Vladimir Nabokov: The Gift
When I go for a walk in Berlin, I often think of Nabokov. The letters of shop signs spring to life before my eyes, and words from different languages merge. Who can describe an ordinary moving van as inspiringly as this Russian author who spent several years of his life in Berlin before immigrating to the U.S.?
Amos Tutuola: The Palm-Wine Drinkard
An outsider lives in a constant state of inebriation, communicating with dead ancestors. The currency circulating in this imaginary in-between realm is neither dollars nor euros. I’m fascinated by books that dispense with realism yet nonetheless depict real-life economic and political developments in their own idiosyncratic way.
Heinrich Heine: Florentine Nights
Young brides who died before their wedding days gather in the moonlight to dance on country roads. Like our own everyday lives, this book is made up of disjointed thoughts that arise out of nothingness as well as conversations that come about as if by chance and draw us in deeply. A precisely woven tapestry of memories and dreams.
This piece was translated by Susan Bernofsky. Bernofsky, one of the preeminent translators of German-language literature, directs the program Literary Translation at Columbia in the MFA Writing Program at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
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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.
My year has been even more filled with good reading than usual; fortunately, some of the books are so well known there is little need for me to give them a plug, and I will list them at the end so you can point and laugh (“Seriously, you went over half a century without reading Jane Eyre?”). That frees me to talk about the ones that may not be as familiar, the first of which was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. I know what you’re thinking: you know little and care less about the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; why not go back to Julius Caesar or forward to Charlemagne? I would have said the same, but the book was a Christmas gift and I knew Brown was a good writer, so I plunged in. He begins with a passage about the “Harvester of Mactar” (in North Africa), who had his biography recorded on a stele; he rose from a lowly foreman to the owner of a comfortable farm and finally became rich enough to have a seat on the town council of Mactar. From this account of one forgotten and unimportant man, Brown develops a description of the social and religious structure of Roman Africa and how it was changing in the late fourth century; at that point Christians, though tolerated, were expected to be ostentatiously poor, and the central theme of the book is how that situation changed to one in which Christians were increasingly running the Empire and coming to decide that wealth could be godly after all. He does this to a large extent through a lengthy and riveting account of the life, connections, and personality of St. Augustine (with whom Brown moves from Africa to Italy, expanding the scope of the book to the whole Empire) as well as less well-known figures like Paulinus of Nola, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, and Pelagius and the rich and powerful women who supported and opposed them; by the time I put down the book I felt I’d been immersed in a nonfiction equivalent of a Leo Tolstoy novel. (It may also cause you to think about wealth and power in our own time.)
For my birthday I was given Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; I was looking forward to it because I’d liked other things of his I’d read, but also somewhat dreading it because it was very long and only went up to 1928 and I had already read quite a bit about both Joseph Stalin and that period of Russian history. It turned out there was no need to worry — I enjoyed it so much I’m already impatient for the next volume. I have to immediately offer a caveat, though: it’s not exactly a biography, so if that’s what you want (Stalin was born a poor Georgian lad, he had good times and bad, and then he came to power and started executing people) you may be better off with a shorter and more focused, if less comprehensive, work. Kotkin goes for many, many pages, entire chapters, mentioning Stalin only as an afterthought or not at all; his idea is that you can’t understand the man without understanding the society and country he grew up in, so he starts with a detailed history of late-19th-century Russia and the people who affected its development (he made me so interested in the great industrialist Sergei Witte I took a break to read a whole biography). He is constantly turning away from Stalin to explain the forces at work in the Civil War or the evolution of Bolshevik ideas and practices. (I was reminded of Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume history of LBJ.) If you can deal with that, though, I can’t recommend the book highly enough — Kotkin seems to have read and absorbed all the available material, and his judgments are consistently interesting and persuasive. If you want to read more about the Civil War, by the way, I highly recommend Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War. And if you want a short history of the period to orient yourself, you can’t do better than Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, a brilliant condensation of a complex subject; she doesn’t spend time on biographies or personalities, just tells you what happened and why between 1917 and 1937 in under 200 pages.
The most recent of these grand reading experiences was Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism. It’s a specialized topic, but if you’re interested at all in Russian émigré writers and interwar French literature you have to read this book. Livak is one of those rare academics who can apply theory without becoming impenetrable, and he made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject. (He also won my heart by quoting Venedikt Erofeev’s gloriously bibulous and heartbreakingly romantic novel Moskva-Petushki in the acknowledgments; if that description intrigues you at all, run out and find one of the translations, Moscow to the End of the Line or Moscow Circles.) You probably haven’t heard of Boris Poplavsky, Gaito Gazdanov, or Yuri Felzen, but Livak will make you care about them and their struggles to find a way to write in the competing shadows of Marcel Proust and Soviet literature, and he ends with a tour de force comparison of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that sent me back repeatedly to my well-read copy of the former (for my money, the best of his novels) and made me want to give the latter a try.
Oh, and those other books? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. That Rochester is a real louse, let me tell you!
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A mist hung over the earth. So begins one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate; the short drumroll of a sentence is somehow ominous, and we soon discover we are outside a German prison camp, looking through barbed wire at a set of identical wooden barracks. The next chapter takes us inside the camp, where we meet a collection of Russians of various political persuasions, as well as Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, even an American colonel (who finds it strange that an intelligent-looking Russian major can’t understand his English). This movement, from outside in, is typical of the novel, which takes us places we don’t want to go, but does so with a humane insistence we find impossible to resist. After six chapters in which we get to know these people – especially the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, who is troubled that “much in his own soul had become alien to him” – we are suddenly dropped into a command post in the besieged city of Stalingrad, where we are confronted with an entirely different collection of people, some of them historical figures (generals and commissars) and others fictional. This too is typical; the novel does not let us rest for long in any situation, but whisks us up and down the Volga (much of it is set in cities like Kazan and Saratov), west to Moscow, and further west to the German camps, showing us a vast panorama of Russia (and Germany) at war.
If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control. We get to know Lyudmila, annoyed with her husband, her daughter, and her mother (who lives with her in Kazan), terrified for her son Tolya (who’s in the army), and concerned for her sister Evgeniya; Evgeniya’s ex-husband Krymov, who’s sent to Stalingrad as a commissar; and especially Lyudmila’s husband Viktor Shtrum, a physicist who almost as soon as we’re introduced to him we find thinking “about something he’d never thought about before, something fascism had forced him to think about – the fact that he was a Jew, and that his mother was a Jew.” Those facts are guns on the wall, and following Chekhov’s prescription they go off.
It is of course inevitable that the Nazis play a considerable role in a World War II novel, and the horrors of their beliefs and their actions are not stinted; what is astonishing is that they are presented as human beings with understandable motives, unlike in almost any other Russian war novel. And what is even more astonishing is that the doctrinaire communists are presented as no better than the doctrinaire Nazis – the Soviet system of camps and terror is explicitly compared to the German one. It is almost inconceivable that Grossman thought this book could be published in the Soviet Union in 1960, but he did; he was doubtless prepared for it to be rejected by the magazine he sent it to, but not for the secret police to show up and confiscate every scrap of it they could get their hands on – Grossman was told by a top member of the Politburo that it could not be published for two hundred years. However, a copy was eventually smuggled abroad (long after the author’s premature death in 1964) and published in 1980; at that point, in the depths of the Brezhnev stagnation, no one could have guessed that in less than a decade it would be published in the Soviet Union, shortly before that country ceased to exist. It had a powerful effect, but it was only one of a flood of forbidden works that were suddenly appearing; we can only imagine the effect it would have had if it could have appeared in its full, scarifying glory in 1960, with the war fresh in memory and Stalin even fresher. It might well be Grossman rather than Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn who was remembered as the writer who exploded the frozen Stalinist world of literature.
I said there were no language games, but I didn’t mean the writing is not superbly effective. Remember that opening sentence? The payoff comes hundreds of pages later, in part II, chapter 29 (chapter 28 in the NYRB translation). Obersturmbannführer Liss is visiting the site where an extermination camp is being constructed, and as his plane lands Grossman says A mist spread over the earth. Even if a reader doesn’t consciously remember the first line of the novel, this reprise should make a chill run up the spine. Unfortunately, the existing translation does not bring this out (I’ve retranslated all the quotes here); it’s well enough done that I encourage everyone to go out and get it, but it’s got enough omissions and mistranslations that it’s high time another one appeared. Many of the other recent Russian classics (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki) have multiple translations, and it’s the least Grossman deserves. His combination of bravura storytelling and clear moral vision has few peers.
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PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
There is a kind of Turkish music called Arabesk. I’m not an expert, but by rough definition it is very sad and melodramatic, the kind of music to which old men sit and drink a booze called rakı (lion’s milk, to the Arabesk crowd) and wave their hands and sing along and get teary-eyed and feel sad. Arabesk songs have titles like “God Hates a Lie,” “Woman in Pain,” “Am I not a Human Being?,” and “I Have the Suffering, You Have the Cure” (Dert Bende, my personal favorite, by Ajda Pekkan). Sometimes Turkish people laugh at me when I say I like this kind of music, but I think it’s the most beautiful music alive. I can’t understand all of it (maybe that’s why I like it so much), but in the right mood, it makes my heart crack in a thousand pieces. (I’m not kidding about the booze, by the way. On YouTube, under songs by the famous Arabesk singer Bergen, there are comments like “I’m listening and drinking rakı,” to which someone will respond “Drink, brother, drink. I’m having a beer.”)
Arabesk is music for indoors smoking and lost love and breaking up or knocking up or beating up. Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is like an Arabesk song, as written by Marcel Proust. It opens like this:
It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away…
Someone get me a drink.
In the streets in Beyoğlu, close to where the novel takes place, there are lots of shops selling postcards and posters and old magazines and all manner of stuff. Once I bought an Efes beer advertisement from the seventies showing a lively technicolored family around the kitchen table–Mom and Dad enjoying a glass of the national brew. These were the triumphant modern citizens of Atatürk’s Turkey! Look how bright and forward-thinking! Examine Ma’s stylish permanent wave. Of course, what you can’t see in the ad is the perpetual struggle between the ultra-nationalists, the leftists, the Islamists, the fascists, and other Ists, a struggle punctuated by the military, which every ten years or so marched in and told everyone to fuck right off. Nor do you see the eternal struggle between secularity and religion, the eternal embarrassment of the rich and urbane for the poor and benighted, or the eternal wrangling over virginity.
Orhan Pamuk, of course, can see all this, although his central character is a citizen of that swinging, modern Turkey, for whom the nation’s sociopolitical struggles are not a primary concern. Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, is one of the sophisticated rich who gets imported liquor for parties at the Hilton (rather than the provincial rich, who gape at uncovered women and get fruit sodas). By chance or destiny or whatever, Kemal, engaged to a fellow bright young thing, starts an affair with an unpedigreed relative, Füsun. There has been big talk on the dearth of sex in the writing of contemporary men–this book has sex, by God. Right from the get-go, there are big pear breasts and honey skin and nipples like strawberries and trysts in an airless apartment. The affair (and Kemal’s engagement) end rather quickly, but the ensuing anguish and thwarted desire and inscrutable looks stretch on almost a decade.
In an effort to win back the unsophisticated relative, Kemal spurns the trendy restaurants and cafes of his peers, going instead to her family’s shabby home to sit, night after night after night. The beloved Füsun, an aspiring actress whose emotional depths are for the most part unplumbable, appears to be happy with her chubby husband, a screenwriter and director. Cousin Kemal, they are all agreed, will finance the film that will propel her to success, and in the meantime they drink in seedy film hangouts (probably with Ajda Pekkan) and smoke an obscene number of cigarettes. All the while, everyone behaves as though brooding Kemal isn’t dying of love, and brooding Kemal, displaying markedly kleptomaniac traits, pockets everything his beloved touches. One day, these objects will populate his museum. At about year six of the family sitting, you’re not sure whether Kemal is a crazy as a loon, if this woman wants anything to do with him, if she’s a moron, if she’s a victim, if he’s one of the world’s great lovers, or if he’s just an asshole. I can’t say more, for fear of spoilers.
Meanwhile, Istanbul is happening all around, the sounds and the smells and the politics and the writhing humanity. It’s no secret that Orhan Pamuk knows and loves his city, and it is a character here as in his other books. Beyond Kemal and his Arabesk yearning, the story is about Turkey, about the collective life of the Turks, sitting in their living rooms, smoking their cigarettes, watching the state channel, and soothing themselves with food and drink and china dogs. In the streets, the politically-minded thrash around and exchange bullets toward an obscure purpose.
Essays about Turkish literature and criticism often seem obsessed with the idea of “belatedness.” Even those scholars who wish to protest this characterization seem to reify it through constant iteration–that Turkey is always behind. Pamuk’s novel engages this idea in a comic way, describing the wounds sustained by Kemal and his hip cohort as they attempt to use another mysterious gadget imported from the West (can openers and the like). Of an evening in Paris, Kemal writes:
I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all?
(I’ve always felt that the United States and Turkey have a number of things in common, especially in this regard, but that’s another essay).
Even as Pamuk writes of a country running to catch up, he writes of a country that is so unlike anywhere else, and so much itself and as a consequence so desirable, that the rest of the us find ourselves scratching at its door like puppies hoping to be let in. For all that Pamuk the citizen has been embroiled in legal struggles with the Turkish state, he strikes me in one sense as an elemental patriot. To chronicle something obsessively is a form of love, and Pamuk documents the details of his Istanbul obsessively, just as his character Kemal creates his museum of innocence out of the universe of meaningless bric-a-brac surrounding his beloved.
The last Orhan Pamuk novel I read was The Black Book, which was so esoteric that I found it a struggle. This book seems more straightforward, but that’s in style only. Its themes run deep and dark, even if they mirror the preoccupations of a seventies crooner. The style’s simplicity is, of course, deceptive; it’s not easy to write hundreds of pages of sitting, smoking, drinking, brooding. Nor has Pamuk abandoned his solemn post-modern playfulness. Deliberately, I believe (particularly since he mentions them), he invokes Nabokov (especially Ada and The Gift) and Proust. Furthermore, the extraordinary man is actually creating a real Museum of Innocence, in which he will display the various knick-knacks and impedimenta of daily life. That’s so many posts past modern, I don’t know what it is.
One day I hope to be able to read this in Turkish. I’m on page 8 of Kar (Snow), which I bought in 2006, so I have a lot of work to do. But The Museum of Innocence is not a novel that seems to suffer in translation, which is beautifully executed by Maureen Freely. I was spellbound for four days.
It’s really a remarkable book. Read it, and bring your rakı and your nicorette. Bring your sad songs and your broken heart. If you have the suffering, I have the cure.