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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: nabokov (page 1 of 2)

Cynicism

Nabokov succinctly captures the two sides of cynicism–one jaded and pessimistic, the other selfish and contemptuous–in the person of the sadistic Axel Rex:

On such occasions Rex could talk endlessly, indefatigably, inventing stories about non-existent friends and propounding reflections not too profound for the mind of his listener and couched in a sham-brilliant form. His culture was patchy, but his mind shrewd and penetrating, and his itch to make fools of his fellow men amounted almost to genius. Perhaps the only real thing about him was his innate conviction that everything that had ever been created in the domain of art, science or sentiment, was only a more or less clever trick. No matter how important the subject under discussion, he could always find something witty or trite to say about it, supplying exactly what his listener’s mind or mood demanded, though, at the same time, he could be impossibly rude and overbearing when his interlocutor annoyed him. Even when he was talking quite seriously about a book or a picture, Rex had a pleasant feeling that he was a partner in a conspiracy, the partner of some ingenious quack–namely, the author of the book or the painter of the picture.

Laughter in the Dark

From Nabokov’s “Inspiration”

Here he selects a couple American stories that he adores and picks a particular passage filled with sine qua non inspiration:

Examples are the stained-glass windows of knowledge. From a small number of A-plus stories I have chosen half-a-dozen particular favorites of mine. T list their titles below and parenthesize briefly the passage– or one of the passages– in which genuine afflation appears to be present, no matter how trivial the inspired detail may look to a dull criticule.

John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” (“Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.” The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.)

John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been” (“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of these Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.” I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.)

J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle . . .” This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.)

Herbert Gold’s “Death in Miami Beach” (“Finally we die, opposable thumbs and all.” Or to do even better justice to this admirable piece; “Barbados turtles as large as children . . . crucified like thieves . . . the tough leather of their skin does not disguise their present helplessness and pain.”)

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (“What is the story’s point? Ambrose is ill. He perspires in the dark passages; candied apples-on-a-stick, delicious-looking, disappointing to eat. Funhouses need men’s and ladies’ rooms at interval.” I had some trouble in pinning down what I needed amidst the lovely swift speckled imagery.)

Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (“. . . and the fatal merciless passionate ocean.” Although there are several other divine vibrations in this story that so miraculously blends an old cinema film with a personal past, the quoted phrase wins its citation for power and impeccable rhythm.)

I have a copy of Gold’s The Man Who Was Not With It lying around unread. I first picked it up after seeing a very mythic photo of Felt’s Lawrence in the early 80s reading it. The book seems to have had multiple great covers, all with the title in huge, imposing type.

Still, the choices seem almost archaic today, or all reminiscent of a time in American short fiction that only has devolved remnants remaining.

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica

Once fully convinced of this astonishing fact, that she was now Emily Bas-Thornton (why she inserted the “now she did not know, for she certainly imagined no transmigrational nonsense of having been any one else before), she began seriously to reckon its implications.

First, what agency had so ordered it that out of all the people in the world who she might have been, she was this particular one, this Emily: born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time, and encased in this particular rather pleasing little casket of flesh? Had she chosen herself, or had God done it?

The sheer oddness of this book really defies summary. The choice of Henry Darger for the cover picture is, as Dan Schank commented, entirely appropriate for this wispy tale of young children on a benevolent pirate ship, and the ensuing lost innocence, etc. But the book pulls in other directions simultaneously; hints of developing sexuality have to contend with the metaphysics of the passage above and one very bizarre murder. And what is one to make of this offhand paragraph?

Mathias shrugged. After all, a criminal lawyer is not concerned with facts. He is concerned with probabilities. It is the novelist who is concerned with facts, whose job it is to say what a particular man did do on a particular occasion: the lawyer does not, cannot be expected to go further than to show what the ordinary man would be most likely to do under presumed circumstances.

The novel throws off odd sparks like this one regularly, and despite the closeness the narration eventually takes to Emily’s inner voice, the narrator asserts himself (and it’s definitely a he) as a separate and adult voice throughout. I can’t come to a general sense of how the child and adult voices mix, but it does appear that the adult narrator is moving towards the same tactile emotional sensitivity that Emily encounters as she moves into adolescence. (She is 10.) So when this paragraph rises up in an otherwise pedestrian scene–

There is a period in the relations of children with any new grown-up in charge of them, the period between first acquaintance and the first reproof, which can only be compared to the primordial innocence of Eden. Once a reproof has been administered, this can never be recovered again.

–the novel seems to have thoroughly inhabited the child’s state of mind, which stretches outward to contort the novel into unreal and fable-like shapes. It may bear a slight resemblance to Nabokov’s darker fairy tales like Despair and Bend Sinister, but mostly its world is its own.

Machine Translation

Among others, The Literary Saloon discusses Wyatt Mason’s article on translation and Proust in The New Republic.

After having spent the better part of four months reading the new Viking/Penguin Proust, and the old Kilmartin/Enright Proust, and the erenow Moncrieff Proust, I will tell you there is no comparing them. No matter the local differences aplenty, the global movements of mind and the quality of vision are undeniably, uniformly there. Reading each from tip to toe, no matter which, one follows Proust’s narrator as he makes his way, “descending to a greater depth within myself”–ourselves. That depth survives in translation, in all the translations, for–however subjective assertions of “goodness” surely are when assessing literary quality–greatness is calculable, irrefutable, inviolable: a great writer survives any translation.

There is, I believe, a Borges essay that refers to the same phenomenon–that works of greatness can survive translation better than lesser pieces of art–but I haven’t been able to locate it. This case is somewhat undermined by the fact that two of the three Proust translations that Mason mentions (the new one and the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright) are strikingly similar, and the third is not very good at all. I’d also direct true believers to Douglas Hofstadter’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which begins:

My uncle, matchless moral model, When deathly ill, learned to make, His friends respect him, bow and coddle– Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.

Whatever has survived, I doubt it’s Pushkin. Maybe you could amend the phrasing to be, “a great writer survives any faithful, competent translation,” but that introduces two subjective adjectives into the equation, of the “I know it when I see it” category.

Consider Jeff Vavosour’s article on computer platform emulation, Back To The Classics: Perfecting The Emulation For Digital Eclipse’s Atari Anthology. The slavishly perfectionist approach of people who write emulators (here’s a remarkable Apple IIgs emulator) is ironic given that many of the early games they’re emulating were themselves extremely loose ports from arcade console games, adapted to the limitations of the hardware. On the difference between ports and emulation, Vavosour artfully writes:

In its most basic approach, emulation is an on-the-fly translator. The analogy I’m fond of is this: In porting, it’s like you took a foreign movie, gave the script to someone fluently bilingual, and got that person to rewrite the script in English. You’d rely on the translator’s appreciation for the nuances of the original language, appreciation for the subtext, the message of the movie, etc. The quality of the product would be entirely a property of the translation effort, and regardless, what is important to one person is not what’s important to another. Some double-entendres and the like just don’t come across, and need to be replaced with something of equal value, or else ditched.

In emulation, you’re watching the original foreign movie, but someone has given you a translating dictionary and all the books on the language’s grammar and nuances. Looking up each word on the fly as it’s spoken, and appreciating all the impact it has, and still being able to follow the movie in real time sounds impossible. It would be, unless you could think about 10 times to 100 times faster than the movie’s pace.

Of course, this is just an analogy, since the goal is to replicate the platform for thousands of games, not port each individual piece of software. But the precision of the platform emulation is still paramount, because every quirk counted:

It really pains me when I read reviews that talk about how appalling it is that our emulation appeared to slow down somewhere, as, for example, one review commented of the smart bomb effect in the N64 version of Defender on Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits, released a few years back. The emulation slowed down because the original game slowed down, and emulation strives to reflect every nuance of the original game. There are often timing nuances and sometimes even original code bugs, which become part of a player’s strategy in playing the arcade game. For a truly authentic experience, every one of these quirks needs to be reproduced.

Do I hear an echo of Nabokov’s famously stringent attitudes toward translation here? There is no tolerance for variation in emulation, and this is because any competent game player’s experience is located in details as small as the ones that Nabokov finds in the rhythms and sounds of words.

Of course, there is no analogue for emulation in literature, unless you can imagine a Russian pseudo-brain hooked into your synapses, translating the myriad nuances of Eugene Onegin into a lingua franca of structured senses, emotions, and images that are exactly those that a Russian reader (any Russian reader!) would have. This would have to be the mythical (and now discarded) deep structure of linguistics.

So as I return to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin Proust now, I have to think of it as being that horrid Apple IIe port of “Pole Position II” that I played back in the early 80’s, standing in the shadow of the majesty of the original console.

Werfel, Zweig, Yesterday, Tomorrow

For Werfel, the decisive things were the emotional aspect, the romantic idea, the lyrical substance–the power of language. He did have a language of his own! Unlike Stefan Zweig, who is simply an intolerably poor writer. Zweig blows himself up, he inflates ideas that he doesn’t even have. Whereas Werfel is prodigal with his ideas but often doesn’t know how to make anything out of them. He was an infinitely greater natural talent than Musil, but Musil is the infinitely more interesting writer. I think I know what Werfel lacked: he hardly ever questioned himself. He could be a Marxist, he could be an anarchist or a conservative, he could be a Catholic–it was all interchangeable, it all depended on the moment’s whim, idea, emotion. That is where Karl Kraus’s evil eye did, after all, see the truth: while writing was a necessity for Werfel, while he had the urge to express, what he then wrote–the actual message–was totally interchangeable. Werfel pulled himself under, time and again. That was a talent of a great writer who destroyed himself.

Hans Mayer (from Peter Stephan Jungk’s Franz Werfel)

Where to begin? Hans Mayer is an interesting, obscure (at least to me) figure by himself: a quasi-Marxist critic in the line of Lukacs who broke with the orthodoxy before it turned inward on itself; a more plainspoken sort who is still dedicated to analyzing literature in a Marxist context.

While it removes him from the heavily theoretical line of Adorno to Jameson and onward, Mayer was still far more aggressively radical than someone like Irving Howe, a liberal who loved his milieu too much to question its precepts. I like Howe, but many of his essays seem as much relics as their time as Lionel Trilling’s, as compared to Gore Vidal’s literary essays of the same period (50’s and 60’s), which seek out extremes that Howe shunned. Perhaps the closest American analogue for Mayer is Morris Dickstein, a theorist who wants books to work and succeed, who is always subjugating his own essayistic practice to that of those who he prizes most highly: the great writers of fiction. But here, he treats two writers (Werfel and Zweig) whose lives bore them out more than their fiction did.

Yet Mayer damns Werfel and Zweig in this passage for entirely different reasons. Stefan Zweig is dismissed for being a weak thinker, while Werfel is criticized for thinking too much, in too many directions, such that it paralyzed his writing. Both writers met with a good deal more success than Musil, Zweig for a long series of popular biographies, Werfel for all sorts of things, particularly two long but well-written potboilers where, indeed, the lyricism takes over.

But I think he dismisses Zweig too quickly. Zweig was a frail mortal amongst the giants of his age: Broch, Mann, Kraus, Musil, Canetti. His autobiography, The World of Yesterday, differs from Elias Canetti’s memoirs of Vienna in the 20’s, in that Zweig lacks Canetti’s ego. Zweig’s book is suffused with the knowledge that he could not match the minds around him; while he could (and did) meet with popular success, there is never the hint of the visionary about him. His works dispatch small ideas efficiently; his novella The Royal Game is considerably more compact than Nabokov’s The Defense in dealing with the theme of chess-as-obsession. While Werfel throws himself at ideas and produces pages upon pages, Zweig approaches them tentatively and knows when to finish. (Accusations of inflated ideas seem inflated.)

Zweig and Werfel have similar places in my mind; neither of them is on a par with the best of their time, and the works of both have a small spark that keeps them vivid in my memory. Werfel may have been more heat than light, but the heat has not survived. Yet Zweig wrote a humble autobiography in which he looks backward quietly, and called it The World of Yesterday (DIE WELT VON GESTERN), which Werfel could never have done. Yesterday seems to have been all Zweig had at that point; having fled to Brazil from Europe, despondent over the war and unable to envision a new life for himself or for Europe, which he claimed had destroyed itself, he committed suicide.

Werfel, productive to the end, survived the war and two heart attacks. He was planning out several future projects and living the good life in Hollywood when he died in 1945. His endless ideas were at least as good to him as they were to his work.

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