City of Thieves, David Benioff (2008)
What an absolutely captivating book! Set in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) during the Nazi siege, the book was unexpectedly one of the best buddy (tragi)comedies I’ve read, with weight and import lent by the historical setting. The dialogue between Kolya and Lev is so sharp, punchy, fast; their instant rapport only deepens as the book goes on, and is the main reason to turn pages even in a plot-heavy book. That’s to say that, even though the plot is a powerful driving force, this is really a book about characters and relationships. I could have read endless dialogue between Kolya and Lev. It’s no surprise to me that Benioff writes for HBO; his starving WWII-era Russians have the chemistry, charm, and fast-felt and easily-conveyed affection of a fouler-mouthed and quadruply-literary Friends.
A master class in:
This book is a master class in so many elements of good writing.
Time compression and clean plotting. The whole book takes place over the course of one week, and is propelled by a single goal: find a dozen eggs by week’s end, or die. Yet the plot doesn’t seem contrived or stale by book’s end; Benioff does incredible work of shunting the directive organically aside as events run their course, without ever completely forgetting it.
But to me, this is ultimately a relationship novel. In how many different ways does Benioff make us love his characters?
1. Establishing a handful of specific, idiosyncratic character traits, and repeating them from opening to conclusion. How many days since Kolya has shit; Kolya’s calling Lev “my little Israelite” during the Nazi seige; Kolya training Lev to woo women; Kolya’s love for The Courtyard Hound: all of these recur constantly, but they change and surprise and, depending on the scenario, inflect. (The Courtyard Hound revelation is particularly well-timed and moving.) My reaction to this repetition–a feeling of real warmth toward familiar characters–shows what I think is a truth about a reader’s relationship to fiction: we want to feel we know the people we’re reading about. Repeating traits so often that we’re able to think, Typical Kolya, Classic Lev, is one way to guide us to this level of interpersonal intimacy.
2. Instantly make a character likable by showing him/her being brave or kind in unexpected or quirky ways. Here’s the introductory description for a very minor character: “Zavodilov, rumored to be a gangster, missing two fingers on his left hand and always whistling at the girls, even if they were homely, maybe whistling louder at the homely girls to keep their spirits up.” And here’s Lev’s commentary when he is just beginning to care about Kolya: “I was half asleep but I smiled. In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.”
3. Instant romantic chemistry– Show characters undercutting each other in a joking tone that suggests how well they know and like each other. Here’s the introduction for Sonya:
“This is my friend Lev. He won’t tell me his patronymic or his family name, but maybe he’ll tell you. I’ve got a feeling you’re his type. Lev, Sonya Ivanovna. One of my early conquests and still a dear friend.”
“Ha! Bit of a short-lived conquest, wasn’t it? Napoleon in Moscow?”
Kolya grinned at me. He still had an arm around Sonya, holding her close to him.
Bonus: Benioff is also great as a line-to-line writer of breakneck speed: “I took another step up and Kolya shot out of the apartment, his boots skidding on the floor as he nearly ran past the staircase. He made the turn, hurling himself down the flight, grabbing my collar, and tugging me along with him.”
This novel also got me thinking about the psychology of the happy ending. Brad Leithauser has a great essay at The New Yorker about viewing fiction as if through a keyhole, in which you conceive of characters as having lives you don’t see beyond the page, or as a box, in which everything that exists is set before you. Generally, I fall into the latter camp. But in books I really love, with characters I feel I’ve come to know, I list toward keyhole reading. And when you’re reading as if a world exists for these characters beyond the book, you want a happy ending for them. Loss of their happiness affects you (me) on a real level, as if a piece of my own world is shuttered or shadowed. Upon closing this book, I found myself questioning what kind of writer I want to be — whether I most value leaving keyhole readers with a sense of contented companionship, or box readers with a rich, earned, and perhaps unhappy tableau.