Two Views of Understanding, from Nabokov to Salinger

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, describing the nature of understanding a piece of writing:

In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.

Now here’s an excerpt from a priceless anecdote in Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters:

“That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?”

Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.”

When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

Are these attitudes in conflict? Probably. But they’re both useful. Both of them constitute an appraisal of real understanding of a work of art — as opposed to knowing what it’s supposed to be about, what its message or gimmick is, instead sensing what animates the organism.

I think a reconciliation of these two attitudes is in a central idea that your job as a reader is not to understand what a work intends or aspires to be, especially not what it’s regarded as, or what its place is in a canon — instead, your goal is to understand what it is. This requires the sheer sensory openness Nabokov prescribes, seeing color and gesture, and it requires the natural fascination with the whole work’s life force that we see in Salinger’s anecdote.

In other words, move past what a work is supposed to be, to what it is. A good example of this is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, since ostensibly it’s a pure meditation on life’s futility or nobility. That’s its reputation or its apparent significance as a collection of words. But for one thing, pay attention to the details of the scene. One, Ophelia is positioned aside reading a book and trying to look serious per Polonius’s order; two, Polonius and Claudius are listening in; and three, the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy (“…And lose the name of action. Soft you now, the fair Ophelia…”) grades without apparent surprise into Ophelia’s discovery. Now for another thing, what are the motions of the whole work? As with the details, the play so far is one big jest where Hamlet leads on the entire court. And this must be a continuation of that conceit. The soliloquy isn’t a work of lyricism in itself — it has qualifiers in itself, and it’s a curious organ in a larger work.

Some combination of the sense of detail and the sense of structure or soul is necessary in a great reader. Nabokov is more strictly right than Salinger, in that an eye for detail is the foundation of all true kinds of appreciation, but Nabokov is also, tellingly, a narrower writer than some more intuitive and less rigorous types like a Tolstoy, say. But the fine sense leads to the larger sense, I think, because sensitivity is such a richly generalizable faculty.

The Tragedy of Inspiration: Nabokov’s “Christmas Story”

May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nabokov has a very clever short story, The Christmas Story, about an early-Soviet-era Russian writer whose legacy is in doubt, who is filled with insecurity about his talents and his career and the young upstart writers encroaching on him. The idea is that he, the critic, and the other, younger writer in the story are between them all wrapped up in the preordained concerns of careerist Soviet writers, whose work is bound, in its limitedness, to the state.

But this writer, Novodvortsev, doesn’t know his concerns are circumscribed. At the end of the story, he sits down to write a trite classism exercise about a “hungry worker” looking in on an opulent Christmas display through a window — classic Noel-sploitation. And the warmth of inspiration Novodvortsev derives from doing this, and the pleasure of his craft in the writing, are unblemished. His imagination and memory haunt him like any other writer, but they lead him to inferior scribblings:

He skipped back to the Christmas-tree image, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, remembered the parlor of a merchant family’s house, a large volume of articles and poems with gilt-edged pages (a benefit edition for the poor) somehow connected with that house, the Christmas tree in the parlor, the woman he loved in those days, and all of the tree’s lights reflected as a crystal quiver in her wide-open eyes when she plucked a tangerine from a high branch. It had been twenty years ago or more—how certain details stuck in one’s memory….

With triumphal agitation, sensing that he had found the necessary, one-and-only key, that he would write something exquisite, depict as no one had before the collision of two classes, of two worlds, he commenced writing. He wrote about the opulent tree in the shamelessly illuminated window and about the hungry worker, victim of a lockout, peering at that tree with a severe and somber gaze.

My selection for this blog can’t capture the whole of the story, but I wish to extract only a single point: this hack writer’s creative process is just like a great writer’s. He proceeds from an image, a recollection, an impression or sensation that is bright and limpid, to a concrete story, a plot and a character, that give structure to his inspiration.

But Novodvortsev is not a good writer, and his final product, the titular Christmas story, is a cold plume of ash compared to the initial flicker of inspiration.

I don’t like extrapolating from the contrivances of a piece of writing to the complexities of real life. But I think this small sliver of observation, which I’ve tried to excise without interpretation, is true. We have almost nothing to go on when we write but what we dream of, what inspires us, and what pleasures we feel in teasing out our inspirations as concrete words. The product may be great, or terrible, but the pleasure is the same.

This is the fraught downside to the famous romantic upside of genius: the image of a near-mad scribbler whose imagination takes flight, the product of whose frenzy is inevitably good. In another, lesser writer, the feeling of soaring, the frenzy, the glow of heat and pride, are all just as strong, but the product isn’t.

This is why so many people who have studied learning and the development of skill and talent (think Malcolm Gladwell and Outliers and work of that ilk) find the notion of genius so dangerous, as do I. The work a genius does to get better is the same as the work a mediocrity does to get better: inspiration, deliberation, practice, pride. And that’s why these same scholars generally recommend we recognize the importance of hard work. The only accuracy and objectivity and fairness of perception available to a writer in the thick of their craft is the short-term comparison: is this better than the last thing I wrote? Novodvortsev’s tragic flaw here, I think, is a lack of self-awareness — he doesn’t realize the familiarity of what he does. On the other hand, if he trained his sense of pleasure to prickle when he knew he was bettering himself, challenging himself, diverging from himself, he wouldn’t have been happy settling on his trusted “hungry worker”.

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