Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

Beautiful Beautiful Words: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

For the last week I have been adding new words to my “favorite words” list, which isn’t an actual list but something I have vaguely kept track of in my head over the years (past favorites: idiosyncrasy, verisimilitude). Sometimes I like a word because of how it sounds. Plain and simple. “Juxtaposition!” But sometimes I like it because it’s like a portal into its meaning, which of course is only the beginning of its meaning, because aren’t words kind of like ciphers, arrangements of letters and sounds and whatnot, sometimes forcibly squared away into discrete objects or alphabetical permutations, but that can remotely access great wells of significance and the barely differentiated oceans of continuous meaning that constitute the human encounter with the world?

Maybe that theory is a bit grandiloquent. (Favorite.)

But anyway, this past week I came up with two new favorite words, in comparatively rapid succession, kind of by accident. Because they both do that access-y meaning-y thing, where they can be used literally to describe a thing or they can be thought through more deeply or used as a metaphor.

Anyway, I’ll just tell you what those two words are. Without any explanation or anything. One is “deconsecrated” (found in a New Yorker article about high art puppet shows, in which the featured players are rehearsing in a deconsecrated church). The other is “enharmonic” (meaning two musical notes, like D-sharp and E-flat, that have different names and functions but are, at pitch, the exact same note).

This is a roundabout way of telling you that my own personal word guru is Vladimir Nabokov (I wonder if he’s ever been called that before?) and I think I’ve gone on enough about him in the past, but I just finished reading his memoir Speak, Memory so I need to go on a little more about how he is the master of all things words. I’ll stick to the point.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage International, 1989.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage International, 1989.

Vladimir (we’re on a first name basis) started the reminiscences that constitute Speak, Memory as a young man, which roughly cover the period from his birth to the birth of his first and only child Dmitri, though he didn’t finish and publish them until sometime in the 1960s. He has a remarkable memory for detail, like superhuman—it seems memory, like writing, entomology and synesthesia, was an innate talent.

For me, the ultimate Nabokov fangirl (I wonder if anyone else has ever described themselves that way before?), this work is a real treat, because it allows the reader into the thoughts and feelings of the man, the myth, the legendary author. As much as I love his fiction, it can lean too heavily towards the cerebral, a showcase of his magisterial intellect and imagination, while missing a warmth or a tenderness or any window into Nabokov’s own humanity. Maybe that’s not fair—I think the warmth is there, but it’s faint and subtle and buried. His most famous protagonist is a monster. His family relationships are distant and ridiculous, and his love affairs tend to be all-consuming, fiery instruments of their participants’ destruction.

Which is why this sublime passage from the end of Speak, Memory is, for me, so revelatory (note that towards the end of these recollections, he begins periodically addressing the narrative to a “you” that can only be his wife Vera; the most overt manifestation of the fact that all of his books are dedicated to her):

“Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time… It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.”

So, freaking, romantic. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Anyway. It’s hard for me to explain why I love Vladimir Nabokov so much (beyond posting long samples of his writing). I think I should just consider myself lucky that I’ve found an author that so consistently and so unexpectedly impresses and thrills and delights me, that I love not only as a writer but as a person, and yes that includes the times where I come across something about him and am like, “Vladimir, why do you have to be so stuck-up about writing?” or “Vladimir, what’s wrong with you that you don’t like music?” but that’s normal with anyone you love.

The things that DO make him lovable: his awkward feelings about public speaking. His strangely pompous humility (how can you be self-deprecating about your own writing in writing so grand? Er, grandiloquent?). His obviously deep love and attachment to his wife and son. His ethics (which will of course be politically problematic on several points in retrospect, but which generally tended to abhor racism, anti-Semitism, violence and tyranny; his wife Vera was Jewish; though, also close to home, he never quite accepted his brother’s homosexuality). And—DUH!—his butterfly hunting!

Speaking of which. One of my favorite and most adorable and endearing passages from Speak, Memory, about the unwanted attention he draws when going about his butterfly-hunting business (something he loved from childhood all the way to his death):

“America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have—perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand. Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Santa Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile.” (131)

So for anyone who loves Nabokov three eighths as much as I do, Speak, Memory is like an ostentatious gift of words that’s dropped in your lap and you almost feel guilty that you get to indulge in it. But the words are finite, and one thing that I tend to do—and maybe others can relate—or maybe I’m a big weirdo—is be constantly cognizant of the finiteness of the things I love and the time I get to spend with them.

This phenomenon manifests most overtly when I’m on a trip and I start to panic a little as the days slip away, all the more so if I felt they weren’t used to their utmost potential. But it also manifests in books, music, etc. When I first got into my favorite band Radiohead in early college, I had an exquisite first few months of acquainting myself with and acquiring their ten-year catalog, and then (until In Rainbows) one day it was gone. When I first started reading Harry Potter, the last book had already come out and I’d seen four movies, and I got to rip, leisurely, through all seven books without the anguish of the multi-year gaps that my hipper friends had to wait through. And then after Deathly Hallows it was gone. When Fellowship of the Ring came out I watched it four times in the theater, five more times at home before the second movie came out one year later, bought every theatrical and extended edition and CD soundtrack, plus film production picture books, plus at some point acquired one life-size Legolas poster (it was a GIFT), and then Return of the King came out and I saw it opening night and it was exhilarating and it was gone. Until The Hobbit, kind of.

I still have a ways to go through Nabokov’s entire oeuvre (favorite), but I feel the end, creeping up on me from behind Pale Fire and the rest of his Russian Period. I guess the best thing to do is enjoy it while it lasts.

…So here I am again. Talking about Nabokov, Radiohead, and Lord of the Rings. Some things don’t change at least.


Falling in Love on the First Page

Last week at the Books Inc. two blocks from my house (good news: there’s a bookstore two blocks from my house; bad news: it’s not a used bookstore), I flipped through the introduction to Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and then decided to buy it. Two reasons: he referred to himself as the “white sheep” in his non-college-educated family (a little self-congratulatory, but a clever inversion of an idiom nonetheless), and this line in response to being called “one of the major lyric voices of our time”:

“As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, ‘Whoa.’”

From these things I decided I liked him. It doesn’t take much. It’s like when you’re talking to a person for the first time and you find out what music they listen to, or which of your jokes they laugh at. First impressions matter. Same is true for writers.

Smoke Signals (1998), based on Alexie's The Lone Ranger & Tonto..., starring Adam Beach (swoon). Another reason I bought the book.

Smoke Signals (1998), based on Alexie’s The Lone Ranger & Tonto…, starring Adam Beach (love him). Another reason I bought the book.

When I began my lifelong quest to read every single great piece of literature ever written in the English language, I started at the Borders in Davis, CA. Not totally auspicious, but within walking distance to my college apartment. I guess I have a thing for walking distances. That Borders is gone now, as are all other Borders; in its place stands a Whole Foods. But I have the fondest of memories in that transformed space—aisles of overpriced grain products where the overpriced CDs used to be—because it’s where I started my relationships with several of my absolutest, positivest favorite authors, who I still to this day am madly in love with.

What I would do, is I would drift towards a title based on its name and its reputation and its book cover, and then I would get a sense of it from the back cover description, and then I would open to the first page and see if I liked what I read, if I saw the literary relationship going somewhere, if we were I guess verbally compatible. I readily admit this isn’t always the best way to find a great book. There have been plenty of first-pagers (as I call them) that turn out to be not-so-interesting, and plenty of slow-starters that have become all-time favorites.

But sometimes first impressions are correct.

Here’s my first-pagers. Emphasis on the words I loved the most.

Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again…” Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.

“I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,” and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night. “To the devil with your tunes,” the words hanging crystalline in the iced white night, “in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me these infernal noises now.”

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohé, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.”

I was transfixed by this opening. So magical realist, so fantastical, so virtuosic! Two men falling from the sky? The one, Gibreel Farishta, a flamboyant, histrionic Bollywood actor flapping around and singing; the other, Saladin Chamcha, a fastidious and completely assimilated British Asian who wants to fall straight down in peace. Already hinting at grand themes of faith, country, catharsis, transcendence, which are further explored as Gibreel begins to turn into an angel, and Saladin into a devil.

Nowadays, I like my magical realism a little less hit-you-over-the-head, but Rushdie immediately got major props for creativity. The whole first chapter was an exhilarating dream sequence of a twenty-nine-thousand-foot drop which, incidentally, the two men survive. I devoured this book. Then read Midnight’s Children, which I like even better. Is genius. Also recommended: Shame; East, West; The Enchantress of Florence (less substantial but still gorgeous, gorgeous words).

Kurt Vonnegut

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.

Kind of a polar opposite, stylistically, from Rushdie—Vonnegut has the most spare, straightforward, ironic of mid-century American writing styles. If given the choice, I tend to favor the virtuosic over the concise, but sometimes there’s beauty in sparseness. Sometimes there’s a lot of weight in what’s not said. That’s what I felt with Vonnegut.

It starts right off with a question: how much of this is real? How will I know whether he’s making things up, overdramatizing? (As I now understand it, most of the war parts are true. Most of the parts with time travel and Tralfamagorians: not true.) Then there’s a flip observation: there’s probably a lot of human bone in the ground at Dresden. Pain, trauma, horror without measure wrapped up in a Vonnegut’s dryly humorous semi-sci-fi tale using very few words, because some things you can’t really express. Boiled down to its essence in the refrain: “So it goes.”

This is still my favorite Vonnegut. Also recommended: Cat’s Cradle; Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories).

Joseph Heller

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Yossarian was in the hospital with pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.

Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian. They read the chart at the foot of the bed and asked impatiently about the pain. They seemed irritated when he told them it was exactly the same.

“Still no movement?” the full colonel demanded.

The doctors exchanged a look when he shook his head.

“Give him another pill.”

Nurse Duckett made a note to give Yossarian another pill, and the four of them moved along to the next bed. None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors never suspected. They just suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.

Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.

The first page of Catch-22 was just a total WTF, and so was the rest of the first chapter, and I liked that. Absurd, inane, hilarious, confusing, somewhat disingenuous, as if the whole narrative is playing a trick on you. And yet—like Slaughterhouse Five—the irony masks a core of pain and horror, similarly experienced firsthand by Joseph Heller (is he Yossarian?) during his service in Italy. So funny, and then horrible things happen (image that stands out in my head is the bottom half of a person standing on a raft offshore). And the Snowden chapters! So heartbreaking. The entire mood is captured in the problematic of the title: one of those “if I don’t laugh I’ll cry” situations.

This is the only Heller I’ve read, so I can’t in good faith call him “one of my favorite authors,” though I think this book is brilliant. He’s something of a literary one-hit wonder. Though if you are so inclined I believe there is a sequel.

 Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

The Holy Grail of books. My most favoritest of favoritest authors. The ecstasy of Nabokov’s prose is evident from the opening lines of his greatest, and for obvious reasons most controversial, work, the deconstruction of the syllables of Lolita and the many names of Dolores Haze, not to mention the first glimpse into the disturbed psychology of erudite narrator and sickening sex offender Humbert Humbert. His words are unmatched. He has the uncanny ability to make me feel like I’m not reading but seeing, at the same time that I am hyperaware of each and every one of his verbal feats.

Turning to the second page, I was further enamored by his sense of humor:

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”

That parenthetical made me laugh. Nabokov may paint beautiful, intensely detailed narrative pictures, but when he doesn’t want to waste time on description, he throws out two words and gives you everything you need to know. “Picnic. Lightning.” Bam.

As may have been mentioned on this blog before, Lolita started an eight-year relationship (still going strong) with Vladimir that has taken me through Ada, or Ardor, Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and his brilliant Short Stories, and I’m currently reading his enchanting Speak, Memory—probably the best memoir I’ve yet to encounter. I don’t use the L-word too often (or maybe I do, but usually for un-serious things), but I. Love. Him.

Honorable Mentions:
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
First line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
First line(s): “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.”

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
First line: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

There’s more. It’s a lifelong quest.

“Seriously misreading Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Thanks to Seamus Gallagher and his awesome Tumblr for this image.

writing exhibit A.

“My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.”  — Vladimir Nabokov

vintage: Ada, or Ardor

[first published July 7, 2011 at http://lizthegrad.blogspot.com/]

ada or ardor, nabokov, books

Vladimir Nabokov, ADA, OR ARDOR.  New York: Vintage International, 1969.

Acquired at a Borders somewhere.  New.

True Confession(z):  I bought, and started, this book over a year and a half ago.  What can I say?  Nabokov has really florid, dense prose; this book is really long; I’ve been busy with grad schoolish activities; I have no tenacity.  I’ll say all of those things.

Continuation of Confession:  I am still not done.  I am on page 353.  There are 589 pages.  I am ashamed.

Let it be known, here and now (shame acknowledged; moving on), that Vladimir Nabokov is without any doubt My Favorite Author.  I have read two of his novels (Pnin and Lolita), and his very long collection of short stories (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, natch), and, well, roughly 59.9% of Ada or Ardor.  I can honestly say that I have never encountered such beautiful, spellbinding prose anywhere else.  I love the John Updike quote that appears on the backs of his Vintage editions: “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” (emphasis mine.)  I think that is very apt.

Speaking about Nabokov with my boyfriend, we argued over whether his novels and stories really meant anything, or more broadly, whether novels and stories need to mean anything, which, of course, never got settled.  Speaking about him with another friend, we noted the way he privileges aesthetics and wordplay over content and narrative, how he saw the book as a work of art rather than a didactic device, a painting more than a folk tale.  I can see how that would bother some people, and seriously, I am all for content and narrative.

But there are passages in Nabokov where, as I am reading, I have actually vocalized– you know, like gone, “oh!” or “hah!” to myself- because I found what he wrote so affecting, so brilliant.  (Note: I’m quiet.  I don’t vocalize unless it’s necessary.)  It’s gorgeous, gorgeous stuff.  It can be confounding and demanding of the intellect- as in, I read this paragraph five times before I understood it because in the middle my eyes kept crossing.  But it can also be impressionistic and extremely intuitive- where it seems like he just flipped his pen and out spilled a few words that didn’t so much read themselves to you as burn an imprint of an image onto your brain.

Ada, or Ardor is basically Nabokov to the nth degree.  It’s longer, it’s more confounding, it’s more demanding, it’s chock-full of the trilingualism and entomological sciences and parenthetical literary criticisms and, yes, sexual deviancy that is only passing in most of his other works.  He makes up fantastic words like “brachiambulist.”  He creates “a love story, an erotic masterpiece, a philosophical investigation into the nature of time.”  (See this contemporary NYT review.  I had no idea they had these online, and am amazed.)  He evokes wonder and thrill and frustration in equal measure.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I like it.  I really do.  But now I just have to finish the damn thing.  Oh, and thanks for letting me geek out over Vladimir Nabokov.

“‘That’s not the point,’ cried Van, ‘the point, the point, the point is- will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?’

‘You spit, love,’ said wan-smiling Ada, wiping off the P’s and the F’s.  ‘I don’t know.  I adore you.  I shall never love anybody in my life as I adore you, never and nowhere, neither in eternity, nor in terrenity, neither in Ladore, nor on Terra, where they say our souls go.'” (158)