Monday, January 4, 2010

Look at the Harlequins!

by Vladimir Nabokov, 1974.

When reading all the fiction of a given author[1] I make it a point not to go in chronological order. I don't necessarily mind starting off with an earlier book first (although it rarely works out that way) but I hate the idea of ending my read-cycle with the last work published. With deceased authors, at least, for living ones it's not inherently depressing and is basically likely to happen if I outrace them yet they're still publishing. However, with authors already gone, their whole corpus turned around and ready to be dissected and museum display, I prefer to read the concluding work some point earlier, end with something more midrange in the career. Accordingly I've still a number of others works ahead, but have recently read Nabokov's last complete book, with his recently published fragments The Original of Laura impending.

So, the actual work. I've gathered from incidental references, both the New York Times book review and Adam Robert's blog, that Look at the Harlequins! is regarded as one of Nabokov's lesser works, off-focus from even his midrange stuff and a larger magnitude below works like Lolita or Pale Fire; that Nabokov fictionalizes his autobiography to no great end, and that the narrative collapses away to defeatism. For my part, I liked it well enough, but can't deny the criticism. The edition I checked out from the library for this end was a collection of Nabokov's last few novels, and compared with Transparent Things or (my personal favorite) Ada it is a lesser work. But I'd still say it's a major accomplishment, engaging and interesting, better than most novels. The prose is as beautiful as always, the dialog and description both first rate. One of the things that most struck me in this work--and something I'll have to look for in others--is the effectiveness of description of the body, its significance, power and fragility. A brief scene of the protagonist putting on a rob and going by the window carries such pathos, from age, from position, from the not completely defeated aspirations--it's precisely in the banality of such small moments that Nabokov shines.

On the larger questions of plot and characterization one runs into the central issue of judging a fictionalized autobiography. It's difficult to assess how much is gained by this approach, that is to say the broader relevance of this approach beyond Nabokov's own life. I wasn't as bothered going through by the question of how much Vadimovich's life resembled Nabokov--though I do have a strong urge to read Speak, Memory now. I was most curious on how the explicit political views compared, the sensory details and subjective actions I'm prepared to accept as fundamentally novelistic. And in that light it's a worthwhile story, tracking Vadimovich's travels and life of quiet escape. Like Ada (although less effectively) the story's structure grounds memory, with both explicit judgement and

So, in conclusion a very strong work which I heartily recommend. I'm pretty sure that everyone wouldn't enjoy it, though, and I'm not even sure that I'm in the ideal position to read it--perhaps I would like it more or less if I'd read all of his earlier work and had a closer awareness of his life (although the Vintage Three Volume edition had a nice detailed timeline at the back that provided a fair bit of context). Maybe my approach to not ending with the last is flawed after all. Although perhaps this (call it a) novel is most valuable not for the direct story but for the way it destabilizes categories of thought and memory, including an explicit destabilizing of fact/fiction and story/self. Of course all fiction has an element of the auto-biographical in it, but making this trend much stronger can cause some interesting breakdown.

This work reminded me of but was better than: Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year.
This work reminded me of but was worse than: Nabokov's Ada.

[1] Which I have currently done with Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Iain Banks, Philip K. Dick, Robert J. Sawyer, Vernor Vinge, Robert Charles Wilson and Ian McEwan, FYI. I am seeking to finish all the works of China Mieville, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nancy Kress, Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin and Vladimir Nabokov, further FYI. Although technically the whole blog fits into FYI territory, but this list--and most footnotes--are more so.

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