April 2011 Archives

The Dodecahedron, or a Frame for Frames


I kind of feel I should just leave it there. But no, I won't.

I had good fun with Paul Glennon's The Dodecahedron. This series of twelve interlinked stories, structured like a dodecahedron in which each shares five referential "sides" with its contiguous stories, and thrice-repeated phrases create "vertices" among story-triads, functions like a giant Sudoku puzzle and kept me reaching for my pen and subsequently for my computer to track the appearances and reappearances of various motifs. While Glennon's stories are more clever and stylized than affective or deep, more of an ingenious game than Kafka's "axe for the frozen sea within," I still found The Dodecahedron to be a thoroughly enjoyable little excursion into literary geometry. The overarching interest and suspense, for me, came not from the individual stories themselves but from watching their interrelationships tug and rearrange themselves, seeming to fall into place in one story only to be brought into question in the next.

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about Glennon's highly structured book is the number of places that structure seems in danger of collapsing in on itself. Sometimes, as in "The Parlor Game" and "Some Clippings on My Article on Machine Literature," this happens in a way that almost feels like "cheating": it is easier, after all, to incorporate references to five other stories into the story you're writing if you use a kind of clip show format. In general, I found the stories stronger toward the beginning of the book because of just this phenomenon. In many cases, though, I liked the ambiguity created by the way Glennon's ostensibly geometric formations don't quite fit together, like a door sticking in its jamb. The stories often echo each other without mapping precisely one onto the next; the ones that come later in the book don't necessarily "explain" the ones that come earlier.

Throughout the collection, for example, there is a recurring theme of a young boy whose father is missing, and the three shadowy strangers who are searching for him. Variations on this basic plot resurface again and again. One expects them to resolve at some point, but they never truly do: is the narrator of "My Father's Library" merely the protagonist of the adventure novel written by Jensen in "Why Are There No Penguins?" Is the Arctic explorer in that story merely hallucinating Jensen's novel, or did he hallucinate his entire previous life based on something Jensen once told him? Is the "Why Are There No Penguins" narrator the Ulrich Gjedson mentioned in "The Collector"? If so, the details don't exactly fit: a seemingly analogous character is at one point named "Jenkins," elsewhere "Jensen"—and in one case he dies by fever, in another by poison. Similarly, another character is "Katerina" in one story, "Catherine" elsewhere. Even the repeated phrases at the vertices occasionally refuse to match up exactly, so that we get "self-expression is a feeble excuse" ("The American Shahrazad"); "wish-fulfillment, like self-expression, is a feeble excuse" ("The Tenebrian Chronicles"); and "Self-expression and self-exploration are feeble excuses" ("The Last Story"). In this last example, the addition of "and self-exploration" is not required by the story; it would have been easy enough for all of the phrases to match exactly, but Glennon appears to insist on a strong, yet inexact, correlation.

The strength of the narrative echoes sometimes build up to a point where they compromise or disguise Glennon's laboriously-built scaffolding. The plots of young boys protecting their imperiled fathers, for example, and the theme of pre-Columbian contact between American and Europe, crop up in so many of these stories that their appearance can no longer be taken to signal anything about the collection's geometry: they spread among non-adjacent stories throughout the book. It can therefore sometimes be difficult to find the key "connection" between two stories, even if they have MANY obvious connections, if those same connections crop up too often elsewhere. The journalist narrator of "The Plot to Hide America" writes that

Connecting the four stories was a small miracle, but nothing about it is reassuring. The sheer luck of it makes me doubt my own profession. I'm reminded of how many stories are out there undiscovered. Even when the characters and events are known to everyone, luck has to intervene to assemble the story. It convinces me that for every story we chance to put together, thousands of others remain disassembled and lost. For every person like myself with an interest in reintegrating distant facts into a coherent story, there are many others who would prefer to keep those facts scattered and confused. It reminds me that there are people working to assure that the thing we imagine is out there cannot be captured on paper.

But Glennon's work also suggests the opposite problem: that when the human mind is looking for connections, looking to "reintegrate distant facts into a coherent story," it's apt to find those connections even when they don't exist. Or, when the mind starts finding legitimate connections between two things, it will then find more and more until it can't distinguish which connections are the important ones, and which irrelevant. So too, connections in Glennon's book are just as likely to call into question their earlier incarnations, as they are to reinforce them. Little, as the journalist says, that is "reassuring," except the fun of assembling and disassembling narratives as connections come and go.


The Dodecahedron was the April pick for The Wolves reading group. Since I'll be in France for our May discussion dates, and probably blogging like mad about the trip, I'm not positive whether or not I'll be able to participate at the same time as everyone else. Still, I am very excited about Frances's pick, so you should all join in the discussion of Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? on the last weekend of the month.


PS: Did anyone else find the vertices I'm missing? (You can click to enlarge, in case that wasn't clear.)

La force de l'âge


After being blown away by the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs last September, I knew I had to get to the second installment as soon as possible. Let me just say, it did not disappoint. Covering the years from 1929, when Beauvoir graduated from college and first lived on her own as an adult, through the development of her ideas and interpersonal relationships of the 1930s and into the war years to the liberation of Paris in 1944, La force de l'âge (translated into English as The Prime of Life) is seven hundred pages of densely-packed insight, and a new favorite for me.

In both volumes I've read, what sets Beauvoir's autobiographical writing apart is her concern with both the specific details of her own life at any given time (standard memoir fare), and also with drilling down into the ontological state of being a 5-year-old girl, a 23-year-old intellectual, a 32-year-old novelist, and so on. In Mémoires, for example, she describes the gradual process she went through in order to understand the nature of signifier and signified, believing at first that the word "vache" was uniquely and innately bound to the actual cow-object, and only later coming to accept that language and other systems of thought are arbitrarily imposed by humans in order to divide up and make sense of the world around them. Similarly, in La force de l'âge Beauvoir delves into her persistent perception, throughout her 20s, that her own subjectivity and way of being in the world is "true"—the subjectivity of others being a persistent myth which she might believe intellectually but for which she saw little viscerally convincing evidence. She, like so many people in their teens and early twenties, perceives herself at this time as the center of her universe: she is vaguely threatened when she encounters people who cannot be "annexed" to her own circle of friends or way of being, and is frankly incredulous at the idea that any serious catastrophe could ever happen to her. She calls this irrational but stubborn mode of thought her "schizophrenia," and analyzes throughout the book the different ways in which it manifested and developed over the years.

Ainsi, nos aînés nous interdisaient-ils d'envisager qu'une guerre fût seulement possible. Sartre avait trop d'imagination, et trop encline à l'horreur, pour respecter tout à fait cette consigne; des visions le traversaient dont certaines ont marqué La Nausée: des villes en émeute, tous les rideaux de fer tirés, du sang aux carrefours et sur la mayonnaise des charcuteries. Moi, je poursuivais avec entrain mon rêve de schizophrène. Le monde existait, à la manière d'un objet aux replis innombrables et dont la découverte serait toujours une aventure, mais non comme un champ de forces capables de me contrarier.
Also, our elders forbade us to envisage that a war was even possible. Sartre had too much imagination, and that too inclined to horror, to respect this ban completely; visions passed through his mind of which some featured in Nausea: cities in a state of riot, all the shop gates pulled down, blood in the intersections and in the butcher's mayonnaise. Me, I continued cheerfully in my schizophrenic dream. The world existed, in the manner of an object with innumerable folds whose discovery would always be an adventure, but not as a force field capable of thwarting me.

Beauvoir examines the ways in which this "schizophrenic dream" is facilitated by her unacknowledged privilege: the world never seems to deny her the things she really cares about, so she imagines that it is not capable of doing so. Similarly, the deprivations she suffers in the pre-war period (she and Sartre are living paycheck-to-paycheck, without much luxury) are things about which she never cared in the first place, and are more than made up for by the freedoms inherent in the belief that nothing truly bad will happen to her. This ability to live the life that best suits her own nature, in turn engenders a philosophy of extreme individualism in the young Beauvoir: throughout their 20s she and Sartre distrust any political organizations, identifying as liberal intellectuals but limiting themselves to the role of witnesses when, for example, the Front Populaire wins the 1936 elections and institutes the 40-hour work week and paid vacation. Although this complaisance is threatened on a number of occasions and evolves over the years, it isn't until the outbreak of the Second World War that Beauvoir's insularity is truly overturned, and that she accepts on a fundamental level her solidarity with other people, and the uncertainty of all human lives. I know this passage is long, but I find it so beautiful I have to share.

[N]on seulement la guerre avait changé mes rapports à tout, mais elle avait tout changé: les ciels de Paris et les villages de Bretagne, la bouche des femmes, les yeux des enfants. Après juin 1940, je ne reconnus plus les choses, ni les gens, ni les heures, ni les lieux, ni moi-même. Le temps, qui pendant dix ans avait tourné sur place, brusquement bougeait, il m'entraînait: sans quitter les rues de Paris, je me trouvais plus dépaysée qu'après avoir franchi des mers, autrefois. Aussi naïve qu'un enfant qui croit à la verticale absolue, j'avais pensé que la vérité du monde était fixe [...]
      Quel malentendu! J'avais vécu non pas un fragment d'éternité mais une période transitoire: l'avant-guerre. [...] La victoire même n'allait pas renverser le temps et ressusciter un ordre provisoirement dérangée; elle ouvrait une nouvelle époque: l'après-guerre. Aucun brin d'herbe, dans aucun pré, ni sous aucun de mes regards, ne redeviendrait jamais ce qu'il avait été. L'éphémère était mon lot. Et l'Histoire charriait pêle-mêle, avec des moments glorieux, un énorme fatras de douleurs sans remède.
Not only had the war changed my relationship with everything, but it had changed everything: the skies of Paris and the villages of Brittany, the mouths of women, the eyes of children. After June 1940, I no longer recognized things, or people, or hours, or places, or myself. Time, which for ten years had revolved in place, suddenly moved, and carried me away: without leaving the streets of Paris, I found myself more disoriented than I had been after crossing the seas in former times. Naive as a child who believes in the absolute vertical, I had thought that the truth of the world was fixed [...]
      What a misunderstanding! I had lived through, not a fragment of eternity, but a transitory era: the pre-war. [...] Even victory would not reverse time and restore some provisionally disarranged order; it would begin a new era: the post-war. No blade of grass, in any field, under any gaze of mine, would ever return to what it was. The ephemeral was my lot. And History barreled along pell-mell, with glorious moments, an immense jumble of grief with no cure.

This trajectory from individualism to solidarity is just one thread running through La force de l'âge, and is linked with many more: the need for autonomy and connection; Beauvoir's burgeoning feminism and the ways in which she balances that with her long-term relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre; her fear of and eventual partial acceptance of death, and the ways in which she realizes that catastrophes can happen to her as well as to other people. This is all examined with an intelligence both patient and passionate, and makes Beauvoir's narrative far more memorable than a simple catalog of events.

At the same time, there is also plenty of the kind of thing that makes standard biography and autobiography interesting. Beauvoir chronicles the voyages she and Sartre took all over Europe during the 1930s, traveling in Spain in 1931 (still giddy with the rise of the Second Spanish Republic), Italy in the early 1930s (where they saw their first Fascist), Berlin shortly after Hitler's rise to power, Greece in the late 30s, France's Free Zone during the war. She describes her long backpacking trips in France and elsewhere, in which she takes off alone on foot for weeks at a time, armed with her wine-skin and espadrilles. She writes about the couple's non-traditional romantic arrangements, their decision to eschew legal marriage and monogamy and the struggles and benefits that result from that. The second half of the memoir, which deals with the war years, provides a vivid account of the everyday chaos, uncertainty, shifting moods and sudden devastation of life in Paris during the German occupation.

There are, of course, pages on Beauvoir's and Sartre's famous friends, among them Albert Camus and Alberto Giacommetti. She describes exhaustively the plays and films she saw from year to year, and her reactions to painting, sculpture, and music. Unsurprisingly, she also writes with insight about the books that she and Sartre read and discussed during those years, going into great detail at times about why the work of novelists like Faulkner and Dos Passos was so important to her, both as a writer and as a person. Beauvoir acknowledges beautifully the way in which the discovery of a book can be a pivotal life event.

Of course, she also records her own writing life and that of Sartre, both from an artistic-development standpoint and from a perspective of publishing, critical reception, and political engagement. I look forward to revisiting these passages when I'm more familiar with both of their novels and essays. Even without that familiarity, though, I was impressed with the frankness Beauvoir brings to a discussion of her own work: she is not easy on herself, and in retrospect she finds herself guilty of many serious flaws. At the same time, she does not hesitate to point out the elements which she still, after 20 or more years, finds powerful or effective. She gives the impression of taking herself seriously, but not more seriously than she would any other writer. So too, she examines the ways in which one book lead to the next for her, each one being a reaction to and against its predecessor.

I've spent almost a month with La force de l'âge, and although I am ready to be done with this volume for now, I also feel a tiny bit sad to put it on the shelf; I know it will be one I return to many times in the future. I also feel so lucky to be about to visit Paris and Rouen, where Sartre and Beauvoir lived and taught. I hope to pick up more of her work while I'm there!


All translations are mine. However, this book is available in an English translation by Peter Green (titled The Prime of Life).

The Luzhin Defense


If Nabokov's second novel reminded me of one of my favorite writers—Marcel Proust—his third, The Luzhin Defense, brings to mind another: Virginia Woolf. Given that The Luzhin Defense concerns the gradual mental disintegration of a Russian chess grandmaster, and given that Nabokov had apparently not yet read Woolf (when he did, in 1933, he claimed a low opinion of her work), its Woolfian overtones are a bit surprising. But consider this passage, in which the now-middle-aged Luzhin remembers how his asthmatic French governess used to get stuck in the family elevator:

Finally something would shudder and stir and after a little while the elevator would descend—now empty. Empty. Goodness knows what had happened to her—perhaps she had traveled up to heaven and remained there with her asthma, her liquorice candies and her pince-nez on a black cord. The recollection also came back empty, and for the first time in all his life, perhaps, Luzhin asked himself the question—where exactly had it all gone, what had become of his childhood, whither had the veranda floated, whither, rustling through the bushes, had the familiar paths crept away?

Despite the asthma and the liquorice candies, I can hardly fail to think of Clarissa Dalloway here, remembering her days at Bourton, or Cam, in To the Lighthouse, looking back at the family house from the boat:

But Cam could see nothing. She was thinking how all those paths and the lawn, thick and knotted with the lives they had lived there, were gone: were rubbed out; were past; were unreal, and now this was real: the boat and the sail with its patch; Macalister with his earrings; the noise of the waves—all this was real.

Even the inter-leaved sentence structure with its many comma-delineated phrases, that repeated "whither" and the reiterated "Empty," are viscerally reminiscent of Woolf. So too is the way in which the physical objects of the past—Luzhin's veranda and bushes, Cam's life-knotted paths—are melded with the character's mental image of them, so that the mental image attains a tangible solidity whereas the objects are capable of disappearing or floating away, thought-like. The unreality of the past is stressed in both cases: both characters are substantially unable to access the memories they have left behind, even as those memories alter almost physically the reality in which they currently find themselves. Even as Luzhin acknowledges the gulf between himself and his childhood memories, for example, the image of the vacant elevator provides him with the very metaphor he uses to describe his mental state: "the recollection also came back empty."

Indeed, The Luzhin Defense, like much of Woolf's work, is preoccupied with the past and memory—specifically, in the case of Luzhin, with the effects on memory and perception of a concrete breaking-point in a character's personal history. Luzhin's boyhood is divided neatly into the aimlessly morose existence preceding his discovery of chess, and the single-minded, initially joyful obsession that follows it. In another instance of the mental and physical worlds bleeding into one anther, though, Luzhin's chess obsession becomes a burden as his perception of the world around him becomes ever-more dominated by chess imagery. Any dappling of light and shadow become, for him, a chess board; any arrangement of objects in relation to one another become a problem to be solved. As his perception of his actual tournament games becomes more vital—he sees the relation of pieces on the board during a game as a "thunderous harmony" that "breathe[s] with life"—the vitality of the the people and places around him, of his own past and any aspect of himself unrelated to the game, wanes. It eventually becomes so imperceptible that he can no longer sleep, feed himself, or find his way out of rooms.

After Luzhin's mental break, when he is encouraged by his doctors and fiancée not to think of chess any longer, he struggles to recover some version of himself independent of his obsession. He reverts to memories of himself before his discovery of chess, which although unhappy at the time, become a source of safety for the middle-aged man:

On the other hand, constantly nudged by such interrogations, his thoughts would return again and again to the sphere of his childhood. It was impossible to express his recollections in words—there simply were no grown-up words for his childish impressions—and if he ever related anything, then he did so jerkily and unwillingly—rapidly sketching the outlines and marking a complex move, rich in possibilities, with just a letter and a number. His pre-school, pre-chess childhood, which he had never thought about before, dismissing it with a slight shudder so as not to find dormant horrors and humiliating insults there, proved now to be an amazingly safe spot...

To make yet another possibly misguided comparison, Luzhin's story strikes me as akin to a religious conversion narrative of the type pioneered by Augustine of Hippo. In the Augustine model, there is a complete, definitive break between the outlook and personality of the narrator before religious conversion (or in Luzhin's case, before discovering chess), and the outlook and personality of that same person after conversion. Augustine's Confessions present a new convert who is changed utterly by inviting the Christian God into his heart. Once he has finally converted there is no more earthly struggle or strife; he is elevated into a spiritual realm. There's no possibility, for example, that the post-conversion Augustine might be tempted to back-slide into stealing pears or frequenting prostitutes; his conversion changes him utterly. Not only is he relieved of the temptations of his former life, but his perceptions of the events of that former life also change, so that he is looking back at them through the altering lens of his newfound Christian faith.1

Similarly, Luzhin is altered completely with the discovery of chess, to the extent that his entire world comes to be composed of nothing but chess boards and chess pieces, and he exiles his pre-chess self almost completely from his consciousness. On those rare occasions when he thinks of it at all, he associates his non-chess past with "dormant horrors" and "humiliating insults": in other words, through a lens that privileges his current, chess-centric lifestyle as the thing that bestows value on his existence. Central questions of the latter half of the book, after Luzhin has been denied chess and attempts to reestablish some version of himself outside the game, are what happens when "salvation" becomes "damnation" (when the thing that bestowed value on one's life threatens to wipe out all meaning from that life), and whether Augustine was right about the irreversibility of a conversion. Quite apart from the question of whether or not a chess-less life could be compelling or worthwhile to him, is Luzhin even capable of converting back, once the fatal discovery has been made?

Let's just say that his attempt to talk about his childhood in chess-like terms, "rapidly sketching the outlines and marking a complex move, rich in possibilities, with just a letter and a number," does not bode well. What's more, it sheds new light on the hundred-plus pages of waffling that precedes Augustine's Christian epiphany. There can be dire consequences, in this model, for a misplaced or overly zealous conversion.


Thanks again to Nicole for coming up with the fantastic idea of this Nabokov read-through; she'll be starting a series of posts on The Luzhin Defense later today. Looking forward to it!


1I'm no expert, but I've read it was Teresa of Avila who began to question this all-or-nothing model of the conversion experience, daring to write about struggles with doubt and physicality that continued even after her religious vows. If this is true, more power to her; I find Augustine's model pretty self-defeating.

Out Stealing Horses


Although my interest in writing about books generally takes a more analytical bent—diving into an author's bag of tricks, dissecting how an effect was achieved or tracing the iterations of a motif along its winding course—there does occasionally come a book that elicits an unexpectedly more personal reaction, one that overshadows my analytical perceptions for a time, and such a book was Per Petterson's 2003 novel Out Stealing Horses. I hope, eventually, to return to a rather crafty meta-technique used by Petterson, but first I need to tell you about my grandfather.

My grandfather was Norwegian. Well, Norwegian-American: he grew up in Portland, Oregon just like I did, and there were a few generations between him and his European ancestors. But his parents were both of solid Norwegian stock, and they preserved a cultural milieu the remnants of which I've observed and heard about many a time, but have never felt evoked in literature quite so perfectly as in Out Stealing Horses. Petterson's narrator, the 67-year-old Trond Sander, is just slightly younger than my grandfather: a matter of three or four years which means the difference between active service in the Second World War, and witnessing the war from the sidelines as an adolescent. Throughout the novel, Trond flashes between his current situation (in retreat in the rural Norwegian forest) back to the summer of 1948, during which he comes to a more adult understanding of what happened during those war years. In the "now" of the novel, however—late autumn of 1999—Trond and Warren would have been contemporaries. And oh, how viscerally Trond reminded me of Warren—and to a lesser extent, my father, and of my whole paternal extended family, and of myself. Here, for example, is Trond explaining how he bought the car for his transition to rural living:

The car is a ten-year-old Nissan station wagon, and I could easily have bought a new car, I can afford that, but in addition to the house purchase it would have eaten into my resources quite a lot, so I opted against it. In fact I had plans for a car with four-wheel drive, it would have been useful out here, but then I decided that a four-wheeler was a bit like cheating and a bit new-rich, and I ended up with this one, which has rear-wheel drive like everything else I've driven.

Family members reading this: you already see, don't you??

It's not just the financial conservatism, the impulse to save on something that would actually be very useful and is within one's means. (My dad could tell you stories about his father's jerry-rigged lawn mower repairs that could have been fixed for real with the purchase of a few ten-cent washers.) It's not just the fact that Trond ends up with "rear-wheel drive like everything else I've driven," because to change his habits feels "a bit like cheating"—although this also rings true. The similarity actually lies deeper than that, in Trond's very style of narration: rooted in physical, everyday details; telling a larger story through remarks about engine dynamos and chainsaw-sharpening, through circumspect conversations with car mechanics. There is a reserve here, a protectiveness of one's independence that is remarkably familiar to me. And as when my grandfather severed his Achilles' tendon and taught himself a new mechanics of walking rather than go to the doctor and get it fixed, the stubborn independence of Trond's family extends even to their relationship with pain:

     "Why not cut down the nettles?" [my father] said.
     I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
     "It will hurt," I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
     "You decide for yourself when it will hurt," he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other, throwing them into a heap, and did not stop before he had pulled them all up. Nothing in his face indicated that it hurt...

This insistence that "you decide for yourself when it will hurt" becomes both powerful and problematic over the course of Petterson's narrative. (Just like real life: my grandfather could still walk with no Achilles' tendon! On the other hand, he waited so long to go to the doctor that there was no possibility of repairing the tendon in the long run.) Interestingly, Trond's father only ever claims we can decide when something will hurt, not if it will hurt: the characters end up facing the results of putting off that inevitable pain.

As I suggested earlier, conversational reserve is a hallmark of practically everyone in Petterson's novel (as it was of my grandfather): these rural Norwegians find ways to enjoy and detest each others' company, but those ways are generally long on physical exertion and short on talk. Petterson evokes several memorable scenes of shared labor and shared leisure: in 1948 Trond and his father help their neighbors with the hay harvest, organize a timber float and go for a several-day-long cross-country horseback ride, while in the present day Trond's neighbor Lars spends the day helping him to cut up a large tree that has fallen across his driveway in a storm. These scenes are full of the Hemingwayesque: physical bodies moving in harmony with each other and with some version of the natural world seen through the lens of necessary labor. Even when circumstances are more propitious for conversation, the assumption is silence, and talk only the rare exception. In this passage, for example, Trond's friend Jon has stopped coming around the cabin he shares with his father:

And I did not see him by the river, did not see him with his fishing rod along the bank or in the boat on his way up or down, and my father did not ask me whether we had been out together, and I did not ask my father whether he had seen him. That's the way it was. we just had breakfast, put our working clothes on and went down to the old rowboat that had been included in the purchase of the cottage, and rowed across the water.

"That's the way it was": although conversations occasionally do manage to break through the boundaries of these characters' reserve, the assumed default is the absence of talk. My grandfather, too, was a reserved man; he did not easily open up to people. And yet my cousins, who both lived with him at various times, tell me that there were times—often late at night, sometimes when he had been drinking—when his words would suddenly become unleashed. And when that happened, according to my cousins, there was no stopping him: he would talk and talk, and they would listen. I thought about these floodgates of words as I made my way through Out Stealing Horses, because I kept expecting that the reserve of some character or other would break in a similar way: that there would be some moment of verbal communication when the barriers would fall away.

There isn't. The only long and revealing conversation in the entire book is one we get indirectly—not in the form of dialogue but as a further flashback—and Trond has this conversation with a third party, not his father (the primary person concerned).

In thinking back, though, it occurs to me that the book I read, Out Stealing Horses, is itself Trond's late-night flood of talk. The reader doesn't at first realize it, but she is the unwitting recipient of Trond's inner life—a bequest his daughter, for one, would probably appreciate but to which she is never admitted, nor is any other character. This probably happens a lot in first-person narration, that the reader knows more about the narrator than any other character knows. But since verbal restraint and the repression of pain are not always so front-and-center, I am not so much on alert for the point at which a character's reserve will crack.

Now, having realized the role that the narrative itself may play for the character Trond (although of course he never explicitly says so), it occurs to me that on a re-read I might focus on what the text has to say about Trond's relationship with his own words. There are several passages in which he mentions talking to himself: is that what he's doing throughout Out Stealing Horses, or is there an implied audience? If he is talking to himself, does the book count as an outpouring of pent-up words in the same way my grandfather's late-night talks to my cousins did? There is nothing to indicate that Trond is actually writing his story down as we're reading it; the narrative feels more like his thoughts, albeit very organized and well-constructed thoughts. Can merely putting one's thoughts in order perform the same function as telling someone a story? Can writing one's thoughts perform that function? These aren't questions that necessarily occupied my mind while reading Petterson, but the intersection of Trond and Warren brings them to mind. Perhaps more personally important, Out Stealing Horses brought to mind my grandfather as he was when I was a ten- or twelve-year-old kid, and that was an unexpected pleasure.

King, Queen, Knave


Upon opening Vladimir Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave (translated from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author), I was immediately struck by the degree to which certain passages reminded me of Proust. I consider Nabokov to be one of my favorite authors, and yet somehow this had never occurred to me. Maybe, I thought, the similarity is particularly pronounced in this novel, which I had never read before? But while this may be, I quickly realized that, previous to King, Queen, Knave, my most recent reading of any Nabokov actually happened before my discovery of In Search of Lost Time. Since I first read Proust the summer before returning to college and taking up French, this means that it's been a full decade since I read anything by this so-called favorite of mine. How does this happen? If nothing else, it makes me feel a bit silly for going around adding Nabokov to those "favorite author" lists on social media sites, when in reality I haven't read him in ten years.

In any case, the good news is that my appreciation of Nabokov's craft has only increased in the interim. Not only that, but now seems more or less the perfect time in my reading life to pick up this particular title: on the one hand, David and I are revisiting In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower via audiobook in preparation for our trip to Normandy in May, and on the other hand, the details of Madame Bovary are still clear in my mind thanks to Frances's excellent readalong of last October. Indeed, King, Queen, Knave is a more-or-less explicit re-working of Flaubert's novel, complete with playful intertextual nods: the trio of main characters, for example, goes to see a variety show that features selections from Lucia di Lammermoor, the same tragic Romantic opera that causes Emma Bovary to swoon. (This same variety show includes a mélange of other selections so delightfully and hideously heterogeneous that I can't help but think of Charles Bovary's hat.)

It must be said that King, Queen, Knave is not a novel for readers who need to sympathize with their characters. Despite the sordidness of Flaubert's protagonists, Nabokov's goal in re-shaping this story seems to have been to depict a world and a cast of characters even more banal and unsavory. The earnest Léon is transformed into Franz, a profoundly squeamish provincial whose dreams of the big city consist of making enough money to hire a prostitute now and then. Instead of loyal but clueless Charles, we get the abrasively jovial Kurt Dreyer, Berlin businessman and Franz's uncle, whose casual infidelities, ebullient athleticism and bizarre investment decisions distract him from the emotional lives of everyone around him. And in the place of Emma herself is Martha Dreyer, Kurt's disdainful wife and Franz's aunt, who considers an extramarital affair to be her social duty as a proper bourgeois Berliner, much like buying the right kind of furniture or knowing the latest dance steps. Whereas Emma Bovary expects high romance to result from taking a lover, Martha's satisfaction on seducing her nephew is more akin to checking off a box on a to-do list; this is true to such an extent, in fact, that she feels puzzled and irritated with herself when she shows signs of actual infatuation with Franz. Soon enough, Franz and Martha come to view Dreyer as an obstacle in the path of their rapidly-waning passion, and embark on a series of radically incompetent plots to do him in.

If not in the characters, then, whence the enjoyment here? Well, for me it came in passages like this one:

Yet if she must survive something had to be done. Dreyer was spreading out monstrously before her, like a conflagration in a cinema picture. Human life, like fire, was dangerous and difficult to extinguish; but, as in the case of fire, there must be, there simply must be, some universally accepted, natural method of quenching a man's fierce life. Enormous, tawny-haired, tanned from tennis; wearing bright yellow pajamas, redly yawning; radiating heat and health, and making the various grunting noises that a man who cannot control his gross physicality makes when waking up and stretching, Dreyer filled the whole bedroom, the whole house, the whole world.

This passage does so much work, and makes it seem so effortless. It's a portrait both of Dreyer, exaggerated and distorted through the lens of Martha's suffocating impatience yet still accurately evocative, and of Martha's disordered thinking as she becomes obsessed with the idea of her husband's death. It's plainly beautiful: I particularly love "quenching a man's fierce life," and the final image of Dreyer's movie-monster proportions in Martha's eyes. So too, the passage extends the novel's themes of disgust and the physical: Martha flees from Dreyer's "gross physicality" into the arms of Franz—who is equally squeamish if unfortunately also equally disgusting to the reader—only to end up inspiring disgust in her nephew as well. To top it all off, the entire passage is also a playful joke on Martha herself: despite having lighted upon the metaphor of murder as quenching a fire, and insisting that "there must be, there simply must be, some universally accepted method" of ending a life, it takes her an additional hundred-plus pages to arrive at the obvious epiphany that, like a fire, her husband could be drowned in water.

In addition to the exuberant beauty of his language, think it's Nabokov's lightness, his playfulness, which really got me on board with King, Queen, Knave. In contrast to Flaubert, one gets the sense the Nabokov takes neither himself nor his characters quite so seriously—and, by extension, that he does not envision the Marthas and Franzes of the world to be the only available alternatives to the author's own enlightened bohemianism, or any such nonsense. All three protagonists are horrible people, but I never got the feeling from this book that most people are horrible, or that the author is horrible, or that he thinks I am horrible. (Of course, if I hadn't had Madame Bovary to compare it to, maybe I would have felt differently.) The world outside the Franz/Dreyer/Martha trio, in other words, is not the hyper-realistic (read: suffocatingly banal) portrait of provincial life offered us by Flaubert, but is on the contrary brimming with strangeness and originality. Consider, for example, Franz's landlord, the great illusionist with the perpetually absent wife, who has convinced himself that his tenants are all figments of his own imagination; or the inventor financed by Dreyer, who is working on robotic, flesh-covered mannequins capable of walking around by themselves. I'm not sure whether these characters are supposed to represent artistic freedom or sinister madness (or both!), but they do give the impression of a more diverse realm of possibilities than does the world of Flaubert's Rouen.

And even if Nabokov does poke ample fun at his cast of bourgeois Berliners, the three protagonists are never cardboard buffoons, never anything less than people: his psychological portraits are insightful and eerily familiar, despite the reader's understandable desire to admit nothing whatsoever in common with the minds depicted. I was particularly in awe of the author's ability to combine, often in the same paragraph, several moods that seem mutually opposed. In this passage, for example, he begins with a Proustian reflection on dreams and psychological associations, transitions to an example of the phenomenon discussed, which rings true despite the silliness of his characters and their ridiculous behavior; and ends with a typically Nabokovian display of lingual virtuosity:

As happens in dreams, when a perfectly harmless object inspires us with fear and thereafter is frightening every time we dream of it (and even in real life retains disquieting overtones), so Dreyer's presence became for Franz a refined torture, an implacable menace. [ ... H]e could not help cringing when, with a banging of doors in a dramatic draft, Martha and Dreyer entered simultaneously from two different rooms as if on a too harshly lit stage. Then he snapped to attention and in this attitude felt himself ascending through the ceiling, through the roof, into the black-brown sky, while, in reality, drained and empty, he was shaking hands with Martha, with Dreyer. He dropped back on his feet out of that dark nonexistence, from those unknown and rather silly heights, to land firmly in the middle of the room (safe, safe!) when hearty Dreyer described a circle with his index finger and jabbed him in the navel; Franz mimicked a gasp and giggled; and as usual Martha was coldly radiant. His fear did not pass but only subsided temporarily: one incautious glance, one eloquent smile, and all would be revealed, and a disaster beyond imagination would shatter his career. Thereafter whenever he entered this house, he imagined that the disaster had happened—that Martha had been found out, or had confessed everything in a fit of insanity or religious self-immolation to her husband; and the drawing room chandelier invariably met him with a sinister refulgence.

"Invariably met him with a sinister refulgence"! Delicious. In the end, it was this sensual vitality of language that enabled me to leave King, Queen, Knave feeling exhilarated rather than depressed or disgusted, and kept me enthusiastic about digging into the more cerebral aspects of the novel.


A big thanks to Nicole at bibliographing for giving me the impetus to get back on the Nabokov train. See her posts on King, Queen, Knave here, here, here, and here. Hey lady, any ideas on when you're reading The Luzhin Defense?

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography