Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mary - Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
This short novel, Nabokov’s first, was written when he was twenty-six years old and newly-married. It displays more of his flaws than his virtues. Ganin had a brief love affair with Mary; Nabokov tries to evoke their love through Ganin’s memories, but the young man is unappealing and Mary (who exists entirely offstage) never comes to life. I cared more about the old poet and the lonely young woman who live in Ganin’s rooming house. At the end an improbable coincidence is to reunite the lovers after a five year separation. The plan is for Ganin to meet Mary at the railroad station and whisk her away from her repugnant husband. But, on the final page, he abruptly decides that she should remain as no more than a memory, and he heads for another railroad station to make his getaway. Recently I started The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (written fifteen years after Mary) but didn’t read enough to do a review. In both novels Nabokov tried to capture elusive emotional states and to describe the inanimate world in fresh ways. He believed that the magic of his prose and perceptions could carry the day. He was mistaken. He needed vital characters in compelling situations. He needed Humbert craving Lolita.

Saint Augustine’s Pigeon - Evan S. Connell
In reviewing Connell’s Double Honeymoon I called it “a terrible mistake from an author I greatly admire.” His books that I admire are Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge, Son of the Morning Star, Diary of a Rapist and The Connoisseur. They need to be duly noted, because this collection of selected stories includes many terrible mistakes. There are only two full-fledged successes. In the four page long “The Marine” a pilot who had not yet left the United States asks an injured Captain what it was like on the front lines. In the ensuing monologue we get a harrowing look at how war allows a warped person to indulge his grisly urges. The other success is an essay on the subject of celebrity (with “numerous digressions”); it was a pleasure to accompany Connell as he lets his thoughts meander along labyrinthine paths. As for the rest of the book, there are many short pieces, some interesting, some a waste. What baffled me are the five long stories. Two are about a character named J.D., a man who roams the world; he occasionally returns to tell his stay-at-home school friends of the wondrous things he has seen and experienced (including love affairs with exotic women). J.D. came across as one of Walter Mitty’s more foolish incarnations. Then there are three very long stories featuring a character named Karl Muhlbach. In struggling through them my wandering attention was caught by a line describing a telephone conversation: “. . . it goes on and on, a long, dreary, stupid, inconclusive affair.” These words accurately described the story I was reading. All the characters – not only Muhlbach, though he’s the worst of the lot – could be aliens from the planet Boffo. How could Connell get Mr. and Mrs. Bridge so right and then show no understanding of human nature (nor any inkling of how to tell an engrossing story)? The answer must lie in the psyche of the author. With the Bridges Connell captured stages of their lives in precise images, but he did it from a distance, as an observer. Though the images are artfully created and arranged, his scrupulous intelligence was the main factor at work. Connell used Muhlbach as his main character in two novels (which in itself is perplexing). The Connoisseur was successful because it focused on Karl’s obsession with pre-Columbian art; Double Honeymoon failed because it was about a sexual relationship. Connell was at a loss when presenting intimate feelings from a firsthand perspective. He needed to work from a place of detachment, either in the subject matter or the way the story was framed. A look at the body of his work – much of which is nonfiction – suggests that he was aware of this limitation.

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