Thursday, September 19, 2019

PNIN – Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve been making the mistake lately of reading professional reviews after reading the book rather than before. This despite knowing that reading reviews in advance of the book gives me insight that enhances my appreciation of the book—which is one reason for publishing reviews in the first place. The main reason, of course, the one directly related to publishers sending reviewers free “review copies,” is to help sell the book. So what in hell am I doing writing this review sixty-six years after Pnin, was published? Did the publisher’s free review copy get lost in the mail for more than half a century? Well now waitaminute, weren’t those the Pony Express days? Maybe the damned thing’s still bouncing around in a saddlebag out on a prairie somewhere in Nebraska. I mean, if so, it shouldn’t be held against me if I couldn’t wait any longer. I’m a patient man, but...there are limits! So I downloaded the Kindle version, costing me, btw, probly six times what I’d have had to pay had I bought it back in those Bill Codyish days of yore. Was I what? Alive that long ago? Well now hey, some cards a reviewer’s allowed to keep face down, n’est-ce-pas? [rhetorical question--move along, please!]

Anyway, not all is lost. There are advantages to reading a review by a reviewer who’s literally been left in the dust. Same as there are, say, to buying a road-gripping Armstrong tire, created eons after the original log wheel rolled away from its inventor’s flint adze. In the situation of Pnin, the reader has instant online access to the insights of top-line literary critics, which, by my failing to deepen my appreciation of this short, classic novel by first reading them, and which, by my coming to them after the fact, humiliated my intention of doing a proper review for you here, have unwittingly freed me to narrow my focus to only one facet of Vladimir Nabokov’s break-out American literary achievement. That one facet, which counterbalanced the ungainly, gentle, laughingstock persona of Timofey Pnin—pronounced Pun-in by Pnin in the novel, but which one reviewer has insisted is P’neen--the, Soviet Union escapee-cum-teacher of Russian literature. The one saving grace: tragic romance. Yes, that resonantly soulful Russian literary tradition. Pnin’s Mira plucks the balalaika heartstrings with a poignancy on a par with Zhivago’s Lara.

“In order to exist rationally,” our anonymous narrator tells us, “Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin—not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

The slightest reminder of his long-lost Mira, in the midst of giving a speech, for example, can divert him into a split-second reverie of a past encounter.

Our narrator, who incrementally reveals his acquaintance with Pnin from childhood, mentions his first sighting of Mira at an amateur play some youngsters, including Pnin, held in an old barn. Without naming her then, he remembers her as a “pretty, slender-necked, velvet-eyed girl,” the sister of a mutual acquaintance.

Pnin last saw her in a Berlin restaurant after she escaped the Soviet Union and before her arrest by Nazis. “They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all—but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.”

He learned years later, after escaping to the United States, that Mira had been murdered at Buchenwald.

More recently, in one of his unbidden remembrances, musing at night alone on a porch, “...again the clumsy, shy, obstinate, eighteen-year-old boy, waiting in the dark for Mira—and despite the fact that logical thought put electric bulbs into the kerosene lamps and reshuffled the people, turning them into aging émigrés and securely, hopelessly, forever wire-netting the lighted porch, my poor Pnin, with hallucinatory sharpness, imagined Mira slipping out of there into the garden and coming toward him among tall tobacco flowers whose dull white mingled in the dark with that of her frock...

Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”

While Mira lives in his heart, Pnin marries Liza, a restless temptress who doesn’t hang around long. His sense of her as he watches her leave is a mixture of reluctant acceptance and relief:

He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her—just as she was—with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in Heaven (I don’t believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life—“

He breaks down when his friend Joan, hoping to console him, asks softly, “Doesn’t she want to come back?”

Pnin, his head on his arm, started to beat the table with his loosely clenched fist. ‘I haf nofing,’ [he] wailed...between loud, damp sniffs, ‘I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!’”

What we have is something marvelous. An all-too-human character brought alive for us in all his dimensions by an enchanting writer, with the bonus of an intimate look at a small college community of Russian émigrés in the early 1950s portrayed with precision, fictionally, by one of their own. Nabokov is best known for Lolita, his startling, controversial novel about a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. Pnin, however, was his break-out in U.S. literary circles, initially appearing as a series of individual stories in The New Yorker. Its success, establishing his reputation as a writer of uncommon brilliance, helped persuade publishers to take a chance with the more risky Lolita.
Vladimir Nabokov

Below are links to a couple of comprehensive reviews of Pnin:

Charles Poore, The New York Times

David Lodge, The Guardian

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, September 12, 2019


It’s taken me three readings of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story to recognize finally my vague discomfort accepting the presumption of sadness at this exceptional novel’s ironic ending. That’s one reading every three years starting with 2013, three years after its publication. The trienniality is coincidental—unless, as suggested by Shteyngart’s Tweeted tribute quote on the death last week of his beloved Random House editor Susan Kamil, "He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick."

It’s from Nabokov’s novel Pnin. Shteyngart added, “I would like to believe this is true. Farewell Susan.”

Accepting it as true, why not take it a step further and believe one of these dead souls’ “committees” has been goading me to fathom the elusive mix of emotions I experience at Super Sad’s ending? Not that it would matter particularly to anyone else. And yet, there is a confluence of sorts that might well be calling to certain of the quick to, in a social media vernacular, “Get off your asses, and be quick about it!”

I feel this urgency. It’s the reason I’ve started reading William Vollmann’s massive two-volume report on the virtual demise of our species. In the first third of Carbon Ideologies, which is as far as I’ve gotten, Vollmann’s focus is on the nuclear generating disaster at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 (a year after Super Sad was published). He’s written it as an explanation to possible survivors of what he sees as inevitable climate catastrophe. His writing is framed as an apology to future inhabitants of Earth, and, less directly by presuming its inescapability, scaring the living crap out of those of us who still entertain an implausible hope of somehow averting the disaster. “I knew I’d find no adequate personal answer to the question ‘What should we do?’” he tells these theoretical survivors, “But I felt ashamed of doing nothing. Well, in the end I did nothing just the same, and the same went for most everyone I knew. This book may help you in the hot dark future to understand why.”
Gary Shteyngart

I feel the urgency also because of the political imbroglio we’ve permitted that exacerbates the disparities in our society, and because of the growing passivity of a culture easily distracted and manipulated by cheap entertainment, with its expectations of titillation, comfort, and the illusion of freedom.

This awareness was less defined when I first read Super Sad True Love Story, which I was enticed to read by a review Maureen Corrigan broadcast on NPR. What got my attention, perked my interest, induced me to buy the book was Corrigan’s description of a fictional near future that struck me as already incipient in its drift toward a junction of chaos and control. It rang of Orwell and Huxley, 1984 and Brave New World, but with comic twists and an endearing familiarity. As then New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani put it, “Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes.”

Reading it the first time I focused on the distance between then and Shteyngart’s fictional future. And, of course, there was no avoiding the love story between 39-year-old second-generation Russian Jewish immigrant Lenny Abramov and 24-year-old second-generation Korean immigrant Eunice Parks. This story, told by way of diary entries and social media conversations, provides the narrative train through Super Sad’s dystopian landscape, yet I found my interest veering more toward a skeptical voyeurism than empathizing with the obviously mismatched couple. Whether the concept of true love is realized between Lenny and Eunice, who could say with any certainty? Kakutani clearly thought so, as did several other reviewers who discussed the book at the time. I see the two as using one another, each for different reasons. But maybe that is love. Maybe it’s only love’s illusions I recall (thanks, Joni). I waxed enthusiastic with the brief piece I posted here in 2013 after the first read, but not about the romance.

At least one of Super Sad's predictions, that books will become dangerously unfashionable, has already almost come to pass,” I wrote then, adding, “It's one of the funniest, gloomiest social satires I have encountered.”

Three years later, after my second read, I still didn’t try to review the book, intimidated probably by the enthusiastic gushings of Kakutani, Corrigan and others, including Terrence Rafferty in Slate. Looking back, I find I like Rafferty’s best of the three reviews. He gives more plot and details. I should condense plot and details down for you myself but after reading the professionals I’m stymied, as if doing so would be akin to fashioning a Fabergé egg out of paper-mâché. Instead I’ll give you a link to Rafferty’s review: here.

So, there you have it, something you can hold against me forever, depending on how much “forever” we have left to live. A book I’ve read three times over the past six years, and still haven’t gotten up the gumption to do it justice. And yet, still, on the verge of hysteria, I implore you to read the damned book BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!

Back now to William Vollmann’s horrifying apology to whomever might still be alive after the planet that’s hosted us all these eons finally turns out the lights…

Wait! I just went back and re-read the ending, the last chapter, one more time. I see now the cause of some of the ambivalence I’ve been feeling about it: I wasn’t ready for so abrupt a change in tempo. The main narrative had me rushing, frantically, to the apocalyptic edge, the unendurable sensation of imminent void. The last chapter, "27 – Welcome Back, Pa’dner,” begins with a sense of free-fall, a little relevant backstory, just enuf to offer the racing mind a more contemplative speed. It works, I suspect, for most readers. Not for me. My cognition is sluggish, slower to shift. My inner brakes were screaming as I tried to decipher how the words I was reading fit with my despairing terror of the calamitous denouement I'd been approaching. Then the cinematic break taking me from Kansas sepia to the Technicolor of Oz. Stumbling with contradictions, my ambivalent feet carried me to a place where at last I could sit and sort things out. And where I could appreciate the language, the secret humor, the tranquility and the beauty of simply being alive, no matter what future lay beyond the next heartbeat. Reading this chapter a fourth time, without the preceding headlong dash, I finally appreciated what Shteyngart had done. And despite the title and the scrambled emotions throughout, I believe he and I, on this point, are of one mind.

If so, this might help explain my inability to fully embrace the sadness others have found in Super Sad True Love Story. I see it as a sadness compromised by foolish expectations. A vanity. A sadness we deserve.

My advice: Find out for yourself.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Friday, September 6, 2019

EVERGREEN – Howard Owen

Puzzled to find Willie Black still employed at the same dying Richmond, Va., daily newspaper after seven Pulitzer-worthy investigative reports. With such success one would think he'd be starring at one of the larger metropolitan mainstream papers. I suppose it might have something to do with his heavy drinking and lack of reverence for his bosses. At the same time, he clearly draws his success as a reporter from the tough Oregon Hill neighborhood where he grew up and remains.
I met him first last week reading Oregon Hill, the debut of his eight first-person accounts solving murders in the Richmond area. Oregon Hill so impressed me with its authenticity--the narrator's voice and the feel of both the inside of a newsroom and the city it covers, the bone-depth depictions of its gritty characters and their true dialogue, the compelling story, and...have I forgotten anything? Oh, of course...the simply fine, smooth, engaging craftsmanship! So is Evergreen the second in the Willie Black series? No indeed!
It’s become a habit—and I’m not really sure why—that when I’ve read the first of a series that’s new to me, and I like it, I jump ahead and next read the most recent. Partly, I suppose, it’s to see if the latest adventure lives up to the promise of the first. I’ve found that some writers seem to fall into a rut, maybe grow tired of their characters and sort of go on auto-pilot eventually. Happy to report this is not the case with Evergreen, book eight (and I hope still counting). Altho I have yet to read the six books in between, now that I’ve bracketed them with the first and the last, I’m confident I will read them all—as long as Willie’s around to live them and tell us what happens.
Howard Owen
As to Evergreen, a vivid clue to its story can be found in its rather grim cover, depicting the kind of spooky old abandoned cemetery one might expect to find illustrating something by Edgar Allen Poe, some Gothic tale with gloom and ghosts, and doom in the mix. Clearing up that mystery right now, I assure you there’s nothing spectral infringing upon the sensibilities of the living characters in Evergreen. This is not a ripoff of Kolchak the Night Stalker. Here the dead remain dead from beginning to end—except, if you will, in the minds of the living. In particular the mind of Willie Black, whose long-dead father is brought to mind on New Year’s Day by the woman who’s been tending his grave ever since he died mysteriously when Willie was an infant. The woman, Philomena Slade, is on her deathbed. Her son, Richard, informs Willie, awakening him from an unusually hellacious hangover. Without knowing why, Willie goes to see her at the hospital. He tells us why he dragged himself from bed, where his fourth wife lay asleep wearing a pair of men’s underpants around her neck:
Richard Slade once did nearly half a lifetime for a rape he didn’t commit, and he almost spent the other half in prison for a murder that also was done by someone else. In my never-ending quest for truth, justice, and cheap-ass Virginia Press Association awards, I helped keep that from happening, so we do have some history. And, oh yeah, he’s my cousin, somewhat removed.”
Neither Willie nor his mother had ever been to his grave in the long abandoned Evergreen Cemetery. “Somewhere on the eastern edge of the city, out in that no-man’s land between the projects and the country.” Willie’s mother, had never wanted to talk with Willie about his African-American father. who’d lived with a succession of men since the death of Artie Lee, the light-skinned jazz saxophonist she’d fallen in love with as a teenager.
He died before I was talking. I have almost no memory of him,” Willie tells us. “He and Peggy never got married, mostly because I was born seven years before the Supreme Court forced the Commonwealth of Virginia to let African Americans and white folks marry each other.” He doesn’t relish taking up the gravekeeping task from Philomena, but she’s persistent. She’d been a friend of Willie’s mother since before he was born. Probably more persuasive, Philomena is “a tough old broad who will haunt me from the grave if I don’t follow through.”
So he does, and his first visit to the grave sparks a curiosity about the man who’d sired him. He begins digging into records and old local denizens who know Artie Lee. It soon becomes clear that no one wishes to dig up the past regarding Lee’s single-vehicle fatal accident Willie learns had been “witnessed” by at least three unnamed people. He persuades his bosses he’s working on a story about his father to run as a feature on Father’s Day, but he immerses himself into this sleuthing through prior years as if looking for the corpse of Jimmy Hoffa. He learns a little bit here and there from a couple of Artie’s surviving bandmates, who inch toward what they seem to know happened but stop dead before the reveal, and from Willie’s old adversary, the Richmond police chief, who reluctantly feeds him a couple of clues on strict, not-for-attribution-to-anyone background. But his first big break in solving the riddle comes while pouring through old newspapers published around the time of his father’s death. He stumbles onto this small headline: Negro man killed/ in Charles City crash. “The story was eight paragraphs long. My father was the lone occupant of the car, the story said. The wreck happened about nine p.m. The car hit a tree, and that was it for Artie Lee, who, our rag reported, died at the scene. The last paragraph: A witness who was walking along Route 5 claimed he saw two other men standing alongside Lee’s car, stopped on the highway, but he couldn’t identify them. Police are investigating.
With more interviews leading to more filament leads, it’s another news clip that flips the light on in Willie’s head. Story about a Klan rally in which a cop and his girlfriend were killed when a bomb exploded under the police car they were “huddling” in. Willie learns the identities of the two cops who investigated this killing. One of them was still alive, barely, but when Willie confronts him he essentially admits to what he knows happened. There are other revelations that tell us, and Willie, why no one wanted to open the can of worms involving Artie Lee’s suspicious death.
As the Bard titled one of “his” plays, All’s Well That Ends Well. Not sure the ending of Evergreen is as well as some of us might like, but it does end. Definitively.
When Faulkner said the past isn’t even past,” Willie muses, “he must have been thinking about Richmond in general and my own tangled life in particular. Everywhere I go, history jumps out of the bushes and nips at my heels.”

Image may contain: one or more people
Klan march several blocks from Virginia State Capitol, circa 1925
Have I said I’ll probly read the other six Willie Black tales? Either way, I’m removing the “probly,” and letting the rest stand.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]