Reread, Rewrite, Repeat
Some years ago, I was invited on an editorial trip to Buenos Aires, where we were given a walking tour of the more literary areas of the city, including a bar where Polish ex-pat Witold Gombrowicz used to hang out.
The tour guide told us a story about how Gombrowicz hated Borges and would frequently, drunkenly, rant about just how crappy Borges was as a writer.
“One time, when he was railing against Borges’s latest book, a drinking compatriot asked him if he had read the book. ‘What?! Why would I waste my time on trash like that?’”
This anecdote came to mind tonight, as I was reading the opening chapter to Azar Nafisi’s That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile, translated from the Persian by Lotfali Khonji.
At a party for his students, he railed against Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Hamlet. One student asked whether he had actually seen the film, and he replied: “Of course I haven’t seen the film. Do you think I would waste my time seeing a film as bad as I have described?”
Although it’s not actually in there, I can imagine a scene in Rodrigo Fresán’s The Dreamed Part in which the Author—after his attempt to merge with the so-called God particle at CERN in hopes of transforming himself into something otherworldly, capable of rewriting all of reality over and over again to fit his aesthetic desires like some sort of nutty-professor version of David Haller—is lying in bed, unable to sleep, thus unable to dream, thus unable to write or live. (It’s all a bit complicated—just go with me for a moment.)
I can imagine him lying there, delivering a most scathing indictment of cell phones, Twitter, and our tendency to write more than we read (if we assume tweeting is “writing” and reading is something other than emoji-interpretation) all while taking a massive shit on some second-rate contemporary writer. Like his archnemesis, IKEA.
When he finished his diatribe, slightly out of breath, internally pleased with a few of his darts, well aware that most of the audience was silently tweeting his comments out to the world with hashtags like #LOLAngryWriter or #OldAndOutofTouch when someone asks him about IKEA’s latest best-seller: Has he read it?
“Of course not. Why waste my time on a book like that when I could spend time with Nabokov’s Transparent Things, the perfect book to read, reread, or re-reread while you’re here in Switzerland.”
Nafisi’s book is broken up into seven chapters, each addressing one or more of Nabokov’s works, organized under a particular theme. Like “Cruelty: Pnin.” Or “Heaven and Hell: Ada or Ardor.” Most of the big books are all in here—Lolita and Pale Fire and The Gift—but there’s also Look at the Harelquins! A late work that I’m guessing some readers haven’t really ever heard of, and a book that I bought at Fresán’s urging when he was here in Rochester. I had read the title, but nothing more than that. As much as I consider myself a Nabokov fan, there are a few books I just never got around to. (And a number that I read when I was too young, too silly.)
Rodrigo sold me on this book—which I still haven’t read, but will before the summer is over—by showing me the “Other Books by the Narrator” page where, instead of Nabokov’s actual titles, you find this:
Pawn Takes Queen 1927
Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun) 1931
The Red Top Hat 1934
The Dare 1950
See under Real 1939
Esmeralda and Her Parandrus 1941
Dr. Olga Repnin 1946
Exile from Mayda 1947
A Kingdom by the Sea 1962
A Nabokov-phile will see through this. (Tamara = Mary; Camera Lucida = The Eye; Ardis = Ada; Exile from Mayda = Pale Fire.) What a very Nabokovian game! According to Rodrigo—and the author in The Dreamed Part—it’s basically Nabokov’s parody of what a Nabokovian novel is. He’s re-writing himself. His books. His go-to anecdotes and narrative tricks. (Not that Nabokov really repeated himself all that often. It’s one of the things that makes him such a lasting author, so rewarding to reread.)
I’m definitely going to use this anecdote from chapter one of Nafisi’s book—“Life: Speak, Memory”—which might be common knowledge, but which I hadn’t come across before now:
During a lecture in Minnesota, when he had forgotten his notes and was forced to ad-lib, he gave his students a quiz on the approaches that distinguish a good reader. There are ten definitions, and the students had to choose a combination of four:
1.) The reader should belong to a book club.
2.) The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3.) The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
4.) The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5.) The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6.) The reader should be a budding author.
7.) The reader should have imagination.
8.) The reader should have memory.
9.) The reader should have a dictionary.
10.) The reader should have some artistic sense.
In Nabokov’s view, the readers should have imagination, memory, a dictionary, and an artistic sense.
Due to a quirk of how we produced Fresán’s follow-up to the Best Translated Book Award-winning The Invented Part, I ended up spending between 7 and 8 hours a day every day last week proofing this forthcoming monster. A mere 543 pages in 6” x 9” format (probably something like 225,000 words?), The Dreamed Part isn’t a book you can skim. It’s a book that—if you’re going to proof it properly—you need to pay attention constantly. Not just to the individual sentences (paraphrasing here: “It’s like Nabokov said, ‘what’s wrong with making a reader reread a sentence or two?’”) but to all the references. So many names! Rodrigo’s mind is encyclopedic in a way that makes the Internet look like an ABC book. And taking it upon myself to do the best job possible—when you find a typo, don’t tell me; I need to live with the common proofreader delusion that I’m really good at this, remembering everything I found and never knowing about everything I missed—I looked up everything. Every name. Every word that looked like it might be misspelled. (Spoiler: After an hour of proofing, every single word looks misspelled.)
And I hunted down every quote that I could find. All the bits from Wuthering Heights (this section is AMAZING), the lines from Susan Sontag’s intro to Halldor Laxness’s Under the Glacier, and the parts referencing Nabokov’s Transparent Things.
Well, actually, on Saturday, I decided to celebrate my proofing accomplishment (shhhhhhh!!! I missed NOTHING) by taking a 45 mile round-trip bike ride to a brewery in Brockport, NY (you think Rochester is the boonies?), where had a couple beers and just read Transparent Things from cover to cover. What a book!
Back to Nafisi:
Nabokov’s last novels were received more tepidly than the others, and Transparent Things, which came out in 1972, baffled many critics, among them John Updike. In Nabokov’s opinion, “Amongst the reviewers several careful readers have published some beautiful stuff about it. Yet neither they nor, of course, the common ‘criticule’ discerned the structural knot of the story.” Look at the Harlequins! Was published two years later and was similarly greeted with review that were split between his keen readers and “hacks” who found it less taxing than Ada or Transparent Things.
Let’s pause for a second on “criticule.” It’s like the BuzzWire Listmaker of the 1970s! Criticule. So dismissive in such a dickish, erudite way.
In terms of it’s basic story [SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE SPOILER-AVERSE WHO ARE ACTUALLY PLANNING TO ACTUALLY READ THIS NOVEL] Transparent Things isn’t necessarily convoluted. It’s about Hugh Person returning to Switzerland for the fourth time in his life—and first since his wife died. We read about his earlier trips—the first in which his dad passed away, the second for his work as an editor in which he meets his future wife—and then find out that, off-screen, he strangled his wife in his sleep. (His somnambulism was established early on in the book.) Also off-screen: He goes to jail for murder but is exonerated and spends a number of years in an asylum. He no longer works as an editor. The big-name author he worked with most—a very pretentious character who Nabokov has way too much fun with, having him title his book Tralatitions and embody the truly pervy part of Humbert Humbert—passes away.
All that is straightforward. But the “structural knot,” at least as far as The Author in The Dreamed Part articulates it, is in the narration. Who is/are the voices at the beginning and end who are telling this story? Are they ghosts from beyond? The author? A collective of writerly spirits?
When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!
Man-made objects, or natural ones, inert in themselves but much used by careless life (you are thinking, and quite rightly so, of a hillside stone over which a multitude of small animals have scurried in the course of incalculable seasons) are particularly difficult to keep in surface focus: novices fall through the surface, humming happily to themselves, and are soon reveling with childish abandon in the story of this stone, of that heath. I shall explain. A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. More in a moment.
That “more in a moment” is the most Fresán-esque sentence I’ve ever read in a non-Fresán book. I’m so glad that I read this book.
Rodrigo Fresán. Azar Nafisi. Dubravka Ugresic. Lila Azam Zanganeh. All writers I really like who have, more or less recently, written books that involved Nabokov in one way or another. Which makes me want to a) read their books (which I have, minus Nafisi’s), and b) read all the weird Nabokov books that aren’t taught in World Lit 101. And the ones that are known, but aren’t Lolita or Pnin or Pale Fire. Books like Bend Sinister that I read while working at Quail Ridge Books, right after finishing The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. (Which I read in concordance with The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta by Mario Vargas Llosa as some sort of self-imposed nerdy compare-and-contrast exercise.) I want to reread those, because rereading is sort of like rewriting—I have the chance to take a set of memories and rework them in ways that are more visual, richer, more complete and detailed and fulfilling.
This weekend, I want to go on a 50+ mile bike ride. It’s part of my personal mid-life health crisis. I had to stop running for a while because I fucked up my knee. Again. It’s always cyclical. Feel so good, run 20 miles a few weeks in a row, dive into a pool, feel a pinch, limp for days. Get strong. Run again. Hope that it will help with the extra weight. Push yourself. Break down. Try again.
For the rest of the summer, I decided to bike to break my cycle. (Ugh. #PunEverything?) My knee never hurts after riding, no matter how far I go, no matter how far I push myself, and this will sort of kind of keep me sort of kind of in shape?
To give me a bit of added motivation, I’ve been biking to breweries around the area for a beer and lunch, and to read a bit before biking the return route. Thankfully, there are breweries everywhere now. And they all put a lot of effort into their name and brand and design. I go to Triphammer Bierwerks (yeah, I know) a lot because I like their logo. And then there’s Three Heads, which is right around the corner from my house and has always embraced a stoner aesthetic. (Their flagship beer is “The Kind,” because obviously.) Seven Story plays off of the 70-foot-high embankment that was created for the Erie Canal AND because every work of art follows one of seven plots.
And then, there’s Rising Storm, which is 26 miles away (perfect for my upcoming ride) and sounds like something that you’d either see on a college basketball warm-up jersey or at a white supremacist rally.
That’s a joke I’ve told four times today, and I’m sure I’ll repeat it to unwitting interlocutors after my bike ride, when I’m telling and retelling and reimagining my Rising Storm experiences as if life is fiction, as if life is nothing more than a narrative to be shaped and shared with that exclusive group of compatriots who have: imagination, memory, a dictionary, and an artistic sense.
But isn’t that the way to be human? The idea of “being inhuman” is captivating to me, and I always think being inhuman as reacting instinctually, absorbing what happens to you without reflection, without letting these experiences be adopted through our imagination. We become more human the more we retell, reread, rethink, rework. Editing is a way of expanding one’s consciousness. Rereading is the only way to really start to understand everything that’s not on the surface. As is telling the same joke 40 times until you figure out the right comedic beats.
If I were The Author from The Invented Part and The Dreamed Part, I would probably work in a bit about how the appeal of our “Golden Age of Television” is partially due to the fact that no one wants to reread anymore. Not only do a lot of people listen to podcasts at time-and-a-half to get through them quicker, but they also watch these “prestige” shows on slow fast-forward, with the subtitles on. CRAM IT IN YOUR BRAIN. Details and depth don’t matter; everything is a box to be ticked, a product to have consumed.
Relive, rework, reread, rewrite. It’s all in the retelling.
And a genius like Fresán/Nafizi/Nabokov/Ugresic can transform that cliché into something layered and beautiful, written in a way that makes you reflect, that makes you more human.
I’m excited to revisit Nabokov through Nafisi’s lens. She’s an incredible thinker, and I love the perspective that she lays out in the intro as to why Nabokov:
This was why my students ignored most socially committed novels but love Nabokov—not because they were not politically committed, but because Nabokov’s fiction did not merely question politics of the day but went far beyond that to put on trial all forms of tyrannical mindset. [. . .]
Worse still, the individuality that Nabokov and so many great American writers had cherished here has been vanishing alongside the public spaces that created bridges between our private and public selves—connecting us to others, helping in the creation of communities that offer a sense of belonging and loyalty without compromising individual integrity. That individualism has been gradually replaced by the solipsism that Nabokov so beautifully evoked in his best work, as the archvillain of his stories. Surely “absurd,” with all its tragic connotations, is an apt term to apply to an age identified with Donald Trump. [. . .]
In book after book, Pnin, Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, Bend Sinister, Pale Fire, and Ada, the villains are the solipsists, those who for one reason or another are too self-involved to hear, see, or feel empathy for others, those who impose not just their will but their prefabricated images and ideas upon real living human beings. These new and compelling monsters are among Nabokov’s great contributions to modern fiction. [. . .]
If only there were more hours in the day, weeks left in the summer before the new semester. Although if I time this right, maybe I can finally undertake Ada or Ardor over winter break. Seems like the right book to bring to Nine Maidens Brewing . . .