29 November 2012

Spring in Fialta by Nabokov, 1936

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 3:01 pm

…I will not mention the name (and what bits of it I happen to give here appear in decorous disguise) of that man, that Franco-Hungarian writer . . . I would rather not dwell upon him at all, but I cannot help it — he is surging up from under my pen. Today one does not hear much about him, and that is good, for it proves that I was right in resisting his evil spell, right in experiencing a creepy chill down my spine whenever this or that new book of his touched my hand. The fame of his likes circulates briskly but soon grows heavy and stale; and as for history it will limit his life story to the dash between two dates. Lean and arrogant, with some poisonous pun ever ready to fork out and quiver at you, and with a strange look of expectancy in his dull brown veiled eyes, this false wag had, I daresay, an irresistible effect on small rodents. Having mastered the art of verbal invention to perfection, he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words, a title he valued higher than that of a writer; personally, I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other; and I remember once saying to him as I braved the mockery of his encouraging nods that, were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.

I had known his books before I knew him; a faint disgust was already replacing the aesthetic pleasure which I had suffered his first novel to give me. At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to distinguish some human landscape, some old garden, some dream-familiar disposition of trees through the stained glass of his prodigious prose . . . but with every new book the tints grew still more dense, the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see anything at all through that blazoned, ghastly rich glass, and it seems that were one to break it, nothing but a perfectly black void would face one’s shivering soul. But how dangerous he was in his prime, what venom he squirted, with what whips he lashed when provoked! The tornado of his passing satire left a barren waste where felled oaks lay in a row, and the dust still twisted, and the unfortunate author of some adverse review, howling with pain, spun like a top in the dust…

[Nabokov wrote this short story in Russian while living in Berlin; he and Peter Pertzov translated it into English.]



  1. From wiki:

    “Nabokov’s detractors fault him for being an aesthete and for his over-attention to language and detail rather than character development.[citation needed] In his essay “Nabokov, or Nostalgia”, Danilo Kiš wrote that Nabokov’s is “a magnificent, complex, and sterile art”. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov’s prose.[citation needed]”

    “I would rather not dwell upon him at all, but I cannot help it — he is surging up from under my pen”.

    Just couldn’t help himself, could he? Not unlike Humbert Humbert, just redirected into something else irresistible. Nor could he have suppressed publishing this.

    “Today one does not hear much about him, and that is good, for it proves that I was right in resisting his evil spell, ”

    But…ya DIDN’T, Blanche! (Love, Bette Davis as Baby Jane)

    Now that you have put up two examples of this–this Franco-Hungarian writer is very similar in vanity to Humbert–one does see Nabokov’s intense moralism, it’s very self-righteous, and things like this don’t have any more to do with genius (he got it all right) than anything else (Genet got it all right, even in prison). It’s like Fellini’s fury at Casanova when he made the film with Donald Sutherland, except more extreme. And while he did make some real contributions as a lepidopterist, appreciated more recently than in his lifetime, there are those who would think only true professionals really ought to be catching and killing butterflies for collections–even if we are not animal rights activists in any way when it comes to food products (even veal of baby pigs.) I haven’t ever really understood the killing of animals for purely decorative purposes, like the use of feathers from endangered birds for Parisian ladies’ hats (probably against the law by now.)

    James may be a moralist, but if so, it seems rather anti-Puritan. He’s, as far as I know, always on the side of the cocottes and Parisian studs than he is on the ‘Woollett-drab contingent’, even though he pities them. Not that he himself is ever one of these Parisians, oozing as he does with superlatives about “This PARISIANISME!” James could be very embarassing in his seeming eunuch state. In ‘The Bostonians’, he always parodies the simple Christian Miss Birdseye, is very condescending.

    Your previous quote of Nabokov about Humbert and ‘my little girl’ makes it seem that Nabokov actually expects his characters to be totally separate from himself, as if they really were real people. And they’re not. Not even Humbert. Talk about ‘repositories for rage’, he’s got a number, doesn’t he? It’s been said you have to ‘love your characters’, but Nabokov only ‘loves Humbert’ insofar as he’s manipulable by him just as Lolita is, although in one way only and temporarily, by Humbert. So he had even earlier to deal with this rage against this kind of man and it all comes across as personal. Not that that kind of man is admirable, certainly not, but why such intense focus, why pretend he ‘couldn’t keep from writing about him’.

    I looked at a synopsis of Lolita to refresh my memory, having read it but once. He does kill Claire Quilty, in his continued outrage at Lolita having no interest in him except for the ‘large sum of money’ he does give her.

    Nabokov seems curiously sophisticated (or just extremely intelligent) and primitive at the same time. Because he is attracted to this kind of character because of some pleasure at killing something so immoral and amoral. But it’s always outside himself. I doubt it’s so, but I don’ recall a writer talking about his characters in so distanced a way that he talks about them as if they were real protoplasmic people he hates. That’s egomaniacal in itself, even if Lolita is still one of the greatest novels. But I begin to understand a little of what Martin Amis may have meant when he was struggling against his own superlatives, saying “Sometimes ‘Lolita’ is too great for its own good.”

    Not that pinning up butterflies is to be compared with Humbert’s attempted ruin of Lolita (he doesn’t quite manage, it seems, and ends up wanting to, so just figures out ways to hurt her more), and the pianist Walter Gieseking did it too, without even pretending to be scientific, just to put frames of them on his walls. But he definitely sounds like a major asshole in some ways, not least in the relatively recent matter of work he never wanted published, a few years ago–the business with his son–so why didn’t he burn it? Because he was vain himself, isn’t it? If he really didn’t want a controversy over “L’Oeuvre Nabokov”, he hardly needed legislate laws about what must not be done with something left on paper. Of course you really destroy it if you don’t want it published. He didn’t. It’s a kind of egomania that goes well beyond Mailer’s or even Pynchon’s, even if it’s ‘well-behaved in civil society’. Seems a sort of darkly violent soul to me.

    btw, I couldn’t remember the name of the opera ‘The Spoiled Artist’ while I was itemizing my list of spoiled food items for Con Edison to reimburse in their Hurricane Sandy Claim Form. I was just too bizzi to think of anything but working-class things while I scored the red-wine sauce (molded.)

    The POISONS! Yes, the POISONS he resisted!


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 30 November 2012 @ 10:34 am

  2. In these two paragraphs doesn’t Nabokov compel the reader to draw parallels between the narrator, the “weaver of words” whom the narrator despises, and Nabokov himself? Is Nabokov agreeing with his critics by acknowledging his self-loathing, or is he ridiculing the loathsome critics? The narrator has the hots for the writer’s wife Nina but he’s never able to get her. In this story, rather than killing the writer the envious narrator kills off the wife. Is the wife too a stand-in for Nabokov as obscure object of desire, or does she represent his books? At the end the narrator finally confesses his love for the unattainable wife, but in response to her utter unresponsiveness he demurs: “Never mind, I was only joking.” She gets into the car with her husband and they drive off, the narrator watching their departure leaning on a stone parapet in romantic despair. In the end the sun shines through the gloom and he is released from her spell. Here’s the last sentence of the story:

    But the stone was as warm as flesh, and suddenly I understood something I had been seeing without understanding — why a piece of tinfoil had sparkled so on the pavement, why the gleam of a glass had trembled on a tablecloth, why the sea was ashimmer: somehow, by imperceptible degrees, the white sky above Fialta had got saturated with sunshine, and now it was sun-pervaded throughout, and this brimming white radiance grew broader and broader, all dissolved in it, all vanished, all passed, and I stood on the station platform of Mlech with a freshly bought newspaper, which told me that the yellow car I had seen under the plane trees had suffered a crash beyond Fialta, having run at full speed into the truck of a traveling circus entering the town, a crash from which Ferdinand and his friend, those invulnerable rogues, those salamanders of fate, those basilisks of good fortune, had escaped with local and temporary injury to their scales, while Nina, in spite of her long-standing, faithful imitation of them, had turned out after all to be mortal.

    There is the deft wielding of a cold sharp scalpel here, impressive and horrifying. Besides pinioning butterflies Nabokov also wrote crossword puzzles. He played word games in his texts too, the first letter of each paragraph forming an acronym, that sort of thing. The narrator of this story claims to provide bits of the Franco-Hungarian’s name “in decorous disguise” — maybe in the original Russian the disguise can be detected. But in the last two pages he casts aside the disguise and names the writer explicitly: Ferdinand. So is he a trickster or isn’t he? Is he unable to keep his own disguise in place without revealing himself? It’s been claimed that Nabokov was himself a closet pedophile, but isn’t that the sort of ruse Nabokov would like to play, heaping disdain on the critic while at the same time seeming to add fuel to the fire? He hated Freud by the way.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 November 2012 @ 12:14 pm

  3. Contrary to Hemingway’s assertion, first-person narration doesn’t seem to trigger more empathic response from the reader than does the third person. I do wonder though whether first-person encourages the reader to blur the distinction between narrator and author. Lolita too is written first person, with Humbert as narrator.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 November 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  4. He begins to remind me, as I read your comment, of Fritz Lang, always in courtrooms, always sympathetic to, say, ‘M’ (and voluptuously so, one might say, given the period). Later, with Spencer Tracy and even later with the superb ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’ with stunning perfs. by D. Andrews, sleek, chic J. Fontaine, and total-heaven bosom-woman from Queens Barbara Nichols (my favourite actress, I sometimes think, and, as usual, stealing the show as in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, although Curtis pretty great, Lancaster too).

    And the suspicion around the murder of his first wife never went away, this aided and abetted by the hatred everyone in Hollywood had for him despite his genius, because he really was a total shit. He never got over the loss of total tyranny he enjoyed during his German Mabuse ‘n’ Siegried ‘n’ Metropolis days, mercilessly driving the extras to illness and injury. I think Metropolis is probably the best, although again he’s like the supervisor-bosses at the top, while making a film that sympathizes with ‘the little people’. Despite the great works, the best Fritz Lang moments, as I’ve probably said a dozen times, have to be those lost forever–the behind-the-scenes ball-busting Dietrich is supposed to have done in ‘Rancho Notorious’. She was truly formidable; I can just imagine her voice booming in furious German, not the least bit intimidated by this creature.

    All these things you’ve just chronicled are very interesting, and demystify this self-righteous genius. The games played in text–again, why let people know this defnitely if not to draw attention to something obnoxious and slightly sadistic? Lawrence Durrell spoils his own work by talking too much about his methods and gaming in ‘The Avignon Quintet’, structuring it by little blueprints so that that denudes it as fiction, and you hate then looking back at the beauties of ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ after he’s gotten all smart-ass like that. Henry Miller knew and liked him very much, but deplored his ‘Englishness’. Henry Miller is, now hat he comes up, a writer easy to like as a person, not just as a writer–he’s not only a writer’s-ego. as is DeLillo, for maybe quieter reasons.

    So glad you mentioned ‘the original Russian’. All sounded fine until ‘freshly-bought newspaper’, which immediately made me wonder if that had been in English first.

    “It’s been claimed that Nabokov was himself a closet pedophile, but isn’t that the sort of ruse Nabokov would like to play, heaping disdain on the critic while at the same time seeming to add fuel to the fire?”

    Yes, he would like to do that, from this info you are supplying, but that wouldn’t mean it wasn’t true, of course. For example, the fixation on this kind of narcissistic sadist is clearly his desire to be at least a ‘closet cocksucker’ (that’s pre- being a closet cocksucker, and I stole it from one of Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey’s funniest conceits, in which two laid-back-talking guys are just sitting there, stoned I guess, and one of them says to the other: “Are you a closet queen?” To which the questioned just half-monosyllables, and the questioner then says “Well, I’d heard that ..[you were] They were brilliant at this kind of slum-angel humour.

    But no doubt at all about one thing: From what you’ve written here, Nabokov was unquestionably POMPOUS. Someone you’d never want to be around, he’d be looking for vulnerabilities just like the Franco-Hungarian.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 30 November 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  5. ‘I do wonder though whether first-person encourages the reader to blur the distinction between narrator and author.’

    Surely it does. Probably almost every time it’s done. Didion even has the narrator say, in ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ “You know me. Or you think you do. The not-quite-omniscient author. No longer moving fast. No longer travelling lightly”.

    It was interesting discovering what major things I forgot from ‘Lolita’ even though it was only about 13 years ago I read. I’d agree Humbert even as first-person does not trigger empathy. And while I find Nabokov repulsive in many ways now, I have to say that the character he wanted most to draw perfectly, Lolita herself, is a stunning achievement. You love her. Her preciousness when she says to him (in the car, I think) ‘You raped me last night’, and when she’ll even call him ‘honey’ in the end. And her adolescent yearnings aren’t stifled by the long tour of dark motels–she wants to be in this school production. And she did odd jobs after escaping Humbert. Nabokov’s skill at making Humbert cardboard while in 1st person may be impressive, but it’s the events with which Lolita begins to make her own new life, seemingly tough enough to do it despite what she’s been through, that is for me the singular genius of the book. I do like Amis’s quote, though; he was on to something, fighting himself and Nabokov too. I’ve thought about that for years “too great for its own good”, but then Amis definitely has talent too, while being very controversial and hated by certain types in particular.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 30 November 2012 @ 1:34 pm

  6. That was a good slip for a change, that “lolita’s preciousness”, when I meant ‘Lolita’s precociousness’. And although it was her sexual precociousness that first made Humbert go insane, she was precocious in many other ways as well.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 30 November 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  7. Humbert is insinuating himself, eliciting the reader’s complicity in corruption: I might be a sleaze, but so are you. It’s not unlike Hawthorne’s sordid tales, minus the Puritanical morality lesson he felt obliged to tack onto the end. But I agree: despite, or because of, HH’s efforts to show us Lolita as a lewd mediocrity, she shines through. But it’s HH who shows us this too: we love her in part because he does too. Even as he systematically corrupts her she manages to preserve the core of herself, and this strength of character further endears her to HH, continuing to trigger his obsession even though at 14 she’s already too old for him.

    Lolita begins with a Foreword supposedly written by John Ray Jr., Ph.D. Here we learn that Humbert Humbert has died in jail of coronary thrombosis after having finished his manuscript of Lolita. Ray decides to publish the book despite anticipated objections:

    True, not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here. If, however, for this paradoxical prude’s comfort, an editor attempted to dilute or omit scenes that a certain type of mind might call “aphrodisiac” (see in this respect the monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably more outspoken, book), one would have to forego the publication of “Lolita” altogether, since those very scenes that one might ineptly accuse of a sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis.

    I’d say that “Dr. Ray” is right, that the “aphrodisiacal” portions are essential to the moral upheaval wrought by the book. Woolsey’s “monumental decision” refers to his ruling in US District Court that Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene — clearly Nabokov thought highly of his own book. We also learn in this Foreward that “Mrs. “Richard F. Schiller” died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952.” Not until the book is nearly finished do we learn that this is Lolita’s married name, but by then we’ve forgotten all about this bit of seemingly trivial historical detail provided on page 2. Is this book too great for its own good? I’m not sure what that means, but it is worthy of its acclaim.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 November 2012 @ 3:23 pm

  8. Yes, I had forgotten that, but I don’t see how I did. There is Nabokov deciding to be as cruel to his ‘little girl’ as Humbert had. He is being ‘artistically ruthless’ and even (shamefully) killing her and then killing her again by killing her child and then killing her again by (shamelessly) putting it on Christmas Day.

    So that, as Humbert brings us into the guilty pleasure of his prurience, we discover that Nabokov indeed was in love with Humbert. He feels guilty about Lolita like Humbert (I had forgotten that Humbert did often enough), but he’s envious of Humbert’s burgeoning. He kills Humbert in prison, finally, but not till Humbert has killed Claire Quilty, and hurt Lolita yet more, then there’s the pre-carnage news in the ‘foreword’ just so we won’t think that Nabokov was anything but the consummate gutsy artist. He’s cruel and hateful himself, which is part of the book’s greatness.

    Which leads me to your review of the Amis remark; “Is this book too great for its own good? I’m not sure what that means”

    As I read that, into my head popped the also-weird phrase (or at least I’ve long thought so) ‘bigger-than-life’. That never quite makes sense either, but we can somehow sense why the phrase was needed to approach something unsayable. A strange occurrence of it was some of Shirley MacLaine’s bullshit I read in a Vanity Fair article some time after she had published that tedious reincarnation book. She had an interesting technique of honing her snobbery by going to ashrams and working in the gardens and meditating, and then not inviting the ashram personnel to any Hollywood parties, of course. As such, she is one of the more loathsome of Hollywood’s offspring, but in this interview she was talking of Sinatra, whom she described as ‘sitting there smoking his Camels, and with always with this bigger-than-life quality’.

    But more interesting is Nabokov’s assessment of Faulkner as ‘worthless’. This is not entirely surprising to know, because Faulkner has none of the popinjay to him. He was a great writer, but it reminds me of someone comparing Gide and Cocteau; I don’t know but one or two works by either of these, although I do rather enjoy the gilded-lilyisme of the film of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Or, say, a comparison between DeLillo and the bratty Jonathan Franzen, who is always trying to repair his image. The sweep of Faulkner’s enormous project is nearly unprecedented, and I can’t really think of another who did it except Proust. And even though Proust was often talking about the upper classes, and wrote a giant novel that is 7 novels (I think it’s seven, but I read all of them), his length is itself made to look skimpy by Faulkner’s. Even a novel like ‘Sanctuary’, which Faulkner thought ‘stank’ and was commercial, is so startling in its brilliance that you really don’t know what he was talking about. ‘Sanctuary’ is very cinematic in its own way, like ‘Tristram Shandy’ had been long before cinema existed. By the way, Sterne’s book I found to be the most difficult of all novels I have ever read: I read the entire ‘Recherche’ (admittedly in English) in 2 months, and it took me 3 1/2 years to read ‘Tristram Shandy’. The reward at the end es almost as good as all of ‘Fanny Hill’….


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 30 November 2012 @ 4:50 pm

  9. I would just add something I thought of just now as regards to fiction characters’ death, this seemed an obvious difference between Nabokov and Faulkner: When Faulkner’s characters die, it’s as if they really do die, not that Faulkner killed them. Nabokov hates his characters to some degree, and must be brutal to them to protect his own authorial image. I’m not sure that’s always true, and I’m not willing to go through the works (not another of them) to prove this. That Christmas Day death even reminded me of Jon-Benet, killed on Christmas Night, although that’s just by the by. Novels or films set at Christmas are always saying something, though. Pauline Kael thought setting ‘Welcome to L.A’ at Christmas was ‘shameful’, but I don’t: That’s the one time there is a near-real sense of winter there, in terms of crisp, even cold air. Didion says that ‘only the holidays are winter’ in LA, and I remember an episode of ‘Policewoman’, the best one of many good ones I saw in reruns in the 80s, when this was still done on reg. network TV, one with Patty Duke as a prostitute. It was quite moving, and at the end, Angie Dickinson waxes poetic, very convincing as she grieved Duke’s death (and this kind of thing happened a number of times in the series) “I hate this time of the year. It’s never quite cold, and it’s never warm enough”. That could be when Mulholland Drive’s Hollywood sign shot was filmed (it feels uncannily like it), and there are parts of ‘Chinatown’ that have that quality.) That chill is part of Los Angeles’s noir essence. When I went in Jan., 2001, that was vaguely ‘reminiscent’, but not really there, but any December you find it. A specifically ‘Christmas movie’ like ‘Miracle on 34th St.’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or ‘Holiday Affair’ (nice with Mitchum and early Janet Leigh) is probably different from fiction that ‘uses the holidays’, and only Christmas has that power, so much so that those who, as Lady Bracknell said of society “Society is criticized only by those who cannot get into it”. Which explains why wrenching and writhing against Christmas is always done by those who ‘can’t get into it’.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 30 November 2012 @ 5:18 pm

  10. My most recent reading of Faulkner was A Rose for Emily, a story that involves two deaths, only one of which is from natural causes. It’s a creepy but sad tale, leaving you feeling as sorry for the murderer as for her victim. I read Faulkner’s tale after someone I know wrote up a story his Cuban grandmother told him as a child living in Tampa, in which a Yankee doctor marries a beautiful Cuban girl. The girl, isolated from her family, dies. But she is not buried. Using his wiles and potions the doctor keeps his bride looking lifelike — more beautiful, those who saw her said, than when she was alive. And so this story brought A Rose for Emily to mind. Weirdly, the Cuban tale doesn’t end with the discovery of the exquisite corpse. She becomes the subject of gossip: she’s been seen in Tampa, or in Havana, alive and well. As I recall the doctor heads back north after his morbid secret is discovered.

    I just read The Infinities, a novel by John Banville, narrated by a man in a coma. In the end Banville can’t even bring himself to kill this character, who’s already as good as dead right from the beginning. The man wakes up, is carried into the living room by his massive son, and presumably lives on for many more years. While Banville is catty about his characters’ failings, he’s clearly fond of them all.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 November 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  11. You haven’t read ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’, so I ought to clarify. That may be an extreme case in which Didion really does want you to think of this ‘narrator’ as ‘the author’, or almost exactly the author, maybe a bit of ‘unreliable narrator’, but as such, I don’t remember (after reading this novel 3 times, I was crazy about it) the narrator re-appearing as an ‘I’ until the very last paragraph-sentence, in which she says ‘I want these two always to have been together’. That’s not like a leading character in first person at all, and not even like the I/narrator in Didion’s earlier novel ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, which I don’t remember quite as well, reading it only once, but that one has some real scenes in the novel as she ‘dies of pancreas cancer’ and how ‘I liked Charlotte Douglas’. et alia.

    Looking back, I don’t tend to remember this aspect of novels I’ve read, whether they’ve been written in 1st or 3rd person. Proust’s novel is written in first person, and is ‘Marcel’, but not precisely ‘Proust’, although in many ways is. Was just thinking that all of Chandler’s Marlowe books are in first person, I think, and they are all the more romantic for it. I wonder if I like any character more than Philip Marlowe. I think everybody is envious of Raymond Chandler, including more ‘literary fiction’ types. Capote was, John G. Dunne was. I am myself in awe of Chandler, and think he was a truly great artist. None of the detective novel writers even comes close, not Ross MacDonald and not James Ellroy. I think it’s because Chandler is one of the ultimate examples of a true ‘American romanticism’, which Faulkner also has, of course, in a much larger way. Hemingway too. Mailer and Didion to some degree. Just like Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Martha Graham.

    The appeal of Henry James may be largely because he was an American expatriate who was very Eurocentric. I see him as a thorougly Europeanized writer (that’s not a criticism, but there is one passage in some novel, where he seems to be talking about himself; the character regrets that he was not ‘able to make something important’ or ‘make something of himself’ on his home territory. Of course, that might be guilt, and it didn’t bother T.S. Eliot apparently (I am not sure why I’ve read so little of Eliot.) Along those lines, in the same book of Martin Amis essays (I think, and don’t remember what the collection was called), he talks about Saul Bellow as the ‘most European of American writers’. Meaning, obviously, of relatively recent decades. He’s a powerful writer, but I’ve only read 2 novels. I heard him read from ‘Ravelstein’ in maybe 2002, he claimed that he was sure that, after death, you ‘still get to see the pictures’. Very peculiar. Then later, somebody said Amis had ‘wanted to be a Bellow kind of writer, but ended up more like Mailer’, about whom he’s written a good deal too. I prefer Mailer, nothing to be done.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 1 December 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  12. I’ve read nothing by Martin Amis. Chandler’s books really are terrific. Just because Philip Marlowe is 1st-person doesn’t mean that I see him as Chandler’s stand-in, any more than any other main character is to some degree the author’s phantasm. Humbert seems particularly to be Nabokov’s “eidolon” because he shares so many of the author’s traits; so too with the Fialta narrator. Marcel, even more so. The weird feature of Banville’s book is that the comatose narrator is also an avatar of Zeus, so he’s able to “read minds” of the other characters just as successfully in the omnipotent style usually reserved for 3rd person. I’m not sure whether Banville is really making a case for human exceptionalism being an eruption of divine transcendence, or if he’s just playing metafictional games. Banville is clearly pleased with his metaphorical lyricism, though it seems misplaced in this narrator who is a theoretical physicist when conscious. It’s a fairly clever book, but there was nothing at risk for the author and so it seemed mostly glib.

    Bellow, Chandler, Dick: all of them are from Chicago. Only B stayed there; C and D found their fictional worlds in LA. Chandler spent his teens and early twenties in England before returning to the US. Of the three, surprisingly only Bellow wasn’t born in Chicago, his family having moved there from Canada when he was a child. Did he ever live in Europe? Yes: Paris, after the war. Mostly Chicago though. Henderson is a great fictional character. Thinking of the living American masters, a club from which Bellow only recently resigned, I read that Philip Roth is impressed with Jonathan Franzen’s writing. Franzen is a page-turner and an entertainer whose self-conscious efforts at clever artistry throw him off his game. There’s a long portion of Freedom which is supposedly the diary of one of the main characters: it doesn’t work at all, and the voice is pretty much identical to the 3rd-person narrator of the rest of the book. Roth’s first-person narrator is surely close to being Roth himself, quite like Henry Miller in that regard.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 December 2012 @ 6:45 pm

  13. Re: parallels between Nabokov’s narrators and Nabokov himself – have you read Pnin? [spoilers, I guess.] It’s not particularly foregrounded, but in the final chapter the seemingly omniscient narrator is revealed as a Vladimir Vladimirovich N—, and painted in a thoroughly unflattering light. As N— arrives on campus Pnin leaves, driving off over the hill, out of the town and out of the book. Pnin’s escape from the narrator’s physical presence is also escape from the narrator’s character portrait (or, it’s implied, caricature). So there’s an interesting play with the inadequacies of N’s art – and the cruelty of his character portraits. It resonates with the double capture (in real life, and in art) of Lolita by Humbert Humbert. A longstanding preoccupation.


    Comment by duncan — 2 December 2012 @ 9:00 am

  14. The first novel I finished writing had a first-person narrator, and I did it explicitly in imitation of Chandler’s Marlowe stories. Later I pulled large tracts of that first novel out, embedding them in a different novel interleaved with two other stories. In doing so I shifted the old text from 1st to 3rd person narration. It wasn’t hard to do: change “I’ to “he” and so on, not much rewriting required. What happened though is that the character who had told the story from his own POV as a participant-observer now receded from view, becoming even more cipher-like than my other opaquely-drawn characters. Would this have happened to Marlowe if Chandler had told the stories from the 3rd-person perspective?

    But there are other good reasons for Marlowe to narrate. He is a private eye, a professional observer who keeps records of his observations. And it pays for him to keep his mouth shut, so he’s going to keep a lot of things to himself that are important to the tale but that he’s not going to reveal in conversations. Sticking with a non-omniscient narrative is also essential in preserving both the mystery and the paranoia of these tales. In film treatments this non-omniscient paranoia is carried by extensive use of dark patches in the frame, hiding important things in shadow — “noir” — and by the tight close-ups, with much of the important action happening outside the frame, invisible to the viewer.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 December 2012 @ 9:13 am

  15. I’ve not read Pnin, but your observations add supporting evidence to the composite portrait of the author. The “double capture” idea is good.

    I just came across a review of a new bio of Raymond Chandler in the 26 Oct TLS. Nothing in the review about first-person narration, but there were a few choice tidbits. Pushing Chandler’s first novel, the Knopf ads read: “In 1929 we gave you Hammett, in 1934 Cain, in 1934 we give you Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep.” Some quotes from Chandler:

    To an editor: “I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few dozen words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.”

    “It doesn’t matter a damn what a novel is about. The only fiction of any moment in any age is that which does magic with words.”

    “I live for syntax.”

    About The Long Goodbye: “I don’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people… and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.”

    About Philip Marlowe: “I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.

    The reviewer notes with an “alas” the announcement of a new Marlowe novel penned by John Banville, who has also made an appearance in this thread.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 December 2012 @ 11:01 am

  16. “but I cared about the people”

    And nowhere is this more touching than at the end of ‘The Little Sister’. He’s managed with this intractable mess, and as innocence is given back to itself, Marlowe says something [probably not exactly, don’t have copy] “I felt like I had written a poem, and that it was very good”. ‘The Little Sister’ was one of his most remarkable, with hilarious bits like Delores saying something about ‘my little apartment’. Marlowe says “Don’t say things like ‘my little apartment’. That’s what whores say”, and Delores, equally funny, says “But we whores can be very refined”. He was so rhapsodic.

    Making me see that the 3 great American romantics I compared him to last night are indeed that, but the closest would probably be the Gershwin of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Concerto in F’. They soar (more than ‘American in Paris’, where you really do need Kelly and Caron to be fully satisfied.) And it’s a very specific part of ‘Lady in the Lake’ that has that impossible spectacle size–on the water, some mob boat, he has to talk to them. The hardboiled talk has to be tough and terse, but somehow he evokes place in this ravishing way, even when you don’t know the precise location. And often he’s at a crime scene very soon, all hushed and bristling with danger, and like all p.i.’s, has funny scenes with the police. Still…his are better. Fascinated that Faulkner co-wrote the screenplays both for ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘To Have and Have Not’ (a Hemingway I haven’t read, but the movie was great–that tiny period in which Lauren Bacall was exactly right in lizardlike sexiness) and that Chandler agreed to write ‘The Blue Dahlia’ only if could remain drunk, which was agreed to.

    The first Chandler I read was ‘Playback’, and Diane and I both got so turned on we —— as Marlowe and Miss Vermilyea. We never got along except when our vapid sides were in sync.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 2 December 2012 @ 1:18 pm

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