Posts Tagged ‘Nabokov’

Presenting oneself

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

There appear to be increasing numbers who insist that authors write about themselves. And about no-one but themselves. That writing about people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, different sexualities, and so on, is oppressive. “Cultural appropriation”, a term concocted fairly recently to reflect a cultural ideology also concocted fairly recently, is now bandied about with reckless abandon, while the argument that it is the fiction writer’s job to imagine themselves into the minds and hearts of other people, often very different from their own selves, seems to fall on deaf ears. Issues specifically affecting a certain group of people must not, it is insisted, be addressed by writers who do not belong to this group. And should they do so, they may well find themselves facing a generally inarticulate but nonetheless potent rage. This rage should not be underestimated, for it may hold hostage even our literary judgement: recently, the influential literary magazine Kirkus, faced with such rage, withdrew its approval from a fiction that it had initially reviewed favourably. Authors beware.

The logical end of the arguments against “cultural appropriation” – fulminations rather than arguments, perhaps, for I do not find them well argued – is that we must write only about ourselves, or, at best, about people very much like ourselves, sharing our racial origin, our gender, our sexuality, and all the rest of it; and that we must concede that those who may enter our fictions who are unlike ourselves fall outside the range not only of our experience, but also of our imagination. There seems, however, to be an underlying assumption here I find questionable, and that is that our own selves we do understand. But do we? As Brutus rightly observes, the eye sees not itself.

I’m not a reader of autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve read a single one, although I suppose I should try out some of the more notable examples of the genre – the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, say, or the Confessions of St Augustine, or of Rousseau. However, despite my not having read even the finest examples of the form, I find the form itself troubling. Could I write my own story? I have joked in the past that if I were to try my hand at autobiography, then, given how much I have absorbed of Western culture throughout my life (or “appropriated”, some may say); and given further that, as a newly arrived five-year-old immigrant from India (or, rather, émigré, a term far more distinguished-sounding than mere immigrant), I had found myself typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays; I should perhaps call my autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding. But that joke is a bit tired now, and the “if” itself is highly problematic: I could never, I think, sit down to write an autobiography. For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest, and to be honest about people whom I have known and liked, or even loved, and lay bare to public gaze their inevitable faults and shortcomings, would be on my part a gross betrayal. And to be similarly honest about myself would be simply embarrassing. In any case I don’t know that I can be honest with myself: however I may see myself, my perspective is inevitably distorted. The eye sees not itself. So either I would end up flattering my ego in self-admiration, or flagellating my character in self-hatred; and neither, I fear, would be a spectacle likely to edify. Except, perhaps, as a cautionary example of that which should, for reasons of good taste, be avoided.

But without going as far as autobiography, a great many writers have introduced themselves into their novels in fictional form. And here, too, I think there are difficulties. It is no surprise, for instance, that the only character in David Copperfield who lacks colour and vitality is the adult David himself, the central character in an avowedly autobiographical novel: Dickens would not, or, more likely perhaps, could not, endow David with his own vitality or genius. We never believe that the David we see in this novel would himself be capable of writing David Copperfield. Levin, in Anna Karenina, is a much finer piece of characterisation, but even here, Tolstoy cannot invest this autobiographical character with his own genius: however much Levin may have resembled Tolstoy in other matters, it is impossible to imagine him writing Anna Karenina. This perhaps confirms what lesser mortals such as myself have often felt about genius – that it is so mysterious a quality, it eludes the understanding even of those who are possessed of it. Or, perhaps, especially of those who are possessed of it.

There are other writers who present, quite deliberately, a certain carefully calculated version of themselves in their novels. Fielding, for instance, frequently speaks to the reader in his own voice, thus making himself, in effect, one of the characters in his own novel. The voice he speaks in is companionable – wise, witty, magnanimous, tolerant, admiring of virtues, and generally tolerant and forgiving of vices. Whether Fielding was really like this matters little: what matters is how well the characterisation works in the context of the novel. For once one puts oneself into fiction, one becomes a fictional character, and it is in the context of the fiction that the success or otherwise of the character must be judged.

Nabokov went in the opposite direction from Fielding: the narrator of Pnin turns out to be Nabokov himself, except that he isn’t quite Nabokov himself: he is a version of Nabokov with all warmth and compassion expunged, and with the cruelty and heartlessness accentuated. An unpleasant parody of Nabokov, in other words. For the real Nabokov, the real author of Pnin, leaves the attentive reader in no doubt that the title character is a gentle and dignified man, indeed, a saintly man; and such a man, one suspects, would have been beyond the scope of the parody Nabokov, the fictional author of Pnin. The real Nabokov demands we read between the lines; the parody Nabokov is seemingly unaware that there exists anything at all between the lines worth reading.

Nabokov could pull this off because he was well aware of the impossibility of putting one’s self into one’s work; he was aware that when one tries to do so, all one puts in is a parody of one’s self. And being aware of this, he deliberately shaped the parody to serve his artistic ends. As, no doubt, did Fielding, although Fielding went in the opposite direction by presenting the best rather than the worst of himself. But both Fielding in Tom Jones and Nabokov in Pnin are fictional characters; and both writers – the real writers, that is – know it.

This is why I think I find myself suspicious of autobiography as a form. If one puts oneself into a fiction, one immediately becomes a fictional character; and when one puts oneself into what purports to be fact, the factual nature of the self-representation is, at the very least, questionable.

And similarly, I think, with those things one writes about because they are close to one’s self, because writing manuals have told us to write about what we know: the closer a subject is to the author’s own life, the less I find myself trusting it. One’s own experiences are the very things that are most difficult to write about with any great degree of objectivity. And where objectivity is questionable, so too, I think, is authenticity.

Since I am not myself a writer of fiction, I feel I am well qualified to dispense advice to aspiring fiction-writers. I’d say – don’t write about what you know. Forget your own self: imagine yourself into the minds of people very different from yourself. For, if you cannot imagine that, you really have no business even trying to write fiction. Best to write some trifling blog instead, as I do.


“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator is of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.