Sean Carman: The Last Book I Loved, Stories I Stole
Wendell Steavenson’s memoir of her time as a freelance foreign correspondent in Tblisi, Georgia, begins in her former Time Magazine office, where she and her friend Nina spin escape fantasies under the world map tacked above their desks. Nina has stuck her pin in Pamplona. Steavenson has chosen Tblisi, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
“Yeah, Wendell, but why the hell Georgia?” Nina wants to know.
“I could only offer scattered answers,” Steavenson writes. “A lonely epiphany watching the Vltava, black ink at night, flow beneath me, a strange affection for concrete Khrushchev housing blocks, rumours of wine and orange trees, milk and honey . . . . These triggers were half-identifiable (Nina would nod, nonplussed but kindly) but they belied a reservoir sunk deep out of explanation. To be honest, this was my own sinkwell. Who knows from where it sprang; spirit, soul or only runaway.
In any case, I got on a plane.”
It would be enough that Stories I Stole is, throughout, just this direct, captivating, beautiful, and strange. But about halfway through you realize Steavenson is doing more than playfully bending your ear, that she is artfully constructing an epic tale; in her case a story of wanderlust, romance, cigarettes, and cold feet, all of it salted with an abundance of local color. It’s like The Year of Living Dangerously except the journalist-hero is a woman, the setting is a former Soviet republic, and all of the stories are true. Maybe it is even better than The Year of Living Dangerously.
Steavenson is not just a great writer; she also knows how to tell a story. In the sketch that prefaces the collection, for example, she describes a visit to a mansion outside Tblisi and its collection of historical Stalin kitsch. “I was with Thomas,” she writes; and then she describes how, in a back room lit only by a dimming pencil torch, she and Thomas intertwined fingers at the sight of Stalin’s corpse, “laid out in an open coffin, his chest heaped with dusty plastic carnations.”
“All religions are weird,” Steavenson tells Thomas as they are leaving. “It’s their job to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. We should go home and drink a glass of wine and make love and realize that corporeal is more important.”
And that is all we get about Thomas. No explanation of who he might be, or how he fits into Steavenson’s life, just the image of his hand in hers, and the couple wandering off to recover from their experience of the macabre. Like Hemingway, Steavenson writes her stories through their essential information only. The rest she holds back, and that withholding gives her stories their power and their art. When, about halfway through the book, Thomas re-enters the narrative and things go haywire, the story of what Steavenson endures for him is so powerful because, in the beginning, she made her tale so spare.
There are other wonders in Stories I Stole, but I will mention just one more, involving Steavenson’s tribute to her favorite Georgian novel, Ali and Nino.
“All the time I was trying to steal stories for my collection,” she writes, “anecdotes and incidents and roundabout tales of Caucasus extremes and write them down, this book, an ordinary paperback with a dull, ugly green cover . . . sat beside my bed, lay in my bed, underlined and thumbed and ragged with reference, reproving me with perfection.”
Ali and Nino is a Baku love story between an Azeri boy and a Georgian girl, but for Steavenson it doubles as a guide to Georgia’s history and culture. “How could it be,” she asks of the novel’s characters, stories, and observations about the pre-Revolution Caucasus, “that eighty years later it was all exactly true?”
She really loves this book: “Ali and Nino was our guide and our touchstone, beautifully written; gem-like, compact, full of perfect sentences, rich but never verbose. The story is epic; but it is the details that clutter up the background — the wizened wise Azeri cleric, Nino’s outrageously hospitable Georgian cousins, the soft-fat Armenian — the deft precision of observation that made it so funny. I could pick it up at random and read any paragraph and it would make me smile.”
Ali and Nino is a novel that doubles as a travel guide. In Stories I Stole, Steavenson has written, in reply to the epic she admires, a travel memoir that doubles as a novel. Fittingly, Steavenson’s praise of Kurban Said’s Georgian love story best describes her book, too: Beautifully written, gem-like, compact, full of perfect sentences, rich but never verbose. You can pick it up at random, read any paragraph, and it will make you smile.