The following quotes offer what I would like to call “lessons in comparative fiction” in VN. They not only serve to contrast his techniques from, or to parody, those of his predecessors, but also to instruct the reader in the evolution of fiction writing.
The chronological selection is of course far from exhaustive and owes more to their memorable character than to a rereading of his entire oeuvre.
It is hardly surprising that most of these “lessons” are to be found in Ada, or Ardor.
This pair of slippers…our lovers kept in the lower drawer of the corner chest, for life not infrequently imitates the French novelists. King Queen Knave
She was the daughter of a well-known theatrical manager, a willowy, wispy, fair-haired girl with colorless eyes and pathetic little pimples just above that kind of small nose which English lady novelists call “retroussée” (note the second “e” added for safety). Laughter in the Dark *
It [the street] rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel. The Gift
“Eez eet zee verity,” said Beuret, suddenly shifting to English…and speaking it like a Frenchman in an English book, “eez eet zee verity zat…zee disposed chef of the state has been captured together with a couple of other blokes (when the author gets bored by the process –or forgets)… Bend Sinister
At the next turning, the romantic mansion appeared on the gentle eminence of old novels. Ada
[Rattner] seemed as dull as the rain that could be discerned slanting in parallel pencil lines against the darker background of a larch plantation, borrowed, Ada contended, from Mansfield Park.**
Dr. Krolik, our local naturalist, to whom you, Van, have referred, as Jane Austen might have phrased it, for the sake of rapid narrative information (you recall Brown, don't you, Smith?)
"I want to ask you," she said quite distinctly, but also quite beside herself because his ramping palm had now worked its way through at the armpit, and his thumb on a nipplet made her palate tingle: ringing for the maid in Georgian novels…
That library had provided a raised stage for the unforgettable scene of the Burning Barn; it had thrown open its glazed doors; it had promised a long idyll of bibliolatry; it might have become a chapter in one of the old novels on its own shelves; a touch
of parody gave its theme the comic relief of life.
She said: “Speaking as a character in an old novel, it seems so long, long ago, davnïm davno, since I used to play word-games here with Grace and two other lovely girls. 'Insect, incest, nicest.'”
"I remember the cards," she said, "and the light and the noise of the rain, and your blue cashmere pullover—but nothing else, nothing odd or improper, that came later. Besides, only in French love stories les messieurs hument young ladies."
Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey, because newborn and thus generalized, in the sense of primitive organisms of art as opposed to the personal achievement of great English poets dealing with an evening in the country, a bit of sky in a river, the nostalgia of remote sounds—things utterly beyond the reach of Homer or Horace. The Original of Laura
[S]he would bicycle through the Blue Fountain Forest to a romantic refuge where a sparkle of broken glass or a lace-edged rag on the moss were the only signs of an earlier period of literature.
*A quick search through 19th and early 20th century fiction and magazines shows that male novelists were as much guilty of writing “retroussée” as lady novelists - if not more so: “He moved just a trifle, then, so that he could see more of her face; how her extraordinarily long lashes swept her cheek, and her adorable nose, which was ever so slightly retroussée.” Francis Barton Fox, The Heart of Arethusa (1918) chapter XXII.
**The name Rattner brings to mind Julius Ratner, a would-be novelist in Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God (1930), “a dreadful dull and flat thing,” as described by VN in his letter of July 23, 1944 to Edmund Wilson apropos his dream of Khodasevich and Lewis and Wilson as a hybrid of Churchill and himself.
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