K. C. Mulville mentioned a couple of days ago that we’ve become a bit too obsessed with politics, what with the conventions and all. He also mentioned that we need more discussions of literature, culture, and other issues. I agree. I just can't handle any more politics this weekend. So, taking my lead from K. C., here’s a post on literature.
I belong to the Joseph Epstein school of fiction reading. Epstein, a great essayist and a staunch advocate for the great literature, defined “good readers” as those “who read not only intelligently–with mental acuity, an ardor for language, a sense of humor—but also in the hope of having their souls stirred by literature.” (Plausible Prejudices, 40) Epstein defined the characteristics of a good reader, but the same attributes are also a reasonable proxy for the elements of good writing. Using this definition, at least four questions should be asked as a reader approaches a fictional work: Is it written with acuity—that is, with insight, but also with precision and clarity? Does the writer demonstrate a love for language? Does the novel or story, even one that is deeply serious, convey a recognition of life’s humorous absurdities? Does it stir and enlighten the reader’s soul?
Of these four separate elements, the most important to me is the last one: does the work of fiction stir my soul? With that in mind, my question to the Ricochetti is:
In your experience, what is the most moving scene in fiction?
Let me give you mine. Anyone who’s read many of my posts knows that I believe Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is the greatest work of fiction in the last half of the twentieth century.
Grossman, a Jew, was one of the great Soviet war correspondents in World War II. After World War II, Grossman got in trouble with the Soviets when he combined his real-life experiences with other imagined ones to create Life and Fate. The Soviets tried to suppress the novel. But for some good luck, all manuscripts of the novel would have been destroyed, and the world would have been denied a masterwork.
Grossman’s mother was murdered by the Nazis in a death camp (and he always felt guilty because he was powerless to rescue her before the Germans overran her home town). In what may have been an act of penance, Grossman creates a longish set piece within Life and Fate in which an unmarried, middle-aged female doctor, Sofya, and all of her fellow Jews in their small Ukrainian town are first surrounded and confined, and then later herded onto a train bound for a death camp.
During the horrific journey, a young boy, David, is abandoned by his frivolous, selfish aunt and Sofya assumes responsibility for him. As they arrive at the camp, most are sent to the “showers,” including Sofya and David. Sofya knows that if she identifies herself as a doctor she will likely be spared, at least for a time. But she refuses to abandon him to a terrifying, lonely death. As they are pushed into the gas chamber, Sofya keeps a tight grip on David’s hand so they will not be separated. Then, as the gas enters the sealed room, Sofya holds and comforts David:
“All this time David was being clasped by strong warm hands. He didn’t feel his eyes go dark, his heart become empty, his mind grow dull and blind. He had been killed; he no longer existed.
Sofya Levinton felt the boy’s body subside in her arms. Once again she had fallen behind him. In mine-shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the birds and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.
‘I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.
That was her last thought.”
Nothing here is contrived, yet it is intensely emotional. The reader is not manipulated. There is no overwrought language or sentimentality. There is just the straightforward recounting of a courageous, human act of love by Sofya—an act, in the midst of unimaginable horror, that qualifies her to be called a “mother.”
Of all the scenes in all the hundreds of novels I have read, this scene stirs my soul the most—and it teaches a great truth about the sanctity of woman’s greatest role.
Please share yours.