Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

I recently read Doctor Zhivago which Nabokov hated. You could say these two books are the antithesis of each other. Zhivago strives to depict a poetic vision of real life on a huge canvas and find meaning therein; Pnin is self-pleasuring art for art’s sake on a tiny canvas. Nabokov isn’t remotely interested in “real life” or deep meaning or huge canvases. He passes over the Russian Revolution in a couple of sentences whereas a description of a room that will only feature once in the entire novel is likely to receive an entire long paragraph. Wisdom doesn’t interest him much either except as a reliable source of caustic mockery. Psychotherapy is one of his targets in Pnin. Just as he mocks a lot of the devices favoured by novelists. There are two instances in this novel of Nabokov cleverly creating a great deal of sympathy for Pnin and in both he takes away our sympathy as soon as he’s got it. These involve Pnin catching the wrong train to an important lecture he’s due to give (he makes it there on time regardless) and of Pnin receiving a cherished bowl from his son which he believes he has destroyed when he lets slip a pair of nutcrackers into the soapy washing up water (turns out to be a worthless glass he’s broken). Pnin is constantly being misled by subjective interpretations of objective reality but it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t do him any real harm. There’s a sense Nabokov thinks of everything as a storm in a teacup, even the Russian revolution and Hitler’s war, from both of which Pnin emerges unscathed as if they’re of little more importance than a thunderstorm. If you’re God there’s a lot of truth in this point of view and Nabokov can come across as believing himself to be a deity of sorts.

I’ve just read some of the negative reviews of this and the word “boring” crops up a lot. And depending on the page you’re on Pnin is either brilliant or, as these people say, can be a bit boring. That is to say it’s boring if you’re not a great fan of elaborate description of furniture, landscape or physiognomy. There is a lot of wordsmithery spent on ephemera. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that so swiftly and frequently transited me from joy to boredom. There’s one of the best comic scenes in literature involving the hapless Russian professor, a squirrel and a water fountain. It’s comic genius but on anything but a superficial level it’s also meaningless, like one of those cute animal YouTube videos. That one scene maybe sums up this novel better than any review could – the slightly hollow interior behind the brilliant surface.

All in all Pnin is a pale understudy to Pale Fire in which he finds a dazzling form to poke fun at his targets here, exile into a foreign culture and academia. images (12)


The Winter Vault by Ann Michaels

I have tremendous admiration for Anne Michaels’ courage and ambition. She composes her novels as though she believes she has a place beside the very best novelists in history. I suppose though you could also use an argument of hubris against her. Her insistence on the poetry of life can be exhausting. Her characters are immune to 90% of life’s emotion, especially all the petty stuff. Every moment is an epiphany. Often these are very beautifully described with lots of wisdom. Her characters are talking encyclopaedias. She tends to give them the entire crop of her research on any given subject, in the form of long uninterrupted monologues. The same was true of Fugitive Pieces, the other book of hers I’ve read. On the one hand she does a good job of conveying how much excitement and enlightenment she gets from her research; on the other the novel becomes less an act of storytelling and more like a lecture. Sometimes it can feel like she has too possessive a grip on her material and doesn’t give her characters any freedom to breath, to develop beyond her intellectual construction of them. She constantly breaks two of the cardinal rules of novel writing – she tells instead of shows and makes little attempt to alchemise her research into narrative dramatization.

At times it reminded me of her Canadian compatriot Jane Urquhart with the relentless duplication of symbolic imagery. She gives us so many examples of the demoralisation inherent in the displacement and rebuilding of a community that it sometimes felt she was shouting in her attempt to make her point. This was especially true when she brings in the reconstruction of Warsaw after the war to parallel the displacement of the villagers as the result of the Aswan dam in Egypt and a Canadian community as the result of the construction of the St Lawrence seaway.

The sexual politics in this novel are sometimes like a throwback to the 19th century. We have a passive female (a passionate but amateur botanist) who is good at listening, far too good for her own wellbeing, and two men who love the sound of their own voice. In my experience men who relentlessly hold forth are controlling men. Doesn’t matter how knowledgeable or interesting they are. Talk taken to extremes can be a form of dictatorship. I found it strange that Michaels idealises and romanticises this kind of relationship. Jean, the female lead in the novel, constantly frustrated me. The catalytic event of the novel in personal terms is the stillborn birth of her baby girl. The most contrived and forced part of the novel follows when she leaves her husband for a man who tells her about his experiences in Warsaw during and after the war. His narrative itself is fascinating and compelling but it’s all a bit too conveniently relevant intellectually which renders it clumsy emotionally and artistically.

In a nutshell I enjoyed the writing a lot more than I enjoyed the rather overly contrived clunky artistry of this novel. It’s the kind of book that makes you realise there’s more to a brilliant novel than beautiful writing and thematic unity. Perhaps there’s too much intellect here and not enough imaginative and emotional empathy. As a result the characters come across as constructs rather than living human beings. The writing though is often so good it makes it well worth reading. download (3)


Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

When I read this in my early twenties it went straight into my top ten favourite novels. All the ravishing set pieces of snow, the high adventure of the long train journeys through spectacular landscapes and Yuri and Lara as the romantically bound orphans of the storm was irresistible to my romantic young imagination. On top of that, as you’d expect from a poet, the novel is alive with memorable piercing images. This was my third time of reading it. I still loved it but it would no longer make my top ten or even twenty. I began to suspect it might be a novel you love less the older you get as you grow more wary of romanticism.

Nabokov famously called it dreary and conventional. For someone so astute at always coming up with the right word “dreary” is decidedly off the mark. Pasternak packs into his novel two revolutions, two world wars and a famine. In fact it’s hard to think of any country in the history of the world that has gone through such a series of traumatic events in such a short period. Pasternak does a terrific job of condensing all these events into theatre. There are no more characters in this novel than in a play. And as in a play all characters continue to interact with each other in a self-contained world. This of course demands a number of far-fetched coincidences but these are embroidered together with such artistry that not once did I have a problem of suspending disbelief. He does this by designing a floorplan in which the idea of predestination is the science that holds everything together.

I was thinking while reading this that serious authors no longer tend to write romantic self-portraits of themselves. After Fitzgerald and Hemingway the trend began to die out. Perhaps because the person we least know in any objective sense is ourselves and to write about yourself, especially from a romantic perspective, is to risk portraying as qualities what most see faults. This is true of Yuri who comes across as pompous and ineffectual at times which I’m not sure Pasternak meant. To be honest I’m not sure how similar Yuri is to Pasternak but because they are both poets there’s often the feeling he’s writing about himself. Fitzgerald after all denied Dick Diver was a self-portrait when clearly this was a smokescreen. And like Dick Diver Yuri isn’t terribly convincing as a doctor either. Not convincing, in other words, whenever Pasternak tries to distance him from himself. Not that this matters much in either case.

Dr Zhivago could be seen as the most elaborate justification of adultery every written. I doubt if it’s any hard core feminist’s favourite novel. This time around I wasn’t convinced about his women. He seems to idealise women rather than understand them, often putting his own words into their mouths. Tonya’s letter to Yuri when she finds out he’s betrayed her is almost comical in its flattering appeal to his vanity and understanding of Lara’s advantages over her own. What woman would tell her man she makes things simple and acknowledge her rival complicates them? That’s like admitting you’re duller than your rival. You might fear it but never would you say it, at least not in the calm moderated charming way Tonya does. This voice of reason on the part of Tonya while the entire country is a bloodbath of irrational hatred jars. Pasternak means well when he writes about women but like many educated man of his generation can come across as patronising.


Pasternak will also show how public life and its etiquette, its conventions, can corrupt the personal life. In the old world his marriage to Tonya is a rational decision – they’re from the same class, share a similar education and have much in common. And yet the lower class Lara is better suited to him. But it takes the revolution for them to meet on equal terms. Ironically then, for all his criticism of the revolution, he’s recognising it introduced a broader prospect for love between soulmates while before love was principally confined to social equals.

Komarovsky is a key character to understanding what Pasternak thought of the revolution in broad terms. Komarovsky begins the novel as a predatory entrepreneur who enjoys the good life. After all the passionate idealism, the killing and sacrifice and starvation Komarovsky loses not one iota of his power. The unscrupulous mercenary will always come out on top. And maybe it’s this accurate but rather unadventurous idea which runs through the novel that explains why Nabokov found the novel dreary. On the other hand maybe he was just bitching about a rival.

Once again I read the old translation which has been roundly criticised. I read somewhere that the translator read a page and then set about translating it without again glancing at it. In other word he went for the gist rather than the rhythm. There’s a new one now that is apparently much better.Doctor-Zhivago-doctor-zhivago-32081465-500-208


Paradise by Toni Morrison

Sometimes you have to hold up your hands as a reader and admit maybe you didn’t do a book justice. I found Paradise really difficult to follow. Mainly this is due to there being no central character. The central character instead is a town called Ruby where only blacks live and are free of white legislation and a nearby building known as the convent. The awfulness of men and magical prowess of women is its theme. Well not quite but the divisions drawn here are not between blacks and whites but between men and women. The men drawing their inspiration from the past, the women much more inclined to look forward.

I’d be interested to know how many characters there are in this novel. I would guess about a hundred and they all have significance which for me meant Morrison was asking too much of the reader. No doubt a novelist lives obsessively in the novel she’s writing. As a reader this isn’t the case. We have the rest of our life to get on with every day. If a character who has only had two lines reappears after a hundred pages it’s almost cruel to expect us to remember him or her. And yet if we don’t remember them here we are punished, shoved out of the narrative. To fully appreciate this novel I’d guess you’d have to read it in three sittings. Unfortunately I was only managing to read about twenty pages a day. On top of that I wasn’t really convinced by any of the characters.

At the beginning, a lynch party of men set out with guns and various other weapons to put an end to the reign of a few mysterious women living in the building outside the town. A witch hunt in other words. The men have managed to convince themselves these women are ungodly. The novel then goes backwards in time to document both the history of the small town of Ruby and the various women who have ended up at the convent.  There’s some cleverness in the construction of this novel – I liked how it turns full circle which does create a lot of intrigue – but there’s also a good deal of clumsiness. For starters the characters aren’t particularly memorable with perhaps one or two exceptions. A lot of them, especially the men, seemed interchangeable. Neither is the prose as haunting and exalted as Morrison’s usual fare. So though I felt I didn’t do it justice I can still say with conviction it’s no Beloved. In fact it’s my least favourite of the Morrison novels I’ve (11)


A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

So much to love about this short novel which depicts how a family in a ramshackle flaking farmhouse in Ireland live with a ghost.

Lilia is engaged to Guy when he dies in the war. She goes to seed. Eventually Guy’s cousin Antonia persuades her to marry Fred, a roving farmhand, and take possession of Guy’s house. Lilia and Fred produce two children. The older, Jane, one day finds some old letters in the attic and Guy’s ghost is let loose into the house. The letters were written by Guy but to whom is the mystery which explodes into the fragile equilibrium of life at Montefort.

The five main characters in this novel are all fabulous as is the dialogue they share. Lilia is a familiar Bowen character, the disappointed woman who has married beneath herself. The rivalry between her and the artistic but dehydrated Antonia is executed with thrilling insight throughout. I can’t recall many novels – Ferrante’s maybe – that dramatise so well the competitive rivalry that can exist between two women. They compete for influence over Lilia’s daughter Jane whose sexuality is awakened by finding and reading the letters. The younger daughter Maud reads aloud psalms from the Bible as curses and has an invisible familiar called Guy David who she keeps with her at all times. She provides Bowen with so much fabulous comedy. Fred, the husband, is belittled by the presence of the letters. The sixth character and maybe the best of all is the house and surrounding landscape. Bowen’s descriptive writing is at its very best here.

Occasionally Bowen is guilty of over mystification, of straining too hard to prise out meaning from her stage sets – usually when summoning Guy’s ghost who, it should be said, isn’t a physical ghost. It was only these passages and there aren’t many of them that persuaded me to meanly dock a star. On the whole though VS Pritchett gets it right – “Electric and urgent…she startles us by sheer originality of mind and boldness of sensibility into seeking our world afresh.” download (10)


The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen

For me this novel is overloaded with mystification. Bowen is trying too hard to charge every line of dialogue, every piece of descriptive writing with psychological insight. When it works it’s brilliant but too often here it doesn’t and she seems guilty of the charge most often levelled at her – that she is more sensibility than substance. There’s far too much elaborately described minutiae in this book.

The Little Girls has a terrific premise. Three elderly women meet up again to dig up the coffer containing secret cherished objects they buried as children. The novel is divided in three parts – the middle section shows us the three women as the children they once were.

The characters, like the narrator, skirt around the many mysteries raised, few of which don’t remain hidden from us. Her experiments with dialogue are at their most stylised here. Apparently throwaway lines, often with inverted sentence structures, are wired with depth charges and explode relentlessly. Here it’s a technique that seems like a hit and miss mannerism; in the subsequent Eva Trout it acquires a masterful artistry – the ostensibly realistic and throwaway dialogue containing within its linguistic mannerisms, contortions and inversions deep psychological truths about the private soul of the speaker. It’s dialogue as oracle but expressed in simple everyday language. In The Little Girls however it felt like Bowen is forcing meaning on everything as if we’re in the midst of a poem, not a novel.

Along with her first two books, The Hotel and Friends and Relations, my least favourite Bowen (10)


Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Objectively this is probably a four star book but I’m going the full hog because of how much relentless pleasure it gave me, not least of all because of its laugh-out-loud humour and original and wholly compelling cast of characters. It took Elizabeth Bowen a long time, until her last two books, to try her hand at a full blown comic novel and boy does she do it well. (The inept introduction makes the extraordinary claim that in this novel Bowen abandons comedy.)

Eva Trout, an orphaned heiress, cannot find her feet in the world. She’s a familiar Bowen heroine, the bluster of her unschooled innocence creating havoc wherever she goes. Few writers do children better than Bowen and this is again the case here. She gets that wondrous x-ray tilt children put on things. Iseult, her former teacher, is a fabulous portrait of the disillusioned clever woman who has married beneath herself and Constantine, her lawful guardian, is one of Bowen’s best ever creations.

It’s purposely overwritten (see the quote below about a day in Cambridge) but in a mischievous and consistently mannered way which wages its own private war on cliché. Bowen, you can tell, hates clichés and often mocks them by turning them on their head or inserting them into a sentence or passage which is grammatically bizarre. “But absence,” he wheedled, “makes the heart grow fonder. It’s completely unheard of that it should fail to.” There’s barely a sentence in this novel anyone else could have written – with, maybe, the exception of late Henry James who she pays homage to with her contorted sentence structures. Fitting that the leading male is called Henry.

On a social level the novel can be read as a depiction of England’s uneasy transition from the pastoral into modernity– there’s the village vicarage which becomes a kind of foundation stone for Eva and contains in atmosphere the inexpensive reassurances of the 19th century; this is counterpointed by the sexually predatory charlatan Constantine (Eva’s dead father’s lover) in his high rise office who, though super rich, has no job title. Eva herself finds sanctuary in the vicarage until the inevitable expulsion. She then fills her new home with all the inventions of modernity. The old world priest is replaced by a succession of faith healers, art therapists and new age ministers. When these fail her she is drawn back to the past which takes the form of a visit to the National Portrait Gallery where she goes from the Tudors to the Stuarts through to the Victorians in an effort to find out how much identity can be found in a face. Not much, she concludes, still trying to find her own face.

Part of my love for this book was instigated by my familiarity with its settings – fantastic evocations of Paris and especially London which enabled me to see the familiar anew; and the description of Chicago where she goes to buy a child on the black market reminded me of my own trip there as a child when I felt the full force of its aggressive insistence on the future, its alienating and dwarfing rejection of every yesterday.

The novel also pays lip service to psychoanalytic ideas of its time, which act as a kind of hidden floorplan. The child Eva buys is a deaf mute which offers Bowen exuberant opportunity to explore the world of alternative healing. Every relationship here is subjected to a psychological autopsy. We seem decades further up the line from Virginia Woolf when in fact only twenty years have transpired. Bowen is confronting modernity with a razor sharp eye for satiric detail, but without the wistful sentimentalised nostalgia of Brideshead Revisited, and a hair-triggered sensibility alert to both the beauty and absurdity of the worlds in which Eva finds herself.  One of the things that makes this so fascinating is that it’s the work of a writer precipitated out of her own era into a new one – the 1960s. She’s as tenderly affectionate as she is scathingly mocking and it was this subtle and difficult tightrope act that helped make this novel so loveable, that and its high tide imaginative vitality, awesomely impressive for a seventy year old woman.