Monday 29 January 2018

Nabokov’s ideas and the chapter about Chernyshevsky

Readers familiar with Nabokov can find in The Gift everything about Nabokov, all the subjects important to him: 
- Literature, especially Russian literature, prose and verse 
Pushkin and Gogol 
- Flaubert—a few references to Madame Bovary and Bouvard and Pécuchet, as Flaubert also detests and mocks philistinism 
- The Russian debate and the revolution 
- Russia, homeland, remembrance, nostalgia
- Time
- Exile and the émigré community 
- His teaching job 
- Writing 
- Nature, butterflies, birds and trees 
- Lepidopterology 
- Chess, another passion of Nabokov’s
- Love of life 
- Consciousness, sensations and the senses 
- Shades of colours (the main colour of The Gift, I think, could be blue: blue sky, blue sea, bluish black, dark blue, bluish, turquoise, azure, indigo, sapphires, blue eyes, violets, irises…) 
- Synaesthesia, which Fyodor shares with his creator 
- His wife Véra, who is in the novel as Zina 
The novel also encapsulates all of his aesthetic ideals, especially through his attack on his polar opposite Chernyshevsky in chapter 4: 
- Aesthetic bliss 
- Prose and style 
- Love of details 
- Literary merit > ideas and ideologies 
- Against utilitarian art 
- Against didactic literature 
- Against sociological criticism in literary criticism 
- Against philistinism 
- Against ignorance and mediocrity 
- Details and nuances, against generalisations 
- Against materialism 
- Against utopianism 
- Against communism 
- Against the suppression of freedom and creativity 
Here are some of Nabokov’s most biting remarks about Chernyshevsky in The Gift
“The drolly circumstantial style, the meticulously inserted adverbs, the passion for semicolons, the clogging down of thought in mid-sentence and the clumsy attempts to extricate it (whereupon it got stuck at once elsewhere, and the author had to start worrying it out all over again), the drubbing-in, rubbing-in tone of each word, the knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest actions, the viscid ineptitude of these actions (as if some workshop had got onto the man’s hands, and both were left), the seriousness, the limpness, the honesty, the poverty—all this pleased Fyodor so much, he was so amazed and tickled by the fact that an author with such a mental and verbal style was considered to have influenced the literary destiny of Russia…” 
“He preached soundness and common sense in everything—and as if in response to someone’s mocking summons, his destiny was cluttered with blockheads, crack-brains and madmen.” 
“… this sensible young man, who—let us not forget—is only concerned with the good of all mankind, has eyes like a mole, while his blind, white hands move on a different plane from his faulty but obstinate and muscular mind. Everything that he touches falls to pieces.” 
“… dreamed to the end of his life of composing ‘a critical dictionary of ideas and facts’ (which recalls Flaubert’s caricature, that Dictionnaire des idées reçues whose ironic epigraph—‘the majority is always right’—Chernyshevski would have adopted in all seriousness).” 
“Steklov calls Chernyshevski’s article ‘The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy’, the ‘1st philosophical manifesto of Russian communism’; it is significant that this 1st manifesto was a schoolboy’s rendering, an infantile assessment of the most difficult moral questions.” 
“He most definitely did not give a hoot for the opinions of specialists, and he saw no harm in not knowing the details of the subject under examination: details were for him merely the aristocratic element in the nation of our general ideas.” 
Chapter 4 is so satisfying.

On a side note, I’m from Vietnam, a communist country, and I don’t think anybody really cares about Chernyshevsky or even knows who he was. The book that was an inspiration to lots of people in Vietnam was How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky (who’s mentioned in The Gift).

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Russian literature, Chernyshevsky, and The Gift

1/ Look at this chain of novels:
In 1862, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons was published, sparking a debate in Russia.
In response to Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a novel called What Is To Be Done? whilst in prison, which was published in 1863 (What To Do? in Nabokov’s translation). 
Chernyshevsky’s ideas, utilitarianism, utopianism and stuff, were attacked by Dostoyevsky in his 1864 novel Notes from Underground.
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) may not be seen as part of the chain of novels, but in my opinion, in Crime and Punishment he was expanding on, and developing, his ideas from Notes from Underground and arguments against utilitarianism. Dostoyevsky also pursued his ideas in other novels, especially Demons (1872).
Unlike normal people, the Russians were debating through novels.
The debate didn’t stop there.
Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, which he wrote between 1935 and 1937 in Berlin, was an ode to Russian literature and also an attack on Chernyshevsky’s ideas.
I’m sure there are lots of other works in the debate that have sunk into oblivion or that I simply don’t know about.

2/ In 1886, Tolstoy wrote a book called What Is To Be Done?. I don’t know if it had any relation to Chernyshevsky’s book, it could be about something else—I haven’t read it.
In 1902, Lenin published a political pamphlet called What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. He liked the man’s ideas, I’ve heard. “Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.” (source)

3/ I’m too busy (I have a film to make!) to read What Is To Be Done?, so I’m taking the easy way of reading about it.
Here are the posts from Tom at Wuthering Expectations about the book:
He discusses Chernyshevsky’s book and Notes from Underground here:
This is the kind of reader and book blogger we need, who suffers so that others don’t have to.
Scott G. F. Bailey has a list of bits from the book that are parodied in Notes from Underground:

4/ This is a very useful essay, by Sergei Davydov, about The Gift and Chernyshevsky:,%20in%20Canadian-American%20Slavic%20Studies,%20vol.%2019,%20No.%203%20(1985),%20357-374.pdf

5/ Davydov also notes:


6/ However, note this paragraph in chapter 3: 
“Fyodor tried to sort out the mishmash of philosophical ideas of the time, and it seemed to him that in the very roll call of names, in their burlesque consonance, there was manifested a kind of sin against thought, a mockery of it, a blemish of the age, when some extravagantly praised Kant, others Kont (Comte), others again Hegel or Schlegel. And on the other hand he began to comprehend by degrees that such uncompromising radicals as Chernyshevski, with all their ludicrous and ghastly blunders, were, no matter how you looked at it, real heroes in their struggle with the governmental order of things (which was even more noxious and more vulgar than was their own fatuity in the realm of literary criticism) and that other oppositionists, the liberals or the Slavophiles, who risked less, were by the same token worth less than these iron squabblers.”

Sunday 21 January 2018

Nabokov’s The Gift: chapter 3, the émigré, the writer, and the critic

1/ Time and space: 
In chapter 1, our character/writer Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov- Cherdyntsev moves into a new flat, with a landlady named Klara Stoboy. 
At the end of chapter 2, after 2 years, he moves to another place, owned by Ivan Borisovich Shchyogolev (an unpronounceable name), who lives with his wife Marianna Nikolavna and her daughter from the previous marriage. 
The story takes place in Berlin, but there’s nothing German about it: it’s written in Russian, about Russia and Russian literature; its world is populated by Russian characters; Fyodor hangs out with Russian émigrés, goes to a Russian bookshop, reads Russian books and reviews of Russian books, gets published in a Russian newspaper in Berlin, etc. 

2/ Chapter 3 can be called the Gogol chapter. 

3/ The sneering tone is back:  
“Once a week that janitor’s wife, fat, heavily breathing, reeking of stale sweat, came with a vacuum cleaner, and then all hell broke loose, the world was shattered to bits, a hellish grinding pervaded one’s very soul, destroying it, and drove Fyodor out of his bed, out of his room and out of the house.” 
Mean? The description’s so vivid. 
“… usually, around 10 o’clock, Marianna Nikolavna took her turn in the bathroom and after her came, hawking up phlegm as he went, Ivan Borisovich. He flushed the toilet as many as 5 times but did not use the bath, contenting himself with the murmur of the little washbasin.” 
Jane Austen and Nabokov are probably the best at writing about characters they don’t like. Look at this line about a student of Fyodor’s, “the son of an émigré dentist”: 
“Firmly believing that the humorous side of things had long since been worked out in the proper place for it (the back page of Berlin illustrated weekly), he never laughed, or limited himself to a condescending snicker.” 

4/ The Gift concerns with the development and maturation of a writer. 
In chapter 1, Fyodor publishes a poem collection. 
In chapter 2, he turns to Pushkin and his own father’s writings, trying to get something “[o]ut of swarms of drafts, long manuscript extracts from books, indecipherable jottings on miscellaneous sheets of paper, pencilled remarks straggling over the margins of other writings of mine”. It comes to nothing. 
“I myself am a mere seeker of verbal adventures, and forgive me if I refuse to hunt down my fancies on my father’s own collecting ground. I have realized, you see, the impossibility of having the imagery of his travels germinate without contaminating them with a kind of secondary poetization, which keeps departing farther and farther from that real poetry with which the live experience of these reception, knowledgeable and chaste naturalists endowed their research.” 
In chapter 3, he starts to turn away from poetry.  
“I do not doubt that even then, at the time of that ugly, crippling school (which I would hardly have bothered with at all were I a typical poet who never fell for the blandishments of harmonious prose) I nevertheless knew true inspiration. The agitation which seized me, swiftly covered me with an icy sheet, squeezed my joints and jerked at my fingers. The lunatic wandering of my thought which by unknown means found the door in a thousand leading into the noisy night of the garden, the expansion and contraction of the heart, now as vast as the starry sky and then as small as a droplet of mercury, the opening arms of a kind of inner embracement, classicism’s sacred thrill, mutterings, tears—all this was genuine. But at that moment, in a hasty and clumsy attempt to resolve the agitation, I clutched at the 1st hackneyed words available, at their ready-made linkages, so that as soon as I had embarked on what I thought to be creation, on what should have been the expression, the living connection between my divine excitement and my human world, everything expired in a fatal gusts of words, whereas I continued to rotate epithets and adjust rhymes without noticing the split, the debasement and the betrayal—like a man relating his dream (like any dream infinitely free and complex, but clotting like blood upon waking up), who unnoticed by himself and his listeners rounds it out, cleans it up and dresses it in the fashion of hackneyed reality, and if he begins thus ‘I dreamt that I was sitting in my room’, monstrously vulgarizes the dream’s devices by taking for granted that the room had been furnished exactly the same as his room in real life.” 
The Gift is not only about the struggles and doubts of an aspiring writer, it also deals with the anguish of an émigré writer: 
 “… there he is, a special, rare and as yet undescribed and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied with God knows what, rushing from lesson to lesson, wasting his youth on a boring and empty task, on the mediocre teaching of foreign languages—when he has his own language, out of which he can make anything he likes—a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds.” 

5/ The Gift and Pnin are both about the émigré experience. 
The difference is that Pnin struggles to survive and express himself in a language not his own, thus misunderstood and seen as a comic figure, whereas Fyodor has the comfort of the Russian community and can live in his own environment, associate with other Russians, and speak his own tongue. 
When surrounded by other émigrés, Pnin is interesting and erudite. 
Speaking of which, what word do we use for Humbert Humbert? He’s a European, born in Paris to a family of mixed parentage, who later moves to the US, but he’s not an émigré, not in the sense that Nabokov was—Humbert Humbert’s circumstances don’t have the sense of exile or self-exile. What is he then? Not an immigrant. An expatriate? A migrant? 

6/ As chapter 3 is the Gogol chapter (with a direct Dead Souls reference) and the chapter that concerns more with the writing, and a turn in Fyodor’s career, Nabokov mocks the philistinism of a certain kind of literary critic: 
“… citing this unauthentic quotation and then some thought expressed by somebody in a Paris café after someone’s lecture, he began to narrow these artificial circles around Koncheyev’s Communications; but even so to the very end he never touched the centre, but only directed now and then a mesmeric gesture toward it from the circumference—and again revolved. The result was something in the nature of those black spirals on cardboard circles which are everlastingly spinning in the windows of Berlin ice-cream parlours in a crazy effort to turn into bull’s eyes. 
It was a venomously disdainful ‘dressing down’ without a single remark to the point, without a single example—and not so much the critic’s words as his whole manner made a pitiful and dubious phantom out of a book which Mortus could not fail to have read with delight and from which he avoided quoting in order not to damage himself with the disparity between what he wrote and what he was writing about; the whole review seemed to be a séance for the summoning of a spirit which is announced in advance to be, if not a fraud, at least a delusion of the senses. ‘These poems’, ended Mortus, ‘induce in the reader an indefinite but insuperable repulsion. People friendly to Koncheyev’s talent will probably think them enchanting. We shall not quarrel—perhaps this is really so. But in our difficult times with their new responsibilities, when the very air is imbued with a subtle moral angoisse (an awareness of which is the infallible mark of “genuineness” in a contemporary poet), abstract and melodious little pieces about dreamy visions are incapable of seducing anyone. And in truth it is with a kind of joyous relief that one passes from them to any kind of “human document”, to what one can read “between the words” in certain Soviet writers (granted even without talent), to an artless and sorrowful confession, to a private letter dictated by emotion and despair’.” 
This is a mockery of the social critic, of the utilitarian ideas about art and its so-called purposes—a preparation for the attack on Chernyshevsky’s ideas in the next chapter. 
It reminds me of Nabokov’s writings about the suffocating atmosphere for Soviet writers, quoted here:

Friday 19 January 2018

Nabokov's The Gift: chapter 2, Fyodor's father, butterflies, and the love of life

1/ In my previous post, I seemed to be comparing Fyodor’s father’s death to Yasha’s. That wasn’t what I meant. Other than the dead ones’ haunting reappearance in dreams or hallucinations, the only thing the 2 cases have in common is grief, and the inability to come to terms with a loved one’s death. 
The grief for Fyodor’s father is, in a sense, a hope-suffused grief (Nabokov’s phrase), and because of his age and achievements, there is a sense of consolation. The loss of Yasha brings nothing but despair and anguish, shattering all hopes of what he could have become. 

2/ In The Gift, Nabokov writes about remembrance, nostalgia, and longing. He also writes about the impossibility of knowing anyone completely, the desire, the hope to know more, and the attempt to grope for answers one can never get.  
“… In and around my father, around this clear and direct strength, there was something difficult to convey in words, a haze, a mystery, an enigmatic reserve which made itself felt sometimes more, sometimes less. It was as if this genuine, very genuine man possessed an aura of something still unknown but which was perhaps the most genuine of all. It had no direct connection either with us, or with my mother, or with the externals of life, or even with butterflies (the closest of all to him, I dare say); it was neither pensiveness nor melancholy—and I have no means of explaining the impression his face made on me when I looked through his study window from outside and saw how, having suddenly forgotten his work (I could feel inside how he had forgotten it—as if something had fallen through or trailed off), his large wise head turned slightly away from the desk and resting on his fist, so that a wide crease was raised from his cheek to his temple, he sat for a minute without moving. It sometimes seems to me nowadays that—who knows—he might go off on his journeys not so much to seek something as to flee something, and that on returning, he would realize that it was still with him, inside him, unriddable, inexhaustible. I cannot track down a name for his secret, but I only know that that was the source of that special—neither glad nor morose, having indeed no connection with the outward appearance of human emotions—solitude in which neither my mother nor all the entomologists of the world had any admittance.” 
“Sometimes he was quite alone, without even this nearness of men sleeping in camp tents, on felt mattresses, around the camel bedded down on the campfire ashes. Taking advantage of lengthy halts in places with abundant food for the caravan animals, Father would go away for several days on reconnaissance, and in doing so, carried away by some new pierid, more than once ignored the rule of mountain hunting: never to follow a path of no return. And now I continually ask myself what did he use to think about in the solitary night: I try fervently in the darkness to divine the current of his thoughts, and I have much less success with this than with my mental visits to places which I have never seen. What did he think about? About a recent catch? About my mother, about us? About the innate strangeness of human life, a sense of which he mysteriously transmitted to me? Or perhaps I am wrong in retrospectively forcing upon him the secret which he carries now, when newly gloomy and preoccupied, concealing the pain of an unknown wound, concealing death as something shameful, he appears in my dreams, but which then he did not have—but simply was happy in that incompletely named world in which at every step he named the nameless.” 
A short while ago I had a discussion with Himadri, in which he spoke of a sneering tone to Nabokov’s prose, and wondered if he could directly convey depth of feeling, or tenderness (the sad and sweet Pnin is narrated by a cruel, contemptuous man who treats Pnin as a laughingstock). 
The Gift is evidence that he could. The sneering tone creeps in a few times at the beginning of chapter 1, but quickly disappears. The Gift has a warmth, a tenderness not found in other Nabokov novels I’ve read. 

3/ Chapter 2 can be called the Pushkin and butterflies chapter. 
The Gift is about Nabokov’s 2 greatest passions—literature and lepidopterology.  

4/ In a paragraph about butterflies: 
“All this fascinating life, by whose present blend one could infallibly tell both the age of the summer (with an accuracy almost to within 1 day), the geographical location of the area, and the vegetal composition of the clearing—all this that was living, genuine and eternally dear to him, Fyodor perceived in a flash, with 1 penetrating and experienced glance.” 
He then tells a folklore, which includes this line: 
“That is the human eye—it wants to encompass everything in the world.” 

5/ Somebody, I don’t really remember, once wrote that he likes writers who love life, who say yes to life. 
So do I. 
Nabokov is perhaps the best example. Even though his novels often deal with cruelty, tyranny and madness, his passion for life can be seen in his attention to detail, his vivid descriptions of nature and colours, his love of butterflies, his celebration of the senses and the imagination, his love of freedom, creativity, and art. He makes us more alert, more aware of our surroundings. 
Tolstoy is another great example. To quote Virginia Woolf “His senses, his intellect, are acute, powerful, and well nourished. There is something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a body upon life. Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the blue or red of a child’s frock; the way a horse shifts its tail; the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sewn up.” (The Common Reader
Tolstoy notices everything, and writes about all kinds of experience. His War and Peace and Anna Karenina seem to contain all about life. Now and then the preacher in him takes over, but when the artist triumphs, Tolstoy’s unsurpassable. 
Another favourite writer of mine, Herman Melville, also loves life. Readers who call Moby Dick boring approach it the wrong way; those who appreciate and love it are the ones who share with Ismael a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a love of learning. Anything mundane Melville turns into something meaningful, philosophic. Moby Dick makes you feel more alive. 
I don’t have much affinity with writers like Elfriede Jelinek (after The Piano Teacher, which I thought was excellent but didn’t see as a favourite, I read Greed, and perhaps a bit of Wonderful, Wonderful Times). Her view on life is dark, bleak, unbearably negative, even sick and perverse, and without hopes. Life is hard and often unfair, but I can find joy, and there is much to live for.

Sunday 14 January 2018

Death and the warmth of The Gift

Chapter 2 of The Gift has some passages that mirror the passage about Yasha’s father, as quoted in my previous blog post. 
“… [Fyodor’s mother] spoke of what she had constantly returned to for almost 9 years now, repeating over again—incoherently, gloomily, ashamedly, turning her eyes away, as if confessing to something secret and terrible—that she believed more and more that Fyodor’s father was alive, that her mourning was ridiculous, that the vague news of his death had never been confirmed by anyone, that he was somewhere in Tibet, in China, in captivity, in prison, in some desperate quagmire of troubles and privations, that he was convalescing after some long, long illness—and suddenly, flinging open the door noisily, stamping on the steps, he would enter. And to an even greater degree than before these words made Fyodor feel both happier and more frightened. Accustomed willy-nilly to consider his father dead all these years, he sensed something grotesque in the possibility of his return. Was it admissible that life could perform not only miracles, but miracles necessarily deprived (otherwise they would be unbearable) of even the tiniest hint of the supernatural?” 
The inability to come to terms with a loved one’s death. 
“It happens that over a long period you are promised a great success, in which from the very start you do not believe, so dissimilar is it from the rest of fate’s offerings, and if from time to time you do think of it, then you do so as it were to indulge your fantasy—but when, at last, on a very ordinary day with a west wind blowing, the news comes—simply, instantaneously and decisively destroying any hope in it—then you are suddenly amazed to find that although you did not believe in it, you had been living with it all this time, not realizing the constant, close presence of the dream, which had long since grown fat and independent, so that now you cannot get it out of your life without making a hole in that life. Thus had Fyodor, in spite of all logic and not daring to envision its realization, lived with the familiar dream of his father’s return, a dream which had mysterious embellished his life and somehow lifted it above the level of surrounding lives, just as, when a little boy, his father used to lift him by his elbows thus enabling him to see what was interesting over a fence.” 
Grief and longing, perhaps, is what brings Fyodor and the Chernyshevski family closer together. 
The Gift is beautifully written, which is expected, especially the descriptions of nature—the morning before Fyodor visits Vasiliev’s office in chapter 1 (“a young chest-nut tree, still unable to walk alone and therefore supported by stake, suddenly came out with a flower bigger than itself”…) and the several paragraphs that open chapter 2. 
It also has warmth. It’s a novel that you can unhesitatingly, fully, comfortably embrace, that you can happily love with all your heart, unlike, I think, Lolita.* 
I’ve always lamented the unfortunate fact that Lolita overshadows everything else in Nabokov’s oeuvre—it’s the book that introduces many readers to Nabokov, but I’m afraid that it’s also the book that keeps many other readers away from him, because of its reputation. You can argue that the people who choose not to read Lolita because of its subject matter shouldn’t read it anyway, but they can enjoy his other works (Pnin! I’d say). 
The book blogger’s responsibility, in my mind, is not only to discuss books, to offer a new interpretation or point out some details that haven’t been noticed before, to “defend the books they cherish from those who would make a hash of them”, but also to talk to readers and fellow bloggers about other great books that are lesser known. I feel helpless. Facing writers like Nabokov or Melville, I’m paralysed, unable to express why they’re great. All I can do is typing and showing some bits from the book, some phrases and moments, in hopes that others would read The Gift.

*: Of course, that is not to say that Lolita is cold. 
Read these 2 posts of mine:
I expect you know what I mean about the inability to fully embrace Lolita and love it without reservations—it’s not the subject matter, but the narrator.

Saturday 13 January 2018

The Gift: Yasha’s death

1/ Whenever somebody criticises Nabokov for being cold and inhuman, interested in nothing but style, patterns, and his little games, I can’t help wondering if they’ve really read his novels. 
This is a passage from The Gift, about Chernyshevski after the death of his son Yasha: 
“Yasha’s death had its most painful effect on his father. He had to spend the whole summer in a sanatorium and he never really recovered: the partition dividing the room temperature of reason from the infinitely ugly, cold, ghostly world into which Yasha had passed suddenly crumbled, and to restore it was impossible, so that the gap had to be draped in makeshift fashion and one tried not to look at the stirring folds. Ever since that day the other world began to seep into his life but there was no way of resolving this constant intercourse with Yasha’s spirit and he finally told his wife about it, in the vain hope that he might thus render harmless a phantom that secrecy had nurtured: the secrecy must have grown back, for soon he again had to seek the tedious, essentially mortal, glass-and-rubber help of doctors. Thus he lived only half in our world, at which he grasped the more greedily and desperately, and when one listened to his sprightly speech and looked at his regular features, it was difficult to imagine the unearthly experiences of his healthy-looking, plump little man, with his bald spot and the thin hair on either side, but then all the more stranger was the convulsion that suddenly disfigured him; also the fact that sometimes for weeks on end he wore a grey cloth glove on his right hand (he suffered from eczema) hinted eerily at a mystery, as if, repelled by life’s unclean touch, or burned by another life, he was reserving his bare handclasp for inhuman, hardly imaginable meetings.” 
How is that not touching? 

2/ Yasha has 2 close friends—Rudolf Baumann and Olya G. Their relationship, when he’s alive, is “a triangle inscribed in a circle”. 
“This was the banal triangle of tragedy, formed within an idyllic circle…” (Ch.1) 
Rudolf loves Olya. 
Olya loves Yasha. 
Yasha, it appears, loves Rudolf. Or in his own words, “I am fiercely in love with the soul of Rudolf. […] I am fiercely in love with this naked, suntanned, lithe soul, which has an answer to everything and proceeds through life as a self-confident woman does across a ballroom floor.” 
He’s gay, to put it simply. 
“My blood throbs, my hands grow icy like a schoolgirl’s when I remain alone with him, and he knows this and I become repulsive to him and he does not conceal his disgust.” 
Fyodor comments (The Gift switches back and forth between 1st-person and 3rd-person narrative):  
“Rudolf’s squeamishness is understandable, but if one looks at the matter more closely, one suspects that Yasha’s passion was perhaps not so abnormal after all, that his excitement was after all very much akin to that of many a Russian youth in the middle of last century, trembling with happiness when, raising his silky eyelashes, his pale-browed teacher, a future leader, a future martyr, would turn to him; and I would have refused to see in Yasha’s case an incorrigible deviation had Rudolf been to the least degree a teacher, a martyr, or a leader; and not what he really was, a so-called ‘Bursh’, a German ‘regular guy’, notwithstanding a certain propensity for obscure poetry, lame music, lopsided art—which did not affect in him that fundamental soundness by which Yasha was captivated, or thought he was.” 
According to Fyodor earlier in the book, Yasha has a mediocre mind—it’s no wonder that he would see Rudolf as much greater than he is, and thus worship him. However, the writer doesn’t refuse to see in him “an incorrigible deviation”, so Yasha is indeed gay. 
But what does that have to do with anything, you may ask. Nothing. It only reminds me of Lev Grossman’s article about the homophobic Vladimir Nabokov’s homosexual brother Sergei:
I never read Nabokov’s works as autobiographical (except when someday reading Speak, Memory), but he’s no robot—he brought part of himself and of people he knew into his world of fiction, and it’s interesting, even if pointless, to ponder about it.

Time in The Gift

One of the main themes of The Gift, it appears, is remembrance. Time. Nostalgia. A return to childhood. I’ve picked up 2 motifs in the book: keys (keys, lost keys, forgotten keys, keys for the new apartment, key to wake up “the tropical songbird”, keys in Chernyshevski’s maid’s hand, etc.), and clocks and watches (a poem about a man from the clock shop, a pendulum clock that seems to measure his insomnias, a misbehaving watch, giant clocks in watch-makers’ shops, etc.). What can be more fitting? 
But here is a passage about time that is quite something else, and particularly interesting: 
“Yasha and I had entered Berlin University at almost exactly the same time, but I did not know him although we must have passed each other many times. Diversity of subjects—he took philosophy, I studied infusoria—diminished the possibility of our association. If I were to return now into that past, enriched in but one respect—awareness of the present day—and retrace exactly all my interloping steps, then I would certainly notice his face, now so familiar to me through snapshots. It is a funny thing, when you imagine yourself returning into the past with the contraband of the present, how weird it would be to encounter there, in unexpected places, the prototypes of today’s acquaintances, so young and fresh, who in a kind of lucid lunacy do not recognize you; thus a woman, for instance, whom you loves since yesterday, appears as a young girl, standing practically next to one in a crowded train, while the chance passerby who 15 years ago asked you the way in the street now works in the same office as you. Among this throng of the past only a dozen or so faces would acquire this anachronistic importance: low cards transfigured by the radiance of the trump. And then how confidently one could… But alas, even when you do happen, in a dream, to make such a return journey, then, at the border of the past your present intellect is completely invalidated, and amid the surroundings of a classroom hastily assembled by the nightmare’s clumsy property man, you again do not know your lesson—with all the forgotten shades of those school throes of old.” 

Friday 12 January 2018

The Gift—1st impressions

Since 2012, I’ve read Lolita (twice), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, Despair, and about ¾ of Ada or Ardor—on average, about a Nabokov novel a year. I’m now reading The Gift (translated by Michael Scammel and Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with Vladimir Nabokov), his last novel in Russian, his farewell and homage to Russian literature. 


1/ Nabokov’s descriptions are always wonderful: 
“The van’s forehead bore a star-shaped ventilator. Running along its entire side was the name of the moving company in yard-high blue letters, each of which (including a square dot) was shaded laterally with black paint: a dishonest attempt to climb onto the next dimension.” (Ch.1) 
2/ The 1st gift (reference to the title): 
“The gift of sight which it now had received did not improve it.” (Ch.1) 
Our character Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is looking at his new room. 
(What a slip, I initially mistyped the name as Cherdyntsex). 
3/ The character, a writer, shares the same 1st name with Dostoyevsky. 
He has a friend named Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevski, like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the author of What Is To Be Done?, the book that I’ve been told The Gift parodies. 
4/ The 2nd gift: 
“… after all, though, he had never doubted that it would be this way, that the world, in the person of a few hundred lovers of literature who had left St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, would immediately appreciate his gift.” (Ch.1) 
5/ I am not looking for patterns and meaning; I’m savouring Nabokov’s prose and metaphors/similes: 
“The strategy of inspiration and the tactics of the mind, the flesh of poetry and the spectre of translucent prose—these are the epithets that seem to us to characterize with sufficient accuracy the art of this young poet.” (Ch.1) 
“Now he read in 3 dimensions, as it were, carefully exploring each poem, lifted out like a cube from among the rest and bathed from all sides in that wonderful, fluffy country air after which one is always so tired in the evening.” (Ch.1) 
6/ Chapter 1 of The Gift, or Fyodor’s Poems, has lots of things in it. Things. Objects. 
“an ample painted flowerpot containing an artificial plant from a sunny land, on which was perched a stuffed tropical songbird, so artificially lifelike that it seemed about to take wing, with black plumage and an amethyst breast…” 
“a clown in satin plus-fours who was propping himself on 2 whitewashed parallel bars and who would be set in motion by an accidental jolt” 
“a puppet theatre with cardboard trees and a crenelated castle with celluloid windows the colour of raspberry jelly” 
a toy gun—“a 6-inch stick of coloured wood, deprived of its rubber suction cup in order to increase the impact, with which I struck the gilt tin of a breastplate (worn by a cross between a cuirassier and a redskin), making in it a respectable little dent” 
head band with rainbow feathers 
draperies, tables, silk divans, wardrobe 
“a necklace made of wolf’s teeth; a small bare-bellied idol of almatolite; another, of porcelain, its black tongue stuck out in national greeting; a chess set with camels instead of bishops; an articulated wooden dragon; a Soyot snuffbox of clouded glass; ditto, of agate; a shaman’s tambourine and the rabbi’s foot going with it; a boot of wapiti leather with an innersole made from the bark of the blue honeysuckle; an ensiform Tibetan coin; a cup of Kara jade; a silver brooch with turquoises; a lama’s lampad; and a lot of similar junk which—like dust, like the postcard from a German spa with its mother-of-pearl ‘Gruss’—my father, who could not stomach ethnography, somehow happened to bring up from his fabulous travels” 
a balloon, a “white one with the rooster painted on it and the red embryo floating inside, which, when its mother is destroyed, will escape up to the ceiling and a day later will come, all wrinkled and quite tame” 
sleds—“a rectangular velvet cushion on iron runners curved at each end” 
sealing wax 
“a perfectly ordinary green Faber pencil, which is then lovingly wrapped in brown paper…” 
And so on. You’ve got the idea. 
Are these vivid memories of a remarkably perceptive boy, or detailed reconstructions of the past? 
7/ Look at this tiny bit: 
“I have always been indifferent to the theatre; although I remember that we did have a puppet theatre with cardboard trees and a crenelated castle with celluloid windows the colour of raspberry jelly through which painted flames like those on Vershchagin’s picture of the Moscow Fire flickered when a candle was lighted inside […] A family, seated around a circular table illuminated by a lamp: the boy is dressed in an impossible sailor suit with a red tie…” (Ch.1) 
(my emphasis) 
Remove the red tie, what does this remind you of? Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander
8/ He writes about a clock: 
“Giving an occasional tongue clack with its pendulum and making a strange pause, as if to gather its strength, before striking. Its ticking, like an unrolled tape divided by stripes into inches, served as an endless measure of my insomnias.” (Ch.1) 
That is beautiful. 
9/ Nabokov touches on the subject of exile: 
“It is strange how memory will grow into a wax figure, how the cherub grows suspiciously prettier as its frame darkens with age—strange, strange are the mishaps of memory. I emigrated 7 years ago; this foreign land has by now lost its aura of abroadness just as my own ceased to be a geographic habit. The Year 7. The wandering ghost of an empire immediately adopted this system of reckoning, akin to the one formerly introduced by the ardent French citizen in honour of newborn liberty. But the years roll on, and honour is no consolation; recollections either melt away, or else acquire a deathly gloss, so that instead of marvellous apparitions we are left with a fan of picture postcards…” (Ch.1) 
This has always moved me on a personal level. 
10/ You must wonder why Nabokov’s so specific about colours. 
“… I mentally saw my mother, in chinchilla coat and black-dotted veil, getting into the sleigh (which always seemed in old Russia so small compared to the tremendous stuffed bottom of the coachman) and holding her dove-grey fluffy muff to her face as she sped behind a pair of black horses covered with a blue net.” (Ch.1) 
Dove-grey. I remember remarking on the colour dove-grey in Lolita.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Weir of Hermiston

Oh the joy and pain of an unfinished work. 
I wonder what Nabokov (would have) thought about Stevenson’s last unfinished work Weir of Hermiston
Stevenson’s novel is to me a pleasant surprise. The prose is very much his, with its beauty and rhythm, but the book is unlike Stevenson in a way. Take The Master of Ballantrae for example, for all of its depth of psychology and themes, and its lifelike, complex characters, the book still has adventures, duels, deaths and resurrections, pirates, savages, treasure…, all that may be called the stuff of boys’ fancy. Weir of Hermiston is, for lack of a better word, serious. Or as my friend Himadri put it, Stevenson’s other works are essentially children’s novels, even The Master of Ballantrae, while Weir of Hermiston could have been the one “major full-length novel aimed specifically for an adult readership”. It’s about the relationship between The Lord Justice-Clerk Adam Weir, a harsh judge, and his estranged son Archie Weir, about their different temperament and worldview, and their difference of opinion on capital punishment.
Another surprise is that Stevenson tends to avoid depicting women, but in Weir of Hermiston, not only writes about women, but writes them well. He even writes about love! The older Kirstie is to me the more interesting. By the way, did anyone else in the 19th century write about a middle-aged woman’s love for a young man? I don’t think I’ve come across that before. 
Pity he couldn’t finish the book. 

Wednesday 3 January 2018

The 2 brothers in Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae

After being unable for a while to read fiction, having focused on films and film books for the entire semester, I’m reading again, and have been enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae. I didn’t notice, when picking up the book, that the subtitle was “A Winter’s Tale”. How fitting! It’s a perfect winter break novel. 
The Master of Ballantrae is, in a way, an adventure story, full of blood, war, rivalry, pirates, savages, duels, murders, revenges, storms, deaths and resurrections, spanning over decades and across different continents. The book cannot compare to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is unsurpassable in Stevenson’s oeuvre, but underneath the excitement, fast pace, and dramatic moments of the adventure story, the stuff of boys’ fancy, there is a lot more. The Master of Ballantrae would be a great response to those who see Stevenson as a frivolous writer.  
The novel is about the feud between James Durie, The Master of Ballantrae, and his brother Henry, and its tragic consequences. I don’t write reviews, so you will be disappointed if you expect a plot summary. Wikipedia will suffice. The book is enjoyable for the “adventures”, for the prose, and for the psychology. At the beginning, especially in the eyes of the narrator Ephraim Mackellar, the steward of the Durrisdeer estate and loyal “friend” of Henry, it appears that James (often called Ballantrae or the Master in the text) is evil, and the other brother is good. James is portrayed as a good-looking and dangerous man, well-mannered, calm, deceptively charming, manipulative, narcissistic, and deceitful; he is also greedy, and can be scheming and ruthless. Henry envies his brother—his father’s favourite son, and at the beginning of the story, his other chief fault is pride—he keeps a distance because of pride, refuses to explain himself because of pride, suffers in silence because of pride, proves himself more generous than his brother by paying James unreasonable sums of money and cutting down on expenses in his own family without explanation because of pride…, and thus suffers even more. The narcissistic and manipulative James, who describes himself as having a kingly nature, is an interesting and memorable character, but the proud Henry is an even more fascinating case study. More than the bad brother does, pride and envy, which gradually turns into hatred and bitterness, damage Henry, ruin his life and push everyone away if not for Mackellar’s interventions now and then. Worse, they change his heart. Later on, we find the brothers/ enemies mirroring each other; Henry shares some traits with the man he most hates and despises—rage, resentment, bitterness, vengefulness, cruelty (bordering on sadism), and inability to let go. I haven’t finished the book, but it seems like the kind of rivalry that never ends till both are destroyed. Henry becomes the very thing he hates, and lets darkness triumph.