Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fernando Pessoa

From The Book of Disquiet [link], by Fernando Pessoa:
I have to choose what I detest – either dreaming, which my intelligence hates, or action, which my sensibility loathes; either action, for which I wasn’t born, or dreaming, for which no one was born.

Detesting both, I choose neither; but since I must on occasion either dream or act, I mix the two things together.

George Steiner describes The Book of Disquiet [link] with style:
[...] The fragmentary, the incomplete is of the essence of Pessoa's spirit. The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies - wonderfully echoed in Saramago's great novel about Ricardo Reis - inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion. Hence the vast torso of Pessoa's Faust on which he laboured much of his life. Hence the fragmentary condition of The Book of Disquiet which contains material that predates 1913 and which Pessoa left open-ended at his death. As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.  
It was to Bernardo Soares that Pessoa ascribed his Book of Disquiet, first made available in English in a briefer version by Richard Zenith in 1991. The translation is at once penetrating and delicately observant of Pessoa's astute melancholy. What is this Livro do Desassossego ? Neither 'commonplace book', nor 'sketchbook', nor 'florilegium' will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge's notebooks and marginalia, of Valery's philosophic diary and of Robert Musil's voluminous journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa's chronicle. Nor do we know what parts thereof, if any, he ever intended for publication in some revised format. 
What we have is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims. 'A Letter not to Post', an 'Aesthetics of Indifference', 'A Factless Autobiography' and manual of welcomed failure (only a writer wholly innocent of success and public acclaim invites serious examination).
If there is a common thread, it is that of unsparing introspection. Over and over, Pessoa asks of himself and of the living mirrors which he has created, 'Who am I?', 'What makes me write?', 'To whom shall I turn?' The metaphysical sharpness, the wealth of self-scrutiny are, in modern literature, matched only by Valery or Musil or, in a register often uncannily similar, by Wittgenstein. 'Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other's presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.' This very scrutiny, moreover, is fraught with danger: 'To understand, I destroyed myself. To understand is to forget about loving.' These findings arise out of a uniquely spectral yet memorable landscape: 'A firefly flashes forward at regular intervals. Around me the dark countryside is a huge lack of sound that almost smells pleasant.'[...]

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa

Sixteen years ago, the NYRB ran an article called The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa [link], by Alma Guillermoprieto, which was both a book review, of A Fish in the Water [link], Llosa's account of running for President in Peru, and a loose précis of the political situation in Peru at the time. And, even though the facts of the matter have dated, the article is still, I think, an informative one:
[...]Perhaps saying that I love my country is not true. I often loathe it,” Vargas Llosa states in his memoir. And, “Although I was born in Peru, my vocation is that of a cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism.” This, in the course of explaining how he happened to decide to run for president. Can such a man triumph in politics? Should he?
[...] Barnstorming the country, addressing Amazonian Indians in Iquitos, Quechua-speakers in the Andes, mulattoes and mestizos on the coast, everywhere braving crowds he had no appetite for (“I had to accomplish miracles to conceal my dislike for that sort of semihysterical pushing and pulling, kissing, pinching and pawing”), Vargas Llosa eschewed facile promises in his speeches and campaigned instead holding aloft the banner of reason. He might have known better, but, after all, rationalism, and cordura—level-headedness—had been the ropes he had used to pull himself out of his own Peruvian chasm: although A Fish in the Water skips over the author’s middle years, we know that by the time he gets into politics the disorder of his earlier life has been replaced by an orderly contemplative existence in which reading and discussion have their scheduled places. Why now should he not offer the same salvation generously to his compatriots? In the early part of the memoir he describes his extended flirtation with Marxism and the world of clandestine conspiracy so beloved of the Latin American left, but rationally, over the years, he had concluded that Marxist movements were doomed. He had evolved into a neoliberal who admired Mrs. Thatcher, and it was as a Thatcherite neoliberal that he campaigned in Peru.
[...] One hardly knows whether to wince or laugh at his description of some of his rallies. Addressing the country’s largest labor confederation toward the end of his campaign, he instructs his listeners on the evils of job security, which make it impossible for Peru “to attract investment and stimulate the creation of new businesses and the growth of ones that already existed.” The workers who benefit from job security are a tiny minority, he points out gently to his audience—to those very beneficiaries, that is, of job security, men and women clinging with their nails to the last raft in the economic shipwreck. “It was not a happenstance that the countries with the best job opportunities in the world, such as Switzerland or Hong Kong or Taiwan, had the most flexible labor laws,” he tells them. And then he adds, describing this scene, “I don’t know if we convinced anyone.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guy Davenport

Another extract from a fascinating interview I found in the Paris Review archives, this time with Guy Davenport [link]:


Is it the application of the theory that you take issue with?


No, I think what upsets me is that I know good and well that these academics are sheep following the sheep in front of them, and I doubt if the people who throw around the names Bakhtin and Foucault have really read more than four or five pages of either or understand what's going on. The French adore ideas. They've been playing with them since Thomas Aquinas. They sit in their cafés, and the more outrageous, the more clever you can be (like Derrida or whoever else at the moment), the more you are loved. But they don't really take these things seriously. The young French student at the Sorbonne, excited by Lacan and Bakhtin and whatnot, his whole idea is to outdo these people, you know, in two or three years to publish his own book, explaining that everything we think is rightside up is actually upside down. Americans don't possess this sense of play.



Let's move on to your own books. You have experimented quite a bit with formal design—the stanzaic paragraph, for instance. I think for one of your books you actually inked in rows of identical black rectangles on sheets of paper and wrote only what would fit inside them. Can you talk about what draws you to these arbitrary constraints?


Not unless I talk for the rest of the day. About abstraction as scaffolding in any work of art, about the Dogon concept of toy (the ideal shape of a house, or village, of which the actual house, or village, is an approximation). The Shaker “love to lay a good foundation in the line of outward things.” When Albert Barnes was showing his collection of paintings to Horace Pippin, Pippin said, “That Matisse, he put the red in the wrong place.” At a showing of Clouzot's film about Picasso at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, a child's voice could be heard in the audience: “Mama! He's ruining it!” Such sound criticism is hard to come by, and has absolute authority. So there are all sorts of comments about works of art. Maurice Leenhardt said that the intelligible is first of all beautiful. I would say interesting or attractive. I doubt that there are more than two people who can read the first page of Ulysses; that is, give an account as to what's going on, who's doing what, yet it's a beautiful, magical page with as much on it as Rimbaud could pack into a poem. No illustrator could paint it, nor a film depict it. It is a new way of writing, approached afterwards only by Eudora Welty. For all Pound's saying that Joyce's technique was une affaire de cuisine, it's ultimately the technique that's making it all beautiful. Getting the red in the right place.



What about this interest in utopias, which is everywhere in your work?


I don't think it's there, in the abstract. My interest is in Fourier, who I think was one of the great analytical sociologists of all time. Practically everything Freud got hold of Fourier had already divined, and drawn different conclusions. So I became fascinated, and this percolated and percolated. Every once in a while, of an evening, I will take down one of the volumes and read around in it. You always find delightful things, such as parades of four-year-olds riding on German shepherds.

Fourier's great word was harmonie, and his perception was that we have made a mess of what we had absolutely no need to make a mess of, that we can live far more successfully in human relations. First of all we must decide on a unit in which to live. He said the family is a suffocating, murderous unit; a biological unit, he called it, for begetting and feeding children, which could be done much better by a “phalanx.” He approved of all the vices. Greed, for instance, could be a marvelous thing. He saw that religion was a childish myth. Yet the Harmony had a church in it, for those people who wanted a church. The church was facing a theater. He felt that somehow the church and the theater were answering the same need. The thing that made him so interesting to nineteenth-century Americans was work. Work should be play; work should be the supreme joy.

He's a very complex person, and of course he is not coherent. There is really no scholar who has sat down and tried to figure it all out. Tony Vidler, a professor at Cooper Union, came to visit once; we had a lovely time talking about Fourier's architecture, which Vidler says is the most revolutionary ever known. Vidler had been to the Bibliothèque nationale, and they'd shown him a room of cardboard boxes. In the boxes were manuscripts of Fourier's, unpublished, unread. They showed him a page that laid out which houseplants you were to put in your windows in the Harmony, 365 days a year. For each day he'd prescribed the appropriate plant.

The whole world, he said, is a correspondence. And everything comes in a chord. The chord contains eight items. The center of the chord is the pivot. At one end of the chord is the avant-garde, and at the other end is the arrière-garde. In a fruit chord, let's say, you have at one end the ripest golden pear, and at the other end is the quince, which never ripens. It remains as hard as a rock. And all of these corresponded with personalities (I've know plenty of quinces). Fourier felt that monogamy is simply one mode in the sexuality chord; I don't think it's even in the middle. At one end is what he calls the butterfly, the man who has to have a different woman every hour. And at the other end is chastity, which he correctly saw as not a denial of sexuality but another of its modes. For Fourier there were people who could live a life perfectly satisfied with a best friend, with whom they'd play checkers, and there was a place for this as there was for prostitution, which he considered a noble trade.

Fourier was constantly saying, “I do not want to change human nature,” while saying under his breath, “because it's impossible.” He simply wanted to accommodate it. Everybody has different desires. And in the Harmony, you have a society that is either tolerant or wise enough to allow for that. One of the really satisfying dimensions is his belief that all children are geniuses, and that in the world we live in we systematically stifle the little Beethovens and Einsteins. But in the Harmony their talents would be spotted, and the little Beethoven would be given a violin. Every Harmony is run by a twelve-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, and they have to retire at thirteen. I think he was right that at twelve the mind is as bright and intelligent as it will ever be.

He was very, very lonely. There are people who say he had no sex life at all apart from masturbation. He lived with his plants and his cats, and was desperately poor. He worked as a clerk, like Bartleby, in Lyon. He died in Paris, where he had begun to collect disciples, including lots of young socialists. Both Marx and Lenin read Fourier.


The Paris Review interviews are always prefaced by a short, idiosyncratic biography written by the interviewer (I assume), which act as a introduction. Guy Davenport's profile is so good that I want to repost it here:
On first picking up a copy of Guy Davenport's Tatlin! (1970), his first of eight volumes of stories and the book that initiated the major (and ongoing) phase of his career, you find on the cover a lovely, rather conventional telescopic photograph of the moon, three-quarters full, its craters and mares starkly discernible. Yet when you flip the book over, before so much as cracking the spine, you read—beneath a photograph of the author seated at a Greek ruin, his face, like that of the moon, partly obscured by shadow—this note: “front jacket: The Face of the Moon, 'painted from nature' by John Russell, c. 1795. Birmingham, The City Museum and Art Gallery.”
You will have stumbled, unwittingly though not by accident, onto the author's method, for this is a writer who, in the classic modernist style, is incessantly sending us back, reminding us that what seems newest is old, if not beyond time, and that what appears, or is, most radical in art and culture often has for its source “the archaic,” as Davenport has said in a previous interview, “the dawn of things, before betrayals and downstream mud.”
Davenport has published forty-six books of fiction, essays, and poetry, not counting the many to which he has contributed chapters and introductions, and for fifty years he has supplied magazines and newspapers with articles and reviews. He has translated Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Anakreon, Poliziano's Stanze, the Mimes of Herondas, and in his fiction one can find translations of Rilke, Cocteau, and others. He is also an accomplished visual artist. Six years ago Erik Anderson-Reece's A Balance of Quinces, a study of Davenport's graphics and paintings (and one of the most useful and perceptive introductions to his writing), was published by New Directions.
Despite threats of giving up writing after his receipt of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1992, Davenport has continued during the past decade to generate, if less prolifically, short stories and essays. His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.
Born in South Carolina in 1927 and having lived the past thirty-nine years in Lexington, Kentucky, Davenport has spent most of his life in the American South, but it would be hard to imagine a writer for whom the regional tag embraced by, or forced upon, so many of his contemporaries is less appropriate. His milieu has always been the world, his period the span of time between the Aurignacian, when the first daubs of pigment were applied at Lascaux, and this morning; his characters come from wherever people have fought to assert feeling and intelligence against tyranny and “illiteracy,” a word that Davenport repeatedly uses in the somewhat specialized sense of cultural oblivion. These characters, with few exceptions, are artists and philosophers, but Davenport's heroes are most often the crushed, the silenced, the annihilated, those whose triumph consists solely in the survival of some fragment of their ideas or of their example.
A painterly perception is one of the constants in his writing. It is Davenport who notices that if you set any of James Joyce's books on its spine and let gravity open it to the center, you will find a verbal allusion to “The House that Jack Built” and thereby (as Davenport shows) to the Labyrinth. It's he who writes, in A Balthus Notebook (a short volume singled out by the painter himself as “an exception among the texts about him” for its sharp, non-moralistic eye), that “in all of Balthus I find no clocks.” He is a master of the idiomatic sentence that seems commonsensical until it is read with the concentration that went into shaping it, at which point it reveals its depths, as when he writes, in the postscript to his Twelve Stories, “Making things is so human that psychology and philosophy have gotten nowhere in trying to account for it.” Another recurrent Davenport theme: that what is most essential to humanity lies at the point furthest from conventional scrutiny, where it remains inaccessible to minds bent on categorizing and, in the end, controlling it—safe, and sacred, in its unknowability.
This interview took place over the telephone and during three evenings in front of the fireplace at Davenport's house in Lexington, throughout which he drank black coffee and smoked Marlboro Reds, “not inhaling.” His tomcat, Ejnar (the name reflecting Davenport's confessed “Danophilia, or -mania,” a regular feature of his work) spent the hours in Davenport's lap or weaving through his legs. The living room is well described by Erik Anderson-Reece as “a monument to high modernism.” Books and paintings go from floor to ceiling, and several times during our conversations Davenport suddenly popped up from his chair, pulling down a book from one of the shelves in order to illustrate a point. Off to the right, as one enters the door, is an open study containing a table built according to a Rietveld design, on which sits an electric typewriter. Also in the study is the color copier used by Davenport in making his illustrated letters, a custom he borrowed from his old correspondent, James Laughlin. (The first page of a letter from Davenport will typically have, in the place of letterhead, a photograph or drawing—either one of his own or an image from somewhere that has interested him—followed by a short caption expanding on or explaining it.) 
A politely but stubbornly private man, Davenport's reluctance to express himself publicly other than in his work could account for the relatively few published interviews with him. Frequently, when some question strayed too close to what he deemed personal, he would interrupt by saying, matter-of-factly, “I thought we were talking about my work,” a boundary that was respected throughout. “Live unknown” (Epicurus) is one of his mottoes. Suffice it to say that he is not married but has been sharing his life for the past thirty years with Bonnie Jean Cox, whose name pops up occasionally in the books. He maintains a vigorous and far-flung correspondence. Davenport's tone in conversation tends to be not pedantic but didactic, as befits a man who made his living lecturing to undergraduates. In spite of that, he does suffer fools, as demonstrated by his graciousness and cooperation during the months it took to complete this interview.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

James Laughlin

I recently discovered that the entire archive of the Paris Review [link] is available online. Since then, I have become almost addicted to reading the interviews. One of the best I have come across is with James Laughlin [link], the famous American publisher who founded New Directions [link]. Reading the interview, which acts as something as an early history of New Directions, I couldn't help wondering how  the list of authors  (recently, for instance: W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, Anne Carson, Robert Walser, Enrique Vila-Matas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and so on) who have been published with New Directions, might compare the list those who have won the Nobel Prize (or any other prize for that matter).

What were your impressions of Stein?
She had great natural charm, tremendous charisma. Marvelous head. Those wonderful flashing eyes. A deep, firm voice. So I couldn't help but be very much impressed by her at times, except that often she'd erupt with crazy ideas. She thought Hitler was a great man . . . this before the war, of course, but how a Jewess could be attracted to such a notion at any time is difficult to understand. She was certainly a woman of strong opinions—indeed to the point of megalomania. She felt she had influenced everyone. We had a big fight one day when I mentioned I was reading Proust. She said, “How can you read junk like that? Don't you know, J., that Proust and Joyce both copied their work from The Making of Americans?” She finally cooled on me. I simply didn't accept everything she said. That was disrespectful.

And then you met Pound that same year?

Dudley Fitts, my old teacher at Choate, who had been corresponding with Pound for a number of years, gave me a letter of introduction to him. Fitts was a great linguist; he'd read everyone. He was a wonderful letter writer—his letters entranced Pound because here was someone who'd read in all the languages. Pound must have remembered. Because that fall, after my experience with Gertrude Stein, I went up to Paris, lived in a tiny room in an insurance office which I rented for seven dollars a month, and after a while, I wrote to Ezra, not expecting a reply, really, just asking if I could come down to Rapallo to see him . . . and to my astonishment he sent me a telegram: “Visibility high.” So I went down then to Rapallo. Ezra and I hit it off immediately. He found me an eager student, and certainly he was the thwarted professor. He found a room for me in the flat of an old German lady and I was enrolled in what he called the “Ezuversity.” No tuition.

I think that perhaps in earlier interviews or talks I may not have sufficiently stressed the way that Ezra completely changed, to use one of his phrases, my forma mentis, my way of looking at the world. I went to him with fairly conventional views about almost everything, and I left him with either very eccentric or radical views about everything— views which have persisted with me to the present day.

Social Credit?

Social Credit, political things, literary concepts. Poets whom I still like to read for my own pleasure are the ones he told me I should, the Pound canon as you find it in the ABC of Reading. Pound pushed me away from the kind of literature which was embalmed in the “beaneries” to a much more interlingual, international literature. That has persisted to this day. A great deal of what we do now at New Directions is still translations of foreign books. Last winter we did a Swedish novel, a Hungarian novel, and a Brazilian novel. And if you look at our annual anthology you'll find that often a third of it is made up of translations of foreign poets from all over the world. That concept came largely from Ezra, who in his critical writings was always saying that you could not understand poetry if you only worked with one language. He was a comparatist in the good sense of actually looking at texts in different languages and seeing what the writers were doing with them and comparing them one with another. He loved to compare Flaubert with Henry James, for example. He made judgments of that kind. To him it was all one world literature, even including the Chinese.

Friday, November 12, 2010

T. S. Eliot

[...] Far from its being accidental, Eliot’s fame was planned for, carefully cultivated, and nurtured once it arrived. From the first volume of Eliot’s letters, newly revised and just released in Great Britain*, we learn that, in 1919, when he was 31, he wrote to J.H. Woods, his philosophy teacher at Harvard: “There are only two ways in which a writer can become important—to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little.” He chose the latter: to write very little but always to dazzle. “My reputation in London is built upon a small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year,” he wrote. “The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
Eliot worked at Lloyd’s Bank between 1917 and 1925 as the head of a small department stationed in the basement and assigned the translation of foreign documents and overseeing the analysis of the economic behavior of foreign governments. When friends formed a foundation of sorts to bail him out of what was thought drudgery taking him from his creative work, or when he was offered a sub-editorship on the Athenaeum magazine, he eschewed both, preferring to remain at the bank. He felt that, as he put it, he could “influence London opinion and English literature in a better way” by remaining slightly outside of things. The bank, moreover, with its distance from the standard literary life, lent him, as he noted, “aura.” He wrote to his mother in 1919: “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and [working in the bank] I can also remain isolated and detached.” Those are the words of a man carefully but decidedly on the make. [...]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Daniël Robberechts

The writing below is the opening passage from Arriving in Avignon [link]by Daniël Robberechts, which was first published in Flemish in 1970, and has just appeared in English. I cannot appraise the book, because I haven't read it, which would normally prevent me from mentioning it, however, I can't help myself. There is something about the passage below, which attracts me (and quite a lot more of the book can be read at Google Books [link]). Besides, I have ordered my copy...  
In the diary that he has kept since he was eighteen, the name of the town is mentioned explicitly at least ten times within a period of four years. An investigation of the routes that he probably followed on the various journeys documented in the same diary and spread over eight years, including the abovementioned four, leads one, moreover, to the conclusion that he must have got into or out of a train in that town's station, or else must have traveled through that station on a train, or traveled in some other vehicle through or around the edge of that town, about twenty times. These are facts and figures that are difficult to argue with, and yet it’s quite possible that he’ll nonetheless maintain that Avignon means little or nothing to him. In response to that one should say that he ought to know better; that it is unlikely at best for someone who is not a professional traveler "just happening" “with impunity” to be repeatedly in the same place, about nine hundred kilometers from his hometown, on average three or perhaps four times a year over a period of eight years, and whose view of that place, because of his various visits, their dates often falling outside the usual holiday periods, must of course have differed considerably from that of those tourists for whom this town is just the first leg of a trip through the South of France, and then too from that of the vacationers who stop in at the town on their way to the Mediterranean coast and are only urged on to greater haste by all its southern features; and given, finally, that Avignon, though primarily a transit hub, has none of the cosmopolitan neutrality of other such cities—for instance, Paris, which he had to pass through whenever he traveled by rail—that it is, again, unlikely at best for someone like him, and a northerner to boot, to be so often in the same town and have it make no impression upon him. Alternatively, one could ask him curtly: Have you been to the town or not, yes or no?—“Of course I have.”—On more than one occasion?—“Definitely.”— Including at times of the year that for most of us would be unusual?—“Certainly.” Though actually, the main thing is to get him to accept that his experience of Avignon as an essentially arbitrary town (which could thus be replaced either by Prague, a town he’s never set foot in, or indeed by his hometown) and perhaps even as an arbitrary object (just not so central an object, so exclusively personal, that any statement about it would become problematic)—however fragmentary and unsystematic this experience, however inadequate for a historian, a geographer, an economist, a sociologist, an archaeologist, a compiler of travel guides, or even a tourist—precisely because of its randomness, its physical, synthetic innocence, offers the chance of an exploration, of course lacking the thoroughness of a scientific research project, but being therefore a report that would have room for everything that scientists must neglect for the sake of objectivity: an ordinary human statement that might satisfy in us precisely what all scientific literature fails to satisfy.

And then it turns out that his very first contact with the town on the Rhone (apart from a purely verbal one, when as a toddler he had learned to sing the dance tune that goes: Sur le pont / d’Avignon / on y danse, on y danse / sur le pont d’Avignon / on y danse tous en rond—and it was only recently that he’d heard that the lyrics originally went Sous le pont d’Avignon, when the Pont Saint-Bénezet still spanned the river and people crossed in the shadow of its arches to dance on the île de la Barthelasse) actually predates the earliest entries in the preserved diary by several years: He was fourteen, and the first and ultimately last full-force family trip in the first post-war car through Southwest France and Northern Spain had been interrupted at the start of the return journey in the village of Remoulins (near Pont-du-Gard on the right bank of the Rhone) by a breakdown requiring the replacement of parts that in the France of the time were obtainable only in Paris; for him, however, since he had passed the entrance exam to a boarding school where the academic year began earlier than elsewhere, a speedy return to Brussels was required, so it was decided that he would travel home with his mother by train, his older brother accompanying them as far as Paris, while the father, sister, and younger brother would stay in Remoulins. That’s as far as the anecdote goes.

Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers of Arriving in Avignon, have a small biography of Robberechts on there website [link], which I have copied below:
The Flemish writer Daniël Robberechts (1937-1992) refused to identify his books as novels, stories, or essays, according them all equal status as, simply, writing.  This liberation from genre gives his work, for all its apparent simplicity, an elusive, hypnotic quality, and no more so than in his debut, Arriving in Avignon, which records a young man's first encounter with that labyrinthine city, and his likewise meandering relationship with a girl from his home town--and indeed virtually every woman he meets.  Hesistant and cautious, unable quite to enter nor turn away, the young man seems to circle Avignon endlessly, in the process attempting to delay his inevitable descent into maturity and monogamy.  What seems at first like a cross between a memoir and a guidebook comes in time to be the story of a young man's dogged yet futile quest to know his own mind--unless it's the ancient city of Avignon itself that is our real protagonist: a mystery that can be approached, but never wholly solved.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Marguerite Duras

 [...] Before her cure, she was holed up in her château dictating one much-worked-on line a day to Andréa, who would type it up. Then they would start uncorking cheap Bordeaux and she’d drink two glasses, vomit, then continue on till she’d drunk as many as nine liters and would pass out. She could no longer walk, or scarcely. She said she drank because she knew God did not exist. Her very sympathetic doctor would visit her almost daily and offer to take her to the hospital, but only if she wanted to live. She seemed undecided for a long time but at last she opted for life since she was determined to finish a book that she’d already started and was very keen about. [...]
The passage above is from the article, "In Love with Duras," by Edmund White [link], which I read out of curiosity, provoked by a strong admiration for Duras's novel The Lover[link].


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Péter Nádas

To begin, I will hardly mention that The Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas, is technically perfect, because, as rare as technical perfection (and, of course, I am being slightly excessive) is, in prose, or anything else for that matter, this book, which is overpowering, impressed me in many ways, and I want to start by mentioning those ways that are the most personal, and, in my mind, the least obvious and, probably, the least important. I will begin with the author's note:
It is my pleasant duty to state that what I have written is not my own memoirs. I have written a novel, the recollection of several people separated by time, somewhat in the manner of Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The memoirists might be conceivably all be me, though none of them is. So the locations, names, events, and the situations in the story aren't real but, rather, products of a novelist's imagination. Should anyone recognize someone, or - God forbid! - should any event, name, or situation match actual ones, that can only be a fatal coincidence, and in this respect, if in no other, I am compelled to disclaim responsibility.
The author's note, of The Book of Memories, I read before anything else: before the blurb; before the first page; before the glorious Susan Sontag quote – The greatest novel written in our time […] – on the front cover of the recent Picador reprinting; and, before reading even a page of the novel, picked at random, from somewhere inside the enormous book, which is a long-standing and unselfconscious practice of mine that I almost always adhere to when I am contemplating a new book purchase. I'm not sure exactly what I knew of Péter Nádas – I knew his name at least, that is certain – before the day I bought his book, although I suspect that when I saw the title on the shelf, spine-out, something registered with me: perhaps the memory of an article I once read, or a friend’s remark from long ago? To be clear, it was not a book I had planned to read. And, yet, for whatever reason, recently, in a crowded (!) and fashionable (!!) bookstore, I pulled The Book of Memories from the shelf, and turned to the author's note, which, I think, was a good and proper introduction to Nádas, and I am very glad it happened. 

In his author’s note, Nádas establishes, with typically delicate precision, as he sidesteps the possibility of his book being confused with fact, his refusal to take for granted anything at all, which is characteristic of The Book of Memories. Turns of phrase that might seem to protrude, or to be excessive, are irreplaceable to Nádas, whose subject is consciousness, and whose setting is Communist Eastern Europe. History is at its most severe and hard-nosed, and is experienced with rare sensitivity and sensuality; the kind of drawn-out, aesthetic, and prosaic reflection that is characteristic (normally, or, more precisely, in Proust) of the bourgeois drawing rooms of twentieth century, modernist literature.

This vision is delivered by a narrator, in fact, by multiple narrators, for whom there is no limit to the number of times a human experience – sexual desire, mistrust, jealousy, disgust – can be broken down into smaller and smaller units, considered and reconsidered until the moment itself, which just seemed under thorough investigation, about to give up answers and offer meaning, has become impossibly distant, and vertiginously far below. Nádas rises to heights that few authors, which I have ever read, can reach.
Come to think of it, he never set foot in the house on Stargarderstrasse either; we were forever hiding or, more precisely, we were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, which was something I was quite adept at, it came easily to me, a sort of behaviour that alluded, unpleasantly, to my past: once, on a Sunday afternoon in front of the building, when Stargarderstrasse was all but deserted, though anyone could have concealed himself behind drawn curtains, on a dull-gray November afternoon when everyone was sitting at home watching TV, drinking coffee, and we both felt we could not say goodbye, we didn’t really have to, we could have stayed with each other, except that we’d been together for three days and our protective shell which kept everything and everyone out was getting thicker and thicker and we had to break out of it, we had to part, spend at least one night alone – I wanted to take a bath, and Melchior’s flat had no bathroom, you had to use a washbowl or the kitchen sink, I felt dirty, wanted to be alone for the afternoon and evening at least, catch my breath, and then, before midnight, run downstairs and call him from a public phone, hear his voice while leaning against the cold glass of the booth, and perhaps go back to his place – and we agreed that he would walk me to the corner of Dimitroffstrasse, and then he’d buy cigarettes at the tobacco shop under the elevated that stayed open on Sunday, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away from each other; first he said he’d walk me only one more block, then I asked him to walk another; we couldn’t just shake hands, it would have been ridiculous, awkward, and cowardly, but we had to do something; we avoided looking at each other, and then he held out his hand, if only because we wanted to touch some part of each other, and so we kept holding hands; there was no one on the street, but this was not enough, it was his mouth that I wanted, there, in front of the house, that Sunday afternoon.

So, I might say that it feels appropriate that I started my relationship with The Book of Memories, in which the question of authorship poses itself, almost by force, with a reading the author’s note. Nádas’s central narrator is an author; he is the author of the memoir at the centre of the novel, which could almost be said to constitute the novel, and he is also the author of a partial novel, set in the previous century, that is within, or alongside, and which interacts with, explains, and compliments, the story of his own life. Time is a permeable membrane, through which the two narrators, one the product of the other’s imagination, move. Nádas allows the present to glide decades into past, mimicking the natural behaviour of memory. And then appears a third voices that announces itself with a shock, intruding into the narrative in such a way that the novel changes, not in shape or in form, but as if appearing to shed its skin.

I will bring to a close this attempt to convey admiration and explain something that I found very difficult to understand myself: The Book of Memories is great, in every sense of the word, and grand, and beautiful, and my sentences cannot describe its own, which, as I mentioned at the start, I found, in some ways, perfect.


And, although I am not sure if I should try anymore to communicate the essence of this book, there are others who have written articles on Péter Nádas, and reviews of his work:

Eva Hofmann, in her review of The Book of Memories, “The Soul of Proust Under Socialism” [link], in which a good summary of the plot can be found (I didn’t have the heart or the ability to attempt one myself), wrote: 
The many parallels between the two writers -- they are both prone to incestuous longings and schizophrenic splitting, both become involved in bisexual triangles -- suggest a reiteration of archetypal urges, situations and scenarios, in history as well as in individual lives. Recurrence is inscribed in the novel's form, which mimics the movements of memory and glides effortlessly from the present into successive strata of the past. For the contemporary narrator, his adult affairs revive recollections of growing up in postwar Budapest, and the impetuous, multivalent infatuations of his adolescence, especially with a compellingly beautiful boy named Krisztian. The youthful narrator -- detached, precocious, aware of every stirring of his own impulses -- feels both magnetically attracted to and painfully excluded by his schoolmates, whose bondings and hostilities he observes with an almost preternatural sensitivity. At the same time, he is electrically alert to currents of affection and conflict within his own family. His charismatic, intimidating father is the state prosecutor in the Stalinist regime, and may have heinously informed on a friend who is also his wife's lover. The narrator himself engages in slyly sadistic games with his retarded sister and in vengeful rummagings through his father's secret papers. His most poignant feelings are reserved for his terminally ill but charming mother, with whom he shares nearly forbidden tenderness.
There is a also a notable review of Fire and Knowledge by Deborah Eisenberg [link], and a profile of Nádas on the New York Times website [link].

And what of his other books? Susan Sontag, the great champion of Nádas in English, in a short article on his plays [link], had the following remark to make:
Péter Nádas has written in a variety of forms since his first book, a collection of stories published in 1965; anglophone readers had to wait until 1997 to discover him, when A Book of Memories (1986), his maximal masterpiece, finally appeared in English. To start one’s reading of a major writer with that writer’s most ambitious, most accomplished, bulkiest book is bound to foster misreadings. There are sizable peaks surrounding this Everest. But it will take time to take their measure.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Milan Kundera

I'm not sure yet whether I will read Milan Kundera's new book of criticism: Encounter. I remember reading The Art of the Novel very fondly and I suspect that, at the time it had a strong influence on my reading, the effects of which may still be visible - I don't know. In fact, to this day, every time I cross paths with his opinions, he always seems to be saying things I find interesting (and, more importantly, readable), even if I do not agree with him. But, what does it matter if I agree with him, or not? Take the comments in the interview bellow as an example.

The Dalkey Archive website [link] has a catalog of interviews, with authors such as Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso and William Gaddis, available on its website. Those which I have read, I have enjoyed. I have copied an excerpt from the interview of Kundera, conducted by Lois Oppenheim.
[...] Lois Oppenheim: This seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, I can’t see what more could be wanted than the guarantee of authenticity that the copyright provides. You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are?

Milan Kundera: Let’s simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe’s great novelists. Since Proust, I can’t see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don’t consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them.

From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel’s past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "half-time" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation—let’s avoid any misunderstanding here: I’m not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don’t like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality.

These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn’t live through the first half-time of the history of the novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being—but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche’s eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche’s eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue.
According to the promotional material, Kundera takes the following people (and their work) as his subjects in Encounter: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Anatole France, Curzio Malaparte, Francis Bacon, Leos Janácek, Federico Fellini, and Dostoyevsky.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Elif Batuman

Lately, I have enjoyed reading anything by Elif Batuman [link]

First, there was her debut book. A collection of essays called, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them:

Batuman writes well about great books (most of her writing can be accessed via her website [link]).  I can't help thinking that it is (almost) always a pleasure to read an author, or critic, writing about something they love (not admire, love). Not because love might improve the quality of criticism - probably the opposite, if anything - but because the willingness of the writing sings from the page. The first essay in the book, "Babel in California", is full of humour and affection (and, I think, love) for Issac Babel. And, it is a good example of Batuman's eye for absurdity and her cleverness:
The first time I read Issac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even "realized" the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: "You're going to die. And you're going to die. And you're going to die." I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.
The New York Times review of The Possessed [link] neatly described what makes the book wonderful:
Elif Batuman is clearly one of those people whom Babel described, in one of his Odessa stories, as having “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Her autumnal impulses are balanced by jumpy, satirical ones. It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
But, Batuman does not always write with love. Some of the most eyebrow-raising moments in take place when she targets (perhaps that is a bit strong) the institution of Creative Writing. In the introduction to The Possessed, she writes about an experience at a writer's workshop: 
I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?

In the second example of her writing I came across, Get a Real Degree, published in the London Review of Books [link], she returns to this topic, this time as part of a book review:
Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition. [...]
To my mind, the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing, and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates. Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’). [...] 
Might the ideal of ‘creativity’, taken as a supremely valuable, supremely human faculty, be harmful to a writer’s formation? It seems ominous that the role of creativity in American education originates, as McGurl observes, in Cold War rhetoric: through creativity, America was going to prevail over its ‘relentlessly drab ideological competitor’ and ‘outdo the group-thinking Communist enemy’. The value placed on creativity and originality causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether. One telling result of this value is a gap in quality between American literary fiction and non-fiction today. Many of the best journalistic and memoiristic essays in the world today are being written in America. I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays. This is one of many brilliant observations in David Shields’s recent manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he argues that we had best give up the novel altogether. But I don’t think the novel is dead – or, more accurately, I don’t see why it has to be dead. It’s simply being produced under the kinds of mistaken assumption that we don’t make when it comes to non-fiction. Non-fiction is about some real thing in the world, some story that someone had to go out and pursue. It’s about real people and real books, which are, after all, also objects in the world. Why can’t the novel expand to include these things, which were once – in Don Quixote, for example – a part of its purview? [...]
In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books. [...]
What really made me fall for Batuman's writing, however, was not her scorn for the craft of writing (although I found myself making small noises of agreement as I read...), but a recent article in the New York Times called Kafka's Last Trial [link]. Her subject is the bizarre legal goings-on that have been taking place in Israel; people are trying to decide what to do with the things Kafka wrote. Batuman's article is great:
[...] One afternoon during my stay in Tel Aviv, I headed to Spinoza Street on the off-chance that Eva Hoffe was home and felt like talking to the press. I was accompanied by Avi Steinberg, an American writer living at the time in Jerusalem. I had become acquainted with Steinberg two months earlier, when he mailed me the galleys of a memoir he wrote about his experiences as a prison librarian. In subsequent correspondence, I mentioned my impending Kafkaesque assignment to report on a “Kafka archive kept for decades in a cat-infested Tel Aviv flat,” confessing to some apprehensions that I would be unable to locate the apartment. Steinberg promptly replied that the address was 23 Spinoza Street, that he had recently rung the doorbell himself but had no answer and that “last week in court, Eva Hoffe’s sweater was covered in animal hairs, possibly originating from a cat or cats.”

Walking through the city center, we discussed the mystery of Kafka’s testament. Steinberg saw in Kafka’s cryptic letter to Brod another version of the parable of Abraham and Isaac. (Kafka wrote several retellings of this story in 1921, the same year he first mentioned to Brod that he wanted his work to be burned.) Kafka, Steinberg suggested, wanted to prove that he was ready to incinerate the child of his creation, simultaneously knowing and not knowing that Brod would step in and play the role of the angel.

“The thing is,” Steinberg said, “we only have Brod’s word for any of this. What if Kafka never even told him to burn his stuff? Has anyone ever seen that letter? What if this is all some big idea Brod had?”

Similarly paranoid thoughts cross the mind of nearly everyone who studies Kafka. At a certain point you realize that everything — even the picture of Brod as a good-natured busybody who ignored Kafka’s wishes — comes from Brod himself. “Don’t write this down — I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the academic community,” one scholar told me, having ventured the idea that Brod himself had composed all of Kafka’s writings and, alarmed by their strangeness, attributed them to a reclusive friend who worked at an insurance office.

Spinoza Street is in a quiet residential neighborhood lined by flat-roofed stucco buildings. The dingy off-pink stucco facade of No. 23 was partly obscured by a tree with enormous glossy leaves that were apparently being eaten away by something. Parked under the tree were a broken shopping cart and an old bicycle. Behind a large protruding window, enclosed by two layers of metal grillwork, lay an indistinct heap of cats. Some commotion involving a blackbird took place in one of the trees, causing six or so cats to look up in unison, elongating their necks. The breeze turned. A terrible smell wafted toward us. [...]

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hans Fallada

Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the name Hans Fallada, lived a chaotic life. Born in 1893 in Greifswald in north-east Germany, he was the son of a lawyer who was later appointed a judge. At the age of 18 he killed a schoolfriend in a duel, and spent much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers.
Fallada married in 1929, and for a while straightened out. His 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - was nun? ("Little Man - What Now?") brought him praise from Thomas Mann, international success, a Hollywood film and a small farm. Under the Nazis, Fallada wrote and published a series of gritty novels of the type that German critics call neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity. In 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.

At the end of the war, Fallada was embraced by the new East German literary authorities. In 1947, he published with Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein ("Each dies only for himself") which is here called Alone in Berlin. It was the first novel by a German author to take as its theme the small-scale domestic resistance to the National Socialists. The same year, weakened by years of alcoholism and drug-taking, Fallada died of a heart attack.

Traces of this unruly life are scattered through Alone in Berlin: brawling, delirium tremens, clinics and drying-out establishments, country idylls, theft, blackmail, morphine, and a vivid world of sub-proletarian swindling that exploits and is exploited by the Nazis. It is remarkable that Fallada, just months before his death, could compose a long novel that, after an overcrowded beginning, advances so confidently to its conclusion.

The paragraphs above are the open lines from the Guardian's review of Alone in Berlin [link], which Primo Levi called, The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis. Those paragraphs are also a neat introduction to the incredible life of Hans Fallada, who was run over by a horse when he was 16 and, during the Second World War, recruited by Goebbels to write an anti-Semitic tract (he never did).  There is also an article about Fallada at Tablet Magazine [link] and a good review of Every Man Dies Alone [link] (the US title) at the New York Times [link], which opens with this line: A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred [...].

Denis Johnson, the publisher at Melville House who rediscovered Fallada [link], did a radio interview recently with Leonard Lopate, for a segment called "Underappreciated Literature" [link]. He speaks well, giving some new and incredible details, about Hans Fallada's life and his republication in English (for example, Hans Fallada changed his name to avoid shaming his father who was a supreme court judge). It's a great interview, the date of which would have coincided with Fallada 117th birthday (he was born the 21st of July 1893).

 Denis Johnson on Hans Fallada:

The "Underappreciated Literature" [link] series includes some brilliant interviews with authors,  critics, scholars, translators etc. about obscure writers. The episodes on Louis Couperus, Henry Green, Robert Musil, Paul von Heyse and Andre Bely are the highlights.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vladimir Nabokov

On an afternoon not long ago, I read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov [link]. I suspect that there is no need for me to write anything about the book - the Internet is already saturated with Nabokov criticism [link] - but Pale Fire is so uncannily good, so beautifully intricate that I am compelled to write something brief, in the vague, optimistic hope of understanding this book better or, more precisely, of coming closer to a work of art that is seemingly (and brilliantly) so unknowable. 

Pale Fire impressed me in a way that none of Nabokov's other books ever have before (I haven't read all of his work: a selection of his English novels, a translation of one of his Russian novels, The Luzhin Defense [link], and some of his Lectures on Literature [link]). It is typically clever and verbally inventive, but, formally, it is exceptionally inventive. The form is parodic; the book presents itself as a volume of poetry, published posthumously (the alliteration is unfortunate). Rather than narrowing the scope for the novel, this form - which divides the book into four pieces: Forward, Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos, Notes, and Index - opens up the narrative to an endless sequence of imaginative possibilities, which are hilarious and tragic. A narrator, Charles Kinbote, attends whimsically and ironically to stern, intellectual responsibilities. He is the editor of Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, a recently deceased friend, and, almost out of nowhere, a story appears, full of thought and personality:
I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your stool or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gently - not fall, not jump - but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised by how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is form an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your pack parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off - farewell shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the minuscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality.
In an article (well worth reading), entitled The Problem with Nabokov [link], that coincided with the publication of The Original of Laura [link], Martin Amis attempted bravely to describe the essence of Nabokov:
They call it a "shimmer" – a glint, a glitter, a glisten. The Nabokovian essence is a miraculously fertile instability, where without warning the words detach themselves from the everyday and streak off like flares in a night sky, illuminating hidden versts of longing and terror.
Recently, Penguin decided to reissue all of Nabokov's work, including the books he wrote in Russian, living as an exile in Berlin. There is an thorough article by Leslie Chamberlain, called Nabokov in Berlin, on the Standpoint page [link].
And, this is a good excuse to post the well-watched video of Nabokov discussing Lolita with Lionel Trilling (who very nearly steals the show: "We can't trust a creative writer to say what he has done. He can say what he meant to do, but even then, we don't have to believe him!" And: "All great love affairs are tragic"), and a man in a tuxedo with a pencil mustache.  At one of my favourite moments in the video, the three men stand up, simultaneously and spontaneously, and move from the desk to the couches, which I have always interpreted as a homely, comforting gesture. 

It should be mentioned that this video also includes the famous moment when Nabokov revealed his inspiration for Lolita. And then there are the clouds of cigarette smoke...