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Martin Amis talks Nabokov and Joyce in Moscow





Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov: In the Evening of the Enchanters

The scene is Paris, 1937, and James Joyce is dining with Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov.  Although history did not deem to place all three writers at the same table (Nabokov denies meeting Beckett,) we do know that Joyce spent time with the other two singly in this place and time, raising the question of whether some cross-pollination of influence might have occurred.  Perhaps it's significant that, following their encounters with Joyce in this period, both Beckett and Nabokov turned to writing in non-native languages.  (Beckett switched to French in December, 1937, while Nabokov started his first novel in English the following year.)  Thus, we will examine briefly the texts produced by all three writers during this momentary conjunction and seek to find common motifs.

[  ] Starting with Nabokov's claim that "James Joyce has not influenced me in any manner whatsoever," one senses both a defensive maneuver as well as a bit of outrageousness for its own sake, especially given that Nabokov was never one to allow facts to stand in the way of an aesthetically interesting instant (Gold 12.) [  ] But despite Nabokov's denial of any direct Joycean influence in terms of style, at the very least we can say that Joyce seems to have provided an example of what a Major English Language Author might be like.  This conceptual archetype appears to have inspired at least in part the work Nabokov produced in the wake of his encounters with Joyce:  The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, written in Paris in 1938-39.[  ] Indeed, given Nabokov's fondness for mirror images, we might see Knight's entire oeuvre as an inversion of Joyce's [  ] Meeting Joyce in 1937, however, Nabokov would have encountered the author deeply immersed, one imagines, in the monumental task of completing Finnegans Wake.  Thus, we might look for specifically Wakean moments in Sebastian Knight [  ]  Knight's rough drafts, for example, has an intriguingly Wakean quality:

As he a heavy A heavy sleeper, Roger Rogerson, old Rogerson bought old Rogers bought, so afraid Being a heavy sleeper, old Rogers was so afraid of missing tomorrows. He was a heavy sleeper. He was mortally afraid of missing tomorrow's event glory early train glory so what he did was to buy and bring home in a to buy [...] nine alarm clocks as a cat has nine which he placed which made his bedroom look rather like a ”  (Knight 39.) Not only is the style of this fragment as mangled as the Wake's (as well as the stream-of-consciousness moments in Ulysses,) but ends also like the Wake on an article and without a full stop.[  ] Too, we might wonder if there exists a possible relation between the cited passage and the Wake's "Deductive Almayne Rogers," considering both The Prismatic Bezel as "a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale," as well as the larger literary detective story of Knight as a whole which frames it (Joyce, Wake 363; Nabokov,Knight 92.) [  ]
If Nabokov reworks the lesson of "Night Lessons" to revise the guilt of family memories, Samuel Beckett uses it to work through his relation to his literary father, Joyce.  In his first attempts to compose directly in French and thus perhaps escape Joyce's aesthetic influence, Beckett wrote "Les Deux Besoins
” [  ] Yet in bridging the schism between science and theology, the artist here appears to fulfill the function formerly reserved for the magician, a point Joyce makes in "Night Lessons" with the pronouncement, "Nothung up my sleeve," combining Stephen's climactic Wagnerian scene inUlysses with an illusionist's stage patter (Wake 295.)  Again, Joyce suggests that the "lapis" depicted in "Night Lessons" is the philosopher's stone of the alchemists, the supernatural fusion of opposites and promise of eternal life in the perpetuum mobile of cyclical time.  Nabokov, too, expressed an interest in "conjuror's magic," telling an interviewer:  "I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy.  I loved doing simple tricks--turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I'm in good company because all art is deception and so is nature; [...] from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation" (Strong Opinions 11.)  We note in this connection the title of Nabokov's 1939 novella which would lay the groundwork for Lolita The Enchanter./ Beckett, too, follows the others in flirting with the occult dimensions of aestheticism, with the text becoming a set of incantations without any necessarily logical connection, but uttered to produce an effect [  ]  Following the Nazi arrest of his friend, Paul Léon, Beckett turned away from literature and joined the French Resistance, having concluded that something more than magical turns of phrase would be required to counter the demons then loosed upon the world




Interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald on the writer/illustrator Art Spiegelman. Chris Ware, another graphic novelist, discusses how graphic novels approximate human thought in a way that few pure novelists can manage, though he singles out Nabokov as an exception:

Ware says Spiegelman, through Maus, ushered in a visual language of expression that was both mature and exciting. “He actually knows what his wordplay, visual puns and aesthetic rhymes will provoke in the reader’s mind, and he builds on them very carefully. There are only a handful of prose writers who can manage that; Nabokov comes to mind.” In the great debate of highbrow versus lowbrow, with comics often unfairly dumped into the latter category, Ware notes that Nabokov himself criticised Joyce for relying too much on language for his simulacra of streams of consciousness in Ulysses, pointing out that humans think in pictures as well as words.

Readers interested in a fuller discussion of this topic should check out Brian Boyd’s American Scholar article, in which he too mentions Nabokov’s thoughts on Joyce:

He revered Joyce’s verbal accuracy, his precision and nuance, but he also considered that his stream-of-consciousness technique gave “too much verbal body to thoughts.” The medium of thought for Nabokov was not primarily linguistic: “We think not in words but in shadows of words,” he wrote. Thought was for him also multisensory, and at its best, multilevel. As cognitive psychologists would now say, using a computing analogy foreign to Nabokov, consciousness is parallel (indeed, “massively parallel”), rather than serial, and therefore cannot translate readily into the emphatically serial mode that a single channel of purely verbal stream of consciousness can provide.


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