Archive for the ‘reality’ Category

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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.

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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.

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Booklog: The Black Monk & Peasants

May 2, 2007

The Black Monk & Peasants
Anton Chekhov
Read: 4.27.07
Rating: Good

Nothing spectacular here — just a cute Penguin 60s volume I picked up at a library book sale a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to read more of Chekhov’s short stories, and there’s nothing like an adorably small (4″ x 5″) book for motivation. I could use this book for a Frisbee, now that I’m finished with it. I don’t like the notion of disposable books any more than you do, but in this case the format fit the contents: two nice, good but not great, short stories by the Russian master.

“The Black Monk” tells the tale of Andrey Kovrin, a scholar who suffers from “exhausted nerves” and decides to take a holiday in the country, away from his urban university life, in hopes of recovering. He visits the estate of “his former guardian and mentor,” Pesotsky, who is a famous botanist with a famous garden — and a pretty daughter, Tanya, who Andrey has known for years. Of course, Andrey and Tanya fall in love, and are soon married with the blessing of her father. Complicating matters are Audrey’s bad nerves, and his frequent hallucination: a black monk who mysteriously appears and speaks to Audrey alone. The monk encourages and flatters Audrey’s feverish dreams of intellectual greatness: “What the black monk had told him about God’s Chosen, Eternal truth, humanity’s glittering future and so on lent his work a special, remarkable significance and filled his heart with pride and awareness of his own outstanding qualities.” Audrey launches into his studies with mad desperation, which exacerbates his condition and ruins his marriage. By the end of the story, Audrey is broken, having realized that his dreams were simply an illusion and his “greatness” no more than madness. Chekhov’s story is a parable of artistic genius and its being akin to madness: the Black Monk’s flatteries are foolish, of course, but his ideals are inspiring. Audrey has been “healed,” but he does not truly wish to be:

In the long run doctors and kind relatives will turn humanity into a lot of morons. Mediocrity will pass for genius and civilization will perish.

“Peasants” is a simpler work, and I’m tempted to reduce it to an attempt by Chekhov to raise awareness about the plight of peasants and stir empathy in the hears of his readers. A Moscow waiter named Nikolay falls ill and loses feeling in his legs, and therefore his job. In order to survive, he takes his wife and daughter back to his hometown, where his father, mother, and siblings live in squalor. The villagers are ignorant, superstitious, nasty, and cruel, obsessed with survival and death. Their lives simply fall apart:

Yes, it was terrible living with these people; nevertheless, they were still human beings, suffering and weeping like other people and there was nothing in their lives which did not provide some excuse: killing work which made their bodies ache all over at night, harsh winters, poor harvests, overcrowding, without any help and nowhere to find it.

What redeems to story is Chekhov’s insistence on showing the lives of peasants as miserable, yet refusing to romanticize their plight. His moral is honest and true: yes, these people are miserable, yes, they are ignorant and foolish, yet they are still human beings, and they deserve better.

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How Nice!

April 19, 2007

In an article originally appearing in The New Republic, cross-posted on Powell’s, Lee Siegel considers Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, and What is the What:

First, on the problem with Eggers and McSweeney’s:

The assumptions of A Heartbreaking Work were that fantasy is co-extensive with reality, that making stuff up is fine if it preserves your trueheartedness. But these assumptions collapse in What Is the What — or, rather, they are routed by its subject. The encounter between Eggers’s small sly ethos and a genocidal historical event is a messy collision between childhood and reality; between whimsical, self-protective artistic license and a situation where life and death are balanced on the difference between truth and falsehood.

Finally, on the failures of What is the What speciffically:

Eggers means well, he means well, he means well — you cannot say it enough times. You do not need to convince me that he wrote the book for no other reason than to move people to action with Deng’s story. But Eggers is a creature of the culture that he helped to create. He is a creature of the McSweeneyite confusion of good intentions with good art, and of its blithe elision — partly pioneered by Eggers himself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — of truth with untruth, prevarication with pretense.

The worst aspect of What Is the What — the title refers to a Sudanese proverb warning against the unknown — is that Deng’s attitudes are tyrannically refracted through Eggers’s reshaping of them. Deng does not represent himself. Eggers represents him. You never know whether the startling self-pity that Deng occasionally displays — when two other boys are eaten by lions, Deng laments his unluckiness — is his own or not. In Deng’s own voice, these flashes from the underside of his ego might have been extenuated by irony or self-awareness. The same goes for Deng’s hostile, suspicious, sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward American blacks. They might have been somehow vindicated in the full-throated revelation of his personality. Or maybe not. We will never know. In Eggers’s hands, the survivor’s voice does not survive.

I strongly recommend reading the full review.

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The Recognitions: Part I

March 14, 2007

On Monday evening I finished Part I (277 of 956 pages) of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, and decided it would be wise to post a few reactions at this point to make my booklogging end-task a little easier.

In short, I love it: I think The Recognitions is the best novel I’ve read in over a year. It certainly has the feel and heft of an epic masterpiece of fiction — similar to reading something like Ulysses, Ellison’s Invisible Man, or The Adventures of Augie March.

In an earlier post I praised Gaddis’ masterful dialog. Gaddis is renowned for his ability to record speech; his novel J R, which won the National Book Award in 1976, is written almost entirely in dialog. Gaddis’ characters speak very realistically: there are few long speeches that seem unlikely and “bookish,” and lots of revealing shorter conversations which unfold the minds of his characters. The narrative voice in The Recognitions is a little spotty, and often verbose — but when it’s on, it’s magical.

Reading The Recognitions demands the utmost attention and a singular focus, for the text is one that needs to be entered into, and not just casually. As I read, I find that my attempts to pull out of the text and determine its meaning by relating passages or description to my own experience (a tactic I often fall into) is not in the least bit fruitful. The text must be read as is in order to be realized, or even grasped on a basic level. At the same time, it is deeply absorbing and arresting. I’m familiar with the feeling of being carried along by a book — it’s one of the best things one can experience as a reader — but I’ve rarely before been carried along at such a great depth. To concoct a comparison: the familiar feeling of movement and absorption I’m used it from a text is like riding down a river in a small boat — you’re being carried along but you’re above water and can feel the breeze. Being absorbed in The Recognitions is like being carried down the Amazon with your head six-feet underwater: you can’t see above you and you can’t see what’s ahead of you — but in this case you don’t mind in the least; it’s exactly where you want to be, where the best discoveries are made. The pervasive feeling that The Recognitions is chiseling its way into the heart of personhood and the relationship between beauty, truth, and the human mind propels the text. It’s simply magnificent.

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For the Love of Reality

March 12, 2007

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s LA Times review of the third Library of America collection of Bellow’s novels is magnificent:

Bellow is often cited as a hero of narrative realism. But his relationship with reality was as complicated and adversarial as any writer’s before or after. A realist loves reality enough to be faithful to it, but Bellow, if he was a lover of reality at all, was a shifty and provisional one: He had no intention of being true, come what may. He was not going to submit himself. Let reality submit.

Though extolled as, first and foremost, a stylist — most especially by his English admirers, one of whom, James Wood, has edited “Novels 1956-1964” and its predecessor, “Novels 1944-1953” — his writing was no more about style than his fiction was about storytelling. Bellow wrote in order to take on reality. He loved reality the way Edmund Hillary loved Mt. Everest, or the biblical Jacob loved his nighttime wrestling opponent or Ahab loved the whale.

It’s extraordinary how many times Bellow calls out to his mighty antagonist by name: Reality. He uses the word more times than Kant and Hegel put together. That’s what he was up against, the thing he was out to master and possess, his metaphorically cleated boot planted smack on its exposed, bulging neck. The zealousness of his figurative language, the intermingling of milky thought and bloody-raw meat — these are never ends in themselves but a means of taking possession.

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Booklog: The Victim

January 22, 2007

The Victim
Saul Bellow
Read: 1.14.07
Rating: Very Good

Later in life, Saul Bellow didn’t think much of his two earlier novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). He choose to see them as “practice” for his break-through novel, the one he truly wanted to write: The Adventures of Augie March. In a magnificent New Yorker piece written by Philip Roth shortly after his death, Bellow is quoted as saying:

I certainly was transformed [by writing “Augie March”] and I’ll probably be the last to understand how this happened, but I am very willing to look for the cause. I had written two very correct books [“Dangling Man” and “The Victim”] and I shall try to explain what I mean by correct: I seem to have felt that I, as the child of Russian Jews, must establish my authority, my credentials, my fitness to write books in English. Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade.

Bellow’s struggle with his Jewishness and his doubts is evident in The Victim, which is a novel of doubt, self-evasion, and the perils of over-consciousness. It is also a short, marvelous, “correct” piece of fiction. The majority of this booklog will be spent explaining what I mean by “over-consciousness,” which is the weakness of Asa Leventhal, the novel’s Jewish protagonist. We’ll return to Bellow’s career trajectory at the end.

Early in the second chapter, Asa Leventhal attempts to describe his deep abiding feeling that he has “gotten away with” bad decisions made early in his life:

He meant that his bad start, his mistakes, the things that might have wrecked him, had somehow combined to establish him. He had almost fallen in with that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful (he never forgot the hotel on lower Broadway), the part that did not get away with it — the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.

Many “self-made” men would look back on their past mistakes with pride, glad that they managed to rise above a bad start to a position of relative security. But Leventhal instead attributes this to “luck,” and is ever-aware of the tenuousness of his position and the troubles of those who were not so fortunate.

When Kirby Albee, an acquaintance who Leventhal has not seen in years, re-enters his life, this awareness comes to the forefront of Leventahl’s consciousness. Albee, one of the “overcome, feels that he has been wronged, and wants to blame Leventhal for his destitution. Many years ago, Albee recommended Leventhal for a position, and Leventhal’s interview with the boss went very poorly, as Leventhal thought he was being offended and ended his visit in a shouting match. Shortly thereafter, Albee was fired — and he thinks this was Leventhal’s fault, even insinuating that it was done purposefully to pay-back a drunken anti-Semitic slur Albee had made at a party one night. The fact that Albee’s wife left him and then died in a car accident shortly after his termination, and that both his termination and his wife’s desertion were likely a result of his being an alcoholic, complicate matters.

Leventhal is deeply unsettled by Albee and the confrontations the wronged man forces him into. Even though his reasonable assessment of the situation tells Leventhal that the fault is entirely Albee’s, he cannot brush him off, despite his attempts to rationalize. Bellow’s depiction of the relationship between Albee and Leventhal is masterful. Albee is a complete mess, and in his talks with Leventhal he shifts between insinuations, demands, and philosophic considerations about the fragility of life; Leventhal’s reactions oscillate between fury, pity, and confusion — he cannot shake the sense that he truly does owe Albee something.

Leventhal’s thoughts run in all directions, switching directions with rapid speed. The novel is full of passages were he arrives at an opinion or interpretation, then considers the opposite point of view in the next sentence or paragraph. He feels that he is unable to manage his thoughts, emotions, and actions. He considers this a serious “weakness,” and often resolves to cut it out — only to switch gears immediately, or fail miserably when acting on impulses he considers to be strong. Leventhal is caught between thoughts, and his over-consciousness leaves him unable to take control of his life: he is “carried on currents, this way and that. The currents had taken a new twist, and he was being hurried, hurried.”

The driving internal conflict in The Victim is Leventhal’s search for a “limit,” a kernel of truth or an epiphany, that will put a stop to this over-consciousness:

You couldn’t find a place in your feelings for everything, or give at every touch like a swinging door, the same for everyone, with people going in and out as they pleased. On the other hand, if you shut yourself up, not wanting to be bothered, then you were like a bear in a winter hole, or like a mirror wrapped in a piece of flannel. And like such a mirror you were in less danger of being broken, but you didn’t flash, either. But you had to flash. That was the peculiar thing. Everyone wanted to be what he was to the limit.

As Leventhal understands, the solution to the problem of over-consciousness is not to shut out thoughts and feelings, but to find a “limit.”

The “limit” in this case is analogous to the “truth” — for once the truth is discovered or realized, thoughts know where to stop. “Truth” for Leventhal isn’t quite a unifying principle or ultimate reality, but a force that corrals consciousness in the right directions and prevents it from running away. In his considerations of the situation with Albee, Leventhal years to know the real, actual truth of the matter so that he knows what to do and how. Unfortunately, for him, as it is often for all of us, discerning the truth is all too difficult. Yet Leventhal persists in his belief that the truth is a simple matter, waiting to be discovered:

Either the truth was simple or we had to accept the fact that we could not know it, and if we could not know it then there was nothing to go by. ‘There’s just so much that we can do. What the use of wearing yourself out for nothing?’ Leventhal said to himself. No, the truth must be something we understand at once, without and introduction or explanation, but so common and familiar that we don’t always realize it’s around us.

In the book’s final chapter, which acts as a sort of epilogue, the situation with Albee has been settled and Leventhal has “lost the feeling that he had, as he used to say, ‘got away with it,’ his guilty relief, and the acompanying sense of infringement.” He also seems to have given up the search for a truth that will limit his consciousness, instead recognizing that the situation with Albee “was a shuffle, all, all accidental and haphazard. And somewhere, besides, there was a wrong emphasis.” This error, this misappropriation of which both he and Albee were guilty of, “rose out of something very mysterious, namely, a conviction or illusion at the start of life, and perhaps even before, a promise had been made.”

The shift from the search for a “limit” and “truth” to a less extravagant “promise” which is inherent in life marks a maturation, both for Asa Leventhal and for Bellow. The closing pages of The Victim set the stage for the triumphalism of Augie March — and mark Bellow’s departure from the two intensely inward-glancing novels of consciousness that he wrote as a young man in the 40s. This does not by any means indicate that The Victim is a flawed novel — just that it best appreciated as a stepping stone that allowed Bellow to wrestle with, and conquer, his feelings of doubt and inferiority, and to begin his first truly great novel with the affirmation: “I am an American, Chicago born.”