Wednesday, April 20, 2005
The Fitzgerald Affair Part Deux, etc.
Meanwhile, I heard from Margo Hammond as well. Was she misquoted? I asked. No, she said, and added: "The 'now that she's dead' comment was meant to say that I wouldn't want a writer who is alive to hear all the gory details about the award she got--not because she was unworthy of the award, just because I would imagine any author would like to believe (however improbable that it is) that her/his award had unanimous support." Tact is a fine thing, of course. But I doubt that Penelope Fitzgerald--not exactly a naif about human veniality--would have been too disturbed to learn that a handful of NBCC board members were lukewarm about her novel. (She celebrated the prize, as I recall, by taking a day off from ironing.) And Margo's original comment still strikes me as slur on a great novelist, even if she didn't mean it that way.
On other fronts: I couldn't get to sleep until 4:00 AM last night, so I decided to follow up Nabokov's correspondence with Volume Two of Brian Boyd's fabulous biography (The American Years). It's an astonishing, intimidating work, which includes the most cogent defense I've ever seen of VN's crotchety Eugene Onegin translation. It also softens, or in fact banishes, the image of Nabokov as an imperious curmudgeon, running his hapless characters thorough the bastinado and flicking off Freud, Doestoyevsky, Sartre, Mann, Henry James, and Saul Bellow like so many pieces of lint.
He despised Bellow, I would assume, because he mistook him for a Novelist of Ideas (ideas here being code for sociological pieties.) But Nabokov got that one wrong. Has anyone ever written prose more maniacally, magnetically attuned to the nuts and bolts of physical reality? There's a great piece in the current New Yorker--which (sigh) I also read last night--an abortive interview that Philip Roth did with Bellow during the late 1990s. When Bellow discusses his Augie March breakthrough, he makes the connection between the physical and metaphysical wonderfully explicit: "Language, thought, belief were connected somehow with noses, eyes, brows, mouths, hair--legs, hands, feet had their counterpart in language. The voice--the voices--were not invented. And whether they knew it or not all human creatures had voices and ears and vocabularies--sometimes parsimonious, sometimes limitless and overflowing. In this way the words and the phenomena were interrelated. And this was what it meant to be a writer."
Towards the end of the night, by which time I had one of those behind-the-right-eyeball headaches, I picked up the Dorling-Kindersley pocket guide to insects. Not a good move. The color photos of mating damselflies and praying mantises were enough to give me nightmares. Luckily I don't remember my dreams.
Nabokov's opinions are unique to him; much as a man might admire him and even wish to emulate him, it's impossible to share all of his tastes. But it makes perfect sense to me that an artist as precise about words as Nabokov -- and who so relished the genius of Joyce and Kafka -- wouldn't have cared for Bellow.