It’s been years since I read Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”, a group of inter-connected short stories about the mundane in the lives of the residents of this small, imaginary Ohio town. Of course, I remember no details, but I remember the rhythm, and the format, which I found perfect. Sometime later I came across a book (that no one else has probably ever read; I don’t remember the name or the author) that was very much like “Winesburg, Ohio”, but followed the interconnected lives of people lying in a Vermont cemetery. I found it perfect, as well.
Clearly, this format appeals to me, as I learned again from reading Amos Oz’s newest, “Scenes from a Village Life”, about the interconnected and mundane lives of the residents of the imaginary, century old village of Tel Ilan, Israel. Seven vignettes, followed by a short piece that seemingly has little to do with the earlier stories yet somehow places them in context.
Amos Oz spoke last week at Politics and Prose. I have heard him speak many times now – he is always charming, intelligible, and right on point. As to these stories, he warns readers not to take them as an analogy of Israel. He needn’t say that; I don’t think that anyone could try to figure Israel out from reading these stories. On the other hand, he stresses that these stories are meant to be universal – that, I think, is very true. This is Winesburg, Ohio, this is the Vermont cemetery and, as Oz himself hints, this is Chekhov’s Russia. Oz made the point last Saturday, and it is a good one, certainly one that I had never thought about: if you want to write stories that are universal, write stories that are very particularized, that deal with individuals, because only on the individual level, are universal principles and experiences discovered.
So, the middle aged divorced man living with his aging mother who does not know what lies ahead for him, the single woman whose nephew is to come visit but is not on the bus, the small town mayor whose wife leaves him a note “don’t worry about me” and has left his lunch on the table but is nowhere to be found, the seventeen year old boy in love with the 35 year old librarian. Universal themes, particularized in an Israeli village.
(I also read a book titled “Nabakov’s Butterfly” by Rick Gekoski, at the suggestion of an acquaintance. I am putting this section in parentheses, because I don’t want to equate this book with Oz’s. Gekoski, an American who went to graduate school in the U.K. and stayed, becoming a rare book dealer, has written a short book about twenty of the most valuable and unique books that he has come across, giving some information as to how the book was written, how it was published, how a particular copy came into his hands, and where he sold it. The stories are interesting, of course, and deal with famous books, which famous authors inscribed to famous friends [for example, “Lolita” signed by Nabokov to Graham Greene]. The stories themselves are very interesting, but the writing is not particularly distinguished, and there is a little too much of Gekoski’s ego in the book. For someone likes me who does collect, buy and sell books, if not books that sell for $10,000+ like Gekoski, the book is worthwhile, as it would be for some interested in the publishing history of the books he discusses, but it is probably not for the general reader.)