I’m currently reading Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov. The summary, from Amazon:
“Invitation to a Beheading embodies a vision of a bizarre and irrational world. In an unnamed dream country, the young man Cincinnatus C. is condemned to death by beheading for "gnostical turpitude." an imaginary crime that defies definition. Cincinnatus spends his last days in an absurd jail … “
When I was a kid I always envisioned writing novels like this one. I loved making short stories in which characters thought and said and did absurd things. I delighted in the strange, and not much has changed.
Nabokov is the ideal writer for dreamlike stories. His characters (I’ve read The Defense and Lolita) have never felt real to me – they’re the fictional characters fictional characters would write about. I never take time to try and relate to them; I spend most of my time being envious of his prose, and the rest appreciating it.
On page 52 of my Vintage International copy:
“Once, when I was a child, on a distant school excursion, when I had got separated from the others – although I may have dreamt it – I found myself, under the sultry sun of midday, in a drowsy little town, so drowsy that when a man who had been dozing on a beach beneath a bright white-washed wall at last got up to help me find my way, his blue shadow on the wall did not immediately follow him. Oh, I know, I know, there must have been some oversight, on my part, and the shadow did not linger at all, but simply, shall we say, it caught on the wall’s unevenness…but here is what I want to express: between his movement and the movement of the laggard shadow – that second, that syncope – that is the rare kind of time in which I live – the pause, the hiatus, when the heart is like a feather…”
This is, for me, exemplary of the dreamlike tone of the book.
I can nearly guarantee Nabokov had a lot of fun while writing. He seems so eager, so singularly devoted to the particular bit of prose currently under my attention. His enthusiasm seeps through the ink on the page and, perhaps as a result, his writing does not pause to consider practicalities.
I write every day, and I know my style, whether it’s good or bad. If I were Nabokov in the above paragraph, I would feel compelled to give the reader a short “intro paragraph” when I jumped into that flashback. I would describe a definitive point in time, a clearly-depicted geographical location, and then delve into the main point of the flashback (being the shadow on the wall, and how it relates to the narrator’s “rare kind of time”). Nabokov does both things at once. The details are given precisely when they are needed, and it results in a bizarre negation of time.
Most authors present a series of facts that grow from one another, connected ideas, facets that make up a scene, the novel’s first sentence being their common ancestor. Nabokov spouts out myriad contingencies, which exuberantly dance along the page, not obligated by any filial connection with previous ideas. Not to say he is random. It’s more like he’s discarded the most basic rules of English composition, or more likely he never absorbed them, since English was his second language (…Amazingly. Yes. I am jealous.).
This negation of time results in what I’m going to call the “Slideshow Effect.” Reading is often described as watching a movie in one’s head, but with Nabokov it’s more like observing a slideshow of urbane photographs – big pictures are presented and make up a story in the long run, but they don’t exactly flow into one another. They pop out.
Images flickering through my head when I read the above paragraph: ‘A child…Oh, now the child’s on a fieldtrip. Oh – now he’s alone. Is he dreaming? Maybe, maybe not. Wait, now there’s a town involved. And now there’s a man – this man is on a beach – this man is on a beach beneath a wall – how is there a wall on a beach?’ There’s usually at least one “photograph” of Nabokov’s that doesn’t fit in my head perfectly, like the wall in this case, but that’s part of his charm. I don’t want to fully understand it. I want the story to skim the tips of my outstretched fingers, leave specific details only partly accessible.
I hope this makes sense, because I think it’s so wonderful and peculiar. Where one writer would say, “Once I was in a town on a school fieldtrip, and I became lost,” Nabokov gives things in the wrong order. “Pop: Child! Pop! Pop! Fieldtrip! Lost! Oh, a town! No, no – beach! Wall! Bam! Pow!” (What am I doing?)
All of this, of course, ignores the aesthetic picture of the shadow that pauses on the wall. If this was an actual photograph it would terrify me, and probably make it into one of those Weird New Jersey books. This is what I meant earlier about Nabokov’s characters not seeming real to me. He never tries to convince the reader for a moment that anything in his world is real. It’s all a hyperbolic reflection of our world. I imagine he started by observing our world and stealing the quirks of people and nature, and then he painted them much prettier than they actually were. In this way Nabokov’s work is the truest work, and he is the most honest writer, because there is not a moment where even a bit of me is going to think his work is real. If writers are liars, Nabokov is the exception.