NABOKV-L post 0007557, Sat, 8 Feb 2003 09:21:40 -0800

Nabokov takes delight in the notion that you have to be pretty
smart ... (fwd)
From: Sandy P. Klein <>

The Boston Globe Online

A search for the write companions

By Jay Atkinson, 2/2/2003

If reading a book is like meeting someone, whom are we meeting?

I would submit that ''tone'' is the combined effect of the diction, syntax, and
rhetorical complexity in a piece of writing. In many ways, it helps to reveal
the personality of the narrator. ''Voice,'' on the other hand, which encompasses
tone but goes beyond it to include the underlying emotional richness of a story,
ultimately reveals the personality of the writer. As Holden Caulfield in J. D.
Salinger's ''The Catcher in the Rye'' says, ''What really knocks me out is a
book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it
was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever
you felt like it.''

My own taste in books is slanted toward tales of betrayal, revenge, war, and
cataclysm, some of them written by folks I'd like to call up and others too in
love with their own voices to answer the phone. By creating ''Lolita,'' Humbert
Humbert's tale of the seduction, sequestration, and serial rape of a 14-year-old
girl, Vladimir Nabokov is laughing at his readers and their slack-minded
morality, their silly taboos. And if the reader is clever enough to see
Nabokov's intention, he's allowed to laugh along with him. But the famous
lepidopterist is confident that he's laughing alone. Nabokov takes delight in
the notion that you have to be pretty smart to realize he's smarter than you

In the end, I found Humbert tiresome in his evil, despite funny pronouncements
like this: ''Mid-twentieth-century ideas concerning child-parent relationships
have been considerably tainted by the scholastic rigmarole and standardized
symbols of the psychoanalytic racket, but I hope I am addressing myself to
unbiased readers.'' For now that I have visited with Humbert for these hours, I
wish never to return to his company, and that to me is a writer's worst failure.

''Lolita'' is an arrogant book, and Nabokov falls into that category of writer
that I wouldn't care to know, including Allen Ginsberg (a condescending chap);
Ernest Hemingway (he'd try to box with me); Evelyn Waugh; Lillian Hellman
(chain-smoking wretch); Flannery O'Connor (too stern and countrified); Marcel
Proust (afraid of life); Norman Mailer (no judge of character, he); Tobias
Wolff, Tim O'Brien (actually shook Wolff's hand after introducing him, and was
asked by O'Brien where his paycheck was at another event, but I found both
writers a bit grumpy, as if they'd rather have been someplace else); and Oscar
Wilde (nobody wants to meet Oscar Wilde).

That said, I admire and continue to learn from these writers and their work. The
list of writers that I would like to meet includes Jack Kerouac (before booze
ruined him); Dashiell Hammett; Willa Cather; Carson McCullers (hooray for ''A
Tree, a Rock, a Cloud''); Henry David Thoreau (not Emerson, that dusty old
windbag); Ken Kesey; Thomas, but not Tom, Wolfe; Michael Herr (one of the few
still living); wacky Ezra Pound, Shakespeare, David Hume (author of the
underrated ''My Own Life''); and the apostles Mark, Matthew, and John. They are
perhaps the greatest teachers because of their ability to remain civil.

Robert Graves's disdain for golf and the fact that he broke his nose playing
rugby would be sufficient reasons for admiring him, but it's the scope of his
experience as well as his precise and understated way of rendering it that
distinguishes his World War I memoir, ''Good-bye to All That.'' Just 19 years
old, the budding poet and writer left England's Charterhouse School, delayed his
entrance to Oxford, and began officer's training with the Royal Welch Fusiliers
on Aug. 11, 1914. A tall, clumsy fellow who had learned to box at Charterhouse
to stave off bullies, Graves entered wartime service as a maverick and free
thinker and managed to remain that way through nearly four years of stultifying
drill, horrible battles, and wounds so grievous that the British command sent
word to his mother that he had died.

It would seem an advantage in my equation that Graves is writing autobiography,
while Nabokov is in the harnesses of a novel. But there's as much artifice in
the construction of a memoir as there is in fiction, and as much revelatory
truth evident in a good novel as the most scathing tell-all. Graves wrote, ''The
memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of
trench-warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of
falsities. ''

Covering this terrain with such a sharp-eyed guide means seeing the battlefields
and billets the way that Graves saw them. He acknowledges the esprit de corps of
the Germans, and admires them for enduring the hardship of trenches less than a
quarter-mile distant. In fact, he has more respect for the ''square-heads'' than
he does the ignorant, priggish behavior of his superior officers. After
surviving weeks of mortars and rifle grenades, Graves endures a dressing-down
from a pompous colonel during a meal behind the lines. In a struggle between
resentment and regimental loyalty, Graves mutters, ''You damned snobs! I'll
survive you all. There'll come a time when there won't be one of you left in the
Battalion to remember this Mess at Laventie.''

Although generations of readers have embraced Graves's opinion that ''Good-bye
to All That'' is his bitter leave-taking of England, there's more fond
recollection in this story than bile. For embedded within Graves's disdain for
boorish colonels, overbearing schoolmasters, and the general sense of
entitlement adhering to Britain's ruling class is a rejection of the solipsism
that permeates Nabokov's work. Graves is talking about his rugby and
rock-climbing friends when he writes, ''It is good, too, to be alone with a
specially chosen band of people - people in whom a man can trust completely.''
On the strength of that observation, and the sort of character it reveals, I'd
give ''R. von R. Graves'' the highest compliment one can extend the creator of a
work of art: I wish that I had known him.

Jay Atkinson lives in Methuen and is the author of ''Ice Time'' and ''Caveman
Politics.'' Contact him at JayA

This story ran on page D9 of the Boston Globe on 2/2/2003.