Serendipity: Nabokov’s Mademoiselle

Vladimir Nabokov (L) with Brothers and Sisters

I am in the process of reading one of the greatest biographies ever written: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967). It ranks in my estimation with James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and the Journals of Sir Walter Scott. For many years in his childhood, he had had a French-speaking Swiss nurse called, in his autobiography, simply Mademoiselle. Here, years after she had retired, he describes seeing her in her old age:

Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. “Il pleut toujours en Suisse” [“It always rains in Switzerland”] was one of those casual comments which, formerly, had made Mademoiselle weep. Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself into a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start. But although I soon forgot that dismal light, it was, oddly enough, that night, that compound image—shudder and swan and swell—which first came to my mind when a couple of years later I learned that Mademoiselle had died.

She had spent all her life in feeling miserable: this misery was her native element: its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone gave her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Have I really salvaged her from fiction? Just before the rhythm I hear falters and fades, I catch myself wondering whether, during the years I knew her, I had not kept utterly missing something in her that was far more she than her chins or her ways or even her French—something perhaps akin to that last glimpse of her, to the radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness,* or to that swan whose agony was so much closer to artistic truth than a drooping dancer’s pale arms; something, in short, that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart.

* Nabokov had bought her deaf old nurse a hearing aid which she said made it possible to hear her former charge’s voice perfectly, except that Nabokov had not said anything.

 

Serendipity: Exile on Exile

Writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

If there is a poster boy for exiles, it is W. G. Sebald, who was born in Germany, but spent most of his life in self-exile. In his collection of essays, Campo Santo, he is curiously unable to come to life talking about the ruins of the Second World War. The farther his subject is from Germany, the better his essays are. One of the very best is “Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov.” Himself an exile from Red Russia, Nabokov became one of the leading lights of American literature. It is from this essay that these selections are taken:

At any rate, the most brilliant passages in his prose often give the impression that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species, not yet known to any system of taxonomy, whose emissaries sometimes assume a guest role in the plays performed by the living. Just as they appear to us, Nabokov conjectures, so we appear to them: fleeting, transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose. They are most commonly encountered in dreams, “in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence,” and are “silent, bothered, strangely depressed,” obviously suffering from their exclusion from society, and for that reason, says Nabokov, “they sit apart, staring at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret.”

Vladimir Nabokov With His Butterflies

.   .   .   .   .   .

In the fifth chapter of Pnin he speaks at length and in different voices of the price you must pay on going into exile: not least, besides the material goods of life, the certainty of your own reality…. Unexpectedly finding themselves on the wrong side of the frontier, [Nabokov’s young emigrant heroes] are airy beings living a quasi-extraterritorial, somehow unlawful afterlife in rented rooms and boardinghouses, just as their author lived at one remove from the reality of Berlin in the twenties.

 

The Death of Boris Vian

CD Cover of Boris Vian Song Collection

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and A. E. Van Vogt).

I have just finished reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’Écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and jazz.

 

“I Would Prefer Not To”

Mystery Writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)

The words are those of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in his story of the same name. In that story, a clerical worker refuses outright to continue to do his work and pays the price for his obstinacy. In Patricia Highsmith’s A Suspension of Mercy, Bartleby is the last name of writer Sydney Bartleby, a man who is every bit as obtuse as Melville’s scrivener. He is married—not entirely happily—to Alicia Sneezum. They live in the English countryside, with Sydney trying to publish a novel and television scripts, and Alicia trying to paint abstracts. At one point they decide to split up for a while and maybe come together only when they had gotten the ya-yas out of their system.

So Alicia is put on a train at Ipswich, telling her husband to tell people she had gone to stay with her parents. Except, she doesn’t in fact tell her parents anything. In the meantime, Sydney plays with the idea of having his friends and neighbors suspect that he had murdered Alicia. He even rolls up an old carpet, imagining that he had hurled Alicia down a flight of stairs to her death and rolled the body into the carpet. He buries the carpet early one morning in a forest some distance from his cottage.

In the meantime, people keep calling Sydney asking to speak to Alicia. He tells them she is staying with her parents. When they call the parents, and find her not there, the suspicion arises that Sydney has murdered her. A neighbor had seen him struggle to load a heavy rolled carpet into his car.

Enter the police. Sydney leads them to the buried carpet, which they find minus the body of Alicia. That only makes the police more suspicious. They start digging other holes in the area to search for the body. Interestingly, Sydney finds Alicia, with her new inamorata whom she had met at a party, but he doesn’t alert her or, in fact, anybody. So the suspicions continue to mount.

Nasty. Nasty. Nasty. This is clearly a story by Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). It is delightful how the mutual obstinacy of Sydney and Alicia lead to the police, the press, and the general public to assume the worst. At several points, Bartleby (or Alicia) could have short-circuited all this needless mountain of false news, but, like the original Bartleby, preferred NOT to.

This is without a doubt the most obstinate mystery ever written, and great fun withal.

Everyday Realism

César Aira, Argentinian Writer Par Excellence

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Put on your tuxedo and cummerbund? Sit in bed lolling over a tray of sumptuous breakfast delicacies? Write the Great American Novel? No, no, no. What you do is stagger to the bathroom and empty your bladder. That before anything else—unless you want an untoward accident to put a damper on your day. I realize it would be boring to show these simple rituals in a movie, in which every minute costs a small fortune. But even in fiction, where words are cheap, there is no acknowledgment of a simple biological need.

None to speak of, anyway, until I saw the following line in César Aira’s Ema the Captive:

A sleepy soldier had come out onto the veranda of his house and stopped there, right on the edge, to pee, swaying dangerously.

Hallelujah! This line was in all probability written by a human, and not an android.

Another example of a simple reality not observed, especially in films, is that the hero always finds a parking place directly in front of his destination. In The Big Sleep, Bogart always finds the ideal parking space without even trying. I guess there weren’t that many people around in the 1940s.

Finally, with some rare exceptions, guns almost never misfire. If you look at Wikipedia’s entry on Firearm Malfunction, you will find twelve things that can happen to prevent your gun from shooting. In the real world, not everyone that has firearms is careful with them, or does everything needed to guarantee 100% functionality. Yet one rarely sees a misfire of any sort.

I guess most movies are fantasies, as our parents told us.

 

Hollywood’s Own Muse

Eve Babitz, Author of Black Swans

Perhaps the saddest thing about Southern California is that so much that has been written about the area comes from clueless East Coast authors who whose work is characterized by a kind of extreme cultural tone-deafness. If you want a true picture of Los Angeles, you have to read Eve Babitz who, alone, seems to understand what the city in which I live is all about. In her story “Self-Enchanted City” in her story collection Black Swan, she writes:

When people would first arrive from New York, they’d say stuff like “This place is full of fruits and nuts and you have no seasons.” So I knew they saw through the cheap thrills of shallow sunshine and were principled easterners determined to be unimpressed. But after a few weeks, even they would show up at Barney’s Beanery driving a brown Porsche, and they’d move into one of those Snow White wishing-well houses where all they could hear were birdies in the trees and all they could see were hollyhocks, roses, and lemon blossoms. And then they’d undergo a kind of molecular transformation, losing all their winter fat, their bad teeth, and their attitude that life was about artists being screwed by “the establishment.” And if they were fast enough on their feet, they’d soon become the establishment themselves. Or, at the very least, they’d wind up writing screenplays about Marxist good guys disguised as cat burglars.

The Chateau Marmont, Archetypal Hollywood Hotel on the Sunset Strip

Eve neglects to mention that they still kept one foot in the East by wearing a New York Times baseball cap. Earlier, she describes what has happened to Hollywood:

But for anything to age gracefully, eternal vigilance is necessary, and Hollywood has not been carefully tended. It has been knocked down flights of stairs, abandoned, left for dead, and sold into slavery. Still, if you ask me, some parts are just as beautiful as my dream version—even more beautiful if you subscribe to the Tennessee Williams decadence-as-poetry theory that ravaged radiance is even better than earnest maintenance.

I am only about a third of the way into Black Swan, but am continuing to make further discoveries every page.

 

French Noir? Obscurité Française?

Still from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967)

It sounds a bit odd to talk about French noir literature and films, mainly because noir is a French word. Perhaps I should be talking about Obscurité Française. This afternoon, I watched a work of that master of French noir, Jean-Pierre Melville. His film Le Samouraï is a masterpiece, both in its spare visual style and its typical noir attributes. Alain Delon as Jef Costello, the hit man, is a pleasure to watch, as is François Périer, the police superintendent, who goes all out to arrest Jef based on his belief that his alibi would not hold up.

Melville has made other excellent noir films as well, including Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1963). But Le Samouraï is his best by far.

In addition to noir films, the French are no strangers to noir fiction. Yesterday, I read Three to Kill (1976) by the late Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995), who also wrote Fatale (1977) and Ivory Pearl (1996), the latter of which was unfinished. I am also interested in reading works by Boris Vian (1920-1959), author of I Spit On Your Graves (1946).

The United States has an embarrassment of riches in the genre, starting with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and continuing with David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Kenneth Fearing, W. R. Burnett, and a host of others. They are one of the joys of recent American literature which I have been taking advantage of during this long, hot summer.