Notes on 2 short novels

Farmer — Jim Harrison’s Farmer came out in 1976, a short novel about a high school teacher seduced by a student. Joseph is an amiable sort, 43 and of hardscrabble northern Michigan. He lives on his family farm with his dying-yet-knowing mother, and for 20 years has taught at the local two-room school, which is to be closed down at the end of the year. Joseph has no college, and is declared unqualified, so he has to decide what to do with his life. Rosealee, his fellow teacher and the woman everyone in town expects him to marry, hangs together with Joey out of comfort and history. Doc provides grand insight into the town’s and Joseph’s past–he’s a good comic historian, half-drunk half-smart. Joseph’s affair with Catherine, 17, is done well, especially once everyone in town figures it out. Middle-aged angst, but none of the contemporary immature adult nonsense that ruins novels. Here’s the slight¬†original NY Times review.

Hadji Murat — a tale of suspense and Caucasus warring politics, with great asides off the main story that make it whole. Fleeing from Shamil, with whom he has had both a blood feud and a blood allegiance to, Hadji becomes a favorite of the Russians he once tried to kill. He is feted and feared and analyzed in many quarters, by men of various standing; boobs and buffoons, and kind friends. Women tend to swoon over him, but also make sound judgments. All the time, Hadji is watching them, figuring them out–they speak different languages–and he gets the upper hand by knowing them better. Lots of palace intrigue as the Russians plan out how to best use Hadji for their side against the Chechen troublemakers. The tributary stories–a soldier is shot and dies and we learn of how he became a soldier, his family; Nicholas I, a lumbering boob emperor, has no idea how to govern–are damn good and vital to the whole. The ending of Hadji (and of the story) is so nonchalant that it is disappointing, hardly a hero’s death. But nobody gets a hero’s death, not even heroes.

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Terrific Tolstoy paragraph

The detachment sent on the raid consisted of four infantry battalions, two hundred Cossacks, and eight guns. The column marched along the road. On both sides of the column, in an unbroken line, descending into and climbing out of the gullies, marched chasseurs in high boots, fur jackets, and papakhas, with muskets on their shoulders and cartridges in bandoliers. As always, the detachment moved through enemy territory keeping as silent as possible. Only the guns clanked now and then, jolting over ditches, or an artillery horse, not understanding the order for silence, snorted or neighed, or an angered commander yelled in a hoarse, restrained voice at his subordinates because the line was too strung out, or moved too close or too far from the column. Only once the silence was broken by a she-goat with a white belly and rump and a gray back and a similar billy goat with short, back-bent horns, who leaped from a small bramble patch between the line and the column. The beautiful, frightened animals, making big leaps and tucking up their front legs, came flying so close to the column that some of the soldiers ran after them with shouts and guffaws, intending to stick them with their bayonets, but the goats turned back, leaped through the line, and, pursued by several horsemen and the company dogs, sped off like birds into the mountains.

from Hadji Murat, Chapter 16, Pevear-Volokhonsky translation.