≡ Menu

Nabokov

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.

Ben Lerner is damn smart. In case you aren’t convinced by my saying so, you need only stop and examine one his books the next time you have a chance. Just the titles of The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and most recently, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) suggest that the enclosed works have elaborate scholarly underpinnings. Lerner’s cerebral poetry isn’t chip-on-the-shoulder intellectualism or self-conscious hipsterism, however, and to shy away from his books because of their rigorous erudition would be to miss a difficult, witty, utterly sincere contemporary writer.

Lerner’s latest project is a sensitive exploration of how our inherited war- and commerce-freighted language might be capable of intimate expression. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book, which is the most succinct explanation I could find of the title: “In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle.” In adopting this phrase as his title, Lerner appears to be making an analogy to our language: particular words and phrases bear residues of prior use. For example, since “shock” and “awe” were appropriated by 1996 military doctrine and then repeated all over news media in 2003 as the U.S. military bombed Iraq, we may not use these words (and certainly not the phrase “shock and awe”) without the tarnish of the over 6,600 casualties—many of them civilians—of the “invasion phase” of the U.S. campaign. And this is just one example involving rather commonplace words—night vision green, this time with feeling, perfect world, prisoner, and a host of other problematic phrases and words recur throughout Lerner’s book. They do so, however, in the interest of expressing himself to a particular addressee—his wife—in a manner that creates fresh intimacy for the reader. Surprisingly, through fracture, repetition, collision, and repeated recontextualization of particular words and phrases, Lerner’s new poems work to liberate love poetry, elegy, and poetry in general from commercial and military connotation.

This project is full of surprise, including humor. Lerner can’t seem to help but barb his poems with sometimes-desperate, dry wit and knuckleball pop reference. The first poem, a “Dedication” to his wife, whose name lovingly recurs throughout, reads, after its central break:

    For I felt nothing,
        which was cool,
    totally cool with me.
    For my blood was cola.
    For my authority was small,
    involuntary muscles
        in my face.
    For I had had some work done
        on my face.

The idiomatic use of “cool,” the surprising, practically Objectivist (insert your own long sequence of analysis here, à la Zukofsky, whose name appears at the end of the first section) use of “cola,” and the sudden reference to plastic surgery all constitute a deixis to the commercialization of language (not to mention the ominous suggestion of “authority”), in a personalized, loving frame. How can these bits of language belong in a love poem, if not to say, “I care so much about you, let me use my terrible inherited palette self-consciously, athletically, and baring my preoccupations. It’s all I have.”

In the end, however, extrapolated earnestness is not all Lerner offers his wife and reader. These poems are also absorbingly formally innovative. The book is divided into five sections. Following “Dedication” (which is a doubling of the “Doppler Elegy” form)—the second and fourth sections are called “Mean Free Path” and the third and fifth “Doppler Elegies.” Both “Mean Free Path” sections are comprised of sequences of 36 stanzas. It’s hard to call these stanzas individual poems, as none are marked by a title. Each is nine lines of relatively similar length, somewhat akin to Spenserian stanzas, although not patterned by stress or meter. These stanzas are challenging bits of poetry, however. Each line of “Mean Free Path” may or may not enjamb sensibly with the next, and enjambment may break a given phrase off from its expected, idiomatic conclusion. There is never punctuation at the end of a line, and often as we read the meanings of fractured phrases are transformed through Lerner’s collage-like stanzas, which are part of a great mosaic of repetition, fracture, juxtaposition, and ellipsis. The reader must work to make sense of the leaps in subject, tense, grammar, lost predicates, or might read smoothly from one line to the next. This game of making, not making, and changing sense continues over the marked breaks between stanzas. For example, the second section of “Mean Free Path” opens:

    What if I made you hear this as music
    But not how you mean that. The slow beam
    Opened me up. Walls walked through me
    Like resonant waves. I thought that maybe
    If you aren’t too busy, we could spend our lives
    Parting in stations, promising to write
    War and Peace, this time with feeling
    As bullets leave their luminous traces across
    Wait, I wasn’t finished, I was going to say
    Breakwaters echo long lines of cloud

    µ

    Rununciation scales. Exhibits shade
    Imperceptibly into gift shops. The death of a friend
    Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
    Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
    Resonant waves. It’s hard not to take
    When your eye is at the vertex of a cone
    Autumn personally. My past becomes
    Of lines extending to each leaf
    Citable in all its moments: parting, rain

A similar game of meaning-making and -breaking is afoot in Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies,” which formally attempt to mimic the “shifts” that Christian Doppler described in terms of the frequency of waves for an observer moving relative the source of the wave—the source, of course, may be the mover, too, and the effect may also be created by a change in medium through which waves travel. In addition to this scientific framing, Lerner’s “Doppler Elegy” form is comprised of three nine-line stanzas, the second, seventh, and ninth lines indented and shortened to create a sense of shift. The shorter lines of these pieces—some of which are very short—create an even more dramatic effect on readability as one proceeds through each piece. The difficulty of making sense in these poems by amplified in Lerner’s process of fracture and juxtaposition—essentially collage. Self-reference is even more insistent and intense, as well. The penultimate “Doppler Elegy” of the book’s third section reads:

    µ

    Somewhere in this book I broke
        There is a passage
    with a friend. I regret it now
    lifted verbatim from
    Then began again, my focus on
    moving the lips, failures in
        The fuselage glows red against
    rinsed skies. Rehearsing sleep
        I think of him from time

    in a competitive field
        facedown, a familiar scene
    composed entirely of stills
    to time. It’s hard to believe
    When he calls, I pretend
    he’s gone. He was letting himself go
        I’m on the other line
    in a cluster of eight poems
    all winter. The tenses disagreed

    for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
        distant, it’s been a difficult
    period, striking as many keys
    with the flat of the hand
    as possible, then leaning the head
    against the window, unable to recall
        April, like overheard speech
    at the time of writing
        soaked into its length

And the poem continues into another challenging section. I would love to keep going with such fascinating (to me) examples, but I believe this is a book worth owning and spending a fair amount of time with. Novel, exciting, sometimes funny and always strangely intimate, Mean Free Path is constantly and repeatedly intriguing. Lerner’s deep well of scholarship and charming wit are marshaled toward a sincere, personal mission (military connotations inescapable) here, and the result is a difficult, winning book of poems that, rather like Nabokov’s best work—although nothing like Nabokov’s best work—are endlessly rich with discovery. If you aren’t familiar with this astonishing 31 year-old poet, it’s in your interest to become so, as his past and future work will be with us for a long time.