Monday, November 30, 2009

Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!

One Final Masterpiece:

Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

As a longtime devotee of Vladimir Nabokov, I’ve spent more than half of my life reading and rereading his novels, stories, memoirs, correspondence, lectures, plays, translations, essays, and interviews, and whenever anything previously unpublished crops up, I feel like a kid waiting in line for the new Star Wars film to open. When Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, recently decided to publish the master’s drafts for his final, unpublished novel, The Original of Laura, though, I realized that I had one last book to read before delving into this posthumous treasure. Like many other fans and critics, I’ve always felt that Nabokov’s English fiction peaked during the period of Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962) and that because his belated financial success allowed him to stop teaching and devote himself solely to writing, some of his later works became a bit too oneiric and uninspired by the difficulties of actual reality. I was particularly disappointed by his penultimate novel, Transparent Things (1972), which I admittedly read when I was probably too young to appreciate it in full, and so for some reason I never bothered to read his final novel, Look at the Harlequins! (1974). In preparing to read and review The Original of Laura, then, I somewhat warily decided to examine the state of Nabokov’s art at the end of his life, and in finally reading Look at the Harlequins!, I’ve had to revise my whole view of this amazing writer’s artistic trajectory.

A strange and often hilarious reflection of certain aspects of Nabokov himself, Look at the Harlequins! is set up as a memoir written by a Russian émigré writer named Vadim Vadimovich N., whose life and works resemble (and diverge from) Nabokov’s in a way that allows for a nearly infinite number of intertextual games—as well as for deeply penetrating examinations of art, love, loss, life, and death. Like Nabokov, N was born in St. Petersburg in 1899 and emigrated to Western Europe after the Russian Revolution to become a brilliant, if struggling, novelist in his native language. Then at around the same time that Nabokov did (1940ish), N started writing novels in English and moved to America, where he supported himself by teaching and then gained financial independence after publishing a scandalous international bestseller much in the vein of Lolita. The novel/memoir even begins with a list of N’s Russian and English novels, which amusingly mirror Nabokov’s works, and as Look at the Harlequins! progresses, we see the themes and subject matter of N’s work play off of Nabokov’s real literary career in fascinating ways.

N may share many of Nabokov’s tastes and traits, but it’s also very clear that he’s an intriguing literary invention rather than Nabokov himself, and part of the pleasure of reading this book is in watching how the real author teases us with the invented author’s dissimilarities to himself, while adding profound touches of memory that seem to be reflections of Nabokov’s own. It’s great fun to tease apart the two authors as they weave themselves into a strange mirror-tapestry, but even without these games, this book stands wholly on its own and is so brilliantly constructed—and moving, and funny, and sad—that it could easily be enjoyed by someone who’s never even read Nabokov.

N’s most marked differences from Nabokov also happen to be the two things that make for most of the novels’ most substantial explorations: N has serious mental health problems, and he ends up having four wives throughout the novel who give his life a constantly fluctuating sense of connection and disconnection. Whether Nabokov himself had mental health problems is debatable—he definitely suffered from anxiety, and some of his 1930s stories reflect a pre-Sartrean terror/nausea at the world—but he only ever had one wife (of fifty-two years), the brilliant and steadfast Véra, who in many ways grounded Nabokov and helped enable him to maintain his intense productivity (see Stacy Schiff’s deeply flawed but illuminating biography Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]: Portrait of a Marriage). N has several interconnected mental maladies, but while he mostly fixates on one that involves his mind’s difficulties with spatial issues, he seems most troubled by anhedonia—the inability to feel joy. In chapter two, he recalls (or conceives) a particularly incisive exchange (or change) that he had at age seven or eight with one of his grand-aunts:

            “Stop moping!” she would cry. “Look at the harlequins!”
            “What harlequins? Where?”
            “Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together—jokes, images—and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!
            I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory’s front porch, here she slowly comes, sideways, sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step edge with the rubber tip of her black cane.

In order to feel any kind of joy, N invents. Even seemingly inventing the relative who induced him to invent, N is only at ease when manipulating dreams and memories into fiction. The novel/memoir itself even contains a serious inconsistency about N’s parents: In an early part of the narrative he writes that they divorced when he was very young, and then later he tells a bookseller friend that his father died six months before he was born, and at the narrative opening of the next chapter he continues this possible fabrication to become the novel’s more substantiated truth about his parents.

While his relationship to “dementia” (a nearly incarnate manifestation of his mental-health problems) remains fairly constant throughout the novel, his wives change constantly. What’s wonderfully enjoyable about this is that each wife is so uniquely and individually drawn that their entrances and exits from his life read like short-story frames within the novel, making it constantly renew its scaffolding as we find ourselves adjusting to and caring about each successive woman. While all his wives are entirely vivid—his first and last wives being the most compelling—the most powerful and touching relationship he has is with the daughter that he has with his second wife. The marriage is a bizarrely forced disaster, and his wife leaves him, taking their daughter, but when a tornado kills the mother several years later, his pre-teen daughter, Bel—another one of Nabokov’s brilliant (and only slightly disturbing) Poe-lita-like inventions—comes to live with him. Their emotional, artistic, and intellectual connection is perhaps the most profound and moving relationship that Nabokov ever created, but it’s so intense and unorthodox that in order to keep up appearances he marries again, which drastically changes Bel’s outlook and relationship to her father. Not wanting Bel around, wife number three sends her to a boarding school in Switzerland, which further alienates her and causes her to run away with a fashionably idealistic communist for the abyss of the Soviet Union.

Before she disappears and is still at school in Switzerland, N’s melancholy longing for their perfect relationship inspires him to write A Kingdom by the Sea, the Lolita-like novel that makes him rich and famous. Becoming ever more distant from his meandering and philandering third wife, N eventually receives a letter from a friend of Bel’s in St. Petersburg and undertakes a convoluted journey to try to help/rescue her. Failing, he returns home broken, but life and art still continue.

At a certain point in the novel/memoir N begins to write parts of the book in the second person, to “you” (the way that Nabokov wrote his famous memoir, Speak, Memory, to his wife, Véra), and just as he’s making a change to his life that’s both a literal resignation and a step toward complete self-determination, he finally meets the book’s “you.” The same way that the novel/memoir works as a summation of N’s (and Nabokov’s) literary career, the ensuing relationship is a kind of summation of N’s loves, and as a final, healing, caduceus-like intertwining of art and love, the woman who’s to become his fourth wife helps him solve a problem in a chapter of his last novel, Ardis (a play on Nabokov’s own antepenultimate novel, Ada)—the spatial problem that’s been plaguing his mind all his life.

With her insightful twist correcting his troubled conception of time and space, N suddenly realizes that he’s cured of his mental illness. But he also realizes that he isn’t. He knows that her solution is merely a linguistic “trouvaille”—or perhaps just a caduceus-like cadeau—and that at this point in his life he’s simply happy to accept happiness rather than to continue his search for a true solution to his condition. Which is perhaps true healing in itself: the acceptance of the happiness that he’d never been able to feel before and that his whole life had been a search and preparation for. Abstractions such as time and space were never his true problem anyway. It was his inability to see the harlequins.

V & V
Like this final gift that N receives, Look at the Harlequins! is itself a final gift of art and love from one of the twentieth century’s most ardent artists. Finally reading this masterpiece after all this time, it gave me not just an insight into the unflagging power of Nabokov’s later years, readying me for the dazzling harlequins dancing through the fragments of The Original of Laura, but it made his career retrospectively form itself into an entirely different shape in my mind. Both Look at the Harlequins! and The Original of Laura find Nabokov at his most relentlessly creative and innovative, and the fully polished Look at the Harlequins! especially alters the arc of his artistry. Joining Lolita and Pale Fire as perhaps his greatest English-language novels, this amazing work sums up just about everything that Nabokov could do, leaving one last full testament to his genius in its hall-of-mirrors portrait of the artist as an old man.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

True Lies:

Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Of the great postwar novels of the twentieth century, few have had as much international impact as Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Published in 1959, The Tin Drum has had a palpable influence on the works of Thomas Pynchon, and the novel’s style, structure, and circle of themes—the narrator and main character, Oskar Matzerath, functioning as a kind of cipher for Germany itself—has served as a virtual template for such works as Edgar Hilsenrath’s brilliant The Nazi and the Barber and Salman Rushdie’s even more derivative (but still brilliant) Midnight’s Children.

The novel begins when the adult Oskar, confined to a mental hospital in the 1950s after allowing himself to be falsely convicted for murder and (perhaps rightfully) deemed insane, starts to write his memoirs. Although metaphorical and allegorical on many levels, The Tin Drum is never so simplistic as to make any one-to-one correlation between Oskar and Germany’s issues of guilt and innocence, but near the beginning of his account of his life, Oskar does make himself into a kind of symbol as he describes his current life in the asylum:

Once a week a visiting day breaks in on the stillness that I plait between the white metal bars. This is the time for the people who want to save me, whom it amuses to love me, who try to esteem and respect themselves, to get to know themselves, through me.

Subsequently, through Oskar’s cracked asylum memoir (as through those other great asylum-memoir novels of the time, The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita), we get to know some of the most painful and horrifying aspects of our own selves. We also “try to esteem and respect” ourselves by attempting to make sure that we’re completely free of the insidious complicity that Nazism spread through Germany, Europe, and in fact all of humanity. If only human beings are capable of inhumanity—if we’re the only species capable of orchestrating (or even conceiving) the Holocaust—then who among us can claim to be incapable of the most unspeakable atrocities? How do we live with knowledge of the War and still “esteem and respect” ourselves as human beings?

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Tin Drum is that it both frames and wholly evades almost all the issues raised by the War in general and by the Nazis in particular. Rather than being an active participant in the events of his time, Oskar exists on the margins, watching parades from beneath the hollows of the bleacher-facades and refusing to step up himself (either to join or to oppose). Through his eyes, we see the empty artifices created by the Nazis to dazzle the populace, and alongside him we get to descend into the vast underworld that either exists beyond the Nazis’ grasp or that crops up in their devastating wake.

From the 1979 film version of The Tin Drum
Oskar’s unusual vantage point (and ability to evade notice) is the result of his thorough singularity: He’s born with an adult ability to think and remember—his description of his birth is especially astonishing—and at age three, when he realizes that he’ll one day have to join banal adulthood, he decides never to grow up and stunts his growth by jumping down a flight of stairs and landing on his head. Somehow this works to arrest his growth, and he gets to remain a child, banging the tin drum that he receives as a gift for his third birthday, often to the confusion of the Nazis, and using his nearly inhuman shriek to shatter glass, which can be read as a twist on the Nazis’ Kristallnacht.

Although his decision to remain a child allows him to avoid and confound many of the evils of the adult world around him, Oskar doesn’t realize that remaining a child keeps him from growing in many necessary ways that his ostensibly adult mind can’t fathom—an avoidance that can itself be a kind of evil. Oskar’s stunted growth and unexpanding worldview is in many ways a mirror of Nazi Germany itself, with its own drums and shrieks and avoidance of personal accountability. In classic German literature, the Bildungsroman—the novel of growth—charts a character’s development through the necessary stages of life, and as a metaphor for the German nation’s decision to remain at an impeded and false adulthood, The Tin Drum works as a kind of anti-Bildungsroman. Of course, Oskar and his world are much more complicated than this simple summation, and as his wild and convoluted exploits expand ever outward through this labyrinthine novel, he does grow in some remarkable ways, giving the reader a prismatic view of life and of world events that’s not simply restricted to the vantage point of childish eyes.

For many years, readers have assumed—and have been meant to assume—that Oskar’s refusal to join adulthood also worked as a metaphor for the Nobel Prize-winning author’s own outsider’s view of World War Two. Through his literature and his activism, Grass has always maintained himself as a staunch critic of any kind of Nazi complicity, but then in 2006, he revealed to a startled world that he’d been a soldier in the Waffen-SS in 1944, when he was seventeen. Like so many Germans (and non-Germans), he’d been unable to avoid participating in the evils of his country and of his race (the human race), and perhaps even The Tin Drum itself was just an elaborate facade constructed so that Grass could “try to esteem and respect” himself after what he’d been part of.

Being drafted into the German Army is certainly no crime, but withholding the truth for so many decades has left many admirers of Grass’ work and life feeling betrayed by a serious sin of omission. Still, whether it helped to fashion a false truth about the author or not, in writing this life-changing novel Grass has allowed a world of readers (as well as himself) “to get to know themselves” through Oskar. Oskar’s remarks about his visitors may be disdainful and damning, but whether we’re willing participants in evil, or passive participants in it, or even victims of it, we still have the opportunity to examine ourselves and our world in Grass’ great masterpiece. As in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which takes some of Grass’ techniques and themes to even more extreme lengths, perhaps there’s no way to avoid some form of complicity. Rather than causing us to damn others (or ourselves), though, these works of art offer worlds of endless complexity that allow for true reflection, which is perhaps the best way to get to know who we really are.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales

Because He Could Not Stop for Death:

Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales

Originally published on’s Classic Literature Page

Gustave Flaubert was a literary perfectionist who spent year after year crafting a relatively small number of extraordinary novels, but even though it was his first published novel, Madame Bovary, that made him famous (or, rather, infamous), it was his last completed book, Three Tales, that was his best-received work during his lifetime. Time has elevated Madame Bovary to its rightful place as one of the finest of all prose narratives, with his other novels forming an oeuvre that in retrospect both defines and outshines its era, while Three Tales has become far less well known in our time than A Sentimental Education or Salammbô, which may or may not be a just reversal of fortune. This late collection of tales is a tiny masterpiece and is essential reading for anyone at all interested in Flaubert, or in short stories—and could even serve as a quick primer for someone who’s never encountered Flaubert’s diversely shimmering mastery.

The most widely known of the Three Tales is the celebrated “A Simple Heart,” which Flaubert wrote as a response to his friend and fellow novelist George Sand’s complaint that his writing too often conveyed the more negative or depressing aspects of humanity. Flaubert interrupted work on his (subsequently unfinished) last novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, to write “A Simple Heart,” but Sand died before he completed the tale. Flaubert was so shaken that he broke down at her funeral, and perhaps it was this loss that ironically made him color the loving mood of this strange and beautiful narrative with some of his most funereal hues. The story encapsulates the life of a naive and faithful servant named Félicité who devotes her existence to the service of people wholly unworthy of her, including not just her mistress’ family, but her own relatives. Félicité’s life is unenviable, but unlike her famously misanthropic author, her spirit and her faith in the goodness of life rarely waver, which in some ways makes her a much more fortunate soul than anyone else in her circle. Félicité may possess a simple heart, but she’s no Dostoyevskian holy fool, however (Flaubert and his friend Ivan Turgenev made great fun of Dostoyevsky’s inane pieties). As her peculiar mind degenerates with age, Félicité develops a grotesque spiritual relationship with a pet parrot that Flaubert devotee (and fan of holy fools) Flannery O’Connor would certainly interpret (and imitate) as grace through transfiguration, but Flaubert isn’t writing a simple salvation tale or hagiography. Félicité receives the holy spirit that’s already inside of her inner self, and even though her parrot serves as a kind of word-made-flesh embodiment of her relationship to the divine, it’s through her own particular grace that she lives and dies.

In the collection’s second tale, “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” Flaubert does take up the subject of hagiography, but his extrapolation of the varying medieval accounts—primarily Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend and the window-narrative found in the Rouen cathedral, among countless other sources that the thoroughgoing Flaubert absorbed during his research—he takes the story to such outlandish extents that it startles the reader into seeing just how outlandish the story is in the first place. Flaubert doesn’t seem to be making fun of religious legends or beliefs, exactly; it’s more like he’s freely exploring the utterly fantastical reaches of the religious imagination and urge. In Flaubert’s version of the legend, Julian’s path to sainthood seems to be the result of a kind of madness—a very specific kind of madness, but one whose monomania seems to be shared by many of the medieval saints. As a youth, Flaubert’s Julian kills a pesky mouse that’s gnawing away at his ability to enjoy a church service, and then in a series of escalating steps he gradually develops an insatiable bloodlust that leads him to become a nearly genocidal hunter. At the end of a particularly harrowing free-for-all, a great talking stag (who also appears in the confused and conflated legends of several other saints, most notably SS. Eustace and Hubert) curses Julian and tells him that he’ll end up murdering his own parents. After accidentally almost killing his mother, Julian flees home in terror and becomes a soldier of fortune, which leads him to commit vast human slaughter and to attain incredible riches and fame. Naturally, an Oedipean twist of fate leads him to kill his parents and then to renounce all killing and to devote himself to human service. The tale’s intensity doesn’t end there, though. Julian becomes a tireless ferryman, rowing any passenger or load for free and submitting himself to any degradation or abuse. This is the stuff of nearly all hagiography, but Flaubert’s account is relentless—and relentlessly beautiful—and when Julian encounters a horrific leper and takes step after gruesome step to aid the man’s suffering, he reaches an apotheosis that’s as breathtaking as anything Flaubert ever wrote.

The collection’s third tale, “Herodias,” continues the exploration of religious history, this time retelling the story of how Herod Antipas’ wife, Herodias, used her daughter, Salome, to bring about the death of John the Baptist. Although Flaubert is somewhat free with his historical dates and with his account of political alliances, “Herodias” is less a religious tale than it is a fascinating account of the complex webs of political, religious, ethnic, and personal interests that composed the daily texture of first-century Palestine. Here, Antipas is a brooding and defensive ruler who even fears his wife’s power, while John the Baptist and his followers are merely one very complicated aspect of his worries. Flaubert had been to Palestine, and his descriptions of the landscape and light are stunning (and accurate), making this very specific day in the life of the Tetrarch of Galilee as vivid as it is portentous.

Writing this strongly near the end of his life, it’s possible that his unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, could have become Flaubert’s greatest work, had he been able to weave it all together with more vivid and compelling threads than exist in the book’s extant draft of picaresque intellectual excursions. Discussing the failed first version of his other great masterpiece, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert said that he’d composed a brilliant series of pearls but had forgotten one thing—the string to connect them all together—and this is even more true for Bouvard and Pécuchet. It could have been another masterpiece, but his friend Sand’s life and death interrupted, which is how life and death work for writers and nonwriters alike, and so rather than lamenting what could have been, we can marvel at Three Tales’ gemlike triptych and encounter a master at his most distilled. And of course we can still read the unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet and imagine that it was as perfectly hewn as Three Tales.

—David Wiley