Hello to anyone still out there. I haven’t been blogging (because work is crazy and I barely get any time to write) but I am on Instagram (ID: kctango) if you want to keep in touch. Missing you all.
The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun) was the last novel Vladimir Nabokov was working on before his death. He instructed his wife to destroy the manuscript if he died before ever completing it. He didn’t finish writing it but she also didn’t destroy it. Years later it fell into their son’s lot whether to allow its publication or not, and here we have it—-in hardcover, with heavy paper, reproducing the index cards which the author himself wrote on in pencil in his own handwriting, complete with erasures and misspellings and all that.
I must admit, aesthetically, and for posterity, it’s quite breathtaking.
But, substantially? Well, I got what I bargained for. Got this book for a fragment of its original price and it turned out to be only fragments of a novel, in fact, and not a novel in fragments, as the cover declares.
I was just really curious, true, but I did expect a bit more. While deep down I knew its incompleteness would render it lacking, I didn’t expect it to be this incomplete. I expected something a little more developed than this, these notes. These notes that were beginning to form themselves into something, but weren’t yet there.
The first two chapters did have some bearing of a novel, but the rest, really, were only fragments of plot and thought and characterization. We get a general picture of what Nabokov was trying to create here—-overweight husband writing novel about infidel wife and Virginia-Woolf-like in his aspirations about death, experimenting with dying—-but none of where he was headed exactly.
In that sense, it was disappointing. I felt like I was invading, snooping into somewhere I shouldn’t be. I felt like these notes were such a personal, sacred space for the author that no one was privileged enough to look at but his family, because they were so undone, so incomplete.
On the other hand, I felt honoured to be privy to these drafts. Even in their incompleteness, there were no shortages to Nabokov’s glittering brilliance. Glimpses they may be, but such writerly brilliance.
Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey . . . (21-23)
Of art, of love, of the difference between dreaming and waking she knew nothing but would have darted at you like a flatheaded blue serpent if you questioned her. (85-87)
I do not believe that the spinal cord is the only or even main conductor of the extravagant messages that reach my brain. I have to find out more about that—about the strange impression I have of there being some underpath, so to speak, along which the commands of my will power are passed to and fro along the shadow of nerves rather [than] along the nerves proper. (193)
As to the book, a bestseller, which the blurb described as “a roman à clef with the clef lost for ever” . . . (219-221)
Ultimately, should we be thankful to Nabokov’s son for publishing this? That’s both a yes and a no.
For readers who are only looking to acquaint themselves with Nabokov’s ouevre, I’m not sure it would be wise to direct you this way. There aren’t many strings to grab onto here.
For readers who are looking for a semblance of a story in this last manuscript, you’ll find it absolutely lacking.
But for readers who are serious Nabokov fans, those who deem any tiny thing about him worth holding onto, you’ll be pleased knowing you have in your hands the very last glints of inspiration this author held before they were finally gone.
Also for readers who appreciate the beauty in beholding a great writer’s mind in progress, this is for you. I took such enjoyment in poring over his handwriting, where he erased and wrote over, where he looked to be writing carefully or where he wrote in haste.
I myself have only read Lolita and parts of Speak, Memory. But as I am a reader like the last two I mentioned above, I was able to appreciate what this book had to offer, even if it was lacking in all the other elements a true, published novel should have.
Art by Melissa Nucera
It’s that time of year again for Carl V of Stainless Steel Droppings’s Once Upon a Time Challenge, year VIII. I’m always giddy about reading fantasy or anything fantasy-like, though I don’t give myself nearly much opportunity to do so, but from my shelves I’ve pooled together a few titles that sort-of fit and I can’t be more excited.
Foucalt’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I love love love the complexities of Eco. Have been putting off reading this book for years because I wanted the perfect time to savour it. From Publishers Weekly: “. . . the novel is a mixture of metaphysical meditation, detective story, computer handbook, introduction to physics and philosophy, historical survey, mathematical puzzle, compendium of religious and cultural mythology, guide to the Torah . . . , reference manual to the occult, the hermetic mysteries, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons—-ad infinitum.” Whew and wow.
Mythology by Edith Hamilton. Picked at this in bits and snatches and pieces in my high school and university days but never actually got to reading through the whole thing. Wondering how it compares to Bulfinch’s Mythology.
Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Time to be dipping into this treasure chest again. A few stories, here and there, for this challenge will be reward enough.
A Song of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. Fourth season of the TV series is about to show and I still haven’t begun the second volume. Must catch up.
These will be the daydreamiest days of the year.
My wisdom teeth were extracted yesterday and I was groggy and sore and nauseous but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was the perfect relief. Anne, the forgotten Brontë, delivered such pleasure. No Brontë book has ever disappointed me yet.
The new tenant of Wildfell Hall, a beautiful and mysterious widow, Helen Graham, garnered much attention from her neighbours. But her secretive, enigmatic ways solicited jealousy and gossip after some time. One neighbour, however, Gilbert Markham, was very much smitten by Helen, and it’s through him the reader is given Helen’s history, the past she was running away from.
This is a fantastic Victorian classic that touches on domestic abuse, alcoholism, and feminism. While I do think Anne’s heroines, both in Agnes Grey and in this one, were too exacting, I still couldn’t help but admire their strength of character. I didn’t mind Anne’s moralizing and preachiness. It’s a reflection of her time, her upbringing, and her personality. In this book, especially, Helen’s courage and determination and her rebellion against her tyrannic husband showed how much of a Brontë Anne was—more realistic but still sharing her sisters’ flair for intrigue and the dramatic.
Dylan Ebdus’s friendship with Mingus Rude lived in brief windows of time, punctuation to the unspoken sentences of their days. There was no single story. . . In between anything could happen and was beginning to. (69-70)
It took me so long to finish Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. It required a huge amount of concentration not to get lost in the muddle of things. There were things I didn’t like about this hugely overwritten and overly ambitious novel. Many times it became really wordy and so tedious. But but but
I absolutely loved the beginning and I thought the whole story of the hero’s childhood—-a white boy growing up in a very black Brooklyn in the 70s, amidst art and music and comic books, all tied with the complexities of adolescent friendships and superhero fantasy and with Lethem’s graphic, aggressively poetic writing—-was entrancing. I somehow wished Lethem’s story never left that time and place because those pages were magic.
Dean Street’s kids were drawn out-of-doors, or back to the block from some other place by magnetism, a weird call. Nobody knew they were nostalgic until they saw Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude in the golden leaf-light that covered the middle of the block, a dream of a summer ago, ripened into history while nobody noticed. (160)
The adult parts were not so enjoyable and to me it was only the music and the hope for a revisit with his childhood best friend that kept it going, but there’s a ravishing story in there if you have the patience.
February must be my New York City month because I had just finished reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which was a definite New York City book, when I casually picked up An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin, which was sitting on my bedside table, another New York City book, coincidentally. But the similarity stops there.
An Object of Beauty is one that I had been looking forward to for some time, in fact, ever since it came out. I was only looking for the right time to read it. I’d tried reading it thrice before and ended up giving up after the first few lines because I wasn’t in the mood. So from those first lines I knew to expect a light read, something I could read without having to invest my heart and soul in too deeply. But I also knew I would love it for the art, which is its blatant subject.
I was right. The book as a novel is a little disappointing. It feels a bit flat, although Martin’s writing is still truly wonderful, eloquent and straightforward. I love his style, but this one doesn’t match the cleverness and poignancy that Shopgirl achieved. The characters in An Object of Beauty feel in some ways like skeletons, there but to frame the real star which is Art. They are fringes. Even the story are bits of fringes.
On the surface, the heroine, Lacey Yeager, appears to be the object of beauty, to the eye of the quite invisible and unnecessary narrator, Daniel Franks (and to other men besides). But in truth the real objects of beauty here are the pieces of art that collectors and art lovers covet and yearn and ache for. The narrator’s telling of Lacey’s life is a disguise for Martin to be able to navigate through the contemporary Manhattan art scene. Lacey and Daniel aren’t convincing; they don’t feel substantial nor authentic; they are tools. But what’s authentic in this book is the way Martin writes so lucidly about art collecting—its highs and lows, its corporeality—and most of all, the passion with which people are seduced by art.
I love this not for the novel but for the art. The novel wasn’t very bad, even delightful at times, but I’ve mentally dismissed the story and will continue to adore this book as a fantastic piece of narrative on the contemporary art world. Martin is truly impressive as an inside voice in art collecting and this novel may be a book suited mainly to readers who are invested in a whole lot of art love.
If you were older and believed in the philosophy of art as rapture, and didn’t expect the next great development in art to be a retreat from beauty and an exploitation of ordinariness, then you couldn’t endorse Warhol as the next great master. But if you were young, with essentially no stake in art’s past, not caring about the difficulty of paint versus the ease of silk screen, you saw the images unencumbered, as bright and funny, but most of all ironic. This new art started with the implied tag “This is ironic, so I’m just kidding,” but shortly the tag changed to “This is ironic, and I’m not kidding.” (102-103)
Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte: the street is night while the sky is day. (63)
Books as portraits of New York City have always drawn me in. Even before I had ever been to New York, reading about it always seemed a curiosity. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is one beautiful sketch of the immigrant dreamers of America in the midst of post-9/11 New York—both the displaced and dreaming immigrants and the displaced and drifting ones.
My life had shrunk to very small proportions—too small, certainly, for New York’s pickier and more plausible agents of sympathy. To put it another way: I was, to anyone who could be bothered to pay attention, noticeably lost. (72)
Perhaps the relevant truth—and it’s one whose existence was apparent to my wife, and I’m sure to much of the world, long before it became apparent to me—is that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you’re paying attention you’ll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble. (64)
There is an irony to the friendship that is in the heart of this novel—the odd friendship between the drifter and the dreamer—as if it were necessary. Consider the boldness of Chuck Ramkissoon the dreamer in contrast to the drifting narrator Hans van den Broek’s previous thoughts.
“We’re the romantic sex, you know,” he said, fighting a burp. “Men. We’re interested in passion, glory. Women,” Chuck declared with a finger in the air, “are responsible for the survival of the world; men are responsible for its glories.” (207)
They share nothing in common but for cricket. It’s what brings them together. The love of it and the passion for it.
We sat mostly silently in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives—jobs, children, wives, worries—peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit. (48)
Now cricket, as a New York subculture, is the medium but it isn’t the point, so don’t be discouraged by comments about this book being boring and pointless because all it talks about is cricket. It is much like whaling and Moby-Dick. It’s more about what the sport represents and what the memory of it elicits than the sport itself.
Cricket moves Hans along from his childhood to the present where, amidst a crumbling marriage and a city traumatized by tragedy, it becomes his only tie to truth and home and self. In turn, his friendship with Chuck saw him through his lost, floating years.
I am too tired to explain that I don’t agree—to say that, however much of a disappointment Chuck may have been at the end, there were many earlier moments when this was not the case and that I see no good reason why his best self-manifestations should not be the basis of one’s final judgment. We all disappoint, eventually. (249)
One of the other displaced characters in the novel is the Chelsea Hotel neighbour, a man always dressed up as an angel, in a wedding dress with “tattered white wings” attached to it. This man is quite the memorable figure. He creeps into the story only a couple of times or so but I find his presence striking. The sort-of-in-between, lost but a little hopeful, both a drifter and a sometime dreamer, although, in fact, he is exaggeratedly more lost than Hans ever was or will be. He is the complete contrast to Chuck. His short episodes in the story really quite sad but also glimmery.
Once I had overcome the thought that midway through my life the only companionship I could count on was that of a person who, as he put it, could no longer bear the masculine details of his life, I grew to mildly enjoy the angel’s unexpectedly serene company. He and I and the murmuring widow in the baseball cap sat in a row like three crazy old sisters who have long ago run out of things to say to one another. (37)
O’Neill writes so deftly and precisely and so gracefully. His voice is distinctly brilliant yet absolutely understated. Just beautiful. I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I do. The plot is simple but it never misleads you into thinking there’s something more where there’s none, as many other books do.
A life seemed like an old story. (109)
I only have to look at New York forests to begin to feel lost in them. (59)
My January was a slow reading month. I read very lazily and only got to read one book, and that was George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first in the series called A Song of Ice and Fire. I really enjoyed it, though I believe that’s mostly due to having already seen the TV series and having loved it. This was just the icing on the cake, an enhancement to the whole experience.
But then I was able to catch up on a lot of bookish movies that I meant to see since forever. I was home alone with Jane Eyre and soul-withered Mr. Rochester, with Coraline, and Hugo. Got to watch On the Road and The Great Gatsby as well. I was really most impressed with Hugo. It’s been years since I last read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I still remember it vividly, and I thought Martin Scorsese did a beautiful job with the film. He was able to translate and, I dare say, even transcend the book.
I’m guessing February will mean more bookish films. As my husband quite unexpectedly enjoyed watching Hugo so much, I was able to convince him to watch more movies based on books, and I meant in the very near future.
Will you tell me your favourites?
I suppose it’s a little late for a new year greeting, unless you’re Chinese, but I’d really like to say happy new year to everyone. January is always an exciting month because we all get our reading priorities outlined, and we all make new lists, try to sort through our TBRs, all that.
My TBR pile is not as daunting as it used to be. The past couple of years I’ve greatly limited my purchases and now I find myself going over the shelves, thinking, I have nothing to read!
But of course there’s The Savage Detectives, waiting. There’s Foucalt’s Pendulum, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath. There’s Fingersmith, Netherland, The Tale of Genji, Of Human Bondage, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A Moveable Feast and All the Names and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. And Wolf Hall and All the Pretty Horses, Two Lives, and In the Skin of the Lion. I could go on and on. There will never be nothing to read, thankfully.
So there is my 2014 reading list. Well, part of it. Deep down I am jumping with excitement just looking at the titles. I really, really hope to get to all of them. And then afterwards I’ll feel better buying more.
Meanwhile, I’m in fantasy mode, enjoying the absurdities of A Game of Thrones. Like in life and in chess, good men do go down here. I have seen the past three seasons of the show but thought a little backstory would be fun. Books always make things clearer.
So are you reading mostly from the TBR pile this year or are you giving yourself complete freedom to acquire?
I just love how Eileen Chang writes so elegantly. Even though each story in this collection was translated from the Chinese by different translators, the sophistication in her voice was always present. All her stories exude a touch of refined drama and mystery.
Lust, Caution, the story that carries the weight of this collection, is brilliant. A story of sensuality and political intrigue, it’s crafted so subtly and thrillingly, a true piece of literary genius. It builds up gently and heightens so that the ending just blows one away.
Much like Love in a Fallen City, this is a pretty solid collection. (Though I do think Love in the Fallen City is a touch better.) Love her, love her, love her.
“And life kept going on, walking its own way.”
Happy new year. x