Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024365, Wed, 26 Jun 2013 18:44:29 -0400

Cleaning Nabokov’s House ...


Roman a Clef Ithaca: We Know You Know
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David Samuel Levinson
Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 12:00 am
By Stephen P. Burke | 0 comments
Ithaca is possibly the subject of more roman a clef novels than any city its size. It is a perfect choice in crucial ways. It is recognizable: a well-known little place, with residents (at least transients) from around the world. It has a famous institution as a foil. A company town, it is insular and gossipy. It is self-regarding, convinced of its uniqueness and engrossed by its reflection.
In 2011, local author Leslie Daniels published a novel featuring a famous Ithacan (a ten-year resident) right in the title. Cleaning Nabokov’s House was released as a paperback this year.
Daniels calls the town in her book “Onkwedo.” The main character lives in a house occupied by Vladimir Nabokov “for two years in the 1950s,” the decade Nabokov lived in Ithaca and taught at Cornell (“Waindell,” in the book).
The book is a treasure map of Ithaca, and a cunning profile of its psyche. Barb Bennett, the narrator, works from home answering mail for the Old Dutch Dairy, a local ice cream maker. “In the spot by the window where Nabokov may have written,” she says, “I was writing to Upstate folks who had both the time and the need to communicate with their dairy products’ source.”
The dairy supplies the “Bear Witness cult,” which runs an eatery downtown “with a ceiling of pressed tin, indented squares.” The Apex Friendly Market “does not have good food.” After a bad meal, Barb has “a deep craving for kale.” (She favors a restaurant called “Cafe Raw.”)
We visit the Salvation Army, where the dressing room smells “like mothballs, B.O., and death,” and the hometown hardware store, where a clerk tries to talk Barb out of a purchase (“Too cold to paint,” he says).
Barb is mystified by the town’s lack of hustle. (The plot features her outlandish effort to change things, with an illicit (but comically wholesome) business.) “Onkwedo police. Nothing to do,” she says. Regarding the daily paper, she notes, “Covering the front page was a photo of the Waindell crew team ... You would think there was no real news in the world at all.”
It might sound mean, but it’s just flippant. Barb is frustrated, and brashness is her balm. Within the book, the negativity is just a set-up for a happy ending, so to speak, for the heroine. It all works out, and it all works.
Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, a new novel by David Samuel Levinson, is set in Winslow, New York, a small upstate town with “Winslow College giving reason to the place.”
The town includes “one museum, the Finch,” College Breads, and Page Turners, an independent bookstore where he main character works. Her husband, a promising writer who died mysteriously, taught at the college.
The book features academic intrigue. The old joke about academia is that the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small, but Levinson mixes pettiness in Goldwin Smith (or so) with violence in Cayuga Heights (again), and a shooting in the Bookery (pardon: Page Turners) for plenty of high-stakes woe.
One needn’t be from Ithaca to know that shootings seldom happen at the local bookstore, and if they happen, it won’t take weeks for the owner to find out, which happens here, as it helps the plot. Similarly, a drunken fracas in a cafe goes unnoticed by the patrons, lest the action slow.
The book tries hard, but too hard, cutting corners like a cheater in a race. Ironically, for its ambitions, which are highly literary, its topic is the wretchedness of writers:
“Who knew there were so many writers in this little town?”
“More than you’d think, and less than you’d ever want to know,” said Jane, grinning.
“Everyone thinks he’s a writer,” Catherine said flatly. “Everyone thinks he has something to say.”
Unlike Daniels, there’s no relief with Levinson, just misery, mostly banal. Ourselves, we’ll take Onkwedo.

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