Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya

Dear me.

I here recount my most literary evening, while still fresh, enticed as I was to it by the synchronicity of a publication party for Edmund Wilson's biographer, Lewis Dabney, and a discussion at Columbia University of "Lolita at 50" empanelling Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), Alfred Appel Jr. (The Annotated Lolita), and Stacy Schiff (Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).

The former event, at Gotham BookMart, was a first for me; saw many familiar faces there, not counting the staff -- they've earned a loyal (and bookloving) clientele -- and was glad to be counted among these regulars (even though I'm more ir-). I'm not the sort that mixes particularly well, but everyone was at their ease, making things easy, and so easily I transgressed, if slightly: Introducing myself to Mr. Dabney, I mention how my interest in Wilson derives from that in Nabokov, just as Terry Quinn comes by -- and I describe my evening in the same terms as this post is titled, blissfully unaware that he had adapted the letters for the stage (and performed same, as had Dmitri Nabokov in the centennial festival in '99). (oops.) Later, Dabney notes for all that Gotham BookMart features twice in the biography: once when, at Wilson's behest, proprietress Frances Steloff diverted her rent to save Dos Passos' farm, and later when Wilson met Anais Nin on the premises to then-present wife Mary McCarthy's slightly-panged annoyance.

So. Up to Columbia, for Lolita at 50. I'd never been, but the nearest stair up from the subway put me at the door of the Miller Theatre. Pick up the ticket, grab a quick coffee, then on to the grounds for a quick cigarette, where I'm asked the only directions I know, to the Miller Theatre. Near-full house. NYT's Bill Goldstein introduces the panel and reads an email from Dmitri for the occasion, then asks about publishing history of Lolita to get things started. Nafisi speaks of the sensuousness of the language, the color it evokes, which Appel seconds, noting the landscape painter behind the words, exampled in pp152-3*. Appel was the only one present who knew Nabokov personally, relating how mischievous the latter was (like a grammar-school best friend adept at making you laugh at the proceedings); Appel had himself been infected, and stole the show with lecture tricks undiminished since his retirement from teaching. (Not to say that Nafisi and Schiff didn't enter into this same spirit.) Added to which, the Nabokovian twist, that some thought Appel an invention of Nabokov, a persistent problem even his nephew encountered in the mid-eighties. Much of the talk was familiar ground to me; the false salaciousness, the solipsism; how the art took precedence (and Vera's husbandry of it), how seemingly quotidian detail was teased into new shape by fresh eyes, the incorporation of pop-culture, of slapstick ... Humbert the attractive monster, one you root for like the proantagonist in gangster movies ... While Appel and Schiff counted Lolita and Speak, Memory as favorites (Schiff Pale Fire as well), Nafisi said she was more "promiscuous with books", but that Lolita was the most ... exceptional, the most daring, even for Nabokov. Then, on to the Q&A -- someone asked about voice, I followed up with a question about, given how the panel had described how Nabokov's language makes the ordinary extraordinary, how this differs from poshlust's extraordinary ordinariness, just in the packaging? but I couldn't make the delivery, as I am physically averse to speaking in crowds, so stumbled over adrenaline ... but all was erased by the next questioner, a New Jersey highschool student and self-proclaimed top Nafisi fan, who said that his school wouldn't allow work on Lolita but had assigned Reading Lolita in Tehran! After Nafisi's response, Appel brought out part of what drives such irony: fashion pages from the (woman-edited) Elle ('91) and the NYT mag ('93) pandering to the Lolita look, the objectification that Nabokov's novel denounces. Appel closes with describing to us, as he had to Nabokov, how an unpromising student had shown his gut appreciation for the pp152-3 passage, how it took him to road trips with his father, since deceased, and how that passage would stay with him -- and how Nabokov took this, as praise higher than any critic could bestow.

Nabokov brings me back to Gotham; recently induced me to indulge in everything Gotham had in stock by Cees Nooteboom, who in Rituals invokes shades of Pale Fire (my favorite book, my Lit. 202); an early reference to Nova Zembla put all systems on alert, and the bird flew in the following passage:
... There the third dove appeared to him, and it did something he had never yet seen a dove do: it created a work of art, for which,as is fitting, it was prepared to make a great sacrifice. With tremendous force it flew straight at Bender's store window, behind which the grand pianos and harpsicords stood waiting motionlessly for future geniuses. It caused a loud bang. For a moment it looked as if the bird was stuck to the glass for good. But, to avoid crashing to the ground, it fluttered desparately in place and then flew off like an airplane out of control. What remained was a work of art, for just above the head level on the windowpane, there appeared in street dust the perfect shape of a dove in flight, feather by feather, with outspread wings. The crash had imprinted the dove's incorporeal double on the glass.
What was it these doves were trying to tell him? He did not know, but decided that this latest sibyllic communication, prophecy, warning, could be no truly sinister portent. After all, unlike its dead colleague, this dove had, unsteadily, flown away into the azure sky, leaving behind only its spirit, albeit in the form of dust.

Much more than a shadow of the waxwing slain. (This book also prompted me to pick up Kawabata's Thousand Cranes this past evening, as Wilson's Shock of Recognition pointed me to Cummings' The Enormous Room.) And, on the train home, I reach the halfway point of Nooteboom's The Following Story, with Part 2 epigraphed by the end of Nabokov's Transparent Things:
This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death, but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another. Easy, you know, does it, son.

* a couple pages farther on in my edition

Addendum (21Sep): Lopate adds to what Yardley and Toibin said about Dabney's bio, and what Menand said about Wilson. About Pale Fire I'll have more to say presently, but then, I always will.


Blogger Nellmezzo said...

Nnyhav, you are such a poet.

I share your physical aversion to public speaking. Not always but it hits me unpredictably. Next time it does, when I squeak instead of speak, I'm going to remember what you said and feel proud of the debility.

Marvelous blog. Beautiful.

20/9/05 10:04  

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