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 . . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .