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The use and abuse of similitude: the case of Pnin (continued)

19 Oct

Pnin 2

After the party at his house, and being informed that is being fired by Waindell College and replaced by another Professor of Russian – who is in fact the nefarious narrator of the novel we are reading – Pnin retires to his kitchen and slowly begins to wash the dishes and glasses and cutlery left behind by his guests:

‘He prepared a bubble bath in the sink for the crockery, glass and silverware, and with infinite care lowered the aquamarine bowl into the tepid foam. Its resonant flint glass emitted a sound full of muffled mellowness as it settled down to soak. He rinsed the amber goblets and the silverware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them. He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver – and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it – his fingertips actually came into contact with it in midair, but this only helped propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.’

During a discussion of free indirect style (discours indirect libre) in his book How Fiction Works, James Wood comments on this passage as follows:

‘Nabokov writes that the nutcracker falls from Pnin’s hands like a man falling from a roof; Pnin tries to grasp it, but ‘the leggy thing’ slips into the water. ‘Leggy thing’ is a terrific metaphorical likeness: we can instantly see the long legs of the wayward nutcracker, as if it were falling off the roof and walking away. But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’? Now if the brilliant ‘leggy’ is Nabokov’s word, then the hapless ‘thing’ is Pnin’s word, and Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it.’

However, the narration is being ventriloquized via Vladimir Vladimirovich N., Nabokov’s narrator. Whose word then is ‘leggy’? Pnin’s, Nabokov’s, or VVN’s? Whom should we applaud for this fancy bit of writing? Clearly, as Wood suggests, the accolades fall at Nabokov’s feet.

A few years ago the London Review of Books published an admirable article by Iain Sinclair in which he compared, among other things, a piece of writing about a bird by Tom Raworth with a similar avian anecdote by Martin Amis:

‘From the hill the road sloped down and to the right. A dark grey bird with an orange beak skimmed across, paused on a wooden fence, shat, then continued its curve as the blob fell. All the way on the tube he kept      thinking of the line ‘And we walk through the valley of fables where the eagles lie.’ It was going to rain. The colours of the flowers hurt his eyes.’  (Tom Raworth: A serial biography)

Compare and contrast Raworth’s bird with the anachronistic London sparrow (gone, vanished) which puts in a rather showy appearance in the opening sequence of Martin Amis’s ‘Yellow Dog’. Amis is working so hard, as is the sparrow, to be live, engaging, on-the-money; the throwaway charm is so affected, so sub-Keatsian, that the inevitable violence that follows makes for a very pretty natural break.

‘A sparrow, a feathered creature of the middle air, hopped onto the     bench beside him and, with eerie docility, began to ventilate itself, allowing its wings to thrum and purr, six inches away.’

Good, yes? But too much of a stand-out cameo, a guest-star ‘bit’. The Amis sparrow is significant where Raworth’s generic ‘bird’ behaves in its curious way and flies, immediately and without waiting for applause, out of the story. There is much more to tell. Amis can’t leave the canal fauna alone, the nature stuff of Camden. There is a minatory ‘dead duck, head down with its feet sticking up like the arms of a pair of spectacles.’ Another vivid apercu (stopping the drift), like . . . like . . . a well-turned simile from a Martian verse-maker. Raworth and those who have learned from him don’t do similes. Similes diminish narrative integrity by suggesting that this work, this map, is not in itself convincing, or true, and that a parallel world of unsubstantiated ‘likeness’ runs alongside. The simile says: applaud my witAnd, from my prejudiced point of view, the faultline in English literary culture begins here.’

Sinclair alerts us to an element at work within, not simply ‘English’ or ‘literary’ culture, but intrinsic to our whole way of thinking about writing, that is, intrinsic to our entire creative process, in which metaphorisation, the substitution of one thing for another, is a central concern. Susan Sontag, perhaps most notably, warned of the dangers of this in her study of Illness an Metaphor. But there are broader and more generic ramifications: is writing a sort of fancy tricks activity, in which the clever guys get to invent the smartest similes and most alarming metaphors? How do we respond to the clever use of metaphor and simile in writers like Nabokov and Amis? With admiration? With irritation? Or a bit of both?

 

 

Pnin’s double

15 Oct

 

Pnin

 

Reading Nabokov’s Pnin, I spend a while deliberating over a passage in which the hapless Pnin, who teaches Russian in an American university with no requirement for a Professor of Russian, meets a Professor Wynn – a name, in Welsh, that comes about through the soft mutation of my own:

On the day of his party, as he was finishing a late lunch in Frieze Hall, Wynn, or his double, neither of whom had ever appeared there before, suddenly sat down beside him and said:

       ‘I have long wanted to ask you something – you teach Russian don’t you? Last summer I was reading a magazine article on birds – ‘

        (‘Vin! This is Vin! said Pnin to himself, and forthwith perceived a decisive course of action) . . . .

At the party which follows, held at Pnin’s rented house, it transpires that ‘Wynn’ is not who Pnin thinks he is, but a Professor T. W. Thomas. T Wynn. Or Twynn. Or twin. Or a doppelganger for Pnin.

Since Pnin’s story is being narrated by someone who only makes an appearance in the final chapter – and who, moreover, is someone Pnin is eager not to meet (they have known each other, according to the narrator, since their childhood in St Petersburg, a detail which Pnin denies).

All this is most distressing, for reasons I cannot quite ascertain. But what strikes me is the symmetry with which Nabokov casually drops in the Pnin/Wynn/Twin motif, and then abandons it. After the party:

         ‘Good-bye, good-bye, Professor Vin!’ sang out Pnin, his cheeks ruddy and round in the lamplight of the porch . . .

          . . . . ‘Now I wonder why he called me that,’ said T.W. Thomas, Professor of Anthropology, to Laurence and Joan Clements as they walked through the blue darkness toward four cars parked under the elms on the other side of the road.

        ‘Our friend,’ answered Clements, ‘employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythpoeic. His slips of the tongue are oracular. He calls my wife John.’

Mythopoeic his slips of the tongue may be, but it strikes me as only natural that a character whose existence lies in the hands of an unreliable narrator should himself create his own erroneous double (Vin! Vin!), while ignorant of the fact that one’s double, of course, has a double of his (or her) own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montaigne and the power of the imagination

10 Oct

Montaigne

 

Reading Montaigne’s essay ‘On the power of the imagination’ I am struck by how differently the imagination was viewed in the early modern period. Indeed, understanding of the term is confined to its more negative associative powers. ‘I am one of those who are very much influenced by the imagination’, writes Montaigne, ‘[And] my art is to escape it, not to resist it . . . I do not find it strange that imagination brings fevers and death to those who give it a free hand and encourage it.’

It is only in the Romantic period, when the imagination is associated by Wordsworth and Coleridge with creative power or the poetic principle – the link between the visible and invisible worlds – that the word accrues the significance we attach to it today.

But for Montaigne, imagination is nothing but trouble. Impotence, every manner of psychosomatic disorder, even the tendency to fart, all are blamed on the dreaded imagination. ‘The organs that serve to discharge the bowels have their own dilations and contractions outside of the control of the wishes and contrary to them . . . Indeed I knew one [such organ] that is so turbulent and so intractable that for the last forty years it has compelled its master to break wind with every breath. So unremittingly constant is it in its tyranny that it is even now bringing him to his death.’ The implication is that the imagination works on the individual who wields it– or rather is wielded by it – in the same tyrannical fashion as the bizarre ‘organ’ located in the bottom acts upon its owner.

The French flatulist and entertainer Joseph Pujol, known as Le Pétomane.

The French flatulist Joseph Pujol, known as Le Pétomane.

What is strange in this essay is the to-ing and fro-ing between the pre-modern associations Montaigne makes with acts of witchcraft and other psychic and psychosomatic disturbances for which the imagination is blamed, and the task he sets himself as a writer. In a particularly lucid moment towards the end of the essay, we begin to hear the more familiar voice of the essayist at his best, extolling the virtues of brevity:

‘Some people urge me to write a chronicle of my own times. They consider that I view things with eyes less disturbed by passion than other men, and at closer range, because fortune has given me access to the heads of various factions. But they do not realise that I would not undertake the task for all the fame of Sallust; that I am a sworn foe to constraint, assiduity and perseverance; and that nothing is so foreign to me as an extended narrative.’

 

 

 

 

Tyrannical Prehension

8 Oct
Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003)

Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003)

Half-preparing a class for my MA module ‘The Creative Process’, but actually taking time to enjoy the material – something that happens far too infrequently these days, especially in busy October – I stumble across a strange passage in Blanchot, on something referred to, perplexingly, as Tyrannical Prehension. It sounds like a stomach disorder, but is, in fact, far more sinister:

‘Sometimes, when a man is holding a pencil, his hand won’t release it no matter how badly he wants to let it go. Instead, the hand tightens rather than open. The other hand intervenes more successfully, but then the hand which one might call sick makes a slow, tentative movement and tries to catch the departing object. The strange thing is the slowness of this movement. The hand moves in a tempo which is scarcely human: not that of a viable action, not that of a hope either, but rather the shadow of time, the hand being itself the shadow of a hand slipping ghostlike toward and object that has become its own shadow. This hand experiences, at certain moments, a very great need to seize: it must grasp the pencil, it has to. It receives an order, an imperious command. This phenomenon is known as “tyrannical prehension.”’

The urgency of writing, the need to write right now, becomes pathologised. But we write, according to Blanchot, only when we have already begun to write:

‘Writing begins with Orpheus’ gaze. And this gaze is the movement of desire that shatters the song’s destiny, that disrupts concern for it, and in this inspired and careless decision reaches the origin, consecrates the song. But in order to descend towards this instant, Orpheus has to possess the power of art already. This is to say: one writes only if one reaches that instant which nevertheless one can only approach in the space opened by the movement of writing. To write one has to write already. In this contradiction are situated the essence of writing, the snag in the experience, and inspiration’s leap.’

I find among my papers some notes I took from a lecture given by Hélène Cixous at Cardiff University ten years ago. The talk was called ‘The Unforeseeable’, and I remember enjoying it a lot. Ms Cixous was extremely elegant and spoke manicured English. She said that the title of her lecture referred to the unexpectedness of what one writes, which is unforeseeable, even to oneself.

You reach the point where the book, not the author, is writing the book.

With writing you go in one direction and find yourself forced in another direction.

But paradoxically, the strength of the writer lies in his or her helplessness. Why might this be?

She cited her friend Derrida as saying: ‘The work starts by itself.’ He used to say: ‘It’s started,’ when asked about a new piece of writing (rather than ‘I have started it’).

The book is unexpected, unforeseeable.

I’m not sure what to make of all this.

In another class this week, an undergraduate nonfiction class – not the MA class in which I discuss Blanchot – a student turns in a piece about trying to hold onto a pencil, against the odds, while a force beyond her control seizes control of the hand with which she tries to hold the pencil. This is very strange. Unaccountable coincidence or tyrannical prehension? Synchronicity? Unforeseeable, certainly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabo and the drunks

20 Sep
Wall painting, Cartagena.

Wall painting, Cartagena.

On Tuesday at five I do a reading in the library of the University of Cartagena – whose most famous alumnus was Gabriel García Márquez – and learn from one of the Profs that there is a crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel that appears in the author’s novel Love and Other Demons. The Santa Clara is in the old quarter, not far from the university. After a drink with the Profs I decide to go and investigate. The Santa Clara was once a convent, and has been converted into one of the most luxurious establishments in the city. A tribute to Gabo by Boyd Tonkin puts it thus:

‘The lovely 16th-century convent, once also a hospital, has a crypt. In 1994, by then living again in the city of his youth and his dreams, Garcia Marquez published Of Love and Other Demons. That novel, as much an impassioned evocation of Cartagena as the better-known Love in the Time of Cholera, tells of a young journalist sent in 1949 to the newly excavated site of Santa Clara. He has to investigate the miraculous skeleton of a child marquise, dead 200 years but now exhumed with a 22m “stream of living hair the intense colour of copper”. A mood of febrile gothic menace pervades the tale, although the walled city it conjures up could hardly be more topographically exact . . .’

When I arrive at the Santa Clara, a white-coated lackey, with top hat to match, opens the door for me. I tell him I’ve come to see the famous crypt. He shows me it. Here it is.

Crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel Cartagena

Crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel Cartagena

The drinks in the Santa Clara are Chelsea prices. But the bar is vast and cool, so I sit there for a while and soak in the wealth. When I leave, I pass other, smaller, boutique hotels and very chic eateries with exotic names. I walk past a group of six young English tourists – three of each gender – who resemble the cast of, well, Made in Chelsea. ‘Oh don’t let’s do the walking game, Fiona,’ says a boy with a kiss curl. He wants to sit down. Fiona wants to go on, see if they can find somewhere more to her liking. I wander down the street a while, marvelling at the extent this part of town has been gentrified. I return past the group. They have sat down. The boy with the kiss curl has got his way.

Manic Street Preacher, Cartagena

Manic Street Preacher, Cartagena

When I walk back into Getsemaní, where my humble B &B, Casa Relax, is located, the difference is striking. There is much more shit in the street. More dogs too. The square at La Santisima Trinidad is packed with a different sort of company: Colombians – both locals and tourists – and budget backpackers. Perhaps a few middle aged men, like me, with nostalgie de la boue.

On the southwest corner of the Plaza a man sits outside a bar. A discreet bar, I might add, which looks kind of empty. I’ve seen the man sitting here before. I couldn’t help but notice him. He bears a keen resemblance to Leonardo di Caprio. He sits outside in an armchair, pulling on a fat cigar. At his feet lies a British Bulldog. The dog looks like he might fancy a cigar as well.

We nod a greeting to each other the second time I pass. The third time I stop and speak to him.

‘Are you the owner, or do you just look like it?’

He smiles. ‘I am the owner, yes.’ He is of medium build, blonde hair with a side parting, friendly face, perhaps too innocent looking for this game, but I might be mistaken. He stands up to shake my hand.

‘Hi, I’m Nicholas. Pleased to meet you.’ The accent is very slight, Nordic, possibly German, but possibly Swedish.

‘Richard. And who is your friend?’ I gesture down at the pooch.

‘Ha ha. He is my partner. His name is Socio. Which in Spanish means partner.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Five years.’

‘How does he handle the heat?’

‘He does OK.’

I want to ask what the local strays make of Socio, but it’s too early for that.

‘Looks like a nice bar,’ I say. ‘Thanks,’ he says. I peer inside. There are three tourist on stools at the bar. I’ve been past here half a dozen times and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone inside.

‘I’ll come and have a drink, but need to get some food first.’

‘Ah, we do food normally, but with this electricity cut, it’s not possible.’

‘That’s okay. I’ll see you later’

I go to eat at Trattoria di Silvio, at a table on the pavement across the narrow street, fifty metres up from the square. I have just finished my pizza when the second electricity cut of the evening strikes. You can’t see much at all. I have a candle at my table. The three Portuguese at the next table do not and are still eating so I pass them my candle. A few minutes later the waitress brings me another. Nicholas walks past with Socio. I wave at him and he calls back a valediction. I guess the second power failure has proved too much for him. Pity. I would have liked to have heard his story.

Like the other up-market bar across the square, his business is unlikely to fare well while the shop next door sells beer for 2,000 pesos (60p) and half bottles of rum or aguardiente for a couple of quid apiece. But if, as seems likely, Getsemaní eventually becomes more gentrified, following the lead of the historic centre, Nicholas will be in business. At the moment that seems a long way off.

I sit on the edge of the square and soak in the spirit of the place. The smell of marihuana sits heavy on the air. I will be leaving Cartagena in the morning. Three old aguardiente drinkers sit to my right. The black one has two teeth, perched at opposite corners of his mouth. He laughs wheezily and without cease, and on one occasion bursts into raucous song, which his two companions applaud ecstatically. The thinnest one – they are all three skin and bone, but this one is so thin he could snap – is shaped like a question mark and drags his foot when he moves, in the manner of someone with terminal liver disease. He calls out every few minutes for música música, looking around the square desperately to see whether his plea will be heeded in some quarter; and the third, the most desperate of these three musketeers, is too far gone to do anything but gurn like a cretin at the world passing by – if indeed he can see it. The three eventually stagger off into the night, moving with extreme difficulty, as though struggling against the tide of life, towards a sea of oblivion. I have a sudden vision of Macbeth’s three witches, and imagine the crones reincarnated as these three Caribbean drunks, wrecked beyond pity or purpose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mompox

16 Sep

mompox river view

 

Travel is often a matter of balancing a desire for control and a willingness to abandon that control when it serves no purpose. If one finds oneself in a place where timetables and commitments are loosely treated and made on the spur of the moment without too much forethought – well-meant but never likely, in reality, to materialise – and you find yourself fighting this attitude as though it were an aberration, then you are in trouble. If, when travelling you are always trying to be in control of the uncontrollable – especially in a country like Colombia that resists any kind of ulterior control – then you are doomed to misery and failure.

I tried for a couple of days to find the best way to travel to the old colonial town of Mompox -also known as Mompós (population 30,000). It is to be found 249 km up the Magdalena river from Cartagena, and was founded in 1540 by Don Alonso de Heredia, whose elder brother settled Cartagena. An absence of functioning travel agents, as well as the complications of getting reliable information together contributed to a delay in my arrangements. I knew that there was a daily bus service from Cartagena that took eight hours, but did not wish to lose so much of the day. Alternatively I could take a colectivo to an intermediary town five hours south, catch a taxi to a riverside settlement and then a launch upriver for the remainder of the journey –which would again take up most of a day: two days, there and back. In the end, by chance, I came across the Toto Express, run by the eponymous Toto, who organises a pick-up truck for four or five passengers, and who asked me to be ready at 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The truck takes an hour or so to pick up passengers, and arrives in Mompox at 11.00. – in theory at least.

My companions on the trip were William, the driver, and three Colombian ladies, Momposinas on their way home. They talked more or less incessantly, so I was able to catch a flavour of the town they came from. The señora in front was very concerned about William’s driving, although I thought he was rather good, considering the hazards of the journey, and the tendency of other drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road because of the caked mud trenches and potholes (although much of the route is covered, there are long stretches of mud track to negotiate).

At one point we are taking a number of curves on a particularly poor stretch of road, with a lot of traffic. We are stuck behind a lorry. A car passes us at speed, and William edges out carefully to see if it is safe for us to go also. ‘Such imprudence’, says the señora in front, speaking with extraordinary formality. ‘And for what? Just to get ahead! I would rather be wise than imprudent, wait for an opportune moment to pass, and thus keep my life.’ A chorus of agreement from the two señoras in the back with me. William appears to take this personally and turns up the Ranchera music so loud the ladies cannot hear each other speak. The music is pretty awful, but his feelings have been hurt already, so I don’t complain. William then takes what he claims is a shortcut and we encounter a lorry stuck in the mud, completely blocking the narrow uncovered road. We do a three point turn and take the long way around, crossing the River Magdalena by an ancient ferry, consisting of planks attached to three metal boats, and powered by an invisible motor. On the bank a pair of dogs are glued together by their hindquarters, determinedly facing away from each other but unable to move. They appear bored and indignant.

Mompox is a town strongly referenced in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, whom I am currently reading in a pirated – and very badly printed – Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Colera. (It seems obligatory to read García Márquez in Mompox, just as I was compelled to read Lowry in Cuernavaca). Neither this book, nor, apparently, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, are actually based in Mompox (although the latter was partly filmed here) and the settings for Gabo’s fictions tend to be an amalgam of places, real and imagined. If his literary vision is of a certain type of Caribbean town, hopelessly locked into its past, apparently forlorn and yet inherently joyful – such paradoxes are essential to any understanding of Colombian sensibilities, and Colombians are supposedly the second happiest people on earth – then Mompox is as good a place as any to begin to understand the novelist’s sense of habitus. It is a quintessentially Marquesian place, in which the improbable – not to say the fantastic – seem to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. And there are a lot of colourful birds, iguanas and snakes, just to add to the atmosphere.

Iguana in a tree

Iguana in a tree

 

Dead deadly snake

Dead deadly snake

 

Solitary stork

Solitary stork

Yellow bird

Yellow bird

A random google search came up with ‘the very aristocratic and sorrowful city of Mompox’. The Spanish colonial authorities had the Royal Mint here, supposedly out of reach of the English pirates who made frequent raids on the regional capital, Cartagena. Aristocratic it might well once have been, and sorrowful, at times. It was a site of many confrontations during Colombia’s serial civil wars following independence from Spain. More recently it was a no-go area, changing hands between FARC rebels and government forces over a period of years. Since Colombia’s big clean-up a few years back, it has been – and is being – readied for tourism. But tourism, you might be warned, of a particular kind. It reminds me a little of Greece in the 1970s, in which tourism was taking off, but was still in its fledgling, puppy-love stage. There is the same unawareness of ‘service’ – you often wait until whoever is behind the till/counter to finish what they are doing before they attend to you. This is done entirely without malice: it is simply the pace of life telling you what’s what. There is a lot of smiling and a lot of mutual incomprehension. My question about the wifi in my hotel – which I was assured was available in every room – is answered by a shrug, and when pressed, the explanation: oh, you know, it comes and goes. Foreigners are still a novelty, and therefore quite amusing. The hotels, or rather pensions, are extremely cheap and mine is decorated with the kind of bad hippy art that I thought had died in the 1970s also.

On the first evening I wander around the cemetery – often a good place to start – and am delighted to find the grave of one Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. You couldn’t make it up. It goes into the catalogue of great names, just pipping that of the Baron Ferdinand Edgar Percival de Frutigen, whose memorial I once encountered in the Pyrenean town of Prats de Mollo.

 

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

 

mompox cementery

Mompox Cemetery

mompox cementery 2

 

Mompox cementery cats

Mompox cementery cats

mompox old market

 

mompox flowers and street

 

mompox 2 cyclists

 

 

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

 

 

 

 

‘Story’, by Rómulo Bustos Aguirre

14 Sep

Story

I ask myself: why write poetry?

And from some place in the mysterious forest

(in that other story that I am trying in vain

to write with this poem)

the wolf replies

moving his bushy tail Socratically:

– The better to know you.

 

 

Cuento

Me pregunto: ¿Por qué escribo poesía?

Y desde algún lugar del misterioso bosque

(de ese otro cuento que en vano estoy tratando

de escribir en este poema)

responde el lobo

moviendo socrático la peluda cola:

– Para conocerte mejor

 

 

 

Copyright with the author

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