Stephen King, Doctor Zhivago and Other Great Reads

This week's reviews: Stephen King's genius short stories, how French artists survived under Nazi occupation, and a new translation of Doctor Zhivago.

Night Shift By Stephen King

Question for you trick-or-treaters: Is Stephen King a short-story writer posing as a novelist? I recently bought a paperback copy of Night Shift (1978), King’s first story collection. A handful of the pieces here rank up there with those of pulp gods like Ellison and Bradbury and Clarke. And, for my money, they’re nearly as satisfying as King’s 1,000-page novels.

King, who was just over 30 when Night Shift was published, comes off here like a bright student of pulp. In “I Am the Doorway,” he does a trippy-dippy Harlan Ellison impression: an alien is nestled in an astronaut’s body. “Trucks” and “The Mangler” are Arthur C. Clarke specials: machines on the rampage. I could pick out some Ray Bradburys, too, but just about everybody tries to write like Bradbury. If I have any complaint with King’s novels, it’s that you flip through the pages, thoroughly freaked out, only to realize near the end that the characters haven’t changed a lick—other than that some of them are dead. In a short story, that doesn’t matter. It’s all about quick sketching.

Take King’s “Children of the Corn.” We begin with a couple driving down a rural highway. They hit a teenager and run him over. But as the narrator, Burt, steps out of the car, sniffing “the rich, dark smell of fertilizer,” he realizes the kid’s throat has been cut and he was pitched out onto the road. By someone or something in the corn. Burt asks his wife to get his rifle. That’s the first four pages.

“Children of the Corn” borrows a lot of pulp staples: a found body; a rural hamlet; religion gone loco; evil kids. (Many would show up in future King productions.) But by the time Burt meets his maker, in the middle of the fields, you feel fully terrorized—jerked around both in ordinary and cosmic ways. It’s King distilled to his grimy essence. I read it in about 20 minutes and I couldn’t sleep for hours. —Bryan Curtis, Senior Editor, The Daily Beast

And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris By Alan Riding

For four years, as the hobnailed boots of Wehrmacht soldiers marched through the streets, Paris learned to live as an occupied city. Food was strictly rationed and curfews deadened the late nights. Yet, as Alan Riding shows in And the Show Went On, cultural life somehow survived. The writers kept writing, the painters kept painting, and the Nazis left them mostly alone.

Some of France’s great cultural contributions of the twentieth century, in fact, were born in Occupied Paris, like Albert Camus’s L’Etranger and the film Les Enfants du Paradis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit saw its first performance 10 days before the Allied invasion of Normandy. Even popular culture stayed alive in the music halls and clubs, as long as the texts and lyrics of anything on stage were approved by German censors.

With two decades experience chronicling European cultural life for the New York Times, Riding is in an ideal position to document those four years of Gross Paris, as the Nazi command called it.

He gives several reasons why the Nazis might not have been as harsh on Paris as they were in other occupied territories. One was the relative autonomy that France had earned through its collaborationist government in Vichy. Another is that censorship stayed fairly lax — as long as things stayed away from the topic of the Reich — because most of the army did not understand much French. And in a bizarre way, the Nazis had a great deal of respect for French culture, as well as the city itself. (Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins showed just how deep it ran as they showed German generals ignoring Hitler’s orders to demolish the city in Is Paris Burning?)

The artists, however, remained conflicted. Was continuing to ply their trades peacefully, without any form of political commitment, not a tacit acceptance of their German overlords? This is what the Communists and writers of the Résistance were there to hammer home. France had always had a place for the “engaged intellectuals,” respecting them more than politicians as moral guides. They believed that there should be no choice between art and politics because they could — they had to — go hand in hand. Anything less amounted to collaboration, a breach of trust.

Ultimately, Riding argues, Paris was left scarred by more than the pockmarks of bombs and bullets. The creative energy that had made it the center of European literature before the war was dampened. Those who still ran to it for inspiration and artistic freedom were mostly Americans escaping McCarthyism — James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright. The Europeans went in the other direction. To New York. — Joshua Robinson, Contributor

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Doctor Zhivago By Boris Pasternak

Nikita Kruschev did not care for Doctor Zhivago, and in 1958 that was enough to win Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize. Unwilling to trade his citizenship for Stockholm's bauble, he refused the award under pressure from the Premier and died in 1960, celebrated abroad, invisible at home. His masterwork was not published in its native language until Perestroika, and it was on the strength of the original flurry of international translations that he was honored. Five decades later comes a second English translation, a blockbuster courtesy of superstar translation duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It was not worth the wait.

Despite a large cast and a stirring backdrop—the 1917 revolution and its accompanying wars—this sprawling novel's title character is a man who would rather be left alone. When the revolution brings famine to Moscow, Zhivago, a bourgeois doctor with a poetical bent, leads his family to the country, quickly abandoning them for Lara, a carefree nurse with "big arms." After a few years of adventures he breaks with her too, lest his political unorthodoxy get her killed. Neither radical enough to side with the Bolsheviks nor conservative enough to fight them, he ekes out a living on New Russia's fringe, eventually dying alone in an empty apartment. The happy ending? His poems, written in the quiet between battles, work and starvation, survive him. And Russia embraces him posthumously, an honor that Pasternak might have hoped for himself.

In his writing, Zhivago strives for a "restrained, unpretentious style, through which the reader and listener would grasp the content without noticing what enabled them to do so." His new translators should have followed his lead. While the 1958 version smoothed out everything that was strange about Pasternak, reducing his style to the romanticism of Russia's 19th century, Pevear and Volokhonsky have tried to be faithful to his modernist bent.

Preserving the original's clipped, comma-stuffed prose is a noble idea, but too often the ugly rhythm forces one to reread passages that in the old translation were easy to grasp. Some sentences are so overloaded with adjectives and ten-cent words that they lose all meaning. "The general diffuseness it imparted to everything went in the direction that preceded the exactness of the final embodiment" is one of the unforgivable. How much of this is Pasternak's fault is hard to say, but in the 1958 these awkward passages were clear, smooth and unpretentious. A perversion of the author's intent? Perhaps. But it certainly makes for a better read.

It would be a shame if this new translation overtook the classic simply by virtue of the translators' fame. Both versions have strong points—Pevear and Volokhonsky's rendering of Zhivago's poetry is spot on—and happily Pasternak's story is invincible. Every page bleeds authenticity, from the sharp details of wartime privation to the unreal beauty of the endless Russian countryside. With such a well-wrought tale, there's no reason to let writing—or politics—get in the way. — W.M. Akers, Contributor

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