Content Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

What has gone missing?

May 25, 2016 | 14 Comments

Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable-but-ethically-problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this compelling narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s obviously genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll love. I also must admire them, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition. Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction.

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Memoir’s fiery psychic struggle

October 7, 2015 | 15 Comments

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr reiterates her everlasting obsession: honesty in personal prose. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice is of sharing pages with those mentioned. The revelation here is how she unites this basic concern with the thrilling imperative to find an authentic perspective/voice/persona. As she puts it:

“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. . . . The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”

She skims over many writers’ obsession, structure, feeling it’s your perspective that determines in the first place the story you structure: “Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes. I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes.”

Karr observes that the you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the past you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. Karr feels that inner conflict is memoir’s real driving force:

“The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together . . .”

Ah, the mysterious nature of self, memory, and remembered self. Upon these memoir (and much of adult life) rests. Starting with finding your truth-finding-and-telling present self, maybe the macro-struggle to achieve authenticity—a fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. In Karr’s portrait, this subset of literature is, in its beauty and risk, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human.

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Excavating the margins

February 16, 2015 | 8 Comments

Ander Monson has written a book that’s still got me contemplating. He’s an intriguing thinker and he displays his pondering prowess to good effect in his latest work, Letters to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries.

In this collection of literary essays, Monson frames books as repositories of both past and future history—not via their printed content but rather through the traces of former readers and librarians left within when they interacted with the volumes. Much like an excited archaeologist embarking on a dig, Monson gleefully examines even the most minute scribblings and materials deposited by past lovers of the books he encounters in various libraries.

As he inspects, he uses each occasion as a springboard for his thoughts—one minute he’s deep into a soliloquy about a note he found written in a book margin and before you know it, he’s segued almost imperceptibly into human loss of a heartbreaking magnitude. Monson fuses Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, or Julio Cortázar into his musings with the same ease as he brings in gaming consoles such as Atari Jaguar, TI–99/4A, or Vectrex Arcade System.

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Upon reading Anna Karenina

January 30, 2014 | 13 Comments

As I said in my first post about reading Anna Karenina, I picked the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky based on its opening line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—liking their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph.

It took me a couple of weeks to read the 817-pager, and in the process I learned that Leo Tolstoy can do anything as a writer. And he wants to do a lot. A couple of times he goes into the mind of a dog and makes it feel easy and natural. I was impressed by the way he traces shifting human emotions, shows how people get embarrassed, get angry, change their minds, rise above ego and fall to it. In Anna, people blush—a lot. I imagine this is historically accurate, and makes me realize one way we’ve changed, our shifting shame points, though the same conflicts remain.

But more than this, Tolstoy excited and touched and astounded me with his depiction of the way people read each other—their feelings and even their plans shifting as they interpret facial expressions, body language, and comments that might say one thing and mean another. This in response to cues they’re picking up from each other or to feelings they can’t suppress. He’s obviously studied himself and others like a scientist.

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[Leo Tolstoy.]

Tolstoy’s paragraphs of the week

December 19, 2013 | 9 Comments

You have to wonder about when, in his writing process, Tolstoy came up with Anna Karenina’s killer first line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—seemingly one of the truest and certainly one of the most famous in all of literature. Did it always launch his 800-page novel, published when Tolstoy was 49, or did it arise during composition and end up placed there? (Scholars?) In any case, does it not refute the maddening “kill your darlings” commandment? It adds an expository moralizing signpost atop a great paragraph that could open the book. There’s every nasty neat reason to cut it—and one not to, bound up in the category called genius.

I’m struck too by how Tolstoy starts in long-distance mode, referring in the second paragraph to “the wife” and “the husband,” but in the third paragraph he’s moving the camera closer; soon we’re right up in their nostrils. I’ve always loved Tolstoy’s simple but elegant sentences, on full display here.

But of course I’m reading him in translation, in the new edition edited by the hottest Russian-literature translating team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If you poke around on the web and read Amazon reviews, you’ll see even these lauded midwives dissed—someone swearing an older translation is better. Basically I picked Pevear and Volokhonsky based on Anna Karenina’s opening line: I liked their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph; you can read several using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I might have read the Constance Garnett version with an opening line almost identical—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—though Garnett’s second sentence, truer to Tolstoy for all I know, feels slightly less felicitous: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.”

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The promise of new bookcases

November 27, 2013 | 15 Comments

You told your mate that for every new physical book you bought, two would leave the house—carted to the used bookstore, or to the library, or even secreted in the trash. Yet this has not quite happened. The jig was up when she caught you culling her old books more heavily than you pared your own.

In the basement are six full bookcases, pine painted white, each four feet tall and three feet wide. Eighteen feet of books. Your how-to library and oddments, many small thin paperback novels and plays from the spouse’s days as an English teacher. Some children’s books. This library could use another hard sorting—or complete dispersal. But all those gardening and farming and dog and chicken and sheep and cattle books are old friends. Some were your father’s. They reflect long-gone prior lifetimes. Youth itself.

Upstairs, on the main floor of this house, built in 1939, just off the foyer there’s a tidy room with real built-in bookcases. The house’s own small but dignified library: dark, solid walnut shelves. Now a sitting room-TV room-library. The show library. Here are the big hardback novels. And Dad’s leather-bound Britannica Great Books—54 unread volumes. Also a complete set, as resonant as a train whistle from your childhood, of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And The Riverside Shakespeare. Books as decoration, as aspiration, as comforting totems.

Like the three oversized paperback iterations of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog—1970s pre-Internet subject-surfing fodder. The iconic black-covered original edition is crumbling from heavy use, high-acid newsprint, and cheap binding.

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