1. Recently, for the fourth or fifth time in my life, I started trying to read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I bought my copy many years ago, after falling in love with his story collections and enjoying Light Years, probably his best-known novel. A Sport and a Pastime, though not obscure, has a whiff of the occult about it, with its hazy voyeuristic sex and a title taken from the Koran. It is commonly and unironically referred to as an “erotic masterpiece.” Writing for The New York Times Review of Books, Reynolds Price said, “Of living novelists, none has produced a novel I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime…it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
Despite these points of interest and an agreeable running length of right around 200 pages, over two decades, I’ve found myself consistently stymied by something in this novel. I can still clearly remember the thrill of finding it at a used bookstore (it was, I believe, out of print at the time, or at any rate not widely available), taking it home, cracking it open along with a beer, and…not reading it.
This has been my experience with A Sport and a Pastime, our relationship, so to speak, over the last two decades. Maybe it’s the strange narrative setup, the unnamed narrator employed mostly as a camera for the erotic exploits of the central couple. Maybe it’s the slowness of the plot. More likely, I think, it’s something wrong with me.
There is a type of book, I find, that falls in this
category: books that resist you. This is different from books you think are
bad, or books you don’t want to read. These are books you want to read, but for
some reason are unable to. These are books that, if anything, you somehow fail,
not being up to the task.
2. The obverse of this is the kind of book you helplessly return to again and again. Some personal examples: The Patrick Melrose cycle, Disgrace, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flannery O’Connor’s The Collected Stories, The Big Sleep, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary. These are books that my taste and intellect, such as they are, somehow notch into like teeth into a greater gear. Sometimes you outgrow these books, as I feel I have with, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, but by and large these are books that I have read throughout my adulthood and continue getting different things out of with each read.
I’m not sure this is a good thing. In a way, this kind of reading preserves a personal stasis, forever reconfirming your excellent taste in literature, always agreeing with you. They are the yes-men of your library—in reading, as in life, it is good to find people who will tell you no: No, maybe you are not smart enough for this; no, you are not entitled to an immediate endorphin release upon opening me up; no, you cannot read me.
3. Another book of the former type: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This is an especially irksome one, a novel I’ve been attracted to for years, then repulsed by every time I open the cover. My experience with this kind of book does feel, in its way, analogous to a certain kind of romantic flirtation, a pas de deux of advance and retreat—never quite enough advance to win the book’s affection; never quite enough retreat to finally put me off. I have long been drawn to The Volcano and Lowry’s shared mythos: suicidal alcoholism in a hot country. I’m intrigued by its aura and stature as one of the greatest books of the century. I want to read it.
But man, that first chapter—I’ve read it several times and never made it any further. From memory: the initial, oblique conversation between Laruelle and Dr. Vigil (okay, I looked these up) on the hotel balcony as they sip anis and gaze out at the titular volcano; the references to the Consul, Fermin (who I am aware, theoretically, will at some point become the actual main character), and shared recollections of his misbehavior and disappearance; Laruelle’s interminable saunter down the hill and into town; an equally protracted sojourn at a bar that, again, if memory serves, is strangely connected to a movie theater. There, Laruelle is given a book for some reason. Other things happen, or don’t. My memory of that chapter feels consistent with the mode in which I have most frequently encountered it: falling asleep in bed. Which is to say that the first part is most vivid, and, as it goes on, the lights grow dimmer and the enterprise seems to begin repeating itself.
4. But this is clearly user error. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice, with both Under the Volcano and A Sport and a Pastime, a personal difficulty with books that dwell too long in the perspective of a peripheral character. No matter how good the language and description—and the language and description in Under the Volcano are, of course, very good—at a certain point I want it to get a move on. The truth probably is that I am not an especially good, or patient, reader. Maybe good compared to the average casual reader, but not compared to many other writers and academics I know, who seem to omnivorously inhale all manner of book no matter how difficult or slow, like woodchippers dispatching balsa.
The truth probably is that my normal reading taste level lands somewhere just north of middlebrow. I have read Ulysses (and is there a more loathsome sentence to type than this?—the literary equivalent of mentioning your SAT score). But I skipped large swaths of the especially difficult chapters like “Proteus” and “Oxen of the Sun.” My highbrow taste is defined by a narrow niche of books that are well-written and also, for lack of a better word, fun.
Nabokov’s novels, for example—as strenuously modern and well-written as they are, they also move. They are not boring. The reader’s attention is rewarded like a good dog, receiving periodic treats for trotting along behind the master. “Fun” is a strange descriptor to apply to a book about pedophilia, but in spite of its subject matter, Lolita is, well, a pretty rollicking read (really, this is the novel’s perverse central project, to coax a reader into an aesthetic pleasure that mirrors, horribly, Humbert’s), jammed with the darkest comedy, suspense, wordplay, twists, turns, and the climactic ending to end all climactic endings. It is fun, as is Pnin, as is Pale Fire. Even early juvenilia like The Eye keeps you interested.
5. Interestingness, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But would it be completely unfair to say that a large swath of what we consider literary fiction is, by its nature and/or by design, uneventful? My Struggle is an obvious recent example—the first 200 pages of Book One are the story of the time young Karl Ove and a friend tried (spoiler alert: successfully) to get a case of beer to a high school party. Later, he devotes dozens of pages to the description of cleaning a bathroom.
Knausgaard’s work may provide an extreme example, but it remains generally true that in what we consider highbrow literary fiction, plotlessness often serves as a genre and status marker. Presumably this has something to do with a semi-consciously received idea of literary fiction being realistic fiction, and reality being uneventful. Brian Cox, portraying the screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Adaptation, had this to say on the matter:
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!
My Struggle received overwhelming critical praise for its rejection of that stuff and for its strenuous, almost ostentatious, dramatization of the banal and prosaic—all of the bits that typically get cut out of plot-driven fiction. Zadie Smith, praising the books, said, “Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting.” The intellectual enshrinement of non-event is worth considering on its merits for a moment. It might be argued that this high literary conception of real life as a frictionless enactment of societal rituals, unconscious consumerism, and media absorption is essentially a safe, bourgeois version of reality, and that plot-free literary fiction aestheticizes that principle of non-event. And so it might further be argued that literature that tests a reader’s ability to endure boredom and plotlessness is, on some level, testing the degree of that reader’s integration into the late capitalist fantasy of a perfectly isolated and insulated existence just as much as a writer like James Patterson affirms that integration by the obverse means of testing a reader’s willingness to accept product as art. The extremes of event and non-event both affirm this version.
6.Then again, maybe (probably) this is bullshit, rigging up an objective rationale for personal taste. And besides, I can think of so many counterexamples—books in which nothing much happens that I adore. The Outline trilogy, for example, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I would listen to Faye listening to people until the end of time; I’d follow Lerner’s valium-popping liar Adam Gordon to the ends of the world. In the end, it probably just comes down to something ineffable and mysterious in the writing. That connection between author and reader, the partnership and compact that must occur, something in the handshake that slips, that doesn’t quite hold.
R.L. Stine’s horror adventures for kids, Goosebumps, are apparently the second best selling book series in history, right behind the exploits of the world’s most famous wizard.
As a lifelong Goosebumps fan, I find this endlessly puzzling.
It is not like I am alone in my adoration. Stine has his share of devotees. Goosebumps recently got a movie and will soon get a second one. The first film, starring Jack Black as a cursed RL Stine, is exactly the gooey mashup of random monsters, dorky characters, and screwball humor Goosebumps fans find palatable—or are compelled to appreciate after reading too many Goosebumps early on.
… And yet.
Compare the state of the Goosebumps fandom to their main commercial rival, Harry Potter, its ending lines inked on countless forearms all the world over, its jewelry hanging from the necks and wrists of not a few respectable adults I know. Harry Potter has turned England into the kind of theme park that would make Jean Baudrillard, with his Disneyan America, break into heavy breathing. People cue at King’s Cross to take pictures as they cross to Platform 9 ¾. Shops all over Oxford sell Gryffindor hoodies and full-size Hogwarts banners. Hell—J.K. Rowling has a double West End show that is honestly overpriced, especially considering every child in England is going to sonic-attack their parents and go on hunger strikes until they are sedated or brought to the play.
Goosebumps merchandise does exist, but it is, unfailingly, kid’s stuff, phosphorescent plastic monsters and lunch boxes, mostly originating in the forgotten folds of the 1990s.
Let me put it this way: would anyone spend somewhere between $110 and $350 to see a double Goosebumps show on Broadway? The idea is ridiculous (although I would do it).
C.S. Lewis famously said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that the children’s books that struck me the most as a kid were precisely those I don’t get as an adult.
No matter how hard one tries, childhood is bound to remain inaccessible, except in glimpses, bouts of genuine nostalgia, the occasional moment of awe. As such, to really reread the Goosebumps books past 13 you need to be the kind of adult who is comfortable playing with Legos—and even then, chances are you’ll feel as if you’re playing with your old toys. Some will be beautiful, some will be crap toxic plastic, but the magic you had endowed them with and the tales you had inscribed in them will be forever gone. They are never coming back. Reader beware indeed.
But it seems to me that my extensive experience with Goosebumps between the age of eight and 13 taught me many of the lessons I still hold dear when approaching literature of all kinds, and dare I say it, while living the rest of my life too. I was recently bored by HBO’s Westworld, whose entire plot and major twists—minus the constant philosophical essay-fodder—is condensed in the 100 pages of A Shocker on Shock Street. I have never met an unreliable narrator able to trick me for long, not since I accompanied Billy throughout Welcome to Camp Nightmare only to find out he was an alien all along. So here, then, is an apologia for R.L. Stine’s work, in the form of a list of lessons I learned reading Goosebumps.
1. No One Cares
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest weaves an elaborate reflection on the dangers of solipsism and self-absorption. On how we are unable to talk meaningfully about vast horrors—depression, werewolves—because our interlocutors, being human, will be too focused on their own inner lives, and on their own personal horrors, to fully open up and listen.
You find plenty of that all over Goosebumps. Even the most basic message—mom, there is a monster in the kitchen, could you come into the kitchen to see the monster that is in the kitchen?—is nigh impossible to deliver. You stutter or don’t make sense; people are too troubled to listen; they have their own personal miseries to think about, their prize-winning gardens and creaky kitchen cabinets turned into all-consuming worries.
This, incidentally, is a rare instance of a Goosebumps theme that speaks to you louder as an adult, once you have had the chance to mumble your way through a couple of job interviews, declarations of love, coffees with high school friends who won’t stop looking at their phones, and you know how hard it is to say the simplest things.
2. The Greatest Horrors Are Small-Scale
Like most kids, when I was little I was convinced my hometown was the center of the universe. A walk to the city center was not something undertaken lightly. Trips to the countryside or to gargantuan Milano had the overtones of quests. My school was a castle, its unexplored corridors holding potential mazes and monsters.
In time, this conviction crumbled away, but when it was there it was made all the more stronger by being instinctive, and unquestioned. It is one of the genius features of Stine’s Goosebumps that its horrors are often very limited, confined. The local librarian turns into a monster at night. Something wicked lives in my basement. The bullies at my school have a terrible secret.
When all of your world is confined to your town or neighborhood, the idea that even a small corner of it is given up to the unknown is terrifying beyond belief. And the fact that these dangers are local and observable rather than absolute and invincible makes it all the more hideous when everyone fails—again—to care.
This, by the way, is one of the key points of Stephen King’s It—spiritual godfather of all Goosebumps books.
3. Assumptions Will Get You Nowhere
On a basic level, this teaches you not to trust the surprisingly nice girl you met at Summer camp. Sure, it has something to do with the basics of narrative suspense: the old man living in the swamp who everyone says is a werewolf is clearly not going to be the werewolf that’s killing all those deer.
Beyond this, Goosebumps—like much horror literature—are a crash course in suspended judgment and unreliable narrators. They teach you that the supposed All-American kid telling you her life story may well be an alien, a monster, a ghost, or a dog. In doubt, question what you’re being told. Use your head. Keep that in mind when you pick up Pale Fire.
4. Adulthood Is a Scam
Michael Chabon’s essay “Faking It”—from Manhood for Amateurs—confirmed a suspicion I have harbored all my life: that being a father and adult who knows how to fix furniture, handle emergencies, and ensure the safety of the entire household, is mostly a matter of pose.
This suspicion was first instilled in me by Stine. Adults in Goosebumps, where not evil, are unfailingly hopeless. The series unfailingly resonates with anyone who was picked on by a teacher (justly or unjustly is besides the point) only to be ignored by their parents.
Adults invest so much belief in this scam they call adulthood that, in order to stop the International Children Revolution, they will occasionally side with the evil piano teacher who’s going to murder little Jerry, rather than acknowledge he may be on to something.
5. It’s Okay to Be Bad
It’s actually okay to be full-fledged Evil. If you are going to grow fangs in a few years and eat people, listen: you do you. People will call you a monster, but you know what? If you accept what you are, chances are you’ll be alright. Monsters are always happy at the end of Goosebumps books; it’s the people who obsess over normality that end up miserable.
6. Be Careful What You Wish For
As in the classic Goosebumps book, Be Careful What You Wish For. Children’s longings can reach unbearable magnitude. I really want that game; I will burst into flames and die if I have to wait the 10 full days that separate me from Christmas.
But longings are bizarre things, liable to bite you on the ass. You wanted to be a stage magician? Now you’ll see the stages of the whole world…as a white rabbit. You wanted to go to sleep in that bizarre bed in your home’s attic (admittedly not the most enlightened incipit in the series)? Expect bad shit.
7. Life Is a Game Where You Don’t Know the Rules
And it’s not one of those progressive modern board games where the point is to have a lovely time and bond. The point is to manage your resources, outsmart your opponents, and win. It will happen that you don’t get the rules. It is going to be humiliating, and to harm you.
The more straightforward staging of this theme occurs in The Beast from the East, where the main characters are literally caught in a game played by blue monsters whose rules are way past their grasp. The loser gets eaten.
A subtler, more useful variant can be found in all the Goosebumps—and there’s many—where characters have to navigate a new environment, like a school or neighborhood. You won’t understand why everyone is so scared of the cave out of town. No one’s sure what’s the deal with the director of this Summer camp. But be assured that you need to figure that out, and quick.
What Goosebumps do not tell you is that what in grade school may look like a temporary situation—so I don’t get why some things have to be the way they are because I am a kid!—never really stops. The age of 30, once a bit of anecdotal nonsense, is starting to loom on my horizon like a terribly certainty. I still haven’t found life’s rules manual.
8. Two Final Maxims
It doesn’t matter if things seem to work out and everything seems to make sense. It doesn’t matter if you are happy, serene, satisfied. Something horrible is going to happen to you.
Also: not only do monsters exist, not only are they literally everywhere, but if you think about it a while, you may realize you are one of them yourself.
How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland — a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky — one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon.
But that wouldn’t be true. Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders. Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont. The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life.
As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden.
But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen — and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller.
Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes. And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter. His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents. When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later.
These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants — for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.” When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.” His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery.
Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand. His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave — readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself.
But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing.
Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many. He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood? Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.”
For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual. This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory.
Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews. His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as “one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today.”
You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works — in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book.
Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight. This book is a very good place to start that process.
Imagine a man introducing himself to you, repeatedly. The man is a novelist, and he tells you that he is going to fill you in about his novels. This he does, in part — but he also frequently digresses, informing you about some particular of lepidoptery — the collecting and studying of butterflies — or else waxes lyrical about the game of chess. In the course of telling you about his writings, he regularly seems to be insulting your own ability to read. He is certainly insulting towards readers by profession — critics, academics — and he also has many unkind words for some of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Yet despite the condescension, there is some residual warmth in his words.
This man is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire and well over a dozen other novels. At least, this is Nabokov as you might read him across the many forewords and introductions that he wrote for his own works. It is a strange thing that an author should find himself in the position of introducing his own writing as thoroughly and as many times as was Nabokov, and it might be equally as strange, too, that any author should want to do so. But the fact remains that, after the enormous and explosive success of Lolita in 1955, and as he and his son Dmitri Nabokov were beginning the process of translating the first of his Russian novels into English in 1959, Nabokov, aged 60, took it upon himself to acquaint properly his English-speaking readers with his works.
Nearly all of the nine forewords to the translations, beginning with Invitation to a Beheading (first published in Russian in 1936), address the fact that the novels are the products of an artist in exile. The wealthy aristocratic Nabokov family was, when the writer was young, forced to flee Russia during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. They took up in London at first (and Vladimir and his brother attended university in Cambridge) before they settled in Berlin. During the Berlin years, Nabokov lost his father to a political assassination, and gained a wife, the love of his life, Véra Nabokov. Nabokov spent 15 years in Berlin, the city where he published the majority of his Russian-language novels — novels that feature the haunting cityscapes of Nabokov’s Berlin, but which were also part of the author’s ongoing long-distance relationship with the Russia he had left behind. “What joy!” he wrote in a letter of the period, on the occasion of remembering his home country; “What agony, what heart-rending, provoking, inexpressible agony.” But with mounting political tensions in Berlin at the end of the ’30s, the Nabokovs were once more forced to emigrate — first to France, and then, in 1940, to the United States. From that point on, he wrote all his novels in English.
What do the manifold forewords to his translated works tell us about reading Nabokov’s novels? One of their most striking and most consistent features is not that they are an exercise in how to read, but rather that they instruct in how not to misread. That is to say, Nabokov’s phrasing is often extremely negative. Take his remarks upon himself in the foreword to Bend Sinister:
I am not ‘sincere,’ I am not ‘provocative,’ I am not ‘satirical.’ I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of ‘thaw’ in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent.
This litany of “am nots” is extraordinary, but not unique in the forewords. Nabokov elsewhere repeatedly insists, as he does in Bend Sinister, that his books “are not carriers of this or that ‘idea.’” “Despair,” for instance, “in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth.” Nabokov’s warning: do not hunt for truth! You will only come away disappointed, or (more importantly for him) with the wrong idea about the author.
Not content with turning the reader away from social and political truth, Nabokov also wants to dissuade us from drawing comparison between himself and other writers. “Spiritual affinities,” he writes, in the foreword to Invitation to a Beheading, “have no place in my conception of literary criticism.” And it is just as well that Nabokov is unlike other writers, because the majority of the so-called “greats” are anything but great in his eyes. For him, “Literature of Ideas,” is nothing other than “topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster” (he has in mind Honoré de Balzac, Maxim Gorky, and Thomas Mann). Franz Kafka and George Orwell are repeatedly presented as opposites: Kafka the “great German writer,” Orwell “the mediocre English one.” Kafka “that great artist,” Orwell a purveyor of “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction.” Some of Nabokov’s best, most barbed comments in the forewords relate to his fellow writers:
I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called ‘powerful’ and ‘stark’ by the reviewing hack. (Lolita)
This is an especially cutting statement. Not content with assaulting the Literature of Ideas, Nabokov has turned his gaze to the judgment of reviewers and readers. It is this kind of outrageous comment that, in the forewords, bleeds into Nabokov’s actual and direct insults to the intellect of his readers. Here, for example, is how Nabokov introduces hints about the coded imagery of The Luzhin Defense in its foreword: “I would like to spare the time and effort of hack reviewers — and, generally, persons who move their lips when reading and cannot be expected to tackle a dialogueless novel.” This is cutting, to be sure, and it is also very funny. But there is a more significant feature here, which is that the hints and tips he is about to share with us, the things we might have missed in the novel, are not real. He describes things that are simply not in the novel. We must, by necessity, all join the ranks of lip-moving readers, because there is no way we could have caught Nabokov’s uncatchable details.
If, therefore, we are expecting the forewords to be some safe space, untainted by the lies and mistruths of the novel form, we should clearly think twice. The foreword is, for Nabokov, a place in which to play as much as any of his more properly fictitious works — at times more so — and Nabokov delights in blurring the line between the inside and the outside of a text. Consider Pale Fire, a 999-line poem that only becomes anything like a “novel” once it is read within the frame of the preceding (fictional) foreword and the subsequent (fictional, and greatly substantial) commentary text. Or consider Lolita, in which the fate of the novel’s male and female leads is only revealed, subtly and in an off-hand manner, within its own fictional foreword. This foreword, an academic pastiche penned by one “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.,” has got the better of at least one major publisher to date — Penguin had thousands of copies of its deluxe hardback reissue of Lolita pulped after the publishing house discovered that the foreword — which it had mistaken for an academic yawn from yesteryear and had chosen to discount — was in fact a vital part of the novel. Major online booksellers still, confusingly, list “John Ray” as a secondary author of the Penguin edition.
But perhaps we should have a little pity on the wayward printers of Nabokov’s novels. After all, he hardly made it easy to determine text from paratext in his works, and he made it all the more difficult with his later fore/aftword “Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita” (it would surely have been a foreword had it not interfered with the fictional one already in place). The essay, tucked at the back of reprints of the novel, begins: “After doing my impersonation of suave John Ray…any comments coming straight from me may strike one == may strike me, in fact — as an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” Vladimir Nabokov: author, narrator, object, reader (“may strike me, in fact!”). Nabokov’s presence is, at such moments, discernible at every layer of his book, and this ensures that we can never be certain where he really is — or isn’t. He toys with this a lot. Here is, for instance, the amusing table of “Other Books by the Narrator” from the first pages of Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the last novel published before his death:
Pawn Takes Queen (1927)
Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun) 1931
The Red Top Hat (1934)
The Dare (1950)
See Under Real (1939)
Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1941)
Dr. Olga Repnin (1946)
Exile from Mayda (1947)
A Kingdom by the Sea (1962)
You don’t need a depth of knowledge about Nabokov to recognise that those are all transformations of his own novels, and that his narrator (Vadim) is a sort of Dostoevskian doubling of the author himself. Lolita becomes A Kingdom by the Sea, lifted from the second line of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (Humbert Humbert claims that the precursor to Lolita was an “Annabel Leigh”). Some are Russian puns — Nabokov’s The Gift was Dar in Russian, here The Dare of 1950. My favorite is Camera Obscura, which went under the title of Laughter in the Dark in the U.K, and is here receives the subtitle Slaughter in the Sun. The point of such paratextual fancies is to have us question whether a book really begins on its title page, whether it really ends on the words “THE END.”
And what about Nabokov’s “hack reviewers” and critics? It might seem surprising, to anyone with an academic background at least, that there exists no work of “Collected Prose” with all his introductions, nor “Nabokov: The Forewords.” But perhaps his academic readers are shamed into inactivity by the forewords themselves; they are, after all, an attempt to get in the last word in an ongoing dispute between author and critic. And critics, academics, and reviewers take a beating in Nabokov’s pre- and post-ambles. The essay on Lolita tuts over the “careless” approach of reviewers; after noting a few niceties in his own book that critics appear to have missed, Nabokov grumbles “It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself.” The essay itself is a warning against tiresome interrogation by academics: “Teachers of literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is this guy trying to say?’” It is worth remembering that both Nabokov and Humbert Humbert were teachers of literature at universities — “English literature, where so many poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” Perhaps the most damning anti-critical comment of this kind, though, is found in the surprisingly self-reflexive foreword to Bend Sinister:
Well-wishers will bring their own symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to my little party; ironists will point out the fatal fatuity of my explications in this foreword, and advise me to have footnotes next time (footnotes always seem comic to a certain kind of mind). In the long run, however, it is only the author’s private satisfaction that counts.
Is it indeed! We are on the threshold of a novel, and here is its author telling us pre-emptively that our response to it will not count. We can do all the symbol-hunting we want, but this book remains Nabokov’s party.
Amongst the schools of literary criticism, psychoanalysis is uniquely singled out for a stern thrashing by Nabokov. In fact, Sigmund Freud’s name appears in almost every one of the forewords, and where he is not named he is alluded to. Let’s savour just a few choice dismissals:
The Viennese delegation has not been invited. If, however, a resolute Freudian manages to slip in, he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there in the novel. (King, Queen, Knave)
My books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but they are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach with itching oviducts, stop, sniff and recoil. (The Eye)
The disciples of the Viennese witch-doctor will snigger over it in their grotesque world of communal guilt and progresivnoe education. (Invitation to a Beheading)
The attractively shaped object or Wiener-schnitzel dream that the eager Freudian may think he distinguishes in the remoteness of my wastes will turn out to be on closer inspection a derisive mirage organized by my agents. (Despair)
The little Freudian who mistakes a Pixlok set for the key to a novel will no doubt continue to identify my characters with his comic-book notion of my parents, sweethearts and serial selves. (The Luzhin Defense)
At the close of the catalogue, we have a portrait of a man who loathed the idea that some autonomous scholar with training in psychoanalysis might rummage around in his works and discover, against the author’s wishes, some unplanned truth or other. Part of the grumble relates to method. As Nabokov writes in the essay on Lolita:
Everybody should know that I detest symbol and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian Voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists.
Actually, Freudian Voodooism and literary critical generalizations amount to much the same thing in Nabokov. In his famous lecture on “Good Readers and Good Writers,” he tells us that “In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.” For Nabokov, Freud and his ilk were getting it the wrong way round, by hurling ideas at the human mind or at a book, and trying to make them stick.
But ultimately, Nabokov’s contempt for psychoanalysis seems less a critique of the validity of the psychoanalytic method (though it is in part that), but more a real anxiety on his part. By attacking Freud so thoroughly and so consistently, he expresses a real fear that his works might be misinterpreted or wrongly appropriated (surely Freud would have plenty to say about the surfacing and resurfacing of this very anxiety?). Nabokov is also clearly and deeply concerned about his own reputation, and that, above all, is what the forewords are: a steady and consistent retroactive effort to save face. After the storms of Lolita, Nabokov’s name would forever be associated with the themes of his novel, and commentators would routinely suggest that Humbert Humbert and his author were closer in nature than Nabokov would have liked people to know (Nabokov recalls in a letter a suspicious sea captain who wanted to know why the author had chosen such a salacious subject — “he was rather calé on Freud; he had not read Lolita”). Nabokov knows as well as any follower of Freud that there is plenty to be read into the often outrageous content of his works — perhaps the best he can do is resignedly play games with readers who are interested in analyzing his psyche through his prose. Consider the foreword to his own “literalist” translation of Eugene Onegin, in which he takes to task reviewers who praise above all else “readability: “’Readable,’ indeed! A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization.” Whatever we think of the criticism, this is an intrusion rendered hilarious through its lack of necessity, and one might well wonder what Freud would have said.
Beyond baiting psychoanalysts, what did Nabokov want to achieve with his various forewords? The further bafflement of his readers? The presentation of the “right sort” of truth? Probably he wanted precisely the proliferation of questions I am now asking, and not to provide answers. The forewords are, at any rate, a sort of literary mask — the “impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov” — and it is one that extends well beyond Nabokov’s writings and into his life. It is well known that Nabokov meticulously prepared answers to television interviews; he explains, in a foreword to the collection of his essays and interviews Strong Opinions, that “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” He would prepare a “typescript to be presented as direct speech” for his in-print interviewers. In the film Nabokov: My Most Difficult Book, the author, and close friend of Nabokov, Edmund White incisively remarks upon the character of these masks as a product of the fall from aristocratic dignity into the double exile of Germany and then America: “a lot of the aloofness that you see in Nabokov is a kind of wounded pride.”
The wounded pride is that of an émigré writer. After all the humorous huffing and puffing, all the tricks and traps and underhand maneuvers on the author’s part, the forewords exist, after all, to locate the English-language versions of Nabokov’s books within the context of a person in exile. In his essay on Lolita, before he had taken up the task of translating and introducing his previous works, he writes that the best of his Russian novels “are not translated into English, and all are prohibited for political reasons in Russia.” Nabokov believed, at this point, that the readers of his best works didn’t live in Russia, but also that they weren’t native English speakers. They were émigrés. They were the “tremendous outflow of intellectuals that formed such a prominent part of the general exodus from Soviet Russia” that he writes about in the foreword to Bend Sinister. They are outsider readers for an outsider writer, one who, perhaps, never quite managed to come to terms with his own celebrity. He built masks to be playful, yes; but he built masks to stay where he felt comfortable: on the outside.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
During college, two of my English-majoring friends had a running argument, years long, about whether “Pale Fire,” the 999-line poem that begins Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, is good or not. The poem is attributed to the fictional writer John Shade, and the rest of the novel takes the form of an unhinged and digressive commentary on it by Shade’s neighbor. There’s no doubt about the quality of the commentary (as commentary, as opposed to a satire of one), nor about the quality of novel, but what of the poem? Usually, fictional works of art are framed as clearly good or bad by the larger works they are within, but occasionally their status is more interestingly ambiguous.
Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson, a Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver. (Many of its jokes are of this sort.) It is admirably quiet and prosaic, refreshingly so in a time when it can feel like 50 percent of films include the computer generated destruction of a metropolis. It is also remarkably thought provoking, raising questions about why people write poetry, whether they need readers, and who merits the label “poet.” More than any other, however, the film left me with the question of whether it — and Jarmusch — thinks Paterson’s poetry is any good.
Paterson writes, if the week we see is typical, about a poem a day. We witness him thinking through the first lines over breakfast and his walk to work, then writing in his “secret notebook” (as his wife calls it) as he waits to set out on his first route of the day, on his lunch break, and at his basement desk at home. Certainly the film seems to celebrate his words: paired with Driver’s voiceover, they are inscribed on the screen, both as they are being drafted and in apparently finished form. Yet Paterson is uninterested in showing his poetry to anyone. His wife seems to have read, or heard, a few of them, and constantly hectors him to make copies and share them with the world, but he is clearly reluctant to do so.
The counterpoint of Paterson’s wife, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani), suggests all the more that the film thinks Paterson’s poetry is good. She flits from daydream to daydream about how she will become famous — for her cupcakes, or as a Nashville singer with her newly bought guitar — and the film gently mocks these dreams, as well as her many design projects around the house. Yet no such mockery is pointed toward Paterson’s work.
Films can make any poem seem greater than it is, and of much deeper significance — or go too far in such a direction, turning it into overwrought bombast, as Dead Poet’s Society did for Walt Whitman and, more recently, Interstellar for Dylan Thomas. Despite this, Paterson’s poetry still seems, at best, merely mediocre. It is styled after that of William Carlos Williams, son of Paterson, N.J., and hero of both Driver’s character and the film. Williams is repeatedly discussed, Paterson recites “This Is Just to Say” at his wife’s request, and his book Paterson is obviously visible on the main character’s shelf (along with other collections of poetry and Infinite Jest, a book I cannot imagine Driver’s character reading, which Jarmusch also visually fetishized, more convincingly, in Only Lovers Left Alive). Unlike Williams’s poetry, however, Paterson’s seemed to me unnecessarily baggy, occasionally finding a good line or two, but only after far too much preamble, not just conversational, but plain in its diction and rhythm to the point of banality.
I was surprised to learn, then, that Paterson’s lines were in fact written, some especially for the film (others have appeared elsewhere), by the poet Ron Padgett, an award-winning member of the New York School (itself name-checked, via Frank O’Hara, in the film). Unless Jarmusch means to insult his friend, this makes me think he means to present the poems as good. Otherwise, why not write them himself? Poetry of Williams’s sort is not hard to write, only hard to write well. Did Padgett, in the poems written for the film, take on the persona of a lesser talent? The film features one other poem, written by a 10-year-old girl with whom Paterson falls into conversation. This one was actually written by Jarmusch, and the film presents it as no worse than Paterson’s (that is Padgett’s) work: Driver’s character seems genuinely moved by it, and he recites its opening lines to his wife later that night. Does Jarmusch intend to lower Paterson’s status, or to elevate the young girl?
Paterson exists thought-provokingly, though I am not sure fully purposefully, in the space created by the ambiguity of whether Paterson’s poetry is any good. If it were clearly bad, then the film would become cruel. If it were clearly good, then the film would become something else, a hackneyed gem-in-the-rough story. Twice in the film, Paterson is presented with the opportunity to call himself a poet. Neither time does he. He is interested in poetry, likes poetry, but he doesn’t even admit he writes it, neither to the young girl, nor to a Japanese poet on pilgrimage to the hometown of William Carlos Williams. Where Williams was a doctor, Paterson is a bus driver and thinks of himself merely as that. Unlike Williams, he writes only for himself.
Near the end of the film, Paterson’s notebook is destroyed (a move so heavily telegraphed that this really isn’t a spoiler). His wife is devastated by the loss — clearly she daydreams about his future fame as well — but Paterson’s own reaction is opaque. He says almost nothing: is he in shock or remarkably stoic? Does he not especially care, or perhaps even feel a little relieved? We briefly wonder if he will stop writing or, alternatively, now write to publish, his juvenilia swept away. Instead, he simply returns to his routine, it seems: his poems, it is suggested, are for him, and him alone. They help him find meaning in his otherwise routine life, and that’s enough — anything else would be too much, too grandiose, too, well, poetic, for his merely prosaic existence.
Constraints in writing have a way of helpfully containing possibilities. Speaking to the role of constraints in poetry, Anne Sexton once said, “You could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.” Take the sonnet, a strict poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter that has endured for more than seven centuries. Take Pale Fire, which presents itself as an explication of a single poem, yet digressively explicates an entire life. Or, take Green Eggs and Ham, which Dr. Seuss wrote after his editor challenged him to create a book using no more than 50 different words.
One of the major constraints of Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary is a technical one. He wrote this book with a now discontinued stamp set called a Trodat 4253 that he found at an office supply sale. The device allows one to arrange characters on a stamp any way he likes, but limits the output to the size of the stamp. The result feels as much like an art exhibit, as it does a novel. Most of the 200 pages in the book are constrained to less than five lines of text, and fewer than 90 characters. This is a book that can be read as fast as the reader can turn the page, and that momentum elevates the unsettling effect of the nightmare.
The Subsidiary tells the story of a worker trapped in the offices of a Latin American corporation, who uses the materials at his desk to give testimony of his experience. The book begins with a loudspeaker announcement that the power supply will be interrupted between 8:30 and 20:00. The exits are closed off. The phone lines go down. There’s shouting outside.
The jailers treat the office captives — THE SUBSIDIARY, LAME MAN, ONE-EYED MAN, and ONE-ARMED MAN; THE MUTE GIRL, BLIND GIRL, and DEAF GIRL — with an attitude that alternates between indifferent and threatening. Sometimes they let them work. Sometimes they chase them with bloodthirsty dogs.
The Subsidiary is Bartleby the Scrivener meets Cujo as imagined by David Lynch (in Chile). The book contains banal reports, like “MY SKILLS ARE MANUAL,” and “I STAMP THE ORDERS, THE INSTRUCTIONS, THE MANDATES-.” Yet it also transports the reader to frightening places. Many pages have a snapshot-in-the-dark quality to them, and what we see during those flashes is scary. “IT’S THE HOWLING OF A PACK OF HOUNDS BEFORE THE VIOLENCE BEGINS,” Celedón stamps. “THE BLIND GIRL KEEPS STILL WHILE THE DOGS SNIFF AT HER,” and, “SHE’S IN HEAT.”
In the spirit of Franz Kafka, Matías Celedón evokes a bureaucratic nightmare that is terrifying in its banality and in its menace. The power remains off for 12 days, and nobody resists the instructions to remain at their stations. Despite its near pointlessness, the narrator maintains an unwavering commitment to his job.
Celedón’s dedication to his farcically technical method stabilizes this harrowing story. He wrote The Subsidiary by taking it on like a clerk — by showing up every day, and selecting and placing individual letters with tweezers. From its technical construction to its tormenting delivery, The Subsidiary enacts the tension between reason and futility in doing work.
You shouldn’t just read The Subsidiary for its eccentric context or its chilling story. You shouldn’t just read this book because of its painstaking commitment to forming words. All of these pieces — each spectacular on their own terms — fix together to create a remarkable reading experience. The Subsidiary releases an extraordinary beast.
Dana Spiotta and Michael Helm write fiercely intelligent portrayals of cultures in flux, so it’s no surprise they’ve been literary compatriots ever since they discovered each other’s work. Aside from a whirlwind real-life meeting at AWP, Spiotta and Helm’s dialogue has grown entirely over email — fitting for authors whose work explores modern technology in all its connective power and complexity. The following conversation took place over email in fall of 2016, in anticipation of Helm’s fourth novel, After James (September 6, 2016).
Dana Spiotta: What was the initial impulse or inspiration behind After James? The opening section features a whistleblower and big pharma. We also have a storyline that comes out of the West’s relationship to the Middle East’s refugee crisis. Do you read or listen to the news and get inspiration for characters and stories? What draws you in?
Michael Helm: My novels usually begin with a sentence or image, or at least that’s when I become conscious of them. At some point a character or two comes clear, and the feeling of the book. The gains and problems become formal and stay that way to the end, but form touches the world, and it shows up in ways I can’t predict.
In After James I followed a dog into a story. I don’t know where most of the characters hail from but the story and setting come from the world. It’s the usual input-output with some transmutation of materials inside the mechanism. The storylines in After James came out of conversations I’d had, places I’d been, including the Turkey-Syria border region. The research builds the engine. The bass note in the engine is disquiet.
DS: Raymond Carver once described fiction as bringing the news from other worlds. I love that, and I have always thought that “other worlds” specifically meant imagining the lives of other people and escaping the tyranny of the self. Empathy is an ongoing subject for you, both crucial and challenging. How do you think about writing beyond your own experience? To use Faulkner’s formulation, what relationship do “experience, observation, and imagination” have in your work and this work in particular? What boundaries do you have if any about what can or should be imagined?
MH: A lot was made a couple of years back when a study at the New School found empirical evidence that reading literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction or non-fiction, made a person more empathetic. I think a lot of readers, hearing that, said, “No shit.” Language came about and evolved because we’re trapped in our skulls. Story came about because we’re trapped in our lives, with our pains and joys and sense of duration. Literary fiction allows us to escape not into fantasy, but out of ourselves, and to the degree that we believe in the fiction, we feel known, thought of, and naturally we then have feelings of community and others.
Cities of Refuge went at this question pretty directly. I learned which experiences I could and couldn’t responsibly inhabit, and brought the question to the surface as a kind of stated theme. After James is a bit more sly. Because it turns up the what-happens-nextness and seems to indulge in popular storytelling tropes, readers might think the only empathy required of them is to be found in things like simple fear, paranoia, impending doom. These aren’t normally complicated emotions, but my sense is that they’re ascendant, that we’re in a time with its own character of uncertainty. These aren’t your grandmother’s fear, paranoia, and doom.
Literary fiction allows us to admit the size of other lives. It stands in the place of the full admission that if we really empathized fully with the feelings of others, all others, we’d be fetal on the floor. I love a novel that just admits that. In your Stone Arabia, Denise has bouts of “debilitating sympathy,” with her memory ordered around “hyperpervious moments” so that even time seems colonized by observed pain. All that fear of sentimentality that shifted fictional art into the cool zones in earlier decades has been eclipsed by a fiction that’s just as smart and formally daring, but feeling, too.
DS: You have said in an interview that you don’t think of your books as idea-driven. That your characters have ideas, but that does not mean that your book is a novel of ideas. I wonder about that — is it such a terrible thing to have ideas in a novel? I understand pushing back on the notion of ideas imposed rather than organically formed — a novel is not a polemic. It should be embodied, and have doubt and beauty and mystery. Yet it seems to me that After James — and this is part of what I love about it — has a deep strain of philosophical inquiry in it. Can’t a novel be driven by character, story, and philosophical questions? Aesthetic questions? Language questions? I write to discover and I read to discover. Not just recognize.
MH: The U.S. publisher described After James as a novel of ideas disguised as a page turner. I have no objection to that. I don’t know where I said that other thing but I was probably trying to stop myself from saying that the books are driven by language, and that in fact I’m very interested in ideas, which can sound a bit precious. Maybe it’s just that the thing I’m first aware of is language, the way of saying, before the thing being said. With enough pressure on the sentences, story and character and ideas can be made into one substance.
In After James a couple of ideas in particular seemed to allow me find that substance. Genetic transference, the process of recombination, shuffled codes. And I wanted to mark the distinction between fear in popular story and the real thing. Certain kinds of novels and films find ways to gather our feelings meaningfully, to acknowledge our anxieties. Other, meretricious kinds of stories only reproduce the experience of consuming them. Because commercial fiction and film are so much a part of the surround, genre stories claim a lot of central ground in our lived experience. We constantly absorb stories that hold to the same precepts and conventions. I think we always need to expand the possibilities. I like squared-off stories, but I rarely find one that knows me or stays with me. And I worry that our many excellent entertainments are setting us up for an ending we don’t want.
These days real and false terror are both just clicks away. It’s worth thinking about what it means that the borders between them are getting harder to find.
DS: And, of course, language-as-a-system drives your novel. On the sentence level, we get the dynamic of language that obscures and reveals (the “pharmakon” of language as both “remedy and poison”). We also get a version of that problem in the second section, where you use crowd-sourced literary critique of a mysterious poet’s work to create slippages in meaning. You include a number of poems in the book and glosses on the poems. It must be challenging to write poems as a character. It takes a kind of confidence or authority. And you really have to trust in your own commitment to your construct. They can’t be your poems. Tell me about how you went about writing them. Was it challenging? Fun? Torture? Did you think about Pale Fire?
MH: I read a lot of poetry but have too much respect for the form to write it. The brains of most poets worth reading aren’t like novelists’ brains, but I found I could write the poems and fragments in the novel because they weren’t mine. The lines are fiction by other means. One or another character makes the point that they’re not good poems, so I hope that earns me some grace. And they’re anonymous, and enigmatic, so they come with a mystery they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I did think about Pale Fire. In Nabokov, there’s the poem, the balanced ambiguities, and the possible lunacy behind the gloss that accompanies it. But it’s one man’s reading of one poem. In my novel I was interested in the ways the Internet generates its own forces of ambiguity, lunacy, and control.
DS: You don’t use a conventional narrative structure in After James. The book is divided into three parts that are both discreet from one another and connected. Can you tell me how the structure evolved? Why is the middle section in first person and the other sections in close third? Time is also complex and fluid — can you also talk about how you use time or a timeline in this novel?
MH: I’d begun three novels that I thought of as related, and I knew I wanted two things. One was a movement in each and throughout from high artifice to meaning, to bring the overstoried, over entertained surround of our lives into the text, and then use it, if possible, to discover something new. I don’t know if I did this but I seem to recall wanting to do it.
And I wanted a connection between the parts that resisted neat fittings. I didn’t want to make a novel as puzzle, to be solved and put away. In revision, a small change in one part could ruin its resonance with another. The parts had to be offset just so. The idea was that as one part passes into another, there’s a ghosting effect.
The shift to first person in the second part just felt right. It made a hard cut and seemed to open comic possibilities. And it’s a young man’s story, and one of the things the first person can capture well is a young person’s interior wanderings and involutions.
The second part has a more certain setting. It happens around now, as historical events in the news seem also to be in the novel, though they aren’t topical so much as the latest instances of a standing condition. The other two parts seem to float between now and what’s coming. Maybe it’s the day after tomorrow. I didn’t want to get out ahead of our present transforming moment, to think it through, so much as simply to register it in its strangeness.
DS: After James contains a number of mysteries. We get clues and it almost seems as though we can piece it together. But you don’t give it all away — it has a resistance embedded in it, which feels dynamic and exciting to me as a reader, as if the book keeps buzzing after you finish it. The connections don’t feel too neat, and you give us just enough. Is that a matter of intuition, just withholding enough to create suspense and mystery but not so much as to create frustration?
MH: It’s intuition and trusting the reader. Readers especially are predisposed to pattern recognition and to apophenia, seeing patterns even when they aren’t there. Finding a seeming connection can be pleasurable, but so, too, can be sensing a mystery forming just beyond perception. By now we might have encountered this sense of mysteries both relenting and not in certain kinds of novels and movies. What becomes of the central question in 2666? How do the stories relate in Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy? As interesting as the mysteries in each story are the ways in which one story seems to reconstellate another.
DS: After James has technology as an explicit subject: how it shapes our thoughts and our interactions. Better than anyone else I have read, you capture the shocking loneliness at the heart of the Internet — to be both hyper-connected and totally isolated from one another is the paradox of contemporary technology. Can you tell me about using a very old-fashioned piece of technology — a long book — to address the implications and experiences of complex technological forces?
MH: Well thanks, but it seems to me that Innocents and Others explores, among many other things, the same paradox but through different old technologies, films as they once were made, and the telephone. Your novel gets at the same feelings and reminds us that connection and distance have existed together since we first found the means for remote contact.
DS: I am very glad to hear you see a connection between our books. I can’t separate people from the tools they use. Because we spend so much time interacting through machines, writing about that interaction feels urgent to me. But you bravely write into the specific moment we inhabit and then push beyond it. I love how mystical the technological becomes in After James.
MH: After James takes on specific technologies of science and art: drugs, language, genetic science, cyberspace, artistic reproduction. These both extend and erode the self in ways peculiar to the new century. Among the books behind this one is The Turn of the Screw (not that I’m comparing), but part one of After James isn’t so much a psychological novel as a psychopharmaceutical one, where reader and character together are left to try to distinguish the real from the projected.
Part two, a sort of cybermystery unfolding in an all too real world of political manipulation and violence, has antecedents in the literature of paranoia. The time for paranoia has come around again.
Part three is in some ways stranger for being both apocalyptic and not just plausible but actual. Most novels try to strike distinct characters, but we live now with the feeling that our own characters aren’t always distinct even to ourselves. Sometimes against our intent or wishes, our self gets diffused or repurposed against our will. I’m interested in these forces of incoherence. We don’t have to move the border very far for the self to fall apart. I like to quote T.E. Hulme’s line that “Man is the chaos highly organized, and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” It’s a good description of humans, and of the kinds of novels I love most, taking order out to the edge of chaos.
DS: Pushing something until it becomes its seeming opposite, until it reveals a paradox. That’s what I mean by mystical — you play out the implications of various technologies until they seem almost spiritual. A little like DeLillo in Zero K, I think.
After James dwells in the natural world as well as the technological world. In fact, the vivid, sense-rich descriptions of the natural world give the reader respite from the hermetic worlds of human consciousness as well as technology. I love the precise-yet-lyrical writing you do to describe nature and how it manages not to get sentimental or soothing. It is beautiful and frightening, really. The people are isolated, but the world feels profoundly alive all around them. It creates its own tension in the book, the relationship of the humans to their surroundings. Can you talk a little about that? Particularly in the first book and the last.
MH: We don’t just live in nature (as they say); we are nature (as they say), but where does the nature go when we extend ourselves into the artificial? Maybe art aspires to the condition of the material, phenomenal world. I grew up in Saskatchewan, in dry hyper-real light, on the flattest plate of land in the world. The climate there is extreme, swinging about 148 degrees Fahrenheit every six months. It’s a hard, beautiful landscape of the kind that drives some people nuts. You can’t pretend that the sublime is a mere concept in such a place.
I like the language we’ve laid over flora and fauna, and I tend to like people who know that language well. But the names of natural things point out better than anything, I think, the paradox of language itself. I stand before a tree, touch it, and try to see it fully. Then someone says its name — American beech — and it’s suddenly more sharply before me. But day by day, as the name is said over and over in my thoughts, the name begins to obscure the thing, and the tree seems to recede a little.
The natural world and its rhythms, which are especially pronounced in places with four distinct seasons like the part of the continent where you and I live, seem to make a great claim on my imaginative life. Every fall, as the weather turns, my dreams get wild. They seem to want to kill me. I know I don’t live outside of the natural world, but the ways it lives in me unexpectedly are profound.
There’s a bit of hard weather in the novel. Soon here in the anthropocene we’ll just call it weather. There was a time in poetry and fiction when we read imagined weather symbolically. We’ve screwed things up so badly now that we can read real weather politically.
DS: I get a lot of inspiration reading about other kinds of artists — architects, painters, and composers — and then relating it back to the novel. Sometimes I have a sense of being in dialogue with the history of the novel, and that excites me. Other times I think of novel-writing as deeply subversive and counter-culture, sort of spy work for team weird. What is the state of the novel in your view? What interests you about the form? Where do you think the energy is these days?
MH: Maybe now, in this often senseless cultural decor, the novel is subversive precisely because of its long history. Wherever it is as an art form, I hope it’s ever more influenced by global literatures, especially stuff that’s outside of high realism presented conventionally. Lately we’ve had waves of things from far off. One year everyone’s reading Clarice Lispector, the next Knausgård, then Ferrante. Not all of this stuff is great but I like that people are talking and can have new orientation points. Maybe it’s not really yet a post-literate world.
The novel still does what it used to. Better than other narrative forms, through interiority and long time it can establish deep character. It can produce its own layering effects, inside a moment or within the whole structure. It allows for finely calibrated emotions and ironies. It can manage a greater tonal range, from humour to despair, than other story forms. It can handle ideas with enough time to do right by them. It can move around in time or memory to any degree it wants. And better even than visual art forms, I think, it seems in the work of some writers able to capture specificity and blur, the vibration at the edges of living things.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.
To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.
My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.
In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.
Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.
I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.
Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.
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Those of you with some knowledge of Pale Fire and Lolita won’t be surprised to learn what Nabokov thought of dinner parties. Namely, he thought they were awful, vaguely surreal events, held largely by drunkards with overriding appetites for drama. At The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein quotes a passage from “The Vane Sisters” to explain why “It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson.” You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor.
When it comes to this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s almost Biblical: in the beginning there was Twitter, and the tweets were about toilets. Whether as a result of poor planning and corruption — or whether as a call-back to the uniquely Soviet production quota issues that led to backwards high heels and sticky raincoats — the facilities in Sochi have been the butt of jokes across the internet since the first reporters touched down weeks ago. The issues are legion: there are missing pipes; there are innovative seat covers; and everywhere there are reminders that privacy is a lie.
(Of course, these superficial issues belie much more systemic and widespread problems, and I hope that the journalists decrying the last-minute paint jobs are going to be equally vocal about Russia’s deeply unsettling human rights issues.)
Yet and still, I’ll admit that my Millions colleague Janet Potter and I have indulged our affinity for Schadenfreude by cataloguing some of the more outrageous entries popping up on our Twitter timelines. (The best typically bear the hashtags #SochiProblems and #RatchetOlympics.) All the while, I’ve found myself subconsciously pairing the absurdities with their analogues from the canon of Russian literature. And as I’ve come to learn, the Russian masters saw the writing on the wall well before the Olympic torch made its way to the Black Sea’s coast. Below, I offer a brief compendium of classic quotations paired with some of the more incredible and regrettable sights that Sochi has to offer.
“Such complete, absolute ignorance of everyday reality was touching and somehow repulsive.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
Sochi menu. Not a joke. pic.twitter.com/OAnXN9h5rk
— Eugene Gourevitch (@gourev) February 5, 2014
“Death can only be profitable: there’s no need to eat.” – Anton Chekhov, “Rothschild’s Fiddle”
— Liz Clarke (@lizclarketweet) February 6, 2014
“There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
— Wayne Drehs (@espnWD) February 6, 2014
“It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.” – Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector General
— Steph Stricklen (@StephStricklen) February 6, 2014
“By words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.” – Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?
— The Straits Times (@STcom) February 6, 2014
“’No strangers allowed. Go away.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘Understanding is strictly forbidden. Even dreams have the right to dream. Isn’t that so? Now go away.’” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
— The Atlantic Cities (@AtlanticCities) February 6, 2014
“Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!” ― Vladimir Mayakovksy, “An Extraordinary Adventure…”
— U.S. Figure Skating (@USFigureSkating) February 7, 2014
“In fact, I’m beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly.” – Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
— Baiba Rubesa (@rubesita) January 25, 2014
“Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
Russian deputy PM on Sochi (through a translator): "There are no jobless people here." Also said there will be a Russian Disneyland here.
— SeanFitz_Gerald (@SeanFitz_Gerald) February 6, 2014
“Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism; other men die
But I am not another: therefore I’ll not die” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
I was taking a shower and the door got locked/jammed….
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.” – Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don
— Sochi 2014 (@Sochi2014) January 29, 2014
“And everything that he saw before him / He despised or hated.” – Mikhail Lermontov, “The Demon” (Note: Russian)
— Mark Connolly (@MarkConnollyCBC) February 6, 2014
“—The point is Americans are always scared about something—frightened they’ll be kicked out of their job or their wife’s going to get raped or their car stolen…they’re scared stiff the whole time…
—Still, they don’t have these queues.
—No, they don’t have the queues, that’s true.” – Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue
Sochi residents standing in a line to enter live site where opening ceremony will be broadcast. Entry is free. pic.twitter.com/taLBCzibIW
— Артем Тихомиров (@tyomson1) February 7, 2014
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
— Jeanessa Garcia (@JeanessaPR) February 10, 2014
“If you have pain in one tooth, rejoice that it is not all your teeth that are aching.” – Anton Chekhov, “Life is Wonderful” *
— The Verge (@verge) February 7, 2014
* Alternate: “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
“The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” – Alexander Pushkin, “The Hero” (as quoted in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”)
— Aayush Sidd (@ayush_1901) February 7, 2014
“…as I was sifting through a heap of old and new ‘identity cards,’ I noticed that something was missing: my identity.” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse
— Lisa LaFlamme (@LisaLaFlammeCTV) February 7, 2014
I used to watch to a lot of DVDs with the audio turned to the commentary track. And not just the monumental works of cinematic wonder the every frame of which is worth analyzing and puzzling over. I worked at a video store — Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., one of those great labyrinthine stores stocked like an archive — and, bringing home DVDs indiscriminately, I found that even a terrible movie could be saved by simply flipping over and listening to the director, writer, or cast, chat away. Though some have taken great pains to push the commentary track to new heights of performance (see the one for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, in which the possibly fictional artistic director “Kenneth Loring” claims scenes were shot upside-down and in reverse), I was more struck by the commentary tracks that are compelling accidentally: people going on tangents, revealing things obliquely they might later regret. Stallone may be dull as a dial-tone for most of his commentary on Cliffhanger, but the end, when he sounds apologetic and genuinely depressed about his life and career, turns out to be the only engaging and human moment on that disk.
A friend once even showed me a porno with a commentary track. While the director offers her insights into the filming process, along with increasingly belligerent rants about her colleagues, she gets completely shit-faced. After about 30 minutes, she passes out, and for the rest of the movie, you can hear her snoring breezily in the background. It’s bizarrely compelling, and if I could remember the title, I’d recommend it heartily. It was around this time that I considered writing a short story in the form of a commentary track for an imaginary movie. I never did write that story (it was probably a terrible idea), but it did get me thinking about all the ways that texts supplementary to larger stories — or “paratexts,” as they’re officially known — can themselves become stories.
Now, years later, I’m publishing my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which takes the form of one long cease-and-desist letter. Paul McWeeney’s sister is about to publish a nonfiction book in which she accuses their late father of being the Black Dahlia murderer, so in order to save their father’s name, Paul writes a letter to the publishers trying to refute his sister’s claims. As the novel started to take shape, and I realized that Paul’s story would become a discursive commentary on his sister’s story — which itself is a discursive commentary on their father’s story — I began revisiting other books with similar configurations. Pretty soon, I imagined these books forming a loose genre, the Paratext Novel, stories that take the form of — or at least have the pretense of being — explicit exegeses of other stories, real or imagined.
But perhaps “genre” is not the right word, since these books are not concerned with establishing and enforcing conventions. They are interested in exploring how commentary mediates our lives, how we are so steeped in supplementary material that we rarely directly experiencing whatever it is that material supplements: a phenomenon that these books respond to by making “commentary tracks” more human sites of engagement. Like a lot of people, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, but I found Geoff Dyer’s book Zona — in which he offers a commentary/summary (which he argues is an “expansion”) of the film — fascinating, in part for how Dyer’s parallel self-revelation reminds us how we understand our own stories by encountering others.
Now, when we pick up a novel, chances are we’ve already seen not just others’ commentary, but also the novelist’s self-commentary in the form of interviews and even articles like this. Whenever a writer comments on his or her own work, there’s inevitably an attempt — futile and foolish — to control how readers engage with that work. But, in these books, attempts at controlling the (ostensibly central) story spin wonderfully into their own stories, illustrating and celebrating the impossibility of narrative intervention and the chaos beneath the illusion of control.
Since listicles have become the new popular form of supplementary text, here are the top five paratext novels that have been buzzfeeding around my brain.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: The paratext urtext, or at least the best known, Charles Kinbote’s deranged commentary on John Shade’s 999-line poem features, on its first page, this non-sequitur: “[John Shade] preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Kinbote’s first interjection here is absurd, hilarious, and even violent in how it forces himself into someone else’s story. As with Lolita, the narrative hinges on control. In that earlier novel, Humbert Humbert not only controls Dolores Haze physically but narratively as well, since he is the one allowed a voice. In Pale Fire, Nabokov more explicitly curates, but also balances, this dynamic, revealing John Shade’s story — the tragic loss of his daughter that is the impetus for the poem — before Kinbote tries to absorb it into, and suppresses it with, his own story. It wasn’t until I read Claire Messud’s reminiscent The Woman Upstairs — about a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with her student’s family — that I realized Kinbote is not just infiltrating Shade’s art; he’s infiltrating Shade’s family.
2. U and I by Nicholson Baker: True, this is not technically a novel, but Nicholson Baker’s “closed book examination” of John Updike’s work reads like no other work of nonfiction I’ve read. Though I would never encourage anyone to not read Updike, ignorance of his oeuvre should not keep you from reading U and I. After all, occasional ignorance certainly doesn’t stop Baker himself, as he misremembers and misunderstands, corrects himself and confesses lapses. That is partly why this book is so strange and so funny, but also because it’s the most honest portrayal of a reader’s relationship with a writer I’ve ever come across: one-sided, heavily mediated, existing entirely in his imagination. In Baker’s literary hero-worship, we begin to realize what we probably knew all along, that it uncomfortably echoes a bastard kid striving for legitimacy, and for simple fatherly validation.
3. Edwin Mullhouse by Stephen Millhauser: The full title, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, hints at Millhauser’s interest in complicating the commentary track’s implicit attempt at narrative control and usurpation. This novel takes the form of a biography of Edwin Mullhouse, a supposed literary genius, who wrote a novel called Cartoons before dying mysteriously at age 11. His biographer and friend, Jeffery Cartwright, also a small child, is an insanely precocious Boswell whose relationship with his subject grows increasingly unsettling. Whereas in Pale Fire, John Shade has his brief moment at the microphone before Kinbote rushes the stage, in Mullhouse we have no unmediated access to Edwin — and no unmediated access to the ostensible cause for Edwin’s celebration, his novel Cartoons — which makes for a more disorienting reading experience. In the fictional introduction, the fictional Walter Logan White writes, “I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could.” In creating a commentary track that seems to have supplanted Edwin’s novel, Jeffery seems to have supplanted Edwin, a figurative death equally resonant to Edwin’s literal death that illuminates the entire friendship we see develop between the two.
4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: If we close Edwin Mullhouse wondering how much of Edwin’s genius is imagined and manipulated by his biographer-cum-creator Jeffery, in The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips — both author and character — relocates this distrust to the familiar battle between Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians. In the 250-page introduction to a recently recovered Shakespeare play, which might actually be a forgery by his father, the character of Arthur Phillips lays out a childhood fraught with questions of trust and veracity. After the introduction, Phillips presents us with the play in question, and it’s a stunning act of impersonation. Seeing the son’s introduction followed by (what might be) the father’s work reminds us how familial this narrative hijacking really is, just as all of these works ultimately boil down to simple family arguments, an interruption around the dinner table: No, let me finish this story.
5. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes: Though published in 1985, this novel, featuring narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s discursive commentary on Flaubert’s life and work, is my most recent addition to this genre. I borrowed it from my dad after a recent trip to France, where my girlfriend and I visited the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine. Flaubert’s childhood house in Rouen is now a museum dedicated to both his work as a writer and his father’s work as a surgeon. Although the museum’s marriage of literary and medical does at first feel incongruous, it does form a kind of commentary track, inviting us to see the work of father in son in concert. For example, a sly curator has throughout displayed passages from Gustave’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and the son’s quote that “all men of letters are constipated” is displayed not far from the father’s very invasive-looking devices to unblock reticent colons — both of which, consolation and cure, would be resonant to anyone suffering the effects of a French diet. Mostly, though, it’s the areas of seeming discord that are most striking. The room featuring Gustave’s childhood scribbles is right next to the room featuring the embalmed cadavers that good ol’ Dad tinkered with two centuries ago. And it’s not just human bodies that are preserved there; you can also see Flaubert’s actual parrot, taxidermied and propped on a bench in a closet. In the lobby, adjacent to an uncomfortable exhibit on Napoleonic-era gyno exams, they sell copies of Flaubert’s novels alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which is “possibly the wittiest anti-novel since Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Or at least that is how The Boston Globe describes it in the blurb printed on the back. Which is to say: I haven’t read the actual book yet — it’s still sitting patiently on my coffee table — but according to the paratextual commentary on the novel, the blurbs and reviews that I have read, it seems entirely appropriate.
Tonight, they are filming on Fourth Street in front of KGB Bar. On the opposite sidewalk, skinny bearded Brooklynites with watch caps and girlfriends with boxy Ray-Bans are acting casual while covertly (but obviously) laser-eying the actors under the boom mics. Star fuckers. I refuse to gawk at the glitterati assembled here. Hustling up two flights to KGB, I arrive just in time to start the reading — good thing, as I’m the host.
This is my sixth year as the curator and host of a reading series for emerging writers. I can judge the shape of a crowd long before we settle down to hear the first reader. I can tell that we’ve got a good if shy crowd tonight, and so during my warm-up patter, I ask if anyone knows what’s being filmed on the street outside.
A girl says, “I think it’s Smash.”
A gasp from the back: “You are not serious.”
I can’t tell if this is an ironic jest or not; it has become de rigueur in 2013 to say things you do not mean at all in order to get laughs at the expense of the things you are pretending to believe. I am aware that television is experiencing a Renaissance of narrative; perhaps, I think, Smash is one of those shows I should learn more about. I don’t settle in front of the tube often. (Tube is the wrong word, of course. It’s all just flat panels and plasma and LCDs now. But television will always be the Boob Tube for me.)
One of the readers tonight, Josh, looks a lot like me — or at least he looks like the me who moved to New York in 1998. We look like we could be lost siblings. We both have trim little goatees and professorial jackets over v-neck sweaters. He has red pants, trendier than my indigo jeans; and he has trendy black frame glasses, whereas my eyes are bare (it adds to the gravitas when I have to squint to read introductory bios, right?).
Josh brings two copies of Ploughshares to the podium for his turn. He reads a piece from the magazine’s spring 2012 issue. And, damn, but it’s good — I mean really good. And then, to add insult to injury, he announces that he wants to read a second quick selection.
The rules for the reading series are that you get just 10 minutes, and Josh has already eaten up eight; but before I can give him the hook, he says the second selection is from the current issue of Ploughshares. In other words, this kid, this knock off of me, has had two separate editors select his work for one of the country’s most prestigious short story venues. His second piece, about a woman hired to tutor a dead girl, is even better than the first.
After Josh finishes, I send everybody to the bar for a break. We always take a break between readers, but today I really need to pause and grab a stiff one. The readers rarely send me into a vertigo of jealousy, but Josh has kicked off some real self-doubt. I have submitted half dozen stories to Ploughshares over the years, with predictable results.
The regular bartender is not behind the counter tonight; for most of my tenure as host and curator of the series, I always enjoyed between two and three rum and Cokes gratis. But owing to my very recent diabetes diagnosis, tonight I can’t have more than a single rum and Coke, and I feel guilty about even that.
KGB Bar has a sterling literary reputation; it appears on pretty much every Literary New York map. The idea behind the reading series is to provide new writers with a venue where editors and agents might stop by and make a connection. That’s all the theory, at least. Tonight, nobody from the publishing world has showed. Or at least no one from the trade is admitting their allegiance for fear of being mobbed.
I made my own public debut at this podium nearly seven years ago. After I finished my excerpt, I looked into the crowd for someone, anyone waving a publishing contract in the air like an autograph book. No one did. But a few days later, out of the ethereal blue, an editor from Persea emailed me, saying her boss had been present and loved what he heard. For a few months we flirted about the book. I corresponded with them while in India as they read and re-read it and considered whether to publish or let me perish. In the end they passed. They weren’t sure they could really give the book the attention it deserves. I would have been satisfied with a half-assed effort on their part, but no one gave me the option.
Both of the other two readers tonight are also impressive, if not as widely published, and after the last reader finishes her piece, I make a circuit of the room to thank everyone. I find Josh at the back of the room, paling around with two people whom I presume are his friends.
“Yeah, I got my idea to write about a tutor for a dead girl by watching Jay Leno,” he is saying, and all his buddies crack up.
Again, I have no idea if this is meant to be sarcasm, or if perhaps he really was moved by something said by the King of Late Night Lantern Jaws.
“You’re an excellent writer,” I tell him.
He nods in a calm genuine manner, like someone who came to New York for just this kind of moment and is pleased but not surprised to find himself inhabiting it. “Thank you so much for putting this together,” he says, and I really believe he is genuinely grateful. He has no idea what kind of powers I wield — or, as the case may be, what power I don’t wield.
I don’t get paid for this gig. The process of screening and selecting and scheduling readers is tedious and without charm. The only kickback I get — besides a free drink at the bar — is the look in the eyes of the readers after a good night. Handshakes, a hug now and then, an earnest thank you: all the readers here are doing everything they can to build up what is known as The Writing Life, an improbable daisy chain of lauded works and actions that lets one avoid slaving full-time in cubical farms somewhere hundreds of feet above Times Square. They are hungry, all of them, and they believe in their own future with such urgency that you can see their dream life playing like an inspirational movie over and over again on their retinas.
I remember the feeling.
I am back on the street shortly after eight o’clock. The reading has taken less than one hour tonight. The film crew remains, and I cross to the other side of Fourth Street. This time, I am paying more attention to the actors under the kliegs. Not sure why — I don’t have any idea what the show is and what it’s about even if I know the name.
Heading west on Fourth Street, I feel primed to notice everything, as if I have been stirred from a slumber. I see clearly how much the block has changed over the years. No one would have filmed here when I first came to drink at KGB, shortly after I graduated from college in Chicago. There were none of these chocolatiers, no bakery, no Rivington Guitars, no antiquarian map shop, nothing but boarded up doors and the flickering lights of low rent vestibules.
One of the few unchanged features is the fire plug where I sat one evening and read The Plague while waiting for two friends to join me for a drink. I was engrossed in the book when this girl who was a friend of a friend meandered up and said hi to me. I’d never met her before, but we fell into chatting like we had a deep back story. It felt so easy to connect back then. We were all here to pilfer New York for its riches. We chatted and the sun went down and the street got darker and I thought, geez, is it safe around here?
I met my wife a year later at the office, but for some reason when it came time for our first kiss, we debuted in the darkest corner of KGB. The bar was deserted but it felt like a risky public outing because I had all too recently broken up with a girl. That night, I put my future-tense wife in a taxi for home and then stumbled off myself, exhilarated, freed, searching the sky for stars, and never once worrying about shady characters on Fourth — partly because of intoxicating hormones and partly because the block, two years after I had first set foot on it, had already gentrified so much that fear felt foolish.
Tonight the street is laughably safe. On the other end of the block, near Bowery, the pub called Phebe’s is still there, but as I wait for the crosswalk I notice the new hotel rising up from the low buildings. And let’s not forget the contemporary grandeur of Cooper Union, and the building across the street from the black cube where there used to be a parking lot with a sketchy dude who sold old Playboys out of crates in the back of his battered van.
I keep walking in this haze of nostalgia and heighted observation. The past and the present seem more visible than usual. I should go home via the station on Eighth Street, but instead I keep walking west into the NYU campus. Just before Washington Square, I pass a building where the actress that I once dated took her classes about the Theatre of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal and the idea that art was something you participated in, not something you absorbed as an audience or created as an artist and broadcast to others.
Washington Square evokes its fair share of memories from me as well. The place where I am standing now was once a den of drug dealers after sundown. It is now bucolic and as calm as the library, which is lit up like an orange Japanese lantern. In one of the novels I have written and failed to sell while in New York, the antagonist is a kid whose big idea is to sells drugs to NYU students in Bobst Library rather than in the Square.
Maybe it’s a lingering sense of embarrassment from the reading — or maybe it’s simply because I am cold and I’ve worked all day and I should be home. But as I glance around and identify landmarks and addresses that I know, I think to myself: Is it a sign that I am too old, that I am past my prime, that I am no longer someone with potential when everything that I see or hear has some kind of singsong tie back to yesterday?
As time passes, I seem to know more and more of New York. Once upon a time, it felt impossible to learn even the patterns of a few streets. Now, even as venues come and go, as restaurants are born and die with the span of a Mayfly, I feel as if everything conforms to the same loose pattern, one that has me bound up in it; and so I think to myself, with smug disdain, tear it all down, then, burn down everything. I wish for a moment that New York’s famous proclivity for change would accelerate and obliterate all the places I once knew.
For a moment, stationary at the center of the Square, I can see both this emotion and the place that it came from. The disdain itself is real, but reflexive, like something my brain has hardwired as a means for protection. Like the disgust you feel as a kid when you taste something sharp and new. In the case of childhood tastes, this kneejerk disgust protects you from straying too far from what is safe to eat, even if it’s sweet and delicious. So you think you hate mango as a kid till you grow up and taste it and realize in fact you love mango and want to eat it ravenously on blazing summer days when the air conditioner fails and you’re standing shirtless in the pathetic breeze of a shelf fan and tearing the stringy sweet pulp from the kotlo with your teeth while juice runs down your neck and you’re thinking just this and this and wonderful.
Here’s my theory, then: maybe being so fiercely in love with New York’s constant change is a way to protect yourself from regret and the facts of failure after living here long enough; maybe forgetting the past is a means for ensuring that we not castigate ourselves for failing to change the world as much as we’d hoped. That kid who was reading Camus on a fire plug probably would not be too impressed by my six-year tenure as a reading curator. Where are the published books, he’d ask. Where are the prizes and honors?
I start to walk again, cold from the bitter winter wind. But I am not walking so much as I am thinking, considering, weighing all these thoughts. I don’t really notice the steps down to the subway platform at the West Fourth station. I have my phone out and I’m tapping some thoughts into the Notes app. Somehow I get on the train without tripping on the platform. The words quickly bloom into phrases, long lines, and before I know it, I am writing a poem in long lunging gulps, like a horse that has been kickstarted into a canter from a dead stand still. I have not written a poem, not a real poem, in more than half a decade.
At Northwestern, I had a professor who strongly advocated writing in longhand first. She was a brilliant professor, but not entirely someone that was strongly tethered to the modern world. I typed everything that I ever wrote back then. Now, I type some material first with my thumbs. My professor would disapprove even more strenuously, I think. Yet if the train has to be my writing studio, then the train’s just going to have to do. Old Nabokov would understand. I am given to understand that he wrote his first English novel in the loo of his Paris flat — setting his valise over the bidet as a makeshift writing desk.
And so, tonight, like an animal spooked into action, I am writing. The likelihood of creating something profound has vanished with the years. All that is left is the impulse to make something. It is a primal, indivisible thing. In addition to the poem, I thumb into the phone the rough outlines of a story. These pieces are a pair, I realize. Maybe it’s even written by a character in the piece? Maybe there is a third piece, an essay, that acts as a capstone to connect everything into one work about ambition and identity and New York and my life.
The ride home is 20 minutes and I compose the entire first draft of the poem before the train reaches the Museum of Natural History. Rereading it and making edits, I am standing on the corner of a street in Harlem. Someone is walking his dog, and I can hear a jazz guitarist in the bar at the ground level of my building. Yes, it’s a good start, I think.
I am home, transported, through some kind of alchemy, despite what felt like a brain fugue of sorts. What is it that can still seize me, after years of failure, and make me seek to write, to make art? I have no idea. All I know is that I do not have it in me to give up.
I lean forward and push into the revolving door, all while the shape of this piece, the poem, a story, all taking shape. The doorman, a Haitian in a navy suit, hails me and I nod in return. The bright steel elevator doors slide open. I smile at my own feet. I am home. My children are asleep upstairs. My wife is waiting with food to be warmed and conversation to be had. I belong here. Is this the life that I dreamed I would have after this long in the city? Is that really a question that needs to be answered?
I feel I understand,
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through Art.
This comes from the fourth Canto of Nabokov’s Pale Fire and it illumines all I am trying to do when I write. You see, at my age, after the youth burns out, and the long sweet middle years lie ahead, what happens after the writing is done simply does not matter. The point is the chemical burn itself, the molecular exchange, not what is produced or left behind. The point is being, not having done. That would certainly explain the reason why I’m still here, after all these years, chasing the light in a city unwilling to lie down and sleep. But enough thinking. Enough writing. It’s time to see my family, to enjoy the real life that I’ve painstakingly assembled here, and to stop dreaming about poets and novels and the world of sweet lies and pretend people. Let’s live. Let’s be.
The elevator doors close, and up, up, up we go.
Image Credit: Flickr/Francisco Diez
In 2007, I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a week-long writers’ conference that includes workshops every morning, and panels and readings every afternoon and evening. It’s inspiring and fun, and also totally exhausting, because there is so much to read and learn and do. I highly recommend this kind of fatigue.
At Squaw, Ramona Ausubel and I were assigned the same workshop. At that time, Ramona was a student at UC Irvine’s MFA program, and I befriended her that first morning because I liked her clothes (priorities, people!). I soon discovered that aside from being stylish and amiable, she was also an insightful and generous reader. And then, on the last day of workshop, it was her turn to submit, and she turned in a kind-hearted, dazzling, and odd story, the kind of story that makes you think, “Wow, what a voice!” Sharing my work with Ramona, and getting to read her work, was one of the highlights of my time at Squaw. Years later, I would still recall her story’s whimsical tone, and the world she created: like our own, but stranger, and more absurd, but not any less cruel or complicated or joyful. That story, “Catch and Release,” is in her beguiling and elegantly written collection of short stories called A Guide To Being Born, which is, simply put, a pleasure to read. It’s been so much fun to see my talented friend publish and receive acclaim for her work. She deserves it.
Ramona answered a few questions via email. I am sure she was wearing something fabulous as she did so.
The Millions: For some reason, I didn’t expect these stories to be so funny. There’s this wonderful, amused tone to much of your work, whether it be a bunch of grandmothers who, upon mysteriously finding themselves on a ship, call out, Does anyone have a compass? and then, I’m from the DC area!, or a teenage girl’s mother eating a “low-this high-that salad.” It made me wonder how you regard the comic in fiction, and how you balance it with more serious subject matter. Can you talk a little about this?
Ramona Ausubel: For me, humor is totally necessary, in the way that a certain organ is necessary, yet you have no idea how it works. I don’t think about humor logically, as in, I don’t see a dark place in a story and think, “I could use some comic relief here.” It’s much more instinctual than that, and actually I think that’s a feature of humor in general. We need it, even, or especially, in the hardest situations. Sometimes it’s an escape, but just as often it’s a way of actually feeling the sad or hard thing, which might be too big to wrap one’s brain around otherwise. Plus, when you get your reader to laugh, they become involved in the story in a new way, they are a participant, and I like that. I like it when everyone’s got their hands in the mud-pile together.
TM: This collection is separated into four parts, Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. How did you conceive (ha!) of this organization, and why did you decide to move backwards, from birth to love? Can you discuss the formation of these stories into a collection?
RA: It’s always amazing to me how long you can go along, not realizing your own obsessions. I first wrote these stories as individuals and not as a book, and then I looked back at the stack and the themes jumped right out at me. There was a moment where I actually felt deflated by this, worrying that my range seemed limited or something. Then someone said to me, “No, that’s what a book is.” After that, I decided to really push the question of what it is to be born again and again throughout one’s life, and that’s where the ordering and sections came in. I wanted to get at the idea that we are in one long cycle, and at the same time we are each in a constant state of transformation and mutation.
TM: There are some interesting echoes throughout the book. Grandmothers find themselves on a ship in “Safe Passage,” and then, later in the collection, in “Magniloquence,” professors wait for a Nobel Laureate lecture that never happens. Both stories are about death, and though they feature a main character, the narrative alights on many others who are also captive to their peculiar situation. Magical bodies abound: a man with drawers growing out of his chest; arms that sprout each time someone falls in love; a girl imagining she’s giving birth to a giraffe. And there are also a lot of family secrets, particularly surrounding a child’s absent parent. Did these echoes happen consciously, or did you step back later and see the return of certain themes and images?
RA: I would say I was semi-conscious of themes and recurring images. I don’t find I do very interesting work when I’m navigating with logic, so I try to let themes rise up if they rise up, rather than setting out to write a book about such-and-such. I know I’m going to write a story if I have a crush on the idea — the fluttery heartbeat, the staring off into space and thinking about it when other people are talking, etc. It’s driven by desire and instincts and all those animal-brain forces, which maybe explains why things get weird and also why I keep coming back to certain questions in different ways.
On the specifics: I like the tension between the unique experience of an individual and the pull of group-think. These won’t be the last stories about groups that you’ll see from me, I predict. And I’m totally fascinated with storytelling and with stories as actual things that affect the people who tell or hear them. A story is much longer-lived than the fleeting moment in reality that birthed it, and I love exploring the chemistry between fiction and reality. As for the fantastical elements — yes, I recognize that no one has ever grown another arm when they fell in love, but our real, actual bodies are very, very strange and amazing, even though we’re used to them, and love is very, very strange and amazing. So even though I was writing about an unreal variation, to me the magical elements are simply a magnification of what we’re all in the throws of all the time.
TM: I’m a pretty pure realist when I make up stories. Even when I’m playing pretend with my son, I’m far more likely to have us imagining we’re cowboys rather than, say, dragon-slayers. Or I have us pretend we’re at the post office. (Fun, right? Stamps! Envelopes!) This collection made me even more aware of my leanings — there is so much nutty stuff in your work, and I like it! Can you talk about these elements of fantasy and the magical in fiction?
RA: Thanks for sticking with the nuttiness! That’s definitely the way I’m wired. I love realism, too (I love anything that shows me the world again, whether it’s a world where crazy-crazy things happen or crazy-normal things happen). Some stories in the collection do not contain anything fantastical, yet I find I write most fruitfully when things are at least a little bit elevated or exaggerated. There are lots of conversations in the world about writing which focus on the benefit of the reader and what works for him or her, and of course all writers should care about that, but at the same time, the magic act of making something out of nothing is happening in the writer’s head, and it’s that brain that needs to be tended to first. I try to make sure I’m pushing stories in directions that make the brightest electric storms in my head, and hope that a reader on the other end is susceptible that same kind of lightning.
TM: I love the grace of your sentences. How do you approach prose when you’re writing a story? Does your sentence-making change when you’re writing a story versus a novel?
RA: Thank you! I often feel like I’m working when it comes to plot — I really have to put my back into it — yet when it comes to writing sentences and paragraphs, I’m the one getting paid. That part is (almost) pure pleasure, and it makes the whole job doable.
I don’t know if my approach is consciously different when writing a novel vs. writing stories, although I’m sure there are more workaday sentences in No One is Here Except All of Us and in the new novel I’m working on, simply because there is more story to tell. Now I’m curious about this too! I’ll pay attention and we can talk about this again later!
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last great book you read?
RA: I’m finally reading Pale Fire by Nabokov, which is, unsurprisingly, really good. It’s weird and puzzling and there are many great, bizarre moments. I also just read a great first novel: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which takes place in Chechnya and is about war and joy and survival and love. The writing is gorgeous, and though the subject matter is sometimes horrible and hard to read, the book is also funny and wise.
In early February, Amity Gaige’s third novel, Schroder — about a father named Erik Kennedy, who built his life on an elaborate lie and kidnaps his daughter, Meadow, following the bitter breakup of his marriage — was published by Twelve. In the weeks following the book’s release, Gaige — who was my professor at the University of Rhode Island in the early 2000s — and I corresponded via email about the writing life, assumptions made about female novelists, and how no one will ever be able to write like Nabokov.
The Millions: Schroder is receiving positive reviews and even being described as your breakout book. Does that have any meaning for you as a writer? Was the experience of writing and publishing Schroder any different for you than it was for O My Darling or The Folded World?
Amity Gaige: Breaking out sounds wonderful. If it means that lots of people read Schroder, then I will be happy to call it my breakout book. My other books were written with the same goal as Schroder — to write as well as possible about deeply felt themes. But maybe it’s significant that I wrote Schroder very quickly — it felt “channeled.” If you want to talk about the publishing side, that’s been a very different experience, too. I have an editor and publicist at Twelve who’ve been focused like assassins on each stage and challenge of bringing out a book. They responded to the book with gut responses, they hand-delivered it to people, they approached everything creatively and passionately. As for reviews, critical reaction is and always will be something I value highly as a writer — somebody serious and intelligent talking back to me after a long writerly confinement, if you will. But I also value hearing from readers, booksellers, librarians, total strangers. I’ve gotten some interesting emails asking for help with parenting or custody arrangements. I don’t mind. I get energy from the feedback.
TM: Along the same lines, how do you see your writing evolving over the course of your career? In what ways are you a different writer than you were in 2005 when O My Darling was published?
AG: Writing O My Darling felt like chiseling stone — hard and painstaking. It took me a long time to realize that I was simply learning how to write a book, an activity that isn’t inborn. I say while knocking on wood that each book has been easier to write than the next. My 30s have been a heady time personally. Having children, losing loved ones, coming to larger understandings about life; if these things change me, then I hope they change and broaden my writing.
TM: In your novels, a recurring theme is the strength of relationships and the ways they are tested. You recently described Schroder as “a pro-marriage book; a balled-up and then uncrumpled valentine.” Can you talk a little about the importance of this theme in your work and how your take on it in Schroder is different than in your other novels?
AG: A smart piece of recent criticism said that the book does not use the 19th-century marriage plot but the “twenty-first century divorce plot.” Schroder concerns what happens after love is over — or in this case, discredited. I’ve always been preoccupied by the transience or ephemerality of experience, good and bad. As a minor character in the book says, there is the temptation to try and “box up” experience and “keep it.” But happiness — and love — cannot be possessed, controlled, quarantined…In Eric’s case, he’s dealing with the unwieldy fact that he still loves his ex-wife even though she has completely washed her hands of him. She thinks that because he’s a liar, he lied about loving her. But I don’t think he lied about loving her, and I guess that’s the uncrumpled part of the valentine.
I didn’t really answer the question, though. I’m not sure why I keep writing about marriage. Marriage is just a metaphor for human relationships in general. It’s the relationship in which we live or die in terms of our own self-concept, in terms of our reputations with ourselves.
TM: Let’s talk about Erik Kennedy/Schroder. You’ve said you feel “a lot of ambivalence towards him” and certainly navigate between his good qualities and his terrible qualities when portraying him to readers. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? A lot of importance is often placed on the “likability” of characters. Was this something you thought about as you were writing Schroder?
AG: Well I find Eric likeable, but in the way you love a classic naïf. The narrator of Updike’s “A & P” or Dowell in The Good Soldier. You think, wow, what a limited person, but at least he cares about something. If I had to choose between the extremes of sentimentality and cynicism, I’d always choose the former.
But yes, I do feel ambivalence towards Eric. What he does in lying to his wife is unconscionable. And I think part of the poignancy of the father-daughter relationship here is that his daughter is fated to wise up, and to eventually be really furious at him. She loves him now because he’s all she knows. But how messed up would Meadow be as a grown-up? Schroder suggests, I think, pretty messed up.
TM: Was it difficult to write Erik’s young daughter, Meadow? What are the challenges you faced portraying a child?
AG: My son was probably about four when I started writing Schroder. I poured all the love, amusement, and self-doubt I felt on a daily level as a parent into the characterization of Meadow. Also, my son just said a lot of fabulous things, and I wrote them down word for word and gave them to Meadow. When people cite their favorite lines from the book — and these are often Meadow’s lines — I have to laugh and say, Let’s face it, the best lines in this book were written by a six year old.
TM: You’ve said the book was in some part inspired by the Clark Rockefeller case and what he said about some of the happiest moments of his life being spent with his daughter after he abducted her. How did the idea for Schroder come about and evolve as you wrote the novel?
AG: As you mention, Schroder began with the seed from that now-infamous ripped-from-the-headlines story, one I deliberately never followed. But that story was relevant only in that I was already preoccupied its themes: identity, parenthood, immigration, self-invention…Can you be a fraud and still love others sincerely? Can you be a troubled soul and also a loving parent? I am of the Chekhov school in regards to literature “posing questions correctly” as opposed to answering them. Wondering now if I have — even privately — answered these questions — I think no, not conclusively. Eric is still new to me, and as I travel around reading from the book, my attitude towards him alternates between compassion and bitterness.
TM: Schroder functions as an apology/confession from a man with an elaborate false identity. Both of those elements have a rich literary history. How does your novel fit into that literary landscape?
AG: I am sure there is a buried influence of Dostoevsky, even Poe, both of whom I read at a fairly young age, probably assuming these men were describing the inevitable lunacy of adulthood…I loved the hair-tearing confessions of deeply inconscient madmen-narrators, driven by guilt to confess. But Schroder is probably my agon-with-Nabokov book. Nobody writes like Nabokov; nobody ever will. What I would give to write one sentence like Vladimir! I adore Lolita, but I am more conscious of the influence of Pale Fire. Maybe it’s a minor point, but the fact that Eric’s document is “written” is so important to the novel, just as “written-ness” is central to Kinbote’s confessions in Pale Fire. This is where I saw the need, in Schroder, for footnotes, playlets, questionnaires…But of course all these examples I give were written by men. I think it’s true that I simultaneously “honor, update, and reject” some of these literary antecedents with Eric Kennedy/Schroder. (I’m referring to a statement here in Kathryn Shultz’s lively New York Magazine review.) I think I give Eric a softer side than most of these men-written-by-men. My gender seeps in between the lines, in the ways I judge him or his effect on the women in his life, in the sadness I feel about what remains an essential otherness…
TM: The writing of female authors — particularly those who write about relationships — is often marginalized into two categories: “chick lit” or “women’s fiction.” As a woman and author of literary fiction, is this something you ever think about when writing? Do you think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all?
AG: No, I never think about it in regards to my own work. But do I think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all? Not sure. The contemporary woman novelist still faces some troubling assumptions when she tries to publish. However, I was recently on two different panels with extraordinary women writers (Claire Messud and Victoria Redel, Karen Russell and Claire Vaye Watkins). All of these women are acclaimed writers, not to mention inspiring speakers. I like to think of their confidence — and success — as a bellwether.
TM: You once advised “stay[ing] true to your artistic vision, even if you fail in other ways” — also noting a quote from Mario Vargas Llosa: “That is what authenticity or sincerity is for the novelist: the acceptance of his own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible.” Can you talk about how accepting your demons/decisions and staying true to your vision has served you over the course of your career?
AG: I think many writers write out of a longing to be understood — to be heard, legitimized, respectabilized. So if you’re not staying true to your artistic vision, what good is it for that vision to be legitimized? It’s not going to be gratifying. Of course, in some ways, you don’t have a choice about sticking to your artistic vision. Llosa says this, too — that writers don’t choose their themes, but rather that these themes are foisted upon them by personal history; Updike even said the same thing about style, that a writer’s style is inherent to him, simply the written equivalent to how the world “hits his or her nerves.” I don’t mean to say you should ignore criticism, especially when it’s made repeatedly, nor should you cling to some unbending, macho notion of integrity. For some people, compromise is radical. I say, surround yourself with trustworthy people, put your knife between your teeth, unplug, stop talking, and write.
TM: What are you working on now?
AG: Playing with my baby daughter. Wondering what her future will be like for her.
As the 2012 presidential election comes to an end, each candidate’s political and personal life has been vetted, his message honed, and a team of advisers assembled to shield him from any unwanted drama. This list considers those literary political or public figures who would not have withstood much scrutiny in the modern age. In contrast to the predictable quality of even the most captivating political biography, these tales favor the eerie or the bizarre over the electable in their consideration of political life. There is an element of fiction in all successful politics, but these works show the deliriously entertaining distortions that result when fiction (or creative nonfiction) asserts its authority over the political realm. John Cowper Powys’s epic poses the following question: if getting caught with a dead girl or a live boy is political suicide, what does an affair with an endangered, aboriginal giantess portend for a prince about to ascend to the throne? How would Charles Kinbote’s claims about his native Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire hold up in the age of PolitiFact? Ben Marcus’s dystopian allegory-cum-bildungsroman-cum-anthropological study lets us ponder what debate format would best suit Jane Dark, the pantomiming leader of a political party called the Silentists. A Henry James’s story, “The Private Life” asks just what happens to a figure with a preternatural knack for finding a public when nobody is around. Finally, Gertrude Stein’s authorized autobiography of her lover and modernist Paris explores why the military should embrace the avant-garde or risk obsolescence. Each work puts forth a character who, however indelible, remains doggedly unelectable.
1. John Cowper Powys, Porius
The time is 499 AD, and for Porius, the prince of a kingdom in Wales, the new century cannot come quickly enough. The Roman authority that installed his clan has long since crumbled, and the realm is threatened by an impending Saxon invasion. The young prince must also contend with a firebrand preacher spreading an aggressive new Christian religion hostile to local customs, a fragile coalition of oft-warring ethnic tribes, a plotting druidical leader, imperious Arthurian knights, and a beguiling sorceress who has infatuated King Arthur’s counselor, Merlin. Oh, and there are also two aboriginal giants lurking about, one of whom Porius, in his most spectacular dereliction of duties (political and marital), pursues over the mountainous terrain and seduces. Hiking the Appalachian Trail indeed. The novel dramatizes one long political and religious crisis, but the most fantastic thing about this fantastical novel is Porius’s sensuous exploration of his private sensations amidst the public chaos. Porius, the “strongest as well as the craziest man” in the kingdom, chooses to ruminate on the nature of the Pelagian heresy or “cavoseniargize,” a Powys neologism for a rapturous state in which “his soul found itself able to follow every curve and ripple of his bodily sensations and yet remain suspended above them.” By the end of the novel, Porius has become a kind of Herculean Lambert Strether, an ambassador who seeks not to impose his will on his roiling domain but rather derive an intensely personal moral from its upheavals.
2. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” As that question is posed repeatedly by each political party, it is perhaps worth musing on how the narrator/commentator of Pale Fire would respond to a similar question after the Karlist Revolution overthrew the monarchy and exiled him from his “blue, inenubliable Zemba.” After all, in Charles the Beloved’s reign, the issues beguiling American politics today were blissfully resolved: “The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer…Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state…Parachuting had become a popular sport.” Granted, this utopia exists solely in the (gloriously) demented mind and “wistful thinking” of a madman, but still, decent healthcare and parachuting as a national sport? Kinbote’s flights of fancy have little to do with some of the more squalid falsifications and misrepresentations to which American politicians resort; rather, as he confides to John Shade, the poet whom he has “saturated” with his Zembla, “once transmuted by you into poetry, the stuff will be true, and the people will come alive. A poet’s purified truth can cause no pain, no offense. True art is above false honor.” (Oh, to hear Kinbote’s account of racing in the Zemblan Marathon!) A noble goal: should leaders lie, at least do it in verse.
3. Ben Marcus, Notable American Women
Ben Marcus, at once the guinea pig, greatest hope and greatest disappointment of the warring parents whose narratives bookend his own “secret history of women in American townships,” can remember a time when “historic leaders shouted their hearts out to the world, lecturing feverishly until their bodies collapsed and they died.” Yet by the time Ben narrates his perverse bildungsroman, those leaders, presumably male, have been “shushed,” as has Ben’s father, who is imprisoned in a grave-like cell in the family’s backyard by a cultish group of women, the Silentists. These Silentists, led by the enigmatic, powerful Jane Dark, seek to achieve what they call a New Stillness, to bring about a revolutionary, distinctly feminine, world silence and institute semaphore as the primary form of behavior. The Silentist movement is an anti-populist one, as in Marcus’s world, people (and the language they spew) are the problem; they are “areas that resist light, mistakes in the air, collision sweet spots.” The political solution lies not in appeals to personal responsibility but in a full-throated defense (as much as possible for the Silentists) of government intervention and organizations: The Woman’s National Pantomime Group, The Akron Stillness Center, the Ohio Pillow Talk Council, and the American Naming Authority. The author even recommends that “public money should be used to deploy roving masseurs to careers citizens of our public areas so their bodies might better yield to speech and weather broadcasts streaming from this book.” Now that’s a stimulus. The tools with which they attempt to bring about the New Stillness — “witness water” that becomes imprinted with certain behaviors, language enemas, a new all-vowel language causing less disturbance in the weather, a chew stand (recommended for every household), daily “wind-ambush baths,” vigorous pantomime — constitute an absurdist, prescriptive guide for how to revitalize a worn out language, an effort to combat the “failure to traffic language with any newness” and to find, in a new collective behavior, “unprecedented utterances.” Ben is the subject of the Silentists’ increasingly futile experiments to raise a child best adapted to this new world, and the familial struggle at the heart of the novel between deposed father and ascendant mother broadens out over to a larger struggle for political power and over the Logos itself.
4. Henry James, “The Private Life”
The tightly plotted ghost story unfolds with mathematical precision under the backdrop of a “great bristling primeval glacier” at a Swiss resort hotel. The narrator and an accomplished stage actress, Blanche Adney, investigate the unusual behavior of two figures: Lord Mellifont, an aristocrat who is all public and had no corresponding private life,” and Clare Vawdrey, a “great mature novelist” who is “all private and had no corresponding public [life].” Vawdrey’s social personality is one of “economy;” his opinions are “sound and second-rate,” he feels comfortable in the “flat country of anecdote,” and he exhibits none of the rare feelings found in his masterful novels. Lord Mellifont, by contrast, “expend[s] treasures of tact” and is marked by a “plenitude of presence.” He seems to exist solely to charm “an immense circle of spectators,” each conversation about him “take[s] the form of anecdote,” and he is less a flesh-and-blood specimen than a “style;” in short, James has created the prototype for “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” The ghostly element of the story is an elegant way to demonstrate the costs and payoffs of each social strategy — the one frugal, the other profligate. I won’t reveal the twist, but James homes in on the ominously spectral quality of public life, the unheimlich nature of a man who is excessively good at putting strangers at ease: “I had secretly pitied him for the perfection of [Lord Mellifont’s] performance, had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself, or, more serious still, with that intenser self his lawful wife.”
5. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Midway through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the narrator notes that Gertrude Stein is “one of the few people of her generation to read every word of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great,” and at the very end of the memoirs, she coyly suggests an alternative title for her work: My Life with the Great. Both details hint at the ambitious, world-historical scope of Stein’s modernism. Stein, the “Mothergoose of Montparnasse” and hostess of the famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, is also a general-like leader of the avant-garde. Of course, part of the memoir’s pleasure is reading the gossipy accounts of feuding artists in Paris. In one amusing episode, she diplomatically appeases the fragile egos of her painter-guests at a dinner party by sitting each across from his own picture, which makes them all “so happy that we had to send out twice for more bread.” And yet while chronicling each petty intrigue, Stein is never shy about trumpeting the heroic nature of her modernist project, beginning with the claim that the “three little Matisse paintings” she brought back from Paris were the first modern things to cross the Atlantic. But perhaps more striking are the geo-political implications she sees for the modern. When Stein asserts that “[the Germans] cannot…possibly win this war [WWI] because they are not modern,” she casts herself and the avant-garde as vital to military success as the war cannot leap over the aesthetic; military success is bounded by modernity, and Stein and her set are modernity incarnate. The wonderful scene in which a “spell-bound” Picasso sees a camouflaged cannon rolling down the boulevard Raspail makes this connection explicit: “It is we that have created that, he said. And he was right, he had. From Cézanne through him they had come to that.” Whether Picasso’s aperçu will lead to a joint Pentagon-NEA project is anyone’s guess; regardless, Stein’s alternately blustery and revelatory claims about modernity, national character, military might and literature make for great sound bites: “She realizes that in English literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.” Gertrude Stein approved this message.
It’s 4:30pm and I’m at a desk on the nearly windowless fourth floor. I sit surrounded on all sides by shelves I can’t see over and I’m willing myself, I’m determined, not to cry.
When you catalog an archive, you might imagine that there’s a set of strict rules and guidelines that will make it clear how, precisely, to organize, separate, and label materials. You might imagine that there’s a rubric or handbook of some kind that you can wield against the utter chaos of thousands of sheets of paper arranged in no perceptible order. Stacks of paper barely contained by their binder clips and enormous red rubber bands, stacks of paper that weigh a ton, stacks of paper that all look the same. I am the cataloger of David Foster Wallace’s final work, The Pale King, and I’m here to tell you that in cases like these, the rules will only get you so far. It isn’t long before the careful methods of the archivist start to look feeble against the mass of information I’m trying to contain.
The more likely truth is that you’ve never once imagined anything about the cataloger’s job. This job is an invisible one. An archive like the Harry Ransom Center is so viscerally structured that it seems governed by something inhuman. The impression of perfection you get from its rows of gray manuscript boxes filled with numbered manila folders and clean, soft, white sleeves seems impossible, mechanized, sterile. It’s like some kind of hospital, and the patients are sheets of paper in various states of health, but the bed linens are always the same blinding degree of white. There doesn’t, at first glance, appear to be any human involvement in the archiving process. My handwriting on each of the folders of The Pale King materials — small, slanty, usually a hair off center — is the only giveaway.
I’m a graduate intern at the Ransom Center and I had the unexpected opportunity to dive headfirst into the most recent installment of David Foster Wallace’s papers. I also happen to be a reader and a scholar of his work, so this project intrigued me. That’s an understatement. I’ve worked extensively in the collection as a PhD student in the UT English department and I’ve presented papers on marginalia in his book collection. The chance to catalog the Pale King came up while I was writing a master’s thesis on Wallace’s Midwest, and I jumped at it. Everyone warned me that cataloging is an extremely dull, painstaking process, that the cataloger is required to operate as more machine than human. (I expected that it would be especially boring, considering I was cataloging a book about boredom.) And, I’ll be honest, much of it was slow and repetitive. But as I worked my way through the materials, something about this archive hit me right in my most human part. I found myself unable to operate as either cool cataloger or curious scholar. Without my realizing it, reading and sorting the collection took me way deeper into emotional territory than I tend to go. It’s hard for me even to explain.
It seems like I might as well say, here at the outset, that mine is not the voice, the type of voice, most heard in the realm of written commentary on David Foster Wallace and his work. David Foster Wallace is a boys’ club. Ask anyone. Many others will have a lot of things to say about this set of papers. I expect to read comments from the members of the Wallace-l listserv, from certain reporters and bloggers, from the scholars I know, from the writers who always have something to say when it comes to Wallace. Most will be men and some will fit stereotypes that I don’t need to describe. Don’t be surprised if my take sounds a little different.
I begin with a delicacy that is paralyzing. I fear getting anything out of order, out of place. I fear removing the rubber bands, the paper clips, the numbered Post-it notes. I’m distinctly aware that if I mess up, if I lose the order, the order is lost. That if I damage anything, there is no replacement. This is always the tricky, taxing part of archival work. The sense of responsibility is kind of overwhelming. I have to take out all the staples I find, because they make the paper deteriorate faster. Staples take me about five minutes each, using a thin metal wand, hands shaking. The process feels unnecessarily violent.
This collection is more than a decade’s worth of amassed writings — on tablets, notebooks, reused stationary, on floppy discs I recognize from an era long past, on identical pages printed and reprinted — belonging to a writer whose method appears to be mindful anarchy. An elaborate spreadsheet accompanies the cartons when they arrive. It’s the one that Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch used to compile the wreck of pages into the thing we know of as The Pale King. I study it diligently, but it doesn’t really help to find a way into the chaos. I’ve read the book three times by the time I begin to catalog it, so I feel like I should know my way around. Still, I follow the spreadsheet like a map and I hew to the physical order in which the sheets arrived. One of the itemized lists I read indicates that this is the order in which they were found. There are phrases like “From his desk”; “From his wire basket.” The visual landscape of a workspace emerges. I’m struck by the physicality and the ordinariness these phrases suggest.
It doesn’t take long for me to feel strangely connected to the things I’m reading, to the drafts and the handwriting, the voices that emerge in the margins. I get emotionally invested very quickly. Even without a clear avenue through the papers, I’m pretty damn sure that you’re not supposed to get your own snot all over the materials. That’s definitely a rule. This is where the willpower comes in. Keep it together, I tell myself. You are a machine. You are processing information. Everything can be reduced to a discrete data point. Yes, I’m a reader and a scholar of this author’s work. But I’m nobody’s fan girl. I didn’t think this would be so hard, so fraught. Just as I’m about to get carried away by a wave of weird sentimentality, I see a familiar phrase from The Pale King smiling up at me as I fit the draft into its folder: “the human heart is a chump.” No kidding. I handle precious, singular objects everyday at my job, to the extent that it risks becoming rote. I don’t see why this should be any different. But it’s the closeness I have to the maelstrom of someone’s writing process, the closeness to the really difficult questions asked again and again, plus the responsibility I feel toward preserving every iota of it — it makes my task seem impossible. There’s too much life here to contain in boxes, folders, and telegraphic lines in a finding aid.
Stephen Cooper, who cataloged the rest of the Wallace collection in 2010, advises me to take notes on what I find. I am supposed to write down pertinent details that need to be included in the finding aid and to flag pages that require repairs by our conservation team. What I do instead is I write down everything I observe about the stack of pages. I find myself writing sheets upon sheets of notes, all in pencil, about every item. I do this without really thinking about how it could be useful. I spend close to an hour on the first rubberbanded batch of materials. Stephen walks by and I hear something to the effect of, “Whoa. That’s a lot of notes.” I look down at what I’ve done and realize that none of it will go into the finding aid, that all this detail is what people come to the archive to find out for themselves. Each of my attempts to do this job flawlessly fails. I renew my efforts at detachment.
Again and again I confront the fact that I am up against a mystery, a labyrinth of pages, and that it’s the puzzle itself we’re trying to preserve. Not solve. Just maintain. Let live on. My job is to organize it all just enough to preserve the wonder of its discovery. The most important thing is not to lose any information; no data can escape in the transaction. It’s the cataloger’s mantra.
This is a tender operation. This is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a cocoon of my own sweltering nostalgia. Some things I find cut me. Some of the notes I read and I can feel my face aging. Do you know what that feels like? This archive is a chronicle of a final work. It is a chronicle of depression. It is the best thing I’ve ever read. These are not the normal cataloger’s problems.
You’re probably wondering what’s in the archive. For the most part, these are handwritten and typed bits and pieces and scenes from the book published as The Pale King. Other titles for the book include Glitterer, Sir John Feelgood, and my personal favorite, What Is Peoria For? There is a mass of material labeled “freewriting.” The same scenes are written and rewritten many times. There are lists upon lists of characters and possible names for them. There are maps. There are printouts of tax returns, pixilated images of enormous offices divided into cubicles, of actual tingle tables used by the IRS, there’s a map of Peoria. (Each of these has about a million tack points in it, or double-sided tape on the back, which suggests he had them posted up on his walls.)
Throughout the margins of the collection there is a conversation between the writer and himself. There are notes that refer to the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996; some of the dates on the floppy discs precede it. There is the underlined word “panic.” And there are encouraging stickers that say, with a ridiculous face, “You did it!” “Good effort!” I make a mental note to acquire some stickers like these for myself. Some of the drafts are printed on Illinois State University letterhead with the convoluted motto “An equal opportunity/affirmative action university encouraging diversity” at the bottom of every page. I develop an intimate relationship with the angle of his staples, his evolving weights of paper, his process of starting over and over and over. The writer that comes through is nervous and uncertain, intimidated by his own harsh judgments. This feels familiar enough to me. This sounds like most writers.
I’m not interested in some kind of David Foster Wallace myth-creation, some kind of canonization. We’ve arrived at that moment where now everyone has to weigh in and have their say over what type of person this writer was, how he treated others, what we can deduce about his psychology and how that can unlock his writing. Everyone’s running around with a new revealing fact. The way the cult of personality has taken over much of the discussion of Wallace’s work is something I find deeply aggravating. So if you’re waiting for me to construct a narrative for the ten years in which this archive was compiled or to explain something new about this person I never met based on the things he wrote down, well, I’m not going to. I don’t want to tell you any story about any person I never knew. I want to tell you the story of how I got to dive down deep into a mess of papers and how I came up laughing or crying or unable to speak. I want to tell you about connectivity. The secret, best, juiciest, and most exhilarating part of working in archives is the way they reach out and form webs; each thing points you to something else, gives you new things to read and avenues to explore. It’s constantly bewildering.
The network of connections that most captivates me in The Pale King archive is the one that appears in Wallace’s notebooks. Some of them resemble what you might call commonplace books, if we lived in the 1700s. They are archives of Wallace’s reading practices, quotes and clippings, words and their definitions jotted down. They are works of art, in and of themselves. The covers include: blue-eyed Cuddly Cuties kittens; characters from Rugrats; butterflies; and a waterlogged iteration of that omnipresent Klimt print.
Many of the notes in these books describe people or places in the Midwest, Wallace’s home region that appears frequently in his writing. My own research is on place in contemporary literature, and I’m writing this thesis on the Midwest, so needless to say these capture my attention. The notebooks are filled with scraps of Midwestern dialogue that read like overheard bits of conversation, jokes, sayings. The voices that populate these notebooks sound very much like my parents, my grandparents; I’m from Illinois, too. I’m doing that thing here, committing that fallacy where I start to see my own experience, my own identity reflected back at me in someone else’s work. I’m in the middle of reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire right now and my role as cataloger, religiously removing rubberbands, sometimes reminds me of that book’s narrator. Not in a very good way, either. It’s a crazy thing to do, to start seeing your reflection in things that have nothing to do with you. But then, the untold truth about scholarly work, maybe about research of any kind, is that it’s always personal. It’s always about going after the unsolved mysteries of your own existence, your own heart. For as long as I’ve been able to figure, I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to grow up in a place that doesn’t seem to know it exists, and Wallace’s writing really helps with that. The Midwest he describes looks an awful lot like the one I know.
Much real estate in the notebooks is devoted not to complex philosophical musings or elaborate plot design (though there’s plenty of both). Instead, I find brief, piercing comments on what it’s like to be alive everyday. There are a lot of notes on all the really basic parts of being a person — dealing with weather, enduring routine, running errands. There is a description of marriage that begins one notebook with the line, “It’s a lie that marriage means the end of romance.” It goes on to connect the theory of boredom that concerns much of Wallace’s later work with the reality of a long-term relationship. Descriptions like these, breakdowns of the most basic and impossible elements of quotidian life, are the things that speak to me. Every reader of his stuff seems to have her own version of what it’s about, and the version that compels me is this highly attuned reflection on the mundane, on lived experience. And then, in between the Midwesternisms and the reflections, there are references to books and articles, generative pieces of research or things come across by accident. This is where the archive really shines. There are quotes from books I’ve read and recognize, and quotes from things I’ve never heard of and write down on post-it notes and stuff in my pockets. I write down so many new words. Each day I get home and empty pockets full of notes.
I find it almost impossible to finish cataloging. I spend days away from the fourth floor, ruminating over things I’ve read and unable to return to my place in the pages. I read things that really piss me off. I read things that frighten me. I read things that delight every bone in my body. When I’m working on it, I feel as though I’ve gone underwater. One day I forget to leave at five. The clock on the fourth floor has stopped at some point while I’ve been working. When I finally get up I find the elevator has been locked.
I linger in full awareness that many other people will have at this archive once it’s open. I’m possessive in a way that makes me uncomfortable. It’s been difficult to sit at the reference desk in the Reading Room over the last year, overseeing hundreds of scholars as they dig through Wallace’s papers. I’m excited to see so much interest, scholarly and personal, in something I care about. I’m thrilled to see serious academic work come out of these collections and, frankly, it’s exciting to see this many young people taking the time to visit an archive. Pilgrims to the archive have an unmistakable glow about them. But still, there’s always that feeling on my side of the desk. Other people will find things I missed, they will write about things I would never disclose. They will be either more or less guilty than I am of a word I find in the butterfly notebook: “Apohenia — seeing connections where none exist.”
When they call up the Pale King materials, many of these visitors will be looking for details to flesh out the persona they’ve been honing for this writer, to enhance the image they’ve been cultivating. And so I guess what I want to suggest is that maybe there’s room for other lines of inquiry here. Maybe, instead of formulating a theory that explains a person’s life or death, we could instead ask the questions that this archive asks of us as readers: what is a person for? How should a person be? What does life look like in all the parts of the world that don’t usually get described in detail? What should we pay attention to? How should we pay attention? How can fiction help us pay attention? Those are the questions that stick with me.
I don’t know what people will find in these folders or how they’ll choose to interpret this new installment to the record of Wallace’s works. What I’m certain they will discover is that within the boxes, numbered 36-41, lies not a single unfinished work but an infinite web of possible works. The Pale King as we know it is, in the end, just one of these, one possible iteration. There are many years of life left in these pages. I hope other readers of the archive experience something like the joy and wonder and despair and unending strangeness I’ve felt, swimming around in another person’s thoughts for a few months.
Image via bill_comstock/Flickr
Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory, the Russian emigre and American professor, a literary magician in two different languages, left behind a younger brother when he fled Europe to the United States on the eve of World War II. Sergey Nabokov experienced the same confusion of moneyed privilege followed by penurious exile as his famous brother. But Sergey was an artist without an art, a lover of music, ballet, sex, and men. At one point he became an opium addict. He was stranded in Berlin during the last years of the Third Reich.
Novelist Paul Russell has taken this forgotten figure, a footnote in the biography of a twentieth century genius, and brought him back from the shadows in a remarkable novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. It is fiction built on fact, a Nabokovian exploration of the slanted truths of fiction. The title’s echo of Nabokov’s novel about biography, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is no accident. Sergey narrates his own story here in a voice that’s a cousin of his brother’s brilliantly freaky ESL English, and not a poor cousin either. The book is an homage to Vladimir Nabokov that also functions as a work of literary criticism (Sergey reads his brother’s early novels with intense familial understanding) and, like the best art, a work of life criticism, too.
Unreal Life is Russell’s sixth novel. His other books, which include Boys of Life, Sea of Tranquillity, and The Coming Storm, touched on some of the themes he explores here: love, art, beauty, and same-sex desire. But Unreal Life is Russell’s first historical novel, his most ambitious work, and his most epic. He has taken his old themes and put them at the center of the tragedy of modern European history.
Russell lives in an old farmhouse in Rosendale, New York — he teaches literature and creative writing at Vassar College on the other side of the Hudson. I recently spoke with him there about Sergey and Vladimir and the uses and abuses of fiction.
The Millions: When did you first think about writing a novel about Sergey Nabokov?
Paul Russell: My answer should be, “Ever since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov back in the early ‘80s.” I was certainly aware that Nabokov had a gay brother about whom he had very mixed feelings; he writes candidly — albeit briefly — about those mixed feelings in his autobiography Speak, Memory. But it wasn’t until I read Lev Grossman’s essay “The Gay Nabokov” in Salon that I realized here was a subject that had been lying in plain sight for years, and I somehow hadn’t seen it. So I’m very grateful for Lev’s work for making visible certain possibilities for story-telling that should have been obvious; I’m rather embarrassed they had to be pointed out to me like that!
TM: Why a novel? Did you ever consider doing a biography instead?
PR: I don’t really have the patience or talent or temperament to do the kind of research you’d have to do to write a proper biography. It seemed much more congenial to forge Sergey’s memoirs rather than have to track down real life, reluctant sources. I’m a very shy person in many respects; if I can’t do a project while sitting at my desk in my study, chances are I won’t do it. I’m not so good at uncovering facts, but have become quite skilled at dreaming my way toward them. Besides, when I asked Lev if there was other material he’d come across in his extensive detective work but left out of the published essay, he told me he’d put in everything he had. The farther Sergey’s life strayed from his brother’s, the fainter the trail becomes.
TM: This is your first novel about a real person, right? Did you feel trapped or liberated by writing about someone who actually existed?
PR: A little of both. In one sense I had the plot, the basic trajectory of Sergey’s life: his unhappy boyhood in Russia, the family’s flight into exile after the revolution, his Cambridge education, his years in Paris, his Austrian boyfriend, his death in a labor camp outside Hamburg. In another sense, I didn’t have the plot at all — by which I mean the day-to-day details and concerns and preoccupations, all the various eddies that roiled the larger current as it swept him inexorably along toward his fate. I knew about Hermann Thieme, the Austrian, but I had to invent all the other love interests. I knew the famous people Sergey was friends with, but most of our daily lives aren’t lived among famous people. I had the skeleton; I had to invent the organs and musculature and flesh.
TM: When I wrote Gods and Monsters about movie director James Whale, I first felt freed by having facts to draw upon. Later, however, I became frustrated knowing that no matter what I invented, my protagonist would still have to end up at the bottom of his swimming pool. “Quit complaining,” my agent told me. “Most writers don’t know where their story will go, but you’ve been given a great ending.”
PR: I think it was Hemingway who said, “Follow any life far enough, and it ends badly.” For me, the great looming end was Sergey’s death in a concentration camp. This presented a number of difficulties, especially since, from the beginning, I wanted to write in the first person. I felt it important to give a voice — quite literally — to the silenced brother. To have the fiction of that voice somehow continue into the abyss of the camp seemed not only impossible, but in some way indelicate, even obscene. For a while I toyed with the notion of switching to the third person in order to follow him into the camp; in the end I chose to include a brief Afterword summarizing what happened to him after his arrest by the Gestapo in December, 1943 (he died in January, 1945).
TM: Sergey is not the only historical figure here. You also include Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein. What was it like using famous figures fictionally?
PR: Great fun, actually. Stein and Cocteau, paradoxically, intimidated me less than some of the minor characters whom I invented out of thin air. They practically wrote themselves in that their fictional incarnations often quote or at least paraphrase their real life counterparts in dialogue.
TM: What are the legal issues with writing about real people? What are the moral issues?
PR: The legal issues, at least in the US, are simple: you can say anything you want about the dead. The moral issues are, obviously, more complex. In terms of famous people like Cocteau, Stein, or Vladimir Nabokov, I think they’ve ceded any claim to privacy. Sergey presents a different case. He didn’t call attention to himself. He didn’t inscribe his heart on a page for all to see. Some people will feel I shouldn’t have written about Sergey at all, that I’ve stolen something that isn’t mine, that I’ve violated a privacy that, by virtue of the unassuming life he led, he still should retain his right to. Did I struggle with this question a lot? Not really. That may seem profoundly or perversely strange, but in order to write Sergey I had to become Sergey. For instance: I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but in order to write about Sergey’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, I had enter as deeply and seriously into the mystery of faith as I could. Ballet doesn’t interest me at all, but I had to become a balletomane—or at least try to understand what it is to be a balletomane. Does that sound like madness? It’s the reason I write: to live more abundantly as others than it’s possible to live as myself. Because in writing about Sergey I was also writing about myself — not the self I had previously been, but the expanded self I was forced (or privileged) to become through the very act of imagining Sergey. There’s that line from Rimbaud: “I am someone else.” That’s what I strive for — at least in my writing. Maybe in my life as well.
But back to Sergey, and my violation or consecration of him. I knew from the beginning that, however complicated he might turn out to be as a human being, I wanted to honor the memory of this gay man who was silenced in so many different ways — by his chronic stutter, by his outré sexuality, by the labor camp, and finally by his brother, who failed to mention Sergey’s existence until the third version of Speak, Memory. I think Nabokov, to his credit, eventually regretted that — but it took him a long time to come to terms with his own collusion in that silencing.
TM: What would Sergey have thought of this book?
PR: Part of me suspects he’d have hated it. The Nabokovs were, in general, a reserved lot. But then I remember a letter he wrote to his mother, one of the very few instances of his correspondence that survives. In it he talks eloquently and openly about his love for Hermann Thieme:
There is such light in my soul, my entire life now is such [unprecedented] happiness that I can’t help but tell you about it. There are people who would not understand it, who do not understand such things at all. They would prefer to see me in Paris, barely making it by giving lessons, and at the end, a deeply unhappy creature. There are some talks about my “reputation” etc. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me. I wanted to tell you all this and, most importantly, I want you to accept my present life seriously — it is so extraordinary and fairy-like that one has to [think] about it; and the way how many people do it — one can come to a completely wrong conclusion.
So I’d like to think that Sergey would have wanted his story — especially the story of his and Hermann’s love — to be told, and told forthrightly.
Readers will have to make up their own minds.
TM: Your most important famous figure, of course, is Sergey’s brother, Vladimir. What is your history with Nabokov? He is a very important writer for you, right? When did you first discover him? How has your relationship changed over the years?
PR: My first encounter with Nabokov’s work was beautifully Nabokovian. I was a junior in high school, and had checked Pale Fire out of the library. It didn’t have a dust jacket, so I had no warning of what I was getting myself into. As I began to read it, I couldn’t figure out whether John Shade was a real poet, and whether the poem was a real poem (whatever that might mean) and whether I was supposed to take the increasingly erratic commentary by Charles Kinbote (a real scholar?) seriously. I soon put the book down with a shudder — as if I’d stumbled on something monstrous. But as with all things monstrous, I couldn’t stay away for long. The next year, knowing a bit more about it, I read it through, and was delighted, especially by Kinbote’s wild and swooning erotic commentary, with which I completely identified. Then a few months later I happened to come across a description of Kinbote as the novel’s “mad narrator” and was once again thrown for a loop. It hadn’t occurred to me that Kinbote was mad. And of course, now I have enough confidence in my own powers as a reader that I can see that dismissing Kinbote as merely mad misses the point entirely.
By the time I’d finished college I’d read all Nabokov’s novels, and wrote my honors thesis on him. I was at the same time trying to become a fiction writer by imitating the master. That was of course a terrible idea, though it took me a long time to realize that. In graduate school I intended to write my dissertation on Dickens, but ended up returning to Nabokov — unfinished business, I guess. By the time I completed my dissertation I’d freed myself of his influence — in fact, I never wanted to think about him again, which is the way I imagine many people feel about their dissertation subjects. When I started teaching at Vassar, I realized I didn’t want to do scholarly work but instead write novels, so that’s what I did. Most readers would probably agree that, up till now, my work has been distinctly un-Nabokovian (a reviewer in The Village Voice once described me as a cross between E.M. Forster and Jean Genet!) I do think there’s something poetic in having finally learned how to write like Nabokov — only not the genius Nabokov, but the forgotten Nabokov of modest and dissipated talents.
I find Maira Kalman’s sensibility and work difficult to describe to the uninitiated. She’s a visual artist and writer whose work combines photographs, text, and deceptively simple paintings—the kind of simple that takes considerable thought and skill—to form a record of what seems to me to be a ceaseless quest to understand this world, to appreciate its beauty, and to create some record of her life.
She was born in Tel Aviv, and immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Her books are quirky, deeply moving, and beautiful documents of life on earth. She considers Spinoza, George Washington, fruit platters, her dog, the nature of war. If this sounds incoherent, it isn’t. “I am trying to figure out two very simple things,” she said once at a TED conference. You can find the video on YouTube. “How to live, and how to die. Period. That’s all I’m trying to do, all day long.”
I picked up The Principles of Uncertainty in a bookstore a year or so ago, and bought it because I couldn’t put it down.
I’d first been introduced to her work some years earlier by an office mate. Let’s call her Jane. We worked for different small businesses in the same Midtown Manhattan office suite, Jane and I, in a tower just above Grand Central Station. We were slogging it out together in the shadow world of dreary part-time day jobs and interesting-but-not-terribly-lucrative artistic careers. She was an actor, I was writing my first novel, and our jobs were neither particularly good nor particularly awful.
The office where I worked had white walls, a rippling carpet in a depressing shade of pink, and a horribly cheap desk whose fake-wood veneer was peeling off the particle board in strips. I worked on an ugly Dell laptop that only intermittently worked. When it stopped working I had to call Dell’s customer service line, by which I mean that I’d devote an hour to listening to hold music from overseas and then get disconnected in a burst of static. When I looked out the window the sheer glass wall of the Hyatt hotel only reflected my window back at me. The room’s saving grace was the existence of a floor lamp; when I was alone in the office I closed the door, turned off the fluorescent overheads and took refuge in low lighting and soft music.
In those days The Principles of Uncertainty existed only as a ravishingly beautiful weekly feature on the New York Times website. I thought, looking over Jane’s shoulder as she showed it to me: this is the beauty I long for. There were beautiful things in my life outside work, but my life in the office was a wasteland. This is sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile in the fraught territory of art and day jobs: the complete divide between the part of your life that pays your rent and the part of your life that you consider your career, the part that brings you joy and fulfilment. In a perfect world one’s art would be sustaining all by itself, but the truth is that particularly dreary day jobs are somewhat harder to bear before one’s had much success. I acquired an agent during my time in the office suite, but no publisher.
Just about the only beauty to be found in and around my day job in those days was Maira Kalman’s regular New York Times feature, and down below the office tower when I passed twice daily through the echoing cathedral of Grand Central Station. I would steal glances at the starred ceiling of the Main Concourse on my way to work every morning. Look at this beautiful city I’ve landed in. Look at this cathedral for trains.
Two or three day jobs and several years later, in an entirely different version of my life (two published books; Brooklyn; two cats) I attended a Bat Mitzvah at the Jewish Museum. After the service we slipped out of the event room to take a look at the Museum, my husband and I. “There’s an artist exhibiting on this floor,” he said. I saw the exhibition title and my heart sped up a little. Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World.)
The exhibition of her work, which runs through the end of July, has the feel of extreme curation. It occupies three rooms, but if they’d given her the run of the entire museum I suspect she could have filled it. She is a prolific artist and an avid collector. The New Yorker has a slideshow of Maira Kalman setting up her exhibit. She looks very focused. She wears an excellent hat.
There are the paintings, of course, many of them originals of the images that appear in The Principles of Uncertainty and in her other books. Paintings of flowers, a Snickers bar, a pickle tag (3 UNITED PICKLE), sunny days in parks and gardens, a body in the snow. Emily Dickinson in a white dress with a black dog at her side, radiant against a background of deepest blue. A pale boy of about twelve, all in white, legs crossed, smiling and carefree on a curved red chair, Kalman’s gorgeously uneven handwriting on the wall above him: “Nabokov’s family fled Russia. How could the young Nabokov, sitting innocently and elegantly in a red chair, leafing through a Book on Butterflies imagine such displacement. Such loss.” It might be my favorite image of hers.
In The Principles of Uncertainty the Nabokov piece is part of a larger musing on death and displacement that concludes with a map drawn by Kalman’s mother, a map of the world through her eyes: Canada is a grey mass along the top edge, a formless shadow that makes me think of Nabokov’s Zembla as described in the last four words of Pale Fire: A distant northern land. The states are jumbled chaotically together in the blue field of the United States, and down toward New York State the map slides into surrealism: Jerusalem abuts New York, with Tel Aviv and the name of the Russian town where Kalman’s mother grew up close on the other side. It’s a jumble, a map drawn by a woman who fled Russia for Palestine and then left Israel for the United States, a map of displacements and complicated flights. “She is no longer alive,” Kalman’s handwriting reads, “and it is impossible to bear. She loved Fred Astaire. And there you go. On you go. Hapless, heroic us.”
Her affection for us shines through every painting, every word. She moves through life with a camera and a sketchbook, documenting our passions, our hairstyles, our hats. She has a fondness for beautiful objects. Her collected objects dominate the largest of her Jewish Museum exhibit’s three rooms. Because so many of them appear in her paintings, seeing them is a bit like coming across old friends.
There are simple wooden ladders, an empty hat stand. A glass case whose contents I spent a long time studying:
A miniature white chair, hard and severe-looking.
A very small white funnel.
A dried pomegranate.
A selection of chaotic beautifully paint rags: “paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels.”
Language self-instruction books, quite old: Colloquial Persian, Colloquial Bengali, Marathi Self-Taught, Telugu Without Tutor, Teach Yourself Gujarati. (Overheard by the glass case: “Gujarati! That would be good for you.”)
A brass whistle, a brass egg. A leather pouch. An enormous rusted skeleton key. Assorted varieties of string.
Another case holds a shoebox labeled Mosses of Long Island. A teacup. A jar of buttons. A slinky. A hotel desk bell. Something like a giant rolodex. Pinking shears. Elsewhere, a list of colours found in Madame Bovary (green cloth / black buttons / red wrists…) And old suitcases, which is wonderful, because I love old suitcases: one of my prized possessions is the small monogrammed suitcase that my grandmother took with her when she left home in the 1930s. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.
I think sometimes about the way objects tie us to the past. My relationship with my grandmother was uneasy at best, but we had some initials and a love of books and travel in common, and there was an earlier version of her whom I wish I could have met: a stylish young woman with a fondness for smart hats who packed a suitcase stamped ESJ—Ella St. John—and set off for the capital of my distant northern land.
There are quotes written high up on the museum walls:
“As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.” -Gustave Flaubert (Mme Bovary)
I feel like that every time I write a novel. Hung on the wall in another room, white fabric with embroidered text: My rigid heart is tenderly unmanned.
There are videos. Maira Kalman putting in an installation in the new library of PS 147: the theme was the alphabet, and she spent some months collecting objects to mount on the walls above the shelving.
I just started looking for all these beautiful objects around us, that are not expensive, and that are part of the vernacular of what children would be looking at in their daily lives and I wanted them to see that in every mundane object there’s incredible design and incredible ability to use your imagination and make it into something else, which is what everybody has to do in their life no matter what job they have.
In my favorite clip, Maira Plays the Accordion As Pete Listens Patiently, the artist plays the accordion with some hesitation while the camera pans over her dog’s fur, his patient face.
“I was going to say, she’s a little wacky,” an older woman said, putting down the headphones and moving away from the video with her friend. But aren’t most of us? And don’t you have to be? It’s not an easy world to live in.
The exhibition “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” runs at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan (1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY) through July 31.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
I planned to review The Original of Laura back when it first came out last year, but I found that I didn’t have much to say. The book was marketed as the final unfinished novel of Vladimir Nabokov, and as a “masterwork that was nearly destroyed.” Really, though, it’s just a jumble of disconnected fragments, in such rough form that they can’t be evaluated.
Still, some reviewers have been extraordinarily hostile to The Original of Laura, and have given Nabokov absurdly harsh treatment for this batch of handwritten index cards that he specifically insisted should never be published. It seems only decent to remind everyone that this isn’t the volume to use as proof of much of anything about Nabokov’s writing. The Original of Laura doesn’t show a falling-off in Nabokov’s powers as a novelist. It shows little except that he died before he could put the novel on paper in anything even hazily resembling publishable form.
Reading some of the reviews, you can come away with a sense that the text is far closer to completion than it actually is. Not a single sustained sequence, not a single fully developed character, not a single clear line of narrative emerges from these short, disjointed scraps of writing. Nabokov is one of the least straightforward novelists in history, and his books can’t really be understood in isolated or incomplete pieces. Imagine evaluating Pale Fire on the basis of, say, early drafts of Nabokov’s handwritten index cards from thirty or forty pages of the least revealing parts of Kinbote’s commentary, without even a single index card from the main poem.
The fragments of The Original of Laura have something to do with someone named Flora and someone named Wild, and something to do with some book called My Laura, and something to do with Wild’s notion of mentally dismembering his body as a form of death-by-willpower. Yet since this is Nabokov, it’s not only possible but probable that the relationships among these elements are far from obvious. Even the most seemingly clear aspects of the fragments are part of larger patterns that we will simply never recover, and that it’s irresponsible for us to pretend we can examine.
I understand why some of the reviews have been so nasty. The book has been brought out in an expensive, ornate edition, accompanied by a lot of off-putting pre-publication hype. Yet Nabokov isn’t responsible for that hype, and his son Dmitri Nabokov has acted with integrity by insisting that the book appear in a form where its incompleteness can be seen and instantly grasped.
Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov has taken some weirdly disproportionate hits for the aspect of the book that deserves the greatest praise. He hasn’t hidden the unpolished, provisional state of the text. Instead, he has heightened it, reproducing the handwritten index cards so we can inspect for ourselves just how far the book is from being done. Critics who have attacked him for his textual decisions should lighten up (and should keep in mind that he’s a first-rate translator who has earned his place as the protector of his father’s legacy). Besides, would we really be happier with an edition of the novel where a team of editors had quietly cleaned up the prose and attempted to pull everything together into a falsely unified story?
Whether the fragments should have been published at all is a harder question. I think Nabokov’s last wishes should have trumped our curiosity, even if the writing had been in a more nearly finished form and had amounted to a great final work. Again, though, Dmitri Nabokov has been savaged for his open, decades-long struggle with a decision that many other literary estates have made much more secretively, often ignoring or downplaying the author’s desires in an attempt to avoid criticism. Outsiders might not agree with Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish, but it was his choice to make, and he had the courage to make it without trying to minimize the difficulties of his position. It seems to me he’s being punished mainly for his honesty, for doing in a straightforward and honorable manner what many literary estates do with cynical, calculating furtiveness.
This isn’t a minor point. With the publishing world’s old standards and traditions dissolving all around us, why should we go out of our way to rip into people who make a special effort to take their literary duties seriously? Dmitri Nabokov is, after all, responsible for bringing out, among many other books, The Enchanter and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov—two valuable posthumous Nabokov works where the son’s editing and translating are exemplary. Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov’s lifelong dedication to his father’s writing deserves a far more appreciative assessment than it has lately generated. This will be corrected in the long run, but why not just go ahead and correct it today? Vladimir Nabokov has every reason to be grateful for his son’s devotion.
Anyway, The Original of Laura is out now, and we can see that Nabokov was right to believe his final fragments weren’t yet ready for publication. This knowledge should remind us how high Nabokov’s standards were for his craft. It should also free us to turn back to the books that he actually saw into print. From The Eye to Lolita and Pnin, from Glory and Laughter in the Dark to Speak, Memory and Pale Fire, Nabokov’s best writing will last long after The Original of Laura is properly forgotten.
Lawrence Weschler has observed, astutely, that writers tend to move from Romanesque to Gothic. The early work will be thick, solid, even heavy; only with decades of experience does the writer learn to chisel away excess, as the builders of Notre Dame did: to let in the light. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, however, the converse seems to obtain. Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.
That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.
What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)
Ada’s greatest puzzle, in all senses, is its setting. The opening line – a misquotation from “Anna Arkadievitch Karenina” – signals that the world of this novel will be a somewhat garbled translation of our own: an “anti-Terra.” In place of Borges, Anti-Terra has Osberg. In place of French Canadians, it has Russian Estotians. It is sometimes called Demonia. “Our demons,” we are told, “are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils.” In short, Nabokov has thrown us into the deep end, and expects us to stitch our own life preservers.
Doing so means reconstructing the history and geography not only of anti-Terra, but also of “Terra” – the mythical “sphere” alluded to above. This mirror-world turns out to be, from our standpoint, nearer to reality, but from the perspective of of anti-Terra, as far-out as Zembla. Who but those wacky New Believers could possibly credit the existence of Athaulf the Future, “a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform…in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country?”
The novel’s other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen – the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is “about” incest only in the way that Lolita is “about” pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is “about” fishing. Which is to say, it isn’t. In his wonderful book The Magician’s Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel’s subject is in fact “happiness” – generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov’s superheated imagination, even Wood’s generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above.
Ultimately, Nabokov manages a kind of Proustian magic trick: he recovers, through evocation, the very things whose losses he depicts. His exquisite, synesthetic sentences render the past present, the time-bound timeless. And they bring this author, not noted for his sympathetic disposition, so close to his hero that the difference disappears. Van Veen’s peculiar ardor becomes universal; to read the description is to share in the experience:The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end.And:After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established – high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping – nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette.Aesthetically, intellectually, and even morally, this is a Difficult Book par excellence. It demands a lover’s patience. But sentences like these are our steadfast consolation for submitting to the wiles of Ada.
Looking back over 2009, there are far too many books that I loved to write them all up here, but here are some of the standouts that may not have received the attention they deserve.
As a judge for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award, I read The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, originally published in the Netherlands in 1958. Plotwise, it’s as riveting a detective story as I read all year, but its purpose is far beyond that of your average noir. The book dramatizes the experience of a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II, but with a twist: eventually he, and we, become uncertain as to which side he’s actually working for, with disastrous consequences. When the book was published in 1958, Nazi collaboration and Holocaust guilt were huge factors in Dutch society (they remain so today), so the book was attempting to grapple with a major issue of the day. It remains wholly affecting as both a novel and as a dramatization of the fog of war.
We continue to hear rumblings that postmodernism as a cultural and literary era is ending, and that we’re moving on to whatever comes next (post-postmodernism?). If so, I have the feeling that the literary ideas and techniques bequeathed to us by postmodernism will, like those gifted us by modernism, live on in the literature to come, whatever form it takes. One book that did a superb job of embracing and tweaking postmodernism as a literary genre was 2009’s The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller. As I wrote in my review at the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the book “is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD.” He’s not Philip K. Dick but rather Phoebus K. Dank, and the two men writing the encyclopedia about his life’s work are: 1) Dank’s sycophantic best friend, and 2) his pompous, angry arch-rival. The result is an honestly hilarious “novel” that’s part Pale Fire, part murder mystery, and part grad student Easter egg hunt. It remains one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I hope lots of people give it a shot.
This year I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which was not only a wonderful reading experience but also a revealing one: those who think they know him from his post-Blood Meridian work aren’t nearly as well acquainted with McCarthy as they think. Real McCarthyites need to read the four novels that came before Blood Meridian, the longest and most amazing of which is Suttree. The book, quite simply, is McCarthy on Joyce. It’s a pastoral, quasi-epic set on the Tennessee River; it’s been called an anti-Walden, a worthy sequel to Huck Finn. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s the longest, lushest most intricate and baroquely bizarre thing McCarthy ever wrote. (Those who think Blood Meridian is baroque need to read this.)
A book that had long been recommended to me and that I finally got around to was Stoner by John Williams, which has me convinced that Williams was a devotee of Thomas Mann. Like Mann, Williams shows here an ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character’s function in the book with leitmotifs. He also resembles Mann in that he masterfully orchestrates the evolution and interplay of numerous ideas throughout the course of the novel while never neglecting the very human drama that forms the heart of the story. Stoner is essentially about the value of a life: the titular protagonist is a perfectly mediocre academic who lives and dies without ever making much of an impact. Yet in Williams’ hands we see all the value and struggle that goes into a life that has no historical importance. Williams won a National Book Award for Butcher’s Crossing, which I’ve heard is even better, all that more reason that I’m glad NYRB Classics has brought him back into print.
Lastly I’d like to mention The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas as one of the more interesting critical works I’ve read this year. Striphas simply sets out to describe the publishing industry and associated apparatus in which he calls the “late age of print.” In order to do that he must recapitulate a good deal of the publishing industry as we know it, going back into the middle of hte 19th century. The resultant book is interesting both as a history of publishing and a look at this late age and where publishing might be headed tomorrow.
I was vaguely shocked and cautiously appalled to learn last week that Vladimir Nabokov’s “new” novel, The Original of Laura, due for release in August, isn’t, in fact, much of a novel at all.”This very unfinished work reads largely like an outline, full of seeming notes-to-self, references to source material, self-critique, sentence fragments and commentary” Publishers Weekly writes, in the first review of Nabokov’s posthumous work. “It would be a mistake, in other words, for readers to come to this expecting anything resembling a novel.”Yet, the hype that has been building around this book for years – years! – has totally eclipsed the fact that the book is, in fact, actually “138 index cards”. This hype, by the by, has enjoyed more than a little support from Nabokov’s son Dmitri, and his, in retrospect, frenzy-building public questioning about whether to publish the text, which his father asked to be destroyed.Given a charitable guess of 50 words per index card (Publishers Weekly says most of the index cards contain less than a paragraph of notes), this comes out to a “novel” of a little under 7,000 words. In other words, the text being published would be comparable to a 25-page short story (if, indeed, it were a story at all). Which makes one wonder how bad a deal Playboy, which bought the rights to excerpt the new book, got. Is the Playboy tease going to be flash fiction?I guess the fact that this book will soon be published (and the fact that I will almost certainly purchase and read it) leads me to ask two big (to my mind) questions, one Nabokov specific and one more general to the world of publishing today.First, why is it that when it comes to the world of Nabokov we are all suddenly academics? I know of few people outside of the academic world who purchase annotated works, yet I have literally dozens of friends who have purchased, and devoured, The Annotated Lolita. Now, Knopf is publishing The Original of Laura by reproducing the original cards, “with a transcription below of each card’s contents.” Obviously, the main reason Knopf is doing this is to fill the pages – it is hard, even in the best of times, to sell a 25-page book for 35 dollars. But there is also the thrill that I know I get and others must get as well of Nabokov scholarship. Enjoying what the master wrote, how he wrote it. Puzzling the pieces together.Perhaps this scholarship-craze is particular to Nabokov (a strong and unverifiable contention, I know) because his novels demand it. You can’t read a book like Pale Fire, or even a relatively simple book like Pnin, without knowing that you’re entering a world, Borges-like, of so many levels, of labyrinths upon labyrinths. Breaking the labyrinths down into the fundamentals of the maze (to draw this metaphor out) seems helpful not only in receiving new material from the master, but in analyzing this new composition to shed light on how the older, more familiar works were composed.Second, though (and this is the more problematic question for me), why is it that books are being published in the contemporary market that don’t have the length or stamina of books. I am thinking, in particular, of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the Kenyon College 2005 graduating class, published posthumously as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. I had read the commencement speech long before it was officially published. In fact, shortly after Wallace delivered it a friend sent it to me over e-mail. It took me about fifteen minutes to read. And I read slowly.Not that it shouldn’t be written, or read. On the contrary, Wallace’s commencement speech is both moving and necessary, in a way that many full-length texts are not. Yet, why the subterfuge? Sell it as an essay, in a magazine, or in a volume with other texts. But why pretend that this is a stand-alone book?In order to fatten up Wallace’s speech (lacking the help of index cards that Nabokov so conveniently provided), the publisher decided to print only one sentence on every page. So, not only is this essay published in book form, it is actually less pleasant and more cumbersome to read than the e-mail I received of the speech was four years ago.I guess, my plea is, then, to stop the games. If you’re publishing something that’s great writing but that clearly isn’t a book, don’t call it a book. Call it an essay. True, you probably won’t be able to sell it for $15 (the list price of Wallace’s speech). But on the other hand, think of all the paper you’ll save.
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
I.The year is young yet, but I’d like to direct your attention to what will no doubt be recognized as one of the finest short stories published in it. It is called “Walter Benjamin,” and it appears in the Australian journalist Clive James’ experimental omnibus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. I use the term “experimental” advisedly; like the revelatory works of W.G. Sebald, Cultural Amnesia weaves history, fiction, and memoir so tightly together that it may be hard for the casual reader to tell the imaginary from the real… particularly as Cultural Amnesia purports to be a work of criticism. Compound this postmodern pliability with a classic unreliable narrator – James himself – and vertigo quickly sets in.So how does an artist hold together such an ambitious edifice? “Style,” James tells us, in one of his not infrequent moments of insight. And if some of James’ critical pronouncements lead us to suspect him of a tin ear, his writing confirms that he has learned a great deal from Proust, from Gibbon, from Waugh. Cultural Amnesia, which at 850 pages looks like intellectual heavy lifting, turns out to be a lively read: clear, colloquial, provocative, and often funny. James the stylist prizes clean rhythms, practical diction, an air of erudition, and above all the art of aphorism. We discover early on that he is a fine coiner of apercus, and if fatigue sets in halfway through the book, we finish with exhausted admiration: the man is a mint, a machine churning out sheet after epigrammatic sheet.Unfortunately, in literature, unlike science, elegance is no indicator of truth, and it’s not always clear whether James’ clever turns of phrase are backed by any standard other than authorial fiat. To put it another way (paraphrasing Virginia Woolf), Clive James seems willing to throw a few truths on the fire in order to make an essay blaze. Of Rilke, for example, he writes, “There is a dangerous moment when, in the [Duino] elegies, ‘the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness’ start sounding like fine shades of meaning, instead of forced exercises in sentimentality.” James’ British resistance to even the mildly visionary does lend this assessment a bumptious snap, crackle, and pop. But in straining for a phrase to parallel “fine shades of meaning,” the critic does violence to the poet he professes to admire. Whatever they are, the Elegies are less like “forced exercises” than anything else in the Rilke canon… possibly in 20th Century poetry. And this slip recursively undermines one of James’ earlier aphorisms, decrying “ways of studying the arts so as to make the student feel as smart as the artist.” (Because what else is James doing with Rilke here? (And do we really venerate artists for their “smarts?”))We can forestall the dizzying cascade of parentheses that might ensue by reminding ourselves that Cultural Amnesia is, among many other things, a character study. Its subject: one Clive James. For the duration of our reading, we are in the presence of a voice no more self-aware than that of Nabokov’s Kinbote. As with Pale Fire, we get to what is worthwhile not by nodding along with the narrator but by reading through him, by teasing out the contradictions he’s straining to conceal. And because our narrator’s subjects are seldom so small as a line of Rilke – because he rarely stoops to close reading – the potential rewards, are enormous.Really, despite some introductory fulminations against “ideology” (a neat lift from the Marxism it purports to abhor), Cultural Amnesia aims at a kind of unified field theory of 20th Century history and culture. In alphabetized essays running from Anna Akhmatova through Dick Cavett all the way to Stefan Zweig, James returns again and again to the same questions: How did artists (not to say works of art) respond to the atrocities of Nazism and Communism? How should we value works of art, and why, and which ones? II.These are, as James suggests, humanist questions, and if the answers he arrives at don’t quite meet that standard, there’s much to admire in the attempt. Over and above the sheer pleasure of James’ style stands his passionate moral engagement with history. He assays his new humanism on behalf of the millions and millions of victims of totalitarian movements. Like McDuff, he feels these losses as a man.Indeed, writing about the suicide of Viennese polymath Egon Friedell, as storm troopers come “marching down the street,” James sounds almost envious that he was born too late to have been there alongside Friedell, to prove his own mettle. Our current pieties and abstractions about the war in Iraq or the genocide in Darfur can sound hollow in comparison to James’ moral outrage; there is much to learn from the way he takes massacres personally, and the critic owes it to him to take seriously the possibility that Stalin’s gulags might be a “central product” of socialism, rather than an aberration. (There was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre did not take that possibility seriously, and if James’ renunciation of everything Sartre wrote requires some willful misreading, at least it stands for something. James and Sartre have this in common: the belief that critical positions should never be lightly held.)It bears saying, too, that we are lucky Clive James is on our side. Passion is crucial to thought – it’s what makes thought matter – but it can also cloud judgment, and too frequently in Cultural Amnesia James’ zeal for laissez-faire liberalism tips over into a ratification of corporate capitalism or a crotchety disdain for “economic determinism [and] dogmatic egalitarianism.” In the Introduction, he writes,”Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough […] but their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million.”Even as he ignores Rwanda and Darfur (syntactically blaming the bright young things for even bringing them up), James seems implicitly to dismiss the liberal, democratic catastrophe in Iraq by saying, in effect, “well, things could be worse.” Such Panglossian sophistry, pronounced throughout the book, is a blot on the good name of humanism.Nor does James quite follow through on his pluralist aspirations, which are the best and most deeply held part of his own ideology. He can imagine Duke Ellington jamming for Igor Stravinsky, but cannot hear the “we vs. they” contradictions in his assessment of leftist academics:”The Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airlines into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life.”To align the “witch doctors” of Cultural Studies with Al Qaeda is to fail to understand either, and this failure is not just intellectual, it is moral.In more supple hands, the conjoinment of conscience and illiberalism in James’ essays – the way even his “descriptive” certainties shade toward systems of intolerance and control – might help illuminate the vexing ideological blind spots James exposes in subjects like Sartre. A fuller humanism, that is, might explore the ethical tensions of being human. But James, despite having his own person as good evidence to the contrary, conceives of human beings as unitary creatures, either cowardly or heroic. And, with sometimes disastrous results for his criticism, he resists the idea that generally lousy people can make genuinely great art.III.Given James’ stern opposition to critical theory, it is both ironic and heartening to hear him decry the commodification of culture. In years past, an essayist’s insistence on learning as its own virtue might have suggested a doctrine of art for art’s sake. James, however, seems to view an artist’s works as an accessory to his or her life. Beneath a veneer of newfangled catholicism, he is that most old-fashioned of creatures – a biographical critic. Reading carefully through his renunciations of ideology, it becomes possible to discern James’ own. He does not believe that an artist with socialist sympathies can be as great as an artist who made do without them… or that a book colored by an objectionable ideology may also be a great one.“Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics,” he writes, blithely ignoring the incipient racism in the former. Why can’t he see Journey to the End of the Night for what it is? Would remembering Celine’s jaundiced account of the “primitives” in the novel’s African section make Journey less of a book? Or does the dialogic form of the novel allow us to situate Celine’s fictional alter-ego in a fully articulated ethical world, in which we can evaluate and possibly understand his misanthropy? Answering these questions would require a wholesale reexamination of James’ precepts about art… and might even force him to borrow a trick or two from Marxist literary theory, or – horrors! – from deconstruction. But James, blithely assured that academic critics “have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement,” can’t entertain the notion that moral and ideological ambiguity might enrich, rather than reduce, a text.Of course, evaluating a genius mainly in light of his stated views on totalitarianism can itself become a reductio ad absurdum. Here, for example, is James’ version of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it. […] There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw the photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak, and broke down in tears.”Aside from being a vulgar misapprehension of Wittgenstein’s proposition about the limits of language (or, if James had the nerve, a gestural opening into Wittgenstein’s later philosophical investigations), this moment of voyeurism is spectacularly beside the point, reducing Wittgenstein and the Holocaust to mere credentialing mechanisms for one another. James presupposes that a virtuous human being surprised by the evidence of totalitarian slaughter could be anything other than grief-stricken. (In James account, Sartre would be one of those human beings. Here bad historiography is the accessory to bad criticism, falsifying the way Stalin’s propaganda machine worked… which is not to excuse Sartre, who should have known better.) Anyway, we end up learning more about Clive James than about Ludwig Wittgenstein.Even those artists lucky enough to have died before the rise of totalitarianism are not spared the indignity of becoming Rorschach tests for James’ various preoccupations. Gibbon gets taken to task for his prose (!) and Proust gets praised for all the wrong reasons. To hear James tell it, Proust’s virtue is his essayistic “wisdom”; In Search of Lost Time has “no structure to speak of.” This is heroically contrarian, but also dead wrong, and points to the blessing and curse of Cultural Amnesia. Unless we are inspired to remember the works of art James is nobly attempting to rescue, we’ll be stuck having to take his word for it.Proust’s “wisdom” isn’t contained in his discursive speculations, the critical essays (sometimes enchantingly specious) indebted to Ruskin and Bergson. The Search’s essayistic passages are aesthetic movements, not entries in a philosophical rolodex (a critic who characterizes Wittgenstein as primarily a poet should understand this.) It is precisely the structure of In Search of Lost Time, mapped in miniature by the “Combray” section, that embodies Proust’s species of wisdom. James, not surprisingly, sees Proust’s book as a mirror of his own – “an imaginative encyclopedia” – and misses the ironic reversals, the ultimate recognition toward which Proust’s grand structure tends.But in James’ own search, as in Proust’s, the narrator’s most dubious conclusions may serve to highlight deeper truths of psychology. The truth about Clive James is that he can’t entertain the idea that his triumphalist brand of capitalist liberalism might have its own flaws to be guarded against, its own totalizing tendencies, its own rolls of the dead. James is wonderful on artists whose lives and work are ideologically in harmony with each other and with him, but is much less tolerant than his bete noire Georg Lukacs of those whose ideas challenge a laissez-faire global political order. James frequently and rightly affirms that a right to dissent saves liberal democracy from becoming a totalizing ideology, but can’t conceal his resentment of the ungrateful few who exercise that right. And in the absence of Proust’s structural wisdom – in the absence of a Recognition scene, in which the narrator belatedly discovers his own imperfect apprehension of things – Cultural Amnesia trembles with unresolved tensions, threatening to bring down even the heroes James has enlisted on behalf of his cause.IV.To borrow from his sketch of Egon Friedell, James “comes on like an actor and a thinker both.” And sometimes the point of his performance seems to be to indemnify the capitalist West against any notion of progress. This leads him to the two tendencies that compromise, perhaps fatally, several of his essays.The first tendency is to distort the legacies of the cultural figures he admires (those who fit comfortably within the current version of centrist, bourgeois tradition) through misplaced emphasis. In James’ ode to Louis Armstrong, Armstrong’s single greatest achievement appears to be that he admired Bix Beiderbecke. Margaret Thatcher, we are told, posed “a crisis for Britain’s ideological feminists, who could no longer maintain that there was a glass ceiling.” Thomas Mann? “A solid paterfamilias.” One does not doubt that Mann confined his homosexual feelings to his fantasy life, that Thatcher vexed feminists, and that Armstrong approved of white musicians. But surely the collective achievements of this triumvirate amount to more than allowing straight white heirarchs to say, “Look, boys, he’s one of us!”Nor does James does reserve distortions for his fellow humanists. If he mischaracterizes artists who worked to shape the center, he fictionalizes those on the left.A tortured eulogy for Edward Said dissolves into an orgy of bad faith, as our narrator tells himself that faint praise and outright damnation add up to an ingenuous farewell.”There is no call to doubt [Said’s] integrity just because he had been raised in transit on luxury liners, laurelled at Princeton and Harvard, and otherwise showered with all the rewards Western civilization can bestow. What can be doubted is his accuracy. […] It is important to say that there were some Arab thinkers who […] found Orientalism a wrong-headed book. According to them, it encouraged a victim mentality by enabling failed states to blame the West for their current plight: a patronizing idea, common to the Western left. Though most of Said’s Western admirers were never aware of it, this ambiguity marked Said’s written work throughout his career: he was continually telling the people he professed to be rescuing from Western influence that they were helpless in its embrace. A quality of self-defeating ambiguity also characterized Said’s role as a practical diplomat.”This tangle of innuendo belies James’ insistence elsewhere that transparency of prose and transparency of meaning are synonymous. Every possible charge against Said is given space on the page, even as James conceals his endorsement. The rhetorical coup de grace comes when James hides behind “some Arab thinkers.” These nameless Arab thinkers’ sole contribution to 20th Century culture seems to be that they make it easier for Clive James to write off a subaltern whose politics he finds threatening; in the rest of the book, James evinces no interest in Middle Eastern culture.We are further informed, in the space of a paragraph, that “the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical”; that “no Orientalist had ever been more damagingly superficial than” Edward Said (again, according to non-Western scholars); that “Egypt had Napoleon to thank for everything it possessed” (said Naguib Mahfouz – and he won the Nobel Prize, so who can doubt him). James is nothing if not a marvel of compression:”Said was right to this extent, however: Occidental intellectuals find out very little about what is thought and written in the Oriental world. Very few of Said’s admirers in the West could begin to contemplate the fact that there are some bright people in the East who thought of Said as just another international operator doing well out of patronizing them, and with less excuse. I finished writing the piece that follows not long before Said finally succumbed to cancer, and I have left it in the present tense to help indicate that I was treating him as a living force, brave in a cause that was very short this kind of soldier.”We are witnessing here the birth of a new rhetorical mode: character assassination by friendly fire. Maybe James was right to suggest that Said should have stuck to playing piano.James is even worse on Sartre, whom he hates above all others. His inability to give Sartre a fair reading is a shame, as Sartre, unlike Said, might actually have been convicted of the most of the charges against him. To wit: “When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even if what he was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish.”But as excoriation curdles into invective, James sinks so low as to suggest that Sartre’s “physical ugliness” shaped his cultural positions, that Sartre was “debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell what really enrages James most: Sartre’s apologies for Communism, or the fact that he beat James to the punch in opposing Nazism.In light of Sartre’s socialist sins, Being and Nothingness is written off here as an update of Heidegger’s “high-flown philosophical flapdoodle”… the product of “a mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in […] its own compromises with reality.” Now, in Heidegger, we have a man whose conduct under totalitarian rule deserves all the opprobrium that can possibly be heaped upon it. But Being and Time cannot be dismissed as “flapdoodle” on the grounds of biography alone. Nor can Being and Nothingness, whose author has the advantage of having participated in the Resistance. In fact, both Sartre and Heidegger were keenly interested in the mind’s compromises with reality, though they didn’t conceive of it in those terms (see, for example, Being and Time, Part One, Division I, Section V).It’s likely that Heidegger’s agnosticism on the subject the Other (later critiqued by that self-interested Witch-Doctor Emmanuel Lewinas) enabled his early political enthusiasm for Hitler. But it’s also possible to hang Heidegger out to dry on the grounds of his own definition of authenticity. Sartre, too, for that matter . To the extent that they endorsed or excused (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can’t be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic). Even Hegel and Kant get his goat. I had always thought of the anti-intellectualism and paranoia as a combination peculiar to the American far right, but apparently it can afflict Aussie humanists, too.V.Which brings me to “Walter Benjamin,” the essay I hailed above as a fine piece of fiction. It’s not historical fiction, in that it doesn’t hew closely enough to fact. But as a work of imagination, it’s audacious.Okay, I’ll admit it… I’m being unfair to James. But only because James is unfair to Walter Benjamin. Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility – which can in no way be construed as ideological – has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James’ angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn’t be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can’t let him die with dignity.”It remains sadly true, however, that he is more often taken for granted than actually read. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ is the Benjamin essay that everybody knows a little about. Whether its central thesis is true is seldom questioned, just as the value of his work as a whole is seldom doubted. His untimely death was such a tragedy that nobody wants to think of his life as less than a triumph. But there had already been many thousands of Jewish tragedies before his turn came, and what is remarkable for the historically minded observer is just how slow so brilliant a man was to get the point about what the Nazis had in mind. About the other tragedy, the one in Russia, he never got the point at all.”How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor… I mean James’, of course. How terrifying the totalizing flatness of the phrasing: “his turn came”; “Jewish tragedies.” How awful the statement that Benjamin’s death was less remarkable than his failure to get the hell away from Hitler, the tiny insinuation that somehow his death was his fault. And how bizarre to take Benjamin to task for not having “got the point” about a tragedy he didn’t live to survey the extent of. And then James has the gall to tell us he’s doing Benjamin a “courtesy!”In real life, Benjamin is pretty widely read, and “The Work of Art” is well known precisely because its central thesis isn’t really up for debate. A quick comparison of James’ “proof” that this thesis is bogus with the thesis itself reveals that James hasn’t understood what Benjamin means by “aura.” Not even one bit. Normally, the James method would be to chalk this misunderstanding up to Benjamin’s obscurity – he goes on and on about Benjamin’s “all-inclusive obscurity” – but he’s made the mistake of granting that “The Work of Art” features “a general point designed to be readily understood.” So why can’t James understand it? If I may expropriate some other lines from this essay. “His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning.”Of course Benjamin’s reality, James tells us, was anti-Semitism. (And if he knew what was good for him, the implication is, he’d have written about that, in the form of journalism, rather than theorizing about Parisian cafes (shopping arcades, actually.)) But what reality can a successful TV personality, in his (I’ll say it) idiotic dismissal of a cultural giant, possibly be cushioning himself against?VI.That reality is the world we now find ourselves in. The Soviet bloc has collapsed, without affording Clive James the chance to prove himself worthy of his heroes. Nazism, though it still persists, has dwindled. Only in the past few years have the lines for a new global conflict have been drawn. That the good guys have so far not acquitted themselves heroically challenges James’ picture of liberal democracy as a system that doesn’t require progressive intervention or even vigilance (only totalitarian ideologies have such requirements, he thinks). And so, rather than refine his model, James saddles up and goes looking for enemies. Too often, he finds the wrong ones.Given the amount of cannibalizing he’s done of his own body of work here, an odd palimpsest effect sets in… as if James is trying to reshape decades of enthusiastic reading and writing into a brief against the new enemies of civilization. Between the fits of intemperance, ignorance, and magnificent self-satisfaction are principled reflections on those who actually have blood on their hands, on Trotsky and Goebbels and Mao. And though it’s often said that it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, James writes insightfully about figures like Albert Camus, whose art and political record were both sterling. His encomiums extend to literary critics, philologists, and historians from all over the world, and have left me with a list of writers I’m eager to read. I don’t know enough about Gianfranco Contini or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to do anything other than enjoy James’ writing on them.In his role as a bourgeois provocateur, however, James is too willing to substitute ardor for attention, attention for smartness, smartness for intelligence. Cultural Amnesia is always ardent, often attentive, frequently smart, and sometimes intelligent. And boy is it learned. About the big things, it’s absolutely right. As students of culture, we must connect the dots. We must take a stand against oppression, against mass murder.But we know that already; we want our new humanism to help us with the details (with Guantanamo, with nuclear proliferation, with the ongoing totalitarian tragedies in North Korea and Iran). And it’s the details where James’ claims to humanism get dicey. He would rather praise that paragon of moral imagination, Mrs. Thatcher, than actually calibrate the human cost of the laissez-faire branch of economic determinism. (I can’t resist quoting this little cascade of reasoning (read closely, now): “She should have trusted her instincts and shut out the smart voices […] Her best instinct was to stick to a simple course of action once it had been chosen. That instinct became her enemy, and the enemy of the country, on those occasions when a simple course of action is not appropriate. In domestic policy it hardly ever is.”)What we can take from Cultural Amnesia, in the end, is a largeness of ambition, a breadth of learning, a catholic sensibility, and a heroic belief that culture can be a matter of life and death. But we must explore the finer points of art and history for ourselves, and reach our own conclusions. We must be intelligent readers. We must be careful not to let Clive James’ “necessary memories” stand in for our own.