August 30, 2007

"Tolstoy Lied " by Rachel Kadish - Chic Lit Redeemed?



Rachel Kadish's novel, Tolstoy Lied proved to be quite an eye opener for me. Kadish describes it as " an existential romantic comedy... a book about love, and how a thinking woman (an American Literature professor) finds it and metabolizes it and struggles with it and nearly loses it and learns how much work happiness really takes". It certainly made me rethink the 'chic lit' genre. I was reluctant to pick up this novel because of how it was classified, and yet, I am now glad I picked it. In fact, I am now pondering over my dislike and near disdain for this genre. What is so wrong about chic lit that articulates the contemporary woman's plight: her choices, her dilemmas, her daily routine? Why is the woman's story less worthy of literature than that of her male counterpart?

The eye-catching title is an allusion to the opening lines from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that refer to 'happiness' , a concept that both Ms. Kadish and her protagonist Tracy Faber, a Literature professor, delve upon and agonize over. Rachel Kadish, a Princetonian with a Masters Degree in writing from NYU professes "there in the first line (of Anna Karenina) staring the reader in the face, is a lie. Nothing against Tolstoy. I'm an admirer. I simply happen to believe he's responsible for the most widely quoted whopper in world literature: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Literary types swoon over that line ...but have they considered the philosophy they are embracing?"

Reading this novel made me ponder on this as well; the human obsession with sorrow and how that translates into art. Why is literature in general driven by tragedy and suffering? Why can't happiness be fodder for great writing?? It is ironic that human beings spend a major part of their lives in the pursuit of happiness, and yet when they produce art, which apparently imitates life, it is only the tragic and the sorrowful parts of life that become worthwhile subjects for man's creative outpourings. Literature, in general,has a soft corner for suffering, yet in real life, man mourns his sorrows and celebrates happiness. Does that mean that literature falsifies life? Is it, in the most part, masochistic outpouring, or then a cathartic outlet for troubled and tormented minds? That's somewhat similar to what plagues the protagonist in the novel, and she decides to research it, and takes the reader with her on this fortuitous journey; one that I quite enjoyed.

If you have a literary bent of mind, yet are not irrationally averse to chic lit (hehe), and don't mind indulging in a bit of romance, this is a novel that'll entertain while it shakes up and probes into some age old traditions in Literature.

10 comments:

gulnaz said...

sounds like a good book, i would love to read it. to answer your question i think personally its easier to put suffering in words on paper rather than talk about it. people will appreciate a melancholic song or poem but not a melancholic freind, not all the time. so there is a bit of catharsis there.

furthermore, all over the world we all have similar problems and that is why we identify with those sad lines. there again tolstoy lied i think. :) and again like the writer, i am an admirer.

celebration can be frothy and sometimes it needs to be so... it is transient and sadness is more deeper, its the nature of the beast. it comes from a dark place within us which others can identify with and there is a need to identify with each other's pain in think. it makes people feel better or better able to handle the pain.

Id it is said...

gulnaz,
What an insightful analysis! Thanks.

eshuneutics said...

All new to me! It is a good question that you pose. I could list many favourite tragic books, but no so many favourite comic books. Milton places Melancholy above Joy, and it is probably the idea that literature is serious stuff that slants us towards chasing serious themes: the melancholic. Probably, there is a cathartic reason for this, as gulnaz says, but I also think there is a snob element too. It amuses me (joy!) when I sit on trains and see all these earnest faces reading Tolstoy or Camus...and the pages hardly move. I think. "Who are you trying to kid." Gravity, said Sterne, a good way to hide a defect in the mind.
I think I tend to the tragic-comic novel, but I do like comedy--"Four Dreamers and Emily", a hoot of a novel.

starry nights said...

sounds like a good book for me to lay my hands on. I think most people tend to relate and remember tragic events more than happier ones and so enjoy reading a sad book rather than a happy book.The same way people love to watch law & order.It is one murder after another but people still watch.

gulnaz said...

thanks for leaving behind such a lovely comment on my blog :)

Lotus Reads said...

Great post, Id and some very thoughtful questions too! I'm glad Rachel Kadish had the gumption to challenge Tolstoy's quote and I, for one, agree with her...happiness is not boring and it certainly isn't the same. Happiness can be quirky, silly,giddy or deep, intense,joyful and a lot more besides.

The human obsession with sorrow is an interesting one...it can have to do either with empathy or schadenfreude. I'm inclined to believe it's the latter. There is a certain pleasure we derive just knowing that others are worse off than we are.

Again, wonderful post!

And yeay for Sania Mirza!

Id it is said...

lotus, eshu, gulnaz

Schadenfreude could very easily be the major reason for our obsession with sorrow in Literature, but how do we account for our near disregard of the powerful human emotion of happiness? Why do we sideline it in favour of sorrow when it comes to literature? Do we inherently believe that sorrow is a more powerful emotion than happiness and so we build stories around it? I can see why the audience is more willing to vicariously share in another's sorrow (doesn't really hurt) as against another's happiness(it may spark jealousy which then may hurt), but then it implies that a writer who uses sorrow is basically writing the book solely guided by the needs of the audience and not because he really has a story to tell.
I am close to believing that happiness is not sufficiently researched, and has been put on the shelf for too long; someone needs to take on it case. What do you say?

EXSENO said...

I hate that label, Chic Lit. Sad.
The book sounds good.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Id!

You ask some really wonderful questions. I really don't know for sure why literature doesn't explore happiness as much as it explores darkness and depression, I can only wager a guess that it's because happiness is so fleeting, does it, as an emotion last long enough to inspire a whole novel?

I don't think it's so much a case of writers using sorrow to engage the reading audience, I just think that many writers, especially the very sensitive kind, are more drawn to gloom and doom...sorrow does seem to have more of a pull than happiness which seems almost lightheaded and giddy in comparison.

I know I am not being very articulate here, blame it on not enough caffeine and a very busy morning! Still, I had to stop by and comment because these are very engaging questions.

net-net4 said...

Hi Id It Is...
So you found internet during holidays !
I did some colorful pictures next to your poem...
Perhaps you can leave me as well some lines of the last one you wrote for your blog...
I like your writing...
Have a nice day...