Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nabokov: The case for the prosecution

Even though I like Kate Atkinson a lot, I respond with unfeigned pleasure to the following astringent statements from a couple of interviews with Nabokov, reprinted in the wonderful "Strong Opinions", which, for only $12.00 plus postage, should make you very happy. At any rate, the roots of Tulkinghornism are not hard to find.....

Q: One often hears from writers talk of how a character takes hold of them and in a sense dictates the course of the action. Has this ever been your experience?

A: I have never experienced this. What a preposterous experience! Writers who have had it must be very minor or insane. No, the design of my novel is fixed in my imagination and every character follows the course I imagine for him. I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth. (p. 69)

.......

Q. E.M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this every been a problem for you or are you in complete command?

A: My knowledge of Mr Forster's works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves. (p. 95)

9 comments:

Generic said...

Closed systems that rigidly limit the range of possibilities to those originally envisioned vs. more open ones. Not, I think, a matter of taste only.

The sainted Paul Abbott, BTW, is firmly in the Atkinson camp: says on the commentary track for "State of Play" that he never knew what was going to happen from one scene to the next; was as surprised as any viewer by some of the twists. I would suggest that the uncanny lifelike quality of Abbott's characters comes partly from this: they do things that are completely unexpected (eg. Collins' wife suddenly kicking him in the shins) that nevertheless make perfect sense at that moment, for that character, who in that sense has "taken over."

Of course, this is really, finally a rhtorical distinction: Atkinson is describing what the process feels like to her. She's an odd spokesperson for this view, too, in the sense that her elaborate plotting puts her very much in the puppet-master mode. It's not fate creating all those interconnections.

Tulkinghorn said...

I think there's less here than meets the eye. -- another way of stating your conclusion that the distinction is largely rhetorical.

Nabokov's "old as the quills" denunciation misses, I think, the point: the whole 'characters taking over' is simply a way of describing the process of creating a certain kind of book -- a description that he found vulgar and misleading.

I've spent the last couple of weeks reading the elaborately complicated "Book of the New Sun" -- the structure of which -- a closely knit story narrated by someone central to the action who is both a liar and unaware of what's going on and the real plot of which is not divulged until the final parts of a 900 page book -- demands complete control by the author. cf "Ulysses", "2666", "Conversations in The Cathedral", and so forth.

Contrary examples: any Dickens novel, Tristram Shandy, most all television.....

Generic said...

OTOH, both Atkinson and Christie (and probably many others, some perhaps even high brow enough for you) get structures like that from an impulsive, "chaotic" method. And how do you know, exactly, that Joyce, Bolano and Vargas didn't?

It's been said more than once that practitioners of an art form make unreliable critics of it. They tend to think everybody should go about it the way they do; try to elevate their working habits into universal laws, etc.

Generic said...

Obviously we both regard this as an important discussion...

It occurs to me that there are critics who use "preconceived" as a pejorative.

That the idea of undertaking a work to answer a question to which one does not already know the answer (or at least entertaining the possibility) is related to "heart" (or sincerity or authenticity or some other less obnoxious term).

Also to philosophy and as opposed to...?

That the very qualities you're celebrating in Nabokov lead others to dismiss him as a minor artist.

And etc...

Generic said...

Is this discussion being allowed to languish? Seems a shame.

Question to ponder: How does any of this apply to Shakespeare?

Christian Lindke said...

I have much to say on this topic, but very little time.

Generic said...

And BTW: Reducing this to a question of one's enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for "web novels" (for which I am not the audience, as a guy who neither does crosswords nor tries to beat the detective to the punch when he reads mystery stories) seems to be sidestepping the larger issues. Which are extremely basic and fairly impportant.

Generic said...

A case is being made for the superirity of novelists who operate as "perfect dictators," lock-stepping a collection of "galley slaves" through their paces. The notion that these characters could (should) be regarded as autonomous human agents, and that the choice might have a moral dimension, is ridiculed. What al I missing?

Generic said...

Nice passage in the Amazon review of this book:

"[Nbokov's] favorite American films, not too surprisingly, are those of the Marx Brothers. How cold intellects love Groucho and his nutty family! But can one picture Nabokov in a Marx Brothers film? Perhaps - as a replacement for Margaret Dumont, the statuesque stuffy society grande dame."