Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

Martin Amis: “I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book.”

Monday, June 25th, 2018
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A talker (Photo courtesy Knopf)

My goodness. Does this man ever have a bad interview? Like him or hate him, agree with him or not, Martin Amis is always fascinating, incisive, opinionated, controversial. The current Q&A at The Los Angeles Review of Books is proof.

“Despite the variety of subjects, the guiding theme of most of these pieces is the impact of time on talent and the rarity of a long, multichaptered literary career,” said interviewer Scott Timberg.

The Book Haven was greedy and wanted to quote everything, but we calmed down and settled for two excerpts. The first discusses poet Philip Larkin‘s appeal for novelists. A timely topic, because Stanford’s Another Look book club recently featured Larkin’s little-known novel, A Girl in Winter:

Timberg: You have a great line on Larkin in one of your essays, where you say he’s not exactly a poet’s poet — he’s too widely embraced for that — but a novelist’s poet. Tell me what you mean by that.

Martin Amis: Well, it was suggested to me by the poet-novelist Nick Laird. We were talking about Zadie [Smith, Laird’s wife] loving Larkin, and Nick said, “All novelists love Larkin.” That resonated for me, and when I came to write that piece I saw just how true it was — that he belongs with the novelists rather than the other poets. “A poet’s poet” is usually very much in danger of being precious, or exquisitely technical. Larkin is technically amazing, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s his character observation and phrase-making that put him in the camp of the novelists, I think.

A grasp of ordinary people

There’s something oddly visual about Larkin too, for someone who squinted his life away through thick glasses. I feel like I can see those poems, the curtains parting and the little village and the ships on the dock.

Yes — and very thickly peopled. He has a grasp of ordinary character — which is very hard to get. The strangeness of ordinary people.

That may be why people who don’t read a lot of poetry respond to Larkin, if they read him at all. It’s like Auden. You might not understand everything in those guys’ work, but you get something out of it if you try.

Yes — though Auden is a lot more difficult. And a greater poet, I think, in the end. But — yes — Larkin doesn’t need much interpretation from critics in the way other poets do.

The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

He reads “The Greats.”

But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.

It’s amazing how much poetry dropped out of the literary conversation in the States over the last few decades. It’s not gone entirely, but it doesn’t show up very much. I find British and Irish people, especially those born in the 1940s and ’50s, much more engaged with verse. It’s really changed over time.

It really has, and also the huge figures are no longer there, in poetry. Lowell, Seamus Heaney was one of the last. And I’m convinced, for that reason, that we live in the age of acceleration. Novels have evolved to deal with that, as the novel is able to do — just by moving a bit faster. Not being so speculative, digressive, intellectual. But poetry moves at its own pace, I think — and you can’t speed that up.

***

Your book is about the effect of time on talent — you take the long view on Nabokov and others. Each career is different, but did you perceive any patterns in the way these things go? Bellow, Nabokov, Roth — they all had robust careers. But we could contrast those with shorter or less successful ones — Joseph Heller, maybe, or Alex Chilton. Musicians, artists, writers who seemed exciting at first, but didn’t really keep up.

Indefatigable Nabokov

You get a sense reading a novel sometimes that this novelist has a big tank. A huge reserve. And some people don’t — and they exhaust it quite quickly. You can watch that process in any artist, I think. They arrive fresh, and then they use up, sometimes, their originality, and then are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank.

But you do go from saying hi, when you arrive on the scene, to saying bye, making your exit. Medical science has given us the spectacle of the doddering novelist. As I say in the first of the Nabokov essays, all of the great novelists are dead by the time they reach my age [68]. It’s a completely new phenomenon, and it’s a dubious blessing. Novelists probably do go on longer than they ought to, now.

Philip Roth has done the dignified thing, just quit. I know others who’ve done that. It seems to me that rather than gouging out another not-very-original book, you should just step aside.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but sometimes it’s harder. If we were reading, back in the 1960s, Goodbye, Columbus alongside Catch-22, would we have been able to tell which of the careers would last six decades and which would peak right out of the gate?

Catch-22? Embarrassing.

It’s hard to predict. But again, you do get an idea of the size of the reserves. Writers who start late sometimes go on longer, because the tank stays full longer.

My father and I used to disagree about Catch-22. He thought it was crap. He used to say of me that I was a leaf in the wind of trend and fashion.

Every father says that about his son!

I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book. See how it does a couple of generations on.

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.

Read the whole thing here

Anton Chekhov, a lady, and her dog: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life.”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
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I’m working rather feverishly to finish writing against an important and non-negotiable deadline, and began two blog posts to you, Faithful Readers, but got strangely tangled up in my own words and couldn’t finish. Nevertheless I finally got a chance at last to read poet Dana Gioia‘s discussion of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” His thoughts about it are over at his website here. In the course of it, he writes, the hero (if you can call him that) “undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Dana begins with some background on Chekhov:

Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.

Dana and friend.

It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.

What do you know? I got this off without too much fuss. And I even found an image of a small yapping dog (you can read the story behind the painting here.) Read the Dana’s essay here.

Is it “the best thing he ever wrote”? Nabokov thought so. Join us for Dostoevsky’s The Double on Monday, May 15!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
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He’s nervous. Very nervous. Be there.

Our spring “Another Look” event at Stanford will discuss Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Double: A Petersburg Poem. The 1846 novella portrays the disintegration of a neurotic government clerk into two distinct entities – one toadying and nervous; the other self-assured, exploitative, and aggressive. Vladimir Nabokov, not usually a fan of Dostoevsky, called The Double “the best thing he ever wrote” and “a perfect work of art.” And so Another Look champions The Double as an overlooked masterpiece from a familiar author. It is our final event of the season.

We’ll have a special guest for the event: Russian photographer Lena Herzog will be joining us from Los Angeles. Some of you met Lena at our event with Werner Herzog for J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. I interviewed her at that time for Music & Literature here. An excerpt, where she remembers moving to St. Petersburg as a teenager in 1986:

“Everybody wanted jeans, wanted to be a Westerner, but in the most superficial, shallow way. And yet it still was St. Petersburg. It still had walls and the canals that whispered with the voice of Dostoevsky. It still had culture and ideas and architecture. Saint Petersburg is such a beguiling city. … I loved to walk through the fog enveloping the cathedrals and canals, heart pounding, anticipating the gold-winged griffins on the Bank Bridge over the Griboyedov canal, which emerged from the fog as I walked past them.”

The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 15, at the Bechtel Conference Center. We recommend the Vintage Classic edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He and Lena will be joined by Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures. Many of you will remember Monika from our event on Joseph Conrad’s Shadow-Line, and some of you met Lena at our event with Werner Herzog for J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine.

The preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our times, Stanford’s Joseph Frank, said of the novella: “the internal split between self-image and truth, between what a person wishes to believe about himself and what he really is – constitutes Dostoevsky’s first grasp of a character type that became his hallmark as a writer.” The Double marks a turning point in the life of the author. While the book owes a debt to Nikolai Gogol, the younger author moves beyond social critique to the psychological drama that would become his trademark in the great novels that followed.

 

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Is Nabokov’s Pnin the great refugee novel?

Thursday, March 30th, 2017
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Forget Lolita. Try Pnin.

How much 20th century literature was created by refugees? “Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland — a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky — one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon,” writes Ted Gioia. But not so. Many of them remained embedded in the their homeland, however, and did not produced a literature of displacement and the modern experience of exile, certainly not enough to make a large dent in the canon.

I would argue that Joseph Brodsky’s great theme, or one of them, was exile … but Ted is focusing on the novel, not poetry, and he homes in on one exception to the rule in “Did Vladimir Nabokov Write the Great Refugee Novel?” in The MillionsForget about LolitaIt’s Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin.

From the article:

This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen — and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller.

nabokov

He fought his way to the top.

Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes.  And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter.  His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents.  When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later.

These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants — for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.”  When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.”  His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery.

One very tiny quibble: It’s a myth that Nabokov mastered English – he never really had to. It was one of his cradle languages, in an upper-crust multilingual household (some even contend that it was in fact his first language).

Of course, we know what happened to Nabokov after he came to America. He came to Stanford. We wrote about that here. But first read the rest of Ted’s essay here.

Another Look book club spotlights Joseph Conrad’s Shadow-Line on May 10

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
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Joseph Conrad (foreground) on board the special service ship Ready in 1916. He wrote The Shadow-Line on his return from the voyage. (Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The author Joseph Conrad insisted his work The Shadow-Line: A Confession was not a book about the supernatural. But sometimes the real can be spookier than the imagined, and what we observe outpaces our worst nightmares. So it is with Conrad’s late novella.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” Conrad said a few years before World War I. Certainly the rest of the century bore out his conclusions.

The Another Look book club will discuss Conrad’s 1917 novella and the Polish author at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, in the Bechtel Conference Room of Encina Hall. The Shadow-Line is available at Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Booksand the host for the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, and Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature.

The event is free and open to the public.

“I chose this short novel because of its exquisite prose and quintessentially Conradian drama,” Harrison said. “It probes the enigma of fate by putting circumstance, landscape and depth psychology into play all at the same time.”

He added, “Conrad is a master when it comes to putting his characters through trials. The Shadow-Line is one of the most intense of Conradian trials of character. It is not one of his best known novels and is certainly deserving of another look.”

Conrad’s short masterpiece describes the “green sickness” of late youth, when a young man desires to “flee from the menace of emptiness.” The unnamed narrator’s flight ends when he is captain of a merchant ship in Southeast Asia; the terrors of sickness and the sea bring him to grief, maturity and wisdom.

In a two-page author’s note, Conrad denies the supernatural has anything to do with his story. We are meant, then, not to draw a line between the mate’s superstitious and feverish fear of his former captain, buried at sea, and the destruction of the ship to weather, wind and contagious fever. The mate says the ship will not have luck until it passes the spot where the reckless and demented captain was put overboard.

conrad2

(Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

The Shadow-Line can also be read as a psychological study of the disintegration of an entire ship’s crew. That would be in keeping with Conrad’s worldview; he once called life a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”

The year The Shadow-Line was published, The Argus praised the novel: “It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with a curious persistence.”

The Sunday Times wrote, in 1917, “Mr. Conrad is an expert in the business of suggesting mystery and the action of malevolent agencies and the endurance of a man under the buffets of fate. Not even Coleridge has held passers-by more spellbound under a tale of horrors on the ocean than does Mr. Conrad in this work.”

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski – Joseph Conrad – was born in 1857 in a largely Jewish village in territory that is now Ukraine; it had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica before partition, and at the time of his birth was part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Polish patriot and man of letters, and the family had a migratory existence. Conrad began a seafaring career as a teenager, and eventually joined the British merchant marine and became an English citizen.

He was one of the very few writers to establish his literary reputation in a foreign tongue. (Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind as well, but the author of Pale Fire and Lolita was reared in an aristocratic Russian family; however, he later claimed English was the first language he learned in his trilingual household.)

World War I was much on Conrad’s mind as he wrote Shadow-Land, and the book is dedicated to his son Borys, a soldier. By the time it was published, Borys had returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed in the new technology of warfare. The war’s end would change forever the face of the Europe Conrad remembered.

Shortly after the war, a visitor to the Conrad household observed: “Conrad spoke fluently, but his accent, his manner of expression were such as I observed among the inhabitants of the south-eastern Polish borderlands. One felt clearly that when he thought of Poland, it was of a Poland of half-a-century ago. When I listened to him, I could not evade the impression that I am being carried back in time and talk to one of the people of long ago.”

 Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected are short masterpieces you may not have read before. This article is republished from my Stanford Report piece here.

He got an “A” from Nabokov

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013
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Six feet tall and balding.

Delightful piece over at the New York Review of Books by Edward Jay Epstein, recalling his 1954 class with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell.  We’ve written about Nabokov’s time at Stanford in 1941 here, but that was before he was quite the big-shot.

Here’s an excerpt:

The professor was Vladimir Nabokov, an émigré from tsarist Russia. About six feet tall and balding, he stood, with what I took to be an aristocratic bearing, on the stage of the two-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall in Goldwin Smith. Facing him on the stage was his white-haired wife Vera, whom he identified only as “my course assistant.” He made it clear from the first lecture that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number. Mine was 121. He said his only rule was that we could not leave his lecture, even to use the bathroom, without a doctor’s note.

He then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

Read the rest here.  It’s very short and a lot of fun.