Saturday, October 01, 2005

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov's one of my favorite prose writers, and I've read Lolita about six or seven times; I discovered the book when I was seventeen. What grabs me about it is not the much-ballyhooed transgressiveness (decadent old-world prof and twelve-year-old nymphet), which I pay less and less attention to each time; instead, it's what Updike was referring to when he famously said, "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically."

Sometimes, when I'm struggling at the keyboard, and the words are congealing like oatmeal sludge on the screen, I shamelessly reach for one of the Nabokov paperbacks on the shelf. (I found the entire Vintage lot at a public library sale for fifty cents apiece a few years ago.) I spend a few minutes reading a randomly opened section, and curiously, the words start to flow a bit easier after I've put the book away. It's not like I'm cribbing phrases or nicking ideas — that would only come off as instantly ridiculous. Instead, that brief immersion suddenly seems to put me in a less-inhibited headspace. Or something. I haven't figured it out yet.

The more traditional aspects of the novel — plot, character development, and such — don't seem to interest Nabokov all that much. What he really loves is language, which he twirls about like the genius-magician that he is. (I'm not sure why I'm still talking about him in the present tense.)

So, I'm wondering: the writer(s) you return to over and over and over again? And why? Pray tell.

19 Comments:

Anonymous dvd said...

Graham Greene would be mine. He has an efficiency to his prose - efficiency, not economy - that extracts the essence of human turmoil (guilt, love, guilty love, fear) from whatever melodrama he's contrived. He knows exactly what words to use to best describe the weight of the world. The first book of his I read was The End Of The Affair, and there were moments where I felt like the book in my hands understood me better than I did.

Last year, I was writing a screenplay and trying to elucidate a particularly troubling moment. I picked up The Heart Of the Matter for inspiration, as it dealt with similar themes; and I ended up just letting the character in my script quote the book.

Incidentally, I read Lolita for the first time when I was sixteen. I wonder if that's common; young men come for the libidnous thrills and stay for the incomparable quality of the writing...

October 01, 2005 8:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David, I'm shamefully ignorant of Greene, save a handful of the film reviews he wrote. He was a huge influence on (and also admirer of) India's leading English-language fiction writer of the 20th century, R.K. Narayan. I was raised on Narayan, and always meant to check out Greene because of that. Thanks for the two recommendations; I've made a note of them.

I'll always remember his little cameo as an insurance exec in Truffaut's Day For Night. (I can never quite get away from movie-geekery, can I?).

October 01, 2005 8:29 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

James Joyce's The Dubliners. The English language can not be brought to a greater level of perfection.

October 01, 2005 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I usually don't reread novels. While not in the same league as Nabokov, the one writer I've made point of being a completist of is Richard Price. I also am a fan of Haruki Murakami. I use to love Henry James for his writing style.
Today is the 100th birthday of Graham Greene.
Also, speaking of Lolita, I was debating Kubrick's version over Lyne's version when I was on Ultimate Film Fanatic. Can you believe that I lost? For those who missed it, the judges were Jason Mewes, Richard Roundtree and a real life Lolita of sorts, Traci Lords. I did read Lolita as part of a lit class at NYU.

October 02, 2005 8:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I loathe the Adrian Lyne version.

October 02, 2005 8:57 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Don't get me started . . .

Philip Roth is the only active novelist whose new work I read on the day it's released -- often in one sitting. I love the way he structures novels, the way a narrator can drift away lost in memory for six or seven pages then return suddenly to the "action" of the story, only now the "real world" of the novel has been transformed ever-so-slightly by that parenthesis. I've probably read American Pastoral five times.

But my equivalent of your Nabokov is Tony Kushner. His work as a whole is uneven, but when he's good, he's ridiculously good. I read Angels in America two or three times a year. Harper's and Prior's final soliloquies, Belize's description of heaven, Ethel helping Louis deliver the Kaddish -- there are passages in those plays that just devastate me with their beauty.

And then there's Herman Melville and John Cheever and Jean Toomer and Nadine Gordimer and Michael Ondaatje and Don DeLillo and Tennessee Williams and . . .

October 02, 2005 12:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey Darren, this post was meant to get you started... :-)
And I've never even heard of Jean Toomer. Must check her (or him) out...

October 02, 2005 12:53 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

girish, as a Nabokov newbie who has only read Lolita, thought it was great but never known where to go next, do you have any recommendations for where to start?

October 02, 2005 8:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I think a good one to try might be Pale Fire (1962), which is reminiscent of Lolita in its focus on language. If you like that, I'd recommend Ada, Or Ardor (1969). I also like his memoir, Speak, Memory, a great deal.

October 02, 2005 11:38 PM  
Blogger phil said...

nice tip of the hat to dubliners there; portrait of the artist is the joyce work for me (because i dare not touch ulysses or finnegan just yet)...joyce's use of language is inspiring.

don't know if i have a 'go to' author, really...a doing the unstuck author...but its a fascinating technique, i should give it a try.

all i've read of Lolita is the first paragraph, which you showed me, girish, and it was a trip...though for whatever reason i'm afraid at this point to do anything but dip my toe in it...

October 03, 2005 8:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I've never read Ulysses or Finnegan either, Phil.
Darren--have you seen Mike Nichols' movie of Angels In America? Would you recommend it?

October 03, 2005 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Angels in America. With that and Wit, I think Mike Nichols stuff for HBO is better than his big screen efforts.

October 03, 2005 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Great post, Girish. Nabokov was a Russian emigre, but he wrote English prose better than most native English speakers ever could. I particularly love Pnin.

I return to Henry James somewhat regularly, both for his style, as well as the complicated nature of the lives he wrote about. I always go back to Milton, whose poetry got me interested in literature in the first place. But these days much of my repeated reading is of Zadie Smith (who, by the way, I just met last night; I might post about that later today if I have the time). I love the vibrancy of her prose and the ear she has for language and voices, but the thing that moves me the most is the great humanity I find in her writing.

Smith is also sort of a beacon for me the way Nabokov is for you; when I am stuck at writing and don't quite know how to continue, I read something she wrote, and then the words flow a bit easier than before.

October 03, 2005 12:53 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Heavyweights you're all into.

I go for Pratchett, personally, just because he's fun and his prose tends to clip along briskly. But my problem is most often how to have fun with writing, or whether to bother at all.

October 03, 2005 1:22 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I have a love/hate relationship with the film adaptation of Angels in America. I'm planning to rewatch it and reread the plays this week for a fast-approaching conference paper deadline. Maybe it's time for me to finally write up a response to the film.

October 03, 2005 1:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, lots of great ideas here for books and movies.

Michael, your meeting with Zadie sounds exciting; I hope you get a chance to write about it.

October 03, 2005 2:17 PM  
Anonymous sacha said...

The short stories of Raymond Carver. Over and over again, sometimes just for a few choice lines. Or even a title: "Why Don't You Dance?" or "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

And as for the film adaptation of some of his stories, Short Cuts, the film was hit and miss. I had to stop thinking of the vignettes as being Carver's--otherwise I was angry. But as Altman's, it works.

October 04, 2005 1:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sacha, I'm so with you on Carver. I've re-read those stories so many times. And I like the Altman film because I like that he made his own film with the raw material of Carver stories. I think it would have been less interesting, and also redundant (and perhaps doomed to failure) if he had tried to make a "faithful" film.

October 04, 2005 5:52 PM  
Blogger Noonie said...

Melville: "Bartleby the Scrivener"
Faulkner: "Pantaloon in Black"

October 10, 2005 7:46 PM  

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