Friday, August 12, 2011

"Ineffable beauty and concord"

Two quotations. I think the second puts the first in persepective. Still working on exactly how.

This first, from a review of a book about VN:

Nabokov is a famous writer, but he deserves to be infamous as a disseminator of unhelpful dogmas about writing. His worst ideas, invariably, were about ideas. “Caress the details! The divine details!” Nabokov said. This is sound advice, if a little vague. What is not sound is this, something Nabokov also said: “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.” Nabokov dismissed Henry James as a “pale porpoise” and Joseph Conrad as a “writer of books for boys.”

Nabokov is a towering genius; it is in the nature of Zeus to throw thunderbolts. Still, thunder echoes. Nabokov didn’t believe in great ideas, but he did believe in patterns. And so Nabokovians believe in patterns, too. They believe in them messianically. They think the thrill of discerning a subtle pattern is the highest sensation that art, and possibly life itself, affords. Here is [admirer Lila Azam] Zanganeh: “To observant men, these Nabokovian patterns, magically, will offer the inkling of an ‘otherworld,’ the ineffable beauty and concord of which is cause for infinite happiness.” The most compelling statement of this position appears in Nabokov’s book on Gogol, where he defines art as “the dazzling combination of drab parts.”
Then this, from the Amazon page for Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End:
"Of the various demands one can make of the novelist, that he show us the way in which a society works, that he show an understanding of the human heart, that he create characters whose reality we believe and for whose fate we care, that he describe things and people so that we feel their physical presence, that he illuminate our moral consciousness, that he make us laugh and cry, that he delight us by his craftsmanship, there is not one, it seems to me, that Ford does not completely satisfy. There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade's End is one of them." -- W.H. Auden



Tulkinghorn said...

I'd rather experience "ineffable beauty and concord" than have my "moral consciousness" illuminated. Any day.

In fact, although the phrase 'ineffable beauty and concord' actually describes something of which I have experience, the phrase 'moral consciousness' means almost nothing to me.

Sounds unpleasant, though.

David Chute said...


David Chute said...

Just between us? I agree with you more than you may realize. (Of course if you tell anyone I'll deny it.)

Think back to those exchanges about "chaos." What I was describing, from my own severely limited experience, is that writers don't often say to themselves, "I have a theme that illuminates our moral consciousness. What's the perfect literary vehicle for this great theme?" Instead they say, "I want to write something. What can I write?"

Even more often they have an idea in their head that attracts another idea and then another, and if they arrange it, or help it to arrange itself, into a pleasing PATTERN, then they have something they can write.

I would suggest that this is not enough all by itself. It's the starting point. That the pattern is the underpinning of whatever else you'll be doing -- that you don't have a book without it -- but that on it's own it's useless, a tool that hasn't been put to use. That you have responsibility when you are using words to pay attention to what they mean.

I think that what the Amis piece is about.

Tulkinghorn said...

The Amis essay is wonderful -- as controlled and insightful as anything he's written in about twenty years.

I think you're right to find its heart in this:

....that style, that prose itself, can control morality.

And Amis is right that when Nabokov lost control his work became unreadable and, essentially, immoral.

Tulkinghorn said...

Also his ranking of the work is dead on -- except in leaving out the Onegin translation and the Gogol biography.

David Chute said...

Don't you like Pale Fire more than he does? That occurred to me as I was reading this.

In fairness, if the patterns are pretty (and whose are prettier?), if the elements fit together neatly, there's a great temptation to overlook what it means -- or to try to convince yourself that if it's this beautiful, it mist be true.

Tulkinghorn said...

If the patterns are pretty, I don't have to overlook what it means...

I never look at all.

You're right about Pale Fire, but the general tendency of the list is satisfying.

Of course, "The Good Soldier" has the most off-putting, in the Hollywood sense, first line ever. Maybe you're looking for something I'm not.

David Chute said...

Meaning you've never gotten past the first line?

David Chute said...

And what is "the Hollywood sense"?

Tulkinghorn said...

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

Can't see it in a pitch meeting...

David Chute said...

"Of course..." (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

The first odd thing about that line is that the novel is in the first person. So he heard it from himself? Maybe not. The sadness results mostly from how blinkered and deluded the narrator is. Almost entirely self-inflicted. He "hears it" from the people who have to take him aside and explain what it all means. How grossly he's been betrayed.

Sad, or perhaps pathetic. It may even be noir!

David Chute said...

Dealing with Tulk's hair-trigger taste is fraught with peril. Like tip-toeing through a mine field that has more mines than dirt.