Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

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




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.








Thinking Pig

11 Jan


Stories of animal transformation abound in myths and folktales across the world. The theme is one that pervades Greek and Celtic mythologies, to take just two examples, and traditionally takes two forms: the ability of a god or sorcerer or shaman to wilfully transform him/herself into an animal; and the punitive transformation of people into animals for some misdeed or crime.

In a reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis we might argue – as Nabokov does in his lecture notes on the book – that before the actual transformation, Gregor Samsa already lived like an insect, always scuttling about and kowtowing to greater pressures such as familial guilt and responsibility as well as a servile sense of duty to his job. Just as bugs mooch about, busying themselves yet at the same time achieving nothing, Gregor scuttles through his day, occasionally running across another insect and eating morsels as he finds them.

But what of the broader, mythical background to the notion of metamorphosis? In The Odyssey we encounter Proteus and Circe. Proteus changes forms several times throughout the poem: lion, serpent, leopard and pig, and ultimately is the character responsible for guiding Odysseus home. Circe’s ability to transform Odysseus’ crew into pigs might be regarded as the forerunner of countless tales of human-animal metamorphosis.

A powerful motif running though both Irish and Welsh mythic literature is that of shape-shifting  . . . In the Welsh narratives, shape-shifting is generally presented as punitive rather than voluntary: a few episodes revolve around the transformation of people into animals because of some misdemeanour. Thus in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, Twrch Trwyth – an enchanted boar – is the object of one of Culhwch’s quests to win the hand of Olwen. When questioned as to the origin of his misfortune, Trwch Trwyth replied that God blighted him with boar-shape as punishment for his evil ways. In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy are turned into three successive pairs of beasts (deer, wolves and swine) because of their conspiracy to rape King Math’s virgin footholder Goewin (Math needs a footholder – obviously – because he will die if his feet are not held in the lap of a virgin).

The pig seems a popular incarnation for errant humans. In Christian symbology they represent venality and the sins of the flesh. But there is more. In Edmund Leach’s famous paper on animal categories and verbal abuse, we are reminded that what we eat is often analogous to whom we are normally expected to sleep with: for instance we don’t – in British culture – tend to eat dogs, and – analogously, according to Leach – we disapprove of incest. We do however eat domestic farm animals (pigs, sheep, chickens etc), which are bred for human consumption, a class of animal that Leach correlates to an intermediate rank of sociability: people whom one might meet socially, within a circle of acquaintances, and who serve as potential sexual partners. By extension, claims Leach, we don’t, as a rule, sleep with complete strangers (questionable, but let’s stick with the theory for a minute) – and accordingly we do not habitually eat exotic animals such as lions and crocodiles and elephants and emus (availability is an issue there, which kind of upsets the theory, but let’s not be pernickety). Leach’s thesis could be summarised in less scholarly terms as the edibility : fuckability theory.

Having just read Marie Darriussecq’s Pig Tales, the English translation of a book originally published in French in 1996 as Truismes, I will concede that pigs are not regarded favourably. The protagonist of this excellent short novel has the misfortune to find herself metamorphosing into a sow and there is little she can do about it. She puts on weight in all the wrong places, her skin turns tough and bristles of hair sprout abundantly. She starts eating flowers and develops a love of raw potatoes. She grows a third nipple, then a full set of six teats. She grunts and squeals uncontrollably and eventually finds it more comfortable to go about on all fours. Darriuessecq’s book is hilarious and filthy and thought-provoking, tackling big themes such as consciousness, gender roles and the objectification of the female body, but it would be a shame to encumber it with too much interpretation. Sometimes a novel can be read like a dream (or a nightmare) and just taken for what it is: a woman morphing into a pig (just as her lover morphs into a wolf). The concept itself is enough to travel with: just think pig. Relax. Lie back in your sty. Make a bacon sandwich. Read a book, why don’t you.









Kafka and Obsession

27 Jul
3:4 Portrait crop of Franz Kafka

Image via Wikipedia

“Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!

Never before, I suggest, has this ejaculation been used in conjunction with the life or writings of Franz Kafka, as occurred in a somewhat cavalier fashion at the end of my last post. Huzzah or Huzza, according to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is “a sort of cheer, hurrah . . . a sailor’s cheer or salute, possibly an alteration of earlier hissa a cry also said to be used by sailors in pulling or hauling (about 1500)”. However this is not the only interpretation of its origin, as the Wikipedia entry makes clear. Whether or not Kafka ever said ‘Huzzah’ or its equivalent in German or Czech, is uncertain.

But Huzzah for Kafka, I say, in any case. He has helped me through many a writing crisis, leading by example; the practical example, for one, of how to apply oneself when you have another, proper job to go to and yet still feel compelled to write (Kafka worked as an insurance officer, and wrote at night). And while Anthony Trollope would get up at four or five in the morning and put in three hours’ work before setting off for the Post Office, one gets the impression that writing didn’t cleave his soul in twain in quite the same way.

Kafka has been the subject of essays by just about every writer on twentieth century literature worth their salt. From Nabokov to Zadie Smith, from Borges to J.M. Coetzee, it seems an imperative part of a writer’s CV to have an opinion on Kafka. And why? In his essay ‘Literature + Illness = Illness’  Roberto Bolaño gives us a clue: “the greatest writer of the twentieth century understood that the dice were cast, and from the day he first spat blood nothing came between him and writing.”

The answer to his continuing centrality in the canon of world literature lies not only in his widespread acceptance (among other writers of note, at least) as ‘the greatest writer of the twentieth century’ but in Kafka’s intense personification of the writer obsessed by writing. Looking at some extracts from Maurice Blanchot’s essay ‘Kafka and Literature’, we can see why. “Everything that is not literature bores me.” “Everything that does not have to do with literature I hate.” “All I am is literature, and I am not willing to be anything else”. Not necessarily the kind of person you would want to be seated next to at a dinner party.

This notion of literature as a calling, at least in so fiery a formula, is not something that most citizens can relate to, even if it is common knowledge that writers, or any artist caught up in the throes of creative activity will become inaccessible for stretches of time, when the rest of the world is blanked out and only the job in hand seems to have any meaning.  It brings to mind the similar one-track-mindedness of the person hopelessly in love, which the ancient Greeks considered a form of madness. And is this cast of mind, this personification of the obsessed and almost transcendentally ‘removed’ author, one that still has salience today? Or is it a remnant of the late Romanticism that had its final explosive moment in the modernist movement of the early twentieth century, and has no relevance to us now, except as a tired and embarrassing pose? I am genuinely confused by all this, and have the impression that there is still a myth of the terminally obsessed artist just as there is the myth of the Dionysian and self-destructive artist discussed in my post of 12th July on Dionysus and The Doors. The prevailing myth, sustained by Hollywood, is that the artist has to be an obsessed sociopath, but in my experience it is a question of degree. Some of the finest artists live out their lives like deranged beasts, while others drink tea from bone china cups, and discuss the lateness of the roses. I believe there is room for both varieties, and more. The further we get away from stereotypes of any kind, the more comfortable I am in my own skin. I wonder what other people think?