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 . . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .