Posts Tagged ‘Nabokov’

Jekyll & Hyde

When Nabokov gave a series of lectures on European literature in Cornell University (which he later published under the title Lectures on Literature), he raised many eyebrows by choosing, alongside the likes of Austen and Flaubert and Proust and Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The choice continues to raise literary eyebrows, and is generally regarded as one of the great man’s eccentricities. Stevenson is still widely regarded as not quite a hack as such, but nonetheless, as Edmund Wilson described him, as a “second-rater” – a purveyor of adventure stories who had, it is true, penned a few children’s classics, but who was hardly a writer to be taken too seriously.

To argue against this contention would involve engaging with the vexed question of what constitutes literary quality – a question to which it is impossible to provide a definitive answer. In the end, we have little alternative but to fall back on Nabokov’s own criterion of literary greatness – the tingle in the spine. Which is, of course, entirely subjective, in a way that literary criticism ideally should not be. But clearly, Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde gave the normally fastidious Nabokov such a tingle. As it does me. I realise that a mere assertion hardly qualifies as an argument, but, going by that tingle I most certainly feel, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the great myths of modern times, among the most resonant of fables, and fully worthy of inclusion in Nabokov’s list. However, making the case for this may be more than slightly tricky.

Before trying to describe what Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, let us briefly consider what it isn’t. It is not a depiction of a “split personality” struggling between Good and Evil. This may seem a somewhat odd thing to say, as a split personality, and the Manichean dichotomy within a single human breast of Good impulses and Evil, are, in the popular imagination, the very themes conveyed by the names “Jekyll and Hyde”.  But whatever we may derive from the countless adaptations of Stevenson’s story (many of them, incidentally, very fine works in their own right), this is not what Stevenson had written. For at the centre of Stevenson’s story is the issue not so much of a split personality, but of a suppressed personality.

Dr Jekyll himself, in his testament (which forms the final chapter of his narrative), describes himself thus:

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

There is a certain coyness in this: “impatient gaiety of disposition” seems rather mild and innocuous, and it is hard to see how something so apparently innocent, mere “irregularities”, could lead to “an almost morbid sense of shame”. The word “shame” occurs again a few lines later:

Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.

This “plung[ing] in shame” does seem to imply something more than mere “impatient gaiety of disposition”, and it is hard to not get the impression that Dr Jekyll is not telling us the entire truth about himself.

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.

But what are these two natures? Are they merely the duality of Good and Evil? Perhaps. But how should we understand these terms in such a context? Jekyll had, he said, “plunged in shame” when he had “laid aside restraint”. So if we insist on seeing this duality in terms of Good and Evil (and Jekyll himself does not use those terms), then Evil is what Jekyll had euphemistically called “a certain impatient gaiety of disposition”, and Good is merely that which impels us to restrain it. In short, Evil is the seeking of pleasure, impatient of other considerations; and Good merely the restraint we apply to this. In such terms, Good is not so much a quality that exists independently, but, rather, merely a means of restraint. Far from Good and Evil striving for supremacy in the human breast, humanity is engaged in no more than suppressing as best he can the Evil within.

Since we tend to think of Evil as something more than mere impatient seeking of pleasure, and Good as something more than merely a restraint on pleasure-seeking, these terms are perhaps, in this context, somewhat misleading. But the existence of both within a single human breast certainly creates a duality.

 I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…

Jekyll tells us that he dreamt of separating these two elements:

 If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence …

But which of the two does Jekyll aspire towards? The “just”, who finds pleasure in doing good things rather than things that would plunge him into shame? Or the “unjust”, who could be delivered from “aspiration and remorse”? Rather tantalisingly, Jekyll does not tell us. But his potion turns him towards the “unjust” rather than towards the “just”, and the unmistakable pleasure he takes in this – so much so that, even when back in the form of Dr Jekyll, he is keen to repeat the experience – inclines me think that it is the latter, the “unjust”, towards which Dr Jekyll had aspired; and that, far from the experiment being a calamitous failure, it had succeeded even better than Dr Jekyll may have hoped for: he could now enjoy his pleasures without any shame to accompany it. What Dr Jekyll had perhaps under-estimated were the sheer depths of depravity of which we are capable once moral restraints are lifted. And for these depths of depravity, the term “Evil” is not misapplied.

This seems to indicate a rather bleak vision on Stevenson’s part: mankind is essentially depraved, and that which we term “Good” no more than restraints on our depravity. And once the restraint is off, what remains is pure Evil. Of course, we need not see this is a universal condition: there is no reason to see Dr Jekyll as Everyman. But the vision is nonetheless of a darkness at the heart of our beings.

The narration itself takes the form of a detective story. And here, the impact this novel must have made on Stevenson’s contemporary is inevitably diminished, for only in the final two chapters of the novel are Jekyll and Hyde revealed to be a single person – a revelation that should, nowadays, come as a surprise to no-one. That the novel can be enjoyed even when this twist is known is testament, I think, to its literary qualities. For the fictional world it presents, in prose of often startling vividness, is an uneasy, unsettling world. It is also a very male world: the only female characters are the maid who witnesses the murder of Danvers Carew from her window, and the little girl in Mr Enfield’s story in the opening chapter. Mr Utterson the lawyer, Mr Enfield his cousin, Dr Lanyon, and Dr Jekyll himself, all appear to be bachelors. The feminine aspects of humanity seem conspicuous by their absence.

In the opening pages, Mr Enfield tells Mr Utterson of a recent experience of his: at three o’clock of a “black winter morning”, he had seen a hideous-looking small man, who answered to the name of Mr Hyde, quite deliberately trample upon a little girl he had accidentally bumped into and knocked over. The story rather raises the question of what the little girl was doing out at that time of the night. Of course, she might have been one of the many homeless out on the streets, but the question is something Mr Enfield does not dwell upon. Neither does he tell us what he himself was doing out at that time of the night: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world,” he says rather airily to Mr Utterson, who does not ask him to expand. The fog and the murk of the city are straight out of Dickens, and they seem more than merely physical; and the various questions implicitly posed but left unanswered, and, for that matter, unenquired into, may not be entirely unrelated to the “impatient gaiety of disposition” that Dr Jekyll refers to – those “irregularities” that lead to “an almost morbid sense of shame”.

Mr Utterson decides to seek out Mr Hyde, who, he is convinced, is blackmailing Dr Jekyll. Once again, he does not care to enquire into what precisely he thinks Jekyll is being blackmailed for: as he says himself, he lets his “brother go to the devil in his own way”. Private vices – “irregularities” – are best left private.

Sir Danvers Carew, a pillar of the establishment, is beaten to death on the streets late at night. The scene is witnessed by a maidservant, but she witnesses it not from her employer’s house, but from her own. And a maidservant’s house is unlikely to have been in the more desirable localities of the city. So what was Sir Danvers Carew doing wandering the streets late at night in such localities? Once again, the question is not addressed.

All these tantalisingly unaddressed questions leave behind a sense of incompleteness, of matters not divulged because, perhaps, they are best left as they are: one’s brothers may go to the devil, each their own way. A world is created in which surfaces hide much that is best not looked into. And it is in the context of this world, a world in which that which lies under the surface is best left alone, that Stevenson looks at the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Here, we look under the surface, and we see what is released once the flimsy restraints we place upon ourselves are removed. And the vision we see of a moral chaos dwelling beneath the veneer of civilised refinement seems to me as vivid and as terrifying as in anything I think I’ve come across.

I do not wonder that Nabokov rated this novella so highly. To me, it ranks with James’ The Turn of the Screw and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – novellas written only a few years after Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – as the most unsettling depictions of the moral chaos that lies immediately under the surface of our human lives.

A sense of longing

The internet is so full of banalities attributed to various luminaries – some of these banalities so simple-minded and so poorly articulated as to be thoroughly embarrassing – that I try never to introduce a quote into this blog without mentioning its source. However, try as I might, I cannot find a source for the following quote that is widely attributed to Vladimir Nabokov:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Maybe Nabokov never said this – who knows? But I’m quoting it nonetheless because, at the very least, it isn’t banal; and, further, it is so well articulated that one could easily believe that Nabokov had actually said it; and, most importantly, the state of mind it describes – “a longing with nothing to long for” – is one I find fascinating.

There is, it seems, a similar word in Portuguse – saudade. And its import is rather well described by singer-songwriter Nick Cave (and in this instance, I can pinpoint the source, as a friend of mine, who is a fan of Nick Cave, pointed this quote out to me):

‘The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call saudade, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. ‘

  • Nick Cave, “The Secret Life of the Love Song”

Once again, the longing is “inexplicable” – inexplicable because, as with toska, it is a longing with nothing to long for.

In doing a Google search on saudade, I find that it is believed by some to be characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian people. I am not sure about that. For while it is certainly curious that some languages have a word for this and others don’t, this vague sense of an intense longing for that which cannot even be named seems to me common to all people, of all times. At least, I know of no culture that hasn’t, somewhere along the line, expressed what I understand to be toska, or saudade. This inexplicable yearning seems almost the hallmark of Romanticism, but the Romantics did not invent it. How can one not find it in, say, the songs of John Dowland? Or, say, in Twelfth Night (which, sadly, is too often presented on stage as little more than a knockabout comedy), in a passage such as this?

OLIVIA

Why, what would you?

VIOLA

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

For whom is Viola longing? Not Olivia: neither in her real person, nor in her assumed role, does Viola love Olivia. Perhaps it’s an expression of her love for Orsino, whom she secretly loves, but this seems unlikely: although Viola has indeed fallen in love with Orsino (“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”), he is too self-absorbed and too insignificant a figure to be a worthy object of such ardent lyrical pining. No – this yearning has no object that is nameable: it is indeed the “unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul”.

In ages more religious than ours, this longing was often (though not always) identified as longing for union with God, and, indeed, presented as such. But we found, much to our surprise, that even when belief in God declined, this longing didn’t. Generally, this longing had to be tied to some identifiable object for it to make some semblance of narrative sense, and that object, usually, is one’s beloved; or, more usually, one’s lost beloved. That seemed to make sense. But the whole point of this longing is that it doesn’t make sense. Thus, all too often, we come across longing the intensity of which far transcends its ostensible object. Is the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, or of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, longing merely for the girl who rejected him? Would the longing of Tristan and Isolde be stilled if they were to get together, marry, and settle down as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde? The very idea seems absurd. But if their longing seems to be for more than merely union with their beloved, what precisely are they longing for?

This is a mystery at the heart of things that the Romantics, far from smoothing over, actively embraced. The popular conception is that they embraced this mystery in reaction to the rationalists of the 18th century who had rejected the very concept of mystery, but nothing ever is so simple as such broad-brush summaries may suggest: each age is so multi-faceted that any such sweeping statement can very easily be demonstrated as absurd.

However, there is good reason for the 18th century to be thought of as the “Age of Reason”: more than ever before, and, perhaps, more than ever since, the universe was seen as perfectly ordered, and all effects traceable to causes. What could be more ordered than, say, a Bach fugue? Or a Haydn string quartet – even those of his Sturm und Drang period? But it will never do to constrict great artists by such pat formulae: even in the Age of Reason, there were artists subverting it. In Gulliver’s Travels, say, Swift presents us with a society ruled entirely by reason – the land of the Houyhnhnms – but which is, for that very reason, a monstrosity: as Orwell commented, it is a state of totalitarianism so advanced that the Thought Police isn’t even required; and this perfection of reason, paradoxically, drives Gulliver mad, and fills him with a genocidal rage.

And then, there’s Mozart. It escapes me how anyone could fail to find that quality of saudade in his music, but they have done, and, in many cases, still do.  In Cosi fan Tutte, he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte took on what was essentially a trivial and rather misogynist little anecdote: two young men, to prove that their beloved young ladies were faithful to them, woo each other’s girls in disguise; and the girls, being but women, and hence, fickle, fall for it. Cue crude, knockabout comedy, cynical guffaws, and all the rest. But, as Shakespeare had done in Twelfth Night, Mozart takes this unpromising framework of a story, and, alongside the comedy (which he does not ignore), imbues it with such profound melancholy, such ineffable longing – such pain at the absence of something that these four young people desire beyond anything else in the world, but which they cannot name – that the base metal of this rather objectionable little anecdote is miraculously transformed into the pure gold of a great work of art that seems to express the inexpressible.

The Romantics, somehow, didn’t get it: they thought it trivialised feelings which should be sacred. Beethoven thought the opera was a slander of Eternal Womanhood, and was immoral. Wagner went further: even the music, he thought, wasn’t up to standard, and Mozart had failed to provide good music for this precisely because he knew the dramatic content was poor. Only in the twentieth century did the opera come back into the standard repertoire, but, just as it was dismissed in the previous century because it was deemed too slight and artificial, it was those very decorative qualities that seemed to appeal to even perceptive commentators: Sir Thomas Beecham, an eminent Mozartian, praised it as “a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea”.

In our own time, perceptions about this work have changed yet again. We seem to sense that, bursting out of the seemingly ordered framework, there is a tangle of human emotions that no purely rational view of humankind could ever accommodate. And at the centre of this tangle is that anguished longing for something that is not. Mozart, that archetypal Classicist, knew about this agonised longing at least as well as any of the Romantics did. Why should he not? It has, after all, always been with us. Like Viola, we are still calling upon our “soul within the house”.

The “Six Degrees of Separation” meme

How about one of those book memes? Yes, why not. It’s nearly Christmas, after all, so let’s indulge ourselves. I found this lovely post in Marina Sofia’s blog, and thought to myself “that looks fun!” The meme is hosted by Kate in her blog, and the rules are described here. The idea is that we start off with a book of Kate’s choosing (this month, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and find some connection with another book. And then, we take that other book, and find some connection with yet another book. And so build up the chain, ending up with six books.

christmasCarol

I’ve posted about Dickens’ Christmas Books (including A Christmas Carol) quite often in the past, so I won’t repeat – yet again – how much I love that book, and why. But let me draw attention to the following passage, from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, describing a group of businessmen talking about a recently deceased colleague:

`No,’ said a great fat man with a monstrous chin,’ I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.’

`When did he die.’ inquired another.

`Last night, I believe.’

`Why, what was the matter with him.’ asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. `I thought he’d never die.’

`God knows,’ said the first, with a yawn.

`What has he done with his money.’ asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

`I haven’t heard,’ said the man with the large chin, yawning again. `Left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.’

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

`It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,’ said the same speaker;’ for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer.’

`I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,’ observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one.’

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,’ said the first speaker,’ for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.’

Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups.

Now, consider this passage, describing a group of lawyers speaking of the recent passing of a colleague:

“Gentlemen,” [Peter Ivanovich] said, “Ivan Ilych has died!”

“You don’t say so!”

“Here, read it yourself,” replied Peter Ivanovich, handing Fedor Vasilievich the paper still damp from the press.

… on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

“I shall be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,” thought Fedor Vasilievich. “I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.”

“Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,” thought Peter Ivanovich. “My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relations.”

“I thought he would never leave his bed again,” said Peter Ivanovich aloud. “It’s very sad.”

“But what really was the matter with him?”

“The doctors couldn’t say — at least they could, but each of them said something different. When last I saw him I thought he was getting better.”

“And I haven’t been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go.”

“Had he any property?”

“I think his wife had a little — but something quiet trifling.”

“We shall have to go to see her, but they live so terribly far away.”

“Far away from you, you mean. Everything’s far away from your place.”

“You see, he never can forgive my living on the other side of the river,” said Peter Ivanovich, smiling at Shebek. Then, still talking of the distances between different parts of the city, they returned to the Court.

This is from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Plagiarism? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as a homage. Tolstoy, after all, revered Dickens. (As indeed did Dostoyevsky: Alyosha’s speech to the boys at the end of The Brothers Karamazov is almost word-for-word the same as Bob Cratchit’s address to his family when they are mourning Tiny Tim. But that’s another story, as they say…)

ivanillych

So that’s my first connection: The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy – a short novel (novella is, I think, the preferred term) – describing an ordinary man, who had never so much as given a thought to his mortality, suddenly confronting the prospect of his imminent extinction.

The shadow of Tolstoy’s short novel seems to me very apparent in one of Ivan Bunin’s finest short stories, “The Gentleman of San Francisco”. A very wealthy American gentleman is on holiday, on a cruise, when he dies of a heart attack, and is transported back home in a coffin. At the risk of giving away spoilers, that’s about all there is to the plot. But as in Tolstoy’s work, albeit in a very different manner, we are made aware of the very basic and terrifying facts of our mortality lurking beneath what is but a thin veneer of civilisation – a civilisation which prefers, for the sake of decorum, to downplay that which is most important in our lives – that is, its end – and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Or, perhaps, that it doesn’t really matter too much.

bunin

Bunin was an émigré Russian writer. Which takes me to my next choice – Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the most famous Russian émigré writer of them all. However, unlike Bunin, Nabokov, in his exile, started writing in English, the language of his adopted country. Pnin, which I wrote about recently on this blog (and a quick link saves me the trouble of repeating myself) I found among the most eloquent and touching accounts of the state of exile.

pnin

Exile, exile … that brings me to my next choice, Poems of Exile, Peter Green’s wonderful translations of Ovid’s Tristia, and the Black Sea Letters (Epistulae ex Ponto). (When I say “wonderful translation”, I mean they read very well in English: not having the benefits of a classical education, I cannot of course comment on how close they are to the originals.)

Ovid was, for reasons still obscure, exiled by Augustus from his beloved Rome to what was then the wild and dangerous frontiers at the far end of the Roman Empire – to what is now Romania, at the edge of the Black Sea. From there, in these poems, Ovid laments all he has lost. In my last post, I spoke of homesickness: perhaps there is no more powerful testament than these poems of the pain of that condition.

ovid

Fast forward to the twentieth century: the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, also wrote a collection of poems named (no doubt evoking Ovid) Tristia. Sadly, I have not read those poems. Mandelstam himself became an exile later in life, of course, and became one of the many millions (the numbers are so astronomically large that the mind reels) who died of cold and of hunger in Stalin’s gulags.

My next choice, though, is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of those unimaginably terrible years, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (I am counting these two volumes as a single choice). These heartbreaking books rank with Anne Frank’s diary, or with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, as among the indispensable testaments of what it means to be human amidst the most unthinkable inhumanity. And yes, books such as these are particularly important now, when certain comfortable activists (known, I believe, as “tankies”) attempt to downplay and even whitewash the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I said at the start of this post that this meme looks like “fun”. Well, most of my choices haven’t frankly been “fun” choices. Let’s face it – I’m an overly serious, miserable, po-faced old grouch, whose idea of an enjoyable evening is to pour myself a large vodka, watch Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and follow it up listening to Mahler’s 6th symphony. And then, maybe, retire with some Samuel Beckett for a bit of bedtime reading. So let’s finish off with something lighter. That’s difficult: how can Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books be connected to anything light? Well, let’s try…

Hope Against Hope … hope … hope … yes, I have it! Sir Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda! A splendid swashbuckling adventure story, of the kind I used to love as a boy. And still do, in between my viewings of Bergman, my listenings of Mahler, and my readings of Beckett.

zenda

And that, I believe, is my sixth choice. If you have a blog, why not give this meme a go?

Presenting oneself

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

BRUTUS
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 at 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 are 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.