Posts Tagged ‘novels’

"James Joyce" by Edna O'Brien | Review  BiographyHypothesis: A genius is a person whose books we want to read and whose ass we want to kick.

That certain describes the James Joyce presented in Edna O’Brien’s brief, readable biography of the great Irish writer. O’Brien’s tone in James Joyce is more novelist than academic and that combined with the occasional Joycean flourish, the lack of footnotes, and the appalling bad behavior made me wonder, “Is this all true?”

In O’Brien’s biography, we see Joyce treating his family with contempt and his friends as servants and ATMs. Joyce’s marriage to Nora Barnacle seems to have been based primarily on erotic passion (their sex letters are monuments to skeezy) although they remained together for life and O’Brien does not tell of infidelities by either James or Nora.

O’Brien reports no evidence of Joyce having a relationship with his son Giorgio. Joyce is distraught over his daughter Lucia’s madness, although his insistence that her behavior was a sign of genius rather than insanity smacks of self-aggrandizement as much as denial. Joyce is devastated by the death of the father he ignored while the man was living. As far as we can tell from O’Brien, Joyce cared for no one else.

Through it all, Joyce carousels. And works himself to exhaustion and blindness creating the most significant works of English literature written in the 20th century. The books are worth the price of all this misery. But I’m glad I didn’t have to pay it.

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My Antonia by Willa Cather Willa Cather’s My Antonia is one of those novels I saw as having faded into a genteel but deserved obscurity. Anything that struck readers in 1918 as innovative or shocking had long since become quaint, I believed, leaving little to command the attention of modern men and women.

So I was delighted by how good I found My Antonia. Much of my delight came from Cather’s quietly exquisite prose. Her descriptions of the natural world are masterful, although she does a pretty good job of making her characters and situations feel real and convincing, too.

Here is a sample from the narrator’s first impression of the prairie:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

My Antonia’s episodic structure – the novel is a collage of stories – has a pleasantly proto-modernist flavor (without the tricky syntax). The novel made me wonder about its relationship to Cather’s own life. And in the end, it delivered a grand thematic and emotional wallop.

I warmly recommend it. Here are some details.

My Antonia – The Obligatory Plot Summary

Cather’s novel takes the form of a memoir written by James Quayle Burden, a childhood friend of Antonia’s four years her junior, who arrives in the Nebraska town of Black Hawk on the same day she does. Jim is an orphan from Virginia who has traveled west to be raised by his grandparents. Antonia has immigrated with her family to America from Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic).

For many years, their lives run parallel to each other. First, they are neighbors on country farms situated near each other on a prairie just beginning to be brought under cultivation. Later, they are neighbors in Black Hawk where Jim has moved with his grandparents and Antonia has been hired as a cook and housekeeper. They are separated when Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend university and then settles down to a job and a marriage in New York City. Twenty years later, at the end of the novel, Jim finally returns to Nebraska and seeks out Antonia.

Despite the title, My Antonia is primarily Jim’s story and Antonia and her family can disappear for pages and even chapters at a stretch. The novel finds the time to tell the stories of the hired men who work for Jim’s grandparents; to talk about other immigrant families besides Antonia’s, especially other young farm girls who are hired to work for households in Black Hawk; to describe the residents and observe the culture of the town; and to relate the details of Jim’s love affair with one of Antonia’s friends, Lena Lingard.

Is Jim Burden Willa Cather?

In general, I think it is a bad idea to make inferences about a writer’s life from her novels.

One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows you to tell readers everything and nothing about yourself – to be wholly candid and entirely private at the same time. And Willa Cather seems to have valued her privacy, considering how many of her private letters and papers she destroyed before her death.

Nevertheless, Willa does make it hard to resist the temptation to equate her with Jim Burden in My Antonia, even though Cather almost certainly intended us to see her as the “I” that appears in the introduction.

Both Burden and Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old. Both attended the University of Nebraska (although Jim ultimately earns his degrees from Harvard). Both settled in New York City although their lives are possessed my memories of the prairie. Both write their books, the same book as it happens, in their forties.

Both also admire the same women: the strong, self-supporting, and independent immigrant hired girls who – with the exception of Antonia – never marry or have children.

This brings up the inevitable question of whether Cather was a lesbian and transposed herself into Jim’s character in order to write inconspicuously.

I’m an agnostic on the “Was Willa Cather a lesbian?” question (if that is actually the right question). That she sometimes dressed as a man and used the nickname “William” at university, and that she lived for nearly 40 years with the editor Edith Lewis, are generally known and rather indicative facts.

Whether Cather had sex with Edith or other women is, to the best of my knowledge, unknown and I believe it is equally unknown what Cather considered herself to be, sex or no sex. Cather’s opinion is the only valid one in the matter, of course, and she is beyond the means of telling.

Which leaves the questions of what My Antonia meant to Cather a tantalizing mystery which gives the novel, to me, some extra shimmers of meaning.

My Antonia – The Great America Novel?

This is the crown that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has worn for decades but I wonder if he didn’t steal it from Cather.

For all their differences, both The Great Gatsby and My Antonia are books profoundly occupied with the past and how happiness resides there rather than the present. They both locate the past in the Midwest and the present in New York City. They are both occupied with a woman from the past, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Antonia in Cather’s novel. And they both derive their greatest emotional power by evoking the natural world of the new continent before it came to be corrupted by men and society.

In Gatsby, it is Nick Carraway dreaming on the last page of the novel of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” the Dutch sailors first saw when they arrived in America, and concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

In My Antonia, this fresh world still exists during Jim and Antonia’s childhood, although it slowly disappears as they age.

Indeed, the great thematic arch of My Antonia is the parallel motion of Jim growing from child to adult, and moving from the natural world to the city. Jim spends his childhood on farms in Virginia and then the great unsettled prairie. As an adolescent, he moves into a small country town. As a young man, he goes the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and then Harvard in Boston. As an adult, he settles, marries, and works in New York City.

There Jim finds a world of money and machines, work and relationships as unsatisfactory as Fitzgerald’s characters found it. The difference is that for Jim his old life isn’t utterly irretrievable.

In the last line of the novel he tells us, speaking of himself and Antonia, “Whatever we have missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

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There was no sex in Western literature until 1857.

This is an exaggeration and a simplification of course. (You are reading this on the internet after all.) But not by as much as you might think. Sex does play a role in literature before 1857, but it is very seldom a straight-forward one. Between…

Beowulf (ca 800 to 1,100 CE) and Leaves of Grass (1856)

… there is very little direct examination of sexual desire. Sex is there, of course, but it is always contained within a related topic. Passion is one such topic, giving desire nobility and a certain amount of respectability with its parallels to spiritual ecstasy and religious transcendence.

Madame Bovary - History of Sex in Western LiteratureTo conceive a great passion was certainly admirable. To give in to it was less so – although somewhat understandable – unless you happened to passionately repent afterwards, in which case you were back in the clear, and also had something new to do with all that animal energy.

Love was another one of these topics, a step down from passion in terms of intensity, but a step up in terms of stability, and was perfectly respectable.

This is not to say that passion and love are not valuable human experiences, or that they can’t exist along with desire, or all the literature dealing with either is false.

But the language of passion and love are also a means of not talking about sexual desire, or a means of excusing it, or most importantly a means of dismissing physical desire’s power, whether it’s tales of courtly love, or the story of Emma and Mr. Knightley, or Walt Whitman who with his great moving exuberance unites the body and soul together.

When sex does appear in Western literature before 1857, it is played for comedy through lower-class characters, such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or, much more explicitly, Cleland’s Fanny Hill.

There are more troublesome outliers to muddy the picture. (Did I mentioned you were reading this on the internet? Okay good.)

The Decameron comes to mind and the work of the Marquis de Sade. But let’s agree for the sake of my personal convenience that these are exceptions that prove the rule

Madame Bovary (1857)

Flaubert’s novel caused a scandal and it’s not hard to see why. In Madame Bovary, he both plainly describes sexual desire and attacks the language in which it had previously been discussed.

Flaubert’s language seems quite tame by today’s standards, but he left no doubt about what he meant. For example, during a meeting with a lover, Flaubert writes that “[Emma] tiptoed over on bare feet to check once again that the door was locked, and in one motion she shed all her clothes; — pale and silent and serious, she fell upon him, shivering.”

Flaubert is just as direct when comes to the romantic language of “passion”. Emma’s first lover, Rodolphe, deliberately and cynically uses that language, and plays the role of the passionate lover, to seduce Emma, and Emma willingly embraces the role, out of a desire for something other than the stifling, self-satisfied, and clueless adoration of her husband Charles.

She again embraces the role with her second lover, Leon, and embraces it more desperately the more she senses the intensity of their relationship fading, and the more she feels the consequences of her deceptions bearing down on her.

Flaubert may have been the first voice to speak plainly about sex and to decouple the physical act from the language of passion and love, but he was followed by a long silence. It seems that Western literature needed the massive social disruption caused by the First World War to make books like …

Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

… possible. Joyce’s Ulysses is quite explicit about sex, but it wasn’t the perfect book to break the taboo, largely because it was so difficult for many readers to understand.

Lady Chatterley - History Sex Western LiteratureLady Chatterley’s Lover did a better job with its plain speaking, and caused a scandal. But instead of silence, these books were soon followed by others, such as Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). Lady Chatterley and Tropic of Cancer were involved in obscenity trials as late as 1960, but these failed, and the subject of sex became ubiquitous in books by the end of the decade.

I don’t see this change as an unqualified success. A great deal of sex in books these days ranges from the merely gratuitous to the frankly pornographic, and is rendered with such an appalling, puzzling, frequently hilarious lack of skill that it can chase you right back to Jane Austen.

On the other hand, the fact of sexual desire, and the fact that desire demands satisfaction, are different matters. These need to be addressed in literature because, like in life, they don’t go away just because they’re ignored. And when desire and love are denied, between consenting adults not restrained by other promises, this denial blights the soul. We can put up with the occasional internet sensation trilogy to gain that.

Massey Content Related to A Brief History of Sex in Western Literature

My 100 word parody of 50 Shades of Grey

My 7 rules for writing sex scenes

My 100 word review of Madame Bovary

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Gilead Marilynne Robinson What is the purpose of fiction? If it is to imaginatively engage its characters – and by so doing strengthen the reader’s ability to empathize with real people – then Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead succeeds brilliantly.

The novel takes the form of a long letter written by John Ames, a Congregationalist minister living in a small Iowa town during the 1950s, to his young son.

Ames, who is in his mid-seventies and suffering from a fatal heart condition, wants to leave his child a record of his life and a way for the boy to remember him after he dies.

Gilead is filled with the aching beauty that the jacket copy of every other novel promises, but few in my experience actually deliver. Robinson voices Ames’ great and genuine love for his son, and his sorrow at leaving him so soon, with a simplicity and directness founded on total conviction. Robinson doesn’t seem to have created John Ames. She seems to have been angelically possessed by him.

Robinson brings equal beauty and conviction to Ames’ expressions of his love for the Iowa prairie and his life in Gilead, even during the long decades of loneliness between the death of his first wife and child in his youth, and the second family he begins as an old man.

For those who think that a little bit of aching beauty goes a long way, Gilead also serves up a heaping portion of plot like a hearty Midwestern meat loaf.

This plot includes the story of his second marriage to Lila, a woman half his age who appears one Sunday in Ames’ church for the service.

She returns every week and Ames falls ridiculously and helplessly in love with her – ridiculously (he thinks) because he is an old man and helplessly because he can see of no way to approach her consistent with his moral convictions. So his relief and gratitude are immense when Lila tells him one day, “You ought to marry me.” What the town and his church think of this marriage is an interesting silence in Gilead.

Another plotline in the novel are the stories of John Ames’ grandfather and father. Ames’ grandfather was a fiery preacher and abolitionist who believed slavery was so great an evil that it justified violent opposition, and who fought with John Brown and with the Union Army. Ames’ father was an ardent pacifist, and the conflict between the two men extends into John Ames own lifetime and forms part of his story.

Most prominently, however, is the story of John Ames (Jack) Boughton, John Ames’ god-son and a child of his best friend. Jack is a charming ne’er-do-well who returns to Gilead after a many years absence.

Jack torments Ames by reminding the preacher of his inability to love the man who carries his name, by making Ames’ fear that his wife and child will fall victim to Jack Boughton after his death, and by provoking his jealousy.

All these storylines are presented episodically by Robinson. So readers who enjoy novels which present conflicts, development them through rising action, and bring them to resolution – the “I can’t wait to find out what happens next” model – may find Gilead slow. I found it enthralling from beginning to end.

Some readers may also find John Ames’ sometimes lengthy discussions of Christian theology dull. These discussions are perfectly consistent with a bookish minister educated in the early 20th century who has a great deal of lonely time on his hands. I liked them but I have a semi-professional interest in theology.

Related Content to Gilead.

I think those readers who enjoyed Gilead for its “aching beauty” will like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I also think they will enjoy Colette’s My Mother’s House, which I wrote about here.

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor DostoyevskyWhen I picked up Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I was expecting it to be dense, dull, and depressing – especially since the background materials I read stated that Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment as an explicit critic of certain radical theories that were current in 1860s Russia, including utilitarianism and rationalism.

It’s not a good sign when a novel has a thesis. This is usually an indication you are about to be treated to a bunch of cardboard characters clomping around mouthing platitudes, engaging in fake debates, and delivering essay-length monologues while sitting in a café smoking, humping each other, or bravely defying some oppressive bureaucrat or petty despot.

So I was pleased when I found Crime and Punishment to be a wilder, stranger, more flawed, more chaotic, more puzzling, and ultimately more engaging book than I expected.

Dostoyevsky, by all accounts, meant to deliver a lecture pretending to be a novel. He ended up creating a work of art. Here’s how (with a truck-load of spoilers in the discussion).

Crime and Punishment: A Black Comedy?

The first indication that I was following Dostoyevsky down his own particular rabbit hole, rather than sitting in his classroom dutifully taking notes, was that long passages of Crime and Punishment were both horrible and funny.

An early example is what happens after Raskolnikov, the handsome and arrogant law school drop-out who is the novel’s central character, famously murders an old pawnbroker and her sister. Raskolnikov falls into a fever that seems physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once.

But instead of taking us into Raskolnikov’s apparently tortured mind, Dostoyevsky focuses on his friends, who cheerfully encourage him to get better while chatting about mutual acquaintances or who view him as a fascinating case of morbid psychology or some undefined nervous complaint.

Another example is the character of Porfiry Petrovich, the detective assigned to solve the murders. Porfiry is short and stout, with a soft round face and a figure Dostoyevsky describes as “somewhat womanish” who laughs and titters through nearly every conversation he has.

Yet this comic-figure of a man is also Dostoyevsky’s figure of vengeance. Porfiry is convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt early in the book, pursues him with relentless guile, and attempts to drive Raskolnikov to confess either to the police or in a suicide note when he concludes there isn’t enough evidence to arrest him.

My final example. After 500 pages of anguish and self-examination, Raskolnikov goes to the police station to confess. Here is the high dramatic moment. Here is the finale of the novel. What happens?

Raskolnikov encounters a pompous, idiot lieutenant who babbles on about nonsense so incessantly that Raskolnikov actually gives up and leaves. A few minutes later, Raskolnikov returns, tries again, and this time manages to get the lieutenant to shut up long enough to confess.

These are odd, distracting, irrelevant choices if you want to advance a narrow moral argument. But they are excellent ones if you want to explore the strangeness, complexity, unpredictability, and absurdity of life. Which is what artists do. And that is what Dostoyevsky did, I think, despite his intentions to the contrary.

Iago, Raskolnikov, Meursault: The Reasons for the Crime Are … What?

For a thesis book to examine whether it is moral to commit murder, it is important for the author to clearly establish the reasons the character committed murder before he can show why those reasons are wrong.

But here’s the problem. Dostoyevsky doesn’t. Instead, he gives us a Chinese menu of possible motives, none of which are particularly convincing even to Raskolnikov himself.

The best example of this is in Chapter IV of Part V when Raskolnikov confesses he murdered the two women to Sonya , the virtuous naïve Christian girl who loves Raskolnikov unconditionally and who also happens to be a prostitute. (I’m not making that up.)

Anyhow, first, Raskolnikov tells Sonya that he murdered the women because he wanted to be like Napoleon, who pursued his grand ambitions without regard for conventional morality. Then he tells Sonya he murdered for money, so he could finish his education and support his family. Then he tells Sonya he murdered the old woman because she was a “louse … a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.” Then he says the reasons he committed the murders are that he is “vain, envious, malicious, base, vindictive and … well, perhaps with a tendency to insanity.” Then he blames the murders on “sulkiness”. Then he serves up a Will to Power argument. Then he agrees with Sonya that the devil made him do it. Then he says he did it for himself. Then he goes over all these reasons all over again and concludes, I’m so unhappy!

As the basis for a thesis, this is a hot mess. As a portrait of humanity it is – well, some of you might think it a hot mess too – but I think it is brilliant. And a century ahead of its time.

It has become fashionable, based on the latest cognitive and behavioral science, to conclude human beings are deeply irrational creatures who use reason not to guide their actions, but too justify them after the fact. It is also an established principal, at least among the modernist writers, that the more closely you examine the human character, the more ambiguous and ungrounded in some final essence the human character seems to become.

I tend to think of this vision of humanity in terms of classic (or Newtonian) mechanics and quantum mechanics. In classical mechanics, matter at a certain size … typically visible to the unaided human eye … behaves in logical, predictable, and consistent fashions. But at the atomic and subatomic level, all hell breaks loose with matter doing seemingly impossible things, like being in two places at once, or being both “up” and “down”, or other weird stuff that gives the average person a headache just contemplating. And yet, the visible logical world is founded on the invisible chaotic one.

This seems to me to be a good description of Raskolnikov. He is a quantum character trying to exist in a classical world. And not succeeding particularly well. And upsetting Dostoyevsky’s program in the process.

Also, all this suggests to me that Raskolnikov committed the murders for nothing or because there was an emptiness at his center that made him so indifferent that no action he took, good or bad, finally had meaning. Which I think is the case with Shakespeare’s Iago and Camus’ Meursault, and so I’ve added Raskolnikov to that group.

Crime, Punishment. No Crime, Punishment. Crime, No Punishment. No Crime, No Punishment.

The final reason for thinking Crime and Punishment isn’t a thesis book focused on Raskolnikov’s murders, despite Dostoyevsky’s stated intentions, is the amount of extraneous, irrelevant, contradictory, and confounding characters and plots he includes.

This sounds like a criticism, but what it really means is that Dostoyevsky did not let his school-teacher impulses get in the way of his inspiration, which seems to want to explore the whole spectrum of crimes and punishments, with or without a causal relation between the two.

It starts with Raskolnikov himself, who despite having committed a pre-meditated murder and a impulsive one (Raskolnikov kills the old woman’s sister when she surprises him during the crime), gets all of 8 years in prison.

Now I am not familiar with standards of punishment in 19th century Russia, but this sounds a little light to my American but none the less opposed to the death penalty ears, and was a bit surprising to Raskolnikov himself.

There are also unpunished criminals in Crime and Punishment. For example, the character of Svidrigaïlov, a depraved landowner who is suspected of several murders and sexual assaults, gets away free from the law (although he does commit suicide in one of the novels most persuasive and harrowing chapters). There is also Luzhin, a sadistic bully who likes to prey on women he perceives to be helpless.

We also find punished innocents. Sonya becomes a prostitute in a desperate attempt to keep her family, especially her younger step-siblings, from starvation. These step-siblings themselves suffer from the drunkenness of their father and the angry despair, then madness, then death by consumption of their mother.

Finally, there are unpunished innocents such as Raskolnikov’s cheerful and loyal friend Razumikhin, who happily marries Raskolnikov’s sister, and the detective Porfiry, who succeeds in helping to drive Raskolnikov’s confession and serving the ends of justice.

Dostoyevsky renders many of these characters with a grotesque, Gogol-esque exuberance that also undermines the thesis aspects of the book. The fact of their existence, rather than what the characters mean or what “morals of the story” Dostoyevsky wants us to take away with us, seem the real point of the novel.

Which perhaps makes Dostoyevsky like Milton in Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” when Blake says

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it

But I think Dostoyevsky is more like the Oracle of The Matrix movies when she talks about a character called the Architect. She says the Architect’s role in the movie is to “balance the equation”. She tells Keanu Reeves her role is to “unbalance it”.

Fyodor set out to be the Architect. He winds up being the Oracle.

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Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels value the scenes where Jack and Stephen are playing music in the great cabin of a ship or having particular conversations, like this one which considers the feathers of a paradise bird:

Stephen said, ‘Have you every contemplated upon sex, my dear?’

‘Never,’ Jack said. ‘Sex has never entered my mind, at any time.’

‘The burden of sex, I mean. This bird, for example, is very heavily burdened; almost weighed down. He can scarcely fly or pursue his common daily round with any pleasure to himself, encumbered by a yard of tail and all this top-hamper. All these extravagant plumes have but one function – to induce the hen to yield to his importunities. How the poor cock must glow and burn, if these are, as they must be, an index of his ardour.’

‘That is a solemn thought.’

H.M.S Surprise, pg.259, Norton paperback edition, 1991

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIt seems strange, at first, that this should be so. The Aubrey-Maturin novels recount the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a British naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic wars.

The series is full of battles, storms, shipwrecks, spycraft, political intrigue, the scientific discovery of new species, social manners, and problematic relationships between men and women.

And yet, both O’Brian and his fans always return to the quiet scenes between Jack and Stephen playing music or talking, as they are in the passage above. Why?

The reason has to do, I think, with the consolations literature offers us.

Good books have many uses. They are a pleasure and a comfort. They offer a hedge against loneliness. For centuries, readers have found their own thoughts and feelings in literature, and in finding these have been reassured that they are not alone and unknowable in this world.

And good books console us by offering a permanence to characters we love that we cannot find in the lives of the people we love outside of books.

Not all literature offers this consolation. It is no relief to know that Lear is always at the British camp near Dover, howling with the lifeless Cordelia in his arms, or that Antigone is always hanging in the cell to which Creon condemned her, dead by her own hand. Tragic works of literature offer us many things, but consolation is not one of them.

For consolation, a book must offer us characters who are convincingly human, not simply credible or familiar, and who engage our sympathies through both their virtues and their faults.

The book must also give these characters moments if not of happiness, then of peace and ease, because this is what we wish for ourselves. Among all our troubles and suffering, I think we all want – and believe we deserve – moments of at least modest contentment.

But we cannot stay in these moments or keep the people we love with us in them. Time moves. Circumstance and age separate us, further and further, until death makes the separation final and our only hope becomes reunion in another world; which many of us picture as being much like this one, except that hunger and violence and suffering and disease and death are banished.

Which makes heaven or the Summerlands or the after-life (or even reincarnation in the Indian religions) very much like the passages in the books we love.

Elizabeth Bennet will always be sparkling after dinner in the drawing-room at Netherfield, getting the best of and bettering Mr. Darcy, as alive today as the first moment she was written. Timofrey Pnin will always be playing croquet on the lawn at Al and Susan Cook’s summer house or discovering that Victor’s beautiful glass bowl is not broken after all. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will always be playing music while the wake of the Surprise stretches away behind them.

In this world, that is consolation indeed. Perhaps not enough. But I’ll take it.


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Bend Sinister Vladimir NabokovFor most of his life, Vladimir Nabokov declared himself indifferent to politics and expressed his satisfaction with never having joined any group or participated in any organized human activity.

Nabokov insisted that there were no “messages” in his work. He expressed contempt for literature that discussed general ideas, offered social commentary, dealt with everyday “reality” (a word Nabokov frequently put in quotes), or promised human interest.

Instead, Nabokov said he valued books that were grounded in the imagination and talent of the specific writer, and which offered aesthetic bliss which he recognized by a thrill in his spine.

Nabokov’s books seemingly confirm these principles. They are deeply idiosyncratic; full of dense word play, complex patterns, and recondite references; and deliver a great deal of what looks like misanthropy.

All of this argues you won’t find a trace of politics in Nabokov’s work just as he claimed. But here’s the thing. I don’t believe him. And neither should you.

The first reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is he knew from personal experience that indifference to politics does not stop politics from affecting you.

Nabokov and his family escaped the Russian Revolution in 1917. His liberal politician father was assassinated by Russian fascists in 1922. Nabokov fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and soon to be Nazi-conquered France in 1940 to protect his family and in particular his wife, Vera, who was Jewish. His brother Sergey died in a German concentration camp, where he was sent after speaking out against the Nazis.

The second reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that while he may have bragged about never having joined any group, he also took great pride in his adopted country of the United States.

Strong Opinions Vladimir NabokovNabokov described himself as “American as April in Arizona” and said he felt a “suffusion of warm, light-hearted pride” when he showed his American passport at European borders (Strong Opinions, p. 98). He kept his US citizenship, and continued to pay American taxes, even after he and Vera moved to Switzerland.

By contrast, Nabokov was outspoken and unrelenting in his contempt for the leaders of the Soviet Union and the vast harm they had done to the Russian nation. Nabokov also had no problem arguing with the American liberals who continued to embraced Soviet propaganda long after they should have known better.

The third reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that he consistently stated that the worst act a human being could commit was an act of cruelty. He believed that cruelty was the essence of all tyrants, and it is cruelty that he condemned in all his major novels.

This condemnation of cruelty can be hard to see because of Nabokov’s techniques as a writer, however.

Nabokov never wavered in his dislike of plainly written novels with obvious messages, and this dislike was reinforced by his observation that bad writers and bad leaders were much alike.

Nabokov saw bad writers and bad leaders as equally trite, vulgar, and stupid. They both thought and wrote and spoke in a debased language of general ideas, and both believed that human beings can be reduced to a few general “types” that are easily defined by commonplace characteristics.

Nabokov expresses this idea most succinctly in his short story, Tyrants Destroyed, when he wrote, “the real human being is a poet and [the tyrant] is the incarnate negation of a poet” (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, p. 446).

Nabokov also seems to have understood that the bad writer, especially the bad writer with a good reputation, actually legitimized the propaganda of a dictatorship’s officially sanctioned authors. If Balzac or Lawrence or Camus were first-rate artists, rather than second-rate scribblers, then the novels of approved Soviet writers could also be great works of art rather than tools of manipulation and misinformation.

So Nabokov responded by creating a highly personal – sometimes, stubbornly personal – body of work that emphasized the uniqueness of his characters and the originality of his imagination.

This approach, in itself, was an attack on authoritarian states like the Soviet Union, which insisted that the group was more important than the individual and which were threatened by any work that didn’t enthusiastically celebrate the state’s manifold virtues in a manner easily understood by the average person.

Pnin Vladimir NabokovNabokov’s work was also a relentless assault on cruelty. Nabokov didn’t usually link cruelty directly to a dictator, although the tyrant Paduk in the novel Bend Sinister is an exception. Instead, Nabokov created brilliant, charismatic monsters who blinded readers to their viciousness, monsters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Kinbote in Pale Fire, and to a lesser degree Van Veen in Ada.

Nabokov could also take the side of those who suffered cruelty, most obviously in the characters of Professor Timofrey Pnin (a refuge from Soviet Russia like Nabokov) and  the philosophy professor Adam Krug from Bend Sinister who is helpless to stop the bungling thugs of that book’s tyrant from murdering his only child. I also believe he is quietly on the side of Lolita and Lucette Veen in Ada, and not the dazzling beasts who abuse them.

As usual, Nabokov expressed it best. In October 1971, when Nabokov was 72 and had finished writing all his major works, he said this to the interviewer Kurt Hoffman (Strong Opinions, p. 193):

“I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and the cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.”

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