NABOKV-L post 0006871, Fri, 4 Oct 2002 18:01:20 -0700

paraNabokoviana: D. Gilmour "Sparrow Nights":As Humbert Humbert
used to say, you can always count on a murderer ...

----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein
Cc: Subject: As Humbert Humbert used to say, you can always count on a murderer ...
Sparrow Nights
By David Gilmour
Counterpoint, $24
217 pages
(A good read)

A price for passion
In David Gilmour's 'Sparrow Nights,' when love is lost, obsession, rage and murder soon follow

By James Hynes / Washington Post Book World Review Service

The spectacle of an intellectual unhinged by passion has been endlessly fascinating to artists of all eras and persuasions. From Marlowe's Dr. Faustus selling his soul to the devil for a crack at Helen of Troy, through hapless Emil Jannings' servitude to Marlene Dietrich in "Der Blaue Engel," to a buck-toothed chemistry professor Jekyll-and-Hyding himself into the super-slick Buddy Love in "The Nutty Professor," the randy scholar has become a stock character.
The greatest of them all, and the creepiest, most eloquent expression of the type, is Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, the minor-league poet, professor and lover of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, aka Lolita.
Most of these narratives share several important features. The passionate intellectual is usually arrogant, for one thing, operating under the delusion that his mastery of the life of the mind encompasses mastery of the unrulier life of regions lowe! r down. This fatal mistake is almost always the root of the intellectual's undoing. In the end, these stories are about hubris as much as they are about passion, and their chief purpose is to provide a series of entertainingly humiliating correctives to the professor's inflated sense of self.
Canadian novelist David Gilmour's mordantly hilarious and dazzlingly written new novel, "Sparrow Nights," falls solidly in this tradition, but it does not simply ring the changes. It also manages to put a new twist or two into them. While most stories of this sort concentrate on the seduction and end with the loss of the professor's beloved, "Sparrow Nights" begins with the main character's beloved already receding in the rearview mirror, and the rest of the story concentrates on the bereft lover's increasingly desperate and pathetic attempts to forget and/or replace her.
The novel is narrated by the entertainingly insufferable Darius Halloway! , a professor of French literature in Toronto, who has just been left by his grad-student lover, Emma. Having lived together for several years, Emma and Halloway have gradually grown apart, until one day Halloway comes home to find the empty hangers still swinging in Emma's closet, a haunting image that rings all the way through this brief novel. We get a fairly vivid portrait of Emma in flashback, with particular attention to her avidity in the bedroom, which tells us more about Halloway than it does about Emma.
But most of the novel is given over to the aftermath of Emma, as Halloway vents his rage in a series of petty and increasingly cruel acts of revenge against various neighbors who had nothing to do with Emma's leaving.
In the first chapter, driven to distraction by the banging of a neighbor's flag against the flagpole, he goes out in the middle of the night and slashes the flag's rope, leaving the flag "floating like a corp! se in the swimming pool." From there, Halloway descends into the demimonde, frequenting massage parlors and attempting to strike up a relationship with one of the girls, who has the gleefully ironic name of Passion. This leads to disastrous consequences, which I won't reveal here. Suffice it to say that Halloway, in the tradition of petty psychopaths everywhere, proceeds from the murder of defenseless animals to something much worse (though not what you'd expect), and ends up still thinking of Emma.
For all the bizarre incidents in this book, there's something episodic about it, and what holds it together in the end is not the plot but the voice of the narrator and Gilmour's lapidary prose. In the flag-cutting scene, for example, Halloway's rage and wit harmonize in perfect pitch:
"For a second I understood in my blood the lure of crime, its focus and clarity. I thought perhaps I should go back and give Dostoevsky another go! . So overwritten, so talkative, like a Methedrine addict. But still, he was on to something. I went about my preparations with automatic precision. I showered and shaved. I brushed my teeth and gargled vigorously just in case I was arrested. I laid out a selection of knives: a paring knife, a steak knife. But they dissatisfied me and I went into a bottom drawer and fetched a rusting carpet cutter. Everything was so clear; the kitchen danced with light. (I really must give 'Crime and Punishment' another whirl.)"
In spite of everything, the reader is likely to be as captivated by the sound of Halloway's voice as Halloway himself is. Halloway may be a major-league jerk, not to mention a vandal and worse, but he's a hugely entertaining one. As Humbert Humbert used to say, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

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