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.
This year I grabbed a lot of books almost totally at random and finished most of them, some in a few hours (hello, Jean Rhys’s gorgeously unnerving Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read in a hotel in Tijuana in the spring), some over many months (looking at you, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an exquisitely boring novel I now meditate upon, helpless, for around two hours a day). I didn’t have a plan. For a while I read nothing but Joan Aiken novels. Nominally this was because I was writing about Joan Aiken for The New Yorker, but when you are reading books as delightful as Aiken’s, the whole question of motive begins to seem somewhat beside the point. For instance, you would never say, “I’m leaving this world for a plane of transcendent joy so I can write about it for the New Yorker.” Or maybe you would, but in that case I harbor grim suspicions about the integrity of your Instagram feed.
I read a lot of Chinese poetry from the Tang era, returning again and again to Du Fu whenever I felt hopeless or desolate. His work is a steady source of strength for me in hard times: compassionate, particular, seemingly able to encompass both the whole of existence and the precarious lives and moments held within it. Of course he also lived through one of the most terrifying periods of social upheaval in human history, and his thousand-year-old poems ring out clearly against the onslaught of our current news cycle. If you can read his accounts of life as a refugee and still feel indifferent to the refugee crisis, you must be molded from very cold clay.
I didn’t read many new books this year; who knows why. Among the books published in 2018 that I did pick up, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, a lyrically thrilling account of the history of Oklahoma City, and Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection of short stories, were particular favorites. I read the Eisenberg collection while traveling on my own book tour. I found myself wanting to read her work, instead of mine, aloud at most of my stops.
Mostly, though, I read books I should have read years ago, books everyone else has already read. Imagine, with wonder and pity written starkly on your features, the poor sod who had not picked up Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, or Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, or LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues, until 2018! Reader, that sod was me. After scrolling, rapt, through Meg Wolitzer’s recommendation in The New York Times, I finally tracked down a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel so perfect, so funny and heartbreaking and funny-heartbreaking, that I expect to read it again in 2019, if not this weekend.
But I can’t this weekend—this weekend I’m reading Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground, another book I’m years behind on. I look forward to catching up with his new work from this year, along with that of so many other writers I admire, in approximately 2033.
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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.
In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?
But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.
I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?
Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”
Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.
It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
Little known fact: MOOCs (massive open online courses) were invented by Vladimir Nabokov in his campus novel, Pnin, long before Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched their “Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in 2011.
During a dinner party thrown by the novel’s scholar protagonist, the Russian émigré Timofey Pnin, a Waindell College colleague suggests “lock[ing] up the students in a soundproof cell and eliminat[ing] the lecture room….Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal.”
When one guest protests that the personality of the professor surely counts for something, another suggests that “One could have Timofey televised.” And thus was the seed of online education planted, to bloom years later with Udacity, edX, and Coursera.
Now the University of Iowa International Writing Program is getting in on the MOOC action. The storied program is conducting its first massive open online course this summer, a six-week, “interactive study of the practice of the writing poetry.” To deliver the first “video session” for its new MOOC, Iowa is piping in the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, which calls to mind his great line from “Meditations at Lagunitas”: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of/ endless distances.”
I have no doubt that the eloquent and witty Haas can bridge those “endless distances” with his presentation, but the Iowa course got me wondering about how certain fictional professors would fare in the world of online education. Which heroes of those quaint, insular works known as “campus novels” would be most adaptable to the MOOC format? Which—through eccentricity, incompetence, irresponsibility, megalomania, erudition or media savvy—could best attract the teeming hordes of online learners? I present seven candidates.
Timofey Pnin (Pnin): Laundry Hour
Pnin is delighted by the tongue-in-cheek proposal to televise his classes, logical given that he is a bit of an exhibitionist, “brazenly” displaying a bit of calf when crossing his legs in the novel’s opening scene. However, his “mythopoetic” mispronunciations and teaching style make him a less-than-ideal ideal candidate for a MOOC:
…he preferred reading his lectures, his gaze glued to his text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.
When Pnin does go off-text, he embarks on long digressions, “nostalgic excursions in broken English,” which endlessly amuse him while bemusing his students.
And yet he is not without potential for broader appeal. Perhaps a YouTube channel might be a better fit for Pnin, especially considering the slapstick comedy arising from his “constant war with insensate objects.” I for one would tune in to watch him indulge his “passionate intrigue” with washing machines. Despite being banned from using his landlord’s, he casts “aside all decorum and caution” and tosses anything he can think of into it “just for the joy of watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.” Viral sensations have been built on flimsier conceits.
William Stone (Stoner): Copulating Verbs
Stoner’s initial dourness eventually gives way to a brightening gloom as the protagonist’s disappointments and suffered indignities mount. When a snide colleague quips that “To Stoner, copulation is restricted to verbs,” he inadvertently gets at the truth behind the mild-mannered Stoner’s long teaching career: it is a love story. The poem that sparks Stoner’s love affair with literature is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, whose subject learns “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Though the novel begins with a clinical assessment of a man who never rises above Assistant Professor and whom students don’t remember “with any sharpness,” it gradually reveals the intensity of a love felt for people and grammar alike:
It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
As his mistress and fellow teacher says at one point, “Lust and learning… That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” When taught by Stoner, the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature has never sounded hotter.
Hank Devereaux (Straight Man): Negotiation Strategies
Richard Russo’s Hank Devereaux, the “physical embodiment of the perversity principle,” seems the most MOOC-ready professor (despite suffering from what his doctor calls a “hysterical prostrate”). Variously known as Lucky Hank or “Judas Peckerwood,” he is the entertaining chair of an English Department at a small college in rural Pennsylvania whose antics make him into something of a local TV personality. His spiritual guide is William of Occam, whose eponymous principle holds that the simplest of competing explanations is the better. The problem for Hank is that he is in the middle of a giant farce, and in farce finding any explanation, however simple, for the multiplying mishaps is itself a tricky proposition.
In his valiant effort to secure an operating budget amidst funding cutbacks and shifting priorities—the campus is breaking ground on a new “Technical Careers Campus”—Hank grasps that he must fight farce with farce. Demonstrating how to be an effective negotiator in front a pool of reporters, he makes the following threat:
Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget. This is a nonnegotiable demand. I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night.
That he is wearing a novelty nose, and holding a goose instead of a duck, in no way diminishes the soundness of his strategy in dealing with benighted administrators or tight-fisted legislatures. In terms of professors making spectacles of themselves, Hank is rivaled only by David Kepesh from Philip Roth’s The Breast.
Julian Morrow (The Secret History): “The Terrible Seduction of the Dionysiac Ritual”
Moving from one charismatic professor to another, we encounter Julian Morrow, The Secret History’s Classics professor who encourages his Classics students to embrace their inner godheads:
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Set in a small New England College town, Hampden, Donna Tartt’s novel is about the bad effects of good education—or rather, a supremely, seductively good education. Guided by their brilliant teacher through the mysteries of the Greek canon, Julian’s tutees, beguiled by their teacher’s statements about the self-annihilating pleasures of Dionysian ritual, decide to try it for themselves. The unfortunate local man who is subsequently torn apart by the maddened cohort probably wishes they had majored in economics instead.
A marvelous, “magical talker,” Julian seems like the kind of Nietzschean “super professor” that critics of MOOCs fear they will create. As one of his students writes in his semester evaluation: “How…can I possibly make the Dean of Studies understand that there is a divinity in our midst?” What better spokesman for the bloviating apostles of disruptive online education than a man who can say with a straight face: “I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?”
One reservation is that Julian’s small coterie did serious damage with their orgiastic rites and fits of “telestic madness.” I shudder to think what would happen should Julian’s eloquent lectures inspire not just four students but a massive group to murderous states of Bacchic frenzy.
Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim): Facial Recognition
Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, is an adjunct seeking to secure a more permanent position from his “incurable evader” of an advisor. As an academic, Jim displays an “enforced avoidance of anything ambitious,” though he does exert an impressive control over his pliable face, pushing himself to put it “through all its permutations of loathing.”
“I’m the sort of person you soon get to the end of,” Dixon admits to the beautiful fiancée of his advisor’s son, an admission belied by the inexhaustible supply of faces he pulls. Grotesque though they may be, they provide a creative outlet and demonstrate a kind of genius, both of which are lacking in his dissertation: The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. There is Jim’s Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, his mandrill face, his Evelyn Waugh face, and an improvised face so savage it doesn’t have a name:
Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes.
When Jim gets the girl and a plum, non-academic job at novel’s end—the luck has to change at some point—he has no corresponding expression. A smile, presumably, would be too pedestrian, so until he has time to settle into his new, sunnier life, he settles for his “Sex Life in Ancient Rome” face, which every online learner should have in his or her repertoire.
Professors Zapp and Swallow (Changing Places): Humiliation on a Massive Scale
It might seem perverse to mention David Lodge’s Changing Places in the context of MOOCs, given that no campus novel emphasizes the effect of physical presence on a campus—Euphoric State (UC Berkeley) or Rummidge (University of Birmingham)—on the personal and intellectual life more clearly than Lodge’s. Morriz Zapp, the author of “five fiendishly clever books” travels to England, while Philip Swallow, the stalled British academic comes to America to understand “American literature for the first time in his life…its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity.” The two professors, who begin the novel crossing each other on planes, end up with their respective wives/mistress in a hotel room, the culmination to the various kinds of cultural and sexual exchanges that occur throughout.
Though Zapp can reportedly “make Austen swing,” a better use of his and Swallow’s talents would be in a course on “Humiliation,” the parlor game made famous in Changing Places. In it, players admit to not having read a canonical book. The winning player is the one whose selection has been read by the most number of other players. That is, the winner is the player who has demonstrated the most embarrassing gaps in his or her reading list. (In the novel, a hyper-competitive professor cops to never having read Hamlet; he wins the game but loses his job.)
Picture it: “Humiliation” played on a massive scale, transformed from a parlor game into a sociological survey that could reveal once and for all the most famous text one has not read. What better way to unleash two of the Internet’s greatest powers, crowd sourcing and shame? I’ll start. The Grapes of Wrath. (This is anonymous, right?)
Image via mayeesherr/Flickr
Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He’s on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back — or down — by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?”
I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I’ll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.)
I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt.
I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat.
Crushes: Joe Meno’s Office Girl, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard’s Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh’s The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh’s “Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman”: “O tempura, O monkeys.”
I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes.
Two stories by David Gordon, “We Happy Few” (Five Chapters) and “Man-Boob Summer” (Paris Review) — pure pleasure.
Online: Mary-Kim Arnold’s Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: “Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY.” And I loved Rob Horning’s gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: “It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: ‘See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.’ ”
Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks’s Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. “Thank You For Your Postcard” is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3×5 piece of decorated cardboard: “Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus.”
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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.