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 . . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
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. . .