July 24, 2012

Narrators and News

This week I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The only other book of his I have read is Lolita. Pnin is about Russian Professor Pnin, an unlikely lecturer at a minor American university, first published in 1953. Nabokov died in 1977.

I read it because I kept seeing references to Nabokov as “master prose stylist”—I quote from the back of the recent Vintage (Random House) edition. It’s a short book and I read it over a couple of weeks, which is slow for me, studying the style. I think I get it; it’s discursive, with a Narrator who carefully describes his relationship to Pnin at the end of the book and gets inside Pnin's head. A random example:

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request.

The urgent request was from a squirrel wanting someone to activate the drinkng fountain in the park where Pnin was walking. Pnin is both funny and tragic.

Coincidentally I’ve read another book lately that has a narrator who is also a character; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I was surprised at how short it is, almost a novella. Nick is a character with a strong narrator role, and he’s an interesting side-line to the main story of the nouveau-riche Gatsby, a high-liver, bound to self-destruct. A book of flappers and car crashes, as the man who wrote the annoying Introduction says. This is one of those books I am glad to have read because it gets referred to often.

Teju Cole’s Open City is a book I heartily recommend to everyone. Written in the first person it’s a novel set largely in New York, with a side trip to Brussels. Julian is from Nigeria, a psychiatrist, registrar in a New York hospital, and he walks in the city. There’s no plot to speak of and few other characters. It’s like a riff on modern life, and is described on the cover as, “A meditation on history and culture, identity and solitude,” which is close enough. The detail—what Julian notices—is often original and the reflections on modern life and experiences thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s not at all hard to read and I think everyone should read it. Nice writing, nothing fancy, does the job extremely well. One example of many, many possible examples:
… there isn't anything that immunizes us from a plague of one kind or another … we are just as susceptible as any of those past civilisations were, but we are especially unready for it. Even in the way we speak about what little has happened to us, we have already exhausted ourselves with hyperbole.
 It’s three weeks since my last blog entry, so I have a FAIL on my resolution to write in here weekly. So be it, no gnashing of teeth. I’ll see if I can Do Better.

Two pieces of writerly news have made the major media in the last twenty-four hours. The first is intriguing: the discover of some previously unknown Katherine Mansfield stories which have the pundits out in force. The second is sad: the death of Margaret Mahy. Her wonderful books are not, of course, lost to us but her eccentric presence is; there's an empty space in New Zealand’s cultural world. 

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