Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0002545, Wed, 5 Nov 1997 11:38:50 -0800

John Lahr's "Singing Sinatra" (in New Yorker) & VN's "Time & Ebb"
The most curious things are seldom discussed. It is of little wonder or
interest to me that Nabokov is mentioned on occasion in this rag or that,
to purposes often ranging from airing one's freshly painted erudition to
unknown. It is much more organically and mysteriously apt when he is NOT
mentioned in a piece that borrows from him, most likely unintentionally, a
method or an instrument or even a specially phrased image. Is this a result
of a deep reading that deposited a stock of artware in one's memory which
can later automatically release a dose of the stored wealth when one writes
things of one's own?

In one of the recent New Yorkers there was a roughly humorous last-page
piece by McHall or McCall which reproduces N's reversed binoculars trick in
Time and Ebb: the present -- wistful and charming in VN's time and ebb,
ugly and swinish, in McHall's -- is made fresh and strange by the approach
from a great distance of the mid-21st century (apparently, 2024 in TE;
2050, in McHall). Of course, the misty poetry of detail is replaced by the
jagged grotesque of bastardized language and morals, but the mecahnism and
thus the various possibilities it offers are remarkably similar -- quite
likely, without McHall's being aware of that. This is not plagiarism, but
rather a legitimate use of "shareware" that some of Nabokov's patented
devices have become. Another curious coincidence: the narrator of T&E pegs
his memory on "randomly" chosen dates in (his) past: 1944 or 45 (the
author's present), "but seasons are utterly blurred when I pick out 1997
(McHall's present) or 2012".

Now, in the latest NYer, I chanced this morning upon this sentence in an
essay entitled "Sinatra's Song" by John Lahr:

"In those days, from River Road, now called Sinatra Drive, you could see
New York's crenellated skyline, rising like a BAR GRAPH OF PROFITS, and, if
you walked to the dock's edge, the ass end of the Statue of Liberty."

Except for its silly tail, which sits on Lahr's typically ill-shaven style
much more naturally than the "crenellated" (Nabokov's pet word), the
sentence is packed with Nabokov's references and even quotations. One
remembers, for example, that in the selfsame Time and Ebb there is a
Richard Sinatra, famous in projection, who "remained, while he lived, an
anonymous "ranger" dreaming under a Telluride pine or reading his
prodigious verse to the squirrels of San Isabel Forest, whereas everybody
knew another Sinatra, a minor writer, also of Oriental descent." (Lahr
says that 1945 was the popular singer's peak year in terms of sales).

Later in the story there is a marvellous and haunting description of the
New York skyscrapers seen from the Central Park in twilight, but Lahr's
sentence has more to do with the following passage from Pnin:

"And at last, when the great statue arose from the morning haze where,
ready to be ignited by the sun, pale, spellbound buildings stood like those
mysterious rectangles of uneaqual height that you see in bar graph
representations of compared percentages (natural resources, the frequency
of mirages in different deserts)"...

Here again we see a characteristic change of mode and method of seeing and
thinking, but the fact remains that Lahr takes his "profits" out of the
very same vessel into which Nabokov's had put his natural resources and