Pages

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Alexander Theroux: I’m a wide reader, forgive me



The problem of how much of the tool to employ plagues both painter and prosateur, for the availability of hues and words, if too restricted or too rumbustious, conditions the scope of the work, the approach to the subject, the formal outlook. A rigmarole of rationales has made the outcome of this choice inseparable from ethical aspects. Given my partiality to verbal exuberance, I often register its bad rep for superficiality, obscurity, coldness, deceit, glibness, hollowness. Such stereotypes tend to come unsurprisingly from proponents of sackcloth syntax self-servingly standing up for their sovereignty; but it’s worth paying attention to this warning when it’s delivered by our last sumptuous, sedulous stylist, Alexander Theroux. In “Chosen Locksley Swims the Tiber”, the vapid, venal, vampirish fashion industry is castigated for manufacturing wants, selling illusions, trivializing privacy, and supplanting reality with a colorful make-believe world whose unrealistic ambassadresses pose for covers and centerfolds dressed “in new and bizarre over-the-top hues, like sorrel and puce, perse and ochroleucus, nankeen and watchet, nacarat and cramoisy, smalt and jessamy, liard and eau-de-nil, badious and haematic, infuscate and lovat, tilleul and atrous! Such inanity.” The outrage is heartfelt and deserving; it’s also a luscious cornucopia of a sentence.

For a writer, words are analogous to hues, and for a writer of Therouvian bent it’s not possible to avoid the self-criticism that abundance resembles too much the sordid strategies of marketing, always deluging and deluding us with the illusion of “choice”, always causing a ruckus over the latest novelty, always distracting us with an onslaught of impressions. But writers who cultivate abundance do it because they conflate it with the chief characteristic of an inexhaustible world and because instead of deceiving they want to show the exactitude behinds its exoticism. “Catachresis” is the name for using wrong words to name things in absence of their correct name; it’s actually a widespread act and producer of metaphors: many examples of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Language is fossil poetry” would fall in that category. “Catachresis” is the kind of obscure word that would show up in a Theroux book, although to my knowledge it hasn’t yet; but it’s not a peccadillo you often find him committing in flagrante delicto since he knows the names of all things.

Cynosure, eyrie, sommelier, pogonion, poniard, quidnunc, blivet (misspelling of blivit: alas, typos abound), poltroon, ducatoon, boxty, coombe, fyke, punnet, dowel, haust, palinka, replevin, fino, pinder, grampus, calenture, bumfuzzle, piggate, bosthoon, mundungus, shagbag, obtumency, kenosis, floribundant, zareba, celadon, dystonia, hoyden, quidding, durum, obfusc constitute a very small selection of the words that, depending on your attitude to style, you’ll have a gas looking up or will make you feel the agonies of a gas chamber.

Some are ancient and of regal pedigree: looking up “curkle” led me to Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Early English, which informs me that it was used – likely coined – by Thomas Urquhart in his 1693 translation of Rabelais. It’s the quail’s calling sound. Several words he lifts from other languages; and since he lived in Great Britain too, many more have leaped the pond; basically expect him to use whatever he needs to get the job done. I particularly liked his epithet about “trustifarian (sic) braganzas”, alluding I presume to the Braganças, a Portuguese royal dynasty known for its prodigal spending on architecture thanks to its easily-earned opulence from Brazilian gold.

In the niche Theroux readership there’s a faint discussion over whether or not he’s a postmodernist, a doubt of no consequence to me, but a restless question I think because his reputation still rests mainly on Darconville’s Cat (1981), a “big book” that attracts “big books” fans, a cerebrotonic crowd that at times seems to have read nothing else besides Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest, by whose characteristics they vet further candidates before granting them admittance into the “big books” club. That leaves Darconville’s Cat in quite a pickle due to scant similarities, a flaw that has caused an endless source of inquietude to Theroux’s foremost scholar.

It has always been tricky to peg down Theroux, but I’d go one heresy further and propose that he probably doesn’t even qualify as a late modernist. He’s one of those eccentrics who, had modernism never existed, would have produced exactly the same output. Regardless of his paying the obligatory lip service to James Joyce in interviews, so far he’s made no use of stream of consciousness, nor does Woolfian inner monologue rank high in his rhetorical repertoire. Unlike Kafka, he doesn’t create nightmarish allegories; he has a novel titled An Adultery, which as far as plot goes is what the cover threatens. Although he shares Proust’s and Faulkner’s affection for the theme of memory and nostalgia, neither non-linearity nor long convoluted sentences compass his calamus.

Theroux’s an azygous pre-modernist oddity. What’s always drawn me to his work was his lexical largess straight out of Baroque authors like Urquhart and Sir Thomas Browne; but his receipt is wholly ancient: Renaissance-era paradoxical statements; aphorisms lingering from 17th-century French thinkers; an erudition from when Cicero-planned humanist education was regnant. His pedantry, paraded and mocked in equal measure, aligns him with the long tradition of the Menippean satirists, Lucian, Erasmus, Rabelais, Thomas Love Peacock, an unfashionable crowd.

Nothing else in this volume shows his affinity to the classics better than his reliance on dialogue over narrative. Several stories feature a nameless or unobtrusive narrator gleefully registering strange utterances from some oddball he’s been fortuitous to cross paths with. Like Lycinus, they’ve met their long-winded Lexiphanes, except they feel elated at suck luck. Only in “An English Railroad” does the narrator regret being cornered by his aggressive interlocutor’s endless chatter. This type of speaker, who holds his audience hostage, has a noble tradition behind him. Léon Bloy’s “The Tarantulas’ Parlor” is an awesome short-story about a mediocre poet who forces a friend at gun point to listen to his recital. But Theroux shows how language can be hurled as a missile.

In fact, just about every salience that juts out from his style and worldview predates modernism. Theroux is the rarest of the rare, a surviving member of a nearly wiped-out race of rhetorical writers, for whom notions of good writing come from advices found in manuals 2 000 years ago. When he crafts as showy a sentence as “I’m as high as the sky on the Fourth of July for it!”, surely his ambit is not to keep Hemingway’s American modernism alive – the aphasic Creative Writing course crowd that worships Gordon Lish has got that. However, casually bandying rhyming prose is what Gorgias and Apuleius and medieval Arab fictionists did, more unfashionable people. What Theroux calls “amplification” was a fixed feature of Apuleius’ style, already so unpopular back then that Renaissance humanists called it tumor Africanus, African bombast. Theroux’s penchant for archaically obscure words (the exact name for that is “gadzookery”) received a riposte 2 000 years ago from Lucian in his dialogue “Lexiphanes”, wherein one hapless Lycinus is cornered to listen to a shambolic text by Lexiphanes, at the end of which he complains: “Why, this is the matter; don’t you hear? He leaves us his contemporaries, and goes a thousand years off to talk to us, which he does by aid of these tongue-gymnastics and extraordinary compounds — prides himself upon it, too, as if it were a great thing to disguise yourself, and mutilate the conversational currency.” It’s as if Lucian set down the blueprint of every future The New York Times book review.

Early Stories, a miniature of Theroux’s four extant novels but as illuminated as a holy book, confirms what’s always been clear, that Theroux’s a realist with a better-than-average vocabulary, a realist by necessity insofar as it allows him to better unleash his satirical energies. He’s an observer of foibles and follies, a jotter-down of crankiness, composing speechscapes into searing shape instead of interweaving the strands of mirabolant plots. Although born in the same decade as John Barth, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, whereas they unloaded vitality onto storytelling, Theroux focused on Fabergé phrases that transfigured the quotidian. He always stood apart, even geographically, for his first novel, Three Wogs (1972), a triptych of comical but down-to-earth stories, was written during a stay in Great Britain.

Theroux’s ideas about writing resemble less those of a modern MFA graduate than of a schoolboy in Shakespeare’s time, drilled with recitals, tasked with pastiches of classics and forced to memorize the names of hundreds of figures of style. Eloquence ruled a rung above realism; the schoolboy learned to spun fine sentences, which I guess is why Theroux often oscillates between Flaubertian indirect speech and omniscient third person narrator, an open-voiced speaker who’s verbally unconstrained by appeals to the maintenance of verisimilitude. Decide from the outset that you must reproduce the “stream of consciousness” of an ordinary protagonist, and phrasal banality by force follows since the stream is strewn with inarticulate jetsam and flotsam. But attribute every utterance to a mysterious omniscience hovering above its demotic denizens and no breach of “verisimilitude” precludes it from adding alliteration, punning, rhymed prose, gadzookery, bombast.

But although his fans often invoke his vocabulary as a reason of praise, and I’m guilty of doing that myself, it’s an easy trick to pull off, replaceable by perusing a dictionary, that leaves out the finesse his prose achieves with everyday words. For instance, he places verbs with virtuosity: “He dunned himself with demerits whenever the real possibility of being with Summer entered his head”, or “He tented into himself.” He liberates verbs from the function of pragmatic statement, using them instead metaphorically in ways that rearrange reality. In 2001, Martin Amis convincingly argued that the role of the writer is to wage a war against the cliché. That’s true; it may be true also that he nabbed such commandment from Theroux, who in 1991 declared that “Writing is an assault on cliché”. More likely, both are indebted to Nabokov, high priest of epeolatry, stylistic shadow looming large over postwar English-language writers, although we can go all the way back to Giambattista Marino’s injunction that poetry’s role is to produce meraviglia, wonder. And does Theroux work for it! One man has a “cauliflorian flace”, another one “looked like a marine slug, shiny and fat”, while “ladies with applepandowdy faces” grace another story. One protagonist peers down “into the shallow water to see his reflection, a reflection, the face too few in the world, having seen, frankly ever liked.”

Theroux takes care to excoriate venality, hollowness, glossiness, cynicism without making them integral to the Therouvian treasure trove. No scruples stop him from putting forth models of ideal living; he lashes out at pedantry, avarice, wickedness, greed, egoism. Every satirist hides a moralist. But if I had to name the mode of Early Stories, I’d name it the mode of thaumasmus, according to the dictionary “The presentation of something as a marvel rather than in a neutrally descriptive way”. The magic of the ordinary mesmerizes Theroux; he sympathizes with the foibles and frailties of ordinary people.

Some stories treat these wonders as ambiguous preciosities. In “The American Tourist Home”, a nameless curious narrator spends the evening with Duane, a rural South man who lives in a tourist home with his mom; on the front porch, this rustic raconteur awes the city man with verbal finds. Of Duane he says, “I had begun to think he had a head harder than dental enamel, but his entrepreneurial drive impressed me.” Duane dishes out sentences like: “Some folk prefer fiddlehead fern to okra. The fractals in a fern form a first-rate function, don’t you think?”, prompting the narrator’s reflection: “More idiot savant stuff!” But he also dazzles him: “The only truth a wave knows is that it is going to break, right?” “I looked at him and almost fell over. How the deuce did he come up with these gems? Duane was a philosopher. There is in the country boy’s head a small nut of genius, I’ve always thought. Twain. Faulkner. Elvis.” The yet uncivilized countryside has long attracted lexiphanic compilers since its people haven’t ceded their peculiarity to conform to big city homogeneity. It’s what made the Italian Carlo Emilio Gadda a deployer of dialects and nearly unreadable to his own countrymen. Duane reminds me Grande Sertão: Veredas, a novel by the Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa; it’s narrated by Riobaldo, a former jagunço, an armed militia man, a barely literate dweller of the sertão, the backlands, who tells his life to a listener who never intervenes; Riobaldo is a savage sage, constantly coming up with insightful observations in ingenious language. What’s local is singular; what’s cosmopolitan is commonplace.

In the same vein, “A Wordstress in Williamsburg” is the narrator’s report on his afternoon encounter with the eccentric Rosemary Sweetshrub, an aging writer whom he derisively calls an “authoressette” but whose droll pomposity enthralls him: “Random remarks that she made seemed to cry out – in her mind, at least – for a Boswell.” Whereas Duane’s value resides in his being uncorrupted by big city ways, Mrs. Sweetshrub is a riotous relic, out of touch with modern niceties, naively racist, affectedly solemn: “She was a limitless fund of psychobabble about self-reliance, lots of the socks-up, Albert Ellis/Dale Carnegie/’Personal Growth’/’Human Potential,’ Bliss Carman-like, pseudo-neo-Stoic, self-esteem, ringing self-assurance, learning-to-like-yourself, being-your-own-best-friend sort of cant, filled with palliative language of therapy that favored expressions like ‘share’ for ‘tell,’ ‘relationship’ for ‘romance,’, ‘reach out’ for ‘call or visit someone in pain or trouble,’ ‘challenges’ or issues’ – for ‘problems’ or ‘troubles’ – and (emotional) ‘closure.’” She’s curious as collectible antique items: “She was exacting, finicky, fussy – what the French call difficile – and in a very real sense distinctly outmoded, a person from the bygone era of Squibb toothpaste, Lux toilet soap, Ronald Colman movies, the twelve-cylinder Franklin, Atwater Kent radios, and squat cap-sealed beer cans”, he says.

“Pedantry comes easy enough to her”, the narrator says of Mrs. Sweetshrub, but is it an admonition or a compliment? Another narrator says: “The pub over there is an anti-staling agent. It’s a mighty catholicon. There’s a word for you. I’m a wide reader, forgive me.” However, the gift of genius can be burdensome, especially when the burden falls on precocious shoulders. In “Genius”, Stonesthrow narrates his heartbreak from meeting a genius child while studying English literature. The boy is the aptly-named Leon Noel. Their tragic friendship leads Stonesthrow to reflect on what genius entails: “Genius, in its singularity, always seems to imply a detachment from the sublunary world, its proud possessor ever ready to guard and protect a wisdom which he owns but never – somehow, for its uniqueness, for its strange and uncanny characteristics – manages to reveal.” It’s also deeply lonely.

Leon’s an unquenchable questioner: “He asked my name, and, repeating it, savored the word. It was something, I noticed, that he did with just about every new word that he learned. I would soon come to see that he was compulsively curious.” Stonesthrow hangs out with Leon in part to bask in his unexpected turns of phrase. “He was a perfect fund of these ingenious little trifles.” The same could be said of Duane and Mrs. Sweetshrub, but Leon’s come out like a geyser, like a torrent, overwhelming him: “Where did all this stuff come from?” he wonders.

Such gift, however, comical in innocent infancy, turns to vanity with the onset of adolescence. Stonesthrow forgives this sin – “Vanity is hardly an anomaly when it comes to genius.” – even as he concludes that it carved a wedge between their friendship: “Forming his character in an oblique way, however, inculcated a certain vanity in him, the upshot of which carried with it a good deal of pedantry, dogmatism, quibbling, and perfectionism.” As Leon grows up, his sweetness melts away, leaving only a withdrawn, arrogant loner who throws tantrums at teachers. A homosexual fling at school results in expulsion but anyway he had already started showing signs of indifference to education, squandering early promises of a bright future. Deeper and deeper in the silo of his own self he takes to drugs, consummating his self-destruction helplessly narrated by Stonesthrow.

Others, however, not as gifted, manage to grow up and go into business, all the while having nothing but contempt for their inferiors. Such is the case of Irving Biegel in “Watergraphs”, former assistant curator at a museum, now in the antiques business privately dealing in prints, rare books, autographs, waiting to strike it rich by identifying the worth of what the untrained eye dismissed as worthless. Clearly educated, his education didn’t form that gentle, sensitive personality that Cicero believed was the outcome of a humanist education. Biegel is contemptuous of everyone, especially of Boston and Bostonians. “The regional working-class Boston accent had to be among the ugliest displays of vocal abuse of the English language in the waking world”, we’re told. “In Boston he always felt as if he had landed in an outback of primitives, Hottentots, and aborigines!” The misanthrope is a popular creature in Theroux’s limited gallery of grotesques: many characters are like Biegel, he just shuffles the target of contempt. Biegel hatred of Bostonians is unhinged: “He almost couldn’t bear to hide his contempt for the tasteless and the uninitiated, for, while his ongoing battle with the world was fought only on the field of his mind, he radiated a great and somewhat forbidding authority in matters touching on his profession.” His comeuppance comes from one of those uncultured degenerates, an old lady who outbids him at an auction for a bundle of worthless papers, not knowing unlike him that amidst them there lies the rarest autograph in US history: the signature of Button Gwinnett on the Declaration of the Independence. His wiles are no match to the candid simpleton.

Irving Biegel isn’t trying to improve his uncouth brethren; he’s content to bemoan decadence; that’s a characteristic of Therouvian protagonists, usually they abhor the pervasive diminishment of standards, or they romanticize idyllic pasts, especially idyllic because of traits that make them loathsome to modern sensibilities. Theroux debuted with Three Wogs, a trio of novellas about English natives clashing with dirty foreigners. That book ran the almost entire gamut of chief motivations for his characters: one is to despise present times; another is to improve primitive people, who nevertheless assert their vulgarity in the face of powerless sophistication. In “Mrs. Proby Gets Hers”, Mrs. Proby romanticizes the past days when her late husband, Bernard, courter her in South Kensington: “In those days, England had a voice in the world, people could understand the lyrics of songs, and there were no Chinese. Changes, however, had come about and had created in her a compulsion for the laudator temporis acti reminiscence”. In “The Wife of God”, Lady Therefore rhapsodizes lyrically about a bygone England lost to the base customs of modernity: “Shall all this have been lost forever: the stately rooms at Osterley, Marble Hill, and Kole; the weekends down to Cowes, when bold-hearted men, smelling of leather and ancient sack, strode out from the feudal donjons of their fathers, across the avenues and coppices of their estates, shooting grouse and stalking golden deer; the copses and thickets of Glastonbury, rich in holy thorn, where Christ had spent so many happy days in His teenage years with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea?” Theroux is masterful at the palatial pitch and seigneurial syntax of the resentful.

“An English Railroad” looks like a fragment Theroux scrapped from Three Wogs. The nameless narrator finds yet another garrulous talker, a raconteur of the past, whose nostalgia takes a dark turn very quickly when he starts complaining about England’s downfall as society, empire, identity ever since it was overrun by the dregs that crawled to the center from the empire’s former corners. Major Tryps is your ordinary bloke in the pub going on about past greatness, a time of social harmony: “All were content with their lot on life. It was the land they loved, Britannia, the lovely mealy land. A golden meadow.” Like Lady Wherefore, he needn’t take a break to catch his breath when bestowing a benison upon the good old times: “‘It was Albion then. Land of the Rose. Great Britain,’ he said. ‘A Great house with its rolling parkland, hothouses, orangeries, and stables, elegant deer, serene lakes, immemorial oaks, rose gardens amid lawns, terraces, sheltered walks, meandering long footpaths, and endless vistas from curated landscapes by blue-paved fountain-basins, where, for visitors, servants in lofty vestibules stood at attention, stiff and proud in plush and powder, when a mere touch of an embroidered bell-rope brought instant and obsequious service, when platoons of grooms-‘”

His interlocutor timidly tries to intervene (“But when you stop to think of-“; “I remember back in-“; “But if you’re willing to reason-“, etc.), but Major Tryps’ energy is as expansive as the former empire: “‘The very air was Saxon then, soft-paced people in outlying farms, buxom dairymaids, a cow’s sweet face peering through the window, gardens asprout, the good old days when bills were paid once a year, for such was the custom of the gentry”, he drones on. And the source of this harmony is the racial sameness, for “of course no Jews or hairy Bolsheviks back then squatting with their families there in Golders Green or over in Stamford Hill or other subdistricts of Stoke Newington, nope, not by a long shot.” The past did have its share of inferior specimens, but they didn’t loiter abusively: “They knew their places!” That was then, now’s a nightmare: “‘Now it’s all human bumph, Pakis, babus and pishabs, greasy bean-eating Eyeties in business selling sandwiches, towelheads, Frogs – ‘surrender monkeys’ we called them back in 1944 – uphill gardeners, Lord and Lady Canustandthem, Maltese pimps, oiks, snotlaps, towel-headed Sikhs ready to bite your arms off, and of course the Irish bog-trotters, all mad as a bag of ferrets.’” Major Tryps, stalwart pillar of national identity, living time capsule, keeping alive lexical preciosities like “nigger” and “wog”, lest younger generations forget them by determent of usage.

Those nostalgics, having been defeated by reality, have only the lying lilt of lyricism. Theroux knows everything about how language deceives. A satirist, he has always blurred the line between realism and romance. Often the fable and fairy-tale penetrate his more serious texts. “Childe Roland”, a Three Wogs novella, begins with “Once upon a time, in the heroic days when Harold Harefoot ruled the island” and ends with “the only possible way one might ever possibly believe he could live happily ever after.” Tough Poets Press has released a volume titled Fables, which collects the three illustrated fables he published in the 1970s: The Schinocephalic Waif (1975), The Great Wheadle Tragedy (1975), Master Snickup's Cloak (1979), minus the artwork, plus other unpublished fables. But it’s hard to define what is fable. The first story in Early Stories, “A Woman with Sauce”, opens with: “Mrs. Capitalupo might have been my mother-in-law. It was a fate I was spared, as to how touches directly upon the discovery I made of a certain secret of hers which in the course of things nevertheless lost me the fair maiden I rightly should have won. Discovery, secret, fair maiden: I realize these are the phrases of fairy tales, but fairy tales also have to do with ogres, haven’t they?”

No story irradiates a bigger fabular feel than “Summer Bellerophon; or, The Agonies of James Querpox”. No other feels tonally more akin to Theroux’s masterpiece, Darconville’s Cat. Both are about a teacher in a women’s college who falls in love with a student whom he idolizes and idealizes via language, transfiguring her into a goddess. Bellerophon is the name of a mythic Greek hero, famed for taming Pegasus and killing the Chimera. In a way, those are the two ingredients the story is made of. The Chimera is Summer in Querpox’s eyes, drenched in myth thanks to the lofty words Theroux lends to him. She’s veiled in poetry, poeticized, being poetry’s symbol since the Greeks the winged Pegasus, whose favorite watering hole was the Pirene fountain, a sacred spot for the Muses. For a concise description of Theroux’s process, we can turn to the Romantics, say Novalis: “The world must be romanticized. So its original meaning will again be found.” To put it prosaically, writing is an assault on cliché. “By investing the commonplace with a lofty significance, the ordinary with a mysterious aspect, the familiar with the prestige of the unfamiliar, the finite with the semblance of infinity, thereby I romanticize it.” As such, Theroux must convince us that at least to Querpox this ordinary girl looks like a goddess. His attempt is not shabby: “The girl was strikingly good-looking and regarded by many as Scandinavian because of her carriage, poise, fine bone structure, and shiny blond hair. She had presence. There was an air of springtime in her quiet smile. Her fine golden tresses surrounded a face – O paradise! O sweet Renaissance garden! – that was an oval of almost faultless beauty, backlit with soft alabaster light, its lines, from her perfect temples to the delicate perfectly straight lines of her philtrum to the slim, delicate, ivory volutes of her nostrils, sculpted as if Phidias himself. She had the milk-white shoulders of Elpis and walked in a lilt, at certain times with a long stride and at other times with a careful colt-like steps. She was as tall as Dido, and her skin, candle-pale, was exceptionally striking when tanned, as dark and bore-smooth as stained mahogany that has been rubbed to a fine luster. Her gentle eyes, which had a pure clarity to them, were a mild unclouded green like daylight through seawater, brightly clear, and soft as a gazelle’s.”

Querpox, who’s a bright fellow himself, a math teacher, develops a crush when he first sees Summer playing Beatrice in Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling: “A perplexing mysterious fire had split some rock in him that night, and in an instant he knew that after so many years had passed, years of bleak solipsism, he had found the one passion that was stronger than his mistrust of himself, a revolutionary transfiguration, however, that compounded that mistrust even more.” Since Theroux’s gliding over his creatures, supplying the style, he sympathizes with the Word’s power to veil the concrete; but at the same time he retains enough detachment from awe at his own craft to see that this path leads only to delusion. Even Querpox realizes that he worships an eidolon: “It was tunnel vision. His insight demanded a kind of blindness, his ardor isolation. He wanted to know exactly nothing of her parents, her address, her home life, no potentially limiting facts, no thorny intrusive details to spoil their – their, thinking the word he tremulously closed his eyes – still frail and unconventional distinction, the fairy-tale exceptionalism of it all.” In fairy-tales you get of course an ideal, not reality. He sees himself as a prince who’ll break the fatal spell harming her, the spell of her “being ostracized by her rich and egregious beauty, helplessly longing for the deliverance of a special love, eagerly awaiting, under the light of a pale moon, say spell of fate, with patience, trust, simplicity, and organic growth, to be transported, helplessly, by an enchanted love, taking her unawares, to some superlative and peerless, enviable and unsurpassable kingdom, like a disguised or unknown princess, which Querpox alone would provide.” If you’re thinking this sounds stalky as hell, don’t worry, Theroux is away ahead of you, for the next paragraph is: “Or was he deluded entirely?”

This is the territory of Lolita, not because of an older man lusting after a young girl (Summer is seventeen), but because Querpox dissolves her particularity into a set of whims. I don’t know if this story’s genesis precedes Darconville’s Cat, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did because he improves on the ethical problem behind idealization. In the novel, we are privy to enough scenes showing Alaric Darconville’s amour, Isabel Rawsthorne, as an autonomous entity to knowingly infer the chasm between her and the goddess worshipped by Darconville. Isabel is an ordinary, crude, insecure young woman made of the same banal stock as the TV-loving, bubble-gum-chewing all-American middle-class girl as Dolores Haze, who has nothing to do with the “Lolita” in Humbert Humbert’s deranged mind. We can see the process by which the mind plays tricks on both of them. But Summer Bellerophon doesn’t get the necessary autonomy for that to work.

Theroux does make it clear that Querpox has had a history of mental illness before meeting Summer, the aforementioned “years of bleak solipsism”. Solipsism, the belief that nothing exists outside the self, in fact suits Querpox’s obsession with Summer, for far from tethering him to reality, it uproots him since he reinvents her to meet such impossible standards that she becomes humanly unreachable, making any contact impossible, ruining his sense of worth, making him even lonelier than before.

This story is filled with references to “snowy-white arms”, “fairy house of dreams”, and the word “enchantment” and its cognates: “Her name alone, with its sonorous and lilting supra-enchantment”; “At times she appeared to be dreamily absent, a tranquil daze of preoccupied enchantment, princess in another world.” The girls’ names (Portia and Perdite Falconbridge, Jemima Gateacre, Pippa Beddingfield, etc.) are thus described: “Brash young beauty gave them an enchanted, sort of foreign look that, reflected in their faces, told how dangerous it was to have a personal stake in loving them.” Re-enchantment was the purpose of Romanticism: imbuing the world with mystery again after natural philosophers replaced an uncorruptible Heaven with scientific sky, showing there was no God there, just Newtonian laws at work. Writers have long been worried about the imagination going unchecked: on the one hand, even science needs a bit of poetry, hypotheses, interpretation; on the other hand, a capricious imagination becomes prey to self-delusion. A materialist, dull, pragmatic mind can’t generate new ideas, but a mind ensnared by fantasy produces too many wrong ones: “And yet all the while, specifically because of her, his days, although poeticized by sweet expectation, were surrounded by subtle shades of fear.” Turning Summer into an unattainable prospect, Querpox recedes from reality deeper into reverie, making him terrified of acting in the world, until he’s alone with himself, hardly a safe, healthy place: “He conjectured in the close shadows that everything he was experiencing was a dream, was inside his head. It was a circular kind of nightmare, for who was dreaming? He began to question whether reality was real, sustaining arguments in his mind that others either did not exist or that their existence could not be proved.” The tragic finale is telegraphed early on.

Theroux also dwells in more concrete terrors. In “Blackrobe”, the camp counselor tells the narrator, “You’re always trying to get out of the world.” This is word for word what Theroux said in the 1991 interview: “A psychiatrist once told me, ‘You’re always trying to get out of the world.’ So? We all have to manage that one day. Maybe I’m only practicing my technique.” In “Genius”, Stonesthrow graduates in 1968, the year Theroux defended his PhD at the University of Virginia. Querpox teaches at an women’s college, like Theroux once did. Fans of Theroux can detect the offshoots from autobiographic seeds he planted here and there. I was especially interested in “Blackrobe”, in my view the book’s heart alongside “Genius”. “Blackrobe” follows a boy sent to summer camp to cure himself of bedwetting. Back in 2017, Theroux’s younger brother, Paul, published Mother Land, an autobiographical noted at the time for its vicious and unsettling caricature of siblings and other relatives. There was a character called Floyd who wet his bed until a later age. We can put to rest speculation which Theroux brother Floyd’s supposed to be. In “Blackrobe”, the narrator indicates, Proust-like, his name at the end: “I think, at least partially, because I also had the same first name as the French author, Alexandre Dumas.” It’s a moving story about what it’s like to suffer from this disorder, covering the shame and isolation it produces, the struggle to live feeling abnormal, a difficulty compounded by the lack of understanding from kids and adults, who think cruel treatments can set him straight. In “Genius”, Stonesthrow was also a bedwetter, and feels drawn closer to Leon who shares this malady, “a stigma that is also an enigma”. Stonesthrow says: “I also had the ill-luck to have a sarcastic and unfeeling uncle who was a brute to me, a priest, by the way, whose mockery over my bedwetting at age six or so bordered on child abuse.” Stonesthrow hopes to shelter Leon from loneliness, but life gets in the way. “Blackrobe” and “Genius” wear their hearts on their sleeves, they're unfiltered emotion. Theroux reserves sarcasm for his pedants, but his tone is compassionate when dealing with shortcomings and vulnerability. Again, it’s a pre-modernist tone, so frank and unironic it’s in constant danger of crossing the line of corniness. It’s a testament to Theroux’s mastery that it never does.

In “Chosen Locksley Swims the Tiber”, another autobiographical detail makes its way into Chosen, aka Yarrow, a popular model who gives up the fashion world of fame and fatuity and goes into a retreat in a Trappistine convent. Theroux did live two years in a Trappist monastery. To swim the Tiber, the river adjacent to Rome, is an expression that means converting to Catholicism. I think the power of these stories are inseparable from Theroux’s Catholic and conservative outlook. Rhetorically, I think he’d be much diminished without that background. For a Catholic, the Word is God and so it deserves the utmost consecration; but Catholicism also has a history of using words to praise God and His creation, which in my view helps a lot to explains Theroux’s thaumasmus mode. But the sermon is a public endeavor, it requires an audience. Chosen chooses seclusion and silence, but the preacher lives in the world and speaks it. Theroux’s not satisfied by it, he challenges it. He shows living as a complicated turmoil of opposing wills, disappointments, self-delusions, regrets; but there’s not an iota of cynicism in what he says. Theroux has often written about someone trying to improve someone else, with comically destructive results. Although the Catholic’s duty is to steer his brethren in the right path, uplift has often been a mask for oppression. Self-improvement is better than improvement, and example is better than imposition. Discontent is out lot: Biegel loses his millionaire signature; Angela remains under the thumb of her controlling mother, Mrs. Capitalupo; Querpox abandons all hope; Leon rejects Stonesthrow’s attempts to help him. Chosen entombs herself for consolation, too high a toll to pay. Theroux has no formula for contentment; instead he lets art work through its indirect ways, giving us glimpses of a better life where curiosity, beauty, sensibility, kindness, equanimity and magnanimity reign supreme, a glorious vision, but so hard to bring forth.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Vladimir Nabokov 3: a new type of novel



Unlike the modernists, save Joyce, Nabokov was steadfastly self-conscious. His rhetorical bent and bookishness made a pair propitious for pastiche. With literature as his terrain, he invaded other turfs without apologizing. In Nausea, Sartre’s first novel, Antoine Roquentin keeps a diary as a confessional, charting the painful individualization of his self from the human herd. For Sartre, the advantage of the diary resided in consciousness unmediated by an external narrator, reducing the gap between the reader and Roquentin’s “authentic” existence. But the last pages of Despair turn into Hermann’s diary, a jest’s final turn crowned by the complaint about a cliché: “Alas, my tale degenerates into a diary. There is nothing to be done, though; for I have grown so used to writing, that now I am unable to desist. A diary, I admit, is the lowest form of literature.” Any genre pulled into Hermann’s orbit becomes untrustworthy, so a genre that for Sartre soared to the apex of authenticity, of narration free of an author peering over his creature’s actions, in Nabokov’s hands became another prop in his elaborate magic trick.

In fact, Nabokov couldn’t play his closing trick without sowing doubts about the diary form: “April 1st”. By making this the last date in the diary, he’s coerced this confession booth into abetting an ambiguous tale that leaves the reader wondering to what extent the book isn’t playing a prank on him. Has anything previously narrated by Hermann really happened? Is Hermann a hallucinating madman, a prankster, or – a growing, terrifying new possibility for the reader in 1937 – just a made-up creature invented by an author called Vladimir Nabokov, the real puppeteer? Whatever the answer, it is implied that the reader should treat this novel as a game, regardless of whether the game’s being played by Hermann or Nabokov.

An important clue shows up early on; we know that Nabokov wrote for re-readers, or readers with a strong capacity to retain details, or, in my less superhuman case, readers who like to underline references to game, play and trickery. So, when I turned to page 162 to find “April 1st”, it wasn’t hard to remember page 18:

“Tum-tee-tum. And once more – TUM! No, I have not gone mad. I am merely producing gleeful little sounds. The kind of glee one experiences upon making an April fool of someone. And a damned good fool I have made of someone. Who is he? Gentle reader, look at yourself in the mirror, as you seem to like mirrors so much.”

The joyful japery of spelling out to the reader that he’s being played for a fool would be lost on joyless killjoys like Henry James and Sartre, who would have literature remain a somber jail where a lot of soul-searching went on. I presume that Sartre found Despair so menacing to his project because it exposes Existentialism as the man-made ideology that it is, another “idea” to add to the ever-growing stock of “ideas” that claim to be the definitive answer to life’s problems. Like so many would-be mystic gurus, Sartre can’t sell his snake-oil without duping buyers that he, of all the human thinkers of the past 2500 years, has found the elixir for authentic, autonomous individuality – provided you follow his instructions. Despair is problematic for proselytizers of solve-all systems because it puts pressure on them to prove that they’re not just misguided, self-deluded cranks, as lost in the darkness and confusion they promise to liberate their fellow men from.

Generations of readers of Nausea have been instructed to give tremendous importance to Roquentin’s a near-mystical vision in a park when he finally understands what “existence” mean. It provides absolutely no new insight that couldn’t be replaced by a few books about the Gnostic tradition or Eastern spirituality:

   So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.

   It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of "existence." I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, "The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull," but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an "existing seagull"; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word "to be." Or else I was thinking… how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, 1 foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.

So generic a telling of an experience of “true existence” that melts indistinguishably into the writings of Catholic desert hermits, Sufi mystics, 19th-century theosophists, modern-day magicians, of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and of the lovely bullshit of Carlos Castaneda, should warn us about the unremarkability of Roquentin’s tryst with the ineffable. Like his many predecessors, Roquentin struggles with words to verbalize his experience; they fail him, they run short of describing what direct experience is. Descending into incoherence is the most popular trope of the “I pierced the veil of illusion” literature. Lovecraft did it much better, and his cosmic gods made it more gripping.

Anti-language writers like Sartre will never understand what motivates a rhetorician like Nabokov. Sartre thought that language should subside and subdue itself in the presence of “true existence”, that there are things too reverential for language to sully. Living in the expectancy of communing with real existence at a higher plane than mere language, he thus behaves like the medieval Christian monk who waxed poetically about God but paid no attention to his physical surroundings. Such is the world described by Roquentin, made up of bland word combinations, colorless adjectives, short, direct statements barren of detail:

The little man stirs and sighs. He is all wrapped in his overcoat but from time to time he straightens up and puts on a haughty look. He has no past either. Looking closely, you would undoubtedly find in a cousin's house a photograph showing him at a wedding, with a wing collar, stiff shirt and a slight, young man's moustache. Of myself I don't think that even that is left.

Such a describer better have a higher, truer reality to look forward to because the world around him must appear continuously dull. In contrast, for Nabokov it was irrelevant whether there’s a higher reality beyond language or not because the rhetorician only treats as real what he can turn into amazing verbal patterns. His goal is to suffuse the surface of concrete reality with as much coquillage as possible, to heighten the vividness of our experiencing of surroundings that everyday routine and automatization have rendered boring, banausic, invisible, unmysterious, disenchanted. The rhetorician is aware that we must trick ourselves through language into feeling awe at a quotidian that seeks to numb us; but in that case he’s also aware that language is a spell that cheats perception. A good rhetorician will teach the reader to love and be suspicious of words at the same time. Anyone under such an influence can’t but read Nausea wondering if Roquentin isn’t also a compulsive liar, a deluded madman like Hermann. That’s the danger Despair posed to Sartre’s Existentialist literature recipe, it threatened to spread a contagion of uncertainty into the field of “authentic literature”, problematic only for those who think literature and authenticity have anything in common, which in 1939 was about… 99% of writers?

Hermann, having been discovered by the police in the townlet he’s hiding in, knows that the game’s up, the cops will arrive at any moment to arrest. His plan to evade them is to convince the mob gathered outside that he’s a filmmaker and that they’re about to watch a scene being filmed: “How about opening the window and making a little speech…” This reiterates the depressing but likely truthful tenet that, rather than life being lived authentically, it is a performance we put on. We are performers, whether it be Gorgias cheerleading Helen or narcissist Hermann embellishing his own life. This annoyed Sartre down to the fundaments of his philosophy. In Being and Nothingness, he used the waiter as an allegory of inauthentic life: the waiter puts on a role, he seamlessly slips into the routine and mannerisms of his job, embodying it with too much gusto and willingness without realizing it. To this slumbering state he called “bad-faith”. Existentialism presumed to provide the toolkit to educate man to break free of the social pressure to be an automaton. But Nabokov shows that freedom is relative: there is the author’s freedom over the creatures he’s invented; and Herman mirrors the author for he too controls the narrative and mediates our understanding of him and of those who enter his narrative; however we also come to realize that bits of what he narrates may be outside his control owing to his likely insanity, meaning he’s not an impartial, authentic observer. More than making fun of Dusty’s devotion to detective novel trappings, this is what must have upset Sartre. In an essay titled “Francois Mauriac and Freedom”, he roasted Mauriac for not giving his characters freedom (in Situations I, this essay comes right before his skewering of Despair). Dusty was the solemn example of a novelist who brought characters to life without bothering to explain or control them, letting them play out their busy spiritual dramas unfetteredly. Sartre used The Possessed and The Idiot as illustrations:

“It is not a matter of defining passions and unpredictable acts, still less of explaining them (in novels, even the best psychological analyses have a mouldy smell), but rather of presenting them. Neither you nor I know what Rogogine is going to do. I know that he is going to see his guilty mistress again, but I cannot tell whether he will control himself or whether his anger will drive him to murder; he is free. I slip into his skin, and there he is, awaiting himself with my waiting. He is afraid of himself, inside me; he is alive.”

He made no concessions on this point: “If I suspect that the hero's future actions are determined in advance by heredity, social influence or some other mechanism, my own time ebbs back into me; there remains only myself, reading and persisting, confronted by a static book. Do you want your characters to live? See to it that they are free.” Like Ford Madox Ford years before, and Henry James even earlier, Sartre believed that the author or narrator must be absent from a narrative that ought to strive to be as transparent and direct as a play on a stage. The creature is thrust into the world and then it’s his problem: he acts, we merely watch. For the average modernist, this wasn’t a hard creed to acquiesce to. For generations brought up on James’ The Art of the Novel, action was the goal: “Character, in any sense in which we can get at it, is action, and action is plot, and any plot which hangs together, even if it pretend to interest us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle, plays upon our emotion, our suspense, by means of personal references.” True courage was to suggest, as Nabokov does, that there is no static, fully-made world the creature is thrust into, since that creature was given creative powers and is constantly remaking the world in his mind. A brilliant exemplum happens in one of those “amateurish” moments when Hermann feigns ignorance of how to tell his story:

   “How shall we begin this chapter? I offer several variations to choose from. Number one (readily adopted in novels where the narrative is conducted in the first person by the real or substitute author):

   It is fine today, but cold, with the wind’s violence unabated; under my window the evergreen foliage rocks and rolls, and the postman on the Pignan road walks backwards, clutching at his cap. My restlessness grows.…

   The distinctive features of this variation are rather obvious: it is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page. While he muses and writes, there is something or other going on around him; there is, for instance, this wind, this whirl of dust on the road which I see from my window (now the postman has swerved round and, bent double, still fighting, walks forward). A nice refreshing variation, this number one; it allows a breather and helps to bring in the personal note; thus lending life to the story—especially when the first person is as fictitious as all the rest. Well, that is just the point: a trick of the trade, a poor thing worn to shreds by literary fiction-mongers, does not suit me, for I have become strictly truthful. So we may turn to the second variation which consists of at once letting loose a new character, starting the chapter thus:

   Orlovius was displeased.

   When he happened to be displeased or worried, or merely ignorant of the right answer, he used to pull at the long lobe of his left ear, fringed with grey down; then he would pull at the long lobe of his right ear too, so as to avoid jealousies, and look at you over his plain, honest spectacles and take his time and then at last answer: “It is heavy to say, but I—”

   “Heavy” with him meant “hard,” as in German; and there was a Teutonic thickness in the solemn Russian he spoke.

   Now this second variation of a chapter’s beginning is a popular and sound method—but there is something too polished about it; nor do I think it becoming for shy, mournful Orlovius to fling open, spryly, the gates of a new chapter. I submit to your attention my third variation.

   In the meantime … (the inviting gesture of dots, dots, dots).

   Of old, this dodge was the darling of the Kinematograph, alias Cinematograph, alias Moving Pictures. You saw the hero doing this or that, and in the meantime … Dots—and the action switched to the country. In the meantime … A new paragraph, please.”

By enumerating the three different ways he could have started Chapter Three, Hermann proves that narrative and by extension our telling of our own life is fluid and subjected to editing. If this passage was in the version Sartre read, it must have been nightmarish. Nabokov threw a heavy gauntlet at novelists obsessed with authenticity. How can fiction be authentic if it’s a series of artificial choices for making a montage called “life”, the most artificial tale we tell ourselves and others? Trollope, to James’ disgust, was right: the narrator “can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best.” Or the one in accordance to his faulty mind. The creator is not mirroring, he’s creating something new, adding it to the world; he’s returning to the root of “poet”, a maker, when once it meant any writer of prose or verse, a meaning lost when novelists decided that the novel reports reality. For Nabokov, it’s idle to talk about authenticity, there’s no original by which we can evaluate the novel’s level of authenticity; each novel is unique unto itself. None of three possibilities is less or more authentic than the other, they’re just different literary choices, and yet they’re upsetting because they imply that living itself resembles making a book, except that book will be more like a chivalry romance full of nonsense and whimsy and aimless wandering instead of a tightly-edited confessional diary. Ironically, Nabokov thus endorsed more than Sartre ever did the freedom man has at his disposal to recreate himself and the world anew. But Nabokov doesn’t make it sound like a point in a moral philosophical system, but as an inevitable feature of our limited senses. The philosophical term for this, by the way, is acatalepsy, the doctrine from the Skeptic school of Pyrrho of Elis, according to which human perception is limited and can never fully understand something, or be certain of something, but lies in probabilities and tentative hypotheses. “Man is condemned to be free”, Sartre would go on saying; “because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” But for Nabokov man was condemned to keep duping himself with faulty senses, to put on roles not only to make a living, or to join a social milieu, or obtain advantage, but because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. If literature could teach man something, it was to trust his senses less, to examine his certainties more, basically how not to end up like a selfish solipsist like Herman, Humbert Humbert, and Charles Kinbote.

Another way Nabokov has of showing our sensorial interference over our grasp of reality resides in his mockery of Herman’s memory and observation skills. “An artist’s memory—what a curious thing! Beats all other kinds, I imagine.” This view bears similarities to the point Gorgias allegedly made in his lost treatise, On Nature. At one point Hermann gloats that “it is not everyone who is so observant” as him. He also has a nasty habit of thinking others are inferior. Of his wife Lydia he says: “She is little educated and little observant.” He notices things, he pierces deeper than her; she sticks to surfaces like cellophane. Likewise, he mocks Orlovius, “with whom shortsightedness was a form of stupidity”, wondering why he bothers to wear spectacles: “They were only a hindrance.”

However, Hermann is the least observant of all: his perfect crime hinges on the fact that he’s going to kill a lookalike to claim the insurance money, but no one but himself sees any resemblance between the two. This is a telltale sign of his madness. Furthermore, he’s so unobservant that he doesn’t realize Lydia and her cousin Ardalion are having an affair right in front of his eye; at one point he even goes to Ardalion’s place, suspecting nothing when he literally finds her naked there. But when, as part of his scheme, he confides in Orlovius that Lydia is having an affair, Orlovius replies knowingly: “Certain things I have long observed,” without Hermann wondering what he means. Another part of his plan involves forging a letter blackmailing himself and showing it to Orlovius: “Orlovius stopped and scrutinized the letter closely.” But more closely than Hermann thinks, for although he’s convinced he’s dupped him with a perfect forgery, it turns out that Orlovius informs the police “that I used to write letters to myself (rather unexpected).” Hermann is not the mastermind he thinks he is; the people he so dismissively considers beneath his genius are in fact more perceptive and observant of their surroundings.

Sometimes Nabokov bestows scientific vocabulary upon Hermann’s palaver; he likes to consider himself scientific, rational. “I now had no difficulty in working back and was satisfied to find everything in order. Q.E.D.” Q.E.D, or quod erat demonstrandum, “what was to be shown”, is placed at the end of mathematical proofs in indication that they are complete. Elsewhere he uses the adjective “equiradical rhyme”. The incurious reader may speed on thinking it’s one of those abstruse terms for verse feet inherited from the Ancients like antispast, anapest and other pests, but it actually comes from mathematics: two or more surds are said to be equiradical if they’re of the same order, like √5 and √7. Hermann believes also in the Soviet Revolution, which purported to organize society scientifically. In view of Nabokov’s known hatred of the Soviets, giving such political outlook to his protagonist allows him to poke fun at the belief human life can be reduced like base matter to matters of logistics or bureaucracy.

Nabokov dumps clues that Hermann’s mental state is wobbly. He talks about the conflict between his “rational memory” and “the irrational memory of my senses”. Bad memory plagues him, he leaves out lacunae. He’s also a pathological liar, although Nabokov relishes in pointing out that, literarily speaking, there’s no way of telling a false utterance from a true one unless the author says so, which of course creates a paradox: “A slight digression: that bit about my mother was a deliberate lie. In reality, she was a woman of the people, simple and coarse, sordidly dressed in a kind of blouse hanging loose at the waist. I could, of course, have crossed it out, but I purposely leave it there as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted, inspired lying.” For a long time, analytical philosophy was concerned with the validity of statements. In 1936, the philosophical rage in Europe was Logical Positivism; members of the Vienna Circle believed that there were only two types of propositions with cognitive meaning: scientific propositions (empiricism) and logical-mathematic propositions (rationalism). It wasn’t until after WWII that Logical Positivism suffered several blows to its reputation. In his essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), the philosopher Willard tried to show what was wrong with what he called “radical reductionism”, the doctrine that “Every meaningful statement is held to be translatable into a statement (true or false) about immediate experience.”  Another important landmark in opposing this reductive view of language was J. L. Austin’s book How To Do Things With Words. As Austin says in the first lecture: “It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a 'statement' can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to 'state some fact', which it must do either truly or falsely.”

Since the Enlightenment and a long time before Logical Positivism, novelists had been drawing validity from science and philosophy; because of that they were subtly constrained to create novels out of propositions that ought to have the appearance of said characteristics, marring them in realist stories and objective, omniscient, third-person narrators. After all, a work of literature is literally a set of statements; if the only available options to the novelist are to be true or false, since no one wants to be willfully false there’s really no choice. That’s why James compared the novelist to the historian, as we saw in Part 2. That’s why the novel since Daniel Defoe vied to resemble linguistic genres that seem to have truth inscribed in their matrix: diaries, reports, newspapers. private letters which, being privately shared, were certainly not written with a voyeur in mind, and thus seemed more authentic.

However, literature was ahead of philosophy, because the business of writers is not only to do things with words, but also to make things with them. Nabokov is an early example of a novelist who showed the meaninglessness of the opposition between true and false statements in the realm of literature, since “true” facts in the course of a narrative that aren’t subject to doubt – Isabella Archer marries Gilbert Osmond, Count Dracula comes from Transylvania, Dr. Moreau dies on an Island, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” – are false in the sense that they’re fictitious statements. And yet we ascribed meaning to them; we feel shocked, upset, swindled after emotionally investing in a character’s drama only to find out it was a “dream” all along. It’s because of this fascinating psychological phenomenon, this emotional investment in figments of imagination, that kept and keeps readers so resistant to metafiction. Mischievous novelists like Nabokov understood this attachment well and upset it to cause major jolts in readers to renew their engagement with fiction. I’m not particularly crazy about metafiction myself, but it’s often ignored why and how it was an essential step in liberating the novelist’s creative energies into other venues free of metafictional tropes. Austin noticed that

“one of the things that has been happening lately in philosophy is that close attention has been given even to ‘statements’ which, though not false exactly nor yet ‘contradictory’, are yet outrageous. For instance, statements which refer to something which does not exist as, for example, ‘The present King of France is bald’. There might be a temptation to assimilate this to purporting to bequeath something which you do not own. Is there not a presupposition of existence in each? Is not a statement which refers to something which does not exist not so much false as void? And the more we consider a statement not as a sentence (or proposition) but as an act of speech (out of which the others are logical constructions) the more we are studying the whole thing as an act.”

He had a word for these speech acts outside true and false dichotomy: performative. As we’ve seen, narrators like Hermann were putting on rhetorical performances long before philosophers felt a need to give this a name. In the beginning, anti-realist novelists emphasized this neglected aspect of language by giving voice to liars, pranksters and the “amateur novelist”. In due time, after the reader had gone through a period of education, novelists realized they didn’t need a treacherous narrator to obfuscate the line between true and false; they could simply insert fantastical elements into the story narrated by an objective narrator and trust the reader not to care anymore about content being logically “untrue”.

I have long been fascinated by how the novel moved on not just from realism, but from modernism. Why at some point the novel became self-conscious, or what we call metafictional, and why the postwar period witnessed a glut of fictions that emphasized game, play, performance, forgeries; why of all the occasions Wayne C. Booth had to coin the term “unreliable narrator”, he did so in 1961, amidst a sea of unreliable narrators in contemporary novels. Why postwar fiction and pastiche go hand in hand, and why novels began being filled more and more with what Austin calls statements that although not false or contradictory are “outrageous”, or, as we readers call it nowadays, magical realism. Suddenly everyone was thinking about self-conscious art. You couldn’t even open an art history book like Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion without being subjected to metapainting, or how “realist” painting throughout history and until recently was not realistic at all but highly schematic and copied from manuals, that is, paintings made out of paintings, like the novels of novelists who read too many books. Personally, I love the fact that Gombrich’s and Austin’s books derive from public lectures given in the same year of 1955. It was also the year of that great unreliable narrator, Humbert Humbert, who’d launch a thousand imitators in American po-mo.

The “amateur novelist” novel never imposed itself, but it did play a prominent role in setting the stage for so many good postwar novelistic trends. Some people see modernism versus postmodernism as a contest and pull out the big guns. But far as what I’m trying to explain is concerned, a little-known novel like Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist contains more of the novel’s future than heavyweights like Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway or Time Lost do. Unamuno had the crazy idea of putting his protagonist talking with his creator. Mist has the gamey feeling missing from modernists but prevalent in postwar fiction; his countryman José Ortega y Gasset put all his chips on Time Lost being the big novel of his time. But whereas Time Lost is just a wordier 19th-century realist novel, Mist points toward Felipe Alfau’s Locos and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, two novels wherein characters escape the creator’s control. Since Alfau was Spanish, I wonder if he was aware of his countryman’s novel.

The “amateur novelist” novel also has a tradition, but after Sterne, Garrett, and Machado de Assis there’s a gap in modernism. It’s reactivated by Nabokov and soon it starts gaining traction. However, it was a decentralized tendency. In the 1940s, Tomaz de Figueiredo published a novella whose metafictional narrator pauses at one point to choose between two ways of setting a scene, like Hermann does. In 1956, John Barth made an “amateur” novel, The Floating Opera, openly inspired by the “amateur” novel Brás Cubas. Interestingly, practitioners of the “amateur” novel would go on to make deeply irrealist novels, giving rise to names like “magical realism” and “fabulism” to describe new trends. Despair arrived to heal the crisis of imagination that was killing the novel. The effect of realism, whether of the reporting or the knowing kind, is to decoct the imagination. One can say many nice things about Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Time Lost, but not that they’re riveting reads. (Franz Kafka is Stephen King with a more profound understanding of human condition but lazier work ethics: he deploys weird situations, keeps you turning the pages after a mystery, keeps you wondering what’s coming next, gives a sense of impending doom. He’s too entertaining and addictive for me to place him with other modernists; I can’t quite pinpoint what he was doing, but whatever it was it had nothing to do with whatever drove Joyce, Woolf, Broch, Gide, Proust, Faulkner, etc.) The novel, on an arms race to improve the technology of realism, gave up plot, suspense, fantasy, twists; modernists insulated themselves from anything that reeked of popular taste. In its final stages, realism even attempted to get rid of characters, psychology, style, and finally as much language as possible. Imagination in narrative fiction was unwanted by either side. For the “knowing” ilk, fiction drew its legitimacy from autobiography, circumscribing action to general experience, per force keeping out the strange, the singular, the surprising. For the “reporting” crowd, imagination imperiled the objective rendering of sociopolitical reality. A Portuguese proponent of socialist realism said as late as 1946 that its opponents, the knowingists, were correct in describing the socialist realist novel as “a monotonous, critical literature, without imagination or fantasy. And an arid, shredding, without ‘humility’, narrow criticism. Summing up, what they mean is that nowadays one’s less naïve, acts less gratuitously, wears one’s heart less on one’s sleeve and that that represents a sort of disenchantment of life.” You’d think that after this damning litany he’d counterpose, “Come on, we’re not that awful!” But, nope, he proudly owned it – yep, the purpose of the novel is to impart such dull and desiccated vision of life! Had either of these two worldviews won no one would ever have wanted to write the novels of Nabokov, Italo Calvino, John Barth, Raymond Queneau, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Gabriel García Márquez, Anthony Burgess. It’s a miracle how awesome postwar fiction turned out to be given the tremendous ill-will against it!

In Part 1, I quoted Hermann complaining that he’s without the calm, serene temperament for narrating. As the abovementioned example shows, proponents of socialist realism in fact thought that roughness, seriousness, was justifiable, even necessary in the evolution of the novel towards its real purpose.  Hermann does pride himself on his active imagination, part of the super-senses he thinks inferiors like Lydia are lacking in: “Odd, she had no imagination whatever.” Like Casais Monteiro who deplored “art for game”, socialist realists required that the novel get rid of imagination and fantasy lest it failed to achieve didactic maturity. Nabokov makes a point of mocking this goal when he makes Hermann think of how his writings can benefit others: “Therefore I do think that Soviet youths of today should derive considerable benefit from a study of my book under the supervision of an experienced Marxist who would help them to follow through its pages the rudimentary wriggles of the social message it contains.”

Scraping the novel of its didactic gangue, Nabokov shuts himself off to the lure of the outside world and turns the “amateur novelist” into an encyclopedist who treats fiction as a self-enclosed system. He’ll worry less about what good his novels are for, and more about whether clichés are good for novels:

What amazed me was the absence of title on the first leaf: for assuredly I had at one time invented a title, something beginning with “Memoirs of a —” of a what? I could not remember; and, anyway, “Memoirs” seemed dreadfully dull and commonplace. What should I call my book then? “The Double”? But Russian literature possessed one already. “Crime and Pun”? Not bad—a little crude, though. “The Mirror”? “Portrait of the Artist in a Mirror”? Too jejune, too à la mode… what about “The Likeness”? “The Unrecognized Likeness”? “Justification of a Likeness”? No—dryish, with a touch of the philosophical. Something on the lines of “Only the Blind Do Not Kill”? Too long. Maybe: “An Answer to Critics”? or “The Poet and the Rabble”? Must think it over… but first let us read the book, said I aloud, the title will come afterwards.

He’ll treat fiction not as a mirror of reality but as a choice of schemata: “Here another literary device has crept in: the imitation of foreign novels, themselves imitations, which depict the ways of merry vagabonds, good hearty fellows. (My devices seem to have got mixed up a little, I am afraid.)”

Without a mandate to teach readers and save the world, the amateur novelist can afford to be humorous, a common trait of this marginal genre. Laughs are scant in Joyce, Proust, Woolf (Kafka’s the odd man out). But Nabokov’s humor isn’t situational so much as literary; his narrating buffoons produce humor from the discrepancy between their faulty but stubborn perceptions and the unruly reality beyond their control. Nothing could be more different than the tenderness Woolf shows to Septimus Warren Smith, the suicidal shellshocked war veteran who thinks sparrows chirp in Greek. If Nabokov had written him, instead of a pitiful figure on the sidelines of Clarissa’s life, he’d hogg the book with his boisterous monomania.

Such a novelist, thinking humor and entertainment are his business too, will eventually start blending popular genres with artistic ambition in parodic ways. Detective novels were the fastest-growing genre when Despair aped its tropes. Since Nabokov was a formalist and the detective novel follow a rigid scheme, it was the perfect vehicle to explore the similarity between narrative and life. He didn’t mock Dusty just to be mean. For an author concerned with how deceptive reality is, the detective novel’s reliance on the steady accretion of empirical data to build a picture of a past event is the perfect launching pad of a philosophical parody of the tenets of Logical Positivism. Nabokov wasn’t the first to see the potential of the detective novel to disrupt the certainties of philosophical realism. Alfau wrote Locos in 1928 but only found it an editor in 1936. Mary McCarthy reviewed it favorably in The Nation on June 27, 1936, but reception was lukewarm and it quickly disappeared and was forgotten to no one’s regret. The public wasn’t yet receptive to what it was trying to do. Since the stock of the English translation of Despair was lost in a bombing, we’ll never know how it would have been received in England; but modernism was already on the wane there and anyway the British had never much liked their modernists, who nevertheless were still more palatable to people who though a “good” novel was what George Elliot and Joseph Conrad made. Sartre’s review allows us to speculate what a fiasco it would have been with fellow novelists weaned on Henry James and André Gide.

Afterwards, timidly but firmly writers of artistic inclination started mixing detective novel tropes with metafiction or starting using the genre as a springboard for inquiries about the elusive nature of reality. Tomaz’ aforementioned novella qualifies as detective fiction. Carlo Emilio Gadda started a postwar detective novel called That Awful Mess in Via Merulana. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers borrows a lot from the genre. At first, artistic writers who tackled popular fiction had to keep a parodic distance so as to signal to their peers that their brains hadn’t turned to mush. But give it a few decades and they were making genre fiction as serious as anything by Agatha Christie but ostensibly more ambitious. One example is The Name of the Rose.

To get an idea of how bold Despair was, keep in mind that around the same time Graham Greene was needlessly dividing his work in two groups: serious work, labeled “novels”; and thrillers, spy novels, suspense novels, generically labeled “entertainments”. Although parodic, Nabokov saw no reason to make such distinction throughout his career: a bookish novelist knows of Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, and knows that narrative fiction can be simultaneously popular, serious, comical, erudite and artistic. It was only the invention of the “novel” as a separate genre that quarantined the old “romance” in the artificial category of low entertainment. The serious “novel” dealt with real things and drew its respectability from that exclusively; it logically followed that what wasn’t realistic wasn’t respectable. Once again, Nabokov showed how ahead of his contemporaries he was.

It’s remarkable the hostility the inclusion of popular genres in artistic novels met. I once came across an old review of Richard Wright’s Native Son complaining of its reliance on detective novel tropes. In A Sinking Island, Hugh Kenner spent a few pages deriding W. H. Auden for bringing a “secretive” world of cheap popular novels into hallowed poetry, requiring readers to be familiar with the pulp fiction “of the missed rendezvous, of the spy.” Auden’s sixth decade of life was marked by “big spy-novel gestures”. His shtick, said Kenner, was to make easy poems seem hard by encoding them with baroque-era-like enigmas and twisted syntax. Kenner murdered him with bonhomie: “Yet he’s nearly always entertaining, brisk, and bright, and not muffled, however encoded.” How ghastly, he’s entertaining! “Nor were needful clues inaccessible. Central attitudes, first of all, were widely shared, from idle sort-of-communist headshaking over middle-class idleness to crime-fiction hints that something ominous was going on somewhere.” This waft of the popular was enough for him to be the “Graham Greene of literature.” Kenner was also not a fan of Nabokov. Mind you, he was distilling his contempt for genre in 1987, when such elitism was becoming too dinosaurish, for by then it wasn’t only Nabokov who was challenging and changing perception of what an artistic novel could contain. In 1987 Paul Auster put out The New York Trilogy. The next year Umberto Eco released Foucault’s Pendulum. This was the culmination of a long, arduous process.

Besides Nabokov, some thinkers argued that the detective novel might add spice to a dying genre. Jean Paulhan defended the detective novel in his insightful essay, The Flowers of Tarbes, or Terror in Literature (1941):

   “Yet we are also witnessing in our time the triumph and global appeal of the only genre that obeys rules stricter than Voltaire’s tragedies and Malherbe’s odes. I am thinking of that type of novel which proscribes from its range of emotions dreams, reveries, premonitions; from its choice of characters, metaphysicians, occultists, members of secret societies, Hindus, Chinese, Malaysians, twins; from its explanations, myths, allusions, symbols; from its figures of style, metaphors and ellipses – and which follows so rigorous an order in its narrative progression that it gives us in the very first chapter all the elements (characters, places, objects) of a problem that will not be resolved until the final pages.

   We can now extend to all of literature this gesture toward reconciliation offered to us by the detective novel.”

Paulhan, addressing a problem in French literature regarding stylists whose pursuit of a singular, recherche, pure language bordered on an illegibility that alienated readers, also believed that one way of invigorating fiction was to embrace the use of clichés in a self-conscious manner; this is akin to the techniques of the “amateur novelist”:

“All that we have discovered, then, is that a cliché needs – if it is to avoid becoming a sign of defeat and cowardliness – to be constantly rethought, put into question, cleansed. As if we needed to respond to this excess of meaning with an excess of language: to this excess of spirit with an excess of matter. We might indeed name the Terrorists’ error angelism, insofar as expression is for them reduced to thought. But Rhetoric demonstrates that it is concerned instead with maintaining balance and stability.”

In 1942, Tomaz de Figueiredo named a novella “A Casa da Cobra – narrativa fora de moda”, the subtitle being “an out of fashion narrative”. What was self-ironically out of fashion about it was Tomaz’ mixture of many of the amateur novelist tropes from Sterne, Garrett and Machado with the 19th-century sensational feuilleton (Eugène Sue is mentioned), to haphazardly narrate a crime from its inception to its resolution in the voice of a digressive narrator who constantly breaks the fourth wall. Twelve years later he developed it into a full book, Procissão dos Defuntos. In the preface to the 1967 edition, Tomaz, claimed his “right to play seriously, my ludic right”.

As far theorizing went, the French were ahead of everyone else. Besides Paulhan, there was Roger Caillois’s 1941 essay The Mystery Novel. Weirdly, although written in French, it was published in Buenos Aires, thus attracting the attention of Caillois’ friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Reviewing it for Sur magazine, he wrote: “Mediocre or horrible, the police tale never dispenses with a beginning, a plot and a resolution. Interjections and opinions, incoherencies and confidences, wear out the literature of our time; the crime novel represents an order and the obligation to invent. Roger Caillois analyses very well its condition of rational game, of lucid game.” Like Nabokov, Borges saw fiction not as the psychological novel, but as game, artifice. Borges was a big lover the detective novel, and he and his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares even created a detective in 1942: Don Isidro Parodi. As the name indicates, it was parodical as per custom when artistic writers dabbled in the genre. They even used pseudonyms. But Borges’ love for the genre was true and his heartfelt defenses dated back to the “Narrative Art and Magic”. In “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton”, he again reiterated his belief that art is intrinsically artifice: “The settings for the crimes are remarkable, as in all of Chesterton's books, and carefully and sensationally false.” His manifesto was the prologue to Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. Borges was thrilled to see a work “of reasoned imagination” in Argentina, Bioy Casares “brings a new genre to our land and our language.” Written in 1940 when his major short-story books hadn’t been yet published, he used the occasion to reply to José Ortega y Gasset, who in The Dehumanization of Art had famously argued that the 20c novel no longer knew how to invent plots and didn’t need to know since the novel’s readership had grown up and didn’t read for story anymore anyway. As Borges remembered it: “On other pages, on almost all the other pages, he upheld the cause of the ‘psychological’ novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile.” But Borges disagreed; although he liked Dusty more than Nabokov did, he wasn’t fond of psychological novels either. In fact, he blamed the Russians for the modern novel’s sad storyless state:

“The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible: happy suicides, benevolent murderers, lovers who adore each other to the point of separation, informers who act out of fervor or humility… In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a "realistic" novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of verisimilitude. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day.”

Borges much preferred the orderliness of old-fashioned storytellers: “The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the seven voyages of Sin bad, or the Quixote.” For him, the growingly popular detective story refuted the claim that their century “cannot invent plots”. In a few years, Borges himself would usher in astonishing tales of their lucid imagination, blending philosophy and fantasy, mathematic and myth, magic and science. Around this time in Spain, a nearly anonymous Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was trying to get published novels we’d now call “magical realist”. One of them was La Princesa Durmiente Va A La Escuela, Sleeping Beauty Goes to School, a fantastic story about Sleeping Beauty waking up in modern times. Finished in 1951, it took 32 years to find an editor. Like Despair, it’s fiction about fiction, building on popular fairy-tales to make a new book. In the meanwhile, GTB despaired of publishing his fantastic novels since the climate in Spain favored only realism. In fact, the European artistic fantasy novel was plagued by bad luck for a long time. Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman were both written in the 1930s, they only came out in 1967. How different history could have been; for starters scholars would probably stop insisting that “magical realism” is a Latin-American specialty when it was clearly a world novel phenomenon born from a reaction against late-stage realism. Poor GTB, who all his life only wanted to write brainy fantasy novels, finally found success with La Saga/Fuga de J. B., but by 1972 it was too late and he never managed to shake off the nonsensical claims that he was cashing in on the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

And so it went, the ever-growing fund of phantasists eventually displacing the monopoly of realists. In America, as Nabokov became an idol and then a lighthouse to novelists wanting to leave the sea of realism, traces of his style started popping up everywhere. His contempt for “realism” would generate a popular industry of essays: at times it looks like all William H. Gass the essayist did his whole life was rewrite, augment, elaborate on a couple of throwaway lines from Nabokov’s “On a book called Lolita”. Gass invented the word “metafiction” when he realized that many contemporaries were writing about what they knew best, namely the act of reading other books. They were deeply conscious of literary history. This bookish attitude, detested by Sartre, echoes Hermann’s memories of childhood: “And speaking of literature, there is not a thing about it that I do not know. It has always been quite a hobby of mine. As a child I composed verse and elaborate stories.” As postwar society saw education as a priority, literacy grew worldwide, the rise of paperbacks made books – especially collections of classics – more available to the masses, and more students enrolled in literature classes and creative writing courses, a different breed of novelist emerged that was deeply knowledgeable about different genres, voices, styles, plus came from a working- or middle-class background that had a very informal, hardly reverential relationship with the past. Nabokov simply showed the way sooner.

His idea that fiction was a game was picked up and developed by Ronald Sukenick, who added an important distinction between game and play:

“That difference between play and game is an important distinction. Game is like a ritual acting out a fear of death. When you play a game, somebody always wins and somebody loses, so it's like dying. Play is a more creative activity that has no end point; it exists purely on a level of fun and even celebration. Play is literally endless: you can play forever.”

In his first novel, Up, Sukenick sabotages both the novel of “reporting” and the novel of “knowing”. Although Up’s filled to the brim with soundbites that encapsulate the outrageous ‘60s, it’s too subjective, too hyperbolic, too madcap to be of help as a rigorous document of an era the way Erskine Caldwell intended his Georgia stories be; on the other hand, although the narrator is one Ronald Sukenick, he, like Hermann, often pauses to inform the reader that he’s written lies and made details up about his life, rendering it useless as an “autobiographical” novel of “authenticity”. Says Hermann: “Not a day passed without my telling some lie. I lied as a nightingale sings, ecstatically, self-obliviously; reveling in the new life-harmony which I was creating.”

Nabokov taught writers the importance of pastiche and metafiction. He was a paradigm of style for stylists looking to get away from the sparseness of Hemingway and and the shapeless torrents of Faulkner. He set many on the path of rhetoric. After him, more and more protagonists come imbued with awesome rhetorical powers; many are paranoid, others are solipsistic narcissists who believe only in their made-up worlds. You see such turn, for instance, in Gass’ first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, whose most interesting character is a preacher, Jethro Furber, a man whose rhetorical gifts can persuade his congregation of things he’s stopped believing in. Gass later realized what was wrong with Omensetter’s Luck and emended it by writing The Tunnel, in which the rhetorical genius isn’t a minor character in one section but the overwhelming voice for 600 pages. No one made characters of this type better than Stanley Elkin, whose hustlers, radio hosts and salesmen crackle with verbal wit. Elkin, whose father was a traveling salesman, loved shoptalk and absorbed the idiolects of his characters. In his first novel, Boswell, a character William Long (a play on Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman), demonstrates his ability to sell anything using only words when he convinces passersby to buy worthless pieces of clay from a stranger. Again we find echoes in Hermann: “How I long to convince you! And I will, I will convince you! I will force you all, you rogues, to believe…” he says. He sure did convince a few novelists to be more like him, and fiction became much better thanks to it.

The Tainist in me hopes that this series of posts has been helpful to explain why historically Despair was such an important, innovative, audacious novel for its time. I hope I’ve made more palpable the forces he had to wrestle with to share his vision. Despair showcased the same greatness that would make him famous in America and a major influence on postwar fiction. As his first novel in English, it initiated a new phase, a third way for the novel stagnating at a crossroads. By the time his influence had settled, the novel as whole was much richer since, besides the novel of reporting and the novel of knowing, it had another mode to operate in, if the writer so chose. I don’t mean that he extinguished his predecessors, who are just as valid; my point is not to argue that that his way is better or that it superseded the others. In fact, I doubt it’ll ever be anything other than a minority, an oddity that can no longer be expurgated but isn’t much beloved either. So be it. What matters is that it’s yet another available way.  Nabokov’s role was to amplify the freedom of the novelist; his prowess and patience led to profits for fiction. His mix of formalism, classic rhetoric devices, intertextuality, humor and genre appeal has proven a robust form. Nabokov once said: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” His goal, in lectures to students at Cornell and in novels, was to remember readers that the power of the three members of this triad had become unequal due to excess of realism. Thanks to him, the novel returned to the enchantment of life through language.