Tag Archives: John Updike

Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

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Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year.—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Salman Rushdie is in the news again. Not because he’s living under a new Muslim sentence of death, which sent him into hiding for a decade after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but because he’s written a memoir about the period. With the fatwa now almost fifteen years behind him, Rushdie has perspective from which to assess and portray. The New Yorker has published a long excerpt of Joseph Anton: A Memoir—Joe Anton being his self-bestowed code name, taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, that British cops used when he was in hiding. The excerpt is available for now on line.

It’s always thrilling when a great novelist writes a memoir: John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, reviewed on this blog (see the Favorite Memoirs page), is one of my favorites, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (also with links on that page), reviewed here once negatively and once positively, is nothing if not interesting for how he follows his aesthetic star. What you first notice in Rushdie’s long New Yorker excerpt, “The Disappeared,” is that his memoir is written in the third person. That’s an interesting and, to me, exciting choice; the third-person, though uncommon in memoir, maybe because writers fear editors will think their work is fictionalized, offers memoirists a different and perhaps keener perspective on themselves: third person in nonfiction is a distancing perspective.

The second thing you notice in Rushdie’s excerpt is that it’s non-chronological: the fatwa was issued in February 1989, and his essay procedes under these headings: 1989, at the imposition of the death decree, a section which is dramatic and scenic; 1966, when he learned about the “Satanic Verses” while studying history at Cambridge; 1984, when he began writing the novel, which took four years; 1988, when The Satanic Verses was published and began to ignite rage among Muslim extremists; and 1989 again, a long closing section that returns to the fatwa and to Rushdie’s life in hiding.

The third thing you notice after all this innovation is that he uses any memoirist’s tools: scene and exposition, seamlessly in the dramatized bits, and in the purely expository, smooth summary and reflection. Yes, he’s a good writer. Here’s the essay’s first two paragraphs, dramatic and straightforward, that set the scene and convey deftly an incredible amount of backstory:

1989

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.

 

It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting along with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Five days earlier, she had told him that she was unhappy in the marriage, that she “didn’t feel good around him anymore.” Although they had been married for only a year, he, too, already knew that it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news, as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well and began to discuss what they should do. She used the word “we.” That was courageous.

Later that morning, after Rushdie and his wife attend a memorial service for a friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, the police tell him he can’t go home. Too dangerous, Rushdie writes. “Although he did not know it then—so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning—he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter’s Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.”

Whisked to CBS’s offices in London for an interview, Rushdie depicts his disorientation: “But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was author of ‘Satanic Verses,’ a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial ‘The.’ ‘The Satanic Verses’ was a novel. ‘Satanic Verses’ were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author.”

In the next section “1966,” Rushdie flashes back to his second year at Cambridge, when he was studying Islamic history, along with Indian colonial history and the first 100 years of American history. His supervisor, a medievalist named Arthur Hibbert, whom he calls a genius, told him never to write history “until you can hear the people speak”; this turned out to be great advice for a novelist as well, for speech reveals origin, class, temperament, and “beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.”

In this purely expository section, Rushdie explains Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran in such an elegantly clear and simple way that anyone can understand it—and see his respect for one of the world’s great religions. In a nutshell: “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold, orphans like Muhammad, whose success as a merchant, he believed, should have earned him a place in the city’s ruling body, and who was denied such preferment because he didn’t have a powerful family to fight for him.”

Ensconced for the first time in cities, the early Arabs became patriarchal, and were worshippers primarily of three deities, goddesses who specialized in different realms, with Allah an unpopular fourth deity. Muhammad, a successful and spiritual merchant, rescued Allah from obscurity and elevated him over all, deposing the goddesses, who were economically important to Mecca’s elite, since offerings (taxes, in effect) were collected at their shrines. Their ouster threatened the city’s rulers. The “Satanic Verses” stemmed from a vision of Muhammad’s that restored the goddesses, and which he later recanted.

“After that,” Rushdie writes, “the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.”

It was a good story, the young Rushdie saw, but it would be years before he wrote it. After that digression into history, “The Disappeared” explains the novel’s composition, its earth-shaking reception by extremists who misunderstood it, and depicts Rushdie’s underground life. I found the scenic end of the first section, with Rushdie and his wife on the run for the first time, touching and powerful:

     The night in Lonsdale Square was cold, dark, and clear. There were two policemen in the square. When he got out of his car, they pretended not to notice him. They were on short patrol, watching the street near the flat for a hundred yards in each direction, and he could hear their footsteps even when he was indoors. He realized, in that footstep-haunted space, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought, for the second time that day, that there might not be very much more of life to understand.

 

Marianne went to bed early. He got into bed beside his wife and she turned toward him and they embraced, rigidly, like the unhappily married couple they were. Then, separately, lying with their own thoughts, they failed to sleep.

Those paragraphs provoke as much as any my fellow-feeling for Rushdie’s human plight and, admittedly, my admiration of his heroic response to the mob, which he’d just denounced in his first TV interview. As well, throughout this fine essay and concentrated here, I identified, as a memoirist myself, with this fellow writer, albeit brilliant and of historic attainment, as yet another scribe laboring with the humble tools of his craft—scene, summary, and reflection (all working here in service of more than one story being told)—to show how it was, how it looked and felt and seemed.

Just another soul, after all, suffering more than most here, who lately has patiently made art from life’s dusty remains, which he retrieved from one very lonely valley of existence.

Next: Salman Rushdie on the craft of memoir.

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality, scene, structure

Poetry & journalism

“Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”John Updike

As with David Shields, when Archibald MacLeish talks about “poetry” he means poetry in the larger sense of writing that is literary art vs. writing considered a mere transcription of events. Good journalism was never that, but exemplary works of reportage have always tended to get lumped by the literati—perhaps more so in MacLeish’s day—with garden-variety news reports. Following are excerpts from MacLeish’s essay “Poetry and Journalism” and my comments as I try to think my way through this seminal work.

No one would claim that the usual news story is a work of art, at least in the ordinary sense of that term. No one would deny either that great works of journalism exist and that when they exist they exist within a discipline of their own—a discipline which reveals itself, as the disciplines of art always reveal themselves, in form.

The distinction MacLeish makes here is that journalism can be art but that it must be judged against its own kind—just as a sonnet should, perhaps, best be judged in relation to other sonnets. That is, in comparison with other works of art that share the same formal constraints. The poets have chosen their constraints, of course. An apparent weakness of daily journalism’s ascension to art is that the constraints have been chosen by people or forces outside of the journalist—by publishers and editors—by the marketplace, as it were. Thus, does the journalist struggle toward art despite the form?

No, Philip Gerard answers in Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. A “really good piece of nonfiction will stretch the bounds of whatever genre it falls into,” he says. “If you balk at writing to satisfy formal constraints, believing that only absolute freedom of length, subject, and structure is necessary to produce art, you’ll find yourself at odds with most of the greatest writers who ever lived.”

And MacLeish seems to think, as the following excerpt shows, that form surely serves intent and content.

The style of a great work of journalism is the man in terms of the purpose—the man working at the utmost intensity of which he is capable toward an end to which he is wholly committed. But this, of course, is precisely the characteristic of the style of any work of art—the precise characteristic which distinguishes a work of art from a mere indulgence of personality on the one hand or an impersonal “job” on the other. The young critic who recently remarked that the magazine article or newspaper story has become, with us, a more effective form than the novel, may or may not be right, but the recognition that the newspaper story or the magazine article is capable of a form comparable to the great form of fiction is as just as it is belated.

Paging Truman Capote. MacLeish’s essay, in part a 1958 time capsule, underscores how old the new claims to nonfiction’s supremacy are. And it showcases MacLeish’s prescience, coming as it does eight years before Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, which amazed novelists and journalists alike with the power of highly evolved storytelling techniques when applied to true stories.

Truman Capote in 1966

In any case, what MacLeish understood here is that a great work of journalism is a personal construct, however much its form (a slippery word) might indicate otherwise. The conventions of the objective form obscure the degree to which the journalist is making sense of the world like any other writer. She may be unable to waffle on like an unfettered essayist, but her portrait is equally based on personal perception.

MacLeish asks, “Is the poet’s ‘creation’ different in kind from the journalist’s ‘selection’”? He concludes that it is not. Without denying imagination, he says there’s no pure creation, only re-creation from the world’s elements, for both poetry and journalism. Thus the forms are “different in degree” only. Poetry’s truths inform us, just as some journalistic facts take on symbolic weight and “become something more” in their telling. MacLeish takes some pains with this point, spending about six pages of his eighteen-page essay on it.

Creation has a grander sound than re-creation and is undoubtedly, if we may accept the evidence of the book of Genesis, more difficult. But poetry, despite the almost magical powers of the greatest poets, is a human labor and what humanity most desperately needs is not the creation of new worlds, but the re-creation, in terms of human comprehension, of the world we have, and it is to this task that all the arts are committed. Indeed it is for this reason that the arts go on from generation to generation in spite of the fact that Phidias has already carved and Homer has already sung.

Art is useful. MacLeish seemingly advances a utilitarian view of art, with which I agree. That is, the notion that art is useful in helping us live richer lives by making sense of the world’s “humming, buzzing, boggling confusion” at various levels. Or just to remind us of the world’s beauty and the gift of our existence. MacLeish goes on to argue for new forms, however, in a passage that would surely delight David Shields. At least it helps explain Shields’s disdain for the old ways.

New charms are necessary, new spells, new artifices. Whether they know it or not, the young . . . [writers] foregather in Paris in one generation, in San Francisco another, because the world goes round, the light changes, and the old jugs will not carry living water. New jugs must be devised which the generation past will reject as monstrosities and the generation to come will, when it arrives, reject for other reasons: as banalities and bores.

Next: MacLeish’s great essay “Poetry and Journalism” on what really distinguishes poetry from journalism.

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Kindle (& Updike) redux

As I was saying early in January, I was almost through Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel Freedom—wow, what a Mississippi river of a book, churning with social criticism, human portraits, narrative power—when I dropped and broke my Christmas Kindle. In two days I was reading again, on a device officially known as “Richard’s 2nd Kindle,” rushed from the Amazon mothership. Since then I have read on it four more books: Franzen’s delicious memoir The Discomfort Zone; J.R. Moehringer’s hearty bestselling memoir of boyhood and drink The Tender Bar; Franzen’s book of impressive essays and reportage How to Be Alone; and genius John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, a model of elegant prose style.

I think I’m reading more with the Kindle, somehow. Maybe because I read while exercising indoors this winter, get further hooked by a book, and read it faster to finish it.

Maybe it’s just the novelty effect.

I’m uncomfortable with that possibility, just as I’m uncomfortable with aspects of the Kindle and love others. There was an electronically garbled passage in one book; sometimes spaces between words are removed. Being able to search is great, but paging through the book to get anywhere fast in it is a monumental pain. There must be a function that will whip me faster front to back, but I haven’t found it. This is another weakness, the need to learn the kinks of device to read. Books are warm, with life in them, so perfectly evolved a medium. I’m haunted by Robert Pirsig’s great line from his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The heart of technology is death.” One could say this applies to any tools—his insight flowed from the internal combustion engine, as I recall—but it applies especially to high technology like electronics and the apparatus of space travel.

The Kindle is so damn convenient, though, I felt like such a grouchy geezer. But then I began consciously to notice with Rabbit, Run the faint dotted underlining under great passages—what others have highlighted. Thus does the Kindle queer one’s reading experience: the world intrudes. But on the one hand this is great: I won’t miss the quotable lines every book reviewer, blogger, and reading braggart must have. On the other, it is one of reading’s pleasures to find such nuggets on one’s own, thus make them yours. On the other, that’s a young man’s vanity; I’m middle aged—which means only that old age hasn’t got me quite fully in its grip—and am slower to spurn help. Let me be clear about this, however: if like most people you dislike others’ markings and highlightings in a book, you will hate this feature.

The adumbrated underling reminds me of Amazon’s bullying suggestions that appear on my Kindle screen: Do I want to turn on my wireless connection? Hey, I’m saving juice here. Why have the thing on—so Amazon can know even more about me than it already does? No, thank you. Then I hopped into a passage that thrilled me partly for this idiotic reason: No one else has underlined it! Here, Rabbit has just left his wife and spent the night with a prostitute. Reading these very male truths I felt like a prospector splashing through a stream and seeing a gold nugget a hundred idiots have missed:

The thing about her is, she’s good-natured. He knew it the second he saw her standing by the parking meters. He could just tell by the way her thighs made a lap. With women, you keep bumping against them, because they want different things; they’re a different race. The good ones develop give. In all the green world nothing feels as good as a woman’s good nature.

Maybe, if I turn my wireless on, other e-buyers of Rabbit, Run will have my taste inflicted upon them. Not many pages later, I came across a line pre-underlined: “Funny, the world just can’t touch you once you follow your instincts”; it made me wonder how many dumb high school kids are using Kindles and flagging likely term paper fodder. That phrase isn’t portable—it’s just Rabbit’s stray subjective notion—but my line, well mine seems to be beating its blunt aphoristic wings hard enough to fly free of the harebrain. (Yet he’s not just some feckless guy who disgracefully leaves his pregnant wife and small child, impressions from many half-remembered reviews aside; rather, he’s one who runs in fear when he realizes he’s hurtling toward death with someone he doesn’t love.)

“We’re marching toward March,” I’ve been telling my freshmen, hardly believing it myself. Eliot had it wrong. It’s endless January that’s the cruelest month, good for reading though it was. Nothing remotely spring-like except a bird bravely singing a little at daybreak—why? Well, January is gone and good riddance. But February first and second the campus was shut down by ice. Then I blundered across another virgin passage in Rabbit, Run that reminded me of spring—it will come, and then summer, my best season—and it showed how wonderfully Updike could convey the way humans experience the physical world, not just each other, through a suffused scrim of emotion. Rabbit, still on the lam but employed by a dowager for garden chores, is out burning last season’s spent stalks and other brown detritus:

Sun and moon, sun and moon, time goes. In Mrs. Smith’s acres, crocuses break the crust. Daffodils and narcissi unpack their trumpets. The reviving grass harbors violets, and the lawn is suddenly coarse with dandelions and broad-leaved weeds. Invisible rivulets running brokenly make the low land of the estate sing. The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by dull red spikes that will be peonies, and the earth itself, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven.

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Review: Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory’

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov. Knopf, 268 pages.

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”

Vladimir Nabokov follows this intriguing precept, which he announces in Speak, Memory, with vigor in the book, fondling the minute sensory and surface details of what he loved as a boy (especially butterflies, on which he became a renowned expert) while skimming over the particulars of major events, such as the exile from Russia of his liberal, reformist family. The memoir embodies the writer’s conviction that “this world is not as bad as it seems.”

Published first as a series of essays over many years in The New Yorker, and compiled as a book in 1947 after “more or less thorough rewriting,” in Nabokov’s phrase, Speak, Memory seems less cohesive than the great novelist’s fiction. (In the middle of it he begins to refer to “you,” and I realized he was addressing his wife, to whom the book is dedicated.)

Nabokov’s fine prose calls attention to the writer and exacerbates—or strengthens, if you please—the author’s choosing, in the memoiristic mix of scene, summary, and reflection, to lean heavily on the latter two and especially on reflection. The memoir’s downplaying of events, and the writer’s cool eye, distanced me emotionally from the story and its characters and, again, swiveled the spotlight back on the writer making baubles at his desk from his childhood memories. The book relies on your knowing about Nabokov. Often I found Speak, Memory tedious, especially the long genealogical histories (odd, given his philosophy), because they are poorly linked to his parents and himself, though surely they’re a gold mine for biographers. Better are his detailed portraits of his many tutors, whether admired or hated.

What I keep thinking about, not exactly fondling, more like worrying over, is Nabokov’s portrait, consisting of about four sentences in the book, of the unfortunate boy who was born less than a year after him. He never mentions his two sisters and youngest brother, but notes that the role of this number two kid, Sergei, was to watch him, the young genius named after his father, be coddled and favored. Nabokov admits to bullying Sergei, and I sensed that Nabokov dominated the entire family—or at least its offspring—as some smart, strong-willed firstborns can. Sergei grew into a hapless, passive young man, in Nabokov’s telling, who lingered too long in Berlin and the Nazis killed him. Nabokov bravely distills his own cruel, childish role in shaping this victim, but he doesn’t pretend to guilt he doesn’t feel. His own childhood was as happy as happy could be. He asks for not a whit of sympathy—quite the contrary—when his idyllic world is shattered, first when his wealthy parents lose everything, then when his beloved father is, by the way, assassinated.

The message in Speak, Memory is in the words themselves, in the nature of memory, and in the meaning given to life by aesthetic passions. The literary world instantly hailed the book as a masterpiece, though Nabokov never forgot his bruising encounter with the New Yorker’s copy desk over the years of its serialization. While grateful for the editors’ “minor improvements” to the grammar of this non-native writer, Nabokov skirmished to preserve his rhythms, allusions, dry jokes, and artifice. In places his writing ability astonished me. One example:

“Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. . . . Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself onto a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start.”

There’s so much going right there. What thrills me isn’t the easy alliteration that Nabokov loved—so do I: how that “lone light dimly diluted the darkness”—or the pleasing rhyme of “visible drizzle,” but his use of “uncouth” to describe the swan, which nails the malevolent stupidity that sets apart swans from their cousins, ducks and geese. Not to mention his noting its “ridiculous efforts,” followed by this perfection: the “slippery sound” of the bird’s wings against the wooden gunwales. That “wide ripple” and “gluey” “dark swell” are pretty darn good, too. He piled on adjectives, but they were the perfect adjectives.

Knopf’s “Everyman’s Library” edition of Speak, Memory is elegant but features a criminally tight, dense design; though I own it, I checked out an older, more readable version from the library. Knopf’s does include a never-before-published final chapter, Nabokov’s pseudo-review of the book. In it he explains his overlooking his siblings as stemming from “the powerful concentration on one’s own personality, the act of an artist’s indefatigable and invincible will.” Interestingly, similar to Updike in his great memoir Self-Consciousness, reviewed previously, Nabokov says he takes nonfiction’s pledge literally and seriously, which perhaps helps explain the book’s sparing dramatization:

“Obviously Nabokov’s method would lose all sense unless the material were as true an account of personal experience as memory could possibly make it. The selective apparatus pertains to art; but the parts selected belong to unadulterated life. Nabokov’s memory, especially in regard to the first twenty years of his life, is almost abnormally strong, and probably he had less difficulty than most memoirists would have had in following the plan he set himself: to stick to the truth through thick and thin and not be tempted to fill gaps with logical verisimilitudes posing as preciously preserved recollections. In one or two cases research may have proved that something was incorrectly remembered . . . ”

Nabokov says the “permanent importance” of Speak, Memory is as a “meeting point of an impersonal art form and a very personal life story” that traces certain “themes” from early life—including jigsaw puzzles, chess, colors, hikes, exile—into new realms and toward creative maturity. In other words, he aimed to write a sensory, artistic memoir, not a gassy autobiography; he succeeded, according to his own ruthless standards. If I found the result less charming than he intended, I admire and take instruction from the depth of this mandarin’s effort to honor and to link elemental experiences. It gives me more respect for my own.

Per his “review”:

“The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind. All thematic lines mentioned are gradually brought together, are seen to interweave or converge, in a subtle but natural form of contact which is as much a function of art, as it is a discoverable process in the evolution of a personal destiny. Thus, toward the end of the book, the theme of mimicry, of the ‘cryptic disguise’ studied by Nabokov in his entomological pursuits, comes to a punctual rendezvous with the ‘riddle’ theme, with the camouflaged solution of a chess problem, with the piecing together of a design on bits of broken pottery, and with a picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new country. To the same point of convergence other thematic lines arrive in haste . . .”

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Filed under aesthetics, honesty, memoir, REVIEW, theme

John Updike’s impressive sentences

We are all so assimilated. Last Saturday, Hope was watching the evening news and the newscaster instead of Tom Brokaw was a perfectly stunning young woman, light topaz eyes as far apart as a kitten’s, sharp-cornered wide mouth pronouncing everything with a perfect rapid inflection, more American than American, crisper, a touch of that rapid barking voice of the     thirties gangster films and romantic comedies, and when she signed off her name wasn’t even Greek, it was more like Turkish, a quick twist of syllables like an English word spelled backward. The old American stock is being overgrown. High time, of course: no reason to grieve.—John Updike, Seek My Face

Recently, after reading John Updike, I was driving on an interstate and, because of him, wondering how I’d describe the bruised horizon ahead and the mountainous white cloud rising from it—and I realized, from miles away, that I was driving into rain. It turned out to be a storm, a whopper. I could barely see in the downpour but felt I’d been more awake because of Updike’s prose.

I just read Seek My Face, his 2002 novel, which must be required for anyone deeply interested in American art and especially the postmodernists. Updike tells the story from the point of view of an elderly woman painter (not in first-person but in very close third-person omniscient), and he sets the novel during a day-long interview between the woman and a young art journalist from New York. Both these feats—the opposite-sex point of view and the restricted, present-tense time frame—are impressive in themselves. The art theme allowed Updike to deploy his considerable knowledge and passion for art—he began as a visual artist—and although that subject sometimes caused the novel to drag for me, I was enthralled with his spooky ability to portray interpersonal dynamics. The way Updike captures his characters’ shifting feelings toward themselves and others is remarkable, delicious.

Throughout the day in Seek My Face, Hope is irritated by brusque Kathryn “with that easy New York knowingness that withers all it touches,” but sometimes curious and sympathetic toward her. Hope’s inner life is hidden to Kathryn but revealed to us:

The visitor’s voice, insistent with a certain anger yet femalely flexible, insinuating itself into her prey’s ears, asserts, “You were raised as a Quaker.” . . . Hope imagines Kathryn’s naked body—the swing of hip into thigh, the rose-madder-tipped breasts floating on the rib cage, the pubic triangle pure ivory-black and oily as in a Corot—all in a flash, then renounces the image: of the creature. Her susceptibility to beauty, Hope has always known, is what has kept her minor as an artist. The great ones go beyond beauty, they spurn it as desert saints spurned visions of concupiscence and ease: the Devil’s offer of world as reward.

I really read him for his beautiful, complex sentences and for his inspiring eye. He’s been called a lyric writer for the way he could paint life’s look and its feel. His sentences are unabashedly lush compared with today’s more pervasive plain style, a refreshing break from it and an inspiration to enhance my own considerably plainer style. He also makes me want to see better, to look at the world and capture it.

She rarely sits in this room; the kitchen, her bedroom above it, and the studio beyond it contain her usual orbit. Each evening, having added the supper plate and glass to those already in the dishwasher for it to be full enough to run, she thinks of coming in here and drawing the curtains behind the plaid chair against a draft and reading her book of the week, or even looking into one of the art books growing dusty, but she rarely does, drifting upstairs to the warmth of her bedroom instead. Climbing the stairs—“climbing the wooden hill,” her grandfather called it—hurts her knees and left hip but helps keep her mobile, she believes, helps keep her for another year out of one of those assisted-living facilities with rubber floors and off-limits stairwells where her two sons would like to see her settled for the ease of their own consciences, it would make them look bad if she were to die alone and broken on the stairs a la Edna St. Vincent Millay. She so rarely sits in the front parlor that the space from her standing, momentarily light-headed perspective appears startled, its corners jarred into flight, elastic and awry like the corners in rooms by Van Gogh or Lucien Freud. There is something lavender, a psychedelic tinge, in the papered walls, in the thin warped windowpanes, that at moments enters Hope’s eyes from the side, as if the room’s inhabitants in the century now gone had breathed a hint of their lives onto these surfaces.

When I was young Updike put me off—I said he was “cold toward his characters”—and I’m not sure what I meant, maybe that he intimidated me. Now I just take off my hat to him. He was some kind of genius (i.e. brilliant plus seemingly always inspired) and he inspires me. He could tell a story too. You might not like it, or his characters, or his preoccupations, but very early in life he learned what he was doing. You sense his confidence, the sureness of purpose of someone who’s mastered his medium.

And if a novel or memoir or collection of poems, stories, or essays fell short, if critics hated it, no matter: he’d hand-write another and then type up two drafts (with a typewriter for years, on a computer late in life), and only one year later there it would be, a new book. Because of his productivity, I think he was taken somewhat for granted.

Last month The New York Times published “John Updike’s Archive: A Great Writer at Work” that shows how he revised one of his manuscripts.

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Filed under NOTED, style, syntax, working method