The Defence

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another great book. I must admit to a similar sensation when I first started reading Hemingway: every novel is just so good and unique and you want there to be an inexhaustable supply to last until the end of your days. Sadly, the Hemingway experience was over all too quick, but I can take some comfort from the fact that Nabokov wrote more. Obviously they will eventually run out, so, I need to pace myself and read a new Nabokov as a sublime escape every few months.

I really wish I hadn’t seen the movie of The Defence beforehand, it would have made the drive towards the novel’s resoultion even more intense. So, I will not give the ending away, but it doesn’t end as cleanly, in terms of action, as it should and this is a great device, you are on tenterhooks.

It is a very strange book, Nabokov gives us vivid scenes and then lets us fill in the gaps between these. The importance of a good back story and unresolved issues is often overlooked and I find myself still thinking about Luzhin’s mother, the auntie and the personal effects left by his father. Also, Valentinov and his activities. As with all of Nabokov’s books you really feel that he knows exactly what he is doing as a writer and that this comes effortlessly and intuitively – he is the literary Picasso of the twentieth century.

Form plays an important part in this novel; the creative nature of form along with the negative are finally brought to fruition with the way conclusion manifests itself. Even the stuttering less-than-clean act at the end brings out the contradictions. What a work of art.




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By Vladimir Nabokov.

The character Timofey Pnin is right up there with the greatest characters in Russian literature: Chichikov, Raskolnikov, Oblomov, Anna Karenina etc…

I spent some time trying to work out what I liked so much about this eccentric Russian emigre that Nabokov had created. Pnin is eccentric, clumsy and is seen as an absurd figure by most of his colleagues and they regard him with some derision. What is so admirable about Pnin is his strength of being. He is Pnin and he lives and acts against the grain, he has a strength of character that his detractors do not.

The novel is written brilliantly as you would expect from Nabokov. The chapters are mostly separate vignettes that present a certain scene or period in Pnin’s life and all of these snapshots create a moving and whimsical picture of the man. Pale Fire was very complex and contained many ideas but Pnin, which is still part of the loose trilogy of Pale Fire, Pnin and Lolita, is focused primarily on Pnin. This is similar to Luzhin in ‘The Defence’ – maybe Nabokov was again attempting to build a character that had foibles but could still command our respect and admiration through their uncompromising behaviour.

I thought this was a fantastic book and it was, so far, the novel I enjoyed the most from Nabokov. Pale Fire was maybe more of a triumph in its ideas and complexity but Pnin really was pure enjoyment. The same pure enjoyment I got from reading Dead Souls or The Twelve Chairs.

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Dark Domain

By Stefan Grabinski.

Grabinski is definitely a little-known Polish writer; several erudite Polish people I polled had never heard of him. These stories were great: full of supernatural tension with a good dose of introspection and the surreal. Well worth reading. I was captivated all the way through and there is a well-formed psychological base to the stories. Three of them also use train travel to great effect, a drama being played out while outside everything is movement is a good idea and it works brilliantly. Grabinski was an outsider and his lead characters are as well. Many of the endings are ambiguous and could be used as entry into a longer story, possibly. To try and write this could be an interesting exercise.

It doesn’t look like any novels have been translated into English and the foreword is a little dismissive of them as it seems Grabinski moved into more mystical material. I wouldn’t mind reading some more.




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A Happy Boy

By Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

I decided to follow up the last post with another Norwegian writer. This story was written 150 years earlier though, in 1860. Quite a pleasant tale. There’s nothing great or meaningful here, just good writing, some well constructed scenes and absorbing attention to detail. I read Bjørnson years ago after first encountering Hamsun because I heard he had been quite a formative influence on him. You can see the the love of nature and a recognition of its eternal aspect in both writers. Hamsun obviously took things further and entered a more psychological realm. This book is in the public domain. It’s quite short and well worth reading over a couple of days.



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By Stig Sæterbakken.

I didn’t enjoy this novel. There were not enough interesting ideas and the motives and thoughts given to the characters seemed artificial and two-dimensional. Every now and then I give a contemporary writer a chance, but ultimately I then return disappointed to something older and with a bit more weight. Exceptions would have to be James Kelman, J M Coetzee  and Tatyana Tolstaya who have modern works I really admire. But, generally, contemporary literary fiction (if such a genre exists) leaves me with the feeling I have just wasted hours of my life. I am happy to be proven wrong as I was with DBC Pierre whose ‘Vernon God Little’ novel was very good.

I went to a panel discussion a couple of weeks ago organised by Dalkey Archive and Sæterbakken was on the panel – he said quite a few interesting things (along with Drago Jančar) so I bought this novel which was on sale there. I may have just started with the wrong book.





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The Golem

By Gustav Meyrink.

This great poster from the 1979 Polish movie ‘The Golem’ is by Franciszek Starowieyski – I am going to have to try and track the movie down, though I believe it has a different plot to the book. There is also a silent movie version that I will watch by Wegener – I will post an update later on this.

Meyrinks’s novel – what a book. In very general terms it was a cross between Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’ and Edgar Allen Poe with a bit of Kafka mixed in there too. Apparently Kafka and Meyrink were acquainted. It is very sinister, dreamlike, filled with atmosphere but also with a great deal of introspection. You, the reader, are left to figure out what the twists in plot mean along with the symbolism and ultimately at the end you have to draw your own conclusions.

Sometimes, when you are left wondering at the end of a book you can assume it is a device of the writer when he or she hasn’t quite worked out how to finish it. In this case, I believe there are a few ways of seeing the end and that this was by design. The questions posed throughout the book can possibly be resolved, but only if you choose to and never with any certainty. The Golem is a backdrop – he was created out of Jewish mysticism but was always only a product and not a source in itself. The larger story in the novel is based around the psychological and spiritual experiences of Athanasius Pernath and the characters that he comes in contact with. The intrusion of the anonymous narrator at the end opens things up – the story expands into the wider world.

I don’t want to give anymore away. It is definitely recommended. Oh, and the translation by Mike Mitchell reads very well.

Soundtrack: ‘Ghost Boy’ by Widowspeak.










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