The two novels that struck me most this year were Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs and Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer. Both are small masterpieces of great aesthetic and cosmological elegance, told in deceptively anecdotal styles. Both are episodic and both wear their sophistication lightly.
The Country of Pointed the Pointed Firs is set in Dunnett’s Landing, a coastal village in Maine, which is a kind of outpost at the edge of this world, a kind of staging for not only ocean journeys but also final journeys. The characters are isolated and mostly live alone with their own “poor insistent human nature[s].” Being solitary, the characters take delight in reunions and fellowship, and practice tact informed by the old idea of I and Thou. There is a deeply moving current in the book that one’s own humanity is confirmed and preserved to the extent that one bears witness to and respects the integrity of the humanity of others.
The Enchanted Wanderer is absurd and profound and hair-raising. It follows the wanderings of Ivan, a half-wild, half-holy peasant suspended between the realms of pagan and Christian Russia. The tension in the story is generated by his swings between these extremes. He flees through steppes and woods and cities, among imps and mesmerists and Gypsies and Tartars and angels and demons. As he makes his way he tells and retells his story to almost everyone he meets, and in this manner they are all gathered up into the story, too, which he then takes along with him to the next station, the next telling. It is a soulful and humane cosmic comedy.
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