11/16/2010

THE SECOND KNOT OF THE RED WHEEL

This vast, inordinately ambitious follow-up to Solzhenitsyn's long-aborning magnum opus The Red Wheel (whose first volume August 1914 appeared in English translation in 1972!), published in Russia in 1993, will alternately frustrate, exhaust, and generously reward readers willing to grapple with it. In a polyphonic narrative that sweeps from remote eastern villages to the Western Front of WWI, where grenadiers nervously await the resumption of stalled hostilities, Solzhenitsyn scrupulously juxtaposes the impersonal march of historical events against intimate views of representative individual lives caught up in their momentum. As the European war grinds on, depleting resources and alienating ordinary citizens from Russia's indifferent royal family (Tsar Nikolai II and his "Empress" Aleksandra) and the ineffectual royalist parliament ("Duma"), both the militant Constitutional Democratic Party ("Kadets") and the more narrowly nationalist Bolsheviks plot the destruction of the monarchy. Regimental commander Giorgi Vorotyntsev (a pivotal character in August 1914) sinks into increasing despair over his country's disastrous involvement in an unwinnable war (" . . . people must be made to realize that all things, even Russia, have limits"), as his "betrayal" of his trusting wife foreshadows the overthrow of the Tsar. Other varying attitudes toward military intervention, domestic economic policy, the treatment of Russia's Jews, and several more equally "knotty" topics are embodied in such vividly drawn characters as "liberal"-thinking artillery officer "Sanya" Lazhenitsyn; soldier Blagodarev (whose return home occasions an impassioned depiction of his impoverished village); Cossack-born firebrand journalist Fyodor Kovynev (a caricature of Soviet-approved novelist Mikhail Sholokhov), and the wily Swiss "millionaire revolutionary" Parvus—who conspires with "Lenin in Zurich" (the title under which this long section was published separately in 1976). Inevitably, all this is impressive—even despite the interminable conversations that these and other passionately engaged characters frequently indulge in. If Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn is a great writer, it's in the same way that Dreiser and Zola are great writers. The Red Wheel sequence is unlike anything else in contemporary fiction (or, indeed, since its obvious inspiration: Tolstoy's War and Peace). Therefore, be warned. But do attempt it.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-374-22314-9

Page Count: 1040

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1998

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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