Although I haven’t read all of his works, Vladimir Nabokov is one of my personal favorite writers. I love Pale Fire and Lolita, but also like the less tricksy novels, like Laughter in the Dark. (Which was on Lost!) And for the past year(s) I’ve been planning on reading The Gift and Ada, or Ardor, both of which I’m even more excited to get to after reading about Lila Azam Zanganeh’s new book The Enchanter. From The Guardian:
In The Enchanter, Lila Azam Zanganeh attempts to create a new genre: the Bildungs-romance. The book details its author’s love affair with Nabokov, and tells how she learned to read books from his novels, using them as doorways to magical worlds.
Rather than attempt conventional biography or literary criticism, she portrays a series of encounters with moments from Nabokov’s biography – his last months in Switzerland, his childhood in Russia, his early love affairs. She invents an interview with “VN” about his years in the USA, and provides a whimsical anti-glossary for some of his flamboyantly obscure vocabulary.
All of this is interwoven with Zanganeh’s responses to Nabokov’s writing, particularly Ada, but also Lolita and Laura, with the theme of happiness always central. By this, Zanganeh explains, she does not mean “platitudinous happy characters”, but “deep joyousness”, “bliss”, or “ecstasy”. This is a feeling “connected to the edge, an experience of limits (in its quasi-mathematical sense of an open-end), which in turn becomes one of extreme poetry”.
Lila has moderated any number of French-literature related panels that I’ve attended, always coming off as quite brilliant and composed. (In my mind, her composure is in stark contrast to my shambolic attempts to run a panel. And since we usually go right after one another, her preparedness is even more accentuated . . . ) Which is another reason why I’m excited to get a copy of this. And why I’m excited she’s been getting so much attention for this book.
In addition to the above review, the Guardian also ran this interview:
Zanganeh’s love of Nabokov led her to want to write about him. Not surprisingly, given her academic background (before going to Harvard she studied at the Sorbonne and the École normale supérieure), her first thought was to write “something serious”. “But then I thought, wait a second, Nabokov hated didactic works. How could you say, ‘Listen people, Nabokov is a writer of happiness, so let me show you in a serious and well-constructed disquisition’? It would have been boring to death!” She was also put off by reading Nabokov critics, who are obsessed, she says, with questions surrounding the morality of his work. “But the whole point is that his work lies outside the realm of morals, beyond good and evil. He said in the afterword to Lolita that there is no moral in tow, that it is a magnificent game of chess with the reader.”
And then in The Daily Beast there’s a piece about how she met Dmitri Nabokov in order to get permission to quote from his father’s works in her book:
Dmitri himself, now 76 and looking uncannily like his father at about the same age, was seated in a wheelchair, at the head of the dining table. To his left was Ariane, a blond lady with an edgy sense of humor who turned out to be an old friend of Dmitri’s, and like him a former opera singer. Dmitri’s ice-blue eyes looked dazed and sleepy that night. Ever the gentleman, however, he announced that he, together with Ariane, had read and appreciated the first two chapters. The most conventional ones from a narrative standpoint, I immediately thought to myself, and felt my temperature drop. He had read only a fragment, and everything remained uncertain. I joined them at the table for a three-course meal, and tried to ease into a semblance of small talk. He could yet hate, and kill, the book I had worked on for the last several years. A moment later, Dmitri Nabokov looked up, smiled, and declared he had come up with a good idea. He was too exhausted to read the manuscript, he confessed, so would I kindly read it out loud to him over the span of the next few days? I glanced at Ariane, who nodded in agreement. [. . .]
As the days and nights unfolded, my heart often pounding, I read to Dmitri passages from Lolita, Ada, or Ardor, Speak, Memory, and countless short stories, but also imaginary interviews and fictional accounts of his father’s erotic life. The page at times elicited fierce reactions, even fits of anger (“Why, please tell me why you need to invent this? It almost sounds too close to home!”), but also moments of gentleness. His critical ear remained sharp throughout the reading. He not only critiqued and edited, but also corrected grammar (“Is it onto or unto?”), diction (“Vladimir and his mother would never ‘argue’ over a weak serve! Perhaps you meant ‘squabble’?”), and, most precious of all in my sense, pronunciation. Dmitri or I often picked up the dictionary to check British and American variations, and sometimes, to my relief, found we were both right, as in the case of “skein” (pronounced both “skeen” and “skeyn”). Dmitri also taught me to pronounce the names of butterflies (Ly’caeides Samue’lis), myriad plants, and the Latinate shades of many other words I had read and written but never said aloud.
Sounds like a fun experience, and an interesting book. If possible, we’ll run a full review of this in the not-too-distant future.
Just got an e-mail from the Goethe Institut in Chicago announcing that Ross Benjamin has been awarded this year’s Wolff Translation Prize. Here’s the official press release:
The jury for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is please to award the prize for 2009 to Ross Benjamin for his translation of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, published by Verso. The jury finds that this remarkably musical translation reads beautifully, and brings to English-speaking readers an important study of a writer of world stature whose works cry out for skilled exegesis. Benjamin’s translation is elegant, witty, even playful, doing justice to both the German original and the book’s subject. The translator reveals a sophisticated understanding of literary criticism and his own sure sense of literary style.
Congrats, Ross! And Speak, Nabokov sounds fascinating:
On the eve of the controversial, posthumous publication of The Original of Laura, Michael Maar follows his critically acclaimed The Two Lolitas with a revealing new perspective on Vladimir Nabokov’s life and work. Hunting down long-hidden clues in the novels, and using the themes that run through Nabokov’s fiction to illuminate the life that produced them, Maar constructs a compelling psychological and philosophical portrait. Characteristically graceful and engaging, Speak, Nabokov offers a vital new perspective on the twentieth-century master.
Ross will be officially honored at the annual Wolff Symposium in Chicago, which will take place on June 21st and 22nd.
I agree with Michael Orthofer, the interaction between super-agent Andrew Wylie and super-awesome Playboy editor Amy Grace Loyd over the first-serial rights to Nabokov’s The Original of Laura is a bit gross.
From the New York Observer:
It was an inspired method, the flowers serving as a reference to Nabokov’s 1969 novel Ada, or Ardor, which was excerpted in Playboy—thus a reminder for Mr. Wylie of the magazine’s long and treasured association with the author. “It was part of my pitch to Andrew that Nabokov really liked publishing with Playboy, and how devoted Hef is to Nabokov and his legacy,” Ms. Loyd said.
Mr. Wylie was initially unresponsive.
“I would get nice notes back from him, but he really wouldn’t give me anything,” said Ms. Loyd, who’d curated a special feature marking the 50th anniversary of Nabokov’s Lolita as part of her tryout for the job.
Of course, Wylie tried to place this with The New Yorker, which apparently wasn’t all that interested.
So, the super-agent (once referred to as “The Greediest Man at Frankfurt”) came crawling back
on his knees with some insane demands.
There were a few sticking points in the negotiation, chiefly the fact that Mr. Wylie wanted Ms. Loyd to give an offer on the book without first reading a page of it.
Who does that? Oh, nevermind, don’t answer that. I’m just glad Amy got her piece . . . and hopefully a long, long shower.
I’ve said it before, and will repeat it endlessly—Ben Lytal has one of the sweetest reviewing gigs there is. He has the opportunity to write about the latest works of international fiction, and at the same time, can write pieces like the one today on the recent New Directions reissues of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
Set in Berlin, Laughter in the Dark is a highly entertaining but mean-spirited portrait of the German people, with whom Nabokov was forced to live, in exile, after his college graduation. Its hero, an art critic named Albinus who “was not a particularly gifted man,” lives in Berlin, a city that seems soggy with perpetually falling wet snow. Albinus falls in love with Margot, the young ticket girl at a local cinema, and leaves his pale wife and pitiful daughter. But Margot plays Albinus for a fool, and conspires with the cartoonist Axel Rex to deprive him of his solid bourgeois fortune. Axel Rex — a model for Quilty in Lolita — has the best line on Berlin, “where people were, as they always had been, at the mother-in-law stage of humor.”
Though Laughter in the Dark is an initial version of the story told in Lolita, Nabokov didn’t know that at the time. He was merely trying to write a book that would make a good movie.
Of course, Hollywood didn’t pay attention to Nabokov, at least not until Lost came around . . . (It’s funny, Flann O’Brien—whose Third Policeman was also featured on Lost—had a real desire to break into Hollywood as well. He wrote a few TV scripts in fact, although none of them really caught on . . . )
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a very different, more writerly book. For one thing, it would be impossible to film. Written for the deadline of a British literary competition, Sebastian Knight is a story about an author. Born in St. Petersburg, Sebastian Knight left Russia after the revolution, attended Cambridge (like Nabokov himself), and settled in London. He died young, and was immediately served with a backbiting biographical study authored by his former assistant, Goodman. Now his half-brother, known to the reader as V., sets out to write a better book, but in doing so he also records his own search, circling around the lacunae in Knight’s life.
It’s great that ND has reissued both of these titles. And a overview like this makes me want to put aside some of the other books I’m reading . . .
Having finished Proust, my wife and I have started reading Speak, Memory at bedtime, and I am reading the corresponding section of the Russian version, Drugie berega [Other shores], afterwards; I want to make a post about the amazing Russian tradition of literary autobiographies and memoirs (and autobiographical novels), but I don’t have time at the moment, so I’ll confine myself to noting that the differences between the Russian and English texts are fascinating and illuminating for understanding Nabokov’s writerly instincts.
More on Nabokov’s last and maybe-about-to-be-destroyed novel/novel-fragment, The Original of Laura, from Slate:
But the essence is this: Dmitri says he reached a decision after an imagined ghostly conversation with his dead father—one in a far different key from Hamlet’s talk with his dead dad.
“I have decided,” Koval quoted Dmitri, “that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, “Well, why don’t you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?’ “
Here is your chance to weigh in on one of the most troubling dilemmas in contemporary literary culture. I know I’m hopelessly conflicted about it. It’s the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.
Steven Kellman at Critical Mass has a nice little piece on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, which is one of my favorite books:
However, what continues to enlighten and inspire me more than the lectures on individual novels are the introductory and concluding chapters, in which Nabokov sets forth his views on how and why to read. He dismisses as childish the desire to identify with fictional characters rather than the mind that created them, and he insists that reading literature requires “an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience.” He contends that literature lacks any practical value and that its only — and transcendent — justification is the tingle it produces when a book we are reading takes hold of us physically, from the brain down through the spine. In the final words that he delivered to his students at the close of each semester, and that I often peddle to my own students, Nabokov proclaims that, “We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.” Lectures on Literature passes the tingle test.
The other two books in the series, Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote, are excellent as well.
The New York Times had a really fantastic article about Knopf’s archives at the University of Texas. It details some of the authors and books they’ve rejected:
For almost a century, Knopf has been the gold standard in the book trade, publishing the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. Recently, however, scholars trolling through the Knopf archive have been struck by the number of reader’s reports that badly missed the mark, especially where new talent was concerned. The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Anaïs Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).
This rejection note is definitely the highlight though, and writing something like this is the dream of everyone who has ever had to wade through the slush pile:
“This time there’s no point in trying to be kind,” it said. “Your manuscript is utterly hopeless as a candidate for our list. I never thought the subject worth a damn to begin with and I don’t think it’s worth a damn now. Lay off, MacDuff.”
Number of interesting articles in this issue, in particular the late Aura Estrada has a fantastic piece on Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolano.
Thanks to Susan Sontag, FSG, and great writing, Roberto Bolano has received a good deal of well-deserved exposure over the past few months. Unfortunately, Aira—whose books are much more bizarre, slight, and completely different from one another—has been more overlooked.
Having read both of the books New Directions has published, I think Aira’s a great talent whose stature will grow over the next few years. And how could he not?:
Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic, Aira’s novels draw strength and meaning from many traditions, including Eastern and Central European existentialism: from the Polish Witold Gombrowicz, the French Raymond Russell, the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, the Czech Bohumil Hrabal, and even the Austrian Thomas Bernhard—without the anti-nationalist anger.
Estrada’s review of Amulet is equally engaging and thoughtful, further illustrating what a great talent we recently lost.
If you haven’t picked up La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, you should do so right away.
Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .