The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

seb

 

By Vladimir Nabokov

Once again, a great novel. Perhaps maybe it is too aware of itself. And, I do have a dislike of writers writing about writing for the most part.

 

‘A dark country, a hellish place, gentlemen, and if there is anything of which I am certain in life it is that I shall never exchange the liberty of my exile for the vile parody of home …’

 

All is flesh and all is purity. But one thing is certain: I have been happy with you and now I am miserable with another. And so life will go on. I shall joke with the chaps at the office and enjoy my dinners (until I get dyspepsia), and read novels, and write verse, and keep an eye on the stocks – and generally behave as I have always behaved. But that does not mean that I shall be happy without you … Every small thing which will remind me of you.

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Invitation to a Beheading and Despair

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Two very different novels. Despair has plot and psychology and it feels more like Nabokov even though Invitation to a Beheading was written later and has what can be described with the benefit of hindsight ‘Kafkaesque’ elements. Both are strong and excellent reads with much to think about. Nabokov was well in his stride in these mid-thirties novels (both in age and decade).

 

 

 

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Speak, Memory

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Of course a Nabokov autobiography would have Memory in the title. Nabokov is all about memories and explores the richness of these. You could argue he didn’t need to write this as there is much of his life in his novels. But, this is a different autobiography. This is Nabokov capturing episodes and experiencing pleasure in the process. This book is by Nabokov for Nabokov and we are lucky enough to be invited to participate and listen. The framework is very loose; written over a period of years and some parts were never intended to be in a larger work. The passage when he describes burping his baby son Dmitri is great – it becomes a philosophical experience while amusing at the same time. There’s so much warmth contained within precise fantastic prose.

“I think bourgeois fathers – wing-collar workers in pencil-striped pants, dignified, office-tied fathers, so different from young American veterans of today or from a happy, jobless Russian-born expatriate of fifteen years ago – will not understand my attitude toward our child. Whenever you held him up, replete with his warm formula and grave as an idol, and waited for the postlactic all-clear signal before making a horizontal baby of the vertical one, I used to take part both in your wait and in the tightness of his surfeit, which I exaggerated, therefore rather resenting your cheerful faith in the speedy dissipation of what I felt to be a painful oppression; and when, at last, the blunt little bubble did rise and burst in his solemn mouth, I used to experience a lovely relief as you, with a congratulatory murmur, bent low to deposit him in the white-rimmed twilight of his crib.”

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Glory

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another immensely enjoyable novel. This one had a very strange atmosphere about it. The other books I have experienced something similar are those by Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse – almost like whimsical folk-tales. It’s a good story, well written and it transports you. You can see the beginnings of the precocious imagination of some of his later works – Pale Fire in particular. John Updike described it as ‘… far from the least of this happy man’s Russian novels.’  I haven’t really touched the surface of these yet but this observation could be correct.

 

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Mary

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Definitely not a work of genius but still good – it was a début novel. Some themes can be found here that occur in his other novels: notably dream and its relationship to the larger-than-life reality Nabokov creates. Also, the unreality of the traditional romantic ideal. Memories and reminiscences punctuate the narrative – this is the strongest connection with his other novels. Memories play such an important role for Nabokov whether they are true to life or imagined. I think this is one of the reasons I like him so much. The only thing missing is humour but this starts later. It will be interesting to find the novel in his oeuvre where humour starts to make more of an appearance.

 

 

 

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Look at the Harlequins!

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another very strong novel by Nabokov. It is not his best work – though I can’t exactly say why: possibly the reader may not be as affected or overcome by his genius as in other novels. There’s still a fair few to read – in my case. Of course his prose, and the sense of voice or character that he engenders is absolutely impressive. Take this fantastic long sentence for example:

“She wore elaborate make-up  and spoke in  simpering accents, reducing nouns  and adjectives  to over-affectionate  forms  which even  the Russian language, a recognized giant of diminutives, would only condone  on  the wet lips of  an infant  or  tender  nurse  (“Here,” said Mrs.  Blagovo “is  your  chaishko s molochishkom   [teeny  tea  with   weeny  milk]”).

Autobiographical elements are obviously going to be present here – though you would need to be a Nabokovian scholar to really analyse this. In the same way that Nabokov himself was an authority on Pushkin. That is one of the things I am attracted to in Nabokov’s work: he is modern and aware but he is also linked to the past – he is a successor to Gogol and you can sense his character behind the words in the same way as Pushkin. Nabokov cannot be considered in isolation, it has to be in his Russian context. There was one joke that I got where Vadim (the main character and first-person narrator) chastises his wife for mixing up and creating a spoonerism out of third-rate journalists (Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky from the 1860s). I’m not sure why Nabokov would create such an obscure reference, in Western eyes, perhaps it was a little dig at the Russian Communist establishment who would remember those Russian Populist predecessors of the nineteenth century.

There is so much detail and humour in ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ and it is a novel to go back to, but it probably shouldn’t be the first Nabokov novel you should read. Immeasurably enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Pnin

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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Pale Fire

paleBy Vladimir Nabokov

Absolutely amazing. This book must rank up there with one of the master-works of twentieth century fiction. It is so intricate, deft, humourous, and almost without parallel as far as I can see. Completely different from Lolita and I can’t wait to read more Nabokov to experience more of this overwhelming intellect. Admittedly, the structure is metafiction which I don’t have a great affinity with but this time I really don’t care (unlike Muriel Spark’s the Comforters which was far too full of writerly artifice). The trick here is that along with the metafiction is a great story and a story that interests the reader and reveals itself – it’s not about craft or structure OVER ideas. This is packed full of stuff and as a reader all of it interests you. For once the hype around a famous author is quite justified. Why doesn’t Sting write a litany for his lute to draw attention to this novel? Oh – that’s right – it’s not as sensational as Lolita and won’t help him sell records.

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Lolita

lolita By Vladimir Nabokov

I never really considered reading this book up until now. It was the fact that Sting referenced it in his famous song and I think that Sting is a less than valid arbiter of taste. You just need to look at what he has gone on to do since the Police with his progressive, turgid jazz-rock-aor fusions. I can see now that referencing Nabokov was an attempt to intellectualise and help popularise his insipid commercial post-punk. To reference another art form is quite fine but you have to look at how and why it is being done. This is certainly not Scott Walker referencing Bergman. Sting spells Nabokov’s name wrong and what particularly is ‘just like the old man in that book by Nabakov’? – That there was a young girl involved? I’m sorry, not good enough. Putting Sting to one side this is a fine book and part of the reason I am so annoyed is that if this book had not been bought for me (and it is a great edition by Weidenfeld and Nicolson) I would have assumed Sting’s mediocrity extends to the books he references and possibly never read it – so there is a lesson there. Because, this is an excellent book, so detailed and rich and well-written. The movie with Peter Sellers is good too but it is a different thing. I still can’t understand how a novel can be so funny, tragic and have such in depth psychological analysis all at the same time – but it does. Nabokov is a master of prose made all the more amazing by the fact Russian was his first language not English. Astounding. I will read his other novels now that I have exorcised the demons of assumptive implication. I won’t be stung twice.

Soundtrack: Scott Walker – The Seventh Seal

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