The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
So this was a weird one. The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is a 1970 novel by the Strugatsky brothers, who are apparently Russian sci-fi legends, and this particular English translation of it just came out in 2015, I think, to much critical acclaim. Wikipedia calls it a “science fiction detective novel,” which is totally accurate but at the same time kind of misleading. (SPOILERS AHEAD, I guess) The actual mystery elements play out in such a way that the sci-fi aspect is kind of the big reveal, and it’s just such a cool genre trick. Basically, the character investigating the central murder (which doesn’t even happen until a good chunk of the way into the novel) proceeds as if this is just a detective novel, albeit with an especially quirky list of suspects. And in the final few chapters we—the main characters and also the readers—learn that, nope, aliens are real and that’s what this whole case was about.
Also, I got a sort of anime-like vibe from this? Because:
- The weird specificity of the characters and humor. Especially with the whole subplot of the main character, a married middle-aged policeman, obsessively pervily trying to figure out the gender of this one teenaged guest, which, perhaps similarly to the Araragi/Hachikuji dynamic in Bakemonogatari, is so ludicrously ~Problematic that it comes back around to funny.
- As good as this translation may be, something about the writing style still feels quite translated.
- I’m more familiar with locked room mysteries from anime than from, say, Agatha Christie, so…there’s that.
I combed my hair in front of the mirror, meanwhile trying out a few facial expressions, such as: polite distracted interest, the manly self-possession of a professional, a simple-souled openness to any acquaintance, and an aw-shucks grin. None of them seemed appropriate, so I stopped torturing myself, dropped a couple of cigarettes in my pocket for the kid and went out into the corridor.
Selected Letters of E.M. Forster, Volume One: 1879-1920, edited by Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank
So this volume contains letters from E.M. Forster to various relatives and friends from early childhood to ~40 and it is amazing. I love E.M. Forster, and I am also a super nosy individual, so actually getting to read Forster’s personal correspondece = YES. Like, I might even be into this if it were the personal correspondence of some rando, but the effect of celebrity certainly helps, and these do offer some insight into The Mind Behind the Novels or whatever. It’s totally weird to me1 that we accept it as such a normal thing to be able to read the letters of historical public figures, because can you imagine publishing a book of, what, emails from Michael Chabon to his mother, college friends, and fellow authors?
- A 20-year-old Forster writes to his aunt to tell her about the books he purchased with his prize money (from something Cambridge-related, presumably). Included in these are a collection of Jane Austen’s works in 10 volumes, about which:
It is such a lovely edition, in green cloth with beautiful print and paper, and each volume is very light to hold. I must bring some of them to visit you; I know you will like them. Each goes into two volumes, except Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, who only take one. I am reading the latter again, & I am more delighted with it than ever.
I, too, am delighted.
- Forster spends his immediately post-college years dicking around abroad and making his living by teaching English, which, you know, still very much A Thing.
- Forster’s inclusion of inane details—i.e. the indigestion caused by his friend’s cooking—in his letters is just somehow really endearing, because, right, he was human and not every single thought that he had (and, moreover, chose to convey) was super Literary.
- The (non) publication history of Maurice becomes even more fascinating. There are a lot of letters of him sending the manuscript to various friends being like, “yo, I can’t publish this, but I crave validation. Pls comment?” I mean, actually:
You can scarcely imagine the loneliness of such an effort as this—a year’s work! how one longs for praise shamelessly! You have given me the greatest comfort and pleasure. I wrote it neither for my friends or the public—but because it was weighing on me; and my previous training made me write it as literature, though for a long time I meant to show it to no one at all. Translation is depressing and publication in English impossible, so there we are, but if I die (which I do not anticipate or desire) I should like it given to Spohr.
- Forster’s entire letter to his close female confidant about
losing his virginity“parting with respectability” omg
- Forster’s entire letter to one of his bros in-character as Charlotte Bartlett from A Room with a View omg
OH GOD THERE ARE SO MANY GOOD ONES. Even apart from the ones included above. Just know that I would transcribe the entire volume here if I could, but we’ll have to settle for this one passage that is somehow quite relatable, although frankly it is unclear if we relate more to the writer or the person he’s describing in such magnificently dishy detail:
I’ve also got to chronicle to you—not to anyone else I think—that Hugh can’t again be in my life what he has been. He was very jolly, very happy, and very well during my visit, which I much enjoyed, but he just isn’t interested in me or in anyone except as passing amusements, and since seriousness must be reciprocal I find it less and less possible to be serious about him. Affection remains, but I can’t ever now ask him for sympathy or advice: I should fear his attention wandering before I had finished the sentence. And no doubt he will have his bad times just as now he is having his cheerful ones, and will appeal again for sympathy and advice to me, and I shall give them; but never again with the old gravity—when his sufferings used to seem more important than most men’s. All this is rather awful, but the fact is, being a writer, with a writer’s touchiness or whatever you like to call it,—I was very badly hit by his utter indifference to Maurice and the pain has opened my eyes little by little to his general indifference. To turn a hero into a jolly old boy is a ghastly task, but it must be done, and I think I am through with it; at least I had no inclination to tell him anything about Italy though my mind was full of it.—There! Now that I have shared my discomfort with you—i.e. given toy 100 times more than your share—I feel easier.
Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
Eh, this was not especially well-written and all of the anecdotes relayed were pretty much on a talk show banter level in terms of the humor and intimacy/depth involved. In fact, I’ve definitely seen Carrie Fisher repeat some of these stories pretty much verbatim on talk shows. I guess I was expecting this to be juicier or more personal, given the medium. Regardless, I think I read it in one day, so it is at least engaging on some level.
1. I maybe have a lot of feelings about modern communication and “what would a 21st century epistolary novel even look like?” that I will not get into here. I will note that one of the most revelatory things about the Sony hack was just, like, being able to actually see how people in various positions of power email in various contexts. The greatest result from that, obviously: here. ^