Monthly Archives: June 2009

Lectures on Literature

What an odd and wonderful book Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature is. I enjoyed it very much, although I have some caveats to make, and I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you have read the books Nabokov discusses or you plan to read them alongside the lectures. He goes much too in-depth about his chosen books for it to be at all enjoyable if you’re not familiar with them.

What makes this book odd and unusual is the fact that it is a transcript of lectures Nabokov gave while at Cornell, so they are written with a classroom performance in mind and not necessarily meant for general readers. The course was called “Masters of European Fiction,” and covers Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Swann’s Way, The Metamorphosis, and Ulysses. The book’s editor makes it clear that he had to do a lot of editing, as the text is based on written-out lectures that weren’t always complete and where the organization wasn’t always clear. But the text we ended up with is very readable and clear, and it includes lots of pictures of Nabokov’s notes and marked-up copies of novels.

Nabokov makes a very strong argument for looking at the novels themselves and not paying any attention to biographical, historical, or cultural context. He believes in close reading and nothing but close reading. He wants readers to focus on the novel’s details, noticing patterns and making connections and focusing on how those details are structured. Here is what he says about how people should read:

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.

“Great novels are great fairy tales,” he argues, and should be treated as independent worlds, following their own rules, and existing without any connection to the world we live in.

I think I may post more on this book later, as there are so, so many interesting passages to quote and discuss, but for now I’ll say that I find his argument intriguing but limited. I love reading novels closely and focusing on structure and doing all the things he thinks readers should do, but I also love to think about biographical, social, and historical context, and I think there is value in doing so. So I suppose I see Nabokov’s way of reading as one very good way that exists alongside other good ways.

At times I found this book utterly brilliant, and at times it was … a bit dull. Nabokov is focused on details to such an extreme degree that he sometimes gets bogged down in plot summary. In each lecture he follows the chronology of the novel, analyzing it as he moves through its sections, and sometimes this works well, and at other times he stops analyzing and begins summarizing. On the plus side, these summaries make the lectures an excellent way to review each book if the details have gotten hazy.

The lectures reminded me of one of my English professors in college who was fairly traditional in his approach to literature and focused on close reading in just the way Nabokov does, moving through each work we studied and analyzing its structure in a methodical way. This seemed like a reasonably good way to learn about the literature we read, but I didn’t love that class as much as I did others where the professors took a broader approach and looked at context and history and theory as well as looking at the texts themselves. Nabokov is best, I think, when he uses the novels as a jumping off point to discuss what literature is and how we can best read it — when the details lead him to some larger point.

Who knows what I’ll end up doing, but I would like to return to this book and close at some of Nabokov’s claims more specifically.

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Group Reading

As I read along in Infinite Jest, I’ve been thinking about what it means to read a book with a group of people — in this case, a very large group. Even though I’m not actively contributing to the Infinite Summer forums, I’m following the discussions pretty closely and am learning a lot from what people write there. And then there are very, very informative and helpful posts at the Infinite Summer blog, such as this weekly summary, which lists chapters that the group has read so far with a plot synopsis for each one, as well as descriptions of characters encountered in each chapter. I didn’t realize the blog would be doing weekly summaries, and when I first encountered this week’s summary, I was thrilled to have a way to check whether I understood what was going on.

But it also feels a little like cheating. In a way, I feel like I should be reading this book all by myself to be reading it “properly.” It would be an entirely different experience to be reading it all on my own, without help from the blog and forums or any other kind of reading guide. A part of me feels that to have the true experience of reading this book, I should encounter just the text itself. It should be just me and the book, and I should try making of it what I can all on my own. Reading guides and groups and forums seem more fitting for the second time through, when I’ve had a chance to form my own opinions.

But then, I can be too much of a purist about reading and about life in general. I’m a little too obsessed with doing things the “right way,” and of course, there really is no one right way to read a book. I felt similarly uncomfortable using the Reader’s Guide to The Recognitions to help make sure I was understanding the basics of what was going on, as well as to explain the book’s allusions. But I have to say, I was very glad to have that guide available, and it made reading The Recognitions a better experience. I think having the Infinite Summer community available will make reading that book a better experience.

I wonder what the authors would say about these websites and groups. Perhaps they wouldn’t care how we read their novels, or perhaps they would prefer to have us confronting the text by itself, without any props or support systems or weekly summaries? Probably they would just be happy to have that much attention drawn to their work.

What do you think — are you a perfectionist kind of reader like I am?

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Beginning Infinite Jest

I began Infinite Jest the other day and am up to date with the Infinite Summer schedule, which means I’ve read up to page 63 — out of 981 pages, not including the lengthy endnotes section. So far things are going well, but I’m already aware that I’m not going to get everything going on in the book. I mean, I’ll be able to follow the plot and will understand the basics of what is happening, but I can already tell that there will be connections among characters and plot events and ideas that I will get some but not all of. A lot of characters have been introduced and I can already see some recurring themes and motifs that surely will be important, but I will have to carry a lot in my head over the course of such a long book to make sense of it all. This isn’t a book to understand fully in just one reading, I can see that already.

But I really am enjoying it. The opening section is brilliant. It describes one of the main characters, Hal, in an interview with a university admissions committee, the members of which are trying to understand some “irregularities” in Hal’s application. He’s a tennis star, and they really want to admit him, but while his grades are excellent and his admissions essays beyond brilliant (suspiciously so), his test scores don’t fit the profile. In the course of the interview, Hal just sits there, not saying anything, letting his uncle and his uncle’s assistant speak for him. Finally the committee gets Hal on his own, and finally Hal starts talking, and what he says sounds perfectly reasonable, but the committee starts to stare and look horrified and freak out, and finally they call an ambulance and get Hal taken away. It’s unclear what happened, but it explains why Hal was so quiet to start with — he knows that he can try as much as he likes, but what he says will be very different from what people hear. The scene is funny and sad both, and it’s a way to introduce what I’m sure will be a major theme of the book — the difficulty of communicating with others.

I’ve been following the discussions going on in the Infinite Summer forums as well, although I’m not participating (for no particular reason except I don’t feel like it — I have enough online writing to do already). It’s nice to read what others are thinking, and it helps me to see things I might otherwise have missed. Even though I’m observing and not participating in this reading group, I still feel like I’m benefiting from it.

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Loving

14734471 I have now finished Henry Green’s novel Loving, and while I was tempted to continue reading the two other novels in my edition, Living and Party Going, I decided to save those novels for another time. I would very much like to read more Henry Green at some point, though, because I thought Loving was very good.

It’s the kind of novel where not a whole lot happens. People talk, mainly. In fact, much of the novel is written in dialogue, and the narrator remains aloof, telling us what things look like and who does what, but not digging deeply into people’s thoughts. At times it’s a little like a play where you have stage directions in place of a narrator. It’s not a play, of course — there is a narrator who tells you the basics of what’s going on, but it’s a very distant narrator who refrains from commentary or judgment.

The novel is set during World War II (it’s published in 1945) and tells the story of a family and its servants who are living in a castle in Ireland. Most of these people are English. They are at a distance from the war raging on the continent, but are worried about a possible invasion and also about the Irish Republican Army and are uncertain whether they should  remain in the mild anxiety they are currently living in or venture back to England, where they have family, but where they might be forced to join the military.

We get scenes of the family itself, a mother and daughter-in-law with her children, but spend most of the time with the servants. The story is made up of a series of small events that the servants gossip about: one of the children kills one of the estate’s many peacocks, an expensive ring has gone missing, two of the servants are flirting with each other, and others have fallen in love. The novel follows them around as one woman tries to hide her drinking habit and two young girls giggle at absolutely everything and the nanny gets sick so the children aren’t properly watched after. And then one of the servants finds the daughter-in-law in bed with a man who’s not her husband, and everyone is thoroughly scandalized. The butler spends his time learning how to cook the books and extort bribes so he can set a little money aside for the future.

It’s a quiet picture of how life really is, especially during wartime when there’s a nagging anxiety underlying everything. Conversations circle around the same subjects again and again, and more often than not, people fail to understand each other, especially the servants and those they serve. These two groups try to understand each other, obsess about each other, get frustrated and angry, and then work hard at trying to hide it so that life can proceed as quietly as possible.

The writing is beautiful. The dialogue is done perfectly, capturing the distinct voices of the characters and also the rhythms of typical conversations, the way people repeat things and jump suddenly from one idea to the next. And although the narration is extremely distant, the narrator now and then comes out with beautiful descriptive sentences: “The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets,” or “He slipped inside like an eel into its drainpipe,” or “When he saw her face which was as it sometimes looked on her bad days so called, pale or blotchy as a shrimp before boiling, he cleared his throat.” He gets the rhythm of sentences exactly right:

She got no other answer than a wail. Then Miss Burch rolled over face to the wall. The cap twisted off her head. Edith gently put it back and because her shiny skull was sideways on that pillow she could only place the cap so that it sat at right angles to Miss Burch’s pinched nose, as someone lying in the open puts their hat to protect their face and terrible eyes.

John Updike wrote the introduction to my edition, and I am perfectly willing to believe him when he claims that insofar as one can learn to write, Henry Green taught him. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of his work.

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Notes

I’m going to start Infinite Jest very, very soon. I’m just not entirely sure when. I’d really like to follow along with the Infinite Summer schedule, and I’m generally very good at sticking to reading schedules, but I haven’t quite gotten around to going up to my study and hauling that book off the TBR shelves. I have been poking around on the Infinite Summer forums by way of preparation, and the various hints I’ve gotten about the book are intriguing. Maybe I’ll start it tomorrow.

I’m almost finished with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and am about halfway through Mary Brunton’s Discipline. I’m not sure what to think about the Brunton novel. At times I’m enjoying it, and at other times I get annoyed at the main character, a first-person narrator, who does some inexplicable things. The book has enough narrative tension to keep me moving along, though, so I’ll stick with it to see how it all turns out.

And now on to cycling. My race yesterday didn’t go well. It’s a race I hate, though, so the real question is why I keep doing it, not why I didn’t do well. I woke up yesterday morning feeling very draggy, and I never really got over that feeling, even after I’d been out racing for a while. I’m not sure how much of this is physical and how much is psychological; it’s quite possible that I’ve decided this race is so horrible that I psych myself out of doing well.

The race started off okay; we have a neutral start up a long, steep hill, which means that we ride slowly and don’t race until we reach the top. Last year the neutral start wasn’t really neutral — it was too fast to be called that — but this year they kept the start very slow. After that, though, things got worse. We headed down hill, which is an immediate problem, as the roads were wet and the pack kept speeding up and slowing down, forcing me to slam on my brakes as I was flying down the hill. I’m not a particularly fast downhill rider, and the yo-yo-ing the pack was doing made me nervous, so I was slower than usual. That meant that I fell a little behind and had to chase on the flat sections.

And then we hit the hills. I hung on for a while, but soon enough the pack was taking off, and I didn’t have the necessary will, leg muscle, cardiovascular fitness, or all of the above, and I fell behind again. And it was only 8 or so miles into a 50-mile race.

I found some other dropped riders and we rode together for a while, but then I saw Hobgoblin sitting on the side of the rode looking ill. I stopped to see what was wrong, and he didn’t look well at all. He said he’d come down with a migraine right in the middle of the race. He was in a lot of pain and was looking really weak, so we got him a ride in one of the race vans, and I rode back to the start/finish line planning to meet him there.

And that was that. I’m not at all happy Hobgoblin suffered, but I didn’t mind having a good excuse to drop out of what was promising to be a miserable ride. So once again he’s confirmation that hilly road races are not for me. I don’t mind riding up hills, but chasing other, faster riders up hills is truly nightmarish. To make myself feel better about riding in general, I went out on a 40-mile ride this morning, and it was lovely, so all is relatively well. And Hobgoblin seems to be feeling better today.

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Prayers of the Cosmos

Every once in a while, I find myself going through a phase where I become intensely interested in matters of theology and spirituality. To call it “a phase” is maybe not taking it seriously enough, but my point is that this feeling cycles in and out, and I appear to be entering another high-interest time. I’ve had a number of great conversations with a friend who has a similar religious background to mine, more great conversations with another friend who is studying to be a yoga teacher, and other great conversations with acquaintances who have an interest in the subject. This is happening at a time when I’ve been practicing yoga more regularly and loving the spiritual lessons that it has to offer and have also been reading more on the subject. As you may know if you have read this blog for a while, I grew up a serious Christian of the evangelical sort, but as an adult have become … I’m not sure what. I’ve become someone who is interested in “spirituality,” the sort of person I used to scoff at when I was much younger. It’s wonderful when life turns you into the sort of person you used to scoff at, isn’t it?

Anyway, I recently finished Neil Douglas-Klotz’s book Prayers of the Cosmos, which offers alternate translations of some of Jesus’s words: the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and some other famous sayings. I’m not entirely sure of the merits of the argument Douglas-Klotz opens with, which is that we should look to Aramaic versions of the New Testament to understand what Jesus said, instead of Greek versions. But I’m not really concerned about arguments over which Biblical manuscripts are the earliest or most reliable. What interests me is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and that Aramaic is a language where, according to Douglas-Klotz, words can have a range of meanings in a way they don’t in English. This means that the words Jesus spoke can be translated in a variety of ways, and each translation is there in the original words:

Furthermore, like its sister languages Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic can express many layers of meaning. Words are organized and defined based on a poetic root-and-pattern system, so that each word may have several meanings, at first seemingly unrelated, but upon contemplation revealing an inner connection. The same word may be translated, for instance, as “name,” “light,” “sound,” or “experience.” Confronted with such variety, one needs to look at each word or phrase from several different points of view … Jesus showed a mastery of this use of transformative language, which survives even through inadequate translations.

What the book does is give a line that Jesus spoke and then analyze the Aramaic words and the possible translations of those words. So for example, the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father which art in heaven,” could also be translated “Oh Birther, Father-Mother of the Cosmos,” because the roots of the Aramaic word “abwoon” point to a “divine parent” and also to a “cosmic birthing process.” The line “hallowed be thy name” becomes “focus your light within us,” and the line “Thy kingdom come” becomes “create your reign of unity now.” Douglas-Klotz’s translations point to a Jesus that is much more mystical and feminist than the one we are generally familiar with.

This book isn’t entirely scholarly, though; it could also be used as a devotional or a guide to meditation. Douglas-Klotz includes poetic responses to each of the lines he analyzes and also what he calls “body prayers,” which are ideas for how to meditate on each of the lines and how to use the prayers to help deal with life’s problems.

It’s a very short book, only about 90 pages, without a lot of text on each page, but it’s the kind of book you might want to read very slowly, since there is a lot to absorb and it seems appropriate to take the time to really soak up the language.

I liked this book because while I’m not all that invested in arguments about the reliability of manuscripts and how Jesus’s words got recorded, I do think the issue of translation is fascinating, and I like the idea that the version of Jesus I learned about in childhood isn’t necessarily the only version of him out there.

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The Other Side of You

Salley Vickers’s The Other Side of You is a lovely, smart, beautiful book. I didn’t fall in love with it, as I thought I might, but that doesn’t keep me from seeing how others might love it and that it has an awful lot to recommend it. I suppose what this tells me that being lovely, smart, and beautiful isn’t enough when it comes to fiction; there also has to be some spark or sense of identification (and not of the easy “I identify with the characters” sort) that a person feels for a book to truly fall in love with it.

It tells the story of David McBride, a psychiatrist, who is treating a particularly challenging patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, who has tried and failed to commit suicide and who is now resistant to David’s attempts to get her to talk. In the book’s early pages, we learn about David’s life at the same time that we read about his first sessions with Elizabeth. David himself suffered a trauma as a young child: he witnessed his brother’s death as the brother tried to lead him across the street and was hit by a lorry. The narrative is written in the first person from David’s perspective, and David is open from the very beginning about how this tragedy still haunts him, many years later. He has done his best to recover from it, but he knows that this is the sort of event one doesn’t really ever get over.

Eventually Elizabeth does open up and begin to tell her story, which David retells to the reader in a long passages that recreate the scenes Elizabeth lived through. At this point something magical begins to happen to David. He finds himself so profoundly moved by Elizabeth’s story that he begins to think again about his own past and his own wounds, and he begins to move beyond the role of a psychiatrist to relate to Elizabeth as a friend.

One of the things I particularly liked about this book is the way it questions the roles of analyst and patient, particularly the power dynamic that usually exists between the two, with the patient as the needy one and the analyst as the source of healing and guidance. David reveals to us — and eventually to Elizabeth — just how vulnerable and broken he is and how in need of help he is himself. During long conversations in which they both tell their stories, he breaks some of the rules designed to keep boundaries up between doctor and patient and shows as he does so just how complex doctor/patient relationships really are and how mysterious the healing process can be. The dynamic between living, breathing human beings can’t really be contained by professional rules.

Vickers weaves into her story a contemplation of the way art can shape one’s life. Art is what begins the deepening of Elizabeth and David’s friendship: Elizabeth had fallen in love with a man who studied Caravaggio, an artist who has been meaningful in David’s life as well, and it’s David’s mention of Caravaggio that gets Elizabeth to talk in the first place. So bound up in this exploration of love and loss there is also a role for art and beauty, for the way art can express what seems impossible to put into words and the way it can become an inextricable part of the bonds that hold people together.

I’m almost writing myself into liking this book more than I really did. The truth is that I admired all this in a detached kind of way. Reading the book was an intellectual exercise in seeing how Vickers brought her ideas together, rather than an experience of thinking and feeling all at once. I never came to care about the characters all that much, except as ways to explore ideas. I don’t need to identify with characters in the sense of liking them or being able to imagine knowing them in my own life, but I do want to feel that they are alive, that there is some spark there that makes them seem real.

I’m genuinely sorry about this one, because all the elements are there that might make me fall in love with it. But, alas, even when we want to fall in love, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

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