NABOKV-L post 0018500, Sun, 9 Aug 2009 10:02:23 -0300

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[NABOKOV-L] [REVIEW] Gavriel Shapiro and Nabokov
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Dear List,

I learned that Piza's review of Gavriel Shapiro's book came out before any other in America and I was encouraged to translate it and post it in the List ( I had only sent a few remarks about it and the url address).
So here it is:

Proust e Nabokov: pintura escrita
Proust and Nabokov: written painting
Books analyse the presence and importance of the fine arts in the work of the two geniuses of the word.
Daniel Piza

Literature and painting have always been blood-relatives. Since Dante, whose circles of hell and paradise were turned into a series of frescoes, like Giotto's, and even John Updike, who once stated that a good fiction-writer must know how to draw, the connection between these two art expressions has always been strong. How about Flaubert's books, such as St.Anthony's Temptation, without the painting-collection he harbored in his memory? Joseph Conrad considers that the function of literature is "to make people see" - something that is quite different from "showing" it. Even a painter like William Turner would agree with Conrad's definition. Diderot, Gogol, Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde wrote extensively about art, as also did the Brazilian Mario de Andrade; Thomas Bernhard wrote an extraordinary novel called "Old Masters" ( which deserves to be translated in Brazil), about Tician; Balzac, on Poussin, wrote "The Forgotten Chef-d´Oeuvre". John Banville was inspired in Bonnard to write "The Sea". I will not expand in the opposite direction, from Doré to Picasso, passing through Goeldi (Dostoievsky) or Portinari (Quixote), because the illustration of the literary classics has never been despised by any first-rank painter.

To speak about the relationship between writers and painting necessarily implies talking about the French Marcel Proust (1871-1922). He was not only influenced by pictorial resources or chose to have painters among his set of characters, but he also suffered the stylistic influence of an English art critic, John Ruskin, from whom he translated "The Bible of Amiens." Proust shared with Ruskin a taste for Gothic cathedrals, for the approximation of aesthetics and existence, for the beauty of Venice. This passion has gained expression in long undulating sentences and images as if he were searching after a tapestry that created perceptions instead of its being a copy of reality. Such an awareness led the American painter Eric Karpeles to organize, last year, a book that operates like a catalogue, his "Paintings in Proust" (Thames & Hudson editors), focusing in Proust's Recherche, where in one page he offers colored paintings being mirrored by its opposite carrying the paragraph that makes a reference to it.

Another excelent book about this theme, "The Sublime Artist's Studio - Nabokov and Painting" (Northwestern University Press), written by the literary critic Gavriel Shapiro, has just been out. It not a catalogue, as Karpeles's, but a study about the history of painting as may be found in the writings of the author of Lolita, Pale Fire and in many other novels, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). Shapiro's references avoid an excess of technical terms and are rich with quotations from specific lines and paragraphs extracted from Nabokov's novels, essays and letters. He presents only a few images, in black and white, related to the sentences he selected. If, in Proust, painting is the means through which essay and fiction are blended, when he demonstrates how the intepretation of reality is woven together with the interpretation of art, the importance of such a merging is not less important in Nabokov, also because he built a bridge between the Old and the New World's art. Yet Nabokov's expression is mainly achieved through alusions. After Shapiro's book, to speak about Nabokov will equally entail in speaking about the relation between the writers and painting.

It's not by chance that those two authors are placed among the few 20th Century writers who may be truly considered to be masters of style. This linguistic domain doesn't only demand a rich vocabulary or strong cadences but also the ability to produce images, to describe a landscape or a person with such a unique richness that the resulting image impregnates the reader's mind, dismissing informative details together with all the other traces of "imparciality". Proust and Nabokov write as if they painted by matching lines, colors and spacial arrangements to reflect human ambivalence.

Proust's "imaginary museum" - to recover the expression of another famous writer who loved painting, André Malraux - includes many masters of the Renaissance, such as Leonardo, Botticelli, Giotto, Mantegna, Bellini. He was so obsessed by Saint Ursula's Cycle by Carpaccio, that he spent endless hours sitting in front of the painting - in its intricated figurative web of historical episodes mingled with privade ones - in the Galeria dell'Academia, in Venice; it is not by hazard that Carpaccio is the only painter who has been mentioned in his seven volumes. Proust was also dedicated to Velásquez, Tician, El Greco, Poussin. Among the representatives of French impressionists in the generation which preceded him he was often undecided between Manet and Monet. Proust also had a lot in common with Renoir but his particular passion, one that marks a different point of view from Ruskin's is directed to the Dutch painters, mainly Rembrandt and Vermeer. In his "Sodoma and Gomorra", the wall and its Vista from Delft, we meet Bergotte, a writer who laments his inability to turn his language into something which would become"precious by itself," in the same way as the painted layers of yellow, a widely anthologized quote.

Quite often Proust, who cultivated a precious language without being "preciose" ( in opposition to Nabokov's excess of affectation), didn't need more than a substantive and an adjective to translate an image into words. When he qualifies as "a gentle gravity" to his description of some of Rembrandt's subjects, he achieves a result that he, like Guimarães Rosa, considers as the key to a style as well as an interpretation: it is as if the author had profered an enrlaging lens, or a pair of glasses, the better to exhibit details and sensations which are usually left aside. "Without art", writes he in "Time Recovered", "landscapes would have been as unknown to us, today, as those in the moon" ( in 1922, of course); "thanks to art, instead of seeing the word as being only ours, we find that the world is multiplied," each aspect with a light of its won. This doesn't imply in being happier, but in being closer to his private suffering and truth.

Inspite of being labeled a post-modern by a majority of analysts, Nabokov preferred the era of the Great Masters. Like Proust, he never erased from his interior canvas Botticelli, El Greco, Rembrandt, Jan Van Eyck. Gavriel Shapiro draws a parallel between them already in the second chapter: " Proust employs art not as much to express any didactic purpose, but mainly to share an impression, to evoke an association(...) For example, Proust demonstrats the devious attempt by Swann to introduce into society, Odette, his philistine, uneducated lover, later his wife, (...) associating his image to Florentine paintings, particularly to Botticelli's." Nabokov, in his turn, works with references and alusions in the name of an "authoral presence", as Shapiro called it*. Like Joyce, he uses painting to speak about the position of the author and his relation to the world, consequently this is why he always refers to himself in his narrative.

Shapiro also mentions Nabokov's references to German expressionism, in artists like Grosz, Beckmann and Dix, the theme of his book's last chapter. The Russian novelist lived in Berlin for 15 years and admired the connection between these painters and urban life, something that might be responsible for a change in his world view, until then aristrocratic, and also for his preference for landscapes, if we consider that he was also an amateur naturalist ( lepidopterologist). This influence is not the result of any political views but of his aesthetics - since Nabokov was against any kind of social engagement in art. Actually we may think about Humbert Humbert, and his Lolita, as a kind of realistic cartoon-sketch, to begin with his name. By examining Nabokov's pictorial tastes, Shapiro illumines Nabokov's literary traits in which visual humour plays an important role. One image is [not] worth a thousand words, but a master of words is also worth the two thousand images he creates.

* - The words attributed to Shapiro are a re-translation from the Portuguese, not the ones encountered in his original book ( Jansy).




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