Monday, November 14, 2011

Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov's Negation of Time

          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.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Essays in Love: The Emotional Spectrum

            A friend suggested I read Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love, and I’m in the process of doing so now. When I began reading, I assumed it was nonfiction, but Essays in Love is actually a mix of nonfiction and fiction. It spans over the course of a single affair and moves between a philosophical perspective on love and the actual act, and progression, of being in love.

            Obviously, it has me thinking about love.

            I rarely think of love as it relates to myself. More often I am mentally critiquing the entire world for their childish idealization of a single emotion, and questioning why love is so overrated while other emotional experiences –  such as depression, grief, and whatever you would call that feeling you get when you’re in the middle of laughing –  are so rarely discussed in the positive, celebratory light that they deserve.

            I have recently experienced a new emotion. Allow me to explain:

            Three years ago, my grandmother died. She was very old, the cause of her death was very common, and we had been very close. Directly after her death, I was somewhat surprised to find that I regarded her new lack of life with little more than apathy. I stood by strictly as an observer when my family grieved her loss. During this time, I solaced myself by deciding that I was simply more rational than most people. Death is inevitable, she lived a great life – why grieve something when you knew it was going to happen, and when it happened in the most ideal way possible?

            In short, I thought I had skipped the stages of grief and dashed right to ‘acceptance.’

            Roughly two weeks ago, I was in bed, thinking whatever thoughts one thinks before sleep, when a wave of emotion overwhelmed me. I cannot recall why I had the initial thought of my grandmother, or what had stirred this thought to emergence – only that for three years I had not missed her, and suddenly I was a sobbing mess, alone in a dark room, panicking because I could not bring a clear image of her face into my mind. A realization so obvious it surely cannot be accurately coined a realization, and yet that’s what it was, dawned on me:

            She is never coming back. No matter how much time passes, or how often I think of her, she will not come back.

            I had been in denial, unable to grieve because my subconscious hadn’t accepted that she was gone, for three years.

            One part of me was experiencing the act of mourning for the first time. This part was consumed in the inescapable grief, a prisoner shackled to the moment. Another part of me, however, watched as an intrigued observer, more interested in this previously-unfelt emotion than anything else. So this is grief, the part thought excitedly, and took note.

            Afterwards, I pondered over the dual-emotional state that new experiences induce. There is the new emotion one experiences, and also the excitement felt simply because one is feeling something new. Sometimes, but not always, the excitement is contradictory to the new emotion, and yet both can lurk simultaneously in the same vessel. Fascinating.

            It made me think of the usefulness of all emotions. With experience (which comes with time/age), one’s emotional spectrum broadens. This is something for all of us to look forward to, namely for two reasons: 1. Experiencing new things is neat and fun. 2. Feeling new emotions allows us to connect with more people, almost in the way learning a new language does. For example, I have now felt grief, so I can relate to grievers in a way I previously could not.

            Perhaps this explains the egocentrism of children: Their emotional spectrums are more limited than ours, so they are unable to be empathetic. For example, they do not know what it feels like to be late for work, or to fail a test, or to hold the hand of a romantic partner, so they are unable to fully connect with a person who does.

            Now let’s go back to love.

            I have never experienced romantic love – the act of being in love, as it has been described to me. I cannot decide if this is because people have idealized love so much that it is impossible to obtain, because that which has been described to me does not actually exist. There’s also the fact that there’s no one around to fall in love with, really, and the fact that I find so many other things vastly more interesting and worthy of my time. Why settle for love when you can hungrily pursue the entirety of the emotional spectrum?

            And yet, there is obviously some part of me that is curious, or else I would not be writing this. I am not interested in being in love, and yet whenever ‘love’ is mentioned I am filled with yearning. Yearning for what, precisely?

            There was a scene in Essays in Love in which the narrator and the woman he loves go out to dinner, and talk. This is what filled me with yearning.

            I once read about a study in which it was found that people enjoy talking to strangers more than they do with their long time lovers, and it was decided that this is because people put more effort into talking with strangers than they do with those they are familiar and comfortable with. In other words, good conversations are produced by people who are in a state of arousal, or “on edge.”

            So I would like to meet a new person and speak to them. But why should we be in love? Because when you are in love, the oddities of the other person seem endlessly seductive (also mentioned in Essays in Love). You “find perfection in everything [they] utter.” This sounds like a great way to have a conversation! I love the thought of loving someone else, and having them love me, and consequently we find everything the other person is saying infinitely interesting, and we are sitting opposite each other in a restaurant, and we a discussing Life and Death and God and Beauty, and we are leaning towards each other because we wish to suck the words right from the other’s lips, because we feel uncannily connected, because we are experiencing something utterly transcendental in nature…

            I am not sure if I want to be in love, or if I just want to converse, and I am not sure if these two things are the same, or if the latter is not an intrinsic facet of the former. But with new experiences I will find out. And my emotional spectrum with broaden because of it.