Sunday, November 15, 2009


Card trick

My piece on Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura has been posted over at the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I found the book something of a damp fizzle. I'm glad Dmitri Nabokov didn't accede to his father's wishes and destroy the manuscript (actually a pile of index cards), since it's fascinating to see what was on Nabokov's mind during his final months: death and its opposite, sex. But to my mind, Chip Kidd's lavish design has the strange effect of diminishing The Original of Laura. You pick up the 277-page volume expecting it to contain an actual book, and what you find is a fragment: a toothpick pretending to be a tree. I began this way:
In the fall of 1976, a newspaper contacted Vladimir Nabokov in his Swiss refuge and asked him which books he had recently read. He responded with three typical titles: Dante's "Inferno" (in Charles Singleton's deliciously literal translation), a big, fat book about butterflies and his own work-in-progress, "The Original of Laura."

The latter project had preoccupied him over the summer, despite a serious illness. It was, he told his correspondent, "completed in my mind." The revisions went on while he was confined to a hospital bed, a febrile process he describes in some detail in his "Selected Letters": "I must have gone through it some fifty times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible."
You can read the rest here. To judge from this handy roundup in the paper's Jacket Copy blog, most critics seem to share my disappointment. Aleksander Hemon, who reviewed the book in Slate, went one step further, characterizing the very publication of the TOOL as a barrel-scraping betrayal of its author: "It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) is not a result Nabokov desired or would welcome.... [The book] can't escape the musty air of an estate sale: The trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement; the old man's stained cravat; the lonely figurines that used to be part of a cherished set; the mismatched, overworn clothing -- all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the waste basket."

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Thursday, November 05, 2009


My three minutes, my two cents

The NBCC threw itself a nifty 35th anniversary bash a few weeks ago. The highlights were speeches by two of the earliest winners, John Ashbery (antic) and E.L. Doctorow (gloomy), as well as shorter addresses by a cavalcade of former board members. I was among that cavalcade, toward the end, when there was no time left. That obliged me to speak very quickly, with no pauses between the words, like the man disclosing the side effects on the Viagra commercial. (If you have an erection lasting longer than four hours....) My remarks have now been posted over at Critical Mass, along with those of many other board members. I'll paste in the mini-speech here, but I urge visitors to check out the proceedings of the entire evening, including video of Ashbery and Doctorow:
According to tonight's program, I'm batting for the 21st century. In fact I was on the NBCC Board back in the storied Nineties. I left the board in 2001, spent some time in detox, and have now fallen off the wagon again. So here I am.

Anyway, I think this positions me nicely to note the sea change that has taken place here over the past decade. During my first tenure on the board, things had gotten a little sleepy. This is no criticism of my excellent and energetic colleagues of that era. But I think we all had a premonition that the old world of print and Sunday book supplements was about to go the way of the dodo. None of us knew exactly how fast that transformation would take place. Nobody operating a butter churn foresees the advent of margarine, either. Before we knew it, the Age of Margarine was upon us--not golden, but bright yellow, and full of suspicious adulterants.

Now, I know that sounds awfully negative. So I will change tack, retire the margarine metaphor, and argue that the NBCC is now a much more vibrant organization than it was ten years ago. The Internet, which was supposed to torpedo what was left of our trade and leave us on par with thimble makers, has given the conversation about books a massive shot in the arm.

Yes, the dust is still settling. The shrinkage or outright disappearance of the old reviewing outlets is painful to watch. The drastic redefinition of those cherished terms, professional and amateur, has given many a seasoned critic a bad case of the psychological bends. But the audience has multiplied, and gone global, and the barriers to entry for a young critic have fallen. So I'm going to look on the bright side, and argue that the best work still rise to the top--like cream, or margarine. I promise.
Afterwards, while I fought my way toward the wine-and-cheese area, a member of the audience told me margarine was a very, very bad substance. I countered with a fact I had just learned from Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist (I think): unsalted butter often has butter flavoring in it. And with that, the War of the Condiments was over.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009


"We long for each other...."

Last night I had a delightful conversation with Lore Segal. We sat before a small but attentive audience (including the author's grandson, who looks to have inherited her curly hair) and she patiently fielded my questions, which I read like an automaton from the sheet of paper on my lap. I loved hearing her voice. Segal has said she was "naturalized" in Manhattan, and of course she spent much of her childhood in Britain, but to my ear there is always a hint of Vienna in her inflections. At the back of the room, Kelly Burdick from Melville House shot this video clip. The audio isn't so great, but you'll get the gist of it.

I wanted to transcribe just one tiny bit, about six minutes into the clip, where we're talking about the abundance of parties in Lucinella. The characters, mostly literary types, spend much of this slender book tramping from one small, crowded, inebriated party to another. It's a natural setting for satire--how else do you write about a herd of poets in their peculiar corral?--but Segal was at pains to establish that her aims were not entirely satirical. She began with a comical quote about party-going from Emma, but then continued: "And yet, our desire for each other... well, the reason we go to parties is that we long for each other. Which is not a satirical point: that's for real. That's true. And it's funny."

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