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A Winter Challenge

It's been a long time since we had a literary extracts challenge. †As it is the first of December and the UK is decidedly frosty today, I thought I would have some shivery †prose.

The challenge is to grade in terms of literary value (as you see it) and then in terms of personal preference.

I hope they are not too obvious; I haven't done this before. †I've deleted names which might make it too obvious where the extract comes from.

"I am already far north of London: †and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. †Do you understand this feeling? †This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid."

This was, I should say, about the third week in January. †The thermometer was dropping; my life, which before had been only solitary and miserable, became unbearable. †Every day, in a daze, I walked to and from work, sometimes in weather that was ten or twenty below, sometimes during storms so heavy that all I could see was white, and †the only way I made it home at all was by keeping close to the rail guard at the side of the road. Once home, I wrapped myself in my dirty blankets and fell on the floor like a dead man. †All my moments which were not consumed with efforts to escape the cold were absorbed with morbid Poe-like fantasies.One night, in a dream, I saw my own corpse, hair stiff with ice and eyes wide open.

Oh, what a long grim winter!
Their own grain run out before Christmas and they were buying flour. †K, who lived a home now, was rowdy in the evening, terrifying everyone; and in the mornings he had agonising headaches and shame; and he was a pitiful sight. †In the stall the starving cow bellowed day and night - and heart-rending sound to Granny and M. †And as ill-luck would have it, there was a sharp frost all the winter, the snow drifted in high heaps, and the winter dragged on. †At Annunciation there was a real blizzard, and there was snow at Easter.

But in spite of it all the winter did end. †At the beginning of April there came the warm days and frosty nights. †Winter would not give way, but one warm day overpowered it at last, and the streams began to flow and the †birds began to sing.

It was dusk.
They stood on the porch in the fading light, J in the middle, his left arm around D's shoulders and his right arm around W's waist. †Together they watched as the decision was take out of their hands.
The sky had been completely clouded over by two-thirty and it had begun to snow an hour later and this time you didn't need a weatherman to tell you it was serious snow, no flurry that was going to melt or blow away when the evening wind started to whoop. †At first it had fallen in perfectly straight lines, building up a snow cover that coated everything evenly, but now , an hour after it had started, the wind had begun to blow from the northwest and the snow had begun to drift against the porch and the sides of the .... 's driveway.

So they went in together, leaving the wind to build to the low-pitched scream that would go on all night - a sound they would get to know well. †Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch. †The --- †faced it as it had for nearly three quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact that it was now cut off from the world. †Or possibly it was pleased with the prospect. †Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.

Sandra you have given us a treat, made all the better by a certain typo!

I won't say too much yet except the end of D. seems incongruous.

The typo is much appreciated - I think it makes the excerpt batter than the original version. Of course maybe it's not a typo and excerpt B will turn out to be an early draft of The Old Man and the Sea.

I've changed the typo in B - †replacing cod with cold.

With D, I did leave out a bit as the extract was too long.

Ok, I don't often get to do this so thank you, Sandra!

A - Is this early 19th century? † I find this extract a bit odd as it's written in the present tense, which is unusual these days. † It's melodramatic as well. †Russian author? †OH reckons it's an English author.

Anyway, ermm... I don't think I would like it if it was all like this. †I am no fan of melodrama in any of its forms. †

But I think it is literary. †

B - I think this is 20th century? † It's definitely very descriptive in a few words. †Poverty, loneliness, isolation. †It all comes through in this passage. †I'm not sure if I like it though. †

I would class it as literature.

C - I don't like this. †There's not much to it. † It describes a whole season very basically and doesn't give the reader any feel for what was happening. †

Not literary.

D - I liked this. †A modern author, I think. †Nice description of a snow storm. †The only part that struck a flat note was the description of the 'church?' facing the house. † That microbe simile really doesn't work as microbes aren't trapped in an intestine, they would die if they weren't in there and they are necessary to the health of the carrier. † I can see what the author is trying to say but it doesn't work. †

Literary? †Hmmm.... I think a good popular author.

Editing to add preferences cos I forgot!   Embarassed

Literary - BADC
Preference - DABC

Thanks for your contribution, Miranda.  Where is everyone?  Does anyone else wish to join in?

Sometimes on this board I feel like a mad old bag lady talking to herself.

Just bad timing for me, Sandra, but will have a look after today - am currently in a hotel in Bristol, feeling sick with nerves about a job interview later this morning!

They are very short extracts, which is good in terms of making time to think about them, but difficult in terms of judging literary quality.  Will read them properly at the weekend - sorry I can't do it any sooner than that!

Good luck with the interview, Evie.

Thank you!  The stupid thing (in terms of being nervous) is that it will be fine if I don't get the job, much as I would like it - I just don't want to make a fool of myself, especially as the people who are interviewing me are people I work with!

And thanks for posting this - it is, as you say, fairly quiet on here these days, and it's good to have this sort of thing - I will try and set one soon too, and maybe we can get a bit of momentum going.

Sandra, I think youíre getting a better response than I did the last time I tried to set one of these! But I certainly will respond to this: Iíve been having a bit of a torrid time at work lately, but I think the clouds are beginning to clear somewhat on this front.

This is a toughie - the relatively short extracts don't help.

A. I'm confused by mention of Petersburgh - I can't think of one that's due north of London, though I suppose "far north of London" could simply mean at a more northerly latitude (there's one in New York, and of course the famous one in Russia). I think this is reasonably modern, unless it's a translation, because of the slight informality ("Do you understand this feeling?"). I thought "foretaste of those icy climes" was a bit overdone. But I liked the last sentence - "Inspirited" is a great word, and "fervent and vivid" daydreams has a whiff of the literary about it.

B. Again, fairly recent I think - I suspect an earlier writer wouldn't have said "the thermometer was dropping" unless it was falling off the wall. "Ten or twenty below" is also slightly informal. However, there's some literary flair there too - "wrapped myself in my dirty blankets and fell on the floor like a dead man" is a strong image, as is the closing one: "my own corpse, hair stiff with ice and eyes wide open".

C. I think this is older than the others - late 19th or early 20th century? Part of me wants to say this is American. Steinbeck, maybe? Hmmm, not sure.

D. The prose seems a little uneven to me. "the decision was taken out of their hands" jumps out as rather colloquial, and "you didn't need a weatherman to tell you it was serious snow" also leaps out as a bit hackneyed (doesn't help that it immediately makes me think of that Bob Dylan song!). On the other hand, this may be a deliberate stylistic decision - hard to tell from a short excerpt. I don't like all those pluperfects at the end of the first paragraph. In the second para, I like the image of windows "bearded with snow", but find the repetition of "now" ("now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact that it was now...") rather clumsy. I do like the image of microbes in the intestine of a monster. I think this is my least favourite though.

Literarityness: CBAD
Personal pref: BCAD

Re: A Winter Challenge

A: I recognise this, and so won't comment on it.

B: I'd guess this is a memoir or an autobiography rather than fiction. "The thermometer was dropping" seems a bit strange: "the temperature was dropping" would surely have been more correct. Overall, the language is fairly simple, but effective: it does give the impression of the narrator at the end of the tether.

C: Not too recent, I'd guess: no modern author would refer to the "Annunciation" and expectthe readers to know what time of year they were referring to. And I thoihht I was bad for sticking in lots of semi-colons! I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. The prose tells of hardship, but doesn't really convey a sense of hardship in the way that B does. I like the sentence towards the end: "Winter would not give way, but one warm day overpowered it at last..." but I doubt a writer who takes pride in teh craft of writing would let pass such lazy formulations such as "As ill-luck would have it..." Overall, I don'tthink the prose is as effective here as it is in B.

D: Not impressed with this one at all. The author seems to try so hard to appear literary, but it just isn't very good. The dark windows "bearded" with snow merely seems affected: the point of teh metaphor was, presumably, to convey a vivid impression, but this doesn't really convey any impression at all. Similarly with the simile at the end: it conveys very little. There's no point using imagery if the images don't convey much. And what's all that at the beginning about J's left arm of so-and-so's shoulder and his right arm somewhere else? It's a clumsy sentence, and, once again, doesn't really convey much. Ithink this is a writer who is desperately trying hard to write in a literary style, but not succeeding too well.

Leaving out A, my preference is B, C, D.

This is a travel journal or perhaps a letter. It is addressed to a person who is not with the author. Not a modern work, literature

This seems modern. I find Ďthe thermometer was droppingí a very strange expression. Is it American? Apart from that I like this. The corpse Ďhair stiff with ice and eyes wide opení is a strong image. Literature.

This goes through a whole season in a two paragraphs. A short story rather than a novel perhaps. The rural poverty sounds like a Flemish classic but I donít think any have been translated. There is too much snow anyway.  

I liked this least of all. Somebody trying very hard, too hard, to write literature.

Literary: ABCD
My preference: BACD


Apologies for the very quick and brief reply.

I like A.  
The writing reminds me of an alternative history from my youth wish I could remember who's. I do get the impression of a flight or a quest.

and B.
The writing is clear and desciptive but as others have mentioned surely it is barometers that drop not thermometers?

To me C seems Irish/American a family history? The tone and writing doesn't inspire me to read on.

D I didn't like and it seems a version of a 'literary lite saga'.

Literary  BACD
Preference ABCD

Hi Sandra,

I found these passages all shared a clarity and simplicity of style without the need for embellishment.  This did make it rather difficult to differentiate them.  I felt that most of them could be either literary fiction or reasonable good popular sagas perhaps.  The last one seemed to be to be rather striving for effect with its last phrase and some of its metaphors.

In a little but not much more detail:  

A:  This struck me as an older style of writing, perhaps because of the conversation with the reader (or is it a letter?  - still likely to be older if so), perhaps because of the use of such words as climes and inspirited.  Fervent vivid daydreams may indicate something fantastical is to be narrated.  Not sure.  I think this is likely to be literary.

B: Later than Poe, anyway! Another one mentioning a dream, but not I think to foretell actual fantasy.  I think this is reasonably literary too, though I am not sure why.  Perhaps something about the wrapping in dirty blankets and fall on the floor like a dead man.  Perhaps because a popular novel set in such a chilly environment would try more for the picturesque.  

C: I am trying to work out where this is set - not I think Britain, but somewhere in the northern hemisphere.  Somewhere in Europe?  Scandinavia? Russia?   Could be a short story perhaps.  I like "Oh, what a long grim winter!" and that makes me feel this is not just a popular novel.  

D:  As mentioned before this is one I take to be least literary.  Modernish writing I think.  "You didn't need a weatherman to tell you..."  Still quite well put together all the same.

Literary:  A, C, B, D.

My preference:  (not much in it really) B, A, C, D

(Now to see what I really should think!)

When is the reveal?

When do you want it?  Has everybody entered who wishes to enter?

As soon as I put my responses in, Sandra, I itch for the answers!  So as soon as you like, as far as I am concerned.  I would give it another day or so to see if anyone says they want more time.  

Cheers, Caro.

I don't think I'm going to get any more entries so here's the reveal:

A was from "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley.  Good spot, Himadri.

B was taken from "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt.   This is one of my favourite books so I'm glad it got a favourable response.

C is from the Chekhov short story "Peasants."  Caro got pretty close.  I'm afraid I'm not a huge Chekhov fan but I do like that passage and was slightly surprised by some negative comments.

D is from "The Shining" by Stephen King.  I did abridge the piece as it was rather long and contained details which I felt would make the source too obvious.  I find the part of the book when the family, after having experienced the novelty of being alone in this huge luxury hotel, face snow fall and then the claustrophobia of being completely snow bound, the best part of the book.

I thought King captures the atmosphere rather well but I found the criticisms perceptive.

Thanks, Sandra.  I feel very pleased with myself!  I didn't say anything completely foolish at all this time.  And even got close to being accurate once or twice.  Congratulations to me!!

Cheers, Caro.

The Frankenstein excerpt occurs in the opening page of the novel.

I am a bit put out at not recognising the excerpt from Peasants, which is among Chekhovís finest short stories. I see I was a bit critical of the prose: Iíve got this story in a few different translations at home, and Iíll look up that passage to find out which translation you quoted, and how other have translated it. The story itself is a masterpiece.

As for Stephen King, I have sampled his prose several times in bookshops, and have always come away unimpressed. Despite his reputation, I canít say he is too high on my reading list.

Himadri, the Chekhov came from the Everyman "The Chekhov Omnibus" translated by Constance Garnett.

Hah, well Caro might not have embarrassed herself, but I see I was way wide of the mark on excerpt A! Not too bad on the others though. I think my order of pref is very much in line with what I'd be most motivated to read (though I haven't read Donna Tartt, I do tend to lean more towards contemporary lit).

Oh, that might explain it. Constance Garnett was the first to translate the great works of 19th century Russian literature into English, and was a veritable translating machine. We owe her a great deal of gratitude for having introduced us to what was possible the finest literary flowering of the 19th century, but it is generally acknowledged there are many inaccuracies and even odd moments of sloppiness in her translations. However, I have heard the renowned modern translator, Robert Chandler, claim that despite the many infelicities, she often came closer than most to capturing the tone of the original. So the moral of all that, I think, is that while Constance Garnettís translations are by no means to be dismissed, they should be treated with caution. At least, I do hope that the excerpt from Peasants hasnít put anyone off reading Chekhov. I re-read Chekhovís Three Years a few months ago, and really was bowled over by how utterly wonderful it was. I really donít know what they were putting into their vodka in the 19th century, but whatever it was, it produced novels and short stories that leave way behind just about everything else I have encountered.

That was very interesting I must add The Secret History and Frankenstein to my TBR list.

OH recognised the Donna Tartt extract.  But he didn't tell me until after I'd posted!

I didn't recognise the bit from the Shining at all.  Although it is a while since I read it.  I shall have to look back and see what I said.

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