Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nick Dybek

Nick Dybek is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the recipient of a Hopwood Award for Short Fiction, a Maytag Fellowship, a 2010 Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and a Granta New Voices selection. He lives in New York City.

His new book is When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Dybek what he was reading. His reply:
I haven’t read enough fiction lately, mostly because I’ve been researching a project that takes place in the aftermath of World War I. Luckily, many of the books on the subject are astoundingly good. I just finished Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow, which completely knocked me out. The book focuses on the wartime experiences of a handful of people from all over the world—soldiers in Italy, Turkey and the Middle East; nurses in Russia, Poland and Greece; school children in Germany; bureaucrats in France. Some survive the war and some don’t.

Many of the stories are, for lack of a better word, amazing. I found myself reading entire pages aloud to my wife, and cutting off friends at dinner as I recounted the scenes. In one passage a British officer in Africa takes cover from enemy fire only to be attacked by the angry bees whose hives have been shot out of the jungle canopy. In another passage a starving Russian prisoner digs through a heap of hospital refuse for a filthy crust of bread. When a nurse takes pity on him and feeds him a bowl of soup his stomach explodes and he dies almost immediately. In yet another passage a soldier wakes from a near-death experience in an Italian hospital, certain that he has been chosen to survive so that he can put an end to the war.

Englund, who relied on letters, diaries, and memoirs to reconstruct these scenes, is a wonderful storyteller with a sharp eye for detail. His own prose is lucid and propulsive, but the best moments in the book occur when he steps back and quotes from the original sources. In these expertly chosen passages, the reader gains intimate access to consciousnesses whose sensitivity and humanity are familiar, even in the face of unbelievable strain and danger. Ensign Arnaud matter-of-factly reports that as he “spied out over no-man’s land it would sometimes happen that I thought the posts holding our thin network of barbed wire were the silhouettes of a German patrol crouching there on their knees ready to rush forward.” By then Arnaud couldn’t even trust his own senses and had to rely on those of the man next to him in the line. “As long as he didn’t see anything, there was nothing there,” he writes.

Englund doesn't focus only on trenches and shellfire. The book abounds with quieter moments that throw the violence and hardship into sharper, even more unbearable relief. Pal Kelemen, a Hungarian Cavalry officer describes his visit to an officers’ brothel by writing, “Time passes. The evil looking pianist is still playing. Something very familiar—the music that was played to me in a girl’s room at home when I came to say farewell. Ages ago. Far from here.” In reading the book, one wishes, foolishly perhaps, that Kelemen and the rest of the cast were eventually able to describe their experiences with the war in similar terms: ages ago, far from here. For the reader, though, the First World War has seldom felt more immediate.
Visit Nick Dybek's website.

--Marshal Zeringue