy’s The Pursuit of Happiness, a love story set in New York after World War 2. When I say “love story,” I mean “love story”: this is 572 pages of loving, losing, and forgiving. Basic plot: Sara Smythe, a WASPy Bryn Mawr grad enjoys a passionate night with Jack Malone, a Catholic guy from Brooklyn. It’s only one night because Malone, who’s in the service, is sailing for Europe the next morning. We know they’ll get back together… but in the meantime, Sara’s time spent with her brother Eric, a comedy writer and former communist, was more interesting to read about than her scenes with Jack.
Eric’s former political leanings lead to difficulties during the McCarthy era and give the book a center of gravity but Pursuit still felt, to quote an Amazon review from G. Johnson “friendlygal,” like “escapist reading rather than literature.” I agree with that, and I agree with her assessment that the book is repetitive: physical and psychological action is fairly limited for 500-plus pages but there is copious [read: often extraneous] atmospheric detail of ‘40s and ‘50s New York. Worse, the plot’s dependence on OB/GYN crises (which I had a knack for predicting) wore on me and the characters felt undeveloped enough that I never grasped Sara’s attraction to Jack.
I don’t mean to sound grumpy, particularly because the book read easily and I did finish it: it had enough spirit of its time to keep me going, and I thought Kennedy handled many of the McCarthyism and HUAC situations fairly well. My bookseller told me The Pursuit of Happiness sold big in France, and I’m sure its portrayal of post-war mores and panoramic view of New York are factors. In a talk at the bookstore, Kennedy also mentioned parallels between HUAC and France’s war-time collaboration as a reason the book was successful in France. Though The Pursuit of Happiness falls into the “this just isn’t my book” category, I’d recommend it to readers looking for a period romance with some serious history. Clear language may make Pursuit appealing to ESL readers.
Theodore Odrach’s Wave of Terror, translated from the Ukrainian (Voshchad) by the author’s daughter, Erma, also looks at political changes, informants, and mistrust, but on a much larger scale. Wave of Terror is a curious unfinished novel about Ivan Kulik, a school principal in the Pinsk Marshes in 1939, the end of the height of the Stalin-era Great Terror. The novel covers lots of political and cultural territory as Kulik observes boorish local bureaucrats, falls for a co-worker’s lovely cousin, and tries to hold his life together despite the terror around and, increasingly, inside him. I thought the book’s touches of absurdity, such as uneducated educators and ridiculous language policies, were particularly apt because they reflect the times.
Erma Odrach (who is a friend on Goodreads) writes in her translator’s note that her father’s manuscript and drafts included “countless corrections and revisions in the margins.” Erma says she incorporated them into the translation, “to provide a broader and more comprehensive representation of his work.” Though Wave of Terror feels a little bumpy – which is to be expected with any unfinished novel – I think Erma’s handling of the material works. Perhaps that’s because the time itself was such a work in progress and thinking people, like Kulik, felt so physically and psychically unsettled. In any case, I came away from Wave of Terror with the feeling that I’d like to read more of Odrach’s work.
Up next: Maybe Matt Haig’s The Radleys? I’m scanning my stacks for a humorous book and am a sucker for a vampire story, though don’t think I’ve read one in years… other than the first half of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch.
Photo of HUAC hearing (1947) from user Ted Wilkes, via Wikipedia.