Monday, August 4, 2014

Glory - Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
Nabokov wrote Forwards to the English translations of his Russian novels, and for Glory he expresses a special affection. He admires his prose, and rightly so. His use of description is not just beautiful and inventive, but it’s tied to the main character’s emotions. When Martin spots Sonia sneaking out of the house (to go dancing with a rival), he enters her room, where “there remained a cloudlet of powder, like the smoke following a shot; a stocking, killed outright, lay under a chair; and the motley innards of the wardrobe had been spilled onto the carpet.” Nabokov bestows on Martin – who he proclaims to be “the kindest, uprightest, and most touching of my young men” – a finely-tuned and expansive imagination; for him a boyhood train ride is a feast of sensations. Nabokov calls it a “wand stroke” not to make someone with such keen sensitivity an artist. “How cruel,” he writes, “to prevent him from finding in art – not an ‘escape’ (which is only a cleaner cell on a quieter floor), but relief from the itch of being!” Indeed, how cruel this denial is, because all Nabokov leaves Martin with is a fascination for Sonia. Nabokov calls her “a moody and ruthless flirt,” but I’d go much further; she’s another wand stroke of cruelty. Her sarcastic, derisive rebukes cut; she seems compelled to bat Martin’s feelings about like a cat with a crippled bird. Not having the refuge of art and being left only with Sonia, Martin is an isolated man; his existence is purposeless, and by his mid-twenties he seems depleted. Still, his capacity to find something thrilling in ordinary pleasures is never entirely snuffed out, and the book ends with him embarking on an exploit into an imaginary world of adventure. We never know the outcome of his dangerous crossing of the border into Russia. In an abrupt and seamless transition we switch to the mind of a friend who has no idea what becomes of Martin. This switch, though done with remarkable skill, points to a major flaw: for half the novel Nabokov was stuck without a storyline. Though he filled the void with the distractions of wonderful incidentals, the ending presented an insurmountable obstacle. It’s significant that in his Forward Nabokov describes a chess problem he once composed, one that was “diabolically difficult to construct.” In Glory he resorts to legerdemain to solve his novelistic problem. He has Martin disappear like a canary on the arm of a magician. With a flourish of a scarlet scarf – poof! – he’s gone. And Sonia, finally, weeps.

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell
This was Orwell’s first book, and the edition I have categorizes it as a novel. Actually, it’s three parts reportage, one part fiction. In Paris the unnamed narrator works as a plonguer (a dishwasher with a variety of other tasks) in a large hotel and later in a Russian restaurant. The kitchens in both places are filthy and vermin-infested. His experiences “destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it.” The work is physically punishing and often frenetic; verbal abuse is so commonplace that “imbecile” is a mild form of address. The pay for sixteen hour days (with only Sundays off) is barely enough to cover the cost of a tiny room in a hotel (also filthy and vermin-infested). For Orwell the City of Lights shrank to his workplace, the Metro, a bistro (to get drunk in on Saturday nights) and his bed. The Paris section teems with colorful characters carrying on in a state of high drama. When Orwell moves to England things slow to a more sedate pace. But in London he never finds work – he’s a tramp, sleeping in “spikes.” These government-sponsored boarding houses limit an individual to one night’s stay, a rule which causes the poor to constantly be on the move (thus comes the word “tramp”). Meals at the spikes consist of tea and two slices of bread with margarine; men sleep (or try to) crammed into filthy dormitories; the “beds” are often the floor. Though Orwell doesn’t in any way ennoble the down-and-out, he believes that most of the men he encounters could be worthwhile citizens. They would prefer to work, but the inability to keep themselves clean, or to have decent clothes, limits their options. And as they idly wander, their hopes are extinguished and their bodies deteriorate. They’re even denied the comforts of sex; no woman would have anything to do with them, and they don’t have money for the cheapest prostitute. The book is grimy and vulgar, as befits its subject (the Paris section reminded me of the atmosphere of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer). Orwell is successful in relating conditions, but he understands that his insight is limited because he’s not stuck in that life. He closes by writing, “I should like to know what really goes on in the minds of plonguers and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen but the fringe of poverty.” An issue that cannot be avoided in reviewing this book is the anti-Semitism that runs through it. Is Orwell merely relating the attitude of his friend Boris when the man goes into a long diatribe expressing his virulent hatred for Jews? Why, whenever a Jew appears (and Orwell can spot them), are they depicted in a very negative light? For a man whose compassion and intelligence I respected, I found this to be disturbing. And disappointing.

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