Archive for the ‘nabokov’ Category

h1

Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

August 16, 2007

(cross posted on Tilting at Windmills)

Yes, I still plan on reading and posting on the entirety of Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I stopped in May because so much of what Nabokov spoke of would have “spoiled” the book for those still reading it, and I would have to take great care not to mention any specific events that occur later in the text. Now it’s September, and quite a few have finished with the novel, and even those yet to finish have read enough so that I don’t have to worry about ruining (quite so much). Onward!

Nabokov does not think very highly of Sancho Panza. His first true lecture, “Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” begins:

Even if allowance is made for the falling away of the Spanish in the twilight of translation, even so Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is funnier.

I disagree with this and, judging from what I’ve read, most of the members of this group probably do as well. But this stance fits with Nabokov’s general approach to Don Quixote, namely to highlight the cruelty of the book and not its whimsy. His reading of the book’s two main characters is the first aspect of this approach:

The Knight of the Mournful Countenance is as unique individual; with some reservations, Sancho of the matted beard and tomato nose is the generalized clown.

Let’s consider them each in turn.

The Man Don Quixote

Nabokov first considers the “gruesome details” of the Don’s appearance: he is gaunt and grizzled, with a suit of armor that is “old, black, and moldy,” and a horse that is the image of its master. Despite this less-than-inspiration exterior, Nabokov considers Don Quixote to be “a gallant gentleman, a man of infinite courage, a hero in the truest sense of the word,” even insisting in parenthesis “(This important point should be kept in mind.)” Nabokov’s Don Quixote is “without malice” and “trustful as a child.”

In explaining Don Quixote’s madness, Nabokov reveals a highly amusing anecdote about his choice of food:

At fifty he plunged into the reading of books of chivalry and took to eating heavy suppers, including what one translator (Duffield) renders as “resurrection pie” (duelos y quebrantos — literally, pains and breakage), a “pot made of the flesh of animals who have died accidental deaths by falling down precipices and getting their neck bones broken.”

More important is Nabokov’s insistence that Don Quixote views the world in dual form: “Reality and illusion are invterwoven in the pattern of life.” He also remarks upon the fact that the Don, unlike many epic heroes (Odysseys and Aeneas are cited), does not have any divine support for his mission – he is completely on his own.

The Man Sancho Panza (The Pig Belly on Crane Legs)

Nabokov’s study of Sancho Panza is less than illuminating. After I finished it, my only thought was that Nabokov clearly did not find Sancho funny, at all, and that this is a flaw in his reading of the book. He insists that Sancho is a “product of generalization” who is “never as detailed as Don Quixote.” This is true only in the fact that Don Quixote is the namesake of the text, and Sancho the secondary character. He is remarkably round for a supporting actor, and far from the “perfect bore” that Nabokov portrays.

Near of the end of his lecture Nabokov slips in a nasty attack on readers with different taste than his, claiming that “all readers can be separated into Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas.” You have one guess to determine which one Nabokov thinks that he is.

Nabokov’s determination not to see any humor in the book is a serious shortcoming, and one that will concern me as a read the rest of his lecture series. Read this, and you’ll see why:

Scholars who speak of sidesplitting episodes in the book do not reveal any permanent injury to their ribs. That in this book the humor contains, as one critic puts it, “a depth of philosophical insight and genuine humanity, in which qualities it has been excelled by no other writer” seems to me to be a staggering exaggeration. The Don is certainly not funny. His squire, with all his prodigious memory for old saws, is even less funny than his master.

Advertisements
h1

Booklog: Pnin

May 19, 2007

Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov
Read: 5.8.07
Rating: Very Good

I’ve been having a mighty hard time writing this booklog: I finished Pnin two weeks ago, after reading it in three days, and haven’t been able to muster up any worthy thoughts. I’m a little disappointed with myself, but figured it’d be best to just slap down a few reactions and get it out of the way. Please lower your expectations, and read on.

Pnin was originally published in segments in The New Yorker, while Nabokov was searching for someone brave or foolish enough to publish Lolita. It thus occupies a space in Nabokov’s timeline between his two masterpieces, Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). Sadly, though Pnin shares much in common, both thematically and stylistically, with these two novels, it does not read their level of excellence.

The strength of Pnin is its title character, Russian emigrate and professor, Timofey Pnin. A protagonist could hardly be more charming and lovable, and his cultural and linguistic difficulties in adapting to America afford Nabokov plenty of opportunity for jokes and puns. The novel is astoundingly amusing, and the prose a sheer delight.

The trouble with Pnin is its disjointedness. As I mentioned, the text was originally published in sections, and it reads more like a collection of related stories than a novel. The plot does develop, with a dash of Nabokovian intrigue, but the sum does not equal the whole of its parts. The good news, and the reason I would recommend Pnin, is that Nabokov was a master of English prose, and Pnin represents yet one more example of his accomplishment.

h1

Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Introduction

May 5, 2007

(cross-posted on Tilting at Windmills)

I absolutely loved Vladimir Nabokov’s “Introduction,” the first in his six part series on Don Quixote. It begins thusly:

We shall do our best to avoid the fatal error of looking for so-called “real life” in novels. Let us not try and reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction. Don Quixote is a fairy tale, so is Bleak House, so is Dead Souls. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenin are supreme fairy tales. But without these fairy tales the world would not be real. A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader.

Well, that sure is lovely! Nabokov then advances his point, explaining that “real life,” if it is anything at all, “is but a piece of fiction, a tissue of statistics.” Therefore, since the notion of “real life” is in itself built on boring generalities, we should be glad that fiction does not often depict life as we understand it.

… the more vivid a new details in a work of fiction, then the more it departs from so-called “real life,” since “real life” is the generalized epithet, the average emotion, the advertised multitude, the commonsensical world.

Having this dispatched with a serious bugaboo, Nabokov proceeds to consider, in brief, some introductory concerns. Here are a few of them:

The “Where?” of Don Quixote

Nabokov here explains that the Spain depicted in Cervantes’ book has little resemblance to the country’s actual geography:

If […] we examine Don Quixote’s excursions topographically, we are confronted with a ghastly muddle. I shall spare you its details and only mention the fact that throughout those adventures there is a mass of monstrous inaccuracies at every step.

Then that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about!

The “When?” of the Book

Sylvia has already posted a wonderful timeline, so I won’t bother reminding you that Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare, or that the Spanish Empire was at its height during his lifetime. I will, however, quote Nabokov at length on the book’s place in the history of narrative:

What we shall witness now is the evolution of the epic form, the shedding of its metrical skin, the hoofing of its feet, a sudden fertile cross between the winged monster of the epic and the specialized prose form of entertaining narration, more or less a domesticated mammal, if I may pursue the metaphor to its lame end. The result is a fertile hybrid, a new species, the European novel.

As you can see, reading the lectures of a great novelist has its perks.

The General Comments of Critics

In the Foreward, Guy Davenport explained that one of Nabokov’s chief goals was to dispel the hyperventilating style of criticism that surrounds this novel. So he begins this section with:

Some critics, a very vague minority long dead, have tried to prove that Don Quixote is but a stale farce. Others have maintained that Don Quixote is the greatest novel ever written. A hundred years ago one enthusiastic French critic, Sainte-Beuve, called it “the Bible of Humanity.” Let us not fall under the spell of these enchanters.

Nabokov has little patience for this sort of talk, nor does he care to argue about whether Cervantes was as good as Shakespeare (he’s not, according the Nabokov), or whether he was a Protestant Reformer or a militant Catholic.

In conclusion, here is a lovely snippet from the lecture’s final paragraph:

We should, therefore, imagine Don Quixote and his squire as two little silhouettes ambling in the distance against an ample flaming sunset, and their two huge black shadows, one of them especially elongated, stretching across the open country of centuries and reaching us here.

One thinks of Picasso.