Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alienation

From The Possessed, by Elif Batuman:

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for? On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that The Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."

"Right," I finally said. "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."

He nodded: "So you see the problem."

I note in this regard that apparently Joseph Heller chose the name "Yossarian" to emphasize the character's alienation. It seems that Heller was going to give the character a Jewish name, but that by the time the book was published, Heller didn't feel that a Jewish name would convey sufficient alienation from American society.

[EDIT: as I have joked before, it would be funny if Tolstoy gave Levin his name for the same reason. Apparently at one point he was going to call the character Lenin, which would definitely have changed the book and may have changed history.]

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