MUTE INGLORIOUS NABOKOVS.

Helen DeWitt, the wonderful writer who blogs at paperpools, has an intriguing idea in her post mute inglorious Nabokovs: spend a few hours introducing people to three different languages, just enough to read a few lines by a great writer in each (her examples are Italian and Calvino, Greek and Homer, and Arabic and Ibn Rushd). Her post title is explained thus:

Nabokov was taught English and French from an early age; this early exposure to languages other than his mother tongue seems to have been important in his formation as a writer. In Speak, Memory he talks about the entertainment offered by working through a little grammar book, in which the student started on simple sentences, could look forward to ever more exciting grammatical features, and at the end was able to read a simple story. He remembers sitting inside while a servant swept the gravel walk outside; he wonders whether she might not have been happier sweeping the walk than driving a tractor in later years under the Soviets.

That last sentence is a reminder of Nabokov’s least appealing side, the smug aristo; Helen responds: “But perhaps she was a mute inglorious Nabokov. Perhaps the servant, too, had gifts which would have benefited from reading an introduction to English culminating in an adventure for little Ned.”
Incidentally, she ends by welcoming “visitors from Guardian Books Blog”; out of curiosity, I visited that fine site and discovered that that in their latest post they link to both Helen and me (“The slightly disappointing subject of the sentence: ‘It’s the only thing I read on the train apart from the Talmud‘”). So: Hello visitors from Guardian Books Blog!

Comments

  1. Beg to differ. I don’t think that’s Nabokov being a smug aristo. It’s Nabokov contradicting Soviet propaganda about the masses being horribly downtrodden and miserable before the revolution and idiotically happy after.
    But I always liked the bit about the people in his first English stories: something like “wan people, proud in the possession of simple tools (‘Ned had an axe.’)…”

  2. ^ Tend to agree w/ the above. Sweeping the walk doesn’t seem so bad when viewed from under the yoke of a пятилетка.

  3. It’s Nabokov contradicting Soviet propaganda about the masses being horribly downtrodden and miserable before the revolution and idiotically happy after.
    Of course it is, but the smug aristo comes out in his saying “See, they should have stuck with sweeping our walks, look what they got from their stupid revolution.” (I exaggerate for effect.) I am perfectly well aware of the horrors of Soviet Communism, and Nabokov was correct in his appraisal of it, but that doesn’t keep him from showing his rich-aristo assumptions. The little people exist in his memoirs only as extras.

  4. Graham Asher says:

    Why would it have been smug to say “See, they should have stuck with sweeping our walks, look what they got from their stupid revolution.”? Correct, not smug, in my opinion. And Nabokov knew and would have pointed out that the revolution was not “their” revolution, meaning that of the sweepers of gravel drives and other workers, but was a putsch engineered by middle-class intellectuals.

  5. i sympathise more with the revolutionaries who tried to better the lives of the unwashed masses, however grave were their mistakes
    not with nabokov’s ‘stick with your sweeping the walks’ attitude, so really repulsive
    and poor soviet people, they paid too much to bring the overall progressive shift 8 hrs working day for example everywhere

  6. I agree with read’s eloquent summation.

  7. From the peasants’ point of view, the ‘revolutionaries’ made it extremely difficult to sympathize with them, even before they had become full-fledged Soviets.
    I refuse to allow myself a middling position on this one – even when it’s contrary to my political leanings – because clearly *things could not have been worse* had the Civil War gone differently. I don’t see how a greater toll in human misery and life-loss could’ve been extracted. History should properly regard the USSR as a heartbreaking necropolis because of what those ‘revolutionaries’ did to their ‘unwashed masses’. No amount of political sympathy can bring those incalculable millions back.
    It would be interesting to locate the living family of the walk-sweeper in question. I wonder with the benefit of hindsight (assuming they survived Stalin) which path they would’ve preferred history to take? Nabokov’s so-called smuggery might look positively golden in contrast. It does to me, anyway.

  8. “[Nabokov] talks about the entertainment offered by working through a little grammar book, in which the student started on simple sentences, could look forward to ever more exciting grammatical features, and at the end was able to read a simple story.”
    It strikes me that Nabokov was hard-wired, or had already been alternately engineered by experience, to take a six-year-old’s delight in building ‘stories’ this way.
    As I understand him, he always claimed that this kind of story-building, and the delights of re-building (by reading) a story’s nuts-and-bolts structures, was more important to understanding HIS stories than by intuiting or sensing (and, in dialectical turn, interpreting through) holistic planes of meaning, like those of politics, sex, unconscious autobiography, historical determination, and so on.
    It’s my personal and small professional experience that most people, either through impatience for sensation or intellectual laziness, cannot STAND to receive stories in this grammatically granulated way.
    It might be ‘unfair’ to Nabokov, whose Ada is one of the great rarely-finished novels, but “ever more exciting grammatical features” sounds both true to the feeling of reading his books and ungenerously haughty to me.

  9. but all the sacrifices made by soviet people should be recognised i think historically
    all that mass suffering was not for nothing in the end, it helped to win the progressive causes everywhere
    the reactionaries who were telling the masses to stick to the sweeping the walks are responsible for all the horrors of revolution too, not less than the actual revolutionaries

  10. were

  11. Nabokov’s disappointed, ironically unrefined sense of privilege poses for him a false dichotomy.
    Sure, given a choice in a crystal ball of becoming a farmer starved to death by a dementedly murderous regime, most would choose to remain economically immobilized house minions eating, perhaps, the best table scraps.
    But utterly rejecting the Soviet Union is no just repudiation of ‘revolution’, and I don’t see Nabokov’s retrospective concern for his Aunt Jemima as being less obnoxious than any garden-variety smothering paternalism.
    Impossible (as I see them!) reasonably to refute the pleasure-generative beauty of Nabokov’s novels in English, but “smug aristo”? You bet.
    ———-
    I’m one of the Grauniad Blooks Bog visitors. I see from a previous blogicle thread that “thoughtful and intelligent” correspondents are highly prized here; I hope you’ll read my posts anyway.

  12. John Emerson says:

    Thoughtful and intelligent correspondents are highly prized here only if they think differently than John Cowan.
    Off topic: Erasmus is in general very mild, bit I’m reading his “Adages” (in English — recommended) and in “Festina Lente” he says in no uncertain terms that the publishers of inaccurate or defective classical texts should feel the strong arm of the law.
    I can just see the trial, with the hapless publisher on the dock being cross-examined by a forensic classicist. “Explain this false ablative, you mercenary wretch!”

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    If it is not out of place to comment on Ms. DeWitt’s actual proposal rather than react to apologies for Bolshevism, I was struck by her suggestion of the first seven lines of the Illiad for study, since I was constrained as an undergraduate not only to read those lines but actually develop the ability to recite them from memory — an incredibly reactionary pedagogical technique I don’t think any English teacher after elementary school ever tried with us. For a few years after that class ended I could still do it but now 23 years later I find that I retain all of lines 2 and 7, most of 1 (although I’m always a foot short) but not that much of the other 4. I tried reciting what I did remember to my older daughter when she was a baby (not having any Mandarin to offer), but rapidly concluded that the Homeric hexameter is a rhythm highly unsuitable for lullaby applications.

  14. michael farris says:

    I think the ‘smug aristo’ part of Nabokov has nothing to do with the Soviets (which is a distraction in this context).
    What’s offensive is his unquestioning acceptance of class as a proxy for intellectual life. He doesn’t seem to entertain the idea for a second that the walk-sweeper had (or had ever had or could ever have had) an interior life. For little aristo boy the maid’s interior longings could only be expressed in preferences about what kind of physical drudgery she would have preferred to engage in at someone else’s discretion.

  15. I was constrained as an undergraduate not only to read those lines but actually develop the ability to recite them from memory — an incredibly reactionary pedagogical technique I don’t think any English teacher after elementary school ever tried with us.
    I must be older than you; I was enjoined to memorize poetry in English, and am glad to have those nuggets available to turn over in my mind. And as a result of having the memorization module activated, I memorized the opening of the Iliad on my own hook; I can still recite the first five or six lines, but then it gets shaky.
    I think the ‘smug aristo’ part of Nabokov has nothing to do with the Soviets (which is a distraction in this context). What’s offensive is his unquestioning acceptance of class as a proxy for intellectual life. He doesn’t seem to entertain the idea for a second that the walk-sweeper had (or had ever had or could ever have had) an interior life. For little aristo boy the maid’s interior longings could only be expressed in preferences about what kind of physical drudgery she would have preferred to engage in at someone else’s discretion.
    Thank you. That’s exactly it.

  16. I can’t remember where I recently came across a defense of the old-fashioned practice of requiring school children to memorize poetry. It seemed to be coming from a thoughtful modern educator, or even educational theorist, certainly not someone in the grip of nostalgia or knee-jerk reactionary-ism. The gist of it was that this sort of rote learning can be very effective exercise for the brain, with powerful positive side effects having nothing to do with what the content of the poems.

  17. Stephen Fry is one proponent. I’m actually quite surprised that nobody does it anymore at school (though it’s true my daughter doesn’t learn poetry at school. For some foolish reason they are currently doing Romeo & Juliet in Norwegian. I suggested it would make more sense if they were to do it in English and read Et Dukkehjem in Norwegian.

  18. ).

  19. John Emerson says:

    Or they could translate Hamlet from Danish into nynorsk and do that.

  20. Macbeth has a whole backstory about a Norwegian invasion, that would be a good one to read. One of the last times anyone felt threatened by Norwegians en masse.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Before 1719 Karl XII of Sweden had a plan to invade England in support of the Jacobite rising. Unfortunately the Norsk killed him first, unless it was one of his Swedes.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Another Viking story: doesn’t Hamlet also end with an invasion while the royal family is self-destructing? Some years ago I heard a talk on Canadian radio by Michael Innes (author of detective novels) about Hamlet: what is the motive for all those murders, and who eventually profits by them? His answer: the invader, who has been working behind the scenes all along, playing on Hamlet’s neuroses through the traitor Horatio. The moral of both Hamlet and Macbeth is one meant for kings: don’t let personal preoccupations distract you from your assigned role, or your kingdom will fall to invaders.
    Learning poems by heart: this is not at all the same as “learning by rote” which refers to memorizing information uncritically. Are actors considered to be learning by rote? are musicians? no, in order to successfully perform the play or piece of music they need to make it part of themselves, and that is not possible if they have to read the part rather than perform it. Knowing the part or the music by heart, without reference to a written document, gives the performer freedom to shape the piece as they understand and feel it. (Orchestra musicians have their written parts in front of them, but they are following the conductor’s interpretation of the work, not their own, while the soloist in a concerto plays without a written part).

  23. Trond Engen says:

    Hamlet has been translated into Nynorsk at least twice, in 1933 by Henrik Rytter and in 1967 by Hartvig Kiran. Both also did Macbeth. Here‘s a site that combines parts of both, of both.

    Trond Engen

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Uh, a sudden hurry to finsih there. Substitute “Both also did other Shakespeare plays”. The site combines the two and even a couple of other translators. And disregard my Usenet style signature.

  25. John Emerson says:

    To a historian, the lesson of Macbeth is that Macbeth wasn’t up to the task (as his wife pointed out). More dynasties than you could count have been founded by murderous usurpers — regicides, patricides, fratricides. Shakespeare, Musorgsky, et. al. fail to understand that.

  26. Shakespeare, Musorgsky, et. al. fail to understand that.
    How so?

  27. Shakespeare, Musorgsky, et al. fail to understand that.
    This is a very Emersonian sentence. I don’t know much about Musorgsky, but I’d say Shakespeare knew a few things about murderous usurpers what with Hamlet, Macbeth & the Wars of the Roses.

  28. Shakespeare, Musorgsky, et al. fail to understand that.
    This is a very Emersonian sentence. I don’t know much about Musorgsky, but I’d say Shakespeare knew a few things about murderous usurpers what with Hamlet, Macbeth & the Wars of the Roses.

  29. John Emerson says:

    Musorgsky and Shakespeare choose unsuccessful murderous usurpers who suffer retribution, not the happy, successful murderous usurpers who founded half the dynasties in human history. They’re trying to convince people to be nice, I guess. A bad lesson for someone playing that game.

  30. michael farris says:

    “the happy, successful murderous usurpers who founded half the dynasties in human history”
    Only half? You _are_ an optmist.

  31. How is it that in this contretemps about Nabokov’s alleged “aristo smugness” no one’s bothered to reference what Nabokov actually wrote in Speak, Memory? It’s both wittier and less overtly classist than DeWitt and LH imply, an evocation of a prelapsarian idyll:
    The schoolroom was drenched with sunlight. In a sweating glass jar, several spiny caterpillars were feeding on nettle leaves (and ejecting interesting, barrel-shaped pellets of olive-green frass). The oilcloth that covered the round table smelled of glue. Miss Clayton smelled of Miss Clayton. Fantastically, gloriously, the blood-colored alcohol of the outside thermometer had risen to 24 Reaumur (86 Fahrenheit) in the shade. Through the window one could see kerchiefed peasant girls weeding a garden path on their hands and knees or gently raking the sun-mottled sand. (The happy days when they would be cleaning streets and digging canals for the State were still beyond the horizon.) Golden orioles in the greenery emitted their four brilliant notes: dee-del-dee-O!

  32. On the topic of Nabokov being smug or not, I would rather agree with the critics of Nabokov here. Yes, to me, even in the light of what the Bolsheviks did to the country, he does come across as smug and one-sided. It is indeed difficult to imagine a worst fate for Russia than the one the country had in the XXth century, and “collective farming” could indeed be more physically painful than being Nabokov’s valet, but that doesn’t make Nabokov’s attitude a single bit more attractive. Russian revolution is in this respect a lot like the French one; a lot more than the physical condition of the people was at stake.
    Interestingly, why do we tend to trust the consummate poseur so much in the area where people are generally supposed to be the least trustworthy, namely, in remembering what they felt and thought? Especially given his pronounced “paradise lost” attitude? To me, he shows more of what a middle-aged disappointed man would like a boy to think than of what the actual little Nabokov could have really felt.

  33. It’s both wittier and less overtly classist
    Less overtly classist, exactly. Nabokov’s writing throughout is laced with the assumptions and attitudes of a golden boy who inherited one of the largest fortunes in Russia; the fact that he very soon lost it and had to make a career for himself in exile did not efface the cast of mind he’d grown up with, and how could it? But of course those attitudes are not very prominent, since he’s covered them with brilliant, witty prose.
    Note that I do not accuse him of overt aristocratic attitudes like those of the bitter exiled princes and countesses he despised and mocked. He did not want the tsar back; his father, after all, was a minister in the Provisional Government. And one can’t blame him for having been born into a rich and titled family. The attitude is still not attractive.

  34. What about Bolingbroke in Richard 3rd?

  35. marie-lucie says:

    the lesson of Macbeth is that Macbeth wasn’t up to the task (as his wife pointed out)
    Precisely, he let his own preoccupations (in this case, misgivings and remorse) interfere with the task at hand.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    “There are no mute inglorious [Nabokovs], save in the hallucinations of [bloggers]. The one sound test of a [Nabokov] is that he functions as a [Nabokov].” — H.L. Mencken, mutatis mutandis.
    What other great authors from non-Anglophone countries had educations such that they were in childhood as much at home in English as in their nominal native tongue? Maybe Borges (who has a variety of other parallels to VN)?

  37. John Emerson says:

    Hm. Marie-Lucie and M. Farris are as bloody-minded as I am.

  38. Michael Farris says:

    To put it more plainly, the lesson of Macbeth is that powerful ambition and any conscience (however rudimentary or delayed) simply don’t mix.
    Similarly, the lesson of Hamlet is that self-reflection is horribly maladaptive among royalty.
    The lesson of Romeo and Juliet is that there’s nothing nice about obsessive romantic love – it’s just as destructive as armed conflict.

  39. I don’t think that Shakespeare “fail[s] to understand” that “the lesson of [the play] Macbeth is that he wasn’t up to the task”- Shakespeare is interested in a different event (in Macbeth) than the establishment of a dynasty.
    I think the idea that Macbeth is ever really politically “ambitious”- for a “crown”, a “kingdom”, a ‘dynasty’- would direct one to miss the unnatural economy of the play.
    The first we see of Macbeth, he’s cut through a near-victorious enemy and met the great foe– and ‘unseam’d him from nave to chops’.
    That’s what’s in Shakespeare’s spotlight: a man showering himself in human gore. THAT I think Shakespeare understands well enough modestly to versify.

  40. “there’s nothing nice about obsessive romantic love”
    But Michael- the sex is pretty good.
    One “message” in Romeo and Juliet- a secondary one, decidedly- is that IT can be catastrophically limited by the quality of tech support.
    More to the point of the “tragedy”, when political and economic competition, and family crap!- over-ride “obsessive romantic love”, irreconcilable priorities come into conflict– but why blame ‘romance’???
    After all, because it’s governed by the imagination– the sex is pretty good.

  41. To clarify: Shakespeare does not “fail to understand” that “the lesson of [the play] Macbeth is that [the character Macbeth] wasn’t up to the task”- Shakespeare is interested in a different event (in the play Macbeth) than the establishment of a dynasty (that is, political ambition).

  42. Note that I do not accuse him of overt aristocratic attitudes like those of the bitter exiled princes and countesses he despised and mocked. He did not want the tsar back; his father, after all, was a minister in the Provisional Government. And one can’t blame him for having been born into a rich and titled family. The attitude is still not attractive.
    For my part, I find this particular passage innocuous. Nabokov is clearly well aware of his privileged position vis-a-vis the “peasant” (the choice of the word is, of course, carefully calculated) girls weeding in the hot sun outside, but notes, in an offhand parenthesis, that worse was in store for most girls of that sort in the coming years. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Since this is, in fact, the historical record, I find no occasion to take exception to the sentiment.
    Interestingly, why do we tend to trust the consummate poseur so much in the area where people are generally supposed to be the least trustworthy, namely, in remembering what they felt and thought? Especially given his pronounced “paradise lost” attitude? To me, he shows more of what a middle-aged disappointed man would like a boy to think than of what the actual little Nabokov could have really felt.
    I disagree completely. The passage is certainly bathed in nostalgia, but the details chosen are the sort a dreamy, introspective boy would be likely to observe: the caterpillars, the thermometer, the smell of glue, the smell of Miss Clayton. Note, especially, the latter: N. doesn’t add any superfluous detail that an adult would know (e.g. the smell of attar of roses, the smell of starched crinoline), he only tells us that the teacher had her own striking scent.

  43. Shakespeare chose unsuccessful murderous usurpers who suffer retribution, not the happy, successful murderous usurpers who founded half the dynasties in human history.
    But don’t forget he wrote the histories, and this subject runs the course of many plays, starting with
    Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
    And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
    In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

    Shakespeare’s insights paralleled the concerns of his audience. My mother sent me James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (I gather it was a bestseller), which is all about this. 1599 is when he wrote Hamlet (as well as Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar and As You Like It). In the course of the year England sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, was threatened by another Armada from Spain, gambled on the fledgling East India Co., and all this while everyone waited to see who would succeed the Queen. To dwell on happy successful usurpers in those circumstances might have seemed trite.
    (And I meant Richard 2nd, not Richard 3rd, above, btw).

  44. John Emerson says:

    I imagine that writing about successful usurpers at that particular time would have been worse than trite.
    My efforts to get the DSM-IV to classify romantic love as a mental illness have so far been scorned, but I persevere. (The DSM-V is due in three years. Is there hope? Probably not. But I can tell you that on the day it is released, a lot of formerly sane people will become crazy, and probably a few crazy people will become sane.)
    Piss or get off the pot, Macbeth. If you want to have a conscience, hie yourself to a monastery. Otherwise you will be expected to properly satisfy the requirements of murderous usurpation.

  45. Why are some people so sure that Nabokov denied the peasants had interior lives? Certainly not from his prose! Sorry, but don’t see any smug aristo in here at all. In fact, I could make the case — referencing other parts of Speak, Memory — that the whole passage in question is highly self-ironic. He knew he was an upper class twit in those years.

  46. In fact, I could make the case — referencing other parts of Speak, Memory — that the whole passage in question is highly self-ironic. He knew he was an upper class twit in those years.
    Of course he did, and it’s always hard to tell how deep the layers of irony go with Nabokov. But the idea is not that Nabokov denied the peasants had interior lives, rather that he wasn’t particularly interested in peasants, workers, or other members of the groups the various radical parties claimed to represent. Is there such a character, presented in full, in his fiction? Compare Tolstoy, equally rich and aristocratic, with his many peasant and soldier characters. Mind you, I’m not saying Nabokov should have written about such people; he probably would have done a lousy job. And I’m not putting Nabokov down—he’s one of my very favorite writers. But every writer has his blind spots and failings; compared to, say, Pound’s fascism, this is trivial, but as a good democratic Yank with a low tolerance for such things, it irritates me a tad.

  47. If he had been an upper-class twit type he could have remained in england.

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    Solzhenitsyn was much more in that dreary Tolstoyan tradition (he was a great and heroic man, which is more than I can say for Tolstoy, but I do not feel moved to read his work for pleasure as opposed to edification). There’s an interesting account of how Solz. and Nab. almost came to have lunch in Switzerland one day, but then didn’t, here: http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/story/when-solzhenitsyn-nabokov.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    “peasant girls”: It seems to me that the word “peasant” in English is somewhat derogatory. The corresponding French word paysan (fem paysanne) does not have to be. For instance, when I was young, in elections there were always candidates who campaigned as indépendant paysan, meaning they were not affiliated with any party but saw themselves as representing the rural population (which was still a large segment of the total population). There are other words which are indeed derogatory, but paysan does not have to be. So, what other words could Nabokov have used to describe the girls in question?
    JE, “bloody-minded”: I am not endorsing usurpers wallowing in gore, I was just trying to take things to their logical conclusion (like you and MF). Those plays were not written primarily for an audience of kings, and indeed Shakespear’s interest in his subjects is not primarily as kings or princes.
    Romeo and Juliet: if the romance had only temporarily disturbed the social conditions in Verona (clans killing each other), then the moral could have been the disruptive nature of romantic love. But the two clans end up making peace after realizing that it was the long-standing rivalry which led to the loss of their children, whose marriage could have ended it. (On the other hand, the danger to the two teenagers, especially to Romeo, was part of their attraction to each other).

  50. The aristo discussion reminds me of a single-sentence passage in Lolita about the Kasbeam barber who, according to Nabokov, “cost me a month of work”. I agree with languagehat that Nabokov’s writing is laced with these observations and I’d add that Lolita and Pale Fire are a mostly ABOUT such observations. I think these works were specifically about Nabokov trying to morally negotiate around these blind spots.

  51. I think these works were specifically about Nabokov trying to morally negotiate around these blind spots.
    A fascinating observation which I shall try to bear in mind when I reread those works.

  52. I think it more useful to keep in mind that Nabokov considered uneducated, uncultured Lolita his (citing from memory; probably faulty) most admirable/noble character. I’m glad, Hat, you don’t think he should have written about peasants and revolutionaries because he wouldn’t have done it well. His memories are those of a child and youth, a rather priggish youth as he paints his portrait. He didn’t know those people, and he was right not to write about them. But read Transparent Things – there his main character is a sad, pathetic and tragic nobody. I don’t think the aristos come off well in his fiction.
    I still don’t agree with the logic of the jumps some of you are making. In a lyrical and delicately ironic passage about his childhood schoolroom, he DIDN’T write about the muted potential of his servants THEREFORE he couldn’t care less about their interior lives, WHICH JUST GOES TO SHOW he’s a smug aristo. Ignoring the passage where he remembers his aunts sniping that his father was working to destroy the life they had (true). Ignoring the passage (if I recall) when he comforted his mother in Prague when she suffered from upper class guilt. Ignoring his rather offhand and tongue-in-cheek chapter on his illustrious aristocratic ancestors. Ignoring the fact that he married a non-aristocratic Jewish woman and was a life-long liberal.

  53. John Emerson says:

    In Portland, OR, specifically the St. Johns neighborhood, there was a Romeo and Juliet marriage between the feuding McGar/ry and Mor/rison clans. It ended badly, but not in a beautifully poetic way at all.

  54. Oh, I’m not ignoring any of those things; he was an admirable man as well as a great writer. As I was trying, doubtless poorly, to express, it’s not a matter of his conscious views and opinions but of his ground-in attitudes. I just don’t believe that when he looked at a woman weeding the garden path he thought of her as potentially his equal. And the fact is that the chapter on his illustrious aristocratic ancestors, while definitely tongue-in-cheek, is also very long and detailed, and it’s the one part of the book my wife complained about when I was reading it to her. Why should we care about his “German great-grandfather, Baron Ferdinand von Korff, who married Nina Aleksandrovna Shishkov (1819-1895), was born in Konigsberg in 1805 and after a successful military career, died in 1869 in his wife’s Volgan domain near Saratov,” still less that the Baron “was the grandson of Wilhelm Carl, Baron von Korff (1739-1799) and Eleonore Margarethe, Baroness von der Osten-Sacken (1731-1786), and the son of Nicolaus von Korff (d. 1812)”? No stylistic beauties there, just родословная.

  55. Pedigree?

  56. Pedigree?

  57. John Emerson says:

    Fucking German. I never knew.

  58. Well, I think what you quote is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s a kind of parody of the aristocratic pedigree, the key to which is what you write: “no stylistic beauties there.” It’s not his normal voice, is it?
    He was impressed by some of his ancestors and not by others. Given his father’s politics and his politics as an adult, I think he found the whole Russian nobility thing ridiculous. (And if you’ve ever met Russian nobility 4th generation from the Motherland, you’d agree!) But he was also obsessed with patterns, and that was what he was after, to some extent, in his ancestor chapters.
    No, as a child of privilege he didn’t see the peasants weeding his garden as potential equals. And they weren’t. There weren’t too many people who were his equal in knowledge, talent and education. (And remember, they weren’t serfs. They’d probably gone to the village school, which was probably pretty good, and the smart kids had gone off to the city for more education or work. His father was always ceding land and hunting rights and such to the peasants; his manager was always fleecing him; and I’ll bet the house and grounds staff had a pretty nice life in comparison with city workers or petty farmers in their day.)
    But I don’t see anything in his life or in his writing — prose and letters and non-fiction — to indicate that as an adult he thought they had no interior lives, or didn’t care about those interior lives.

  59. I think what you quote is a bit tongue-in-cheek
    If so, then his cheek must have gotten mighty sore, because that section runs about forty (unreadable) pages.

  60. In his Afterword to Lolita, Nabokov talks about “the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted” and lists the Kasbeam passage as one of these points. These secret points, I think, refer to events and characters that Nabokov’s obsessives, in contrast to their ecstatic attention to detail for the stuff they cared about, do not pay any attention to. From a moral perspective (though Nabokov claims that he has no “moral in tow”) one thing that either Kinbote and Humbert are guilty of is not paying enough attention (eg, having these blind spots). This makes me think that Nabokov recognized that these blind spots were morally problematic in general and (as closely as we can equate Nabokov’s obsessives with Nabokov) his view of the world, in particular. I (like languagehat) don’t think that these blind spots diminish my estimation of Nabokov. In light of this reading of Pale Fire and Lolita, it’s the opposite: Nabokov saw this predilection in himself and took 2 novels to express his discomfiture with it.

  61. No, as a child of privilege he didn’t see the peasants weeding his garden as potential equals. And they weren’t. There weren’t too many people who were his equal in knowledge, talent and education.
    They were. I didn’t say “equals,” I said “potential equals,” meaning if they’d had his advantages they could have achieved their own forms of greatness. Or not, of course; some people are lazy, some people get distracted or just bulldozed by life. But a democrat looks at everyone as a potential contender; an aristocrat thinks, way down deep, that you have to be born to the manor.
    But I don’t see anything in his life or in his writing — prose and letters and non-fiction — to indicate that as an adult he thought they had no interior lives, or didn’t care about those interior lives.
    Again, I never said he thought that. I don’t think our views are far apart, but you’re focusing on an extreme extension of mine that I don’t actually hold.
    Pedigree?
    Oh, sorry: yes, pedigree or genealogy.

  62. I don’t think Macbeth “wants” a “conscience”- it leaps on him (from wherever they come from) and comes partly to constitute his action. What he “wants” (wherever that comes from) is to be plunged into blood and guts, and Shakespeare shows that such will, ironically generative in a soldier, is dangerous to a person close to ‘the crown’ and pathogenic to a nation with such people close to its ‘crown’– a perfectly Jacobean perspective, right?

    Sure, romantic love is delusional– sex triumph over death? That’s crazy talk.
    But a delusion that operates in the way of alertness to beauty, to an awareness of the embedment in and generation through matter of formal unity, a delusion that makes ‘normal’ the drive ‘to make new’ and the sense that regeneration is real– I think, if delusions can be chosen, romance is far preferable to the delusions of private accumulation and fame.
    ———
    That Nabokov was aware of and artistically interested in portraying the inner lives of dull people is well-attested.
    But why even try to bail out his patrician sneer with an attunement to “highly self-ironic” literary ways and the “delicate irony” of his writing the speech and behavior of, say, Charlotte Haze? One could say, that’s Humbert’s perspective, not Nabokov’s! True, but where, in Lolita (say), is this particular view- of Charlotte- challenged or even made complicated? We’re shown, via an example, that dumb, trashy, ‘lower’ persons are uninteresting, because that’s what ‘Much Ash’ is: not interesting.
    “There weren’t too many people who were his equal in knowledge, talent and education.”
    –I agree, but to the point of sensitivity to Nabokov’s registering and transmitting (fictively) of people, so did he.
    And, for those who love the beauty and intelligence of his sentences, well, so what if he was an elitist in a “blind” way? and felt himself uncommonly able? His snobbery should convince no-one to discard his books, nor should anyone be confused as to the curled lip in his characterizations, as I read him.

  63. But a democrat looks at everyone as a potential contender; an aristocrat thinks, way down deep, that you have to be born to the manor.
    This is what I disagree with. I don’t think you can say that about Nabokov using his prose, non-fiction and life as evidence. He could be brutal intellectually, but even then he had enormous compassion for the intellectually dim. But I can’t see that he was an aristocratic snob.
    And I don’t think it’s fair criticism to use the absence of something as proof. I don’t write anti-communist tracts but that doesn’t mean I’m a secret fellow traveler.

  64. John Emerson says:

    Shakespeare shows that such will, ironically generative in a soldier, is dangerous to a person close to ‘the crown’ and pathogenic to a nation with such people close to its ‘crown’– a perfectly Jacobean perspective, right?
    My understanding is that there can be only one such person, the king himself, and if there are more they war each against all until only one remains. King of the vultures. Macbeth was caught between two stools, betrayed by a tardy conscience which had failed to prevent him from usurping, but prevented him from doing the job right. Otherwise he might have become that lone vulture. (Erasmus, BTW, has a long passage on how horrible eagles are, making them very appropriate models for the actual lords of the realm of Erasmus’ time).
    Of course, from the point of view of non-players, getting the number of vultures down to only one as quickly as possible is best, and at the end of every struggle all sensible people hope not to have another one for a long time. So what you say is something like “Murder is evil” where what you mean is “Let’s stick with the murderer we’ve got”.
    ***********
    I remember Charlotte Haze as a rather inept social climber whose resentment of the people (or person, Humbert) she was emulating burst out only after she was rejected. Not really a peasant type.
    BTW, my theory that the Italian poet Umberto Saba, who wrote a lot of poems about nymphettes, was the source of Humbert’s name (at least) has not been widely accepted, but I don’t see why. Saba also had a lot of Humbert’s seedy Europeanness.
    Nor has my point been taken that “On the Road” and “Lolita” can be compared as two early road novels, to the point that characters from the two books (as well as the real-world Nabokov and Neil Cassidy) seem to have intersected in Colorado at more or less the same time right after WWII. And the novels are located in the pre-intertate period when exploration of the US by car had become possible but not routine, so that cross country trips were still adventures and the local cultures hadn’t become entirely homogenized.

  65. John Emerson says:

    Nabokov’s aristocratic background gave him an intimidating set of talents: note only had he mastered three languages, but he wrote chess puzzles, coached tennis, and was an accomplished field entymologist.
    In other words, he made the most of it, unlike your stereotypical fox-hunting, gambling, Don Juan aristo. (This was presumably due to the family’s liberal-modernist streak.) He also (one of my pet ideas) seems to have grown up less tightly-wound, neurotic, and alienated than the apparent majority of the British, German, and French writers of the era.
    At the same time, to him everything seems to have become technical, something which played into an aspect of modern America that I think has been quite harmful. His novels are above all virtuoso performance, and almost technocratic.

  66. In other words, he made the most of it, unlike your stereotypical fox-hunting, gambling, Don Juan aristo.
    Yes indeed, and nothing I have said should be taken to imply otherwise. He did as well as anyone of his background could have, and had a proper disdain for most members of his class who accepted their privileges as their due and complained about their loss. My only point is that the faint whiff of aristo that remains sets off my (doubtless excessively sensitive) populist alarms.

  67. He also (one of my pet ideas) seems to have grown up less tightly-wound, neurotic, and alienated than the apparent majority of the British, German, and French writers of the era.
    Yeah, well that was ‘no accident’. Born 1900, but he didn’t partake in trench warfare, like the B.G.&F writers.

  68. John Emerson says:

    Yeah, but even in 1914 the people from the serious European powers were all angsty. It was just harder o take Russia at face value. You weren’t really expected to, so you could maintain a lot of attachment and remain quite normal. In 1914 a lot of otherwise wonderful, talented BF&G authors, etc., practically begged to be sent to the fron lines to be blown up.
    The Czechs, not so much.

  69. John Emerson says:

    DETACHMENT!!

  70. marie-lucie says:

    In 1914 a lot of otherwise wonderful, talented BF&G authors, etc., practically begged to be sent to the fron lines to be blown up.
    it’s because nobody expects to be blown up, they think only other people will get blown up (on the other side mostly). And even if they think they might be blown up, they don’t expect to be partially blown up, going home with arms or legs or whatever missing, but haunted by horrible memories.

  71. Shakespeare does have kings who are destroyed by alpha raptors- Duncan (who’s old, right?), Richard II (who’s weak when the polity needs a tough ‘decider’ and is only half-willingly stooped-upon).
    But Henry VI is never threatened by Talbot, and Romeo (the toughest brawler) rejects the role of clan raptor and the competition between clans to boast the town’s alpha raptor.
    Shakespeare’s ‘great king’ and his monarch herself are, rather than alpha raptors themselves, FALCONERS; that is, though Henry V and Elizabeth do have and understand the value to themselves of the hunt-lust, they also have gentling priorities that can master it.
    Macbeth is DUNCAN’s alpha raptor, and, at the beginning of the play, I think he’s fine with that role. It’s only after his interaction with the witches’ magic (power amorally unleashed) that seeps up from the earth that his hunt-lust is re-directed, re-governed. And, of course, after his wife gets her ideas! (As I suggested above, I think it’s crucial to understanding the play that Macbeth is NEVER interested in RULING, just in killing.)

    Charlotte isn’t a “peasant”, but she’s in a political economy where, numerically and structurally, the peasantry is much diminished.
    She’s not much of a “climber”, though, is she? She’s an aspirer, but only in the forms she’s already been ‘sold’ on.
    But Charlotte’s portraiture is sourly done from on high. Sure, sure, it’s HUMBERT’S perspective, and Nabokov assumes and executes the job of that integrity admirably, but Nabokov will enjoy his laborious sneer at trashy people.
    I don’t say that Nabokov is wrong about, say, Charlotte, just that (I think) he has a characteristically patrician hauteur in his writing, which says nothing for or against his political progressivity or personal decorum.
    -
    A pair of less similar books than On the Road and Lolita is hard to think of, but, yes, they’re both ‘American road’ novels. Kerouac’s having been written first, I think Lolita owes as much to On the Road as it does to Whitman, but I’d be interested in evidence to the contrary.

  72. Not to badger, but… I still object to the aristo characterization of Nabokov. If he held disdain for those not to the manor born, surely he couldn’t have married a woman not only not to the manor born, but of the wrong nationality/religion to even aspire to a manor. Nor could he have fallen so in love with the US.
    I had a professor in college who was from a small royal family of a small Central European nation. He had grown up in a castle with servants and tutors and fencing masters and whatall. He grew up speaking something like 8 modern and 5 dead languages. Like Nabokov, he never used his title, was left-leaning, married out of class, and adored the US. And yet there was something about his manner, his bearing, his utter ease with his place in the world that remained and that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I imagine that Nabokov was like this, and that’s what you are reacting to. And like Nabokov, he abhorred poshlost’ in the sense of falsity, especially intellectual fakery, but could be exquisitely patient and helpful to uneducated or uncultured people who were genuine and real.
    I think people still confuse Humbert Humbert with Nabokov. Nabokov loathed him.
    I also hold a rather minority position with regard to his legacy. Yes, there is the extraordinary virtuosity of language, but I don’t agree that it was nearly technocratic (which suggests coldness to me). I can’t remember if he said this or Vera did after his death (and don’t have my books with me), but one of them told an interviewer that one of the main concerns (certainly not “themes”!) of all his books was the afterlife. And consciousness. If you read his novels through a different lens, you discover a very different sensibility. Pick up Transparent Things. There is nothing cold or technocratic about that novel at all.
    Aren’t you all dying to read the Origins of Laura?

  73. John Emerson says:

    Nabakov’s book was actually published first (1955 v. 1957), though the two books were written about the same time. The possibility of influence either way seems nil. I think that it was more a matter of new material becoming available for the writer. (Someone wrote something, cited by Orwell or someone, about the differences between pre-railroad novels, railroad novels, and automobile novels. And how’s that for a precise reference?)
    From what I’ve read, the economic historian Joseph Schumpeter was a real aristo in the worst sense of the word. Along the lines of having to be told that duelling is no longer an American custom.
    But I also suspect that a talented aristo is more likely to marry a talented Jew than a talented peasant.

  74. Well, my aristo professor married a talented, smart American peasant (from a midwest farming family):)
    I liked your reference; that’s the way I’ve referenced virtually everything I’ve written on this post. No books + poor memory = “either Nabokov or his wife said something like…” Bleah.

  75. And yet there was something about his manner, his bearing, his utter ease with his place in the world that remained and that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I imagine that Nabokov was like this, and that’s what you are reacting to.
    I’m sure you’re right. Once again, I’m not denigrating Nabokov at all, one of the few great writers whose personal life was pretty much entirely admirable, just expressing an irritated reaction to a perceived “utter ease with his place in the world.”
    Yes, there is the extraordinary virtuosity of language, but I don’t agree that it was nearly technocratic (which suggests coldness to me).
    I’m certainly on your side here, and it’s a poor aesthetic sense that reads his exquisite prose as cold or technocratic. As for the afterlife, there’s quite a bit of literature by now about his relation to the concept; if you’re interested, I’ll dig up some references for you.

  76. Can anyone explain why Martin Amis, who surely knows better, repeatedly mispronounces Nabokov’s name in this video — you know, like Sting?

  77. John Emerson says:

    I don’t feel that about Lolita, but do about a lot of the other things I’ve started, most recently “Ada”. The proportion of ingenuity to everything else put me off.
    Starting with Flaubert fiction writers seemed to have doubts about what they were doing, trying various methods of separating themselves from the corny novelists. I think it’s been a very mixed blessing. I follow Joyce up to about the middle of Ulysses, for example.
    I connect this with the inferiority complex humanists have when faced with scientists and engineers. At various times Poe, Baudelaire, Pound, WC Williams, even Eliot took a quasi-scientific stance about literature which I think of as defensive. Nabokov doesn’t talk that way to my knowledge, but his works seem to me to be constructions to be enjoyed partly as such, and he seems to be admired especially for his ingenuity.
    I’m not a Nabokov hater but except for Lolita his books have not worked for me.

  78. marie-lucie says:

    I confess that I have never read Nabokov. I have read much about him, including reviews of his books, but they didn’t make me want to read him. (But I don’t read many novels anyway).

  79. “[T]he two books were written about the same time.”
    On the Road was written in April, ’51, and Lolita was published in ’55; that’s what I meant when I said that “Kerouac’s book [was] written first”; its later publication date doesn’t pertain to this premise.
    When I read that “characters from the two books (as well as the real-world Nabokov and Neal Cassady) seem to have intersected in Colorado at more or less the same time”, I thought a connection of direct influence between the books was being implied (and meant to doubt such an articulation); my mistake if the ‘comparison’ wasn’t of that sort!

  80. mab, an effort has been made on this thread to distinguish Nabokov from Humbert, and to praise Nabokov for maintaining that distinction novelistically (as well as for writing beautifully). Nor has anyone said that Nabokov was anything less decorous than a gentleman. He simply communicates, in at least some of his writing, patrician self-regard- which, in some readers’ cases, is (again) no impediment to delighting in his sentences.
    ———-
    marie-lucie, give Ada: or Ardor 50 pages. That should be generous enough either to recognize that there’re books more important to you to read, or that you’ve discovered for yourself a wonderful writer.

  81. m-l, try Pnin. It’s lovely.

  82. m-l, try Pnin. It’s lovely.
    His stories too: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003174.php
    And, especially if you play chess, The Defense.

  83. Nabokov’s a writer that makes me feel as if I’m reading him for the first time every time I read him. This is an exquisite feeling that I miss with writers who, after subsequent readings, do not live up to the first. My most recent readings of Pale Fire and Lolita had me searching for his “secret points” and delighted when these “nerves of the novel” became apparent for me. In this regard, simplistic statements like “Nabokov isn’t Humbert” or “Nabokov didn’t write it, so it isn’t there” or even Nabokov’s own “Lolita has no moral in tow” are uninteresting to the extent that they shed little light on his mastery and brilliance.

  84. simplistic statements like “Nabokov isn’t Humbert” or “Nabokov didn’t write it, so it isn’t there” or even Nabokov’s own “Lolita has no moral in tow” are uninteresting to the extent that they shed little light on his mastery and brilliance.
    But Mab and LH weren’t trying to “shed light on his mastery and brilliance”; they were arguing over whether there was any validity to Hat’s sense that Nabokov’s writings betrayed a slightly unappealing sensibility, an aristocratic blindness.

  85. John Emerson says:

    I tend to agree with Hat about Nabokov’s aristo-ness, despite what I said up above. But part of my reaction has been something like “How could he not?” He just seemed to have had such a charmed life (until his father was killed) and to have been so exquisitely talented and successful without any apparent effort, that I have trouble seeing how he could empathize with the common lot. For example, he makes Nietzsche look like an overstressed social climber. It’s his ease that really puts the frosting on the cake.
    An odd aristo was Knut Hamsun, who came from a mediocre to poor family and went through considerable periods of poverty and menial labor during his early life. (Field hand in ND, streetcar conductor in Chicago, and apprentice ropemaker, of all things, in his youth in Norway.) Yet he developed a very haughty attitude.

  86. It’s his ease that really puts the frosting on the cake.
    Facility is mixed blessing, of course. The only writer I can think of who’s taken more grief over it than Nabokov is, I hesitate to say…Updike.

  87. But part of my reaction has been something like “How could he not?”
    Yeah, exactly. It’s totally not his fault, and I’m not blaming him for it, it just rubs me (very slightly) the wrong way. Like some people react to certain accents.

  88. John Emerson says:

    Updike seems to have chosen to waste his remarkable talents on the shabbiest of themes, as if he were trying for some kind of Guinness Book of Records tour de force contrast in that regard. I suppose that’s like Flaubert in some respects, except that Flaubert had some kind of animus driving him, and chose vivid subjects, whereas Updike just seems to amble absentmindedly along writing up the quotidian. As though he were saying, I’ll write exercises in style on topics so utterly commonplace that no one remembers what they’re about.
    I came to this conclusion quote early, with “Rabbit, Run”, but reports on subsequent books seem to reinforce that judgment. I had loved “Pigeon Feathers” but during a recent rereading it seemed far overwriteen.
    It’s like Updike is a real naturalist, and has decided not to juice up the meaninglessness of his books with dramatic murderers and starving orphans and morons and madmen and in*e*tuous couples, but just do his stylistic exercises on the most unexceptionally boring people that can possible be found.
    No, I’m not fair. And I suppose I should giveUpdike another try.

  89. troubador literature
    I can only imagine what this is.
    huddling together off a platform and up a train’s steps
    The European train experience might be quite different from the American one. Back in the golden days of my youth, when you could get a Eurail Pass for a few hundred dollars, you could arrive in a city in the dead of night, and decide to jump on a train for somewhere else just on a whim. You had to be on the right car though, since the train might be split and various cars dispatched off to different countries. Unlike an “On the Road” type automobile experience, where the characters of the travelers have time to develop in a story line, one might have only hours or minutes to get to know one’s traveling companions on a train before diverging destinations brought yet another set of characters and conversations into play. In that regard, the automobile road trip story might have more in common with the type of cruise trip described in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

  90. in*e*tuous couples
    In fact Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom has an affair with his daughter-in-law in one of the later Rabbit books.
    I was hooked by the writing in “Rabbit, Run” when I read it many years ago. I would say that I was also struck by the contrast between my strong feeling about the writing and my relative lack of feeling about the characters.
    On the other hand, in book four Rabbit’s death made me sob. Maybe at that point in my life any well-written story about a father dying would have done so.
    I’ll bet that some LH readers know the Swedish children’s book “The Flowers’ Festival” by Elsa Beskow. I thought of it just now because, if I remember right, in the midst of tales of noble flowers and knightly nuts the sparrow diffidently offers a quotidian tale of the family life of peas, which makes a big hit with the humbler parts of his audience.
    I read somewhere that Updike’s own mother criticized “Rabbit, Run” on “write what you know” grounds, saying that the author, an A student, doesn’t really know what it’s like to be a B student like the main character. I had much the same reaction to book two, “Rabbit Redux”: Updike didn’t seem to me to have much of a feel for the world of late-1960s radicals.
    In spite of the way I devoured the four “Rabbit” books, I never got far with any other Updike novels, or even gave it much of a try. Not sure why.

  91. “I can only imagine what [troubador literature] is.”
    That “only” is doubtful; ‘imagination’ is no bad thing in attending to “literature”, but surely anyone who can “imagine what [some particular kind of literature] is” can ‘read what it is’, too.
    Perhaps the term “troubador” is obscure: ‘poetry in “Occitan” or “Provencal” and then geographically nearby languages’, ‘vernacular poetry/ies of the late-mediaeval renaissance in (mostly) Mediterranean Europe’.
    [If an idiosyncratic spelling variant is being sneered at, then, No, you couldn't "imagine" what troubador poetry is.]
    Several kinds of troubador literature are connected somehow with being ‘on the road’. Kinds of poems that express directly ‘the road’ include the ‘canso de crozada’, ‘pastorela’, and ‘viadeyra’.
    There’s a genre of troubador poetry by and about professional travellers (well, mercenaries), called sirventes poems.
    Lots of troubador poems are to or about absent people, which sometimes indicates communication from or after ‘the road’; these types include the alba, maldit-comiat, planh, and salut d’amor.
    Finally , there are troubador poems specifically for contests, to which the poets would travel; not exactly ‘road’ communiques, but surely partimen, tenso, and torneyamen poems are in-formed by ‘the road’.
    I’m no Occitan scholar, but if an amateur like me can “imagine” reasonably understanding some “troubador” poems to be in a tradition of ‘road’-inflected literature, anyone can.

  92. It is possible, sometimes even necessary or advantageous, to get on and off a train without speaking to another traveller, and you can fill a van with new people every few scores of miles and converse genuinely with them.
    But, in my travelling experience, the physical structure of trains (and ships) leads to a small and briefly-lived but sometimes intense community in a way that cross-country or -continent car travel never does, no matter how close the three or four travellers come to be.
    Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test- there’s a counter-example to my distinction. But I think On the Road is about the care and feeding of ‘friendship’, not ‘community’- which was the gist of my comparison.

  93. “He just seemed to have had such a charmed life (until his father was killed) and to have been so exquisitely talented and successful without any apparent effort, that I have trouble seeing how he could empathize with the common lot.”
    Okay, sorry in advance, I know I sound like a broken record here. But. Do read Transparent Things. It’s about a pathetic, tragic, tortured nobody. I also think Lolita is so successful because Nabokov was in love with lower middle-class America and could create Charlotte Haze and her daughter.
    I do heartily agree with Hat that Nabokov’s personal life was admirable. He did lose everything. He spent 20 years eeking out a living in Europe and another 15+ doing the same in the US until his works finally began to make real money. But when you read his letters, he never whines, he is never indignant or outraged that He, the Great Sirin-Nabokov, should have to teach English to bored dowagers or children. He didn’t like it, but he did it with a fairly good grace. He was so happy, so joyful, when he could do what he loved — poke around dead butterflies, chase them in the mountains, write. I remember reading some description of Nabokov and Vera playing horseshoes one night and hooting with laughter. What an amazing capacity to take pleasure in life, whatever it dishes up.

  94. John Emerson says:

    The Acid Test was a bus, not a car, and thus more like a train.
    It’s interesting that Tom Wolfe really hated his Acid Test experience and clearly thought that his story was damning in a subtle, deadpan, way, but people who read the book tend to think that it would have been fun.

  95. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was also not a novel.
    It was about a single “vehicle” being driven by the travellers.
    That is, the bus went where they wanted to go, rather than where and when the schedule ‘told’ it to do, “and thus [decidedly less] like a train”, but something like a “van”. That’s why I suggested it as an example of, let’s say, ‘automotive’ as opposed to ‘locomotive’ transport.

  96. mab, you argue eloquently and fairly for a perspective emphasizing Nabokov’s humane reaction to a tough fate, that of the penniless refugee. Thanks for putting that view, a bit contrary to my own!, forward so patiently and persistently.

  97. “troubador” …
    ‘canso de crozada’, ‘pastorela’, and ‘viadeyra’…sirventes poems…alba, maldit-comiat, planh, and salut d’amor…partimen, tenso, and torneyamen poems ‘…
    Thanks for the elucidation. Initially I “imagined” France, twelfth century, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my favorite people, but when I peeked at wikipedia, I saw sixteenth century, Gothic, and England and suddenly “imagined” one of those novels you see in the supermarket with a windswept but plucky damsel standing in front of a foreboding castle. Apparently the latter (troubadour style, not castle) was some sort of revival.
    Kesey’s Garage Sale might be closer to the friendship model of the American road trip story than Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, although it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it.

  98. John Emerson says:

    If Hat starts an Updike thread, I’ll read another Updike novel just so I can tell why I hate it. Promise!

  99. Nijma, if you have a look at the “Troubadour” article in wikipedia, there’s much more discussion and many links; scroll down to Genres in the ‘Works’ section and each of a score or so styles of Occitan/troubador poetry are briefly described and most are linked to. Also interesting are the 11 (!) genealogical theories in the ‘Origins’ section. I’m not even an amateur mediaevalist- a dilettante at best- but the article looks pretty factual.
    If you’re an Ezra Pound fan, I can strongly recommend Peter Makin’s Provence and Pound; it’s far more scholarly than Pound ever was (and crammed with more data than you’ll likely retain or easily grasp, unless you’re at least a dedicated Occitan amateur), and it’s written with a fine appreciation for Pound’s (considerable) poetic achievement.

  100. John Emerson says:

    The 11 origins theories couldn’t quite all be true at once, but at least half of them could.
    When I studied this, the fanatical neo-Catholics and high-church Anglicans who dominated English departments raged against the least suggestion of any non-Catholic non-Latin influences. This was a major factor in my decision not to go on in English. (That, and the peculiar satisfaction that one teacher took in the hanging of Billy Budd).

  101. marie-lucie says:

    “troubador”: This is a hybrid spelling: the word should be written troubadour according to French spelling (reflecting the pronunciation) or trobador according to both medieval and modern standardized Occitan spelling (same pronunciation once you know the rule).

  102. John Emerson says:

    While we’re at it, M-l, how close are Occitan and Catalan. In my casual and scattered reading I find a lot of common points.

  103. marie-lucie says:

    JE, the Languedocien variety is very close to Catalan, geographically and linguistically. Other Occitan varieties (eg Limousin, Gascon, Provençal) are less close. The modern standardized spelling is said to correspond to the Montpellier dialect, which is supposed to be the closest to the Occitan of the troubadours.

  104. John Emerson says:

    Thanks, M-l. I’ve dabbled in Provencal and Catalan poetry and feel that it’s underappreciated, at least since Ezra Pound.

  105. “Troubadour” is the standard spelling in English, unshockingly enough.

  106. deadgod, thanks for the hint about the troubadour entry on wikipedia, I did find it while googling your other tidbits. I particularly like the Cathari heresy theory even if it isn’t given much serious consideration. The only time I’ve heard of Ezra Pound was somewhere on these pages; I was intrigued by the short sample, iirc without any context, and meant to look into him further, maybe in the context of other writers of that time, but was in the process of moving and never got back to it. I’m more interested in the technicalities of linguistics than literature, since I teach ESL and sometimes see something here that my students find interesting, and also in history. But I’m always interested in what other people here are interested in, since they can sometimes help you navigate your way into difficult-appearing subjects you wouldn’t otherwise think of looking into.

  107. Nijma, Pound is usually connected in literary history with T. S. Eliot, and with Joyce, W. C. Williams, and literary ‘modernism’. An excellent book about him- by a strong partisan in his favor- is The Pound Era, by Hugh Kenner. Even if you dislike Pound’s poetry and disagree with Kenner about poetry and language, you could easily find Kenner’s book to have been well-, even beautifully, written.
    The big problems with Pound are: a) difficulty, that is, both difficulty in poetry itself (is it necessary?), and the WAY he’s sometimes hard to figure out; and, especially, b) politics (Pound was an unrepentant supporter of Mussolini and what Pound believed Fascism to be, and also, between the wars, became increasingly, and increasingly hysterically, anti-Semitic). The stupid political shit unhappily pushes many people away from a great poet.

  108. In fact, ‘troubador’ isn’t even a NON-standard spelling, that I can find. I like it, though, a little because I pronounce the word “TROO – buh – dor”, and mostly because I don’t want to call the Occitan poets or culture “dour”.
    Given the density of cruxes in Occitan poetry, correcting an already-admittedly “idiosyncratic” but readable hybrid spelling of ‘troubador’ would be rather like whispering muscularly from mountain peak to mountain peak.

  109. deadgod, I’m delighted to find you appreciate Pound, Kenner, and the troubadours, all favorites of mine.

  110. marie-lucie says:

    correcting an already-admittedly “idiosyncratic” but readable hybrid spelling of ‘troubador’ would be rather like whispering muscularly from mountain peak to mountain peak
    Then let me “whisper muscularly” (if I can achieve the feat) to you on your mountain peak that the spelling of the word has nothing to do with the “cruxes in occitan poetry” but only to do with word recognition, like any conventional spelling.
    Wikipedia gives the pronunciation of both French troubadour and Occitan trobador. For the latter it looks like the d should be pronounced the English th in the, but the th is not interdental (with the tongue between the teeth) but with the tongue tip in the same place as for d, that is, just behind the teeth (not quite as in English). (I was going to say that the pronunciation rules are the same as in Spanish, but it depends which Spanish you are talking about, since some Spanish uses an interdental).

  111. troubador/troubadour
    The first time I saw the “troubador” spelling it didn’t really register as I tend to read quickly and for meaning and only saw -ador which is a familiar Spanish ending. But the “troub” part looks somehow French, and does Spanish even have the verb combination “ou”? I can’t think of any examples. So now to me it looks like two different languages with two different pronunciation systems tacked together for no apparent reason. The effect of the “troubador” spelling is now like fingernails on a blackboard.

  112. The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, then, the recommendation is unanimous, thanks. My local library can get it for me. Would it be better to start by reading some of Pound’s actual writing first or just jump into the literary criticism?

  113. I’d suggest just starting the Kenner book and seeing if you like the Pound he quotes; if so, you can try more of it.

  114. marie-lucie says:

    Occitan (previously spoken throughout Southern France) is close to French and even more to Spanish. In Occitan the o is usually pronounced something like the u in English put, which sounds to French ears as equivalent to what is written ou (since in French the u by itself is equivalent to German ü). When medieval Occitan poetry was rediscovered in Northern France, the word written in Occitan trobador was rendered in French spelling as troubadour, which was adopted in English as well. The word has an Italian equivalent in trovatore as in the opera Il trovatore (the troubadour). All these words (except for English) are stressed on the third vowel in the word, not the first.
    There was also an alternate Occitan form trobaire which was adopted in Medieval French as trouvère to refer to similar poets writing in French, but troubadour was adopted later into Modern French to refer specifically to the Occitan poets.
    These words all have the same root as French trouver ‘to find’, and the origin of this root is unclear but may have been first used in Occitan (trob-).

  115. Nijma, language hat’s suggestion is sensible. In my scatter-shot reading, Christine Brooke-Rose and Marjorie Perloff also write informatively and entertainingly about Pound (and many things); if you find yourself somehow charmed by Kenner, their points of view, similarly favorable to Pound, would be worth looking up.
    You might find Pound himself to be less practical for whatever you read FOR; well, one person’s nails-on-a-blackboard are another’s Metallica, and a third will take some of both, a fourth neither, and a fifth the iPod of a post.

  116. Thanks, hat and deadgod, the Kenner is on its way, and I’ve pasted Brooke-Rose, Perloff, and Makin into my booklist for future reference. Since I majored in history that is probably the most sensible approach.
    for whatever you read FOR
    Currently reading Ulysses, after being assured by a multilingual punster that it would be “rewarding”. Initially it was unintelligible, but after digressing into Stephen Hero for forty pages, I went back to it and it started to unfold, but slowly. It takes a completely different style of reading, and my reaction to it will probably be complex. It and Pound seem to be two visible portions of the same elephant I’m currently poking at, with the vague idea I will discover something completely different.

  117. Nijma, my Ulysses perspective- I’ve read it three times- is that about half of it is as well written as prose gets, and the other half is just more trouble than it’s worth. The separate sections are quite different as to their ambitions, obviously, and, for me, differ in their levels of achievement, too.
    I’m guessing that many Joyce enthusiasts have reactions similar to mine: this part is funny/clever/moving, but that one, tiring, and not so rewardingly, either. I also know from experience that other fans who admire the book in pieces admire completely different pieces from me.
    Of course, to get the whole book, you’d have to read the whole book- once, anyway. At the end of the penultimate section, a readerly ‘miracle’ has happened: you’ve seen, not a happy ending- the ‘happiness’ is thoroughly qualified!-, but rather, the first steps in a real friendship. Likewise, finishing the last part, one is suffused with a sense of the love between Molly and Bloom.
    If you have the time, do feel encouraged to push on through the tediously long joke of Nausicaa and the operatic murk of Nighttown.

  118. deadgod, thanks for the encouragement. I have now been notified that the Kenner is ready for me to retrieve from my local library. I see it’s some 600 pages, maybe it’s time to go out in a forest somewhere and just read. Back in the 70′s when Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was the hot thing on the commune circuit, a friend of mine took a week off work just to read it.

Speak Your Mind

*