What ultimately matters is the magnitude of Knausgaard’s investment in his project, the sense that here is a man writing to save himself, writing to survive, writing because these things mean so much to him. Somehow, he is able to make them mean almost as much to us. Like all great art, whatever the genre, one leaves these books with a renewed feeling for what life and art can be.
A Story of the Struggle to Tell a Story
“Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance.”
—Karl Ove Knausgaard
The year is 2007. For the past four years, Karl Ove Knausgaard has been trying to write about his troubled relationship with his deceased father. Though the 38-year-old author has two previously acclaimed novels under his belt (Out of the World, 1998, and 2004’s A Time For Everything), this time around the attempt to cast his material into fiction isn’t working:
Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis, I felt it in every fiber of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not the least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. This sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced . . . I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value.
Finally, after returning home from a visit to the region of southern Norway where he grew up, Knausgaard stumbles upon a new strategy: to alter the distance between the work and the world by getting “as close as possible to my life.” That evening, after his family has gone to bed, he sits down at his desk and describes what he sees in front of him:
In the window before me I can vaguely see the image of my face. Apart from the eyes, which are shining, and the part directly beneath, which dimly reflects light, the whole of the left side lies in shade. Two deep furrows run down the forehead, one deep furrow runs down each cheek, all filled as it were with darkness, and when the eyes are staring and serious, and the mouth turned down at the corners it is impossible not to think of this face as somber.
What is it that has etched itself into you?
This mini-scene repeats itself in My Struggle. Its first appearance is on page 28 of Book One. There, we read it as a description of the book’s brooding central character, an isolated, conflicted man. In Then, Again: The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts writes that the genre “begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” 962 pages later, near the end of Book Two, Knausgaard’s mini-scene reappears verbatim. Only at this point do we learn the scene’s greater significance: that it is the turning point in Knausgaard’s attempt to write about his father’s impact on his life, the kernel that contains the six volume autobiographical saga to come.
While the above passage is a good example of how Knausgaard employs repetition across time to build meaning in his work, it also neatly enacts, in miniature, another type of movement the author utilizes in the My Struggle books to powerful effect: a quietly intense attendance to visual phenomenon, always linked to the act of perception/self-perception, with a particular emphasis on the perceiving apparatus (the eyes), will suddenly be followed by a shift to a larger, abstract question. (Indeed, Knausgaard’s epic, relentless attempt to answer the question that ends the passage – “What is it that has etched itself into you? – could rightfully be said to form the true subject of these remarkable books.)
But let’s go back to February, 2007: Knausgaard has just begun his new method. He seeks to “dramatize the inner self” by uncovering his past: first five pages a day, then ten, and near the end as many as twenty pages; he writes as quickly as possible in an attempt to escape his conscious notions of what the form should be, trying to move beyond the desire (amply exhibited in his previous novels) to produce aesthetically beautiful prose. By 2009, Knausgaard has accumulated 3600 pages. That same year, the first part of his novelistic “autobiography,” entitled Min Kamp (“My Struggle”), appears in Norway to equal amounts of praise and controversy. The controversy is not so much over the title, with its echoes of Hitler’s memoir (Mein Kampf in German, Min Kamp in Norwegian), but has rather to do with the people the author has “exposed.” In a northern European nation that prefers to keep family trauma private, Knausgaard has written directly about the most personal aspects of his family experiences without any attempt to disguise or change the names of his ex-wife, his father, his grandmother, and other friends and family. When the second volume of My Struggle appears, Knausgaard’s mother calls him and begs him to stop. An uncle threatens to sue. Ultimately, author and publisher agree to change a few of the names in subsequent editions, but the media storm grows, first spreading through Scandinavia, and then across Europe. Most agree about the power of the work, but at what cost has it been achieved? The books become a national obsession, selling 450,000 copies in a country of less than five million people. Norway’s culture minister declares the work the “the greatest account of our generation.” On a national radio program, Knausgaard will go on to say that he feels he has made a “pact with the devil.”
Last August, a few weeks before Archipelago Press released Don Bartlett’s excellent translation of My Struggle: Book One in North America, the book received the “James Wood treatment.” Writing in The New Yorker, Wood praised the work as “intense and vital,” stating that it contained “what Walter Benjamin called ‘the epic side of truth, wisdom.” The first volume of My Struggle is indeed a rarity in contemporary literature; part memoir, part unhinged bildungsroman, it ploughs through and ultimately transcends both genres with a driving seriousness of intent, delving more deeply into the human experience than anything I’ve read in a long time. Fixated on the shadow Knausgaard’s father cast over his childhood and teenage years, and ending with the thirty year-old Karl Ove confronting the horrible death of that father from alcoholism, the 430 page book alternates between extended, minutely detailed descriptive passages and essayistic meditations on death. The result is a kind of crackling slow-burn, a fearless examination of, as Carlos Fuentes once said of Frida Kahlo: “internal darkness under midday lights.”
This month, My Struggle: Book Two makes its North American debut. If Book One centered on death (in order to downplay potential controversy over Knausgaard’s Hitlerian title, the work was published as To Die in Germany and A Death in the Family in the U.K.) then Book Two is loosely organized around the concept of love (and has already been published across the pond under its subtitle A Man in Love). While it is possible to read Book Two on its own and still get something out of it, to do so would be like opening up Remembrance of Things Past for the first time at Within a Budding Grove. Much of the power of Proust and Knausgaard’s projects comes from their length and breadth, which allows for a gradual accumulation of patterned detail, as specific themes and moments repeat themselves in subtle and not-so-subtle variations. In both works, repetition is key.
My Struggle: Book Two primarily covers 2003-2008, years when Knausgaard left behind his old life and partner in Norway and moved to Stockholm. For readers of Book One, Knausgaard’s escape to Sweden possesses added significance: it was after Karl Ove’s own father moved away from his family that he began the drinking and isolation that fourteen years later would leave him dead. Knausgaard does plenty of drinking in Stockholm, but rather than fall apart, he falls in love – with the poet Linda Bostrom.
Knausgaard imbues these scenes with the nostalgic power of true love glimpsed in retrospect. He vividly captures the feel of early love, the uncertainty and vulnerability at the beginning, when things could still go either way, as well as the ecstatic heights:
The town sparkled around us as we walked home, Linda in the white jacket I had given her as a present that morning, and walking there, hand in hand with her, in the midst of this beautiful and, for me, still foreign town, sent wave after wave of pleasure through me. We were still full of ardor and desire, for our lives had turned, not just on the breath of a passing wind, but fundamentally. We planned to have children. We had no sense of anything awaiting us except happiness.
Over the course of My Struggle: Book Two, Karl Ove and Linda become parents to three children. One of the pleasures of the work is the associative, non-chronological way Knausgaard unfolds his story, shifting in and out of different periods according to the movement of thought and memory. Because of this, Book Two begins with all three children already born and the early stages of infatuation between Karl Ove and Linda a relic of the distant past.
The first thing one notices about My Struggle: Book Two (other than the fact that it is a hefty 146 pages longer than its predecessor) is a decrease in the level of intensity that filled Book One. With the father figure dead and buried, the sense of dread behind each sentence is palpably lessened. E.M. Forster once remarked that “mystery creates a pocket in time.” Book One utilizes the mystery of Knausgaard’s father (why is he such a cruel, tortured man? How exactly will he meet his end?) to mesmerizing effect. Throughout that first volume, wherever young Karl Ove goes, the father’s shadow follows; there is always the sense of movement towards further revelation. Many of the scenes in Book One possess an aura of somnambulant terror, as if anything could occur at any moment, which provides a momentum that propels the reader through some of the lengthier descriptive passages. A roughly 60-page description of young Karl Ove trying to secure alcohol for New Year’s Eve, for example, unfolds in painfully slow fashion beneath the constant apprehension over whether the father will find out what the son is up to. The tension builds until, at the end of Book One, Karl Ove pays a second visit to his father’s corpse (again, repetition). Here, something opens up in him, and he begins to see the intertwining elements of death, life, and time in a different way:
. . . there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.
With this conclusion to My Struggle: Book One, the last two sentences of which rhythmically and thematically echo the final sentences of the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past,[*] the great tension is released. A new point of realization has been reached.
Initially then, Book Two lacks both the momentum and the mystery of Book One. Certainly love can be a mystery, but at the outset of Book Two it seems more like a daily slog, as we are confronted with scenes of Knausgaard’s new family life. Only in the light of what has come before do these scenes gradually accrue a resonant force. The still fearful, still internally isolated Underground Man persona that Knausgaard continues to develop here—picture a 21st century Raskolnikov schlepping a stroller, a diaper bag, and two toddlers up a hill while his wife stands at the top in a foul mood, a third wailing infant in her arms—is understandable precisely because we know he has come out of. Although the hated father is dead and Karl Ove has escaped to a new country, Knausgaard still struggles to relate his internal and external worlds, and to be around others. Most moving, in these early scenes, is Knausgaard’s depiction of his own quest to be a decent father, as he attempts to raise his young children without duplicating the paternal coldness, cruelty and occasional rage he was treated to during his own upbringing. We come to see that for the adult Karl Ove Knausgaard, love means following through on one’s commitments, regardless of how fucked up one feels inside.
So it goes for 67 pages, with little of what contemporary publishing would call “narrative tension” or “drive.” As with certain sections of Book One, we begin to suspect that the day-in-day-out nature of these scenes, the very mundaneness of their details, is the point; these scenes need to be long for the same reason that the infamous sermon on hell in the third chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man needs to be long: to enact, rather than simply describe the interminable, real-time duration of certain life moments. And yet, after a while, we begin to wonder if this all Book Two has to offer.
Then, on page 68, Knausgaard returns home from the birthday party of one of his young daughter’s friends. He steps out alone onto the balcony, has a smoke, drinks some stale diet coke:
I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a rule in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me . . . Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
It is difficult to convey the full force of this passage without also including what preceded it: a forty-plus page description of a middle-class Swedish child’s birthday party, where a Norwegian father remains intensely within himself, unable to connect with the others, even those he likes. This struggle is made more poignant by the fact that we see how Knausgaard’s three-year old daughter Vanya already exhibits these same social tendencies, this same furious need to be accepted by others, coupled with the inability, on a bodily level, to figure out how to join in the other children at play. For Knausgaard and his daughter, a routine social occasion is a source of fear, shame, and longing.
A Few Words About Titles
Given that Hitler’s memoir is often published in North America, even in translation, under its original German title, for some the English “My Struggle” will not have the same resonance it does in Norwegian. The above passage from page 68 of Book Two is the first time we get a direct reference to, and partial explication of, the work’s title. Here, the emphasis is on the struggle to balance being in the world for others versus being in the world for oneself—the struggle to exist, on a moment-to-moment basis. In a recent interview, Knausgaard said that he chose the title Min Kamp on something of a lark. He liked the friction it carried between the daily, personal struggles of the individual and the larger structures of ideology and politics that function in opposition to private life. My Struggle: Book Six reportedly contains an essay that delves further into this issue, focusing on a comparison between Knausgaard and Hitler’s books, but English readers will have to wait a few more years for this.
If nothing else, Knaugaard’s series does foreground, in immense detail, the struggles of everyday life. By placing this struggle in the background, as the UK version does on its cover, the emphasis becomes reversed. Whether this retitling was done in order to avoid controversy or to more easily market the volume-by-volume content of Knausgaard’s work makes little difference; it interposes a too-large distinction between each book in the sextet, as if there were no significant overlap. The throughline of struggle is downplayed, the totality of the whole sacrificed for an emphasis on each volume as an individual marketable product.
For make no mistake, struggle, in conception and reality, runs through everything Karl Ove does, everything he thinks. Happy or sad, in joy or despair, he suffers apart from the rest, alone. In this, he is a true Underground Man.
Notes From Underground
“All the same, if we take into consideration the conditions that have shaped our society, people like the writer not only may, but must, exist inthat society.”
The above words (or rather, their Russian equivalent) were written in 1864 as a description the original Underground Man. Dostoevsky’s name appears 16 times in My Struggle: Book Two. Like Karl Ove in My Struggle, that main character of Notes From Underground is also a writer composing a sort of memoir: “I, however, am writing for myself alone, and let me declare once and for all that if I write as if I were addressing an audience, it is only for show and because it makes it easier for me to write. It is a form, nothing else; I shall never have any readers. I have already made that clear . . .” Interestingly, Knausgaard has said in interviews that he too “didn’t believe that anyone would be interested in this writing, because it’s so personal, so private.” This thought set him free at his desk, to write “for myself, by myself.”
As Dostoyevsky writes in a passage that applies equally to My Struggle’s central character, the Underground Man’s dilemma, “lies in his consciousness of his own deformity . . . the tragedy of the underground [is] made up of suffering, self-torture, the consciousness of what is best and the impossibility of attaining it, and above all else the firm belief of these unhappy creatures that everybody else is the same and that consequently it is not worth while trying to reform.”
While the Underground Man feels isolated from the rest of society, he is also a product of it, and perhaps, in the end, not quite so hideously unique as he imagines. Knaugaard realizes that his is as much a problem of perception as anything else, but does not know how to change:
Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, how stupid I was. I couldn’t find any peace in a café; within a second I had taken in everyone there, and I continued to do so, and every glance that came my way penetrated into my innermost self, jangled about inside me, and every movement I made, even if only flicking through a book, was likewise transmitted outwards to them, as a sign of my stupidity, every movement I made said: “This is an idiot sitting here.” So it was better to walk, for then the looks disappeared one by one, admittedly they were replaced by others, but they never had time to establish themselves, they just glided past, there goes an idiot, there goes an idiot, there goes an idiot.
This paradox of the Underground Man, painfully separate from society, while at the same time yoked to and created by it, is presumably what allows Karl Ove to see himself as outside, different from the rest, and still write “the definitive portrait” of his generation, a work that has resonated so deeply for so many others.
The other reference point for the Underground Man, particularly from a Norwegian perspective, is Knut Hamson’s Hunger. In the course of My Struggle: Book Two, Hamsun’s name is mentioned 11 times. In one scene, a Swedish filmmaker begins jokingly calling Knausgaard “Hamsun,” for his reactionary Norwegian views.
In Hunger, we are again presented with a writer struggling to maintain his dignity in an urban setting. Hamsun’s Underground Man is defined by his extreme refusal to partake in the pleasures of everyday life, to join the crowd by accepting help in the form of food or money. Knausgaard too is interested in refusal. Late in Book Two, Knausgaard’s friend Geir Gullickson informs him that: “Not to strive for a happy life is the provocative thing you can do.” A page or so later, Knausgaard responds: “All I know is that success is not to be trusted. I notice that I get angry just talking about it.”
The prose of Book Two is similar to Book One: the long sentences and paragraphs do not induce anxiety in the way that Thomas Bernhard or László Krasznahorkai’s writing can, but rather project a certain detached calm. A typical Knausgaardian sentence piles independent clause upon independent clause, linking these with comma splices where grammatical convention would seem to call for a period, semicolon or coordinating conjunction. 800 pages into the My Struggle saga, these splices were still tripping me up. I began to wonder if it was a function of the translation; perhaps Norwegian possessed different conventions with regards to sentence structure?
A perusal of Knausgaard’s previous novel, “A Time for Everything,” revealed that the author does indeed know how to “properly” punctuate. A typical passage from that work reads: “Cain felt the gaze of the crowd at his back, but he didn’t turn; in a strange way their exit felt like a victory: it was just the two of them. In a few minutes the festivities would continue, and the wonder would dissipate itself in them.”
47 words in total. The varied punctuation helps to regulate the flow of the two sentences. We stop at the periods. And pause at the semi-colon and colon. Each of the two commas is followed by a coordinating conjunction (but, and). Now, compare this to the writing in My Struggle:
Later that autumn the temperature plummeted, all the water and the canals in Stockholm froze, we walked on the ice from Soder to Stockholm’s Old Town, I hobbled along like the hunchback of Notre Dame, she laughed and took photos of me, I took photos of her, everything was sharp and clear, including my feelings for her.”
One sentence, 57 words: one period, seven commas. My guess is that the run-ons in My Struggle are the result of Knausgaard’s compositional method, and that he decided to leave many of them untouched as a statement about the formal constraints of his project. As he recently told Eleanor Wachtel, length and speed were crucial: “It had to be long, and I had to write very quickly, so I could be ahead of my thoughts all the time.” By consistently eschewing the aesthetics of a properly punctuated sentence, Knausgaard allows data and detail to pile up without the emphasis that more varied punctuation would provide. At one level, the My Struggle books seem to be about getting as much of the world’s content as possible onto the page, rather than arranging this content for artful effect. Knaugaard will sometimes leave a sentence deliberately clunky to enhance this impression. Listen to the repetition of the word “mind” in the final clause here: “The boxer incident, when I hadn’t dared kick in the door, and the boat incident, when I hadn’t dared to ask Arvid to slow down, as well as Linda’s concern about my failure to act, had played on my mind so much that now there was no doubt in my mind.”
Eyes Within a Face
“What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?”
—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book Two
Which is not to say that there aren’t still beautiful passages and artful effects, but rather that these are not the point of the work. In particular, Knaugaard has a knack for describing eyes, getting at the essential individuality and emotion they convey. Knausgaard is obsessed, in a conflicting way, with how he sees the world and how others see him. It is little wonder, then, that painting is his favourite art (Book One contains a beautiful passage describing the eyes in a late Rembrandt self-portrait), or that the most frightening creature he can imagine, from a childhood dream, is a lizard-like figure without any eyes.
How Knausgaard perceives his own eyes often provides a clue to his relationship with the world. When he first arrives in Stockholm:
I studied myself in the mirror for a few seconds. My face was pale and slightly bloated, hair unkempt and eye . . . yes, my eyes . . . Staring but not in an active, outward-facing fashion, as though they were looking for something, more as if what they saw was drawn into them, as if they sucked everything in.
Since when had I had such eyes?
There is only one scene in Book Two where Knausgaard’s mother is remotely critical of him: after he moves to Stockholm, she lashes out at how he left his wife and then fell in love again so quickly: “I couldn’t see other people,” Knausgaard summarizes, “I was completely blind. I saw only myself everywhere. Your father, she said, he looked straight into people. He saw immediately who they were. You’ve never done that. No, I said. Maybe I haven’t.”
Later, his love for Linda changes the way he sees by bringing him into closer proximity to reality: “Before, I had always been deep inside myself, observing people from there, like from the back of a garden. Linda brought me out, right to the edge of myself, where everything was near and everything seemed stronger.”
Struggle with Form/Struggle as Form
“ . . . I could counter that Dante, for example, had written just fiction, that Cervantes had written just fiction, and that Melville had written just fiction. It was irrefutable that being human would not be the same if these three works had not existed, So why not just write fiction? . . . Good arguments, but that didn’t help, just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me nauseous, I reacted in a physical way.”
—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two
In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields describes being overtaken by a similar feeling: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” It is worth noting that very few of the writers of recent works of reality-based fiction are as wholeheartedly against the traditional novel in the way that Shields can sometimes appear to be (e.g. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station). It is tempting to add My Struggle to the list of contemporary fiction/nonfiction hybrids, the most epic version yet of the novel-from-life.
But somehow Knausgaard’s work displays a less playful attitude towards the division between fiction and reality, as if he is off working in his own mad dimension that paradoxically feels closer to the real. Though Knausgaard’s series was originally published in Norway and other European countries with the word roman on the cover, in Britain and North America it is more often referred to as an epic memoir. In many ways, My Struggle perfectly enact Birkerts’ definition of the genre. While “this really happened is the baseline contention of the memoir,” Birkerts writes, the true “fascination of the work . . . is in tracking the artistic transformation of the actual via the alchemy of psychological insight, pattern recognition, and lyrical evocation in a contained saga.”
Archipelago has wisely decided to publish My Struggle without a genre label. What ultimately matters is the magnitude of Knausgaard’s investment in his project, the sense that here is a man writing to save himself, writing to survive, writing because these things mean so much to him. Somehow, he is able to make them mean almost as much to us. Like all great art, whatever the genre, one leaves these books with a renewed feeling for what life and art can be.
Birkerts also stresses that it is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines, “the now and the then (the many thens) . . . that creates the quasi-spatial illusion most approximating the sensations of lived experience, of recollection merging into the ongoing business of living.” Knaugaard has taken this technique to new heights, returning again and again to his themes, with new insight:
Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning. My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.
The overall effect of the first two My Struggle books, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, is both liberating and exhilarating. In any one book, so much has, of necessity, to be pared away. The magnitude of Knausgaard’s project allows him to shine a light on hitherto unknown aspects of being, indulging in immense, 234 page-long digressions into the past. But when we return to the present, it is with a renewed knowledge and understanding of the characters and their situations.
And yet, despite its allegiance to reality, Knausgaard’s art is still an art: it still employs form and illusion. For all its breadth, the writing still only seems to include everything. In reality, it casts its net only over what has come through the author’s mind in the process of writing. Gradually, as Book Two progresses, we move back round to the subjects and questions of Book One: alcoholism, death, paternity. We come to see that death and love are bound up together in myriad ways. But perhaps, with his particular brand of intuitive energy, Knausgaard was setting us up for this all along, right from the very first sentence of Book One:
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”
Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His writing can be found online at Numéro Cinq and Influencysalon.ca. He lives in Toronto and divides his time between his writing and teaching at Humber College.
- In the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”↵
Herewith the definitive interview with David Ferry, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for his collection Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. It’s an interview that will surprise you, teach you and maybe change your life, especially if you are a poet. It is replete with compositional and technical information invested with passion and deep reading. Ferry will say things such as “In that line, for the first time in the poem, in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “Once by the Pacific.” That way of thinking about lines: what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life…” Our interviewer, Peter Mishler, is the perfect interlocutor, the perfect seeker, curious, engaged, literate.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?
I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. It’s an upper-middle class suburb near New York City. My father’s office was in New York City––so that’s my home city, and always has been. I feel like a New Yorker in some way––and all the more so because my wife grew up on East 92nd Street, and my daughter went to Columbia and my son lives in New York. I went up to Amherst and Harvard and taught at Wellesley for most of my career and lived in Cambridge for all of my career. So Boston I guess is my main city, but New York still feels like it.
What poems first caught your attention when you were growing up?
Whitman most of all, in high school: so big-hearted and sexually waked-up and freeing; and the big rhythmical repetitions of those long lines, with so much room in them for variety and syntactical surprise––there’s lots going on inside the lines. And the nationalism, the sadness in Lilacs Last. Lots of other stuff, of course, just reading around in an anthology we had, the Oxford Book of American Verse. The Shakespeare lines encountered in high school classes –-– “books in running brooks, sermons in stones” –-– but I wasn’t in any sense a prodigal reader of poetry, as opposed to other reading.
Nor was I a big time reader, by comparison. I was a reasonably smart high school kid, and had no idea of becoming a poet. Or becoming anything. Well, that’s not quite so. If I had to guess, at that time, I’d have guessed that I’d become a teacher of literature. These were the classes I liked best in middle school and high school. But I didn’t get hooked on poetry until I went to Amherst, then got drafted, and returned to Amherst. It was the teaching of Reuben Brower and C.L. Barber that did it to me and for me, vocationally. And, of course, Frost and Stevens.
You mention in another interview that your teaching and writing were shaped by your early reading of specific lines from Frost. Could you elaborate on why the discovery of that writing was so important to you?
I wrote a particular paper about a Frost poem, which now feels to me, in retrospect, like it was a big vocational experience. I actually remember saying to myself, inside my head, “This is what I want to do for good and all––teaching––and teaching about how things like this happen inside the lines of poems.” The poem was Once By the Pacific, which begins:
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The thing that really came home to me in those iambic pentameter lines was the way that second line was an iambic pentameter line, but “great” was so strong for the so-called weaker syllable in the first foot, and then “looked” was, too; and what was happening in those waves rising up and about to break was happening in the line itself. And then another instance in the poem, a little later:
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff
In that line, for the first time in the poem, in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “Once by the Pacific.” That way of thinking about lines: what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life as a teacher. I wasn’t even thinking about being a poet or I never had that intention, anyway. At the beginning, I hadn’t started to write any poems. And as a teacher, I kept thinking at that time about the grammar of Frost’s great essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.” The grammar of that title in a sense suggests that the figure isn’t something laid down on a poem; the poem makes a figure and the poem is made by what happens––things that are unexpected by the intention at the beginning of the poem and unexpected by the poem itself.
I read somewhere that you had corresponded with Wallace Stevens when you were an undergraduate. I’m really curious to hear about your exchange.
“Corresponded,” no. Stevens, along with Frost, were my two biggest experiences, experiences for my listening ear at Amherst. I wrote my senior thesis about Stevens and I was elated about having done so. I wrote him a letter asking him about Whitman, even though I knew the answer, because I knew his lines about him. He wrote back and said something like, “Walt Whitman was the only writer back then whose writing wasn’t a book.” That is, he was what Stevens called “the latest freed man.” I wish I had the letter, but I lost it. I keep hearing all those lines of his that are entranced and entrancing: “Keep you, keep you, I am gone, O keep you as / My memory, is the mother of us all.”
Do you remember when you first started writing poems?
The first poem I ever wrote was “Embarkation to Cythera,” about Watteau’s great painting. And I can’t remember if before that I’d thought about writing poems or had tried it. Writing that poem was a lot of fun, trying to work out the lines, and I sent the poem off to the Kenyon Review which I’d been reading a lot––everybody was in those days––because the leading critics of the time wrote often for that magazine, and because I was admiring many of the poems of John Crowe Ransom. And he took the poem. So I guess I thought I was starting out as a poet because of that poem. It was also true that at that time I was reading a lot of Pound, and the way he was writing about poems, and I think maybe I was thinking about those things not as a student but as somebody who was getting started writing.
Can you walk me through the process of how you compose a poem?
The process of composing a poem for me comes from writing something in a journal or as lines of poetry, and trying to understand the possibilities of the insides of the lines of that poem. There’s a poem in Of No Country I Know, called“Of Rhyme.” That poem tells more of what I think about how a poem gets produced: ”… the way each step of the way brings in / To play with one another in the game / Considerations hitherto unknown, / New differences discovering the same…” I don’t mean that I necessarily rhyme––I do in that poem––but starting and finding out how the form is being developed and learning from your attempts to write further inside the poems and seeing them become something with a shape and an identity. I don’t start from a concept or a proposed subject, though of course, because of things I’ve been concerned with in my mind or my situation, the poem as it develops does usually show that it has––the language of the poem has––a subject or a conceptual concern, and it’s likely to have relationships with other poems I’ve been working on, the translations I’ve been working, say, or things that have been happening to me.
AR Ammons has those great lines “I look for the forms/things want to come as.”
That’s a wonderful pair of lines, and I love the language of it: “to come as”––the unwilled nature of it, leaving it up to the poem as it finds its way to having a form. Ammons wrote mainly in a free verse, I guess, and, at least in recent years, and maybe always, I write mainly in iambic pentameter, so I wasn’t leaving the form up to what he calls in that poem “black wells of possibility.” I don’t know whether Ammons would automatically exclude metrical poems, which might seem to him to impose on the poem forms the poem didn’t want to come as, but I regard metrical schemes as explorative, trying to find out what form, the completed poem, things want to come as.
So you are highly attentive to the line when you are composing a poem.
That, you might say, is all that I’m conscious of. That’s who I am: somebody who writes lines of verse, mainly in familiar iambic metrical schemes. Writing in a fixed meter––iambic pentameter mainly––with a highly conscious sense of the line ending, defines your experience of the line and defines your sense of the degrees of varying pressure on the weak and strong syllables and their relationship to each other. The way that those things happen in relation to the basic iambic pentameter music of the line is something that you observe when you’re writing the line and taking some pleasure in doing it, but it also means that there are times when you want to manipulate that line inside itself to make it sound even better. So that modifies the way I was just talking about how so much that happens in the poem is a surprise to the writer. A surprise? Yes and no. In a way, that’s all the writing verse means, to me: attention to what happens inside the lines and to the line-endings and the consequences of the line-endings.
The iambic pentameter in your work is masterful. How did you get so good with this?
I’m too shy to say how I got “so good” at iambic pentameter, but it is true that I have a lot of experience writing in that meter. But I’m not a meter freak. I don’t have a police badge. I write free verse poems. But for me the meter I use most often is iambic pentameter, a line long enough to make room for many syntactical events, many different pressures of strong and weak. And its so natural. You call it “masterful” but the fragments my poems begin from are often prospective iambic pentameter lines, because that meter is so natural. We speak mainly in iambs and anapests, occasional trochees. You just said, “How did you get so good with this.” The first two syllables are trochaic (How did), the rest are iambic (you get so good with this). Natural, mainly iambic speech. The same is true in verse, except that the pentameter sets the music going, and governs it, and the regularity of that is part of the pleasure. The iambic pentameter music is playing all the while, and within that regularity we hear all the variations, the subtle differences of pressure and tone, and the activities of grammar, syntax and emotion, that make our speech so rich.
I want to know more of the particulars about how you make a poem. Do you write by hand?
I don’t write by hand at all. And almost never did. I write stuff down on the computer or sometimes in a journal. I might have some expression that I’ve written down, and I go back to it and read it and see if something happens. And I think.
Do you share your drafts with anyone?
I work and send drafts back and forth with a number of people. Boston is a wonderful working environment in that sense. I have lots of dear friends whom I do that with, especially in my work as a translator because I show passages to my Latinist mentors, classicists, and so on. Even with my wife, Anne, though I guess I didn’t very often show the very beginnings of what I was doing. I think I showed scraps to her when I thought something was beginning to develop, but sometimes only when something was pretty far along.
There are some significant gaps between the collections that you’ve published. Is there an aesthetic reason for this slowness?
I guess an aesthetic reason is in my poem to William Moran called “Brunswick, Maine, Early Winter, 2000.” I quote a wonderful quote that he sent to me from Nietzsche:
“It is a connoisseurship of the word;
Philology is that venerable art
That asks one thing above all other things:
Read slowly, slowly. It is a goldsmith’s art,
Looking before and after, cautiously;
Studying with delicate eyes and fingers.
It does not easily get anything done.”
It’s the same thing as if he’d said “write slowly” because writing is a form of reading. Not only is one’s reading going into the writing, but the way you read your experience as you’re trying to write it down, and more particularly as you’re reading your own language in the lines as your developing. That’s a slow business because it takes a lot of considering, reconsidering, altering, re-altering. I don’t know how to make it faster, at all.
I think of Marianne Moore’s work with quotation when I read your poems––and I know you like her work. What do you admire about it?
I think it’s the incredible skill with which she invents forms, often syllabics. She’s the only consistently good writer of syllabics that I know of in the sense of the organization of whole poems. And she invents forms in which she includes, like she says in her poem “Poetry,” anything, including prose. She brilliantly gets away with that. She incorporates other material in the poems with amazingly, scandalously, with wonderful success; incorporating them and making a form that will include taking along prose sentences from somewhere else, making it a part of a new poem that is also making a new form––it’s just an amazing example.
Would you cite her as an influence?
I haven’t thought of it exactly that way. In the poem for Bill Moran I just mentioned,I quote from Nietzsche because he had sent that passage to me, and part of our relationship was the excited way that we talked about reading. Bill was a great Babylonist at Harvard. I shared with him so many of the values that were implied in that quotation. It became very personal to the poem that I should get that in because it describes not only a way of thinking about reading and writing that I think is profoundly true, but it is also extremely personal and expressive of my relationship to him and to his work and to his wife.
My collection Bewilderment also includes an extended quotation from Goethe in the poem “The Intention of Things.” I had translated some poems of Goethe’s, and I happened to come upon this particular quotation. It was so helpful in what it did for what that poem was trying to say. And the pleasure of trying to make that extended sentence work in the metered lines, as I hope it does, without really changing a word of the quotation was part of the pleasure.
You mentioned reading Pound at the time when you started thinking of yourself as a poet. You must have also been interested in him as a translator then?
I was very interested in his translations, yes, but I had very few translations that early on. There is only one translation in my first book, On the Way to the Island: Ronsard’s sonnet that begins “Quand vous serez bien vieille.” And the next book, Strangers, was published twenty-three years later. And I was thinking of myself very much so as a poet during those years, though I was writing a poem a year, or at the most two or three. But in the second book there are three translations, and then the next book Dwelling Places is almost half-and-half poems and translations, and then I really began to give myself that way. But mainly I did not have a big time ambition to be “a translator.” I happened to be finding poems in other languages that were related to some of the situations I was writing poems about in that period of my life.
How did your career in translation develop after this?
I have in Dwelling Places, and my two subsequent books, poems that are about marginal people, street people in distressed and distressing conditions or situations, and I found or was directed to some wonderful poems that I translated: Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard” and his “Song of the Dwarf”; Baudelaire’s “Blind People”; a really marvelous 13th century poem I call “When We Were Children.” Such poems and the poems “of my own” that I was writing about such situations, fed each other. In the end I was surprised that such a high percentage of Dwelling Places was half poems and half translations. But I really felt, and still feel, that these translations are also poems of my own, because of the use I’ve made of them, what they became in my book, and because I wrote the lines in English, my lines became readings of those lines. The activity of writing those lines was not different in kind from writing lines in English, though the foreign texts supplied more data and data arranged more coherently than the undeveloped and often scrappy data of experience with which poems of my own began and which had less assistance in their development.
The new poems in my next book, Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems, also had a high percentage of translations related to my own poems, often about such situations. And also, around the time of Dwelling Places I began to be a translator (or something like it) in another sense. Bill Moran, whom I mentioned earlier, assigned me his word-for-word translation of several passages from the Gilgamesh epic, to versify. I did this and got hooked and, under his guidance, working from other scholarly word-for-word translations, made a verse poem of the Gilgamesh material. People liked it a lot, and I loved it. And then I really did want to translate big time and I got into the Odes of Horace under the guidance of Donald Carne-Ross, a great classicist at Boston University. Then I had the ambition to translate all of Horace which I haven’t finished yet. I translated all the Epistles and I am working on the Satires of Horace. I’m not a classicist or Latinist but I’ve been working under the guidance of several mentors at Harvard, especially Wendell Clausen and Richard Thomas and with lots of help from others, including Michael Putnam. The Horace work led to my translating the Eclogues of Virgil and, several years ago, the Georgics of Virgil. Now I’m at work on the Aeneid. Huge, huge experiences, line by line.
What are your thoughts on modernized translations––translations that incorporate a contemporary idiom, etc. into an older poem?
I don’t have many thoughts about this, because I don’t read much in other verse translations. I gather that there are translations which egregiously want to sound up to date. I don’t have such a motive. But you can’t avoid incorporating a contemporary idiom into your translation, because your translation is speaking English, and your English inevitably uses such idioms, without wanting too aggressively to sound “modern.” Of course there are places where, in my opinion, to get the tone right and characterize the feeling right, you have to take emergency action. For example, in my translation of Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard,” the drunkard, in a bar room scene recounts his experience of drinking and says, “Ich Narr,” “I Fool” or “I’m a fool.” I can’t hear in “I’m a fool,” the force of the self-disgust which I hear in “Ich Narr”, the very sound of it, but I do hear an equivalent when I translate it as “Asshole!,” and I think of that as a literal translation, true to the tone of self-disgust that the poem demands. But that’s not part of a general motive to “modernize.” It’s always an issue, though. You want your language to be alive but you don’t want it to cheapen things by being too ambitiously up to date.
Is there an ethics of translation that you believe in?
I think the responsibility of the translator is to convey as much as possible his passionate and close reading of the meanings of the lines that he is translating, and (as much as it is possible for him in his language) to register his understanding of the sense, the tonalities of the original, the tone of voice; and to understand as much as possible about the implications of the particular figures of speech because he is using another language. And in my opinion, it’s not a part of the responsibility to reproduce––in most cases––as exactly as possible the meters of the translations, the demands of the two languages being so different. My translations of the Epistles, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and (what I’ve done so far) the Aeneid are all in iambic pentameter, which is a capacious line––a lot can happen inside of it, as is true of dactylic hexameter, the prevailing cadence in the Latin text.
Right now you are translating the Aeneid. I remember reading the Robert Fitzgerald translation in high school. Is there something new about your translation that you want to point out that I might want to revisit?
I’ve only read a few passages of Fitzgerald, and I see why they’re admirable. What’s new about my translation is that it’s mine, all of it, my reading of the great original, and the lines have never been written quite that way before. This is true of all translations, good bad, and indifferent. True also of all “original” poems which are so often, maybe always, like translations of earlier poems. That’s how we keep alive.
Perhaps you will be able to say more when you are finished with the entire poem?
The question implies that I’d know with some confidence what the poem is “about,” what the encapsulated summary meaning of it is; for example, “a triumphalist celebration of the establishment of Rome.” Certainly there’s that in it. But to say that radically simplifies the poem, thins it out, and so does every other summary reading, behaving like take-home pay. I don’t know what’s “new” in my reading of the poem, which is my translation of it. Maybe what comes up in my translation so far comes up in all the others. I’m sure it does, though I haven’t read them much. How do bodies hurt when they’re atrociously violated; how do wives die; how vulnerable all cultures are and how it’s their fault and not; how the gods don’t get it and we don’t get it about the gods; how sons die. I think summarizing tends to kill the experience of reading the lines one after another. And what I think the poem is really about is the lines one after another––the experience that he gives to the reader and to the translator. There are many summary things one could say, but I don’t want to say them with any confidence. In my reading of these poems, though, I keep responding to the signs of vulnerability––individual and cultural––the tears of things. But that’s not all.
How do you convey these small discoveries to the reader?
It is the ambition of every little writer to be as good a reader as possible, as a translator reading the great text and reading his own developing experience of writing the lines. All you can do is to try to do as well as you can; and as you’re drafting a translation of it, find things that surprise you about what’s turning up in your own language, and then ask yourself if you are anywhere close to representing some of the effects of the original. And the answer is always, “No, of course not.” Every talk I’ve ever given on translation has been titled “What I Couldn’t Get” or “Getting it Wrong.” What I really like in my translation are also clear instances of what I didn’t get in the translation. But they came in the effort of getting it as right as possible.
Do you ever look at other translations when you are translating?
Occasionally I go to other translations when I am particularly puzzled by some narrative event, and occasionally I check myself out in order to get scared by how good the translation is, or to sneer at it in a superior manner––and both of those are mean-spirited kinds of experiences, so I don’t look very often. I have read in Dryden’s Aeneid. It is great. But it is in the 17th century idiom which is so different so I am not really affected by it or threatened by it. I’m told, and from what I’ve read it’s true, his emphasis is more admiringly imperialistic than what I think I am reading in the Aeneid.
How much of your reading of Virgil is colored by your own experience?
There’s no question that Virgil––he says so many times––is celebrating the regime, and that he is very close to the Emperor, as Horace is too. And in this “Cowboys and Indians” war, he is certainly on the side of the “Cowboys.” But he’s so full of eloquent distress about the vulnerability of the “Indians,” so to speak, and the precariousness of it all for everybody and the wrong motives everybody’s acting out of all the time along with the right motives. I think of that famous passage in Book One, “the tears of things”––“lacrimae rerum.” You keep seeing Virgil lamenting the cause of being human, and how to maintain a culture, and that the tears of things are everywhere. But stating that this is what the Aeneid is about kills your experience of the lines. You do learn something, but you keep on learning it in the condition of your sentences. I mean, in the ways we’re “writing” when we’re talking right now are full of indecisions, and changes of stress and emotion and self-puzzlement are going on all the time. And for me, that’s what’s so very alive in everybody’s writing. But Virgil is so good at that. I’m so struck by how big-hearted he is and how he sees everybody’s trouble. Experiencing that in the sentences of the poem is just wonderful.
I’d love to know more about how your translations converse with your own poems.
The biggest event since my last selected poems Of No Country I Know––the biggest, worst, event for me and my family––was the death of my wife. It is perfectly true that when she became ill, it was at the time I was translating the Georgics of Virgil, and when I came to Virgil’s account of Orpheus and Eurydice, the relation of that poem to some of the ways that I was writing that had to do with that event in my life were very, very direct and were directly referred to in that poem. Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice is referenced in the poem “Lake Water,” and quoted at the end of the poem about my father called “Resemblance.”
And in other ways, there is a very conscious relationship. There is a poem called “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember”and its title comes from the Wyatt poem I was talking about earlier. And it talks about that poem as if it were a sexual and romantic bereavement, in a sense. And that poem also uses a passage from Book Six of the Aeneid––about the unburied dead seeking across the river. I don’t want to say that those connections were planned in any sense, but I just sporadically kept a kind of journal; those connections emerged, and it’s no surprise. When I was working on Bewilderment I was writing poems that related to earlier poems of my own, just because it’s me. I am the same person who was writing those poems, and they relate to these events in my life in this period––and among those events was the death of my wife, but also the fact that my experience is full of translating Horace and Virgil. So it isn’t exactly an intention to use the one kind of material for the other, but the poems find out that they have had that intention.
I noticed that you re-included two of the poems from your first collection in Bewilderment. Why?
I included “At a Bar” because I like it a lot. And because I had several other bar room poems, because I wanted to include the great Horace “Ode to Varus” which is a kind of barroom poem, and because it sort of helps to make a relation between the poems in Bewilderment and some of the poems in Of No Country I Know and Going Places about people in distress. And there are lines in “At a Bar” like “What is my name and nature?” which are very much like lines that I’ve found myself writing in much more recent poems. “What is your name that I can call you by?” and so on, so it’s a poem I wanted to include. Barroom situations are good for singing the blues.
I have another book that has just been published in England by the Waywiser Press and it’s almost a complete poems, On This Side of the River. In that book I didn’t just want to arrange material chronologically from my first book to the latest one, but rather put poems together by their affinity to one another. And so it’s no surprise that in this other book which I was bringing out at the same time, I was doing quite a lot of putting poems written in 1960 and before with poems written in the 1980s and 1990s and 2012, so it’s not a surprise that I did that in Bewilderment as well.
When you were looking back on earlier work did you notice that there are particular things that you’ve tried to move away from over the years?
I’ve left out some poems from my first book, usually because they showed signs of trying to be charming, in a period sort of way. And revised others a bit. What else is new? I’ve kept everything else, and if that’s wrong it’s not for me to judge.
Were you and your wife artistic collaborators?
She gave me the title for all of my books. She wrote several lines of mine. For example there is a poem of mine in Of No Country I Know called “Rereading Old Writing.” She wrote the line “Something not to be understood.” She was a terrific example for me about how to read poems. We read poems together very intensively––my poems and other people’s poems. Her writing, for example, in her last book, By Design: Intention in Poetry, published by Stanford after her death about the differences between Sydney’s way of rhyming in his sonnets and Shakespeare’s is just astonishing. She teaches everybody how to read, how the writer, or, you could say, the poem itself makes the telling decisions.
She worked in one part of our house in Cambridge on the 3rd floor, and I worked in a big study on the second floor in the back. And I’d bring a poem upstairs, and we would come up with a solution. In that sense it was a working relationship.
Did your wife see any of the poems from Bewilderment?
That book is post-1999, and she died in 2006. I think she knew all of my translations of the Georgics which included the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that book was published in 2005. By that time she would not have known the last stages of the work in that book, and she certainly would not know of the use I made of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the poems about her. I am not sure if she knew any of the passages from the Aeneid that I put in Bewilderment. There are some other poems like “Willoughby Spit” that she certainly knew.
Before she died we were editing the wonderful collection of her essays, By Design,and she participated in the editing up to a point, so it was partial. But it was certainly a big part of our relationship that we worked together. That was not all there was to it, but it was terrific. She was an amazing teacher.
You have other artists in the family?
I do. My son is a wonderful photojournalist and an artist. My daughter writes books and she’s an extremely good anthropologist, and they are both wonderful readers of poetry. My father was a good organist and moonlighted in the Depression as a pianist, and I learned to play the piano because he played the piano. We thought at one time of doing a family website called The Cottage Industry––we’re not all poets, but we’re all writers. It’s terrific. My daughter and my son, as we speak, have been in Columbia, where he’s been mainly working in the last three years, collaborating on a story or maybe a little book about the gold rush in Columbia. He’s done a lot of photographing there, and she’s just been down there doing her anthropological work. Both of their first books were about mining in Latin America. And so there they are making something beautiful out of it. And there’s a photograph by my son on the cover of Bewilderment. Terrific.
I’m thinking about the title of this collection. Can you talk more about how mystery, misunderstanding, or the inability to know has played a role in your work?
It turns out in my writing, witnessedin the title of this book, that I keep finding out things about myself that I’m surprised at and that I can’t come to fixed conclusions about––that I live in this state of bewilderment. You do too. I discovered that something like that keeps coming up in my poems. It is not that I start out with some kind of subject matter or some intention to write on a topic. I let them write themselves. I’ve got a poem of one-liners at the beginning of Bewilderment that I made sure, when it was published, was four words and not three: “Playing with My Self.” It’s what our language does all the time. I think every writer’s most recent book is some variant of that. And I don’t know whether I’m trying to find out more about myself. I don’t know if I’ve gotten anywhere in finding out more about myself. I don’t think I’ve got any further in that regard than when I wrote those lines.
What are the big mysteries for you? What are the things you continue to be baffled or confused by?
I think I’m just like everybody else, including you, I’m sure. I’m sort of baffled a lot. And I don’t have any expectation that there are going to be answers to what I’m baffled about. It’s like that poem in this last book called “Ancestral Lines”: my father says, “‘He called the piece Warum?’” He didn’t know, Schumann didn’t know, my father didn’t know. And I say in that poem “What are the wild waves saying? I don’t know.” But bewilderment isn’t my ‘subject.’ It isn’t a topic; the word just seems appropriate for things that keep coming up in the poems.
Is reading other poets a way of finding comfort?
I read other poems for what I find in them, for the experience of reading them. I get a lot in the experience of reading poems that I think are wonderful, but I’m not sure that comfort is a word that would describe it.
I ask because if we find ourselves baffled or bewildered often, is writing or reading a place where one can seek comfort?
I don’t find that there is a therapeutic value in stuff that I read. And the better the stuff that I read the less that it delivers in a sort of one-on-one way, because it seems so full of conflicting attitudes, so it’s just itself. And in the act of reading when you read, say, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych––all that pain––it’s such a pleasure, and so painful. Now I am beginning to sound sort of fancy. I don’t mean to sound highfalutin about this stuff. You just get sort of troubled by what the lines are saying and I guess there is something that is sort of comforting because somebody else said them. But there is also such a pleasure that the lines are taking in themselves. Wordsworth said that the main thing that poetry does is to give pleasure. Some of the poems in Bewilderment are expressions of grief to be sure but there is also the exuberance of the writing that I think everyone experiences who is a writer.
I’m sure you know in your own writing that there’s a sense, even when you are writing about something intensely painful, there is terrific pleasure in the act of writing. I do think it’s therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain. A poem about a real life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art. And then it also somehow makes connections in song, with all the songs that have been sung about bereavement and death in the past. This is true for good and bad poems, but it becomes exaltedly true in the great bereavement songs of the past, in liturgy, in folk music, country music, Bob Dylan, Henry King’s great “Exequy” for his wife. There’s comfort for the writer in that, but it’s the comfort of proving an alternative value. But it doesn’t really substitute for or compensate for the raw experience of somebody’s illness and death.
Was there a poem in Bewilderment where you had that experience of lamenting pleasure?
That’s everybody’s experience–people talking about themselves or writing poems about their situations. There is a pleasure in trying to make the feelings articulate that is always there, whether the poems are good or bad. But when you feel in a particular poem that you value the way you did it, as I do in Bewilderment, there’s that experience of pleasure in writing.
When I go back to Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he talks in many ways about how your own language brings surprises to you. It doesn’t answer any questions that you have, but it is about the experience of getting it said. And it’s the experience of watching what’s happening in the lines as the experience of the sounds and rhythms and the experience of emotions and knowledge that’s gained. Of course, there’s the knowledge that you didn’t know you had, and that the poem line by line is sort of finding out itself.
Frost says that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” What you are saying, I think, is the kind of wisdom he is talking about.
I think I’m not even sure whether he ought to have said “wisdom” there, because it confuses people about what that essay is really saying. I don’t think he is saying that the poem delivers big time comfort, as if you’d gone to the top of mountaintop and said, “What is life?” and there is some sage up there, and the sage says, “Life is a river” or something like that. Frost means that we end up knowing something more in a particular poem, or in a particular sentence that one says to one another in conversation, by the articulation of it––by the rhythm, stress and emphasis of what is said.
And to return to the Aeneid, the experience of working on that poem is the terrific pleasure of writing iambic pentameter lines and trying to get it right; it’s the experience itself of the activity of writing. There are big things to learn from that great poem in the line by line activity––things I can give of myself as a writer of lines, and not as a thinker about larger concepts.
—David Ferry & Peter Mishler
David Ferry is the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College and also teaches at Suffolk University. In 2011, he received the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for his lifetime accomplishments. In 2012, he won the National Book Award for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. On This Side of the River: Selected Poems has recently been published by The Waywiser Press. He is currently at work on a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Peter Mishler was educated at Emerson College and Syracuse University. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at a high school in the Syracuse area. His poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, LIT, New Ohio Review, Numéro Cinq, and Open Letters Monthly among other journals.
Anne Loecher shines a floodlight on the obscure and all but forgotten midwest poet Lorine Niedecker whose life, poetry and poetics are a surprise to me: where you might least expect it (the periodically flooded Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin), a resolute soul emerges. I love her word “condensery” that describes the exact and terse language of her poems. I am exhilarated by the adventurousness that led her to blast out of Blackhawk Island to New York and the arms (and poetics) of Louis Zukofsky. But her subsequent abortion and the return to Blackhawk Island are sad to read about. The poems, forged in the fire, are extraordinary.
Lorine Niedecker is, in the estimation of many prominent poets and scholars, a major poet. However, even today, 42 years after her death, Niedecker still is not widely read. In fact, she has been called “the world’s greatest unknown poet.” Only recently has her work begun to attract an expanding readership—which is still modest at best.
As with other examples of under-read or forgotten poets, this oversight sparks the question of why—or why not—and begs an inquiry into the merits of Niedecker’s work, her times, our times, and the complexity of her poetics.
Ironically, it is possible that Niedecker’s slow-growing readership owes much to the singularity and particularity of her poetics. That the relative smallness of her readership is attributable to a misperceived “smallness” of her poetics. For to follow the development of Niedecker’s poetics is to find its tracks and traces in silences, in smallnesses, in pauses and paucities. The voice of Niedecker that evolved and emerged is not an obvious one; its presence can be detected in reflections; the reflections in the omnipresent waters surrounding and often consuming the environs where she lived, in rivers and flood waters and lakes of her small Wisconsin town and the Upper Midwest. Her poetics can be followed in the nearly invisible traces of minerals these waters carried to the sea, and in the glacial progress of natural history and evolution – so quietly slow as to be barely discernible. To find Niedecker’s influence and legacy in such places is to realize that a clamoring, obstreperous appreciation would be implausible—and inappropriate.
As the poet and scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis has noted, Niedecker “was published only by small presses. She is barely anthologized. She made no ‘literary career.’” Having spent her life in rural isolation, far from the urban meccas of poetry and the publishing world’s male-dominated precincts, Lorine Niedecker’s poetry emerged in relative isolation. Additionally, in her lifetime, much of her poetry was radical—if subtly and cunningly so. Niedecker’s feminism was decades ahead of its time, and likely fell on deaf ears, often. The same could be said for her deftly wielded lines decrying other social injustices, her criticism of consumerism and other embedded aspects of mid-twentieth-century American life and culture. Some couldn’t see or hear her for her subtleties; some who could preferred not to look or listen too closely.
Lorine Niedecker was born in 1903 in the tiny and insular community of Blackhawk Island , near the town of Fort Atkinson in rural Wisconsin. She lived in this area nearly all her life, with a few brief periods in New York and Milwaukee.
Blackhawk Island is actually a peninsula, bounded by the Rock River and Lake Koshkonong. The low-lying Niedecker family property where Lorine was raised flooded every spring, waters rising into the Niedecker’s and neighbor’s homes, contributing to their constant struggles and hardships. While Niedecker’s father had some level of income as provided by tenants to whom he rented his properties, the family was by no means well off, or even comfortable. Niedecker’s life was fraught with hardship and struggle for subsistence. It is valuable to look at one of her earlier poems, dealing with the issue of subsistence, for what it also conveys about her own place within such paucity:
My Friend Tree
Well, spring overflows the land,
floods floor, pump, wash machine
of the woman moored to this low shore by deafness.
Good-bye to lilacs by the door
and all I planted for the eye.
If I could hear—too much talk in the world,
too much wind washing, washing,
good black dirt away.
Her hair is high.
Big blind ears.
I’ve wasted my whole life in water.
My man’s got nothing but leaky boats.
My daughter, writer, sits and floats.
The poem honors, in a distant way, the memory of Niedecker’s mother, who was deaf and essentially abandoned by her husband during his lengthy affair with a neighbor.
“Well”—the first word in the poem, serves as both a reference to the wellspring that feeds the homestead and the frequent floods, nurturing the family and devastating it at the same time.
The mother is moored to the low shore, which suggests a constant threat of drowning—not only the possibility of drowning in the water, but the repeated drowning in the drudgery of her daily work, pumping the water out of her flooded home, washing the clothes which the silt keeps soaking and reclaiming.
Beauty without practicality is dismissed, as if a ridiculous and indulgent luxury—as the lilacs the speaker’s mother planted are taken away by the constant, leaching waters. Ultimately, even what is necessary to life is leached away, as the “good black dirt” needed for crop growing, indeed the very land they stand on, is erased by wind and water in this constant fluid extraction and reclamation.
Niedecker breaks in with her own voice in the short second stanza—a daughter’s distant though observant note that her mother is perhaps even freakish in her isolation. Her deafness is imagined as a blindness, too, and the image presented is of a creature inhabiting this solitary place, not quite human in appearance, but with “big blind ears” like a rabbit and with an elaborate head of hair. Her mother is like an island, cut off by her deafness, cut away from the land that is washing out from under her, separated from the simple enjoyment of beauty with the disappearance of the lilacs.
In the mundus of Niedecker, deafness and blindness have a profoundly adverse meaning. They are not only the inability to see, hear—but also to perceive, to be aware, to be sensitive and attendant to. In short, the mother is cut off from life.
When we arrive at the final stanza, the mother again speaking, we have an astonishing and utterly unembellished image of the mother, washing away, almost dissolving into a liquid existence, nothing stable, nothing solid. Even the boats her husband may have provided, as he provided little or no comfort or love, these boats are leaking and doomed to rot and sink. Only Lorine has found a way to float. Her writing may even suggest a sitting on water, or at least a manner of finding some ground and grounding; her floating—that is, her writing—is her survival. Love is a luxury, as disparate from the lives of those in the poem as if it were fantasy; it is not part of the fabric of these lives. If there is any beauty that survives, it is to be found in the dissolved particles in the flood waters.
Niedecker’s first collection, New Goose, also has been suggested in some circles as the source of criticism that has mistakenly marked the poet as concerned with only small or low subject matter, with trivialities that are not the subject matter of major poets. That narrow view, attributable largely, one thinks, to the male-dominated poetry world of mid-century America, and its cultural prejudices—refers to Niedecker’s revisiting of the Mother Goose rhymes in this volume. Even a quick read reveals the size and girth of the work, which is anything but the small, cloying and miniaturish.
“New Goose” speaks clearly to the cause of the betrayed laborers of the Depression era, whom Niedecker watched fail and starve – the farmers, who feed and nurture us, and who are all but invisible to those they feed. If feeding and nurturing is women’s work, she asks us to consider the men who have given their lives to it only to have their labors lost, shunned, and devalued. The link to women’s work is subtlety present: the diminishment, devaluation and erasure of the work of raising living things on this earth. Again, Niedecker is asking us to look more closely, to see the small, the unseen and unheard.
New Goose 
For sun and moon and radio
farmers pay dearly;
their natural resource: turn
the world off early.
……….and conveyor for a hearse,
Newall Carpenter Senior’s
……….two patented works.
Kilbourne. Eighteen sixty-eight.
Twelve hundred women and boys hopped.
When the market raced down to a dime a pound
from sixty-five cents, planters who’d staked
all they had, stopped.
Duplessis also comments on Niedecker’s “…unexpected turns and word choices…(expressing) surprise found in the small, the trivial, the barely noticed.” To Duplessis, this was Niedecker’s carefully plotted strategy for entering the canon under the name “Anon,” alongside the numerous and century-spanning works that are unattributed but not unimportant.
The New Goose collection specifically seeks to enter and reconsider this anonymous landscape, first in terms of the nursery rhyme’s ineradicable place in culture, folk culture; asserting folk culture’s importance and endurance in American culture, and also, an important assertion of the female, the Mother figure in Mother Goose, who has survived, reemerged and re-arisen in this first collection as a “New Goose.” A variant on the phoenix, if you will! These complex elements are those of a strong, assertive voice, and not a meek, resigning and retreating one. “Anon” is a potent potion.
It is entirely possible, Duplessis believes, that this was not a mode of retreat into actual anonymity for Niedecker, but instead another facet of her poetics of silences, her visibility in reflections.
Gilbert Sorrentino worries that Niedecker has been and will continue to be trivialized for her “unsophisticated, rural” subject matter, writing: “The reductive judgment of Niedecker has settled comfortably in, and it is woeful for me to recall all the dim remarks I’ve heard about homely and honest Lorine and her wonderful poems that emerge, shining, from her harsh and lonely life ‘on the river.’”
In 1928, Niedecker married Frank Hartwig, who had been an employee of her father’s. She worked as a library assistant in the Fort Atkinson Public Library, where she was first exposed to the Imagist poets—Ezra Pound, H.D. and Amy Lowell. Niedecker published two poems that year, which demonstrated her interest in the Imagists.
Two years later, in 1930 after the onset of the Great Depression, Niedecker and Hartwig lost their jobs and moved back to Blackhawk Island from their Fort Atkinson apartment, to live with Lorine’s parents. That same year, Lorine and Frank separated permanently, eventually divorcing.
In 1931, Niedecker encountered the Objectivist movement in poetry, through the works of poet Louis Zukofsky she discovered in an issue of Poetry magazine. This was the start of Niedecker’s important and enduring relationship with Objectivism, and of her lengthy and complex personal relationship with Zukofsky.
Upon discovering the Objectivists, Niedecker wrote that she had been in search of just such a poetics for some time. In a review of a Zukofsky craft book, Niedecker praised the new poetic movement, quoting Zukovsky’s checklist of attributes: ”(use of) the exact word…in the right order, with the right cadence, with a definite aim in view;… song, one of the mainsprings of poetry …” and “(the inclusion of) an emotional object, close to the people and their experiences…”
While Niedecker would often state that she felt a strong alignment with the Surrealist poets in addition to the Objectivists, she continues to be associated almost exclusively with the Objectivists. Zukofsky quickly became her mentor, and then her lover. Niedecker moved from Blackhawk Island to New York to be with him and soon afterward became pregnant by him. Zukofsky insisted she abort the twins she was carrying. She obeyed him in this, as she also did with his instructions to focus rigidly on Objectivism in her poetry. The abortion, which she did not want, was an immediate and lifelong regret, a profound and deeply affecting loss. Her long and strict adherence to Objectivist modes would become a source of regret somewhat later.
“As an Objectivist, (Niedecker) strove for precision and concision—for an expression of the thing itself. Objectivism, marked by clarity of image and word-tone, thinking with things as they exist, and directing them along a line of melody, economy of presentation, the poetic rendering of current speech.”
However, as Niedecker scholar Jenny Penberthy has noted in her essay “A Little Too Little,” Niedecker may not be so easily defined.
Penberthy writes: “Niedecker had an ambivalent connection to Objectivism. She certainly read and was excited by the original Objectivist statements but she did not regard herself as an Objectivist.” Niedecker often referred to her own work as Surrealist. In a letter from to a close friend from Blackhawk Island, excerpted by Penberthy, Niedecker writes, revealingly: ”…Objects, objects. Why are people, artists above all, so terrifically afraid of themselves? Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with objectivism….”
Objectivism appealed to Niedecker for its austerity, its lack of ornamentation, for its compression, its “extraordinary precision in (its) use of sound,” as the critic Peter Middleton describes for its lack of excess, to which Niedecker adhered throughout her ongoing poetic development.
Penberthy winnows out those overlapping Objectivist and Surrealist modes which likely attracted Niedecker to Zukofsky’s Objectivist influence: “Objectivism gave priority to the non-referential, material qualities of the word; it also valued a ‘non-expressive’ poetry, rejecting sentimentality—which is a manner of excess.” Niedecker’s chief attraction to Objectivism, as Penberthy sees it, is to abstraction. In a letter to Zukofsky, Niedecker asserts this, writing: “there must be an art . . . somewhere, somehow entirely precious, abstract, dehumanized, and intense because of these [qualities].”
If Niedecker had a lesser commitment to Objectivism than is still widely believed, it is worth considering why she adhered to its methods and mandates to the extent she did. Rachel Blau DuPlessis in her essay “Sounding Process” sees Niedecker’s Objectivist allegiance partly owing to the power dynamic between Zukofsky as mentor and former lover, but also as an almost practical matter for Niedecker who may have—quite consciously—grasped what Objectivism could provide for her own, singular, developing poetics.
That “…evoking objectivist practice gave Niedecker a frame for, a way of controlling, what she experienced as excess in herself…” The drive for concision, tightness and control was always in evidence.
In her later poems, Niedecker merged the lack of sentimentality and excess, the “sincerity and force” she valued in Objectivism with the “muddle and floaty vagaries”that were her abstract and Surrealist interests as she wrote to Poetry magazine’s founder Harriet Monroe in 1933; a point she made again as late as 1968 in a letter to Clayton Eshleman, publisher of her late poems.
Famously, Niedecker wrote to Eshleman, in explanation of her movement beyond the strict confines of Objectivism: “I figured after 40 years of more or less precise writing, I could afford to let go…I know that my cry all these years has been: into—into—and under—close your eyes and let the music carry you—and what have I done!—cut—cut—too many words!”
Niedecker had a word for it: condensery. The pared down, elemental language, an emotional power driven by accuracy, precision, and lack of emotionalism or sentimentality. Adjectives and even articles are often omitted from Niedeckers’ short poems, the majority of which are untitled. Additionally, her lens focused on that “low” subject matter—the everyday, the quotidian. The rocks in the riverbed on the shores of Blackhawk Island, the stove, the wash bucket, the scrubbing of floors. How small all of this may seem: condensed language and form, modest scope and lack of the grandiose in style or subject, the frequent silences, the brevity, even the lack of titles—the quiet and small scale of her work have almost certainly played a role in the enduring quiet and smallness of her reputation.
Scholar Elizabeth Wills, in the introduction of her book Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, asserts that the perception of Niedecker as working in isolation ignores her constant written dialogues with other writers, as well as her dialogue with contemporary and historical persons and events, which her later poetry especially addresses in depth and often.
Additionally, she argues that Niedecker’s physical isolation was not necessarily a disconnection or a desired hermeticsm or invisibility. Rather, it was an essential part of her methodology to study and consider her realm, in order to cultivate her poetic voice. It was essential to the intensification of her focus, her moving in ever closer to hear and see, and to write about the small scale with the greatest subtlety and nuance.
As the critic Gilbert Sorrentino writes—to misinterpret Niedecker’s physical seclusion as isolationist, and as “sacrificially counter-literary” is mistaken and culturally chauvinistic. One could also argue that to read her “low subject matter,” addressing the scrubbing of floors and the like, as purely domestic and quotidian rather than as a deeper and larger address of feminist and labor issues is to miss Niedecker’s place on a larger stage. And then there is the matter of much of Niedecker’s middle and later poetry directly addressing such global political issues as the Bay of Pigs—and her taking a firm position on Marxism, in her many poems expressing her moral objection to property and “ownership.”
DuPlessis writes of Niedecker: “She may seem to seek a minority, a littleness, a miniature scale almost unthinkable, especially for a female writer who can be culturally coded as minor no matter what genre she chooses, but especially if she chooses tiny-looking and folk forms.” The smallness, among other things, references Niedecker’s long fascination with haiku, another concise form.
Regarding Niedecker’s small scale in subject matter, critic Karl Young sees it not as a choice to become small to invisible, but rather to find something great, in that which is frequently overlooked. Young writes: “What matters for her is life as lived, a continuity full of surprises and changes, paradoxically full of loss, and simultaneously able to find satisfaction in what might appear as trivia.”
The poet and critic Anne Waldman likens Niedecker’s silences to what Critic Gordana P. Krinkovic noted about John Cage’s silences, in which “silence is not just the absence of talk. It is very much listening to what else is going on. ..”
In her essay “Property, Poverty, Poetry: Lorine Niedecker’s Quiet Revelations,” critic Marie-Christine Lemardeley considers the poet’s silences to be “poetics of reticence, i.e. an interest less in the image formed in the mind, than in the sounds of silence, in the words and spaces between the words.”
There is a telling line from one of Niedecker’s later poems, “Paen to Place”: “and silence/ which if intense/ makes sound”
As the critic Jane Augustine writes in her essay on this poem, “Silence, intensified, becomes loud/brilliant.” We are given to consider Niedecker’s silences, her condensery, her miniaturism to have a perhaps very different intention than that of small scope, quaintness, or even regionalism.
The discussion of Niedecker’s limited readership during her life must consider the context of sexual politics during her lifetime. Certainly, the power dynamics of her relationship with her mentor Zukofsky, an important gatekeeper to the greater literary world beyond Blackhawk Island, provokes debate. Niedecker’s subject matter of domestic work, not to mention her direct address of marriage, of brides as property, and her indictment of modern domesticity, connected to soulless consumerism and an amorality that enabled the Cold War—presents a strong feminist/humanist stance that undoubtedly played a role in the development of her powerful poetic voice, but likely kept a broader readership away.
It is important to look closely at Niedecker’s strong reaction to the misogyny and sexism of her times. For when we examine the Niedecker poems that don’t just suggest this subject, but loudly assail it, we are hearing a railing against the social injustice of sexism and also, a deeply personal outcry that is her concern that she be read and heard as a poet; that she “float” and not drown in the larger literary landscape.
I rose from marsh mud
I rose from marsh mud
algae, equisetum, willows,
sweet green, noisy
birds and frogs
to see her wed in the rich
rich silence of the church,
the little white slave-girl
in her diamond fronds.
In aisle and arch
the satin secret collects.
United for life to serve
If we look at this poem, while also taking into consideration Niedecker’s poems about her mother and the wearing and dissolving properties of water, we have a powerful indictment of sexism—of marriage, in fact—that Niedecker views as not dissimilar to the leaching waters of her physical environs. It is the voice of the silenced wife/bride/female/daughter that has gone unheard, that Niedecker asks us to lean in close to hear. The quieted, suppressed and submerged are speaking in Niedecker’s radically feminist works.
The speaker has been able to survive, to ‘rise from’ the drowning landscape of mud and algae, and in this naturalized though sodden and possibly nearly-drowned state, casts an eye on the fate of one assumed to be more fortunate than the speaker—the woman chosen by a man to be a bride.
The speaker has a view into the local church, in which “rich silence” ironically, as we understand Niedecker’s lexicon, indicates a silencing, a loss of voice and lost hope for posterity. Additionally, “rich” is circumspect, and also intended ironically here. The bride’s “diamond fronds” both suggest an overly elaborate, dubious decoration, as well as an “unnaturalized” nature. Can the embellishment of diamonds make fronds more beautiful, more worthy, or more valuable? Given the tone of the speaker’s voice, we think not.
The church, rather than a place of purity—as would be befitting a wedding, if the wedding were indeed holy and pure—is insted a place where “satin secret collects.” This unembellished image is vivid, though strikingly simple, and its subtext is absolutely clear: the satin, suggesting the fabric of bride’s dresses and clergy’s vestments, is in fact sullied with some suspicious residue, which collects, secretly, perhaps in its folds, therefore not immediately visible or obvious. All the more pernicious for being hidden. What is hidden is not invisible; what is hidden, implicit but still present, is important. We must listen in closely to what is nearly inaudible beneath the silences.
The poem’s final two lines equate the bride’s new marriage to a life sentence—though, with dark humor, Niedecker links the ‘serving’ of that sentence with the silver service, that common nuptial gift. The effect of the dark humor is to escalate the sting, the rage, the burn of the indictment. A bride is a “white slave-girl” which is to invoke her sexual servitude as well. A bride in her jeweled whiteness in the supposed sanctuary of a church is far less fortunate than the mud-soaked and nearly drowned speaker. At least the speaker retains her nature; she is poor and wretched, but no slave. She will “float” where the bride will certainly sink…as Niedecker’s mother did.
A picture of that bride’s domestic servitude and the cycle of domestic enslavement is presented in this short untitled poem from The Granite Pail:
Old Mother turns blue and from us,
……….“Don’t let my head drop to the earth.
I’m blind and deaf.” Death from the heart.
……….a thimble in her purse.
“It’s a long day since last night.
……….Give me space. I need
floors. Wash the floors, Lorine!—
……….wash clothes! Weed!”
The mother, blind and deaf, is recognizable as Lorine’s own mother, debilitated not only by physical handicaps but also by marriage, loneliness and abandonment. She fears she will die suddenly and soon, from loss of love and loneliness. The thimble in her purse recalls a human heart in her chest; however this “heart” is slim, hollow, metallic, a meager domestic scrap to fend off piercing needles and pins. The mother needs floors; previously, Niedecker depicted the washing away of floors in the floods, resulting in a bottomlessness, a rootlessness, a constant risk of drowning. The mother’s admonishment to Lorine is not to avoid marriage but instead to tend to her floors, her chores, weeds… those things that are washed until worn thin, and the weeds that overtake the beauty of the carefully planted flowers in her garden. That her mother would offer these words as survival tactics for her daughter, depicts the near impossibility of escape from this life, these lives, one generation after another, of despair, of being washed away and flushed out.
As an even more dramatic depiction of Niedecker’s view of sexism as a gross injustice, she invokes Mary Shelley, author of the important Gothic novel Frankenstein, who nonetheless was dwarfed by her husband, the poet Percy Bysse Shelley, and known first and foremost as his wife; her great work subordinated and at risk of disappearance. From the New Goose collection:
Who was Mary Shelley?
What was her name
Before she married?
She eloped with this Shelley
She rode a donkey
Till the donkey had to be carried.
In addition to Mary’s almost invisible stature as compared to her husband’s, she is aligned with the Virgin Mary, riding a donkey, and in a devastating and ugly turn, is so poorly regarded that once the donkey tires, it is Mary who must carry it. Presumably Percy is comfortably astride some grand horse.
If the author of Frankenstein is so meanly treated by posterity, what might Niedecker expect for herself? Decades ahead of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, Niedecker’s feminism arose from the enforced silencing of women writers before her—including those who, unlike Mary Shelley, were silenced finally.
Niedecker’s feminism finds its place as asserting a voice and visibility for the unseen and unheard women of her age, place and culture.
This synthesis of two modes, Objectivism and Surrealism, which were utterly incompatible in the eyes of Zukofsky, was to become Niedecker’s entry into her own reflective/reflectionist poetics—“a fusion of objectivist and surrealist tendencies,” as DuPlessis describes it.
We begin to see emergences, as Niedecker removes from, or expands upon, strict Objectivist tenets, incorporating the environment, an anti-consumerist stance, a continuing respect for the laborer which emerges with increasing force in themes of social justice in her work, the many voiceless and unseen to which she gives voice and visibility.
Drawing from Objectivist, Surrealist and other influences, Niedecker came to refer to her work as “Reflectionist.” If we look at this poem from “From This Condensery,” we see the reflection that Niedecker has come to consider, the reflection of her mother’s life, the possibility of this reflection as her own, in a portrait the speaker views:
My life is hung up
My life is hung up
in the flood
Don’t fall in love
with this face—
……….it no longer exists
…………………………we cannot fish
The final three lines, can be read, like most all of Niedecker’s lines, in multiple ways. The face no longer exists, because it has been washed away. The face no longer exists, because we are reading this poem after Niedecker’s passing. The face no longer exists in water; it is no longer reflected in water because the corporeal self passes. In water we cannot fish—we cannot fish after we have passed. In water, we cannot fish; once we are of the water, we can no longer fish.
The poem also references Niedecker’s attendance to the great importance of the small and the small scale, as it is the contemplation of the fish, even the human face, that leads to the consideration of the great and the profound, much as the small rivers lead out into the ocean. The corporeal self is immersed, subsumed and ultimately dissolves out into the greater corpus of life force and being.
Following a further distancing from Zukofsky in the early 1960’s, attributed to “increasing tensions between them concerning power and career.” Niedecker began defining her poetics in terms that included but reached further and further beyond the strict confines of Objectivism.
In 1967, she wrote “Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone. ..I loosely call it ‘reflections’… reflective. .. The basis is direct and clear – what has been seen or heard – but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness… The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind… And (there is) awareness of everything influencing everything…” This Reflectivism clearly necessitates the closest possible observation to even the smallest details.
DuPlessis explains Niedecker’s emerging Reflectivism as “…a term that suggests both receptivity—the mirroring of an image or light—and an active mulling over what is seen, for reflective also means meditative or pensive.”
When we look at Niedecker’s late, long poem, “Paen to Place,” we can identify the emergence of Reflectivism.
“Paean to Place” begins with the inscription “And the place was water.”
From “Paean to Place” 
I was the solitary plover
……….for a wingbone
From the secret notes
I must tilt
upon the pressure
execute and adjust
……….in us sea-air rhythm
‘We live by the urgent wave
of the verse’
As Jane Augustine writes of this passage “…the literal description of (Niedecker’s) childhood…is transmuted…to the image of the plover which becomes, by the process of “reflection,” the poet who keeps the world’s balance, the lake’s image shifting to that of seashore and ocean wave, the landscape thereby enlarged to include the entire globe…” The wing and the bone are conjoined in a single word, which tells of a conjoining of language, corpus, and of an interconnection of species. Similarly, sea and air are joined in the hyphenated “sea-air” to create the rhythm by which all things breathe, adapt, adjust. And finally, it is the wave, the force, the momentum and urgent message of the verse, of communication, which is like a pulse, which “we live by.”
Niedecker could not have issued a more potent comment about the place of verse in her life. She becomes knowable upon reflection; she becomes visible in reflections of her physical self.
After Niedecker married Al Millen, a housepainter and sometime resident of Blackhawk Island (a marriage which was a curiosity to writer friends as Millen was not a reader of poetry and appeared to share few of her interests), the couple set out on extended trips throughout the upper Midwest.
One such trip to Lake Superior resulted in the poem of that title. Here is an excerpt:
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters
From the poem’s opening, all earliest, most ancient and most enduring elements are linked, whether they remain in their natural and unaltered state by the lake, or have been forged by human hands, to create trains, for example from iron. This is Niedecker moving forward in a continuing progression to bring the entirety of natural and human history into a cogent whole.
Within the poem’s body, Niedecker goes on to address such historical events, pertinent to the immediate landscape, as the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, and the lives of the Native Americans who inhabited this same land.
Their South Shore journey
Their South Shore journey
……….as if Life’s—
The Chocolate River
……….The Laughing Fish
and The River of the Dead
Passed peaks of volcanic thrust
Hornblende in massed granite
Wave-cut Cambrian rock
painted by soluble mineral oxides
wave-washed and the rain
did their work and a green
running as from copper
Niedecker referred to Lake Superior as the “true source park.” Thus, herein are linked the earliest inhabitants of the land, with the rocks and minerals and also the prehistoric glacial changes that resulted in land thrust up and scoured rocks. Water rushes and moves through all of these; the glaciers, frozen water, created this landscape and the rest of the earth; all that is the home to all life. This marks a dramatic expansion of her vision and poetics: she has broadened her scope, in one sense, to explore the smallnesses in the most enormous—in terms of both place and time.
Critic Douglas Crase also finds a parallel in subject and style here, describing Niedecker’s concision as “(scouring) the sentence as if to sand, the way the glacier scoured the Lake Superior rocks…(for Niedecker), words are a kind of sand. Words are for rearrangement, much as the history of Lake Superior has been the evolutionary rearrangement of its minerals by lava, sea, glacier and human industry…” Crase notes Niedecker’s choice of the poem’s location as “…Lake Superior where uplift and glacier have exposed the oldest rock on earth…the three billion year old granite.”
Evolution and distillation, an essential connection between the immense and the minute. It is not surprising that another late Niedecker poem took on evolution from its “source.” Some excerpts from the long, final poem in The Granite Pail, Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, “Darwin”:
Selections from “Darwin”
not all ‘delirium
…………………………as were the forests
‘Species are not
………………..(it is like confessing
………………..sea-shells on mountain tops!
…………………………The laws of change
……….rode the seas
without the good captain
………………..who could not concede
…………………………land could rise from the sea
……….until—before his eyes
………………..Talcahuana Bay drained out—
……….up from the ocean
……….from bird dung
Brought home Drosera—
………………..saw insects trapped
…………………………by its tentacles—the fact
……….that a plant should secrete
an acid acutely akin
………………..to the digestive fluid
…………………………of an animal!…
………………..of Good Success Bay
………………..not built by brute force
…………………………but designed by laws
……….The details left
to the working of chance
………………..‘Let each man hope
……….what he can’
In “Darwin,” Niedecker braids all natural and human history, even the question of creation, “the working of chance” and allowing for “each man (to) hope/ and believe/ what he can.’” Water gives rise to life, and seashells appear on mountain tops as the earth evolves across the billions of years. Glaciers evolve into sea water, sea plants secrete digestive juices that link them to mammals.
Even the lack of punctuation, the absence of any periods at the end of stanzas or at the end of the poem points to this: all is connected; all is of the continuum.
Niedecker died at the age of 67 on December 31, 1970. She requested that her husband Al Millen burn all of her letters. The letters written by her to others survive.
While a cursory reading of Niedecker’s sense of place suggests a place of isolation if not retreat and removal, it is interesting to consider what critic Richard Caddel has noted and captured as patterns in Niedecker’s work – which posit that her subject of her place, the isolated Blackhawk Island, in fact addressed the very opposite of disconnection, that the intention of this poetry was the opposite of a severance or disappearance. Caddel writes: “…I’m aware that some early approaches to (Niedecker’s) work dealt with her natural surroundings as if her involvement with them was somehow a retreat, an act of escape…nothing could be further from the truth: the interconnectedness of her materials is explicit from the earliest work onwards…”
Anne Waldman writes: “Niedecker is never passive, dreamy, or other-worldly. She is very much of this world: …she lifts from her reading and study and intuits a view that life does not end with the death of the body…”
Niedecker, in her close observations, explored the spaces and the pauses, the connections and possibilities between lines and sounds, and what was revealed in the reflections in the water.
Niedecker’s vision and poetics encircles, embraces and celebrates the small and the minute, the nearly invisible who and which, under her artful scrutiny, are proven to be the essential carriers of the enduring life force, gigantic in their purpose.
She is deserving of an audience capable of seeing the enormities within her smallnesses—which is not to say a small audience.
- Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Lorine Niedecker, The Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances,” Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 113.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 15.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, New Goose(Berkeley: Listening Chamber Press, 2002).↵
- DuPlessis, 118.↵
- Gilbert Sorrentino, “Misconstruing Lorine Niedecker,” Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 287.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, “A Review of Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry,” (Madison, Wisconsin: Capital Times, 12/18/1948) Books of Today section.↵
- Blythe Woolston, http://blythewoolston.blogspot.com/2011/07/lorine-niedecker.html,7/1/2011↵
- Jenny Penberthy, “A Little Too Little: Re-reading Lorine Niedecker” www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/archive/…/jplittle.html↵
- Ibid, Penberthy.↵
- Peter Middleton, “The British Niedecker,” Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 247.↵
- Ibid, Penberthy.↵
- Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Sounding Process,” Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) 156.↵
- Ibid, DuPlessis.↵
- Ibid, DuPlessis, 158.↵
- Elizabeth Willis, Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) xiv.↵
- Ibid, Sorrentino, 287.↵
- Ibid, Willis, xvii.↵
- Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 114.↵
- Karl Young, “Notes and an Appreciation to Lorine Niedecker’s Paen to Place,” http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/ln/ky-ln.htm↵
- Anne Waldman, “‘Who’ Is Sounding?: Gaps, Silence, Song in the Writing of Lorine Niedecker,” www.woodlandpattern.org/niedecker/schedule.shtml, 221.↵
- Marie-Christine Lemardeley, “Property, Poverty, Poetry: Lorine Niedecker’s Quiet Revelations,” http://erea.revues.org/174↵
- Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, the Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 70.↵
- Jane Augustine, “What’s Wrong with Marriage: Lorine Niedecker’s Struggle with Gender Roles” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 139.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, “I Rose From Marsh Mud,” (New York: New Directions in Prose & Poetry, Volume 11, 1949) 302.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 4.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker, (Highland, NC: Jargon Society/Inland Book Company, 1985) 106.↵
- Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Sounding Process”, Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) 158.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker, (Highland, NC: Jargon Society/Inland Book Company, 1985) 109.↵
- Ibid, DuPlessis, 152.↵
- Ibid, DuPlessis, 153.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 73.↵
- Jane Augustine, “What’s Wrong with Marriage: Lorine Niedecker’s Struggle with Gender Roles” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 139.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 58.↵
- Ibid, 61.↵
- Douglas Crase, “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 337.↵
- Ibid, 339.↵
- Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, the Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 108.↵
- Richard Caddel, “Consider: Lorine Niedecker and Her Environment,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 281 – 282.↵
- Anne Waldman, “Who Is Sounding? Awakened View, Gaps, Silence, Cage, Niedecker”, Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) 210.↵
We forget beauty; the age inspires that. Things are things, cool and sleek. Stylish is what the market aims for. It’s a throwaway world. Leonard Bellanca is an old friend from Greenfield, New York, a furnituremaker, an artist, a man who tilts against windmills with names like Ikea and Walmart. He builds beautiful things that are also useful, a pleasure to use, things that have symmetry and motion, that draw the eye like a painting and will last till someone sticks them in a museum. He works out of traditions that don’t just date back to 2010. It’s a pleasure to put his work before your eyes.
Notes on Making Furniture
What continues to hold my interest in making furniture is the relationship between the prosaic and the poetic, the utility and the beauty, the craft and the art. A sweetly fitted drawer that is a pleasure to use, is as lovely as the reflection of light from a polished surface. Both are necessary, and they complement and depend on each other. Of course I love the material, its usefulness, its beauty and odor. And I know where it comes from. I also know and understand what has to happen to the tree in order to provide me with that material. But wood is very forgiving, and now the work begins.
My work is influenced by history – in particular the American Federal period – but it is not historical. I am not interested in reproducing pieces, but rather in borrowing elements from them: an elegant curve, the taper of a leg, refined proportion, decorative details that lend contrast and interest. So in borrowing and combining, and with careful study, the work becomes something that is at once modern and traditional. This sense of old and new also defines my methods of making furniture. I rely on machines to do what they do well: milling, cutting, rough shaping, and otherwise preparing stock, but virtually everything else — joinery, fitting, final shaping, detailing, finishing- is accomplished at the bench with hand tools, and hands, and eyes, using techniques and tools that haven’t changed much in the last few centuries.
A favorite form of mine is the work table, which in its various manifestations, evolved through the first half of the 19th century as a small table or stand, usually with drawers or compartments and designed primarily to accommodate ladies’ activities: sewing and needle work, writing, serving guests. Stylistically, the form ranged from the practical austerity of the Shakers, to the very delicate, elegant, and detailed pieces typical of urban workshops.
Work Table (2007), made of cherry and bird’s eye maple with various inlays, draws on this rich history. The overall form consists of a tall skirt with five deep drawers supported by richly figured double-tapered legs, banded with holly and ebony at the transition of the leg to the foot. The four small drawers are veneered with figured maple and cock-beaded; the central drawer has an inlaid panel of figured maple outlined with ebony and holly string inlay, and is also cock-beaded.
I think this piece is successful because of its proportion and small scale, the symmetry of the drawers, and the pleasing effect of what is essentially a box on legs, but what strikes me even now is the movement in the piece. The grain of the square legs seems to spiral upward, while the dashed inlay on the center drawer goes around, even as the red cherry and pale maple are advancing and receding. I can’t say that these effects were entirely planned, but somehow that relationship that I spoke of previously, the utility and the beauty, the craft and the art, comes alive, informed by history and accomplished through long practice.
Work Table, 2007, cherry, bird’s eye maple, ebony, holly, white oak, 30″ high x 24″ wide x 16″ deep
Work Table, detail
Pair of End Tables, 2008, walnut, bird’s eye maple, ebony, holly, poplar, 29″ high x 19″ wide x 15″ deep
End Tables, detail
Chest on Stand, 2004, walnut, cherry, white oak, 48″ high x 26″ wide x 14″ deep
Chest on Stand, detail
Upholstered Bench (one of a pair), 2003, mahogany, 18″ high x 36″ wide x 20″ deep
Upholstered Bench drawing, 2003, graphite on vellum
Chest of Drawers, 2003, cherry, maple, bird’s eye maple, white pine, 38″ high x 34″ wide x 17″ deep
Leonard Bellanca is a studio furnituremaker working in Greenfield Center, New York. Since 1996 he has been designing and making furniture using traditional methods, materials, and finishes. While earning a degree in Architectural Studies from The University of the Arts, he studied furnituremaking with Michael Hurwitz and Peter Pierobon. As an intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bellanca assisted in the removal and relocation of important architectural woodwork made by Wharton Esherick. After graduating, he apprenticed with a professional cabinetmaker, working primarily on the restoration of 18th and 19th century American antique furniture. In 2004, Bellanca designed and built the house and shop where he now lives and works. He was a 2007 and 2008 Guest Artist of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, and his work has been exhibited in various regional shows and galleries.
Donald Quist just moved to Bangkok, oh, a few months ago after graduating with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, making a new home and giving NC a chance to add a fascinating new city/country our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays. These essays have been part of the NC package from the beginning, adding a wonderfully human and personal aspect to what the magazine offers (which is, well, human and personal anyway). Take time to look through the whole list and then think about where you live, how beautiful it can be just stepping out your door.
Start at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)
Climb the large stone steps to the center tower. Careful. The stairs from the second landing are steep. The rock is smooth and it’s easy to slip with sweating hands. There is a single metal rail, rusted red, wrapped in rope. It offers some grip. Pull yourself onto the next level. There are more steps but the incline is too dangerous for visitors. Large strips of pink tarp hug the base of the tower like a castle moat. It prevents you from trying to go any higher.
Look up. The temple prang is a cone tapering to the sky, a tower covered in thousands of seashells and pieces of colored porcelain. There is a row of clay warriors, their shinning eyes and armor made from tiny tiles. The spire seems to rest on their backs and arms. Circle around the base, clockwise, stopping four times to trace the designs on ceramic flowers with your thumb. They feel like warm dinner plates. Imagine the hands that built these flowers turning into dust.
Look over the monastery from 150 feet. Watch the monks stroll the temple grounds. Their orange robes are bright against the grey footpaths and green shrubs. Listen. Somewhere monks are chanting. Their voices pour from horn loudspeakers posted throughout the complex. It’s clearer at this height. Listen. It’s a steady tone and rhythm, a stream of soft vowels. It’s gapless. Their words are a river. You’re swimming without water. Had you noticed it before?
Take the Ferry
The east side of Wat Arun runs along the Chao Phraya. There is a dock where you can catch a long-tail boat into the city. The boat rocks against the gentle current. The breeze off the water smells like salt and iron and dirt. Breathe it in. The river is dense and strong. It is a pillar. On the approaching shore, in the shadow of high-rises, are mossy forts and remnants of river trading posts. There is the Grand Palace spackled with flakes of gold, glittering.
Imagine the Palace last night, covered in lights to commemorate Loi Krathong. All over the city there is singing and music, and fireworks bursting like cannon fire. Sky lanterns rise into the night like blooms of flying jellyfish. Thousands walk down to the river. Imagine you follow them, caught in the wave of a new kind of intimacy. Imagine. You feel their sweat on your naked arms. Together, under the Rama VIII Bridge, you light candles and make wishes and sail them down stream on flowery crowns of banana leaves and coconut husks. You notice a group of boys a few meters south, wading through the muddy water. They are fishing krathongs from the river, blowing-out the candles and selling them to others waiting on the shore. Pray to the river goddess that your real hopes will float.
Follow the floodwater lines running along the bottom of buildings. Sidestep garbage bags and puddles from dripping A/C window units above the street. The air is heavy, like a dank basement. It carries an angry rot. Get lost in the buzzing of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws.
Take a right, now, onto an unnamed soi. It is too narrow for a car. The small road is lined with morning street-food vendors tucked under rows of evergreen patio umbrellas. They sell porridge and pastries, soup and dim sum.
Nod to people as you pass. Smile. They smile back.
Make a left on the next street. Follow the webs of telephone wire past a dozen convenience stores. The buildings share a similar architecture. Squat balconies with fat columns, decorative moldings and cornices like a Roman basilica. Patches of black mold stain the paint and facades.
Cross a short bridge arching over a canal. Hua Lamphong Railway Station is on the horizon.
Take the Subway at Hua Lamphong
Walk around the front entrance to find an escalator leading down to a long tunnel, trapping the humidity from the city above. The walls are sweating. The high ceiling echoes a hundred sandals slapping the floor. The tunnel ends at a ticket counter. Purchase a fare to Thanon Sukhumvit and then take two more sets of escalators, down, down, to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit platform.
The train is arriving. It rolls to a stop, lining-up with the yellow directional arrows painted on the lip of the platform. There is a loud hiss as the doors spring open. A blast of cold air slaps your forehead as you push your way on. It fills quickly. Pinned by a mass of people against the back wall of the passenger car, you can barely lift your arms.
Exit at Sukhumvit (Terminal 21 Mall)
The stairs lead up from the subway to the ground-level entrance of a shopping complex designed like an airport terminal. The women at the info desk are dressed like flight attendants. The escalators are decorated like departure gates. Each floor is themed with a global city: Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood. You are in Rome. There are pillars, arches, faux frescoes and marble angels looking down on shoppers.
English is everywhere, and whether it is a spa promotion or a sale on high-heels, for a moment you are literate again. You understand more than bits and pieces of passing conversations. Two young men walk by wearing tank tops and folded bandana headbands. One of the boys has camouflage cargo pants, while the other has neon pink short-shorts. They are having an argument over which street market is bigger, JJ or Chatuchak. Don’t point out that JJ Market and Chatuchak Market are the same. Do not interject that many places in the city have more than one name in English, and the J sound and the Ch often get confused. Keep it to yourself. Knowing makes you feel like less of a tourist.
At the bottom of the stairs exiting Terminal 21 there is a man with one arm and no legs lying on his belly. He shakes the change in his paper cup. The back of his t-shirt reads, “I LOVE THE KING.” Give him 20 baht, and then turn right.
The hotels and office buildings block the sun. The tracks of the BTS Skytrain cast a shadow over the six lanes of traffic. It gives the impression of a stormy overcast. The Skytrain rumbles like thunder as it passes above.
Ignore the thumping club music from the already open go-go bars. Ignore the peddlers calling out to you. You may not know where you’re headed, or what you’re looking for, but you know it is something larger than a trinket or souvenir. It is something deeper than a watch, bong or bootleg DVD.
Thanon Sukhumvit turns into Thanon Phloen Chit. There is construction everywhere. Crews of laborers in hardhats and flip-flops are raising new luxury condominiums from the rubble of old luxury condominiums. Above the chorus of jackhammers and drills are the staccato blasts of car horns. The traffic crawls forward as motorists honk in frustration. The exhaust fumes mix with the smell of street vendors grilling pork. Layers of black dust hug the street. It’s harder to breathe. You taste smoke in the air. Somewhere people are chanting. It’s coming from a gated square, ahead on the right.
Watch the believers light incense. They circle the shrine clockwise laying wreaths of yellow flowers, bowing to the four faces of the Hindu god, Brahma. Some are on their knees, their eyes squeezed tight in prayer. A few feet away, shielded from the sun by an open gazebo, a female dance troupe sways to a chorus of Thai folk songs. They wear towering headpieces and traditional dresses with shimmering layers that wrap around them and drape over their shoulders. Their faith makes them impervious to the heat.
Scan the crowded square for another statue. Look for a depiction similar to the one at Wat Arun, protruding from the temple prang—Indra, the lord of heaven, riding Erawan, an elephant with three heads.
But there is no giant white elephant of the clouds, or his master. There is no Erawan at Erawan Shrine. Only Brahma.
You may never know why. There may always be some facet of this city that eludes your understanding, even its name. Is it Bangkok or Thonburi Si Mahasamut or Rattanakosin or Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit or just Krung Thep Maha Nakhon for short? Was the city named for its flowers or for its treasures gracing the ocean? The City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.
Move closer. Look. Listen. Follow the current circling the Shrine. Press your palms together and bow to something beyond your comprehension. Bow, in respect for what you don’t know.
Herewith is a story by Simon Fruelund translated by K. E. Semmel.
K. E. Semmel is an old friend and former colleague from my days at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He is not only a dedicated and talented fiction writer in his own right, but a hard working and skilled translator as well, having translated and published four books of Scandinavian fiction in the last five years, including two books by Simon Fruelund, Karin Fossum’s The Caller, and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. (He’s wrapping up a fifth book this summer.) K. E. Semmel also serves as the Development and Communications Manager at Collegiate Directions, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to helping low-income children attend four-year college. I have spent many Sunday afternoons with him and his family, watching our sons play, drinking Belgian ales, talking books, and trying to love baseball as much as he does, so it is with pleasure that I bring to Numéro Cinq one of his translations.
Simon Fruelund is the author five books of which two are available in English: his novel Civil Twilight (published by Spout Hill Press) and a soon-to-be released collection of short fiction titled Milk and Other Stories (Santa Fe Writer’s Project). Alan Cheuse, book critic for National Public Radio, recently wrote about Fruelund’s work: “[he] is a master of the short form, importing some designs from our own Raymond Carver, applying them to the interstices of the European everyday, and making them his own.”
“Albatross” is typical of Simon Fruelund’s style. A sparse, subdued story about two brothers, one of whom sets fire to his father’s rye field. With unassuming details and carefully fine-tuned images, “Albatross” is the type of story that sneaks up on you, and I found myself thinking for days after first reading it about the boy/arsonist perched atop the silo watching the adults scramble to put out his fire and harvest their grain. As K. E. Semmel has written: in Fruelund’s work “truths and experiences are intimated” in “quiet, inconspicuous way[s].” “Albatross” will appear in Milk and Other Stories.
My brother sat on the couch reading a magazine. I aimed at him with my lighter pistol and pulled the trigger. The flame rose straight up, almost five inches high, but he didn’t react.
I tossed the lighter at him over the coffee table. He dropped the magazine and threw himself toward the lighter in order to save the couch and curtains and wall-to-wall carpet. He couldn’t find it and started pulling the pillows down on the floor.
—Jeppe, you dick. Where’d it go? You’ll burn the house down.
The lighter lay on the floor right at his feet. I stood and walked over. The flame had gone out as soon as I’d let go.
—Here, I said and handed it to him.
—You’re an idiot, he said, refusing the lighter.
I stuffed the lighter in my pocket and left the room. I put on my boots and jacket and walked through the empty stalls and out the other side. We’d not been outdoors for two days. The afternoon sky was clear and blue, and I tromped toward our neighbor’s place. Svend the Hen was scorching his field; he’d lit rows of straw on the opposite side, and the fire now ran in parallel tracks over the crest of a hill. He was busy plowing a security barrier so the fire wouldn’t leap over onto our field, which hadn’t been harvested yet. He brought the tractor to a halt and opened the cab door.
I grabbed the handrail inside the door and hoisted myself up. Svend the Hen had his shotgun across his thigh, the barrel snapped open and draped over his leg. I sat on the wheel guard, and the tractor started with a jerk. Svend the Hen’s short silver hair poked out of the corner of a green cap. He didn’t say anything. He plowed another row along the barrier to our field.
—So, he said.
I could see how the effort of talking stretched his cheeks, how his lips twitched in the attempt, and how he sat chewing on what he would say. As if he had to put his tongue and lips in order first. As we reached the end of the row, he turned the tractor and began a third row.
—So…They’re on vacation or what?
—Yeah, I said.
—What about the other hen?
—He’s at home.
—Well, well, then.
He always called us hens—maybe because he didn’t have any kids of his own. Some said he fucked his cows, but I had never believed it.
—Well then, he said again after a minute.
He smiled for an instant. Not because he liked to, but more because he couldn’t help himself, I think. Or maybe because he was proud that he’d managed to get his tongue in the right position in his mouth, moved his lips and all that. His teeth didn’t look too good, and you couldn’t mistake the smell. Maybe everything’s going rotten in there, I thought. He turned the tractor up near the shrubbery and drove with the plow raised in the direction of the fire. He took two bullets from a box on the front window and stuck them in the shotgun, still with one hand on the steering wheel. As we reached the first burning column, he turned the tractor so we were driving along the front. He opened the door and asked me to steer. The air was heavy with black dust, and it was hot as hell. We’d almost reached the end of the field before anything happened. He aimed and fired in almost the same instant. I barely registered what had happened.
—God damn, he mumbled.
I saw a hare leaping away.
—God damn, I said.
At that moment I saw another hare. Svend the Hen fired and this time he got it. The hare rolled a somersault, then lay completely still. He stopped the tractor and opened the door on my side, and with a nod of the head let me know what he wanted me to do. I hopped down and ran over to pick up the hare. I grabbed its legs and swung it around high over my head. The flames came closer; it was a wall of heat moving in my direction. I ran back to the tractor and tossed the hare to him.
—Get in, he said.
I shook my head.
—I gotta go, I said.
He closed the door, touched his fingers to his cap, and a moment later he was off in a cloud of black smoke.
I looked around for a place where I could get through the fire. I found an opening then made a running start and leaped through. When I came out on the other side, my face felt stiff and my hair smelled charred.
The ground was black and scorched.
At the end of the field, I found a smoldering chunk of a tree. It was a branch from an oak that stood near the border of our land. I picked up the cold end and went toward our side. Near the track separating the two fields, I stopped and looked around. The rye should’ve been harvested a long time ago; in many places the stalks lay horizontal to the ground. Ours was the only field, as far as I could see, that didn’t have stubble, or wasn’t already plowed up. I stood there a moment considering the pros and cons. They can kiss my ass, I thought. Then I threw the branch as far as I could into the field.
I hiked across Svend the Hen’s field. I headed down through the bog, followed the railroad tracks a short distance, and then walked through a small stand of spruce.
I’d reached the main road when I heard the first fire truck. It drove toward me at high speed, and a moment later the second one followed. I could see the firemen putting on their gear. I tramped along the road meeting one car after another—curiosity-seekers following the fire trucks, I think. I also saw someone on a bicycle. I could hear the sirens approaching from every direction.
Along the way I passed a large white farm, and I saw a man and a woman hastily getting their children inside a car. After a few hundred feet, I passed a Dutch barn stuffed with hay, and half a mile later came to a wide field of barley that hadn’t been harvested.
Before long, I could see the first houses in what passed for the area’s biggest town. Towering up over all the houses was a grain silo. And I could see the brownstone school building with its white windows.
Just as I got to town, the local cop drove toward me in his blue Volvo. I waved at him and he waved back, and then he was already long past me.
I crossed the road, and soon stood in front of a broad chain-link gate. Three trucks were parked in the lot, but there was nobody around. I clambered over the gate and walked toward the silo. Small piles of grain lay here and there, and the smell was sweet and good. I put my hand on the outer wall; it felt warm. I went around the silo and found a door behind the building. With a hard jerk, I got the door open and went inside. I stood in a pretty narrow shaft; on the wall were a number of shiny steel stairs, and far above, I noticed a small circle of blue light, which I guessed was the sky.
I started crawling. It was really hot inside the shaft, and when I reached the halfway point, I had to stop and take my jacket off. I tied it around my waist, but that only made crawling more difficult, so I let it fall. I continued up; the higher I got, the warmer it was.
When I finally crawled onto the roof, I was soaked through with sweat. I pulled my shirt over my head and looked toward the south. I could see a huge black cloud of smoke; under it, an orange glow. I couldn’t see the flames. In the foreground, I could see a combine that’d now begun to harvest the field I’d just passed.
I looked at the parking lot below; the three trucks were slightly staggered and resembled toys on display. The houses in the town were unusually close, but they still seemed small. Patio furniture filled the square yards, but there were no people. Furthest away was the train station, and I could see the red train waiting for the regional train.
I turned toward the north and saw a blue glare, which I knew was the sea. Then I turned toward the south and looked at the red glow.
Soon after, I sat down. I flicked my lighter and watched the flame. I fell into a trance and sat that way for a long time. At some point I realized I was freezing. I stood and put on my shirt, but it was cold and damp. I stared toward the south: As far as I could see the flames were burning out.
I moved to the hatch and started crawling back down.
I headed back the same way I’d come. Outside the town limits, I passed the cop. I waved, and he waved back politely. I passed the barley field and greeted the farmhand, who leaned up against the grain wagon smoking. I passed the Dutch barn where two boys shot at a target with a bow. There were lights in the stalls at the big farm, and I could hear the sound of a transistor radio through the open door.
I followed the main road and walked through the little stand of spruce, followed the railroad tracks, and walked through the bog.
It had grown dark by the time I finally made it home. At a distance I could see the light in the living room. I shuffled forward through a thick layer of gray ash. The fire had burned up most of the field; it hadn’t been brought under control until about 150 feet from the house.
When I walked inside, my brother sat on the couch watching television. He looked up.
—Where have you been? he said. There was a fire in the fields.
—I know that, I said.
I looked at the screen. I could see a big white bird lying on a nest: an albatross.
—There were a lot of people here. The cop was here, too. He was over talking to Svend the Hen. He seemed to think it was his fault.
I walked into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cornflakes. When I got back, my brother had changed the channel to some kind of quiz show; from a few notes you were supposed to guess the name of a song or a piece of music. I sat down in the seat opposite him.
They played a few bars of a song.
—“Strangers in the Night”! my brother called out.
We waited for the answer.
—You see, he said.
I pulled the lighter from my pocket, and this time I didn’t flick it—I just tossed it over to him.
—Catch! I said.
He flicked it and saw that the flame was only an inch high. He looked at me and then set it down on the coffee table.
—They say he fucks his cows.
—Yeah, I said and watched the screen.
They played a few bars of a new tune.
—Can’t we watch the show with the albatrosses? I said.
For a long time, without saying a word, we watched the program about the enormous birds. The narrator said they could fly up to a 600 miles a day. They sailed on the wind almost without moving their wings. We saw how they dived after fish, and we saw an albatross egg that was the size of a honey melon.
At some point, my brother turned his head and looked at me. I didn’t look at him, but I could feel his gaze; he watched me for a pretty long time. Then he turned his attention back to the screen.
—Promise you’ll never do that again, he said under his breath.
Simon Fruelund is the author of five books, among them Milk and Other Stories, Civil Twilight, and Panamericana. His work has been translated into Italian, Swedish, and English, and his short stories have appeared in a number of magazines across the U.S, including World Literature Today, Redivider, and Absinthe. For nine years Fruelund worked as an editor at Denmark’s largest publishing house, Gyldendal, but is now writing full time.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. His translations include Karin Fossum’s The Caller and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. He has received multiple translation grants from the Danish Arts Council to support his translation of Simon Fruelund’s fiction.
Also available Civil Twilight
The Cossacks are coming! The Cossacks are coming! Or in this case the lorn remnant of salacious and mischievous critics who continue to dredge up the infamous accusation that the author of Lolita was, if not a pedophile himself, at least advocating for pedophilia. No less a commentator than Martin Amis has suggested that the theme of child sex crops up so often in Nabokov’s entire work as to promote suspicion. For any author, this is a difficult pill to swallow. (In what crimes does my work implicate me? The mind boggles. I recently finished a story about a cannibal serial killer!) In his definitive and replete essay on the subject, our writer Bruce Stone faces Nabokov’s accusers head on and demolishes them, not without heaping upon their heads some appropriate invective. This is literary mano a mano at its best, a beautiful example of the cut and thrust of debate raised to a high level of intellect and scholarship.
On March 19, the literary marketplace welcomed a new title by the young Vladimir Nabokov, who hasn’t been greatly inconvenienced by his death in 1977. The Tragedy of Mister Morn, a verse drama written in Berlin in 1924 and never published during Nabokov’s lifetime, reads as a kind of retread of Othello, set among the Bolsheviks: the plot points to Leninism, but the artifice is all Shakespeare, and the play’s release is timely on both counts. Six days earlier (a near eclipse of Morn’s arrival), the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg, then hosting a performance based on Nabokov’s Lolita, absorbed the latest attack by the Orthodox Cossacks, a band of Russian conservatives that has been campaigning against Nabokov, denouncing his masterwork, since the start of the new year. Among the more serious incursions, a theater producer was beaten in January, but perhaps the most emblematic gesture was the lobbing of a vodka bottle through a window of the Nabokov museum: tucked inside the bottle, a note condemned Nabokov as a pedophile and warned of the imminence of God’s wrath.
Viewed as domestic terrorism (even Cossacks have dreams), these acts seem comparatively tame, even quaint. As a more benign kind of vandalism (tell that to the producer), they make their point clearly enough, I suppose. But as literary criticism, they are an utter travesty, an intellectual obscenity that should make the Cossacks and their kin themselves the object of public and lasting derision (pillories and tomatoes or, at minimum, raspberries). A half century has passed since Lolita’s publication, yet here we are again—it seems inevitable—with the literal-minded and the simpletons, the well-meaning zealots and zombie mooncalves breaking out torches and pitchforks, vodka bottles and spray paint, to decry Lolita as the work of the devil. Twenty-five years ago, in her appraisal of the novel, Erica Jong found this noise over its propriety exasperating, so maybe now more than ever, the only fit response to the Cossack charge is to ignore it, at most to repay the protesters with a bottle of one’s own, bearing just the terse rebuttal, “It’s art, stupid.” To do anything more, to defend Nabokov and his work more fully and forcefully, would be to concede that either needs defending in the first place.
And one would think that the Cossack claim could be made only by someone who hasn’t read the book. After all, unless you abuse the text pretty seriously (beat it within an inch of its life), it’s not possible to construe Humbert Humbert’s pathology as a behavioral recommendation. In this regard, his case is no different from that of multitudes of literary characters. Consider, for comparison, Brigadier Pudding in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, who, for the sake of sexual arousal, eats the excrement of the book’s femme fatale as she is producing it (do the math for yourselves here). That the novel contains this character doesn’t mean that readers, or his creator, find this behavior appetizing. Unfortunately, the semi-literate Cossacks are not alone in their sentiments about Lolita, not the only hostiles in the field. In fact, their cause often finds support even from the ranks of Nabokov’s fans. In the 2009 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, journalist and literary pilgrim Stephen Smith promises to resolve the title question, which he poses more bluntly at the outset: “was [Lolita] a morality tale or the fantasies of a dirty old man? [his grammar]” On the whole, the documentary feels like a superficial traipse through Nabokov’s life and work, a mercenary stoking of this combustible subject. But one vignette particularly rankles: Smith interviews Martin Amis, perhaps the most famous champion of Nabokov’s work, and here, as Amis glosses the prevalence of pedophilia in the Nabokovian catalog—which, indeed, spans (vestigially) from the very early stories to The Original of Laura, the unfinished last novel, published posthumously—his view of Nabokov bends sinister. He flatly concludes that this recurrent theme “distorts the corpus,” cropping up so frequently as to be an admission of guilt.
Scholars too, from time to time, have tried to paint Nabokov in these same colors, casting him as the pervy uncle in the house of literature. In 1990, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Brandon Centerwall attempted to deduce from the fiction that Nabokov himself was a victim of molestation, and subsequently a “closet pedophile.” The article is a textbook example of the biographical fallacy, a case study in bad reading (call it what it is, a masterpiece of stupidity), yet this line of attack was taken up once again in 2005, inflated to book length, by an Australian critic who elected to self-publish her treatise when the university presses balked. The book appears to be a work of character defamation masquerading as scholarship (a wonderfully scathing review, by Sarah Holland Batt, is available online), but should these academic insults seem a little dated and recherché, consider this incidental disclosure, the novel’s cameo appearance, in a New Yorker feature, from January of this year, on the treatment protocol for pedophiles. One of the men interviewed for the piece, who had as yet hurt no one, kept a secret list of child-pornographic art works, among which he numbered something called Lolita, which is hilarious, though he might have been referring to a film version. (I wonder if he has seen Hard Candy). The man had also jotted some notes to justify his erotic appetites—“Strictly speaking a girl between 13 and 17 is not a child”—and Cossacks will notice how these seem eerily akin to the pleas of Nabokov’s Humbert. No, the derogation of Nabokov and his Lolita is a doggedly persistent refrain, a vampire meme in the cultural memory.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that it might be necessary to entertain these charges against the writer—for the sake of argument, as a logical exercise—if only to shred them the more completely. It’s not just the prevalence or persistence of these attacks that compels me. Let me explain. In his very readable book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton argues that the French writer’s masterpiece can subtly alter the reader’s own habits of cognition and perception. I take it for granted, as a given, that the same is true of Nabokov’s work: with its radiant precision, its richly patterned surfaces, its rampant serendipity, its rhapsodic and pulverizing prose, his fiction warps the mind in a most salutary way. In a thoughtful exchange on Slate, James Wood and Richard Lamb testify to the fact as they both complain of infection by Nabokov’s jeweled style. On a more tangible level, Nabokov’s work as a naturalist—his love for botanical things and butterflies which infuses his fiction—routinely inspires readers (not just me) to take up taxonomy, birdwatching, say, or tree identification: see Lila Zanganeh’s whimsical but skimpy hagiography The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness (2011), in which she reports that she too has found this element of Nabokov’s fiction contagious.
While Zanganeh chronicles a bit preciously her personal enamoration with Nabokov, David Kleinberg-Levin, a philosopher emeritus at Northwestern, advances more or less the same exalted argument; he attributes to the Nabokovian catalogue the full measure of the joy inherent in his own book’s title—Redeeming Words and the Promise of Happiness: A Critical Theory Approach to Wallace Stevens and Vladimir Nabokov (2012). (Clearly, the news hasn’t been all bad for Nabokov in the last few years.) Essentially, Kleinberg-Levin highlights two distinctive features of Nabokov’s fiction: its animated lexical surface (the prosody, cryptograms, puns and metamorphic words) and its narrative vanishing acts (in which worlds like a mad king’s Zemblan homeland are painted in lurid colors only to be razed, exposed as phantasmal and illusive, in which a Dreamer can stumble onto the set of Morn and remind the actors of their unreality). These features, for Kleinberg-Levin, evoke the awesome, originary power of language itself, its power to birth human consciousness, an experience conducive to, or synonymous with, happiness. Although his book is dense with reference and coiled academic prose, Kleinberg-Levin writes feelingly about the subject and is nearly convincing (I know he’s right, as is Zanganeh; I’m just not sure that there’s any rational way to argue the why). But here’s the rub: if sensible people are willing to ascribe a benevolent influence to Nabokov’s work, is it possible to dismiss out of hand, without a hearing, those concerns of the Cossacks and the demonizers that Lolita’s impact might be pernicious? That is, if books can be salutary, can they not also be toxic?
In his 1958 laudatory review of the book, Lionel Trilling inadvertently supplies the Cossack cause with this deadly ammunition; he writes that “in the course of reading the novel, we […] come virtually to condone the violation it presents.” The only outrage the work provokes, for Trilling, comes after the fact, when we recognize “we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Trilling is mistaken in this conclusion, which is more a personal reaction than a reasoned response, but for Cossacks, I think it’s all the same anyway. That is, the Cossack argument makes no moral distinction between the author and his audience. The writer’s guilt is visited upon readers, museum curators, even by-standing sympathizers—everyone is smeared with the same graffitist’s brush—so it’s hard to know if influence, per se, counts among the novel’s offenses. Scholars like Centerwall, on the contrary, seem willing to allow that Nabokov’s moral hygiene isn’t necessarily identical to the reader’s, but if we grant to Cossacks this concern over influence—the novel’s ability to leave readers enlightened or benighted—it’s the Cossack position that seems the more dangerous of the two. For those of us who know better, this confusion of culpability actually has its advantages. It stands to reason, then, that if we can exonerate the reader, we have vindicated the author, or vice versa. But in the interest of coherent logic and simple commonsense, we might also distinguish between and treat separately these twin poles of accusation, to try to put the matter to rest. At the same time, I realize that this might be an impossible project: not that the controversy can’t be resolved, but that maybe it shouldn’t be resolved. Maybe Lolita is the shard of glass forever embedded in the flesh, the blade that never loses its edge, the trail of hot coals that perpetually smolders: maybe, when we reread it, as we must, we should feel the cut, let it scald, as if for the first time.
The Art of Self-Defense
After Lolita’s publication, Nabokov himself spent a good deal of time responding to the trumped-up charges against him, with inconsistent results. The interview transcripts assembled in Strong Opinions appear to be unassailable, pitch-perfect rejoinders to critics and demonizers. However, television seems to have been a less hospitable medium. In a 1958 interview for the CBC—last year, 3 Quarks Daily ran clips of the footage—Nabokov and the telegenic Trilling joined forces to discuss Lolita’s shocking content, and in that conversation, Trilling identifies perhaps the most scandalous thing about the novel: that it invites us to believe that Humbert’s love for his nymphet is authentic, that by the book’s end, it transcends the category of child rape. When Humbert meets Lolita for the last time, she is married (at seventeen), pregnant, a nymphet no more, and trying sensibly to shift for herself and her husband in their hard-luck life. Of the encounter, Humbert writes,
You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half- throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty- lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine. … [E]ven if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice.
Trilling might be on to something here, but the book proves more equivocal. Besides the disconcerting adjectives preceding that “delta,” a long-running debate among Nabokov scholars is whether the book’s last nine chapters, including the final meeting with Lolita and the murder of Claire Quilty, ever really happen beyond Humbert’s imagination. More importantly for the moment, Nabokov’s own remarks in that interview might fuel the ire of his antagonists. He mentions, for example, that he and his Humbert differ in many things besides their views of little girls; particularly, he mentions Humbert’s inability to distinguish a hawkmoth from a hummingbird. You don’t have to be a Cossack to hear something tone-deaf in this comparison, a jarring collision of the incendiary (pedophilia) and the urbane (ornithology). As a result, viewers might find themselves trying to interpret the writer’s body language, which is by any measure ungainly as he slouches and slides on an unaccommodating sofa. Jasper Rees, in his review of Smith’s BBC documentary, does this too: although he seems largely to suggest that the charges against Nabokov are bogus, the controversy a non-starter, he ends his article by picking again at the scab of the debate with this sketch of the writer: “Asked by an interviewer if he’d ever known a girl like Lolita, the old man’s lizard eyes flickered, and just for a second the body language spoke as eloquently as anything Nabokov ever wrote in his adoptive tongue.”
These allegations also prompted Nabokov to respond, away from the cameras, in the more composed forum of this Russian-language poem from 1959 (the translation is Nabokov’s own):
What is the evil deed I have committed?
Seducer, criminal—is this the word
for me who set the entire world a-dreaming
of my poor little girl?
Oh, I know well that I am feared by people:
They burn the likes of me for wizard wiles
and as of poison in a hollow smaragd
of my art die.
Amusing, though, that at the last indention,
despite proofreaders and my age’s ban,
a Russian branch’s shadow shall be playing
upon the marble of my hand.
At first glance, the poem too makes for a poor defense of the writer’s character (smaragd?!). An unusually attentive Cossack might seize upon the fact that Nabokov can’t bring himself to use the more accurate “pedophile” as the relevant aspersion, and in the last stanza, again he seems to put on equal footing the weighty matter of censorship with the trivial matter of proofreading (which is the point, at least in part: I wonder if the word doesn’t also contain a pun, alluding to readers who seek in literature a kind of proof, a bedrock of actionable belief). However, upon reflection, the poem does in fact do more to clear Nabokov’s name than it first appears. In refusing to countenance directly the charges against him, in evading the subject (and the horror) of real-world pedophilia, he reveals that his only concern is his literary legacy, which will carry the day in the end (those last two lines envision a marble statue of Nabokov in the Russia from which he was exiled). That Nabokov can find his predicament “amusing,” that he figures his lifespan and historical progress in terms of typographical conventions (the “last indention” in the story of his legacy): this is suggestive of a callousness, an aesthete’s flint-heartedness, a narcissism so frosty that the writer can convert his flesh-and-blood hand without anguish into marble. But on some level, this very heartlessness is not a failing but a requirement if the artist is to create a work, any work, in which characters are made to suffer and perpetrate cruelty.
In his Afterword to the novel, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which has accompanied every edition since 1958, Nabokov offers his most thorough response to his critics, successfully deflecting those charges that Humbert’s obsession is traceable to the writer. He notes the differences between his Lolita and the conventions of pornography (child or otherwise): “in pornographic novels action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.” Although this eminently sensible and widely available text has done little to quell the controversy, it points the way forward. Yes, to find the best defense of the novel, and the fullest exoneration of its author, we have to turn to the work itself, the story of its genesis and the skill in its artistry.
The Fine Art of Edification
Stephen Smith tries to do exactly this, consult the book to vindicate the writer, in his documentary (though he too is hamstrung by the medium). Referring back to his title question—morality tale or pervert’s fantasy—in the end, Smith comes down firmly on the side of the former reading, endorsing the book’s moral vision. He points to Humbert’s acknowledgement of his own crime, his theft of Lolita’s childhood, his gross violation of her body and her life, an access of conscience that blossoms toward the end of the tale:
Unless it can proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.
Essentially, Humbert acknowledges the evil of pedophilia for what it is.
While Smith is right on some level—the book does powerfully indict Humbert for his crime—his conclusion rests too heavily on Humbert’s eleventh-hour repentance. In this regard, Smith would appear to share the view of John Ray, Jr., a fictional psychopathologist who pens the Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript confession. In that Foreword, Ray characterizes Humbert’s story as a “tragic tale tending unswervingly toward a moral apotheosis,” just as Smith does, but Ray, in my reading, is a pedantic clown, an incompetent alienist more prone to titillation perhaps than any of Nabokov’s real-world readers (he refers to men who “enjoy yearly, in one way or another,” exactly the crime that Humbert commits: that choice of verb and the cruel euphemism for rape that follows are unnerving). Further, Nabokov portrays Ray as unusually blinkered in that, on the point of Humbert’s redemption—that moment of his moral transfiguration, staged atop an allegorical hill from which he can deduce the extent of his crime—the text is, again, uncooperative. Though the scene arrives only on the novel’s penultimate page, Humbert’s presumed “apotheosis” actually takes place before he reunites with Lolita, and before he tracks to his lair and kills Quilty, the playwright and pornographer with whom Lolita makes her escape from Humbert. That is to say, the “apotheosis” doesn’t exactly cause him to desist (and, yes, murder appears to be the less objectionable of Humbert’s offenses).
Instead of relying on the authenticity of Humbert’s professed repentance, we should look elsewhere to catch the novel’s antipathy for his crimes, which indeed is inscribed much more thoroughly and pervasively in the text. The book reveals most clearly that the nympholept’s paradise is painted in the colors of hell flames, from first to last; in fact, Humbert’s manuscript confession is more a record of the frustration and cauterization of his desires than a chronicle of their satisfaction. In one example, Humbert rents a new home in voyeuristic proximity to a school yard, but immediately, some construction workers arrive and start building a wall which they leave forever unfinished only after they have completely obstructed Humbert’s view. Elsewhere, he offers a passing sketch of his criminal lust in which Lolita is completely uninvolved, picking her nose and reading the newspaper, while Humbert clings desperately to his fantasy of tenderness, his invented image of the dream girl. It might be in the portrait of Quilty, Humbert’s nemesis, that we catch the most scathing indictment of the sexual predator. In Quilty we see the leering and lecherous monster, as Humbert describes him poolside, “his naval [sic] pulsating, his hirsute thighs dripping with bright droplets, his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigor where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded shield over his reversed beasthood.” The irony here is that Quilty’s beastliness is the very image of Humbert’s own evil; Humbert observes not his adversary and enemy, but his double, and notably then, it is this figure that Humbert destroys (if only metaphorically) in the novel’s last chapters.
The grotesque description of Quilty should make clear another point about Lolita: the mode and mood of the book is parody. In its blood and bones, the novel is a lampooning of any number of literary subgenres: the confession, the psychological case study, the murder-mystery, the doppelganger tale, even the fairy tale. As a result, neither Humbert nor Quilty offers a naturalistic portrait of a pedophile—these are parodies of pedophiles, unusually animated, expressive and convincing caricatures but still caricatures, their monstrosity and their manipulative charms (such as they are) intensified and distorted, to comic effect. No, to catch the real-life portrait of the pedophile, to isolate the type, I think we would have to consider Jerry Sandusky, the shambling dufus, a creepy lummox with an overbite incapable of formulating the extent of his own evil. Readers are welcome to quibble here, pointing to hyperliterate pedophiles in the historical record, but Humbert is a blow-up bogeyman, a balloon-animal of a pedophile that everywhere leaks air. When he makes his explicit defense of pedophilia as a cultural practice, readers can’t miss the irony that undercuts his pleas and renders the entire effort self-defeating and incriminating. While cataloging the historical prevalence of pedophilia, for example, he refers to the sexual mores in “East Indian provinces,” saying “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight and nobody minds.” Those last three words are crucial, charged with a blistering irony; to state that “nobody minds” is to offer a coded acknowledgement that something transgressive, patently wrong is at issue, and the trite colloquialism of the phrase, its chummy tone, is entirely incompatible with the heinousness of the subject. Humbert’s purported self-defense is routinely punctured with this kind of recrimination—and the net effect is hilarious, morbidly, unforgivably hilarious, maybe, but all the more sublime for being so.
The comedy itself in Lolita speaks volumes in defense of the author. See Humbert’s ludicrous description of his perceived competition for Lo’s affection, “two gangling, golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea.” See how his extravagant ogling of the girl inspires the outburst, “oh, that I were a lady writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light!,” which is immediately undercut by authorial laceration, “But instead, I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.” Again, I’m no expert in criminal psychology, but it seems to me that an actual pedophile would be incapable of making his avatar such a buffoon, his lust such a sadomasochistic farce. For Nabokov, laughter, rather than rage or righteous indignation, appears to offer the best defense against monsters and tyrants. As he wrote in arguably his best short story, “‘That in Aleppo Once…’” (1943), in reference to the Nazi horrorshow that claimed the life of his own brother, “with all her many black sins, Germany was still bound to remain forever and ever the laughingstock of the world.” This mature insight finds expression as well in the early Tragedy of Mister Morn, whose philosopher-king succumbs to belly-laughs even while trading punches with a rival.
This isn’t to say that Humbert’s narration isn’t often poignant, or that the novel lacks gravitas. Humbert is a skilled poet of his own pain, converting his agonies into art, and Nabokov allows him to express something of the purported rapture and the corresponding regret that inhere in his crime. After a run-in with Quilty inflames his jealousy, Humbert describes how he “ushered [Lolita] into a little alley half-smothered in fragrant shrubs, with flowers like smoke, and was about to break into ripe sobs and plead with her imperturbed dream in the most abject manner for clarification, no matter how meretricious, of the slow awfulness enveloping” him. Beyond this local and misdirected experience of rue, elsewhere, he records the “smothered memories” that emerge as “limbless monsters of pain,” “icebergs in paradise” in which his lust is interwoven with “shame and despair.” The beauty of Humbert’s lament might best be captured in this passage, in which he contemplates his fatal error: “it struck me that, quite possibly, […] behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.” True, Nabokov has the gall to render the concrete particulars that vivify Humbert’s lust—the portrait less a high-fidelity recording than a Warhol lithograph, garish and overexposed—but he does ensure that Humbert is tortured, deservedly, for his crime. If readers experience a measure of empathy for Humbert, it’s only because Nabokov allows us to see him as both villain and pathetic victim of his own delusions. (In this last, the Cossacks share Humbert’s predicament as surely as anyone who is led into violence by the force of belief—not a bad summary of the human condition).
Not surprisingly, Nabokov himself offers the most apt assessment of Humbert’s character in the Foreword to one of his earlier novels, Despair; he compares the two comparable narrators and concludes, “there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year, but Hell shall never parole Hermann.” Yet, even if it’s clear that Nabokov himself is on the side of the angels in Lolita, this way of framing the debate, at its root, seems to me potentially self-defeating. After all, the novel itself anticipates this need for moral vindication. To that end, Nabokov outsources to John Ray, Jr., the task of representing the moralist defense: Ray’s Foreword ends with the admonition that Humbert’s tale “warns of dangerous trends” and that the book’s “ethical impact” trumps its “literary worth.” Coming as they do from the myopic Ray, these assurances are doubtful, best viewed with suspicion. To defend Lolita by invoking the didactic function and ethical purpose of literature is to commit the same Cossack mistake in the opposite direction. Art isn’t a service industry for the glorification of conventional wisdom or received ideas: art is an aggravation, an explosive device strapped to the I-beams of culture, a cattle-prod for our existential complacency. In its content, art can be transgressive, revolutionary, but perhaps the greater insurrection resides within the very precondition of art: namely, that it exists for the sake of artistry, that it defines itself according to this cultural non-value, beyond the dictates of the marketplace or the agendas of advertisers and propagandists. The pursuit of artistry, the experimentation and innovation housed within the word novel, is by definition a subversion of the social contract, a forged-in-steel, plated-in-gold fuck-you to the notion of utilitarian enterprise. (Some writers are able to convert this posture, paradoxically, impossibly, into a decent living.)
As I see it, the real subject of Lolita, its proper theme, is not immorality, but immortality. And perhaps this in itself is an affront to Cossacks, who would insist that the writer prosecute their own outrage at the crime, rather than see it subsumed within something so precious and grand as temporality. But Humbert’s pursuit of nymphets, his longing to reside on that “intangible island of entranced time,” appears to be a crazed instantiation of a larger existential crisis. Repeatedly throughout the book, Humbert inserts parentheses into his text in which he addresses the supporting cast: to a doctor who treats Lolita, “(hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul and you touched my dove very gently)”; to Rita, the women with whom H takes up after Lolita escapes, “(hi, Rita—wherever you are, drunk or hungoverish, hi!)”; and most tellingly, to Jean Farlow, who shares a tender moment with the newly bereaved Humbert in Ramsdale, then dies shortly after of cancer, “(Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).” All of these apostrophes are redolent of the tomb, given that we know from Ray’s Foreword that Humbert, like Lolita, has died prior to the book’s publication. Those chummy and penitent salutations emanate as if from beyond the grave, and Nabokov wants us to feel the fact, to make the spectral dimension palpable (the word for this is haunting).
The novel’s pervasive concern with temporality is captured most succinctly in Humbert’s description of his metaphysics, which is part and parcel of the novel’s artistry: he cites his academic paper “Mimir and Memory” (Humbert the scholar), in which he posits a “theory of perceptual time” that resembles the human circulatory system and bridges the poles of the past and the future (call it a fluid and equivocal time-space continuum). This circulatory system analogy applies equally to the method of the book, its imagistic reflux in which motifs proliferate madly. For one minor example, little remarked upon, consider Humbert’s arrival at the Haze house in Ramsdale, where he meets Lolita for the first time. As he prepares to tour the house, a potential lodger, he spots, in the foyer, “an old gray tennis ball” of dubious provenance. Lolita doesn’t take up tennis, as far as we know, until after she takes up with (or is taken up by) Humbert, so how do we account for the presence of the ball in the foyer? It’s as if Humbert’s memory is inscribing the earlier scene with the later event—or vice versa: perhaps the entire tennis sequence, a highlight of Humbert and Lo’s travels (precipitating a rendezvous with Quilty, among other things), is itself a spontaneous invention, a metastasis of this incongruous detail that Humbert notices in Ramsdale. (Think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, the devil who invents his far-out tale from the details close at hand—yes, Nabokov deserves a credit for this gambit too). This artistic method makes it almost impossible to separate the fact from the fantasy in Humbert’s confession—which crucially undercuts any moral takeaway obviously. Further, the interweaving of temporal layers, this mixing of times or tenses, is itself a confounding of linear narrative (in life or literature), a means of forging a realm immune to the passage of time, an art synonymous with eternity and immortality. (Morn captures the sentiment with the excellent phrase “large books that smell of time.”)
In a 1989 article, a seventeen-page conniption of sorts, Trevor McNeely argues that every attempt to take an aesthetic view of the novel is an evasion, a “basically nihilistic position of ignoring, and therefore condoning, pedophilia.” For McNeely, the book is a grand hoax perpetrated on readers, the author a reprehensible fraud. In Cossack terms, Nabokov isn’t the pedophile; rather, the evil of the novel is that he makes readers complicit in the crime: “Lolita’s critics swallow Nabokov’s bait, and come to believe, or pretend to believe, that the pedophilia and sexual slavery it depicts actually do not matter.” The most troubling thing about McNeely’s paper is that Studies in the Novel bothered to print it; yet, even an eloquent and temporally distant Cossack is welcome to a hearing. What McNeely fails, or chooses not, to grasp is that the novel’s treatment of pedophilia is, by definition, philosophical and aesthetic, rather than practical. He makes a simple category error. Nabokov portrays the subject as filtered through the prism of art to exploit neither readers nor victims of the crime, but the aesthetic possibilities of the material. To that end, Humbert’s obsession is figured as a crisis of the artistic imagination, which loosens the boundaries between fact and fiction, unmoors time from its anchor: nymphets and their mythical island don’t exist, but Humbert deceives himself into believing that they do—and this is the recipe for tragedy.
The other tragedy, Mister Morn, helps to clarify the point. In the play, the Leninist revolution is figured in the character of Tremens, a kind of prophet of death. He articulates his ideals abstractly, in archetypal images: “But why do we/ always want to grow, to climb uphill/ from one to a thousand, when the downward path–/from one to zero—is faster and sweeter? Life/ itself is the example—it rushes headlong/ into ash, it destroys everything in its way:/ first it gnaws through the umbilical cord….” Clearly, Tremens doesn’t debate the merits of particular Five-Year-Plans or even calculated purges. The revolutionary speechmaking, the offhand executions: those are relegated to the subtext. Elsewhere, Tremens links his philosophy of death, the tenets of revolution, directly to the play’s other prominent plot thread, love: “the soul/ must fear death as a maiden fears love.” The two concepts are positioned on a continuum of sorts, the one experience (death) figured as a corollary of the other (love). Does the observation of these techniques and relationships place a reader on the side of Tremens, condoning the tragedy that follows? It’s art, stupid.
Surprisingly, though, McNeely’s preposterous argument might contain a grain of truth. He suggests that Lolita is Nabokov’s vengeance on critics of every stripe: “the Freudians, the New Critics, the Existentialists, the Structuralists, and all their bastard progeny,” any interpreter who experiences “terror of the void of unmeaning.” McNeely draws the wrong conclusion, but there might be something in the observation. Nabokov’s fiction is strangely resistant, in my experience, to traditional critical approaches, even those that the author doesn’t explicitly subvert. In the case of Lolita, New Criticism, with its emphasis on structural paradox, works reasonably well. With this interpretive apparatus, we can acknowledge and cope with the troubling fact that Humbert’s Proustian quest, his pursuit of artistic immortality, also manifests in his lechery. The former, a New Critic would say, isn’t a means of ennobling the latter; the triumph of Humbert’s art doesn’t excuse the travesty of love that he perpetrates on Lolita. Instead, Nabokov’s novel composes a charged paradox of these contradictory impulses, resulting in an interpretive stalemate: Humbert’s contest with time, his triumph over mortality, might well be bogus, both aesthetically and philosophically. (Or perhaps even a sinner is allowed to finger the keys to the kingdom of heaven.) Maybe it is wicked of Nabokov to recuse himself on this sorest point, but such silence, for New Critics, is the very language of art (Keats heard it on his urn). As Humbert frames it, claiming to quote an old poet: “The moral sense in mortals is the duty/ We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.”
The Edifice of Artifice
What the New Critical reading suggests is that it isn’t quite possible or advisable to salvage a wholesome moral vision from Nabokov’s Lolita; every avenue ends in a cul-de-sac. Even so, the perception of the paradox seems almost beside the point, inadequate somehow to the effect of the novel. Maybe, to best appraise the vision of Lolita, we have to access the amoral provinces of Formalist poetics, because in the intricate patterning of the text, its scintillating architecture, we begin to see the novel’s clearest vindication, and perhaps the most common talking point, with good cause, among the novel’s proponents. Simply put, the prose in Lolita is a marvel, a blow-your-hair-back, stand-up-and-shout performance with few equals in the annals of world literature. Consider this passage, an evocation of the American landscape as Humbert and his ward travel aimlessly cross-country, dissimulating a road trip:
Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would come a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.
Nick Mount, in a lecture on YouTube, cites this passage as an attempt to inscribe nymphet-omania into the landscape, but I offer it merely as a sample of Humbert’s prose at its most majestic.
Of the human comedy, Nabokov is an equally sharp observer, a merciless recorder of mortal folly, with a Boschian bent: when Humbert’s first wife, Valeria, announces that she’s leaving him for another man, that other man turns out to be the driver of the cab that the couple is traveling in. This cab driver, Maximovich, then chauffeurs the pair back home, where he helps Valeria to pack up her things (Humbert claims to be dying the whole while of “hate and boredom”). When Valeria and her beau have gone, Humbert describes what follows:
Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not, but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar [Maximovich], after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon.
Immediately after, Humbert chalks up the outrage to an excess of politeness: probably Maximovich didn’t want to call attention to the shabbiness of Humbert’s apartment, in which both flush and urination would be audible in every room. The nuance of the character portrait here bespeaks an imaginative generosity, a willingness to inhabit, humanely, even peripheral lives; ironically, this is the very point on which Humbert fails with Lolita, and we should notice too that Humbert’s psychological parsing, along with some rummaging in the kitchen, spares him a pummeling from the departed Counselor, who is made of “pig-iron.” However, the rich human portraiture would come to nothing were it not for the peerless phrasing. The seething excess of “spasm of fierce disgust,” the venomous sarcasm and off-kilter, pidgin-inflected verb in “thoroughly easing,” the collision of registers, high and low, in the two types of toilet water, in the promotion of the homely cab driver to Counselor: all of this energy crackles in that “solemn pool of alien urine,” which conveys a coarse bodily function with a rich musicality, a little stilted in context, and it’s that odd formality that ignites the description and makes it sear.
In Nabokov’s sumptuous prose, readers might overlook the liberal admixtures of the mean, the harsh, the cloacal: H contemplates a swimming pool, which he feels lodged in his “thorax,” and his “organs swam in it like excrements in the blue sea water of Nice”; Charlotte Haze’s body, after the accident, “the top of her head a porridge of bones, brains, bronze hair and blood”; his own manuscript, “This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.” Humbert’s isn’t exactly a decorous, museum English. His voice often betrays something florid in its inflection, something a little overheated, steroidal, wearing too much makeup. His isn’t a tone of high sincerity or grim seriousness, much less is it identical to Nabokov’s own literary voice—see for comparison the baroque and steeled serenity of Speak, Memory! (there’s a family resemblance, but Humbert would be the dissipated, loutish cousin wearing too much toilet water at the reunion). Yet Nabokov gifts him with this line, upon his high-spirited departure from Ramsdale after Charlotte’s death, an example for which the best syntactical descriptor might be catastrophe:
And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.
What’s more, Humbert proves to be a skilled ventriloquist; he masterfully conveys Lolita’s tough-teen idiom (“Doublecrosser!”), as well as her mother’s bullying affection, and his own narration veers from a no-nonsense gruffness to the genuinely moving timbre of his contrition. Humbert’s tale is a monologue, but the effect is symphonic, the orchestra including both pipe organ and kazoo, yet the larger point here is simply this: virtuosic prose shimmers on EVERY PAGE of the novel. To find its equal, we have to look to giants like Joyce and Shakespeare. The prose, the artistry, the antimatter of style: this is why good and wise people revere Lolita.
Of course, it might not be wholly possible to separate the work’s style from its content. Because surely the masterful plotting of Lolita—as much a matter of matter as style—the suspenseful, carefully staged exposition of Humbert’s predatory pursuit, the untimely death of Charlotte Haze, the montages of the road trips (deliberately punctuated with pungent set pieces), the elaborate decryption of Quilty’s identity and the culminating murder: surely this contributes to the work’s triumph. Cossacks will start harrumphing again, suggesting that Nabokov might have found something a little too inspiring in the sordid content of the book. Perhaps the book’s scandalous content did in fact galvanize his imagination, did induce him to write a novel more readable, more accessible than ever before. None of his books before or after is so companionably plotted, fluidly paced, as it arcs toward its radiant zenith, despite the subtle sleight-of-hand that everywhere sabotages the chronology. Perhaps the deranged subject matter allowed Nabokov a special dispensation: he could revel more freely not in the heinous crime, but in the threadbare conventions of page-turner fiction (which he tugs at cheerfully). Who knows? Maybe Nabokov sensed that, given the book’s inflammatory subject, the writing had to be perfect. Indeed, the novel is as richly reticulated as a Shakespearean drama, as mad with reference and as ripe with metaphysics as Ulysses, as lyrical and rhapsodic and fluent in the vernacular as Gatsby (but more grotesque, wiser and deeper), as eloquent as anything in Conrad, as polished and timeless as Petrarchan marble. Yet unlike its luminous predecessors, Lolita remains uniquely, scandalously, readable, singularly hospitable to modern sensibilities. While the great works of the past often petrify over time, Lolita lives on, its colors as bright and bruising today as when they were first painted.
There is one simple and, I think, inarguable proof that, in the final reckoning, style, artistry alone has secured for Lolita its place in the pantheon of world literature. This vindication is in some ways an accident of history: to understand how, we have to consider the strange tale of the novel’s genesis, its slouching march toward Bethlehem. However, to alleviate reader fatigue, it seems wise to adjourn here for a brief rest. In the intermission, I invite you to contemplate the following rejected titles for the present article:
The Book in the Brown Paper Wrapper: Why It’s OK to Love Lolita
Nabokov’s Blues: The Tribulations of Lolita
Lolita’s Vampire Problem
The Four-Minute Medium: Why Long Essays Die on the Web
The Hard Lessons of Lolita
Bonfire of the Straw Men!
The Importance of Italics: Why We Love Lolita.
In his Afterword to the novel, Nabokov attempts to answer the elementary question that many readers might ask, but that only Cossacks would charge with a special innuendo: what drove him to write such a work in the first place? Nabokov’s answer is typically oblique, but at root, this is a question of the book’s genealogy, that confluence of determinants that sparked the writing of the novel. In his introduction to The Annotated Lolita, Alfred Appel, Jr., sketches the novel’s fitful evolution, but a convenient summary of Lolita’s inception is also available online, in an article by Neil Cornwell. Cornwell tracks the first appearance of the pedophilia motif in Nabokov’s short stories and shows how a minor character in Nabokov’s The Gift pitches the very premise of Lolita as an idea for a book. Cornwell proceeds to cite a number of scholars who have tallied the novel’s literary precursors, including Edith Wharton’s The Children (which features a Humbertian romance) and Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, which concludes with “the barely teenage eponymous heroine propos[ing] co-habitation with her stepfather.” Dostoevsky’s name also crops up at times among the literary forerunners of Lolita; his The Possessed contained a chapter, initially censored, in which the hero confesses to having abused a child. Even more pointedly, Cornwell examines the fishy allegation that Nabokov cribbed the idea for his book from the little-known German writer Heinz von Lichberg, whose short story entitled “Lolita” appeared in 1919. In this case, Nabokov wouldn’t be a pedophile, but a master thief (at best) or a plagiarist (at worst).
In his YouTube lecture, Nick Mount cites the literary forerunners noted by Humbert himself: Dante, Petrarch and, most pertinently, Poe, all of whom suffered from nympholepsy. Other scholars have pointed out that those poetic ancients, Dante and Petrarch, are miscast as perverts, given that the writers were themselves children when they were smitten; similarly, scholars have speculated that Poe’s relationship with his teenaged cousin might have been chaste. While Humbert’s inventory of “classic” pedophiles might be suspect on its face, it might also contain at least one notable omission. Humbert never mentions Alexander Pushkin, sometimes called the Russian Shakespeare, who also fell in love with (and was doomed by) a young-ish girl, their romance flirting with impropriety as it straddles awkwardly the current age of consent. After writing Lolita, Nabokov would go on to translate, epically, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and the poet’s cradle-grazing romance receives a mention in the great story “‘That in Aleppo Once….’”: the narrator says of his own wife, “She was much younger than I—not as much younger as was Nathalie of the lovely bare shoulders and long earrings in relation to swarthy Pushkin; but still there was a sufficient margin for that kind of retrospective romanticism which finds pleasure in imitating the destiny of a unique genius.” To this list, as well, Cornwell adds, on one extreme, Lewis Carrol (whom Nabokov had also translated) and, on the other, the Marquis de Sade. The evidence here is a little erratic, but a clear trend appears to emerge. It’s hard not to think that Nabokov recognized something absurd in the prevalence of this motif (or disease)—as if literary history were a Henry Darger watercolor teeming with daisy chains of eroticized children. In this merging of the ludicrous and the tragic, maybe he found something hospitable to his artistic sensibility.
Cornwell points to another possible precursor of Lolita: he itemizes the numerous precise relationships between Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabokov’s novel, including Leopold Bloom’s unusual interest in his fifteen-year-old daughter’s budding sexuality, as well as the masturbatory encounter with teenaged Gerty McDowell (whose lameness is passed on to Lolita’s Ginny McCoo with her “lagging leg”). Suffice it to say, the novel is an overgrown garden, a Daedalian labyrinth of forking references. In fact, given the likelihood of Joyce’s haunting of the novel, this relationship might shed light on the origins of one of Lolita’s only explicit scenes (John Ray calls them “aphrodisiac”): the infamous sofa scene, the setting of Humbert’s first gratification of his criminal desire in Ramsdale.
Readers will recall how Humbert cagily manipulates the girl to facilitate his orgasm, claiming at the same time to have preserved her innocence: she doesn’t notice a thing, Humbert says (yet when the phone disrupts the proceedings and Lo goes to answer it, she stands with “cheeks aflame, hair awry”: the details of Humbert’s narrative betray him). To that end, to keep the girl distracted, Humbert, in the course of his magician’s “patter,” strikes upon “something nicely mechanical”: “I recited, garbling them slightly, the words of a foolish song that was then popular—O my Carmen, my little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repeating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell,” he writes. This incantatory device, the repetitious language that undergirds the scene, might point to another Joycean precursor: consider that in “An Encounter,” from Dubliners, Joyce also chronicles a run-in with a child molester, a shabbily dressed man, well-read and yellow-toothed, who has designs on the story’s child narrator. As the characters converse on the green, the talk turns erotic and, as in Humbert’s case, incantatory: “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. [….] He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.” Although wildly different in tenor, and although Joyce himself spares his boy narrator Lolita’s victimization, the similarity in the characters’ vocal performances is striking.
While allusiveness alone is hardly exculpatory, it does strongly suggest that there is much more contributing to Lolita’s creation than a simple autobiographical impulse. Cossacks, naturally, might balk at this line of reasoning; they might argue that textual genealogy is just another, highbrow attempt to naturalize pedophilia, to make it seem the norm—something analogous to Humbert’s overt pleas in the book. Yet here again, Nabokov’s lacerating irony seems to me unimpeachable: he takes the ominous tenor of Joyce’s story, for example, and turns it into mad farce. The sofa scene is ludicrous in mood and effect: “I kept repeating,” Humbert writes, “chance words after her—barmen, alarmin’, my charmin’, my carmen, ahmen, ahahamen….” No, Humbert is ridiculous in his role of enchanted hunter; Nabokov simply grants him the privilege of hanging himself with his own pen.
Beyond the artificial provinces of literature, the real world also supplied the writer with no shortage of material. First, there is the actual crime of Frank Lasalle, mentioned by Humbert in Lolita, and tracked down by scholars; in 1948, Lasalle abducted thirteen-year-old Sally Horner and traveled with her cross-country for over a year, just as Humbert does with his captive. Then, there is the case of Professor Henry Lanz, Nabokov’s colleague during his brief stint at Stanford in 1941 and possible model for both Gaston Godin, the chess-playing pederast in Beardsley, and maybe Humbert himself; in the words of Leland de la Durantaye, Lanz “married his wife in London when she was fourteen” and “allegedly revealed to Nabokov the wild array of his pedophile adventures.” In the same vein, Cornwell notes Nabokov’s close reading of Havelock Ellis’ famous case history, “The Confession of Victor X,” whose Russian narrator “develops from precociously over-sexed adolescent debauchery […,] through a lengthy period of abstinence in Italy, which finally degenerates into paedophilia, voyeurism and masturbatory obsession amid Neapolitan child prostitution.” Cornwell even cites Nabokov’s reaction to the confession, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, who had introduced him to Ellis’ work:
I enjoyed the Russian’s love-life hugely. It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic.
Determined skeptics, of course, may still accuse Nabokov of dissimulation, but this response is, obviously, a far cry from the commiseration of a fellow sufferer. In a larger sense, it’s clear that the precipitants of Lolita were, well, legion.
While Cornwell considers multi-media influences on Nabokov’s art, he doesn’t mention Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a classic work of German Expressionist cinema. The film, also available (amazingly) on YouTube, centers on the crimes of a child murderer (played by Peter Lorre), and it ends with Lorre tracked down by vigilantes who quickly rig up a kangaroo court to try the criminal on the spot. The scene is breathtaking in its emotional intensity, marked by monstrous shifts in tone: Lorre will be shrieking his defense, pleading for his life (as Humbert does), only to be interrupted by the devastating civility of his self-appointed attorney. The crowd of “jurors” will veer rapidly from murderous clamoring to sit-com laughter. The movie, most tellingly, ends with a bereaved mother staring balefully into space, imploring the audience to be more attentive guardians of their children. This is the same plea with which John Ray, Jr., ends his fictional Foreword: “Lolita should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” (Note how Ray’s words seem subtly critical of Lolita as the representative of her generation.) M would be worth mentioning here, if only because it offers a succinct glimpse of the emotional extremes that typify Nabokov’s work from the same period. But the movie is equally interesting, in its content and conclusion, as another potential precursor of Lolita.
Lang’s M also takes us back, conveniently and necessarily, to the Berlin of the ‘30s, where Nabokov lived until 1937, when the Nazis hurried him out of the country. Before he left for America, Nabokov resided for a brief period in Paris (until the Nazis, again, came calling), and it was there that he experienced “the first little throb,” as he calls it, of the work that would become Lolita. The resultant manuscript, a story of 50-some pages, was called The Enchanter (published posthumously, as a book, in 1986). Written in Russian and set in France, the story contains the central premise of the later Lolita, a pedophile’s pursuit and capture of his twelve-year-old victim, by means of his doomed marriage with her mother. It remains more or less exactly faithful to the plot and method of Lolita, through the hotel scene (Lolita’s Enchanted Hunters) in which the characters’ bed down together for the first time. At this point, The Enchanter abruptly concludes, while Lolita plunges on, across the country, settling in Beardsley, taking flight again, and culminating in the chase and murder of Quilty. In his Afterword to the text, Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son and translator, claims that the early story is a distinct work, an independent creation, but I can’t see it as anything but a first, failed draft of the iconic novel. One detail might suffice to show just how closely the two books are related; a flower show interferes with the hotel accommodations of both Humbert Humbert and the unnamed agonist of The Enchanter.
This story, The Enchanter, as it happens, is the indisputable proof that Lolita’s rightful fame has nothing to do with titillation, that readers and fans of Nabokov’s fiction are not condoning, much less celebrating Humbert’s crime. And here’s why: although The Enchanter takes up the same demented content as Lolita, almost no one reads it, and no one, to my knowledge, reveres it. In “The Enchanter and the Beauties of Sleeping,” Susan Elizabeth Sweeney gives the text perhaps more attention than it warrants, tracking the fairy-tale motifs that Nabokov exploits (the Red Riding Hood references are impossible to miss). But my impression is that very few readers even know that The Enchanter exists—this, despite Stephen Smith’s dutiful documentary, and despite the fact that Lolita’s Wikipedia page contains in its fine print a reference to the work (watch for its Russian-language title Volshebnik—which looks strangely like an anagram for Bolshevik, to boot). Apropos of the plagiarism scandal, Cornwell and others have noted how difficult it is to prove a negative, an absence of knowledge, so all I can offer by way of evidence for The Enchanter’s obscurity is this: that New Yorker-interviewed pedophile doesn’t include the title of The Enchanter among his secret stash. If Cossacks were right, if Nabokov’s fans were criminals, The Enchanter would also be a household name. It isn’t (though Lila Zanganeh’s book title, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, seems increasingly audacious.).
Nor should it be. In one of fate’s many ironies, this book, which incontrovertibly exonerates readers, at the same time makes it hardest to vindicate the writer. The plot, per the text’s length, is paper-thin, its course excruciatingly linear, its focus painfully myopic and claustrophobic, everything about it wooden and under-aired. For all its traumatic content, it might be a little boring. Nabokov’s brilliance does at times rouse itself long enough to cast a bleary eye on the proceedings, before lapsing again into dormancy. For example, as the agonist contemplates the act of consummating his sham marriage to his Brobdingnagian bride, we’re privy to the black comedy of her anatomy: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be physically unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery… here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” But Erica Jong offers a capsule summary of the relation between the story and the novel: “The difference between [the texts] is the difference between a postcard from Venice and a Turner painting of the same scene.”
The Enchanter is interesting primarily for what it isn’t. It contains in utero some of the basic material and tactics that make Lolita incomparable: a passing reference to Hourglass Lake, where Humbert considers murdering Charlotte (“some seaside sand useful only as food for an hourglass”); an ur-Quilty in The Enchanter’s hotel; a prefatory attempt by the agonist to rationalize and philosophize, like Humbert, his obsession. Importantly, the story also prefigures Lolita’s tactic of lampooning and, in a moral sense, condemning the agonist’s schemes. After the untimely death of his ailing wife (in hospital, a nicety that also survives as a ruse in Lolita), the man takes a train to collect his stepdaughter; while in transit, he fantasizes about the night to come, his gradual assault on the girl’s virginity in the “tightest and pinkest sense,” and the text incorporates and confirms the reader’s response in the character of a woman who shares the train compartment: “The lady who had been sitting across from him for some reason suddenly got up and went into another compartment.” The silence of that “for some reason” speaks volumes: even through the blinders of third-person-limited narration, the text manages to convey that the agonist has visibly aroused himself, and caused the woman to bolt.
But perhaps what The Enchanter lacks, even more than Humbert’s comic self-laceration, even more than the novel’s three-dimensional world, is a greater allotment of this authorial intervention. The story’s conclusion is especially difficult to read, as Nabokov appears to ride the current of the narrative beyond the boundaries of good taste. The agonist finds himself, at last, in the hotel room with his prey; believing the girl to be asleep, he begins to weave his spell over her body, availing himself of his “magic wand” (thus, the title), which appears to be a euphemism for his penis. Yes, it’s almost too silly even to be creepy. Belatedly, the character recognizes that the girl has in fact been awake for a while and is screaming at the top of her lungs. The story rushes to its end, then, with the agonist fleeing the scene, seeking a convenient suicide, only to be struck down in the street by an obliging truck. Strangely, at this moment, the style veers directly into stream-of-consciousness narration, as the agonist welcomes his violent end (for my part, I prefer the third-person-indirect phrase that precedes this turn, “this instantaneous cinema of dismemberment”).
Nabokov must have recognized the failure in the sequence—else, he would never have rewritten it as he did. Humbert, in The Enchanted Hunters hotel, passes the whole night suffering from insomnia and dyspepsia, and the morning tryst is a masterpiece of understatement: “by six-fifteen, we were technically lovers.” Yet, something of the edge, the creepiness, of The Enchanter survives in Lolita, in the very hotel scene which features one sentence that will challenge the stomach of any reader. It describes Humbert’s anticipatory image of the girl, and depicts her anatomy starkly, unflinchingly:
Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her—so I foreglimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock.
There have been times when I have asked myself what the novel would lose if one were simply to strike this sentence from the page. Basically, in such moments, I have contemplated censorship of a kind. Why would Nabokov write such a sentence in the first place? Or similarly, why dramatize with such heat and precision the sexual escapades of Humbert and Annabel, when both were Lolita’s age? Humbert writes of Annabel, “whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful,” and the lyricism of the line rings so true that the sentence strikes with the force of memory. At such moments, it almost becomes possible to sympathize, somewhat, with the Cossack position. But before we leap into that intellectual abyss, we have to realize that in this, in many things, Nabokov was smarter, wiser, braver, than any of us. Without such passages, I’ve concluded, it might be possible to read the novel without feeling sufficiently repulsed.
Such moments bring to the surface the horror that bubbles steadily in the margins of Humbert’s tale; it skitters across the frame of the page, never far from view, seeping in from the edges, muted and ghastly in its attenuation. In the wake of the events at The Enchanted Hunters, for example, Humbert pauses to describe the mural that he might have painted for the hotel, had the proprieters “lost [their] minds”:
There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callipygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been camp activities…. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.
The mural supplies a loose corollary, a hieratic version of Humbert’s confession. And if you can read that “wincing child” and not feel lanced by grief, you should either have your conscience checked or learn to become a better reader. The method is oblique, but the result is a wound.
My sense is that, if Nabokov had written only The Enchanter, the Cossacks might have a better case against him. But then again, if Nabokov had never gone on to write Lolita, there wouldn’t be any museums to vandalize. And because Nabokov did write Lolita, we can’t indict him for the limitations and failings of an early draft whose publication he considered (in 1959), but never approved. To put this simply, the evidence of The Enchanter serves to exonerate both the author and his readers. It’s doubtful that an actual pedophile would be capable of artistic (rather than pornographic) revision; it’s certain that readers would be indifferent to anything but an artistic triumph.
Lolita’s achievement is of such an order that it precipitates and compels every kind of artistic response, from imitation to inspiration to competition to homage to a desperate lunging at the maestro’s coattails. See again Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus, with its ship of lost souls whose bacchanals might make Sade blush; the shipboard set piece concludes with a pedophiliac tryst considerably more erotic than anything in Lolita. (If memory serves, this scene ends with the male participant, the book’s protagonist, Rocket Man, passing through the wormhole of his own urethra.) Yet Cossacks will likely excuse Pynchon from their auto-da-fé, partly because such depravities are walled off behind a fortress of impenetrable prose, and they will leave alone, thankfully, Gary Shteyngart with his wave to Lolita in one of the best American stories of the new century, “Shylock on the Neva”; Shteyngart’s gangster narrator spies a young girl at a museum and flashes his “standard Will-you-sell-your-body-for-Deutschemarks? smile. […] Not yet, her black eyes [tell him].” Nor will the Cossacks touch their torches to the digital record of the Oscar-lauded American Beauty (another Kevin Spacey sighting) with its unsubtle, rose-encrusted reprise of Nabokov’s novel. Lolita even intrudes on the latest book by the turncoat Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo; the novel begins with the fifteen-year-old male protagonist prosecuting an incestuous relationship with his Humbert-aged grandmother. No, perhaps the only unforgivable thing about Lolita, the thing that makes it uniquely susceptible to attack, is that Nabokov managed to turn a tragedy into a trope.
Cossacks might try, but surely not every instance of literary child abuse can be traced back to Nabokov; only among writers of a certain stylistic cast is the ancestry clear (they write prose that bioluminesces and stings like a Portuguese man’o’war). In any case, contrary to Cossack opinion, the proliferation of Lolita’s flammable premise is neither trivializing nor sinister. Rather, in evoking Nabokov’s achievement, writers not only honor the best of the tradition, they consent to shoulder in their own ways the novel’s grim burden: to confront the very worst that humanity has to offer, and to wring from that misery something beautiful: to stare into the blackest pit and find (forge) the sun. This is the hard lesson of Lolita; it is a monument to an awful existential truth: simply to be alive, in the face of the whole history of human suffering, requires a kind of insane fortitude. Lolita reminds us that while soldiers were dying in European trenches, Monet was painting lilies in his garden; that horror and beauty are cosynchronous; that for every fine sentiment, every sweet emotion, someone else pays in blood, and eventually we all get presented with the check. The world is thick with atrocity, past and present; Lolita shows us that, from such material, within and out of it, we might wrest some measure of transcendence. The novel casts its gaze on the monstrous, but also the mythical, the banal, the comic, the poetic, even the tender (with an asterisk), and fashions a kind of harmony from the discordant and myriad particulars. A sob of despair becomes a song of hallelujah. Though perhaps beyond morality in the narrow sense, the novel’s project, this artistic patrimony, is at its root affirmative and redemptive.
The Cossack storm—a light shower, really—will soon blow over, if it hasn’t already. The circus can always be relied upon to leave town. Although it would be wrong to compare too closely the offenses of Cossacks with those of actual pedophiles, they do have this in common: both, in the end, are acts of sterility, the one perhaps trivial, the other savage. Nabokov’s novel, on the contrary, and fit testimony to its genius, is blessedly, maybe endlessly, generative.
– Bruce Stone
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a collection of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Numéro Cinq and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.
The slider selection at the top of the page this month deserves a note. What we have there now are the top ten Numéro Cinq all time most read items as of the end of April (people voting with their mouse clicks). The selection may surprise you.
So, in contrast to some other causes of death, terrorism doesn’t rank all that high. And, if you look at the country stats, most terrorism deaths currently take place in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the objective, statistical view. Which does have some impact, say, on how one generally calculates one’s vulnerability while drinking coffee at Max London’s in downtown Saratoga Springs. There is another calculation, the hypothetical calculation of a person killed in ANY terrorist attack ANYWHERE. In that view, the statistics don’t matter much.
Beautiful, important, significant, touching, erudite, highly technical, comical, comfortable, intelligent, wild, unnatural, off-the-path, miscegenation, sport of nature — some of the words that come to mind when I look at the May issue taking shape in the cavernous, brimstone depths of the NC Central (a secure site somewhere in the northern hemisphere).
Not to pick favourites (moi?), but we have an amazing interview by Peter Mishler with David Ferry, 2012 National Book Award winner for his poetry collection Bewilderment. This is an extensive, copious, intense interview that cuts deeply into the world of poetic composition, maybe it’s the definitive interview with David Ferry. Also we have poems from NC recidivist Jordan Smith and an erudite and fascinating essay on Osip Mandelstam, poems and translations of poems, by Betsy Sholl. And still, yes, on the poetry front, Anne Loecher (who did the orgasm/musk ox interview with Poet Laureate Donald Hall) contributes a terrific essay on the nearly lost poems of the wonderful American poet Lorine Niedecker.
But there is poetry in the most surprising places: Leonard Bellanca is a fine furniture maker who writes dactyls and couplets with a chisel and saw. Don’t miss this one (Ikea will never look the same).
Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane has bodied forth an essay on his twin current obsessions, Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche; an unlikely juxtaposition that proves, well, likely and wonderfully cogent; sparks fly off.
For those of us who studied passion (at a certain age) in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Paul M. Curtis offers a spritely, affectionate essay on Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea (oh, the books that revive one’s youth!).
Robert Day has a Mother’s Day (now there’s an unexpected rhyme) essay about his, yes, mother (also France, Montaigne, & vineyards). Please note the winsome curly-haired boy he once was in the header photo. Donald Quist sends us a lovely account of “What It’s Like Living Here” from Bangkok, extending the reach of our series into the Far East (we have one from Indonesia in the works). Russell Working contributes an essay on research, for the fictionally-impaired nonfiction writers in our readership (always good to check your facts).
Stephen Henighan (another repeat offender on these pages, fiction and translation) has a short story; we also have a story in translation, “Albatross,” by the Danish author Simon Frueland. And Steven Axelrod reviews The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.
There might be more; the Inner Circle elves are still churning. But this is good, it’s a start.
Back from epic, marathon reading and interview trip to Ontario. Arrived in an ice storm. Gorgeous reading events hosted by Ian Bell (his father was my Grade 11 history teacher) and John B. Lee (multiple publications on NC). NC Contributing Editor Sydney Lea was there and I managed to get a photo of him looking like God at the reading in Highgate. Also my very first book publisher, Marty Gervais. The mix of music (Ian Bell and the amazing Michael Schatte) and literary reading was surprisingly entertaining. People paid money to come. Doing two events back to back with a long car ride in between (with stops to visit memorials for famous forgotten Canadian poets and to cast an eye on John B. Lee’s ancestral farm) made me feel like I was on tour with a troupe of actors.
Sunday, I had brunch with the Jernigans, Kim who used to edit The New Quarterly, and Amanda, the poet, and her husband, the photographer John Haney (both Amanda and John have appeared on NC). This was all the more remarkable since they had not had electricity since Thursday (the ice storm). Then I drove to Waterloo to see Jonah and also Dwight and Kathy Storring (Dwight published a play on NC; their son Nathan has an essay here).
Do you get the impression that there are secret NC cells planted all over (you know, mostly so I can travel without paying for food)?
The photo below was taken by Zach Melnick during the War of 1812 documentary interview he did with me on Thursday in the farmhouse living room.
DG being interviewed at the farm, photo by Zach Melnick
Sydney Lea reading in Highgate, Saturday evening
Michael Schatte compilation, on tour with us he performed solo
Possum I found in a den by the pond at the back of the farm
You can hear the dog whimpering next to me. Notice the feet. I once raised a young opossum, called Snuffy, at first I kept him in a fleece-lined leather glove (approximating a mother’s pouch, I thought). My friend Bruce Hiscock did a drawing which hangs in the house. When he seemed big enough, we let Snuffy go in the woods. My great-grandfather was an amateur poet who called himself “Possum” and kept a stuffed opossum in his store. I published an essay about him in The New Quarterly a couple of years ago. More information than you need, right?
First flowers, Coltsfoot
My father once planted a small field with Scotch pine to sell as Christmas trees. As he once observed, they kind of got away from him.
Daffodils in the woods. There are patches all through the woods, planted by DG’s mother.
The farm buildings from the east.
Dog investigating possum den
Geese by the pond
Laneway. To the right, a spruce windbreak. To the left, a field of oak and white pine planted over 15 years ago for eventual harvest.
Woodkid’s self-directed music video “I Love You” begins with a rather enigmatic and violent image of an unconscious boy, a Viking helmet and shoe apparently knocked from his person and lying nearby. The video that follows seems to have little to do with this image, but, in the context of Woodkid’s larger project, the image and the tale both circle the same enigmatic loss.
Woodkid is the pseudonym of music video director Yoann Lemoine, famous for the videos he’s made for such music stars as Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift. He moved into music as an extension of what he was creating with his music videos, but there is a strong narrative impulse in the work. His debut album The Golden Age was released in a special edition that, instead of a jewel case, is contained within a book he co-wrote with Katarzyna Jerzak (his cousin). The book looks one part religious text and one part fairy tale with illustrations (by artist Jillian Tamaki).
The videos for the album, too, seem part of a larger literary project, each forming a chapter of a more complex narrative. “I Love You,” the third single to be released from the album The Golden Age, continues the story he built in the other two videos “Iron” and “Run Boy Run”: characters and symbols recur; the black and white simple aesthetic dominates all three. Narratively, the films overlap: “Iron” ends with a white churchly structure.
“Run Boy Run” begins with the boy that starts “I Love You” fleeing from that same structure, collecting an army of Where The Wild Things Are type beasts and standing ready to attack a metropolis of structures that look like the church he fled.
“I Love You,” then, begins with perhaps the result of this attack: the boy lying on the ground, his Viking helmet and one shoe knocked from him, apparently defeated by the white towering edifices he and his beasts sought to conquer.
“I Love You,” then is in some sense about defeat. The central narrative follows a priest-like figure who first appears in the video for “Iron” reading fervently from a religious text. In “I Love You” he arrives at a church to play the organ, announcing to the austere congregation, “Today I’ll tell you a story about a man who drowned in the ocean, after he lost someone he loved. This is a story about a man who died twice” (translated from the Russian).
Once this man begins to play the organ, the visual story follows the same man climbing and struggling across bleak, vast, rocky landscapes.
The juxtaposition of his smallness, his fragility against this landscape speaks to the intensity of the struggle he faces as he stumbles, presses his face weeping to stones, and eventually walks out into the ocean and sinks.
In an interview with Complex Magazine, Woodkid points to a thematically similar moment in the written text:
There’s this moment in the book where the kid says to his mum, “It’s very windy outside, there’s this massive storm,” and these are actually fragments of lyrics you find in The Golden Age. He says, “Look at the trees, they’re bending and almost touching the ground.” Because the wind is so strong, he says to his mother, “Look, they’re going to break.” And the mother says, “No they’re not going to break because they’re super tender.” But if they get old, dry, and more hard, then in the case of heavy wind, they’re going to break.
This man will succumb, will turn to stone (this, too, foreshadowed in the earlier video for “Iron” where he appears wearing a suit that looks like it is made from marble).
Two things complicate this defeat for me: the congregation and the whales. Woodkid’s narrative briefly flashes from the journey of the man who will turn to stone to show a few faces of those who are affected by this music and tale: an old man lowers his head to look at the religious symbols he holds, a woman lowers her head in despair, another woman kisses the crown of a baby’s head like this consoles her, and a boy looks heavenward, weeping. They each witness his tale and present us with ways to experience it: we can lean away from it, find consolation in faith or objects or in children, or we can give in to despair.
Here I am most intrigued by the woman with the lowered head. When the central character enters the church at the beginning, you can first see her to the right; she stands waiting in the front row, overjoyed to see the protagonist. And she appears later, head lowered, trembling, weeping at the song, the tale he’s sharing. She doesn’t look at him, can’t as he has his back to the congregation. And she seems, for lack of a better word, ashamed. Head bowed, trembling. From her initial joy and excitement to this despair, her story is secret from us.
But her reaction and, truly, none of the congregation’s are what the tale prescribes. They deny the whales.
The tale, simply put, is the journey of a man who turns to stone. This could have happened anywhere on the landscape of stone he traversed, but instead this transformation happens as he sinks down into the abyss circled and surrounded by a maelstrom of humpback whales. It’s a complicated image: the massive leviathans with their vaguely stony exteriors, but their graceful swimming together through the beams of light that pierce through the dark deep. Certainly water is what he washes his face and hands with before he begins to play music in the church and it is echoed here in some sense as cleansing. It is also, however, heavy and crushing as he sinks around the graceful hulking forms that rise where he falls.
Defeat, yes. But there’s also, inescapably, beauty in this struggle, this loss, and this transformation. The congregation, with their various reactions and griefs, seem to miss this experience of the tale. But we don’t. We can’t. There’s too much grace.
– R. W. Gray