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Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

A Loaded Deck, and Other News

January 28, 2016 | by

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

  • It feels like only yesterday that I was lugging my hardcover of 2666 around town, regularly having my mind blown on subway cars, buses, park benches, et cetera. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been to have that experience in one prolonged five-hour session at the theater! Robert Falls and Seth Bockley are bringing Bolaño’s opus to the stage next month, at the Goodman Theatre: “The play is being presented with three intermissions. To keep things moving, Mr. Falls and Mr. Bockley boiled the novel down to essential characters and story lines, though they would periodically restore some of the stories-within-stories-within-stories, like the tale of a painter who attaches his mummified hand to a self-portrait … The directors and the design team worked to create a distinct style for each of the five parts, keyed to the radically different literary genres Mr. Bolaño drew on: fairy tale, hard-boiled crime novel, academic satire, lyrical short story, Don Quixote–style picaresque.”
  • Meanwhile, in Chile: Ariel Lewiton is on the hunt for Neruda’s ghost. “Isla Negra was the home Neruda loved best, the one for which he’d written: The house … I don’t know when it was born in me … For the first time I felt the prick of the scent of the winter sea—a mixture of laurel and salty sand, seaweed and thistle, struck me. It was here I believed I would finally find Neruda … I had not thought to bring flowers. I walked past the grave to where the hill gave way to the sea. At the shore, waves thrashed the rocks. I took off my shoes and waded out from the land. The water was so cold it burned and I stood there for a while with the ocean biting at my ankles.”
  • And while we’re focusing on the Spanish language, Janet Hendrickson has translated entries from the letter in a seventeenth-century Spanish dictionary. Among the words: apio (celery), “the symbol of sadness and weeping”; alba (dawn), “What is that? Nothing but the dawn as it walks among the cabbages”; and andrógeno (hermaphrodite), “Some say that women have three wombs on the right and three on the left and one in the middle; some wombs create males, the others females, and the one in the middle hermaphrodites. And others attribute even more wombs to women, and many allow for none of this.”
  • Did you know? Between long bouts of poverty, disease, and malnutrition, people in the Middle Ages occasionally had fun. They did this by playing cards, mainly. And you should see these cards, on display now at the Cloisters Museum here in New York: “The decks on view are often beautiful, and sometimes poetic; a number are humorous and a few downright bawdy. For instance, on one card (pictured above) a woman with long blonde braids sits on a stool milking a grumpy cow—which on inspection proves to be a bull. Another portrays a woman passing a phallic-looking tree on her way to market. One hand balances the basket of geese on her head, the other lifts her long skirt above her knee. Geese are not all that is for sale.”
  • There’s been plenty of attention paid to Nabokov’s recently collected letters to his wife, Véra—but why hasn’t anyone told me before now that he used those letters to chronicle everything he’d eaten for the day? The Nabokov diet, writes Nina Martyris, was hardly gourmet: “Nabokov kept his promise of sending her a daily bulletin, which included a scrupulous itemization of his meals. Listing every meal he ate was clearly a drudgery, but he hurried on with it by squashing the menu between parentheses: ‘(A couple of meatballs—cold-cuts, sausage, radishes)’; ‘(cold-cuts, fried eggs, a cold meatball)’; or ‘(liver and gooseberry jelly—a sort of frog caviar).’ Occasionally, there was a dry barb: ‘incomprehensible meat,’ and more rarely, a stab of praise, ‘magnificent blueberry soup.’ But mostly it was a boring plod of cold cuts and compotes.”

Updike: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

December 23, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


“I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young,” John Updike once recalled in Hogan’s Alley magazine. “I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big-print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.”

This is one of many passages where Updike talks about his childhood love of comics, a theme that recurs not just in essays but also in poems and short stories. What deserves attention in this passage is not only what Updike is saying but the textured and sensual language he’s using when he recalls the “oilclothy paper” and the “buttony furniture.” His tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as “comic strip-influenced”) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose. Read More >>

The Worst Game

November 24, 2015 | by

Just as Nabokov would’ve wanted it.

The other day, I invented the worst game ever. It all started in the supermarket when I passed the processed cheeses. Velveeta, I read. Then, somehow, I found myself thinking, Velveeta, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Vel-vee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Vel. Vee. Ta.

This was quite bad enough, but understandable. I tried it with Chiquita, and Ryvita, and then I forgot about it, because, well, it’s asinine. Then, later in the day, I realized I was muttering, “Flour. Light of my life, fire of my loins.” And later, the same thing, but with asphalt subbed in. Read More »

You Like Me, You Really Like Me, and Other News

November 6, 2015 | by

An image by Constant Dullaart, from Carl Röchling’s Attack of Prussian Infantry, 1745.

  • If we’re going to gauge an artist’s success by the number of Twitter and Instagram followers she has, an aspirant artist can and should game the system: don’t wait for the followers, just go out and buy a bunch of fake ones. Constant Dullaart’s art is all about buying your following: “The bots are accepted as part of our social fabric, as long as they don’t spam us, right? But what actually happens to an art practice if you quantify the link between audience reception and market value? What is the quality of the followers, how many ‘managed’ or artificial identities are injected to increase market value? Many other artistic careers are justified in the press through their popularity on social media … My work was meant to comment on the value of audience quantification in the art world, in times when everything, even social relationships (now called social capital), can be defined in monetary terms.”
  • Thirty years later, DeLillo’s White Noise is still the prophetic, funny, deathward-moving classic everyone wanted it to be: “White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue … in 1985, as the world accelerated toward an unrecognizable automated future and nuclear dread had become normalized, even the words Toyota Celica sounded like a prayer.”
  • Today in poop jokes and the royal family: Isack van Ostade’s 1643 painting A Village Fair with a Church Behind has been a part of England’s royal collection since 1810. But this seemingly innocuous work contains the unthinkable: firm evidence that earlier generations of humankind defecated exactly as we do today. “As conservators began to clean the painting, they realized a bush in the painting’s right foreground was not original to the work. When they removed the bush, they discovered a squatting man relieving himself … Curators believe that the man was painted over in 1903 … Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature,’ the inspiration for their art.  Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style.’ ”
  • Roberto Calasso talks about his new memoir, The Art of the Publisher, and running the Italian publishing house Adelphi: “ ‘At the beginning, we were considered rather eccentric and aristocratic. Then, when we started to have remarkable commercial successes, we were accused of being too populist. That was curious because we were publishing exactly the same books … The word ‘information’ suffers from a kind of verbal inflation, which has confused the minds of lots of people. And that is really worrying. Not the simple fact of digitization, which I’m not scared of, but that in the mind of some people, these two terms conflate. But they are opposites, sometimes.”
  • Pet names Nabokov had for his wife, Véra: “beloved insecticle … his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet … his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.” He wrote her hundreds of letters. She rarely wrote back.

As American as April in Arizona, and Other News

August 12, 2015 | by

Nabokov in 1969. Photo: Giuseppe Pino

  • For three years, Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the maligned former governor of South Carolina. His book, The Speechwriter, suggests that Sanford’s grammar was as wanting as his ethics: “Nearly every page of this book is wet with the tears of a pedant. At their first meeting, Sanford interrupts Swaim to ask whether it is appropriate to begin a sentence with a preposition. Swaim suggests that he must mean a conjunction, in which case it is a silly non-rule that no good writer has ever observed. Sanford is unconvinced: ‘There’s a rule against beginning a sentence with a prepositions [sic]—conjunctions, whatever—and you can’t break rules.’ Determined to keep the boss happy, Swaim dutifully tries to remove ‘yet’ from a speech a few weeks later, only to be rebuffed by a colleague who assures him that Sanford ‘doesn’t know “yet” is a conjunction’.”
  • When Nabokov came to America, his whole style underwent a transformation, and he took pains to emphasize his Americanness; he said once that he was “as American as April in Arizona.” “Nabokov turned himself into a more purely American writer than many others have so far acknowledged … But the questions remain. Where did Nabokov really develop what Kingsley Amis, in a brilliant review of Lolita in The Spectator, called his ‘Charles Atlas muscle-man’ style of writing? Was it in St Petersburg or on an American campus? On the family estate back home in Russia or in the lonely motel rooms he and Véra liked to stay in on their long summer tours of the Rockies and the Southern states? Are literary audacity and effrontery really echt American or are they the products of aristocratic disdain?”
  • Somewhere deep in the annals of facial-hair scholarship you’ll find T. S. Gowing’s The Philosophy of Beards, a treatise from 1875 or thereabouts that makes a series of dubious aesthetic and functional arguments for bearding: “‘The beards of foreign smiths and masons,’ he remarks, ‘filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.’ Bearded soldiers, he claims, are less likely to catch colds; and the ability of a moustache to warm the air is invaluable ‘in a consumption-breeding climate like ours.’” He also suggests that a shaved man resembles a monkey—contradicting more recent research that suggests that men grow beards expressly to indulge “simian displays of size and aggression.”
  • Today in holography: Alkiviades David, a forty-seven-year-old billionaire and hologram impresario, thinks that “the hologram business is bigger than porn. It’s going to be as big as the movie market.” He imagines hologram performances so sophisticated that it would be possible to bring back Amy Winehouse. Or the Beatles. Or Jesus. But he seems to miss the fact that people have a limited appetite for novelties and imitations: “Ultimately, what is a hologram good for? … It’s entirely possible, even probable, that, at some point, David’s technology will be fully able to create and project a celebrity digital likeness that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, one that moves fluidly and organically and delivers unerringly consistent performances. But no matter how lifelike, a hologram still favors the second half of that adjective more than the first.”
  • The French artist Bernar Venet has written conceptual poetry since 1967, when the phrase conceptual poetry inspired many fewer grunts of disdain than it does now. His focus is on “the rudimentary syntax of the list,” and his “list poems” comprise everything from “synonyms to acronyms to currency exchange rates to the most frequented tourist destinations in France.” His poem “Monostique” is literally a math problem. “Following French semiologist Jacques Bertin, he associates figurative representation with polysemy (which is open to multiple meanings) and abstraction with pansemy (which is open to any meaning). Mathematical symbols, on the other hand, convey only a single, fixed meaning, and for Venet, such unambiguity has not yet been explored in the history of art.”

Ruthless Levity: An Interview with Our London Editor, Adam Thirlwell

May 29, 2015 | by


Photo: Eamonn McCabe

“As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I had always known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car.”

Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, is made up of such impressions—charming, nostalgic, not quite tethered to reality. The unnamed narrator—formerly a child prodigy, he tells us—is a privileged young man who has quit his office job to pursue his art, and who now lives with his wife at the house of his adoring parents. His talent, as he puts it, is mostly for thinking. The observations above occur to him as he drives his bloodied, comatose best friend to the emergency room, having discovered her suffering some kind of hemorrhage in his hotel bed after a night of ketamine and sex.

At thirty-six, Thirlwell dresses like a youngish teenager—silver sneakers, jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower—and looks perpetually exhausted. In our Skype conversation, he had a way of speaking that, like one of his characters, “sometimes seemed like teasing and sometimes seemed like it wasn’t and it wasn’t always easy to be able to tell the two apart.” “Multiplicity! Levity! World History!” he later wrote to me in an e-mail about what he seeks in his reading. “Those kind of T-shirt slogans.”

Your dialogue is very funny. It seems very stylized but then, when you read it aloud, it’s perfectly realistic. Do you have rules for dialogue? Whose do you admire?

Maybe perversely, I love Henry James’s The Awkward Age, which is written almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore almost incomprehensible. Everyone is speaking in intimation and allusion—which is so much like life that the reader has desperately to work out what the degrees of irony and lying are. That kind of flatness seems to me the ideal. There’s a great moment in a Lampedusa essay where he praises the dialogue in Stendhal’s novels, because none of it is celebrated, nothing is quotable. I wonder if in novels, rather than plays or screenplays, the dialogue can become this baroque surface thing, because it’s free to be as close to audiotape as possible, without the burden of meaning anything, or conveying plot. Although I don’t know if this is some kind of London problem—how little is actually said in conversation. Okay, sure, there might be mutual understanding—but the sentences are only nonsense, or nonsense poetry. Read More »