The Moon’s Fingernail

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Hanging in the night sky and scratching at the window, the moon’s fingernail insists upon entering. What exactly it brings–fear, loathing, cold distance, even a brief respite from self-absorption with its reminder of a pearl, a shell–the moon links me to absolutely encompassing night thoughts.

I’ve been listening to George Guidall read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Even from the next room with a door closed, my husband comments the next morning, “He has an amazing voice.” It’s true and more. The voice entices, strengthens, seduces, terrifies, evokes pity. And though it’s in the lower register of male voices, in the voice box of this master interpreter, it can evoke the Christ-touched Sonia, the harlot, as well as this fiction’s version of the grand inquisitor. Not to mention the murderer at the heart of the novel: Raskolnikov.

The voice also hangs a sliver of moon outside my imagination, memory. I read Crime and Punishment for the first time in my 20s. Too young, my husband and I agree, to fully appreciate both the absolute encompassing penetration of the author, and the range of human experience he depicts. When I think of truly great literature, works of words that take the time to evoke the beggar boy sweeping the street for a pence and the faltering aging lord whose wife will ultimately die against the pauper’s grave whom she has never forgotten (Dickens in Bleak House), or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or Melville’s Moby Dick, or Mary Gaskell’s North and South, I have to return to the 19th century.

Time, and a willingness to elaborate, to carry the reader deeper and deeper into a voice–such as the minor inquisitor who has Raskolnikov in his pudgy clutches as I turn off the CD player and try to close my eyes. We sit there inside Raskolnikov’s fevered brain, waver with anger, fury, despair, intelligence while the inquisitor spins himself like a billiard ball, says the author, around his tiny office, weaving a web of little laughs, distractions, assurances, all the time coming in tiny steps toward some kind of revelation.

Enough of this: I don’t want to warn you off the book. Because it contains characters of clear mind, moral discernment, beauty of heart (Raskolnikov’s mother and sister, for instance; his best friend)–each in his or her own pugilistic or shrinking or careful behavior. Perhaps it’s the range of humanity these works offer that compels me to remember and praise them long after I’ve “listened” to them.

There are works of fiction in the 20th century which aim at such largess. James Joyce’s Ulysses; Proust’s seven temples dedicated to memory of pampered, distracted childhood and adulthood. Another that comes to me probably because I’m heading to Italy is Elsa Morante’s History: A Story, set in World War II Italy. Let’s add Catch 22, for an American view of that global infliction.

I know: there’s a lot to be said for smart, snappy narratives. Tinker, for instance, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize, is far more than smart and snappy, though it’s relatively short, and the narrative veers off all the time from anything like chronological development.

Yet, after penetrating to its business, appreciating its set pieces and the compassion of the author for the characters (epileptic tinker, for one; his wife driven to distraction for another), I found myself putting it aside, not furiously compelled to hear it out.

This judgment strikes me as so limited on my part–as the sky begins to lighten with the promise of a sun returning to brighten us after all–that I refer to you, dear readers, whoever you are: remind me of more modern works which have taken you in their grasp after scratching at your night window.

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