Nabokov Vladimir

Love Stories (Everyman Pocket Classics)

I think there’s something pretty crass about themed collections of stories. Surely the subject matter is the least interesting aspect of a piece of fiction? At the same time, however, it can be interesting to observe how tried (and tired) themes are dealt with by different writers. And there is also the analytical aspect, of seeing one person’s choices on the subject, feeling or feigning outrage at the omissions, and perhaps discovering new voices. Here, the reliable Everyman’s Library follow their recent Christmas Stories and Ghost Stories collections with the widest and riskiest theme of all: Love Stories.

Like Christmas Stories, Love Stories is edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, and it doesn’t hurt that it is a handsome volume, a solid little hardback with fully sewn cloth binding and a ribbon bookmark. The contents, for the most part, are equally impressive, and hardly any are traditional ‘love stories’ in the soppy sense of the term.

Tesdell is unafraid to challenge the reader, so the second story in the collection (after a short overture by Maupassant, ‘Clair de Lune’) is Italo Calvino’s ‘Blood, Sea’ from t-zero, the second of his Cosmicomics collections. Calvino admirers will recognise that book as one of his most rigorous, narrated by the immortal being Qwfwq and containing fictions based on scientific suppositions, and ‘Blood, Sea’ is filled with ideas, long sentences, characters who are not really characters, and intellectual delight. At the other end of the difficulty scale is Roald Dahl’s ‘Mr Botibol’, one of his underrated adult stories (though not one of his best), about a lonely man who “resembled, to an extraordinary degree, an asparagus” and who finds some sort of happiness in imagination and music.

Among recent favourites on this blog, I was delighted to see the inclusion of Tobias Wolff’s ‘Lady’s Dream’ (one of his best very short stories), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Temporary Matter’, which was praised by readers here last year when I wrote about Lahiri’s new collection, and which I was eager to read as a result. With its unsentimental detail and neatly surprising ending which stops short of tricksiness, it did not disappoint.

This lack of sentimentality is a welcome recurring theme. One of the stories, Dorothy Parker’s ‘Here We Are’, indeed is so non-slushy that it also features in Penguin Classics’ own Valentine money-spinner, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, which is themed around ‘love quarrels’. Parker’s story, of a recently married couple’s conversation as they go on honeymoon, is one of the highlights of the book, with its laconic expressiveness (“there was a silence with things going on in it”), wordplay (“‘Well, I’m not so sure I’m not sorry I didn’t,’ she said”) and blithe cynicism:

‘Everything was so mixed up, I sort of don’t know where I am, or what it’s all about. Getting back from the church, and then all those people, and then changing all my clothes, and then everybody throwing things, and all. Goodness, I don’t see how people do it every day.’

‘Do what?’ he said.

‘Get married,’ she said. ‘When you think of all the people, all over the world, getting married just as if it was nothing. Chinese people and everybody, just as if it wasn’t anything.’

Parker is one of a handful of names in the book whom I’d always meant to read but never had. Another, more prominent, was Lorrie Moore, whose stories are regularly cited (along with the likes of William Trevor, who also features here, and Alice Munro, who doesn’t) as being examples of the best of the art. Her story ‘Terrific Mother’ is the longest here at 44 pages, and makes it obvious why she’s so highly regarded. Her style is for sentence-by-sentence detail, with black wit (“Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact”), or some surprising expression in almost every paragraph. ‘Terrific Mother’ is about a woman who accidentally killed one of her friend’s children, and now is struggling to re-enter life (“You don’t understand,” she said. “Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now”). There are times when this relentless artificial brilliance risks the story looking more like a Swarovski crystal than a diamond, but there is no denying Moore’s facility, and for me a purchase of her recently published Collected Stories can’t be far off. (Then again, even after one story I could see why Adam Mars-Jones Observed that Moore’s relentless humour is “closer to a compulsion than a talent.”)

Another revelation was Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Dead Mabelle’, about a man obsessed with a movie star.

She had an unusual way with her, qualities overlapped strangely; in that black-and-white world of abstractions she alone moved in a blur. Each movement, in unexpected relation to the movements preceding it, outraged a preconception. William sat with an angry, disordered feeling as though she were a rising flood and his mind bulrushes. She had a slow, almost diffident precision of movement; she got up, sat down, put out a hand, smiled, with a sparklingly mournful air of finality, as though she were committing herself, and every time William wanted to rise in his seat and say, ‘Don’t, don’t – not before all these people!’

When she dies, he finds he has “no power of being.” The story also has a lovely ending, an essential quality for a short story, you might have thought, but surprisingly rare still. So step further up my to-be-read pile, Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart.

It’s not just about revisiting old friends, or discovering new delights (the book is like a mail order catalogue in that sense). A collection like this is also an opportunity to cement one’s prejudices, as against T.C. Boyle (glib and forced), D.H. Lawrence (super-sincere and utterly humourless) and William Trevor (just… not that great). In addition, the story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ enabled me to affirm my lifelong indifference to the works of Margaret Atwood.

This volume, clearly intended for the Valentine gift market, is one I shall be keeping for myself. One niggle is the lack of biographical detail of the authors. While it’s true that most don’t require this – Fitzgerald, Marquez, Katherine Mansfield, Ali Smith even – I would have liked to be ‘reminded’ about Colette, and to know more (ie anything) about Yasunari Kawabata, whose story ‘Immortality’ is the shortest and one of the most striking here. Perhaps we’re not supposed to seek such detail, and to take the tales on trust. Love is blind.

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin

Many writers have one book which is much better known than anything else they have written, and which overshadows all their other work. Often, to me – say, with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller or Evelyn Waugh – it’s the wrong book which is best known. Not so, though, with Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita outshines anything else I’ve read by him, until finally I decided (via the likes of Despair, Laughter in the Dark, and King, Queen, Knave) that anything pre-Lolita was an apprentice work unworthy of consideration. That’s going too far, but it led me to concentrate on his few post-Lolita novels when exploring him further.

Pnin was published two years after Lolita, in 1957. (Next, in 1962, would come Pale Fire, the only Nabokov I’ve read which comes close to Lolita.) The first question to consider is whether it’s a novel at all. Four chapters of the book – more than half its length – were published as individual stories in The New Yorker, and Nabokov – astonishing to think of it – had trouble placing it with publishers, who considered a mere “collection of sketches”. Nabokov denied this, though was unsure whether he could assert it to be a novel (“I do not know whether it is or not”), settling only on its being “a complete work, whatever label be attached to it.”

That we can agree on. Pnin is a complete work, with unity of character provided by its sympathetic comic protagonist, Professor Timofey Pnin.

He taught Russian at Waindell College, a somewhat provincial institution characterized by an artificial lake in the middle of a landscaped campus, by ivied galleries connecting the various halls [and] by murals displaying the recognisable members of the faculty in the act of passing on the torch of knowledge from Aristotle, Shakespeare and Pasteur to a lot of monstrously built farm boys and girls.

Like Nabokov, he has come to America via Russia (“his father, Dr Pavel Pnin, an eye specialist of considerable repute, had once had the honour of treating Leo Tolstoy for a case of conjunctivitis”) and Germany; unlike Nabokov, his English is poor (“if his Russian was music, his English was murder”), and he has a habit of getting into humorous scrapes. Like many Nabokov characters, he is a martyr to insomnia. “He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying to the two he has.”

We are treated to episodes in the life of Pnin and those around him, in which Pnin appears well-meaning but misled, intuitive but confused, trying to fit in to the American way of life.

In the beginning Pnin was greatly embarrassed by the ease with which first names were bandied about in America: after a single party, with an iceberg in a drop of whisky to start and with a lot of whisky in a little tap water to finish, you were supposed to call a grey-templed stranger ‘Jim’, while he called you ‘Tim’ for ever and ever. If you forgot and called him the next morning Professor Everett (his real name to you) it was (for him) a terrible insult.

In the course of these vignettes, Pnin takes the wrong train and rents a room in a colleague’s home, and encounters his ex-wife (whose son’s story provides one of the most satisfying chapters). It is clever, funny, elegantly Nabokovian and beautifully written (with plenty of Nabokov’s speciality of what we might call portmanteau sentences, packing more in than should really be possible). At the same time I wondered if that was all there was to it. I needn’t have worried. Like Lolita and Pale Fire, Pnin turns out to be as much about its narrator as about its subject. An early clue comes when one of the beautifully written sentences is so ‘beautifully written’ that it’s downright ugly:

An elliptical flock of pigeons, in circular volitation, soaring grey, flapping white, then grey again, wheeled across the limpid, pale sky, above the College Library.

Surely Nabokov would never stoop to such lazy ornamentation? Then we notice times when the ostensibly omniscient narrative pauses to offer opinions on characters (“…Dr Eric Wind, a completely humourless pedant…”) and that the word I crops up more and more often.

This turns the narrative on its head. The book is still about the same things – belonging, fitting in – but now from a different viewpoint, with more hostility than hospitality. The narrator – who comes into full view in the last chapter – bears certain similarities to our author. The reader is left to determine what reliance can be placed on his portrait of Pnin, and to tussle with the usual problems of a narrator with a vested interest. We must accept some of what he says, otherwise we are playing tennis without a net. But is it brilliance or convenience when Nabokov – known for his coolness of style, of lording it over his people (“My characters are galley slaves”) – creates a narrator who coolly lords it over his people? Or when we trust that the overwrought prose was consciously so, and not attributed thus after the event? In the end it is a question of trust, and we give the benefit of the doubt to those writers in whom we have faith. Nabokov for me is still one of those. The author remains reliable, even when the narrator is not.