Sunday, November 15, 2009
In the fall of 1976, a newspaper contacted Vladimir Nabokov in his Swiss refuge and asked him which books he had recently read. He responded with three typical titles: Dante's "Inferno" (in Charles Singleton's deliciously literal translation), a big, fat book about butterflies and his own work-in-progress, "The Original of Laura."You can read the rest here. To judge from this handy roundup in the paper's Jacket Copy blog, most critics seem to share my disappointment. Aleksander Hemon, who reviewed the book in Slate, went one step further, characterizing the very publication of the TOOL as a barrel-scraping betrayal of its author: "It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) is not a result Nabokov desired or would welcome.... [The book] can't escape the musty air of an estate sale: The trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement; the old man's stained cravat; the lonely figurines that used to be part of a cherished set; the mismatched, overworn clothing -- all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the waste basket."
The latter project had preoccupied him over the summer, despite a serious illness. It was, he told his correspondent, "completed in my mind." The revisions went on while he was confined to a hospital bed, a febrile process he describes in some detail in his "Selected Letters": "I must have gone through it some fifty times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible."
Thursday, November 05, 2009
My three minutes, my two cents
According to tonight's program, I'm batting for the 21st century. In fact I was on the NBCC Board back in the storied Nineties. I left the board in 2001, spent some time in detox, and have now fallen off the wagon again. So here I am.Afterwards, while I fought my way toward the wine-and-cheese area, a member of the audience told me margarine was a very, very bad substance. I countered with a fact I had just learned from Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist (I think): unsalted butter often has butter flavoring in it. And with that, the War of the Condiments was over.
Anyway, I think this positions me nicely to note the sea change that has taken place here over the past decade. During my first tenure on the board, things had gotten a little sleepy. This is no criticism of my excellent and energetic colleagues of that era. But I think we all had a premonition that the old world of print and Sunday book supplements was about to go the way of the dodo. None of us knew exactly how fast that transformation would take place. Nobody operating a butter churn foresees the advent of margarine, either. Before we knew it, the Age of Margarine was upon us--not golden, but bright yellow, and full of suspicious adulterants.
Now, I know that sounds awfully negative. So I will change tack, retire the margarine metaphor, and argue that the NBCC is now a much more vibrant organization than it was ten years ago. The Internet, which was supposed to torpedo what was left of our trade and leave us on par with thimble makers, has given the conversation about books a massive shot in the arm.
Yes, the dust is still settling. The shrinkage or outright disappearance of the old reviewing outlets is painful to watch. The drastic redefinition of those cherished terms, professional and amateur, has given many a seasoned critic a bad case of the psychological bends. But the audience has multiplied, and gone global, and the barriers to entry for a young critic have fallen. So I'm going to look on the bright side, and argue that the best work still rise to the top--like cream, or margarine. I promise.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
"We long for each other...."
I wanted to transcribe just one tiny bit, about six minutes into the clip, where we're talking about the abundance of parties in Lucinella. The characters, mostly literary types, spend much of this slender book tramping from one small, crowded, inebriated party to another. It's a natural setting for satire--how else do you write about a herd of poets in their peculiar corral?--but Segal was at pains to establish that her aims were not entirely satirical. She began with a comical quote about party-going from Emma, but then continued: "And yet, our desire for each other... well, the reason we go to parties is that we long for each other. Which is not a satirical point: that's for real. That's true. And it's funny."