Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Odds and ends: Nabokov, Victoria's Secret, Bussel

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had been trawling through the short fiction in The Portable Nabokov. (This excellent paperback collection was originally published as Nabokov's Congeries--hats off to the marketing department at Penguin for wising up.) Anyway, I also dipped into the author's celebrated "Reply to My Critics." Defending his exact and sometimes unreadable translation of Eugene Onegin, Nabokov tackled a number of minor players, just to limber up. His real target, though, was Edmund Wilson, an old friend who had foolishly challenged Nabokov's grasp of the Russian language. Poor guy. Nabokov hits him high, he hits him low. There's the personal note: "Upon being challenged to read Evgeniy Onegin aloud, [Wilson] started to perform with great gusto, garbling every second word, and turning Pushkin's iambic line into a kind of spastic anapest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm and soon had us both in stitches." And there's the scholarly assault, raining down upon Wilson's head like lethal ordnance. There couldn't have been much left afterwards: a smoking crater, some cuff links, a pair of glasses. In the land of invective, this is still a major monument.

Which doesn't mean that Nabokov's defense of his sublime literalism was airtight. I was struck by one paragraph in particular, where he seems to have gone completely off the rails. Here we go:
I cannot understand why Mr. Wilson is puzzled by "dit" (Five: VIII: 13) which I chose instead of "ditty" to parallel "kit" instead of "kitty" in the next line, and which will now, I hope, enter or re-enter the language. Possibly, the masculine rhyme I needed here may have led me a little astray from the servile path of literalism (Pushkin has simply pesnya--"song"). But it is not incomprehensible; after all, anybody who knows what, say, "titty" means ("in nail-making the part that ejects the half-finished nail") can readily understand what "tit" means ("the part that ejects the finished nail").
I hardly know where to start. "Dit" seems like a needlessly precious substitute for "song," and I've never heard it used once in my life. But it's the second half of the paragraph where VN sounds like he's blown a gasket. Was he being saucy? Winking at the Playboy crowd? (See his letter to Hef of January 14, 1967: "I want to thank you warmly for the many kindnesses--the good wishes, the beautiful cigarette box, the album in which I was pleased to find myself represented, and the 500 doll. bonus.") It's a strange thing to see a writer with such an obsessive control of tone lose his bearings completely, even for the space of a few sentences.

On a (tenuously) similar note, here's an article about Victoria's Secret that I read in an old Barron's. The author, Michael Santoli, produced a remarkably smirk-free piece. But there was at least one priceless paragraph, full of the jargon and corporate cadences that have made George Saunders the writer he is today. Feast your eyes on this:
Comments to analysts by the division's CEO, Sharen Turney, in last quarter's earnings conference call were dishearteningly obscure. Discussing Secret Embrace, a hit bra line, Turney said that Limited's marketing message "was confusing the customer about, OK, is Secret Embrace a technology, is it a sub-brand?" And later: "We have done a lot of hindsighting and what we have also found out is that really the customer is not as much about the technology, but the technology is a driver to the benefit of the bra."
I couldn't have said it better myself. Finally, let me address a Huffington Post piece published yesterday by Rachel Kramer Bussel. The author, who writes the "Lusty Lady" column for the Village Voice and whose work has appeared in more than 80 naughty-sounding anthologies, takes her fellow writers to task for their feeble promotional efforts. Now, a genius for self-promotion never hurts. It was Whitman who reviewed Leaves of Grass under a variety of assumed names, then reproduced the blurbs on the jacket. (He also reprinted Emerson's praise, which he quoted without permission from a personal letter, on the spine of the book.) But some authors are simply not cut out for flogging the merchandise. Full disclosure: when Amazonia came out, I assured the publisher that I was willing to do anything to help sell the book, up to and including wearing that giant chicken suit in public. But now that I've gotten a glimpse of the competition, I realize that I didn't have a prayer. Here's Bussel:
I was recently faced with a surplus of books I'd ordered from my publisher and a small Brooklyn apartment, so I found a way to boost sales, make individual contact with readers and clear out some space by giving away a copy of my book Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z 2 with the purchase of one of my newest ones (He's on Top or She's on Top). I found that not only did this added incentive spur book sales, but also made me realize that "sales" aren't just about numbers, but about people, real people, who are buying my book and will read and react to it.

V.N. wasn't quite infallible...Martin Amis takes an affectionate swipe at him in "House of Meetings" (in character as his protag), mocking Nabokov's clangingly queer formulation of a sentence using the word "cheek" (as in "impudence") in "Lolita".

As far as blundering genius goes, "dit" is nowhere *near* as bad as "Finnegans Wake" (the whole book, I mean), or "Magical Mystery Tour", so, you know...
Of course, VN is entitled to his pratfalls like a normal human being. (And so is Amis.) But isn't it about time for revisionism to rear its ugly head re: "Magical Mystery Tour"? And even if the movie stinks--shame, shame, I've never seen it--didn't we still get such druggy wonders as "The Fool on the Hill" and "Blue Jay Way"?
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