Category Archives: Nabokov

In Which Jason is Not Interviewed by The New York Times

I’m under deadline to finish writing an 8,000-word short story and a 12,000-word plenary talk cum essay, so today I’m going to perform the time-honored writerly tradition of procrastination and answer a bunch of interview questions instead.

The questions in question (ahem) come from this interview with Neil Gaiman by the New York Times Sunday Book Review (feel free to read Neil’s answers, as they’re guaranteed to be better than mine). The New York Times did not, in fact, interview me, although for the rest of this blog entry I will pretend that they did. Enjoy.

1. What book is on your night stand now?

I just finished re-reading The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my quest to read all of the man’s published fiction in two years. This ur-Lolita should be judged on its own merits, but it is nigh impossible to do so; the shadow of Lolita (the book, not the girl) looms largest over all Nabokov’s fiction, and takes many of the plot points from The Enchanter and lets them breathe, lets them happen more naturally. My complete impressions of the book (such as they are) can be found here.

Also included on the night stand: Deathbird Stories (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Harlan Ellison, Kafkaesque edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan, June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, and Paradise Tales by Geoff Ryman. (A lot of short stories in that list, I’m just now realizing.)

This of course does not count the around sixty ebooks purchased on or for my NOOK, which are patiently waiting for me to get to them.

2. When and where do you like to read?

I’ve had the habit, since I was in middle school or thereabouts, of reading for at least an hour every night before bed. And in the 25 years since, I’ve more or less kept to this pattern. As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, reading helps my mind to calm down after a sensory-intensive day, and is one of the top activities in which I recharge my overloaded introverted brain. I know that I’ll be able to do so uninterrupted for a decent stretch of time, which aids in the relaxation, and gets my body ready for sleep.

This does occasionally backfire with particularly exciting novels that keep me up into the wee hours. But it’s a risk worth taking.

I love to read during the day as well, in pretty much any location in which I’m left alone, but this is difficult with an exuberant two-year-old running around the house or insisting I join her for a tea party or to solve jigsaw puzzles. If I can snatch a few minutes of reading time during daylight hours, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

3. What was the last truly great book you read?

I recently finished reading The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and it blew me away. The premise of a politically-reversed world, wherein the United Arab States have been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and in response invade the Christian States of America, turns the entire War on Terror on its head. A riveting thought experiment, and a highly enjoyable fast-paced thriller.

I also quite enjoyed Lewis Shiner’s short novel Dark Tangos, which begins as an exploratory love story and then turns much darker (including a scene of meticulously described torture, which forced me to keep reading into the wee hours so that I could get past it, in order to avoid nightmares). Shiner’s evocation of Buenos Aires and his love of tango make this an incredibly compelling narrative, even, and especially, during the less “exciting” parts.

Some excellent essay collections by fiction authors I already love: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, all of which I recommend.

But probably at the top of the most recent books I’ve read would have to be Nabokov’s exquisitely absurd Invitation to a Beheading, which sings with all of the things I’ve come to love about his writing. From my overly enthusiastic and loquacious impressions of the book:

O, what a riotously lovely piece of literature! I realize that Nabokov eschews any kind of Kafkaesque influence, but he and Kafka were clearly drinking from the same narrative well in this case. Our protagonist (with the mellifluous moniker of Cincinnatus C.) knows from the beginning the aspects of falsity and absurdity in the world he both inhabits and feels profoundly apart from. Convicted of the epistemological crime of “gnostical turpitude” (in other words, “depraved knowledge”) and sentenced to punitive decapitation, our dear narrator, who seems, on occasion, to psychologically split himself in twain, exists in a state of stultifying stasis, unaware of his execution date or his executioner, until both are revealed toward the end of the book. His reactions to the increasingly bizarre and hermetically implausible events that surround his impending death—largely consisting of his interactions with his unfaithful profligate of a wife, the prison guard, the warden, Cincinnatus’s lawyer, and his neighbor in the next cell—further illustrate his complete frustration with trying to apply logic in an illogical world, a theme Kafka was also quite fond of exploring.

4. Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m pretty firmly in the fiction camp for pleasure reading, of the “paraliterary” variety; most non-fiction to me either feels like work or research for my writing (which is another form of work). The main exceptions to this rule are essays by writers of which I’m already a fan (such as the ones mentioned above), but I also was recently bowled over by No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo (a collection of his political writings and poetry), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (which I’ve already talked about in this blog), and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (a memoir that mainly covers Fry’s time at Cambridge, when he met fine folks like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson, and immediately afterward, when he started to become successful in television).

I don’t know that I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books. There are writers that I adore and will follow no matter what they write (a list of which is entirely too long to lay out here), but I don’t feel guilty about reading any of them.

5. What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

1984 by George Orwell has had by far the greatest impact on me. It was the first book that completely gutted me as a reader; the first time I read it as a required text in high school, the last line made me burst into tears. Only true art can have such an emotional affect. I wasn’t as keen on the political elements on that first reading, although they made more and more sense to me with each subsequent re-read (and also made me realize how political the entire novel is, from top to bottom). 1984 showed me the power of writing, and planted that seed of discovering just what I wanted to say in my own writing.

I don’t know if any one specific book made me want to write. Since I was little, I’d made up little stories, and even wrote one down when I was around seven years old in ur-chapbook form, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!” about ninjas who steal my mother’s car.

6. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Other than my own? I’m not quite sure how to answer, as I don’t like the idea of “requiring” anybody to read anything. I’m happy to recommend, of course, but what am I going to do, stand over Obama’s shoulder monitoring his eyes’ movements over the page? That said, what I would very much like to see him read is a bound report of all the abuses committed by the Transportation Security Administration since its inception after 9/11, with page after page of humiliating accounts of innocent airline passengers being terrorized by the TSA, in the hopes that such a massive collation of offenses would finally convince him to abolish the agency.

7. What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?

I still vastly prefer books on paper, but more and more and I’m starting to edge into ebook land. After receiving a NOOK for Christmas, I can see the appeal of ebooks, especially if they might be books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep on my shelves after finishing them (like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs), or if they’re books I’d have a hard time finding in Singapore.

I never take notes in books. I’ve worked as both a bookseller and as a librarian, and the thought of marking up the pages in a book with pen or pencil makes me physically shudder. The only times I have broken this rule were for books that I taught in my classes, and even then I did so most grudgingly.

8. Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?

Yes.

9. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, which I stopped at the halfway mark; I found it a difficult, internalized, psychological plod, although I suspect that I might feel differently if I knew thing one about Russian literature. It’s as if, knowing this would be his last major novel written first in Russian (all the ones to follow were originally written in English), he decided to create his love letter to Russian poetry, and to do so in the densest manner possible. I am honestly befuddled by the comments on Goodreads that list it among his top works. It is not surprising at all to me that at the same time as he was writing The Gift, he crafted Invitation to a Beheading, mentioned above; a joyous aside during the creation of such a Serious Work.

10. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

There’s a saying that one should never meet one’s heroes, as they will invariably deflate the image one has constructed from hopes and aspirations, but I really would have liked to meet Philip K. Dick. I didn’t get introduced to his writing until I was in college (more than ten years after he’d died), but there was something in UBIK, and in many of his other novels and short stories, that I strongly related to, mostly the idea that the world we know is an illusion, a fabrication, and that we must realize this basic truth in order to see that we are being manipulated. It’s the basic premise of The Matrix (which owes as much debt to Dick as it does to William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard), and it’s one of the core tenets of Buddhism.

11. What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?

It’s got to be the ten-volume set of graphic novels that comprise Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I was a big fan of Gaiman’s prose writing before I made the plunge into his comics work, but this series is such a massive accomplishment, an epic story told in patient beautiful language that upends our assumptions about storytelling itself. One feels after completing the series a sense that the world is both more terrible and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.

12. What do you plan to read next?

The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson, which is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors pocketbooks series. Terry was one of my instructors at Clarion, and I’ve enjoyed his fiction over the years, but it wasn’t until I jumped the gun and read the interview with him in this small book that I realized what a radical activist he was in his youth, and how those political leanings still inform his character today.

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Filed under Books, Introversion, Nabokov, Reading, Reviewing, Writing

Nabokov Reading Challenge (Updated)

Prior to this year, I had only a passing interest in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. I read Lolita several years ago to see what all the fuss was about, and found myself utterly seduced by Humbert Humbert’s language, and discomfited and disturbed by my empathy for such a charming pedophile. Nabokov challenges all kinds of assumptions of acceptability in that novel, and does it in a way that entrances you, as if putting the reader under an incredible spell for the length of the book.

At that point, I did want to find out more about Nabokov, but got a bit intimidated by the size of his published oeuvre. I had heard of Pale Fire, but many of the other titles were unfamiliar to me, and so I didn’t know where to start, with the result that I didn’t.

Time passed, and then I came across a copy of The Enchanter on the shelves of BooksActually, an exquisitely designed edition with watercolor cover art, and the look of uniform series design (which, when I found other Nabokov titles, turned out to be the case). Penguin had begun reissuing all of Nabokov’s books in 2010 with these beautiful covers and high-quality paper, and I was immediately attracted, much as I had been with the man’s language.

So I bought The Enchanter from Karen at BooksActually (who is also quite the Nabokov fan), took it home, and read an alternate, much shorter version of Lolita, a version that predated that much more famous work, and could almost be thought of as a dry run for it. A version that works on its own merits; the unnamed enchanter is less successful in his attempts to seduce his own nymphette, and comes to a much worse end.

Some time later, on a visit to Kinokuniya, I spotted other Penguin Modern Classics of Nabokov’s titles, and plunged in, steadily filling in the gaps of Nabokov’s bibliography with visits there and back at BooksActually (where the shelves were now more fully stocked). At this point, I’m only missing four books for the full set (Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins!, The Original of Laura, and Strong Opinions). And though the books look beautiful on a bookshelf in their uniform simplicity, I had yet to get to the words inside.

Yesterday, I decided that this was the time, and issued myself a Nabokov Reading Challenge: to read the entire oeuvre in chronological order, starting with Mary. This way, I also get to chart Nabokov’s progression as a writer, and really get a sense of the differences between his books originally written in Russian and those in English.

I started Mary last night, and am already about halfway through it. It’s a short book, and this is a characteristic of much of his Russian writing (with The Gift being a notable exception). I’m hoping that the brevity of a good many of his works will enable me to finish all of them by the end of the year, but I won’t be too strict about this. I do have other books that I want to read, and may intersperse them as well.

I’m also hoping that reading the man’s writing in such a concentrated way will have a subconscious effect on my own writing. I did notice that whilst reading Lolita my own fiction was wittier and more language-conscious; I don’t read writers like Nabokov or Mieville to improve my vocabulary (a sentiment that some of my students actually subscribe to, as if this is all that reading literature is good for), but this tends to be a nice side effect.

So that’s, what, 23 books in just over four months? Certainly possible, though like I said, I’m not pushing it. Anyone want to join me?

Update (31 August): Based on my friend Deirdre’s excellent suggestion, I’ve decided to make this reading challenge more reasonable: instead of cramming 23 books into four months (which may exhaust me and inadvertantly turn me off from Nabokov forever), I’ve decided to read one title per month. Which means that I’ll be done sometime around June 2013, give or take a couple of months. This way, I have an attainable goal, and it allows for the reading of other authors during that time, which I’ll absolutely want to do.

I’ve created a Goodreads group, Nabokov in Two Years, to organize the reading challenge, and hopefully to invite others to participate as well. The group is open, so please join today!

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