Friday, June 28, 2013

Thomas Heise’s Moth; or how I came to be with you again

A Review of Thomas Heise’s

Moth; or how I came to be with you again

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune on June 28th, 2013

Moth; or how I came to be with you again
Thomas Heise
Sarabande Books ($15.95)

Poet and academic critic Thomas Heise’s new novel, Moth; or how to be with you again, follows an idiosyncratic and deeply self-involved aesthetic program that could easily have led it far astray, but instead the book reads like a dream. Composed in densely lyrical sections of two to six pages, Moth flutters through the narrator’s life and memory to impart a highly imagistic vision of his intermingling past and present. The novel’s exoskeleton is spare, with little definite information about who the narrator is or what quotidian elements make up his life, focusing instead on his ever-unfolding interior existence, employing a shimmering web of words to weave together the disparate aspects of his memories and reflections.

As the book progresses, the reader slowly gleans a few facts about the narrator’s parents, about his childhood abandonment and subsequent time in an orphanage, and about his difficulty connecting to life as an adult, but the real substance of the novel is in the texture of the words themselves. Heise has a gift for creating an airy, floating sense in the reader that defers meanings and expectations while at the same time making each line as clear and palpable and memorable as possible. Heise’s imagery is extremely precise, and his language is sharp and tactile, offering much for the reader to absorb and creating an interior logic that feels as satisfying as any concrete narrative.

While there’s not much in terms of plot for the reader to tease out or piece together, the book’s design itself yields rich pleasures to unfold and decode. The various sections all utilize different sorts of imagery and narrative strategies and densities of language, and at first these differences simply seem to follow the arbitrary, wandering path of each section’s flutterings, but as section follows section, symmetries begin to come clear. Many of the sections are headed with a place-name and date that would ordinarily signal where and when the action takes place but that here seems to have almost no bearing at all on the story. Instead the headings draw lines of connectedness to other similarly structured sections, creating an elegant game of pattern and repetition, as with a lepidopterist tracing arrangements of mimicry on moths’ wings.

For all the pleasures that Moth affords through its innovation, its major missing element is the characterization and human interaction that a more traditional narrative might provide. At a certain point, the reader wishes for a conversation, or for a kiss. But at just 160 pages, Moth fills its contents with enough riches that it’s over long before it gets old. This is a book that will haunt and intrigue and will almost certainly inspire an immediate second reading.

—David Wiley

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Vladimir Nabokov’s The Tragedy of Mister Morn

A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s

The Tragedy of Mister Morn

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2013

Vladimir Nabokov
Translated by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy
Knopf ($26)

In a 1941 lecture entitled “The Tragedy of Tragedy,” Vladimir Nabokov posed the idea to students at Stanford University that the theater as we know it is severely hampered by nearly ineradicable conventions that prevent any innovation that could lead to artistic transcendence: “The highest achievements in poetry, prose, painting, showmanship are characterized by the irrational and illogical, by that spirit of free will that snaps its rainbow fingers in the face of smug causality. But where is the corresponding development in drama?” He points to a few magical plays, notably Hamlet and King Lear, which he calls “dream-tragedies” and which he declares are the rare exceptions that can be named alongside “the numberless glories of novels and short stories and verse produced during these last three or four centuries.” Nabokov always opted for complete artistic freedom, which he found and exploited to amazing effect in the modern novel, while his forays into the theater achieved and encompassed significantly less. He also famously disliked novels with a lot of dialogue, favoring in his own works to have the narrative tunnel its way through outrageous labyrinths that no character could ever actually say, and with drama being virtually all dialogue, it’s no wonder that he found the theater encumbered by its own form.

Nabokov had two periods of involvement with the Russian émigré theater, the first in the mid-1920s, when he was still largely a poet and had not yet begun writing novels, and the second in the late 1930s, soon before he abandoned Russian and began writing in English. These were times of transition for Nabokov, and in each of the plays from these periods the reader can sense a yearning for connection—to Russia, to his fellow émigrés, to the audience, to the dramatic form itself—that’s much less present in his other work. Only in his screenplay for the film version of Lolita does he seem the supremely confident artist enjoying his complete faculties, even though the script is much more of a literary creation than it is a feasible dramatic work (which may be why director Stanley Kubrick completely ignored it, simply using Nabokov’s name as the screenwriter to add prestige to the film). Nabokov the playwright is always surprisingly self-conscious and gimmicky, and this tentativeness may be why he only allowed one of his plays to be translated into English during his lifetime: the 1938 political farce The Waltz Invention, which was translated in 1966 by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. Seven years after Nabokov’s death Dmitri translated a collection of four plays entitled The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, leaving only a few early plays untranslated, most notably the five-act verse drama The Tragedy of Mister Morn, which only exists in incomplete form in two slightly different copies. Leaving almost no Nabokov unpublished, however, Knopf has finally edited and released this missing work in English, lacunae and all.

Written in the winter of 1923/4, when Nabokov was only twenty-four, The Tragedy of Mister Morn finds Nabokov at his most mimetic. Channeling Shakespeare almost shamelessly, The Tragedy of Mister Morn is a semi-fantastical political drama in which the personal machinations of a few warped individuals play out on the stage of an unnamed and idealized kingdom. Morn is a mysterious and benevolent monarch who rules behind a mask and mixes with his subjects as an ordinary man, and Tremens is a brutal revolutionary who yearns much more for destruction than for positive change, and when Morn falls into a not very believable dispute with Ganus, another would-be revolutionary, over his wife, Midia, the stage is set for Tremens to strike. Written in a much stricter iambic pentameter than Shakespeare ever employed (and translated into loose and readable five-stress lines by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan), the play’s five acts work around the clock to emulate their Shakespearean model. Each interaction is a chance for Nabokov’s characters to mouth soul-stirring conceits, and even the most walk-on characters have something profound to say about the human condition. At the end of Act II, Scene I, a servant cleaning up after the other characters ends his eleven-line mumblings with these thoughts on aging:

O, how my bones ache, how they ache! Cook
shoved some ointment at me,—says, try it,
rub some on . . . Try arguing . . . That’s all I need . . .
Old age isn’t some ugly mug daubed on
a fence, you can’t just paint over it.

There are some lovely observations jammed into these characters’ speeches, but Nabokov often forces the profundity to the point of accidental comedy. His stagy masques also amuse with their overt playness, and while his Shakespearean referents (especially Othello) are very well woven into the drama, he’s just way too overawed by his British master, which is all to be expected in a young and inexperienced playwright trying to find his voice.

Prefiguring the personal/political nightmares of his later novels Invitation to a Beheading, Bend Sinister, and Pale Fire, The Tragedy of Mister Morn finds Nabokov already transforming his lost Russia into a dreamscape overcome by madness. While Morn’s benevolence may be a bit too facile and uncomplicated for real tragedy, and with Tremens’s brutal nihilism strangely echoing the dismissive way that Dostoyevsky portrays Raskolnikov’s revolutionary ideas in Crime and Punishment (a comparison that Nabokov would doubtless reject outright), The Tragedy of Mister Morn doesn’t serve as a very sophisticated examination of power, but like the Lolita screenplay, it is a very good piece of writing. Like Iago, Tremens has no motive for his atrocities other than criminal mischief, and while this works less for Nabokov than it does for Shakespeare, the density and lyricism of Nabokov’s verse work far better here than it does in his lyric poetry. Nabokov needed a larger and more forward-moving vehicle for his poetic ideas at the time, and because he idolized Shakespeare so much, verse-drama was a natural progression for him. Thankfully he soon moved on to the novel, which in his fifty-year career he took to a nearly unmatched poetic level.

—David Wiley

Marcel Proust’s Collected Poems

A Review of Marcel Prousts

The Collected Poems

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2013

Marcel Proust
Penguin ($25)

In a century when the novel supplanted the epic poem as the major vehicle for literary artists reaching for the highest level of accomplishment, Marcel Proust stands alongside perhaps only James Joyce as the modern writer who comes the closest to achieving the scope of Homer, the fineness of Vergil, and the encompassing vision of Dante. Proust’s great work, In Search of Lost Time, is like nothing else in literature, with a structure that attains to the most extraordinary works of music, a visual and symbolic order comparable to the aesthetic of the gothic cathedral, and featuring a cast of characters as rich and memorable and multifaceted as that of Shakespeare, who’s probably the only writer who created a larger and more vivid world. It took Proust decades to discover both his voice and his genre, however, and in his early years he was considered by friends and enemies alike to be little more than a talented dilettante, a frivolous dandy casting words about in stories, essays, parodies, pastiches, and occasional poetry in what seems in retrospect like a halfhearted attempt to make his sparkling personal genius substitute for real literary effort. His great work makes his lesser work interesting by reflection, though, and as 2013 marks the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the astonishing first volume of his magnum opus, Penguin Books has released The Collected Poems to ply the ever-consuming appetite of the Proustian reader with yet more marginalia.

Collecting 104 of Proust’s poems, including six poems not published in Francis and Gontier’s Cahiers Marcel Proust: Poèmes,  this volume is now the most complete collection of Proust’s poetry in any language. Edited by Harold Augenbraum, the founder of the Proust Society of America, The Collected Poems includes parallel French and English text rendered by nearly twenty different translators, including the exceptional Lydia Davis, and features almost one hundred pages of exhaustively Proustian end-notes provided by the fascinating and idiosyncratic Augenbraum. At the beginning of the notes, there’s a quote from Proust’s friend Robert Dreyfus that says, “Marcel Proust read footnotes,” and it’s in fact in this section of the book where the reader finds the most insight into Proust’s creative and personal world. Like most writers of fin-de-siècle France, Proust was engaged in a constantly evolving public discourse that raged in literary journals, in salons, and in loaded and coded correspondence—a discourse whose referents and meanings were commonly understood and therefore often left unspoken—and so Augenbraum’s notes supply a large percentage of both the information and the pleasure to this volume. For instance, take poem 49 (“Chanson”):

Bigger than the whale
            And the narwhal
Is the belly, the belly
            Of Bréval!
Despite a sentence too severe
            By a singing rival
For her talent my signature
            Rattles its rifle.
History! God what an eyeful.
Such love bequeathed to A.B.:
Daudet, Lautier, Pol Neveu, Leygue,
And the chaste author of Ferval.
The very love of Pierre Lalo
            O Meretrice
Makes your brow like a halo
            From Berenice.

Proust wrote this poem in August of 1906 and included it in a letter to his bosom friend Reynaldo Hahn, who was intended to be its sole audience and who was instructed to burn both the poem and the letter. Like a large portion of Proust’s poems, “Chanson” assumes a common understanding with the reader, using proper names (and sometimes just initials) rather than poetic language to convey meaning and imagery, and so it really only works if you’re friends with Proust. Augenbraum’s nearly three pages of notes to the poem tell some of the back story, which is full of intrigue and interest, with the dramatis personae of Proust’s life crowding into this volume with the interconnectedness of In Search of Lost Time, but on its own there’s little to catch hold of in the naked lines themselves.

The shorthand references Proust uses so often in his poetry serve as a stark contrast to the mature method of his novel. In Search of Lost Time is a work so wholly imagined and conveyed that even its most arcane aspects come to light somewhere within its endlessly generous pages. It’s a work that holds all of its own keys, and so when for instance the character Odette is described as looking like Zipporah in Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, the reader can visualize the painting from the book’s descriptions rather than the other way around. Proust the poet simply mentions a painting and lets the reader fill in the details, but Proust the novelist has learned that this is insufficient and that the work must be its own world.

This is not to say that Proust’s poetry is bad. It’s just that the poems mostly serve as a series of rejoinders among friends and colleagues, and taken as such they’re often amusing and enlightening, if not exactly moving or meaningful or startling as works themselves. As a poetaster who hadn’t seriously studied prosodic form or ensconced himself in the real work of forging a poetic identity, Proust the poet mostly sounds like an echo of his times, which means that he sounds a bit like Baudelaire in some of his imagery and subject matter, but with none of the originality and none of the sense that he’s pushing forward any kind of artistic project, which is hardly the Proust we know from his novel, which is an entire literary movement in itself. For readers of In Search of Lost Time, these poems (and their notes) will delight when they engage the people that Proust would later take up in fictional form, such as his beloved maid Céleste Albaret, to whom a late scrawled poem of appreciation is addressed. Not exactly gems, these poems are more like relics that the Proustian faithful will read volumes into, and if you’re not someone who’s already immersed in Proust’s world, The Collected Poems is not for you and is certainly not the place to get started. If you’ve never read Proust, skip this book and go for the real thing.

—David Wiley