Thursday, July 31, 2014

`My Praise Is for Decency, Craft-Lore'

We best honor a writer by reading him attentively, articulating our understanding, bafflement and pleasure, and sharing our thoughts with others. Two weeks ago a reader requested a “Nabokov reading plan.” Where to begin with the great Russian-American master? I suggested the obvious, Lolita, followed by Pnin, Pale Fire and the memoir, Speak, Memory, and the reader, to my surprise, is following my proposal.  After finishing Lolita he wrote: 

“You may recall that, near the end of the book, H.H. describes for us the absolute beauty he perceives in Lolita’s tennis playing (the `pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket’). As I read that scene, I could not help but feel that it described perfectly my experience watching Nabokov exercise his talents: `I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of beauty assimilation.’ Which is a curious thing given that the immediate subject matter is repulsive. There’s much to consider in that.” 

I’ve earned better readers than I deserve. This one is an attorney, husband and father in Arizona. I had warned him of Nabokov’s trickiness and Humbert Humbert’s charm, and recalled but didn’t mention the noxiously persistent rumor that Nabokov was himself a pedophile. Who can name a funnier, sadder novel? On Wednesday my reader wrote: 

“I finished Pnin over the weekend. What a wonderful book. It’s an example of what I think of as the `small novel.’ The subject matter is modest and seemingly without any grand conceit. VN does his work quietly in this book, which is not to say that it lacks any of the beauty I found in the style of Lolita. It’s my favorite kind of novel: a story about a man who would seem to have nothing to recommend him as a novelist’s subject. That is, until an observant storyteller gets ahold of him. (The novel Stoner comes to mind.) I know there must be an established critical term for what I'm describing.” 

There is: a really good novel. I recognize the category he describes, and would add The Wife of Martin Guerre, Seize the Day, The Franchiser, Mr. Bridge, Zeno’s Conscience, Morte D'Urban, Loving and The Man Who Loved Children to the basket, among others. Now my reader is reading my favorite, Pale Fire, and says, referring back to Pnin: 

“By focusing on the relatively insignificant life of this man, VN is able to say something bigger about `the melancholy and tenderness of mortal life’ (to borrow a phrase from the late John Shade). I don't mean to suggest that there's a moral to the story of Pnin. I don’t care about that. I mean to describe my experience as a reader. Having come to know and like Timofey Pnin, and having shared a little in his happiness and heartbreak, I sense that I've gained an important, though inarticulate, understanding about my own mortal life.” 

All of which reminds me of a poem by Dick Davis in which he lauds another poet as both writer and man. Here is the final stanza of “In Praise of Auden” (Touchwood, 1996): 

“My praise is for decency, craft-lore,
The twin ways you laughed
Off what wouldn’t depart, importunate
Self-important Fortune,
The hand dealt you by orgulous Duty;
You could be rude and cute
At the drop of a hat and often
Were, but the sidelong cough
Of Conscience recalled you always to
The one life that pays,
As, minding our manners and metres,
You affirmed the discreet
And distinguished; in cosmic terms a trifle,
But an unwasted life.” 

There’s a further encomium to Auden concealed here, Nabokov-fashion. Consider “orgulous,” meaning “proud, haughty.” A rare word – one of Auden’s delights. The older poet used it in “The Dark Years” (The Double Man, 1941): “That the orgulous spirit may while it can / Conform to its temporal focus with praise.”


marly youmans said...

I like this little writer-blogger-reader dance!

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Nabokov. Yes. Now there is exquisite writing. "Despair" is another small gem.

dorian stuber said...

And the stories! What could be better than "The Fight"?

dorian stuber said...

Reading this blog each day is a small, marvelous pleasure, by the way. Thanks.