Archive for the ‘reading’ Category
I’m no fan of the Doors — Owen’s and my paragraphs on them in the intro to The Worst add up to one of the few parts of that book I still like — but Marcus is the guy who wrote Mystery Train and Invisible Republic, so I read when he writes a book about them. Marcus hasn’t changed my opinion of the band’s built-for-condemned-Econo-Lodge-cocktail-rooms music, but he did crack me up, something the Doors never did (intentionally). At the end of the short chapter about “The End,” the most theatrical of the band’s solemn, unfriendly songs, Marcus slips in a perfect reference to the Firesign Theatre, my favorite comedy troupe other than my kids. A whole volume of The Doors is a bit much, but anyone who can find room for the Firesign Theatre in Jim Morrison, territory that should repel the Firesigns’ welcoming humor but in Marcus’s hands fits perfectly, is a writer I will follow anywhere.
A few weeks ago, I used this space to argue against the posthumous publication of pieces of the novel Vladimir Nabokov was working on before his death. Just today I was reading Nabokov’s introduction to his poetry-free translation of Eugene Onegin, in which the great man himself weighs in:
“An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.”
I’m a big Vladimir Nabokov fan. His novels are up there with those of Proust, Powell, Fox, and maybe Marquez as those from the last century that have given me the most pleasure. The Gift! Pale Fire! Ada! Lo-lee-ta! As with most writers or performers of whom I’m a big fan, I want to devour everything the artist created and everything interesting created about him: letters, outtakes, biographies, critical works, ephemera. I’ve even read novels based on albums I love and have been pleasantly surprised by one of them.
I bear no ill will against Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son. He’s been wrestling with a dilemma over the past 30 years: what to do with the unfinished draft of The Original of Laura that Vladimir left behind. Dad told him to destroy the manuscript; instead, Dmitri locked it in a box and thought hard for a long time, probably balancing loyalty to the father with loyalty to the work. There are strong arguments in both directions and I suspect Dmitri bounced pinball-like between the two positions for three decades.
Dmitri decided, in the end, to publish it. It came out last month; I bought it the day it came out. It’s no lost masterpiece. Indeed, it’s quite terrible, Nabokov’s worst book, void of the thrills hiding behind most phrases in even his minor novels. But, worse, than that, it’s not even a book (even in the post-modern sense). It’s not merely that there are 1.5 characters, 0 indications of a plot, and only a few hundred words scattered over a few hundred pages. To emphasize the collector value (and to distract from the lack of literary or story value), the publisher presents these work pages just as Nabokov left them: replicas of index cards, some of them written on, some of them in order, none of them intended for separate or combined publication. It’s the very definition of unpublishable, even in the current age of every damn thing being published. There’s a reason this book comes in shrink wrap: because anyone who opens it before reading it will never buy it. There’s nothing here for all but the most dedicated academic Nabokovians; I completed a first reading in barely half an hour and am unlikely to look at it again until I pack it up the next time I make a donation to the library.
The hype behind the belated release of this incomplete nonmasterpiece may lower Nabokov’s stock, which would be a shame. But, fortunately, there’s an upside to hype: Vintage is reissuing his ouevre with cool covers that may attract new readers. If great packaging can help draw attention to something as lousy as The Original of Laura, perhaps it can bring more than a dozen classics to a new generation of readers who will adore them.
When I’m not working or writing or sleeping or trying to be useful around my family, there’s a good chance I’m reading Proust. I’ve written here plenty of times of my love for his big novel, so I won’t repeat myself. But I’m almost halfway through my every-other year exploration of it, things come to mind, that’s what a blog is for, so here we are. I know I should be writing when I’m reading, but sometimes reading leads to better writing. I hope it does, anyway. Anyway…
Something I read in The Guermantes Way reminded me of a passage from William C. Carter’s welcoming biography of Proust:
“This relationship set a pattern that Marcel would follow with future couples: he would ‘fall in love’ with the fiancee or mistress of a man who appealed to him. Such an arrangement had a number of examples: he could love the woman from a safe distance, exchange confidences with the man and woman about each other, observe the dynamics of sexual love, and have the illusion that he was an active participant experiencing all the joys, enthusiasms, and jealous sufferings of both partners. It was also an ideal vantage point for a novelist.”
Proust had it both ways. Another of his biographers, Edmund White, calls him a “playboy-monk.” He lived life, but he also observed it from a distance, eventually retreating, alone, to his bedroom. But throughout In Search of Lost Time, he describes it intensely and intimately. For the reader, it doesn’t matter how he got his information. And, as with so much else in his life and work, Proust found an unexpected, roundabout way of gathering that information and using it to build something weird and new. A step away, the distance somehow brought him closer to his subject. His book never stops revealing mysteries, perhaps because so much of what he wrote about was mysterious to him, too.
Over the weekend I finished Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. It was a pretty good book about the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs over the future of Manhattan. The author is clearly on Jacobs’ side, but he shines light on both positions.
This was a big battle with big stakes, fought by people with big personalities. Anthony Flint lays out those stakes well, but I left the book disappointed because there was never any in-person confrontation between Moses and Jacobs. This isn’t Flint’s fault — it never happened, and he wasn’t going to make it up — but if I ever read a novel about such a high-stakes battle, I’d be disappointed if there was no direct meeting. I want to read about conflict rising and resolved. Yet another case, I suppose, in which fiction is more satisfying than real life.
Those of you who know me know I’m a Marcel Proust nut. I’ve read the monster novel several times in several translations, I once started a dummy email address with his name in it that stuck because I never figured out how to merge Google accounts, and I even made a failed attempt to learn how to read French so I could go at the Search in the original. It’s almost obsessive, I know. Sometimes Proust’s audacity and control inspire me in my own work; sometimes they remind me how much my own work stinks. Either way, there are far worse things a guy could obsess about.
I read a lot about Proust, too, and some of those books get pretty obscure. Take The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust’s Swedish Valet, which will never be made into a movie by Jerry Bruckheimer. It is a minor book, interesting only to true nuts, but what makes it worth mentioning are the hilarious annotations by William C. Carter (who wrote a strong Proust bio a decade or so ago). Carter understands the historical importance of Forssgren’s thin memoir, but it’s clear he thinks very, very little of Forssgren. He can’t mention that Forssgren “was an amateur linguist” without following that with “with the emphasis on amateur,” and the book is full of footnotes such as “This statement is very suspect” and “This is simply laughable” and regular digs at Forssgren’s memory and writing ability. My personal favorite: “Forssgren apparently intended to attribute this line to Proust but forgot to enclose it in quotes.” Or maybe it’s “We can see from this document that Forssgren was capable of misspelling the simplest, most common French words — even ‘France’ itself.”
At first Carter’s asides seemed gratuitous, like the comments a frustrated academic would make in a Nabokov novel. But Carter is no frustrated academic. He’s quite a successful one, a master of his material. As the book dragged on, it was Carter’s notes that kept me reading, not Forssgren’s writing. The commentary was as funny and pointed as the core text was meandering and confusing. It was like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000: the wiseasses in the theater are more entertaining than what they are watching.
Before we leave Forssgren, probably forever, let me mention that early in the book there is a list of his items donated to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most of it is what you’d expect — the typescript of his memoir, some signed Proust books — but one made me laugh out loud: “a copy of Forssgren’s proposed phonetic alphabet to reform the spelling of the English language.” Good luck with that, Ernest.
In recent years, it became fashionable to trash John Updike, usually for being too white, too moderate, too old, too prolific, not progressive enough. Even the most energetic and successful of those takedowns, David Foster Wallace’s 1998 essay “Certainly the End of Something or Other,” later collected in Consider the Lobster, sometimes seems more concerned with political correctness and the likability of a protagonist than any literary or story failings.
It’s true that Updike’s later works are not the ones he’ll be remembered for (although I’ll argue that In the Beauty of the Lilies, from 1996, stands among his most ambitious and deeply felt). The last Updike story I loved was “Natural Color,” published in 1998 and collected in Licks of Love. It’s the pick of many later stories in which older men looked back on earlier romances, this time with withering results. To make sure I got the year right, I just looked up the story on a New Yorker DVD. The story is accompanied by the keywords “divorce,” “New England,” “sex,” “husbands,” “old age,” “winter,” “love affairs,” “redheads,” “hair color.” I tend to distrust algorithms when it comes to fiction, but that list sure offers a neat encapsulation of Updike’s interests.
The last novel Updike published while he was alive, Terrorist (2006), doesn’t work particularly well. The characters are unusually flat, speaking in topic sentences, Updike sometimes confuses his audience with that of his characters, and the climax hinges on at least two unbelievable coincidences. But it is by John Updike, so if you give it your attention you are privy to one brilliant section. Roughly two-thirds of the way through, pretty much out of nowhere, someone who I thought was a minor character, one Charlie Chehab, launches into a lengthy, hilarious, insane, and occasionally persuasive argument that the soldiers of the American Revolution were the Al-Qaeda of their time. I won’t quote an excerpt; it must be read in its entirety and it gains more weight later in the novel when we learn something new about Chehab. It’s a thrilling riff unimaginable from any other author. Even when he was allegedly past his prime, Updike could deliver something surprising, unprecedented, and unmistakably his. We should all age that way.
…the first things to go are the introductions. Here’s why.
I was looking forward to reading the Penguin collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories. I’d seen the first sentences from two of his stories quoted and I both grabbed me.
From “The Marquise of O–”:
“In M–, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O–, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapers: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”
And from “The Earthquake in Chile”:
“In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands lost their lives, a young Spaniard called Jeronimo Rugera was standing beside one of the pillars in the prison to which he had been committed on a criminal charge, and was about to hang himself.”
Each of them practically beg to let you know what comes next. I wanted to know, so I bought Penguin’s colection of von Kleist’s stories and read the introduction. That ruined the book for me. The introduction is brisk and informative — but it GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF EVERY STORY IN THE COLLECTION. It’s like a spoiler site for classical literature. The introduction is like a Cliff’s Notes for the story collection. It summarizes the plots and then sends you away. Who, when reading a book for pleasure, wants to know how it ends before it even starts?
Two quick caveats:
1. Some introductions are great. Bernard Knox’s notes prior to Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Virgil were essential to my having even a rudimentary understanding of what I was about to read.
2. Sometimes it’s OK to give it all away in advance. Here’s how Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark opens: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a beautiful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The mean and funny novel that follows offered heightened meanness and humor because we know what’s coming.
But those are the rarest of exceptions. Introductions are for context, not for giving it all away. In a few weeks, after this passes, I’ll try again to read these stories. From now on, I’m reading the introductions last.
Philip Roth wrote a corrosive novel about a corrosive character and called it The Dying Animal. Now I see that it’s been made into a movie called Elegy. How much you wanna bet that the movie and the character will be a lot less impolite than the book? Amazing what a name alone can tell you about a work of art.
Where you been?
Canada, mostly. The five of us and a friend of Eli’s packed into the van: half a week in Montreal (good, and I was not responsible for this), half a week in Ottawa (great), and a one-night stopover in Burlington, Vt., on the way back. As of Tuesday, I’m three-quarters of the way to Inbox Zero. I need to learn French for the next trip to the Great White North.
Was everything the same when you returned?
Mostly. Manny is gone, and so is Scrabulous, but it looks as if the latter has returned in not-too-diminished form. I missed a particularly weird Carl Icahn hissy fit, and I’ll have to check in with Paczkowski for guidance on how to interpret that.
What did you learn about your newspaper-reading habits while you were gone?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m done with print newspapers. For the first half of the vacation, I did a reasonably good job of staying off the laptop (and we were in another country, so I didn’t want to turn on the iPhone unless absolutely necessary). If I wanted to know what was going on in the world I had to read the print versions of the Times and Journal, both of which were available in hotel gift shops at imminent-apocalypse prices. I imagined that reading newspapers this way would feel like a luxury. Instead, compared to their younger online siblings, they felt out of date and, well, short. Aside from the immediacy you get from following news via the net, chances are you see that news as part of a larger river of information. It’s always coming at you. In comparison, reading the news in a newspaper feels limited, finite. It ends. News on the net never ends (for better or worse).
Also worth looking at was the National Gallery in Ottawa. We spent two hours there. I bet we could have gone at least two days without running out of surprises. I was particularly taken by William Kurelek’s “Arriving on the Manitoba Farm,” which looks dark and formless in this image, but reveals more and more layers of detail and meaning when you have the pleasure of standing in front of it.
When you stopped in Burlington, Vt., on the way back, did you see any newspaper headlines you’d expect to see only in Burlington, Vt.?
What did you read?
Parts of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (mostly zzz, but it did introduce me to this guy) and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and (several times) my favorite Chekhov story, “The Lady with the Dog.”
And you read them all on your…
Kindle, right. It’s a usability nightmare and the selection of Amazon-blessed-and-DRMed books is insufficient and random, but I found it convenient and comfortable under all but the most low-light situations.
Did you write?
Yes, especially early in the week when I was still keeping that off-the-net promise. It’s amazing how less depressed you can be about the quality of something if you’re actually working on it. And maybe I should consider a new business model.
What was Jane’s most memorable quote during the week?
There were so many candidates, but I’m going with “I’m trying to save the tattoo.”
How’s the new job going?
So far it seems like a very good fit. I’ll have a full report at the end of The First 90 Days.
Weren’t you going to tell us the point of this blog?
Comments from Doug, Owen, and Andrea — and a gift from Brian — showed me the limits of my thinking from a few posts ago. And Jane has suggested that I write about what I think about: namely, media and technology. So, unless you’re reading this via a newsreader, you’ll see that the blog now has a new tagline: “media, technology, and the rest of it.” I’ve got some ideas for making this more than a vanity blog; we’ll see if I can live up to them. Oh, and to warn you, I’m going to pay more attention to Twitter.
Gotta see how the WordPress app for the iPhone works.
Buried in Apple’s new App Store is the ebook reader app eReader. It’s pretty good, considering the small screen, but the best news is that all the ebooks I bought from the eReader store when I thought I’d be on the PalmOS forever work again. Now if Apple could squeeze a competent tasks app into the iPhone I wouldn’s miss my Treo so much.