Monday, August 26, 2013

"Beauty and Pity"

I continue to work on a first draft of The Hanging Man, though I’m interrupting that work briefly to go over a couple of passages of Go Home, Miss America before sending it off to some people. Not really editing or revising, so much as clarifying a few things in early chapters. Also to write a synopsis, which work I don’t enjoy much. I also find myself making notes about Mona in the Desert, which I plan to revise beginning this winter. So, lots to do. I have failed to even mention the 12-foot wooden fence we'll be building next weekend.

Meanwhile, I’m finishing up a re-read of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, which is a collection of his lecture notes that some nice editor (Fredson Bowers) has arranged into more-or-less coherent fashion as essays. I’m in the final section, about Joyce’s Ulysses. While I appreciate Nabokov’s ideas about style and structure, and I agree mostly with his comment that a good reader reads primarily with his spine—that is to say, gets a tingling sensation in his nervous system when he encounters creative acts of style and structure in literature and understands that a good book is much more than its surface—I find again that there’s something missing in Nabokov’s analyses of these great works. Literature is more than Nabokov seems to admit it is, because Nabokov seems to disallow any talk of unconscious work by the author, by which I mean Nabokov pretends that all of the patterns we see in a novel are deliberate works of the writer, and that any network of symbols or themes that we might see that was not seen by the author himself is just a figment of our imaginations. That seems wrongheaded, but I blame Nabokov’s distaste for all things Freudian for this blind spot. Artists work with their intuition and instincts as much as they do with their intellect, but intuition and instinct have no place in Nabokovian analysis. “Beauty and pity,” yes, but all of it consciously placed there by the writer. Once again I can’t help but feel that Vladimir was afraid of the deep inner workings of his own mind. And none of this is quite what I mean. I'll have to think a little more about what I think Nabokov is missing, but I do believe he's looking at literature through a window he kept deliberately narrowed. He was a funny guy, that Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know: you want specifics, something more than "Nabokov seems to..." so that I'm making some sort of solid claims of my own here. But I'm not trying to have an argument with VN; I'm trying to work out for myself what the use of literature is. Why do I read? Why in God's name do I write? Why do I write these particular books? Et cetera. Nabokov is only peripherally important to that.

But that’s all by the way. Lectures on Literature is a fine book, presenting a well thought-out method of (one particular way) to look at literature. Read it, ignore the limits Nabokov places on literature, and learn about style and structure.

I’m also continuing Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is a foolish romp but quite entertaining and well written, at least the first part. Doctor Rabelais wrote five books in this series over twenty-odd years, so who knows what happens as it continues? It’s a comic narrative with no real central idea to hold it together, so it’s something I can read a couple of chapters of and then set aside and return to it whenever; a cliffhanger it’s not. Because there is no real story being told in G&P, I find myself casting about for something else to read alongside it after I finish up the Nabokov. I don’t know what that’s going to be.

Also, this weekend Mighty Reader and I saw this barred owl about a mile from our house:


  1. I won't pretend to have a great literary mind. I won't even pretend to understand the inner workings of style and structure. However, I will attempt to understand why I write what I write.

    I think in my case, I write romance because I'm trying to find the happy ending that I never had. It's all Freudian, I'm sure, however, I think if one "has" to write, and most of what we do write comes from our own inner sanctum, the least we can do is write the "truth" as we see it.

    As an example -- I put my characters through romantic hell and back again. Angst, anxiety, lies, broken promises, meddling do-gooders who don't really do any good, anything and everything that I can throw at them. Because I've lived through all that romantic bullshit myself. Write what you know as the saying goes.

    I think as long as you stick to your truth, if you believe in your words as you write them on the page, that your characters are just a slight extension of your soul, you'll be successful even if you never sell a copy.

    I write what I write because I "have" to. If I didn't I'd be lost. Or drunk. But sober almost 10years, so there's no sense in turning back now.

    Beautiful owl. Monster and I surprised two deer in my parents' backyard the other day. Mother and fawn. I've never seen a wild fawn before. It was just like Bambi.

  2. One way to take Nabokov's narrowing is that it is specifically pedagogical. He is guiding undergraduates, not arguing with other novelists. He is also arguing with what was going on in some of the other classrooms at Cornell. The illusion of intentionality is a trick to get students to try to continue to flesh out the pattern in the text, rather than drag in someone else's framework.

    I mean, even today, how many people have any interest in making an argument from the text? Perhaps you are wise enough not to read as many book blogs as I do.

    Another way to interpret the book is to pretend that Nabokov was training his students to read Nabokov novels.

    Stacy Schiff's biography Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov has a wonderful chapter on VN-as-teacher, worth reading independently from the bio. It was also a New Yorker article, perhaps available online somewhere. Anyway, the chapter has a lot of goodies about how the class worked in practice - some kinds of students were permanently baffled, while for others it was a life-changing revelation.

  3. Something that struck me while I read the Ulysses chapter was Nabokov's patience with the mechanism of the plot, and in retrospect I see the same patience with the plots of the other novels he discusses. So certainly, certainly, certainly there's great value in what Nabokov brings to these novels. Possibly I want him to interpret the novels and he's not doing that, so the narrowness isn't something VN is missing; it's just something he's not discussing in this class. When you start art lessons, you start with the rudiments. "These are primary colors; these are secondary; these tertiary. This is how you mix them." Etc. But like I say, I'm not really looking to pick a fight with Nabokov. His own novels contain whatever elements I think are missing from his lectures. That chapter on Pnin's lost love? That's the stuff. You can't explain it in terms of symbol and style without missing the chapter's real power. Same with, say, the death of the author father in The Defense after he's stumbled upon a new, artistic method of creating a narrative. The essential humanity of art (or some such twaddle--whenever you talk about this stuff it sounds cliche and trite, which is maybe why VN avoided it in favor of talk of pure craft) is there in Nabokov, but not there in his lectures. But again, I think the road to art is paved with craft, and Nabokov was training his students to read novels. I'm sure I'm making no sense.

    "arguments from the text," though. That's why folks read your blog, Tom.

  4. Anne, the more I write, the more my novels become less about myself. I see the stories as "out there" rather than "in here," if that makes any sense. And for me, style and symbol are quite important, because how I present the material is part of the why of why I write. What I'm doing with the novel is part of the big question.

    When I started writing novels, I was in search of a method, a way to write a sort of typical 19th-century European novel along the lines of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (I didn't know at the time that Flaubert was the model I sought). I managed to figure out the technique in my novel Cocke & Bull, which I think is a unity of form: the characters, themes, plots, symbols and language all support each other and form complete patterns within the narrative. It is, according to a certain standard, a perfect book. I'm proud of that one and I think it's a thing of beauty. But when I sat down to write the next one, I found I couldn't use those ideas of unity any longer. I'd already done that, you see. I needed for the next book (and every next book) to be something new. I don't know what that "new" is supposed to be, or how to achieve it, or why I'm trying to do different things with each book. I only know that I try to write harder with each new novel, to expand my set of tools, to challenge myself. I have no idea if this is a worthy ambition, or who I'm writing for, or any of that stuff. There is no specific goal in mind when I sit down to write. I don't care about catharsis or entertainment; I have a vague idea about beauty that I pursue, but it's not a fixed idea. I have, in the end, no clue what I'm doing or why I'm doing it. I just keep doing it. I wish I understood it better, that's all. I read the writings of other writers, looking for clues to my own writerly behavior. Blah blah blah. Tomorrow I'm going to climb a mountain. That's probably a more meaningful form of investigating art.

  5. Yes, that is a better way to say it. Save the interpretation for later, class. Right now, let's make sure we are actually seeing the book in front of us.

    Forget argument from the text, what I would really like book bloggers to do is show me the bit of the text they liked, not the character or sentiment but the unexpected shadow or gesture or joke. That's the stuff that I miss all the time.

    I took a Tolstoy class from a veteran of Nabokov's classes. He said the test question he most clearly remembered was about what characters had for breakfast in Mansfield Park.

  6. I do get what you're saying about unity and form and beauty. I can understand it, and marvel at it, but I don't think I can quite achieve it. As much as I'd like to think I am, I am not Jane Austen.

    Yes, I've taken some baby steps as far as style and structure with my short stories, and even some with my contemporary romances, but for the most part, I just don't think that "big". sometimes I really wish I did.

    But you and I are writing for different reasons. Which I think all writers have. Some to make money, some to use their creative processes, some to just get it out of their system.

    In my opinion, no matter what we write or how we write, if we love the book, then we can't be wrong.

    As someone once said, other people will love it, some will hate it, but if you're happy with it, then other's opinions don't matter much.