Saturday, August 5, 2017

Wan Flame

I first read Lolita when impossibly young (much like the lass herself):  yet with a sense of complete understanding and delight.  Thus encouraged, I read various other Nabokov novels in high school, including, at some point, Pale Fire.   By that I was baffled.

It was my first exposure to what scholars term a sotie: an extended learnèd jest.   You had to wrap your young head around the notion of an Unreliable Narrator (nothing in the Hardy Boys had prepared me for that!), and the ironies and rivalries of literary criticism.    The central/initial segment, the poem, was alright, though not great, but I relished it as one of the longest poems I had then read, and quite comprehensible.   I accordingly took the criticism section in good faith, gradually growing perplexed at the increasing obtuseness of the critic.  What was going on?

A second read in mature years  had naturally a quite different effect.   Now it is easy to get all the jokes, the humor runs throughout, though in a donnish way inaccessible to the inmates of Ridgewood High.    All very jolly;  though as academic-psychosexual-picaresque exercise,  David Lodge does it better.  (Changing Places; Small World.)


Over the years,  I read most of what he wrote, the high point being Speak, Memory (the low point:  Ada).    Only a scattering of minor novels were left on my maybe-read-someday list;  when suddenly, the lot of them turned up  all at once, on the local remainder-tables, in a handsome uniform Penguin edition -- hardcover and clean print for these aging eyes.    It was thus that, for a couple of bucks, I took home The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

Appearing in 1941, it was the first novel that the initially russophone and later germanicolous polyglot wrote in English.   Linguistically, it is no apprentice work.   The style is smooth, as though to the manner born.  Nowhere is there the slightest off-idiom or false note -- scarcely one American author in twenty can write so well, simply from a grammatical and semantic standpoint.  He handles with unobtrusive ease such choice vocables  as elenctic, paraph, and kerf.  (And if anyone presume to make light of such feats:  how’s your Russian, by comparison?) For language-learners and language-teachers like ourselves, on that basis alone  it deserves notice. (Or is it possible that, unannounced by the publishers, Nabokov was allowed successive retouchings over subsequent editions?)

[Emendation:   Though the first so written, it was not the first that he published in English.  His own supremely fluent transation of the originally-Russian Laughter in the Dark  appeared in 1938.   Which only moves the mystery back a few years.]

As in Pale Fire, the basic premise of Real Life is the (real or chimerical) obsessive quest of a lone researcher  for the true story behind the author of a supposed literary masterpiece.   In Pale Fire, the author plays fair with you to that extent:  the entire opus, unabridged, is presented to the reader  before exegesis begins.   And though the ultimate result is dark farce, it is not for any failing of the poem.  Pale Fire’s poem has its high points, and goes on long enough to present a challenge to any lesser poet.   It boasts a couple of memorable lines;  many’s the undergraduate alehouse where, as the assembled English-majors work their way to the bottoms of successive schooners, some one of their number will suddenly arise and bellow

I-I-I was the shadow of the waxwing   slain
By the false azure in the windowpane!

before collapsing face-first into the french-fries.

Yet in Real Life, we are granted only late, brief glimpses of the supposed prodigy’s oeuvre,  which turn out to be remarkable in no respect.   As for the late Sebastian Knight himself, the reader never warms to him, he is never really brought to life, and indeed is finally depicted as having been rather unpleasant and not especially memorable  even to his familiars.   By the end of the novel, in the celebrated phrase of the Bard of Hibbing,  Nothing   is re-  vealed.”

Nabokov is perfectly equal to telling a rousing good yarn when he wants to, without sacrificing any of his connate literary elegance.  Lolita is such, accessible at several levels, variously to adolescents through pensioners.   Laughter in the Dark likewise -- it thus effortlessly made its way to the silver screen.  
Other novels tell a tale,  but allegorically or surreally, straddling a couple of parallel universes:  Invitation to a Beheading, Despair,  The Luzhin Defense.   (That last sort of told a story, but kept drifting inside and outside the protagonist’s head.   When it eventually was made into a film, the novel’s plot was not followed, that being impossible, and the result was  in any case  unsatisfactory, despite having a perfectly cast lead in John Turturro.)
Sebastian Knight, when all is done, hasn’t really told a story either, but only the narrative of someone in search of a story, which he never does find.

Postmodernist avant la lettre?  But the telling is reasonably naturalistic, and devoid of self-consciously self-referential tics.  Thus, a paradox:  a straightforward story that goes nowhere.

Unless it’s actually not straightforward.  We even begin to wonder whether, in exact anticipation of the much more successful execution later in Pale Fire, we might be again in the hands of an Unreliable Narrator who is not what he seems -- no genuine brother of Sebastian (and indeed, their fraternal relations are shown as having ever been sporadic lukewarm, on both sides, belying the later obsessiveness of his supposed admirer), and possibly even identical with Sebastian himself, the way the ‘critic’ of Pale Fire turns out to be none other than the fugitive king of Zembla (a cross between zemlya and semblance).  Fodder for such an extravagant ‘collapse of the wave-function’ is tossed forth towards the very end:   “All [his] books I knew as well as if I had written them myself.”   But unlike the case of Pale Fire, where the many deceptions  deftly interlock,  that interpretation makes nonsense of the entire affair, and would leave nothing but a mound of damp ashes.


So.  Not much to salvage.  Like certain other of Nabokov’s always magisteriously prosed novels (e.g. King, Queen, Knave, or the witty but cruel exercise, Laughter in the Dark),  the thing is spottily impressive but fundamentally leaves one cold.   All I can offer the disappointed reader, is the following thimbleful of tableaux, which were the best I could quarry out of this book:

one sheet of foolscap
lying alone  on the blue carpet, half in shade
cut diagonally  by the limit of the light.


The sky is alive    with stars


“We shall take our coffee in the green room”,
said Madame Lecerf   to the maid.


According to Wikipedia,  Sebastian Knight was the favorite Nabokov novel of the very well-read critic Edmund Wilson.   Now, Wilson had previously tackled a notoriously difficult and intricate work, Finnegan’s Wake, and managed to winkle out quite a bit of meaning.   Might it be that Wilson was simply more percipient in the other case as well, and that I missed the underlying premise, the way I did when first reading Pale Fire?  In light of the disappointments above, one would be curious to read his take on it.

The possibility is uncomfortable  -- as one who already suffers from Stultitia mathematica, it would be dreadful to suffer likewise from Stultitia literaria.

In defense nonetheless of the above jaundiced summary of the book,  it isn’t in any case  much fun to wade through -- not the sort of thing I’d reread in hopes of catching something I’d missed.   To that, someone might retort:  But if you missed the underlying point, that rules all your other observations out of court.

For some works  that’s true.   But an all-round work of narrative art, whether literary or cinematic, can be enjoyed on several levels.   Thus, “Memento” was an engrossing watch, and I expended much (futile) ingenuity later, trying to fit all the jigsaw fragments together;  and though ultimately failing (and reaching a suspicion that, in the final analysis, some of them don’t fit), it didn’t matter, Getting There is Half the Fun.   So too, classics like Robinson Crusoe or Alice in Wonderland or Wind in the Willows  can be fully appreciated only by historians or logicians or theologians  respectively, but laymen and even children are none the worse for the pleasures of the tale.
(/) At the extreme, there is the case of the Three Little Pigs, which has managed to delight generations of nursery dwellers, though they had no inkling of the deeper purpose of the tale:  at one level (as any professor can tell you), it is a thinly-disguised disquisition upon the filioque controversy concerning the Trinity;  yet at a deeper level (clear only to specialists), it is a subtle contraposition of the “Copenhagen interpretation” of the quantum theory, to the theory of Many Worlds or the “Three-Fold Way” philosophy of later researchers.   (/ Nabokovian sotie.)

[Another Pale-Fire-style sotie  can be viewed here.]


Shortly after posting all the above, and by sheerest happenstance, meaning to while away the remaining hours of a Sunday afternoon, 
I plucked from a pile of literary miscellanea,
an omnibus volume of criticism by the late Mary McCarthy,  novelist and critic and controversialist:
A Bolt from the Blue, and other essays,
edited by the estimable A.O.Scott  for the New York Review of Books in one of its exemplary editions of Books Worth Reviving -- a worthy counterpart to the Penguin Classics:  creamy paper, crisp type, and a dust-jacket  silky as a geisha’s intimate skin.
Indeed, no other publisher quite approaches these exemplars, unless it be Lingua Sacra, editore to the cognoscenti.
The title essay turns out to be a review, from 1962, of Pale Fire (interesting that Scott promotes this assessment  to primus inter pares of McCarthy’s critical oeuvre).

Nothing escapes her.  It is a masterly reading of a tricky work, brilliantly expressed.  Her ingenuity of interpretation, her weeviling through baklava-like strata of authorial metaphor and detail, exceeds what all but a very few readers could aspire to -- or desire.  By the time she is done with her analysis (and with us), Pale Fire has come to seem as steroidally mythological, and as perversely interarticulated, as Finnegan’s Wake (which I have never managed to read, despite assaults  first on the north face, then on the east, and finally an attempted gondola-ride to the summit  using the cheat-sheets of the Skeleton Key).   In particular, I blush to acknowledge that, no, after all, even after second reading, I did not get all the jokes.

Just possibly, such virtuosity might (after much labor) triumphantly decode Sebastian Knight as instructions for a play-by-play laying-out of an actual chess-game, from pawn-to-king’s-four to nuts.   Or better yet, a variant upon the tragic but celebrated grudge-match of Capablanca vs Nimzowitsch (Havana, 1894), in which Nabokov (or Sebastian himself?)  discovers an unexpected alternate line of attack at the crucial move 45, resulting in a late save for Black.
Only, such a feat still doesn’t work as simply literature, for a readership; any more than some blate embodiment of arcane fourteen-tone musical theory, dazzling on the Partitur  to handful of  virtuosi (sadly deaf), can cross the footlights  to actual ears.

No comments:

Post a Comment