Thursday, May 28, 2020

"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."

Interestingly, Chekhov was convinced his works could never be successfully translated. They would make no sense, he thought, outside the family that was Russia. Dickens, who wished to extend his family everywhere, was happy with translations. His work was hugely successful in Naples, where family reigns supreme, and was held up as a positive example by the government of the newly united Italy in its drive to promote domestic values and national cohesion.

Were there other writers, I wondered, for whom this hierarchy of values held, novelists whose plots, one way or another, hinged around belonging and its attendant emotions, however differently they might come at it—just as Dickens and Chekhov come at it differently, and position themselves differently, though obviously obsessed by the same questions and construing life in the same way?

Over time, reading and rereading carefully, I found these authors who fit the description: Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, George Eliot, Haruki Murakami, Graham Swift, François-René Chateaubriand. Many other lesser names, too, in genre fiction as well as literary. Many Italians, perhaps because I read a lot of Italian literature, or perhaps because the values of belonging are so powerful in Italian society. Dante, writing in exile, is obsessed with belonging; the deepest circle of hell is reserved for the treacherous, those who betrayed family and community.

On the other hand, I haven’t found a single American whose work I can place in this category. Does this tell me something about America? Or the limitations of my idea?
You must look through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness. 
In America there are comparatively few who are rich enough to live without profession. Every profession requires an apprenticeship, which limits the time of instruction to the early years of life. At fifteen they enter upon their calling, and thus their education ends at the age when ours begins. Whatever is done afterwards is with a view to some special and lucrative object; a science is taken up as a matter of business, and the only branch of it which is attended to is such as admits of an immediate practical application.

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