08 September, 2004


And what else are you doing? What are you preaching? Surely you can't help preaching, with such a character!

I preach God, Marie.

In whom you don't believe yourself. That's an idea I never could understand.
One of my favorite characters in literature is Ivan Pavlovich Shatov, of Dostoevsky's Demons. For most of the novel, Shatov plays a supporting role to Dostoevsky's planned hero, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin. As the novel unfolds, however, Stavrogin becomes an anti-hero instead, a warning instead of an inspiration, a man who cannot overcome the despair accumulating from the wickedness of his life.

I'm not sure that Dostoevsky meant for Shatov to be an inspiration, but unlike Stavrogin, Shatov appears to repent. In one of the very last chapters — A Traveler — he gives Shatov a depth of compassion and holiness that elevates Shatov from a doomed dupe to a tragic hero. That chapter is one of the most beautiful passages I have ever read in literature, and it is the source of the quote above; it comes from an exchange between Shatov and the surprise traveler.

Professor Thomas Beyer of Middlebury College makes the following observation on Shatov and another character, Alexei Nilych Kirillov:
Both Kirillov and Shatov have firm convictions, the former has faith but does not believe in God, and the latter believes in God but has no faith.
That made sense to me when I was reading the novel, but now it doesn't. Rather depressing, that.

I'm still dragging slowly through Les Misérables.


Anonymous said...

I was looking at your 'favorite books' list and it occurred to me you might really enjoy Gene Wolfe (in case you haven't already heard of him.) He writes high-quality ('literary') science fiction and fantasy, and is a devout Catholic.


jack perry said...

You're at least the third person to recommend Gene Wolfe to me.

Where would you suggest I start? I actually tried one of his books after my father recommended him; I don't remember what it was, but I didn't get very far, and for the life of me I can't remember what the book was called.

Did you ever find my favorite books? In science fiction, I think my all-time favorite has to be a tie between Dune and A Canticle for Liebowitz, with Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series a close second.

Anonymous said...

The third? Well, that's good to know. For a few years I felt like I was the only person alive who'd ever read him (particularly in Christian circles), but that seems to be changing.

I'd say his short story collection "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and Other Stories" is a great place to start. After that, the first collected part of the Book of the New Sun, "Shadow & Claw," or the first part of the Book of the Long Sun, "Litany of the Long Sun." New Sun's narrative style is a bit more complex, but for some reason people seem to have a harder time with Long Sun, I think because of the dialogue. Wolfe can be a demanding writer at times but most of his work is easier going than, say, Crime and Punishment.

I'm also a big fan of Dune, Canticle and Ender's Game... I liked Speaker for the Dead, but aside from that the sequels to any of those three didn't really grab me.

Have you ever read any Cordwainer Smith?


jack perry said...

-- The third? Well, that's good to know.My father was one. He's an evangelical.

-- Have you ever read any Cordwainer Smith?Nope, never heard of 'im :-) (her?)

Thanks for the suggestions. I'll put them on the list, but it'll be a while...

Anonymous said...

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym for Paul Linebarger, who was a political scientist and psychological warfare expert. He was a very intelligent guy who spoke a number of languages, and apparently you can spot Chinese idioms and rhythms in his writing if you know what you're looking for. He's one of those sf authors who isn't widely read anymore but who influenced many other writers who are. "The Game of Rat and Dragon" and "Scanners Live in Vain" are his two stories which are still often anthologized.

During the latter part of his life he became an Anglican convert and worked some powerful Christian symbolism into his stories. "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," which is a sort of blend of Joan of Arc, Christ's Passion, and Martin Luther King's civil rights demonstrations, in the context of oppressed genetically modified animals and slave-robots, is one of my favorites. His work is old enough that it seems fresh and weirdly prescient.