Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nabokov's Gift to a Midnight Reader

Have you ever been pleasurably lost? Have you ever realized you had no idea where you were, but didn’t care, because the wind was blowing softly, gently, at the right heat on your skin as it played its familiar rushing tune through bending reeds.

Rain may have been falling at midnight outside your window, but, within the book in your hands, the flowers were so bright, their colors blade-sharp, you could taste them, drops of candied pearls on your swelling tongue; a green landscape gathers around you, gently swelling and falling in endless
varied rhythms.

The broad band of blue river winds on one side while, on the other, a butterfly flutters, the two of you following the trail as it bends out of sight with the easy curve of the river’s bank.

What’s around that bend? you wonder. There’s not another place in the world I need to be.

That was how I experienced  The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, a novel—and I’m not sure that’s the word— that is indeed, a gift. I moseyed through it over a couple of months, the kind of book that made me take pleasure in my twice-weekly bouts of insomnia. You read this book in a quiet spot, a favored comfortable chair at midnight; or by a brook with the sun breaking through the leaves, painting its waving patterns on the page; or in a nearby rose garden, in May, when the first blooms burst, pink and scarlet.

Oh, don’t mind me . . . I pour Nabokov into my head, this is what comes out, foolish glitter. . . .

Vladimir Nabokov (whom you know—or should—as the author of Lolita) wrote The Gift in the late 1930s. It was the last novel he wrote in his native Russian, nearly the last before he and wife, Vera, and their only son Dimitri fled as the Nazi wave rolling over Europe caught at their heels.

Though set in a highly charged atmosphere of émigré Russian ex-pats in Berlin in the 1920s, nothing really happens in The Gift (though it’s set during the decade when Nabokov’s father was murdered by Czarists). There’s infighting at the edges, but no black-leathered Stalinist agents, no one getting killed, though death’s chilly eye slyly winks, here and there. Conversations take place that are largely fictitious, little plays acted out on the secret theater of a young man’s mind.

That young man is a poet—name of Fyodor—whose mind opens into new awareness as he wanders through the large Russian émigré community, a community whose hopes of returning to their lost Russian homeland are fading as the Bolsheviks tighten their grip and Nazism’s stench still waits to smoke its way across the world.

In the roaming course of this novel, Fyodor publishes a book of poetry read only by a few. He’s asked to write a book about a young suicide and declines. Somewhere along the way, the sight of a pale blue dress inspires Fyodor to move into an apartment and start an affair with a girl living there (even though it’s not her dress).

Fyodor pays tribute to his beloved father, a noted and passionate lepidopterist who vanished on a butterfly expedition in Central Asia; Fyodor conjures himself into journeys he was never able to be part of. One page contained a lyrically strung list of all the butterflies Fyodor’s father had brought home from one of his expeditions. (I noted them down and Googled most them with only lumpy success. Nomenclature is even more slippery than reality, I guess.)

Fyodor also writes and publishes a take-down of a famous Russian Revolutionary writer (and favorite of Nikolai Lenin’s), a project that fails. This section is considered by critics to be a parody of biography, a genre Nabokov apparently disapproved of. The universal disparagement that greets Fyodor’s effort—even the anti-Bolsheviks hate it--comes also, I think, because the project emerges from a false place within himself; his book is a rejection of a world he wants nothing to do with anyway, a diversion from the new world awakening within, a new eye that some people call the soul.

But failure never fazes Fyodor. As he’s already lost one world, he realizes, the world he is in now will soon also no longer be his. There’s no anger, as we roam along with him, seeing the world through his exquisite eye. Even when his clothes are stolen from him on an afternoon walk in the park, there’s no panic, resentment or even a ink blot of bitterness; just an offbeat wonder:

“When he left the forest and started to cross a street, the tarry stickiness of the asphalt under his bare foot proved to be a pleasant novelty.”

As mentioned, I got lost as I wandered through these fields of eloquent prose. Much of the “story” is also taken up with Fyoder’s passion regarding Russian literature (the “hero” of the book, as Nabokov describes it in his introduction), long philosophical disputes about writers I’d never heard of and
even whose This-World existence I faintly doubted. (In the three decades since I first read Pale Fire, I see Charles Kinbote lurking behind every weedy Nabokovian semi-colon, sticking out a comma-root to snag my foot and send me sprawling.) With any other writer, I would have closed the
book and said not a word, even about its brief lifespan on my shelf.

I read on, taking deep pleasure in the not-knowing as I sailed along on the rolling, supple waves of Nabokov’s prose, his skewed, stunning, and somehow true, perspective. Like no other author I’ve ever read, Nabokov saw into things, into life’s slippery, shifting beautiful nature, into how the world cascades by. He must be the most fervent and mystical of literary writers in English.

In her recent novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House, Leslie Daniels neatly proposes that the secret to Nabokov’s magic lies on how he writes his sentences: “Because the word string and the thoughts behind the words are so original, the reader’s brain can’t jump ahead . . . . So the reader is suspended in the

perfect moment of the now” (quoting from my advance proof copy).

The great genre writer Donald Westlake said Nabokov’s  mastery “was to make you feel the emotion in a scene without ever referring to it directly. It all roils below the surface while the surface remains apparently calm.” (Taken from Westlake’s website; that other genre writers, such as Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub, are drawn to Nabokov's flame—the fire of a fantastic, often exasperating, snob about literature--would make for a small monograph.)

One clue I stumbled on as I took my solitary late-night ride on his supple prose, was the way The Gift revealed how a certain kind of mind blooms. Toward the end, I realized suddenly that the flow of Fyodor's thoughts and observations more than ucannily matched the flow of my own, like two distant—and very different--streams suddenly flowing together and through each other.

Not what I think about things, but how I think about things.

As I thought, again and again, That’s how I think, I saw Vladimir Nabokov’s book as giving voice to human consciousness, to Being,—complex, intricate, intense and always shimmering and shifting. To me, The Gift was an invitation to a quiet spot to see my experience—though distant and comparatively colorless—reflected playfully, lovingly, in another’s.

And so, back goes Nabokov’s Gift on the shelf, a gift, in a way, to him, so that someday, he can present it to me again.

Photos by Author

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Friday, March 18, 2011

Announcement: The First Public Reading of "Dragon's Ark" by Thomas Burchfield, April 17, 2011

Thomas Burchfield, host of this page, invites you to hear him read from his upcoming novel Dragon's Ark on Sunday April 17, 2011 at the Oakland Public Library.

For more details on this exciting event--or exciting to him at least--follow this link to his Scrib'd page.

Thank you!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dread Rolls Ashore, Again

As the first video images of Friday’s earthquake in Japan tumbled across the computer screen, I immediately e-mailed a friend whose wife is Japanese—fortunately, both live in the U.S.—to ask if her family was safe.

My friend’s first reply indicated most everyone seemed okay: The parents were stuck on a highway “between Choshi and Tenri,” somewhere near Tokyo. His wife’s brother, also in Tokyo, had to abandon his car and walk three hours and then found his apartment in ruins. His wife’s sister-in-law’s parents live in Tendai and were okay too, the message said.

Scant hours later different news emerged from the fog. My friend’s in-laws turned out to have been in Fukushima, the site of the major tsunami and the Fukushima power plant, which, as of now, appears near meltdown. They’d not been heard from at all. The sister-in-law’s parents were also still missing, fate unknown.

Another twelve hours passed. Saturday morning, my friend wrote that his wife’s parents had at last turned up safe. They’d spent the night in their car on a road between Fukushima and Choshi. But the sister-in-law’s parents remained missing in Sendai.

Come Tuesday, they were still missing. My friend said Google Map photo showed their house still intact with their car outside, which might have meant good news . . . but I didn’t care to ask, how current was that photo?

Wednesday morning, I received word they were still alive. No other news. In Tokyo, the brother whose apartment was wrecked is now without income, and food was running short.

I know, it’s 10,000 miles away and the President reassures us that we’re in no danger in the U.S., but pardon our anxious skepticism. The sour cloud of dread has rolled ashore, anyway, a mist in most everyone’s mind.

My connection with the events in Japan may be tangential, but there it is again. Everything is interconnected. Pluck a string, another moves, for better, for worse and there’s no way to be sure which until it happens.

Only fifty years ago, a similar cataclysm might have brought murmurs of sympathy, charitable donations or provincial and understandable shrugs.

But now, thanks to world’s interconnected economies (of which Japan is in the top five) the specter of nuclear disaster (not mention the goddam Internet), it’s impossible to shrug away the cataclysm.

There’s no Broadway tunes around the graveyard gate to hum for this one. It’s impossible to stand completely apart, an unaffected, atomized mind.

In a broad and disturbing way, it’s everyone’s quake. After all, we’re all on the same shifting, recycling thin crust and breathing the same air, mixed with that cesium or whatever the hell those
reactors are pumping out.

Saying we’re all interconnected isn’t the same as saying “We’re all one.” No choruses of “Kumbaya” please. The ties that bind are tangled and sticky, frustrating and even dangerous to life, limb and freedom.

And sometimes that shiver of the string is just a shiver of the string.

In our journey across this band of life, from one darkness to another, we wander between two states of mind: as individuals and as parts of a larger whole, alone and not alone. Everyone dies, but you die by yourself and no one knows what it is, only the fear it brings to all of us.

Lean too far one way, bind ourselves together too closely, and we find ourselves in the grip of something like Communist/Nazi/Taliban terror. Lean too far the other way, we risk becoming something like China or the Balkans in the years before World War II, falling apart into squabbling self-absorbed atoms, or tribes of atoms, unable to unite in the face of common dangers . . . like Communist/Nazi terror.

Meanwhile, Nature goes on with its inscrutable agenda, mixing life and death together, as Earth recycle its thin crust, over and over through time.

Or sends another disaster, one not so sudden, that insidiously winds its way through the web of life that connects us all, making our planet unlivable for our species. Over time, we find could ourselves fading in terror and bewilderment.

And there’s little we seem able to do, even collectively. We can band together to insist a halt to the building of nuclear reactors or insist no more be built until we’re absolutely sure they’re
absolutely safe . . . but what kind of Universe do we think we’re living in anyway? (Consider me impervious to arguments of American Exceptionalism.)

But if we succeed in stopping nuclear power, that means we continue on with coal and oil, both of which for sure fouling our nest right now.

I have no answers to any of these dilemmas—though you may be able to tell, I don’t find Libertarian bromides to be of much help (If you’re going to head for the hills with your Ronco Survive-a-Pack, some other humans will have built those roads. A village would have decided that it be done).

There’s only my awareness of the dilemma, my sorrow at those lost and the aura of dread at the trouble sure to come, because that’s part of what life is: along with its magic and glories, comes sudden darkness and cruel, unexpected trouble.

AN UPDATE (3/19/11) Yesterday, my friend sent the following e-mail, with an enigmatic photo (which, unfortunately, I was unable to post):

"A little more background: the only clue we have as to the survival of A--'s grandparents is this anonymous handwritten note, photographed with a cell phone and sent out via Twitter chain-letter style. A-- picked it up somehow. Mention of her  grandparents is in the fourth line from the bottom. We presume they are in a "shelter," although the shelters have no heat and little food.

I'm not unaware that you, maestro, are also sitting on a Big Crack and that doesn't make me rest easy. Every minute I lived in SF I was aware that it could all end at any time.

Store water and keep your cell phone charged."

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published April 26 by Ambler House Publishing and can be ordered through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon and as an e-book. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ms. in a Dresser Drawer

As a newly coined Nabokov Nerd (and lone student in my Nabokov Studies class, often conducted during sleepless midnights), I couldn’t pass up the free, advance, uncorrected copy of Leslie Daniels’ debut novel Cleaning Nabokov’s House when its blue and white cover gleamed at me from the Simon & Schuster display table, during a booksellers convention in Oakland last October.

The story seemed irresistible. A divorcee moves into the house that the great writer and his wife, Vera, occupied while Lolita emerged from its cocoon. She then unearths (or undrawers) what may be a lost, unfinished novel by the Master Conjurer.

Oh, There Will Be Trouble, Won’t There?

That it turned out to be not quite what I expected may say more about this reader—a male genre writer, mostly ignorant of “women’s fiction.” I find this genre hard to relate to, as Nabokov seemed to have found Jane Austen hard to relate to, though he taught Austen’s Mansfield Park when he was a
professor and, I’ve read, was a greatly beloved teacher.

And so, Cleaning Nabokov’s House is not a book I melded with. Still, I still found things to like throughout this wry, gentle comic novel of contemporary life. (In fact, it has just occurred to me, we might read this narrative as Nabokov Meets Austen.)

Leslie Daniels is very good company, a sparkling writer with a spirited heroine and she seems to play her first novel in three sprightly keys.

The first key: Our narrator and heroine is Barb Barrett, thirty-nine, recently divorced and cruelly deprived of her two children, Sam and Darcy, by her intolerant, über-competent husband. Like some of Nabokov’s protagonists—the smitten young man in Glory and the lost professor in Pnin—Barb is an
exile. In her case, though, she is an internal exile, a Manhattanite who’s been cast away in semi-rural upstate New York. She sees herself as an incompetent, her only justification her love for her children.

Barb’s determination to remain in her childrens' lives confine her to the fictional upstate town of Onkwedo (which seems to stand in for Ithaca, where Nabokov taught at nearby Cornell University, here called Waindell). Her psyche must somehow survive in this apparent Dullardsville on meagerly parsed parental visits while she ekes out a living answering customer mail for the Old Daitch Dairy company.

Meanwhile--through an inheritance that shows up and disappears rapidly, at least in my review copy--Barb winds up buying and moving into the house where Vladimir and Vera Nabokov once lived.

Not long after, the second key is played: On a lonely morning, Barb yanks open a sticky, built-in, bedroom bottom drawer. Inside, sits stacks of index note cards. They contain the text of an epic novel about baseball. This may well be an incomplete draft of a lost novel, a Forgotten Treasure by the Master Exile himself. From there, Barb launches a quest to have the manuscript authenticated and, then, to find herself an agent and then a buyer and a publisher.

If you’re thinking, ah, here is where the action really begins, an adventure through the crazy, mad world of contemporary publishing, disguised as a Maltese Falcon story, you’re only partially there.

There is one more chord to play.

While out walking one day, her thoughts twining around her children and the suppressed sexuality she senses in the lives of women of Onkwedo, Barb weaves a unique and perilous scheme: Make enough money to regain custody by opening a brothel, located on the town’s bucolic outskirts. This brothel would unbank the frustrated sexuality of Onkwedo’s women, and be staffed by the best, most-willing young hunks that Waindell University can provide. Barb adds another layer of rationalization by collecting information about her clients’ sexual preferences, for “scientific purposes” (a plot thread that doesn’t amount to much).

Barb’s whorehouse adventures make for some of the most amusing episodes, but if your ear is telling you that these three chords do not play well together in chorus, you might be right. The novel is funny in places—Barb Barrett is as bright, spirited and witty a heroine as we’re likely to meet anywhere—but her story never seemed to roar together into a single flame that ignited that wick at the top of my spine. The result is a read that feels spotty and disconnected.

Cleaning Nabokov’s House seems a little afraid of its plot elements. In a comic novel (as in genre novels in general), calamity lurks around every corner as our dreams and vanities crash hilariously into inscrutable reality and the agenda of the larger world.

Perhaps out of kindness, the author seems to dodge or pull away from the potential disasters in Barb’s plan to run a gigolo pen in a conservative rural university town. The mind (or mine at least, more cunning, sadistic, and delighting in exaggeration) boggles in anticipation of the Things That Could Go Wrong . . . but except for a few narrow squeaks and a clever but unremarkable twist during a custody hearing, events never really plummet south as we might like them to--

--for instance, a cross-country chase, with Barb fleeing like guilty Humbert, her young studs in tow, as the law, representing Society’s Indignation, snaps at her heels--

Also, I found it hard to grasp the place of the Lost Treasure. The title leads us to expect it to be the central theme, but—and I might be wrong—its echo registers only faintly in the other
chambers. I half-expected a loving but perhaps tormented meditation on the surprising impact of a great writer’s work; not just his lost artifact, but his Art—buoyant and dangerous—on the life of someone discovering him for the first time. A blooming of the soul both delightful and fearful—

--which climaxes in a cross-country chase with the heroine clutching the manuscript, as desperately as Humbert clutches his Lo, while Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, plus a pack of greedy lawyers and crazed jealous scholars, dog her every step.

While the novel provides revealing nuggets about Nabokov’s work, the artist’s shade seems to reach only so far before fading. His reflection seldom shows. Did the mysterious manuscript—a magical object, I'd say--somehow inspire Barb to open the brothel? It’s not clear. How does it relate
to her struggle to regain her children or to her romance with a handsome local? I’m not able to tell.

It would be of course, grossly inappropriate and unjust to compare Leslie Daniels’s writing (or anyone’s, especially including mine) with Nabokov’s, a danger the author neatly disarms herself when Barb tries to fill in a missing chapter in the Lost Novel with her own prose.

Still, whenever any famous artist winds up in fiction, we always look and listen closely for that voice, for that face, even if it’s just a glimpse, through a shade of another mind. If my comment above is correct—that this novel is a case of Nabokov Meets Austen—then maybe it’s Austen’s artistry
that shines through here. Cleaning Nabokov’s House seems a little too cleansed of Nabokov for me.

Photo by Author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.