Monday, January 4, 2010

That Book by Nabokov

As I unpack my books, volumes keep floating to the surface which I'm surprised to find I'd even moved from Washington Heights to the Bronx when I got married almost five years ago, let alone brought along on the three subsequent moves since then.  I thought, for starters, that I'd gotten rid of all the books before my wedding in 2005 on whose flyleaves my first husband had signed his name; I saw yesterday, when unpacking a copy of Anna Karenina and another of Bleak House, that this hadn't been entirely true (I BookCrossed Anna Karenina, but kept Bleak House, which probably makes any symbolic act of purging the old man moot).

I also found a book of Nabokov's short stories which I know belonged to my first husband, but which I must have justified keeping because he hadn't signed it.  I have never liked Nabokov; his cruelty to his characters and his readers is unsettling and repellent to me.  But I remember, when this volume was published in the late 1990s, reading some excerpts in the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and finding them wonderful.  So last night, I re-read one that I remembered as especially moving, "Cloud, Castle, Lake," which can be found in its entirety here.  I still loved it, though perhaps not quite as well as I did ten years ago.  Nabokov's coldness is nowhere apparent here, and though he touches on his frequent topic of human cruelty, it is clear that he is just as bemused by the sadism of the proto-Nazis toward the little Russian refugee, full of love and longing, as is his narrator; and Vasily Ivanovich's hopefulness and humility, and his striving to find beauty and redemption in the natural world, are treated by Nabokov with tenderness rather than contempt.  In fact, the character of Vasily Ivanovich reminded me of one of my favorite books, My Friends by Emmanuel Bove.

I do not think I will read this book again, though, and will probably put it up on BookMooch.

Above:  Nabokov with his wife Véra and their only son, Dmitri, who, in addition to translating his father's Russian-language works, had a prominent career as an operatic bass.


Mark in Spokane said...

I'm not fan of Nabakov either, although I appreciate the homage to "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police in your post title.

BTW, I've given you a shout-out on my blog - I haven't been linking to you much (sorry about that), but I've been reading and enjoying your posts! Thanks so much!

Cheers and happy New Year!

Pentimento said...

Happy new year, Mark! Thanks for your kind words.

Do read "Cloud, Castle, Lake" if you have time. It's short and it's excellent, and I'd love to know what you think of it.

Enbrethiliel said...


It must be your week for kind words, Pentimento. Have you read Betty Duffy's latest post?

By the way, I just read that short story you linked--the first bit of Nabokov I've ever read. Yes, the cruelty at the end is as confusing as it is terrible. There is nothing more unsettling than evil we cannot rationalise. I shall be thinking about this until I fall asleep tonight.

Pentimento said...

And yet there's a sense of tenderness and regret in that story, and in many of the short stories in the collection, that's absent in much of his writing. The reader comes to love Vasily Ivanovich. And to some extent the sadism of the tour group is meant to contrast the largeheartedness, even childlikeness, of the Russian soul with the casual brutality of the German.

elena maria vidal said...

I understand Nabokov did a wonderful book about butterflies. Apparently he was quite the naturalist.

Pentimento said...

Yes, he was a zoologist and lepidopterist in addition to being a novelist, and he discovered and named several butterfly species.

Maclin said...

I haven't read this story. I've always liked VN's writing at the level of craft--it glitters beautifully in a Mozartish kind of way--but the coldness keeps me at a distance. I read Ada in my 20s & thought it rather lovely but I don't know what I'd think know. Anyway, I'll keep this in mind.

Pentimento said...

I agree with your assessment of N's craft, Maclin. His stories, though, are surprisingly tender.