November 29, 2015

Book dedications of the year

Every year I like to honour the art of the book dedication by posting some dedications which have caught my fancy through the months, a tradition harking back to the very first Books in the City post.

Just as there is no one recipe for a good book, there is no one recipe for a good book dedication. It's a bit like stone soup. Cryptic or poignant, cabbage or peas -- put in what you've got; the one essential ingredient is the magic stone, which in the case of dedications is personality, as so often in life.

1. Daniel Nester in How to be inappropriate

For our daughter, Miriam Lee Nester.
I’ll try to behave myself from now on.

I like the honesty of that "try", from someone who is so attuned to the inappropriate as to be able to offer an absorbing variety of examples, including "an Australian opposition leader caught sniffing a woman's chair; two more Australians, cadets this time, of Chinese descent singled out by superiors to play-act Koreans in knife combat; a Russian formalist points out a playwright's disregard for logic, and offers as evidence how characters break into scenes with strange or 'inappropriate' remarks; a proposed new drug treats 'inappropriate' levels of separation anxiety in dogs... ".

In other words, anything "odd, out of place". Hey! I think I've found an example of that:

It just seems like the second something becomes really solemn [like poetry], I want to do something wrong with it. I cant help but think it has something to do with being an alter boy. -- Daniel Nester, as quoted in the online magazine Smith

2. Jane Hill in The Murder Ballad

For my dad, who was proud of me

This made me so happy, and all the more when I saw a photo of Jane Hill.
This is Jane Hill, isn't she great?

Jane Hill

3. And these are the Nabokovs, Vladimir and Véra:

Vladimir and Vera Nabokov on the butterfly trail. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s
(Photo courtesy of Christie's)

Vladimir Nabokov in Speak memory, Lolita, Pnin, Pale fire, Ada, Transparent things, and Look at the harlequins:

For Véra

I learned this from Brian Boyd at this year's Writers' Festival, where he was presenting Letters to Véra, the book he edited of Nabokov's letters to his wife over their 52 years of marriage, the longest marriage in literary history, if I remember correctly. Starting from his memoir Speak memory in 1951 and until his death, Nabokov dedicated every one of his books to Véra.

The passionate lepidopterist also presented her with the first copy of each book as it arrived from the publisher, having first drawn in it an imaginary butterfly, a different one every time, playing on the occasion. Here's the harlequin butterfly he drew in Look at the harlequins, possibly a reference not just to the book but also to the harlequin mask Véra was wearing when they first met.

On their 43rd wedding anniversary, in Véra's copy of The Gift Nabokov wrote "Here is the tenderest of butterflies worthy of the anniversary, 1925-68", and labelled the butterfly he drew a male Charaxes Verae Nabokov. I looked up Charaxes. It is a genus of butterflies known for their constancy in returning always to the same spot.



4. Jules Feiffer in Backing into forward

For my children, my grandchild, my future grandchildren –

    Success is nothing to sneeze at, but failure, too,

                      Offers great possibilities.

And always remember, do not let your judges define you.

I saved this one for last. A summa cum laude dedication, a capture in amber of that moment in which the book is finished and ready to be sent off, a message to the dedicatee, but also to us, idiosyncratic and direct from the heart. I love the dedication and I loved the book, a memoir by the great cartoonist, playwright and illustrator (most notably of the children's-classic-for-all-ages The Phantom Tollbooth). A boy growing up in the Bronx who lacked "the basic Bronx gene, the ball-playing gene", with a father "primarily gentle and not very significant in my life -- or his own", a mother whom he would happily have murdered, but didn't want to wound. The girl he hitch-hiked across America to rejoin, who when he shows up at her door can't change her weekend plans. "If you didn't love me anymore, why didn't you write me? I wouldn't have come!" he says.

"I didn't know I didn't love you," she said.

"When did you find out?"

"When I opened the door and saw you."

If you have never at any time in your life thought that could happen to you, this book isn't for you, and I feel sorry for you for that.

If you'd like to see more dedications, here are the posts:

Dedicated by -- or to -- the beats: Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Bob Orr

Book dedications n. 5: Balzac, Rostand, Conrad, Edward Gorey, and Neil Gaiman

Best book dedications n. 4: Hunter S. Thompson, Diana Wynne Jones, Lady Chatterley's lover

My dedications collection:  Christine Lvov Lealand, Larry McMurtry, JD Salinger

Dedications, again: Cornell Woolrich, Michael King, H. Rider Haggard

Dedicated to the one I love: Ken Kesey and Diane Wakoski

October 30, 2015

Launch of The Dreaming Land by Martin Edmond

(All photos by Dan Liu)

You missed it? Don't worry. In an exciting first for Books in the City, we're offering a podcast of the event. We've asked Simon Comber from Readers Services, who presented on the night, to present it.

On a pleasant spring Tuesday evening in late October people gathered at Central City Library to celebrate the launch of Martin Edmond’s childhood memoir The dreaming land.

Martin Edmond has been writing acclaimed prose works since his debut in 1992, the haunting The autobiography of my father. Other significant works include Chronicle of the unsung (2005) and Dark night: walking with McCahon (2011). The launch of Edmond’s memoir this year coincides with his increasing acknowledgment as one of New Zealand’s best writers. In 2014 he was honoured by the New Zealand Society of Authors for his work, and this year he was the Michael King Writer's fellow.

The initiated and the curious turned up to have a wine in the Atrium before moving in to the Whare wānanga to listen to a discussion between Edmond and Peter Simpson, a former Associate Professor of English at Auckland University with an expert knowledge of, and large passion for New Zealand literature. Simpson had prepared thoughtful engaging questions, and Edmond never failed to reply with warmth and generosity, but what really made the discussion was the rapport between the two, and their obvious mutual respect as writers and scholars.

Stream the podcast to hear the discussion. Either listen via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

October 18, 2015

Patti Smith on the childhood pleasure of reading books too old for you

(Photo Jesse Dittmar)

From Patti Smith's new memoir M Train:

There were red rosebuds in a small vase in the bathroom at 'Ino. I draped my coat over the empty chair across from me, and then spent much of the next hour drinking coffee and filling pages of my notebook with drawings of single-celled animals and various species of plankton. It was strangely comforting, for I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father's desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the Planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore over this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colors, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory. Such things that disappear in time that we find ourselves longing to see again. We search for them in close-up, as we search for our hands in a dream.

My father claimed that he never remembered his dreams, but I could easily recount mine. He also told me that seeing one's own hands within a dream was exceedingly rare. I was sure I could if I set my mind to it, a notion that resulted in a plethora of failed experiments. My father questioned the usefulness of such a pursuit, but nevertheless invading my own dreams topped my list of impossible things one must one day accomplish.

In grade school I was often scolded for not paying attention. I suppose I was busy thinking about such things or attempting to untangle the mystery of an expanding network of seemingly unanswerable questions. The hill-of-beans equation, for example, occupied a fair portion of second grade. I was contemplating a problematic phrase in The Story of Davy Crockett by Enid Meadowcroft. I wasn't supposed to be reading it as it was in the bookcase for third graders, but drawn to it I slipped it into my schoolbag and read it in secret. I instantly identified with young Davy, who was tall and gangly, telling equally tall tales, getting into scrapes, and forgetting his chores. His pa reckoned that Davy wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. I was only seven and these words stopped me in my tracks. What could his pa have meant by that? I lay awake at night thinking about it. What was a hill of beans worth? Would a hill of anything be worth a boy like Davy Crockett?

I followed my mother around the A&P pushing the shopping cart.

--Mommy, how much would a hill of beans cost?

--Oh, Patricia, I don't know. Ask your father. I'll take the cart and you go pick out your cereal and don't lag behind.

I quickly did as I was told, grabbing a box of shredded wheat. Then I was off to the dry-goods aisle to check the price of beans, confronted with a new dilemma. What kind of beans? Black beans kidney beans fava beans lima beans green beans navy beans all kinds of beans. To say nothing of baked beans, magic beans, and coffee beans.

In the end I figured Davy Crockett was far beyond measuring, even by his pa. Despite any shortcomings he labored hard to be of use and paid off all of his father's debts. I read and reread the forbidden book, following him down paths that set my mind in unanticipated directions. If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and the stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.

-- Excerpt from M Train by Patti Smith, published by Alfred A. Knopf

Patti Smith on reading books too old for her-- and a lot more, I should have said. 

I've been reading 'M Train' all weekend. It's as singular and as moving as her earlier memoir 'Just kids'. But if 'Just kids' had something of the 'One thousand and one nights' about it, with its magic talismans, enchanted trips to Coney Island, even a young prince in the person of Robert Mapplethorpe, 'M train' would be more akin to the classical era narrative 'Anabasis' by the Greek historian Xenophon.  The term anabasis means an expedition from a coastline into the interior of a country.  Although Patti Smith is of course at least a continent.

October 14, 2015

Into the river is no longer a banned book!

"I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library."

If -- as I imagine -- you're visiting Books in the City because you like reading about books, chances are you've already encountered this quote from the great Argentinian poet, writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges.

Maybe you also know that for many years Borges earned his living as "first assistant" at a municipal library in Buenos Aires, cataloging books down in the basement (also, apparently, catching up on his reading), until he was dismissed for political reasons when Juan Perón came to power – only to be appointed the director of the National Public Library of Argentina after Perón was deposed.

My appreciation of this feel-good quote for readers par excellence was turned upside down recently when I read Paul Monette’s Borrowed time: an Aids memoir. Monette's friend Roger Horwitz (I use the word 'friend' because in the book Monette spends some time telling us how it is the term he prefers to use for what another might call lovers or partners), under assault from HIV in the pre-antiretroviral days, comes to the traumatic realisation that he is losing his sight. Monette recalls Borges, who famously also lost his sight in mid-life, and reveals -- guess what! That the quote as we’ve been fed it is all wrong!

Borges was not musing dreamily about his enjoyment of books. He was commenting on how his encroaching blindness meant that he would never be able to read again (this was the 1950s, no audiobooks, and he never learned Braille). And this twist of fate had happened to him, of all people -- “I, who had always thought Paradise to be a kind of library”.

Ironically, a decade earlier, in his famous story "The Library of Babel", Borges had described how the very infinity of the hexagons of the library which held all books meant that the possibility of finding any one book was equal to zero, and how this made men despair:

The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.

The other night I went to hear Ted Dawe talk at Central City Library about his book Into the River, which had been banned in New Zealand by the Office of Film and Literature Classification while their board of review examined a submission from the conservative Christian lobby group Family First.

What powerful things came out of the mouth of this white-haired ex-teacher of English (35 years, Aorere College, Dilworth School) and author of acclaimed books for young adults, including Thunder Road (New Zealand Post Children's Senior Book of the Year and New Zealand Post Best First Book in 2004) and Into the river (New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and Best Young Adult Fiction Book in 2013), with his firm but lightly quizzical expression.

On being a writer:

"I write from a sense of mission. I want to create readers by giving them a powerful and memorable experience. I believe one novel can create a reader. I know it can, because it happened to me."

"Inspiring new readers has been my life's work."

"My iwi is the tribe of writers."

About Into the River: 

"I wanted to tell a powerful story and leave nothing out."

"The events depicted in the novel are blunt, coarse, immoral, illegal and shocking. But never gratuitous. Every one has a reason."

On its banning:

"Writers hold a mirror up to the world and sometimes the world doesn't like what it sees. This is true in New Zealand. If 'Into The River' has made aspects of our society look ugly, then hiding the mirror will not make it beautiful again." 

On the importance of reading:

"Novels are the last bastion of introspection."

On his reaction when he was notified the book was being examined:

 "I didn't realise we still censored books!"

As we headed out of the library, we passed a display which had been put up for the occasion, pictured above. I had been well aware of the long travail of Into the River, in and out of the censor's office, on and off our shelves, but the combination of Dawe's words, scribbled in my little notebook, and the physical representation of those small rectangular objects (smaller than a breadbox!) which according to some people are so dangerous that they must be kept off library shelves, made the oppression suddenly overwhelming. How did Borges put it? "Almost intolerable".

Today, the news is just in that the Film and Literature Classification Board of Review, following an appeal by Auckland Libraries to lift the 14+ restriction on Into the river,  a counter-appeal by Family First and a subsequent restriction order banning the book from being given, lent or even exhibited, have now made their decision. Into the river is to be "unrestricted". We are releasing all our copies back on to the shelves and/or into the hands of the more than fifty readers who optimistically put themselves on the wait list.

It would be nice to think that some of those who were lobbying for it to be restricted are on that list, but I doubt it. As Ted Dawe pointed out:

The book's critics often start by saying  "I've never read the book and I don't intend to."

What does that tell you?

Ted Dawe at Central Library, unable lawfully to "exhibit" his book

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Find out more:

Read an interview with Michelle Baker, Acting Manager of the Information Unit at the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Listen to a podcast of the talk:

July 28, 2015

The Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award: the contenders

Have you ever wondered why the best narrative travel writers always seem to be British, or long-term residents of Britain? After years of wondering myself (particularly around literary festival time), I recently came upon a clever explanation for this phenomenon in Abroad, Paul Fussell's classic study of British literary traveling.

Another reason for British distinction in both traveling and travel-writing is suggested by Christopher Sykes, who imputes these impulses to the complicated British sense of "residing on the outskirts of the Roman Empire" and thus of being teased by a Germanic suspicion that "we are not wholly satisfactory". One result of this little unease, Sykes says, is the British desire to escape from oneself (cf. gardening, stamp-collecting, crossword-puzzle working): the "easiest relief ... is in foreign travel... Delight in travel has long been an English characteristic".

It is Britain in fact which (as Fussell goes on to point out) gave birth to both The Travellers Club and to that epitome of "empiricism and singlemindedness", the Railway Enthusiast.

It has also been for many years the home of the Dolman Prize, the world's only prize for "serious travel literature", now rebranded the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. Happily for the authors, the arrival of the new sponsor, Edward Stanford Ltd., owner of Stanford's maps and book stores, doubles the prize money. Luckily for us, it doesn't interrupt the association of the award with The Authors Club, and, I presume, the tradition by which the judges get together at a pub down the road from The Authors Club to decide the winner.

The prize will now become part of a suite of new Edward Stanford Travel Awards. One of these, the Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing, is destined for a living travel writer who will be chosen from a long list incorporating nominations from the public, or at least the twittering public:

And now, here's this year's short list for the best travel book of 2014, and their publishers' summaries. Not all the authors are British, just five out of six!


The land where lemons grow : the story of Italy and its citrus fruit by Helena Atlee

Just the Table of Contents has my head spinning:

Citrus crops in Italy -- The scent of lemons -- Curious fruit: citrus collectors in Renaissance Tuscany -- Cooking for the pope -- Golden apples: a case of taxonomic havoc -- A day in Amalfi -- One of the sunniest places in Europe: Sicilian lemons, 'like the pale faces of lovers ...' -- Antiscorbuticks -- A golden bowl of bitter lemons: extraordinary wealth on Sicily's west coast -- A Sicilian marmalade kitchen -- Oranges soaked in sunsets: blood oranges in the shadow of Mount Etna -- The runt of the litter: Liguria's cosseted chinotti -- The sweet scent of Zagara -- Dogged madness: limonaie on Lake Garda -- Battling with oranges in Ivrea -- Green gold: Calabria and the most valuable citrus in the world -- Unique harvest: on the Riviera dei Cebri -- Places to visit -- A citrus chronology.

Down to the sea in ships : of ageless oceans and modern men by Horatio Clare

Applause for the anonymous author of the summary for this book, for using "wuther" in its active verb form.

"Horatio Clare joins two container ships, travelling in the company of their crews and captains. Together they experience unforgettable journeys: the first, from East to West (Felixstowe to Los Angeles, via Suez) is rich with Mediterranean history, torn with typhoon nights and gilded with an unearthly Pacific peace; the second northerly passage, from Antwerp to Montreal, reeks of diesel, wuthers with gales and goes to frozen regions of the North Atlantic, in deep winter, where the sea itself seems haunted. In Clare's vibrant prose a modern industry does battle with implacable forces, as the ships cross seas of history and incident, while seafarers unfold the stories of their lives... A beautiful and terrifying portrait of the oceans and their human subjects, and a fascinating study of big business afloat, Down to the Sea in Ships is a moving tribute to those who live and work on the great waters, far from land."


"In Rising Ground, Philip Marsden sets out on foot to explore the power of the landscape and the continuing hold it has upon our imagination. Starting in Bodmin Moor and moving westward along the narrowing Cornish peninsula to Land's End with a growing awareness of the great ocean beyond, Marsden travels an ancient route of pilgrimage towards the setting sun, rehearsing the soul's passage after death. Along the way, he seeks out others whose have felt similarly compelled by the landscape, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the inventors of the Arthurian legends to Tudor topographers and 18th century antiquarians; and from Romantic scholars to post-industrial poets, abstract painters, and new-age seekers. As he camps on clifftops, criss-crosses the moors, and digs around in the archives, Marsden reflects on the spirit of place, asks how we are shaped by our connection to the landscape, and takes us right to the heart of what it means to belong."

Walking the woods and the water: in Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn by Nick Hunt

"In 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to chance and charm his way across Europe, 'like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar'. The books he later wrote about this walk, including Between the Woods and the Water, are a half-remembered, half-reimagined journey through cultures now extinct and landscapes irrevocably altered by the traumas of the twentieth century. Nick Hunt dreamed of following in Fermor's footsteps. Eighty years later he began his own 'great trudge'—on foot all the way to Istanbul. He walked across eight countries, following two major rivers and crossing three mountain ranges. With only Fermor's books to guide him, he trekked some 2,500 miles from Holland to Turkey. Why? For an old-fashioned adventure. To discover for himself what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth that still flow beneath Europe's surface. This is a story worthy of Fermor's own."


Indonesia etc. Exploring the improbable nation by Elizabeth Pisani

"In 1945, Indonesia's declaration of independence promised: the details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible. Still working on the etc. seven decades later, the world's fourth most populous nation is now enthusiastically democratic and riotously diverse. It is one of the richest and most enchanting countries on earth, but is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Elizabeth Pisani, who first worked in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent, set out to rediscover its enduring attraction, and to find the links which bind together this impossibly disparate nation. This book weaves together the stories of Indonesians encountered on her journey with a considered analysis of Indonesia's recent history, corrupt political system, ethnic and religious identities, stifling bureaucracy and traditional 'sticky' cultures. Fearless and funny, she gives a compelling and sharply perceptive account of a captivating nation."

A journey into Russia by Jens Mühling

"The recent crises in Ukraine have reminded us that Russia's interests run counter to those of many other nations, but what of the Russian and Ukrainian people themselves? What kind of lives are they leading, and what are their feelings toward the political regime that has so inflamed the West? When German journalist Jens Mühling met Juri, a Russian television producer selling stories about his homeland, he was mesmerized by what he heard. The encounter changed Mühling's life, triggering a number of journeys to Ukraine and deep into the Russian heartland on a quest for stories of ordinary and extraordinary people. Unveiling a portion of the world whose contradictions, attractions, and absurdities are still largely unknown to people outside its borders, A Journey into Russia is a much-needed glimpse into one of today's most significant regions."

July 04, 2015

Happy 150th to Alice in Wonderland, the mother of all quirky books

It's 150 years today since Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published, three years after Charles Dodgson told the story to the Liddell sisters as they boated down the Thames. Together with its sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it is now known by all of us as Alice in Wonderland, and by me as one of my favourite books of all time.

For the occasion, I thought I'd republish the love letter to Alice I wrote for a Quirky Books series we ran on our website many years ago, which I called

The mother of all quirky books

Because of everyone who's loved it or borrowed from it, from Virginia Woolf to the Jefferson Airplane; because Wonderland is where surrealistic starts; because the characters play croquet with flamingos for mallets and don't follow the rules; because the logic is faultless but illogical; because it celebrates absurdity; because of "Contrariwise" and "Off with their heads!"; because Alice wants to know, was she in the Red King's dream or was he in hers; and because it's funny.

Nearly everyone read, or had read to them, the Alice books as a child. Some people were delighted, others frightened or bewildered. But whether you loved it or hated it, it's worth taking another look. Alice is a fairy tale, perhaps the most original and imaginative fairy tale ever. Some parts are grim and disturbing, some are comic and demented. The "beasts", whether chess pieces or mock turtles, all remind us of someone we know. The heroine is undaunted, incurably curious, and, deservedly, she wins a crown at the end.

Try The Annotated Alice, an oversized, complete text version of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking glass with the original John Tenniel illustrations (surely half the charm of the book) and an introduction and running commentary by Martin Gardner, who was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Alice and who loved mathematical puzzles as much as Charles Dodgson -- for many years he wrote a column on them for Scientific American. Gardner knew it was important not to take Alice too seriously, but he rightly saw that no joke is funny if you don't see the point. He quotes the original versions of the many poems Carroll lampoons, reports on the discovery of a note in which Carroll signed himself "the White Knight", reprints French and German translations of Jabberwocky and, true to his mathematical origins, maps out the chess game for us.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying, " she said: "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Go ask Alice, indeed.

And to finish, here are some Books in the City posts on Alice you might not have seen:

Alice in Wonderland on screen, where you can view the earliest film version of Alice, from 1903.

Bwana Paka Mcheshi, the Swahili Cheshire Cat, on the death of Martin Gardner, genial annotator of Alice.

Adolf in Blunderland: a Treasure from the Basement, on a 1939 parody of Alice in Wonderland I found in the Central City Library basement stacks.

illustration by John Tenniel via

June 29, 2015

Vladimir Nabokov's letters to Véra at AWF15

                    Auckland Writers Festival

Fascinating, but another time, please spare us the actor!

I've never seen it on the list of ways that little New Zealand punches above its weight, but it should be there, that the foremost Nabokov scholar in the world is our own Brian Boyd, graduate of the University of Canterbury, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland. Prof. Boyd has written two award-winning biographies of the man (The Russian Years and The American Years), a book on Ada, a book on Pale Fire, edited Nabokov's collected works for the Library of America, and for another publisher Nabokov's unpublished and uncollected writings, written the introduction to the centennial edition of Nabokov's memoir Speak Memory, published a collection of essays and personal reflections on Nabokov (Stalking Nabokov), just off the top of my head, and was now here before us as co-editor of Letters to Véraa collection of Nabokov's correspondence to his wife, from 1923 when they met until his death in 1977.

He's also the person who taught me to say Na-bo'-kov instead of  Na'-bo-kov. It promised well! And on top of that, we were going to have Michael Hurst on hand reading excerpts from the letters!

We crowded in to the Upper NZI Room, and out filed Prof. Boyd, Jan Cronin, his colleague in the English Dept. at the University of Auckland who was chairing the session, and... surprise! not Michael Hurst! He had not been able to make it, and was being replaced by another actor, Stephen L.

The first question was a surprise as well.

"Tell us about his love life? Was it different from our assumptions?"

"Our assumptions"? I looked around. Did we have assumptions about the love life of Vladimir Nabokov? Such as? Puzzling? Irreverent? Cerebral?

As it turns out, Nabokov's love life was, once he met her, really all about Véra. During their more than fifty years together, she was his first reader, his typist, his editor, his researcher, his confidante, and his love for her, as expressed in the letters which make up this book, was tender and rapturous.

Nabokov met Véra in 1923 in Berlin, where his family, in exile from Bolshevik Russia, had ended up, in the large Russian émigré community which had formed there. He was 24, and beginning to make a name for himself as a poet and translator, under the pseudonym V. Sirin.

Their paths first crossed at a charity ball, but the encounter which would change both their lives came later. Out walking one evening, Nabokov was approached by a woman wearing a black satin carnival-type mask. That woman was Véra, who had decided that Nabokov was the greatest hope of Russian Literature, and was playing the "high class stalker",  according to Boyd, "high-class" in that she never took her mask off during their conversation, apparently because she did not want him to be influenced by her beauty as she recited verses of the poetry of V. Sirin to him. And that was how the two met, both in some way disguised. Nabokov readers will recognise a favourite theme.

He wrote a poem asking "Are you my fate?" and yes, she was. He did, however, have a trip to France already planned, and it was from there that he wrote his first letter to her.

Stephen L got to his feet, and read.

“I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being – well, understood, perhaps – so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke, a masquerade trick… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about – you rub off their marvellous pollen with the touch of a word…”

How exquisite is that, "You rub off their marvellous pollen"? Unfortunately Stephen L. had decided to play it as he would a pompous provincial in a Chekhov play. As I listened unbelievingly, he puffed out his chest and thundered,

"I will be in Berlin (beat) on the 10th (beat, beat), or the 11th!"

Gulp, and back to Prof. Boyd's narrative. "He and she always believed that fate was trying to push them together... They had a very romantic sense of their relationship, all the way through."

There were difficult times, too. When in France in 1937, looking for a job, for a way to get his family out of Nazi Berlin (all the more important as Véra was Jewish), Nabokov fell into an affair with an aspiring young Italian poet, Irina Guadanini. Véra apparently hears rumours. We hear from Stephen.

"Not a word from you yet my love!" trumpets Stephen, all in one breath. A long pause, and he resumes in a low, disconsolate register. "Maybe tomorrow."

Then we're back to the trumpet charge. "Can't write more today!" A long pause, and again, the sad, descending tone. "They're coming to take me out. I have to go to a party."

We moved on to the story of Boyd's relationship with Véra Nabokov, which started after she saw his PhD thesis and invited him to visit her in Montreux, where the Nabokovs had made their home after the publication of Lolita. The first suggestion was that he catalogue her husband's archives, but eventually the idea of a biography came up. He got a fellowship and went back to Montreux, spending 18 months with Véra, at that point in her eighties. He saw her every day. She never stopped calling him Mr Boyd.

He knew she had Nabokov's letters to her, though she had destroyed hers to him, and seeing them was one of the enticements which had led him to accept her invitation to work on a biography. But Véra would never let him see them or hold them, she would only read them into his tape recorder as he sat near by, leaving some personal parts, some endearments, out.

Dmitri Nabokov, their son and translator of many of his father's works, tried to help. "He was in a wheel chair [not from breaking his neck in one of his Ferraris, he had recovered from that, but from complications from diabetes]. He was a big man, he had been an opera singer, a mountaineer. He said, Search! You can search anywhere in the apartment! So I did. I found lots of things, but I couldn't find the letters!" He had to go back to using the transcripts of the readings Véra had done. Only after her death did he get to see the letters.

Time for a reading. This one ends with a hail-fellow-well-met "Hugs!" followed by a long pause, and finally a throaty, prayer-like "and adoration, V." If you know me and you ran into me at the Festival, you probably heard me imitate this. A lot of people did!

Nabokov wrote Véra every day he was away from her, during the whole time of their marriage. And, according to Boyd, "She wrote back about one in five times".

Too, says Boyd, the letters show some new sides of the great author. "He is enchanted by animals and children... Here, just let me read a couple of parts of his letters where he talks about animals."

And it's a fine reading! We can actually hear Nabokov's voice. Was this a Nabokovian ploy on Prof. Boyd's part, to present it as but a whim of the moment?

Alas, we had to return to Stephen L., for a final reading not devoid of irony.

“I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it,” Nabokov wrote, and Stephen L. read.

I'm on the request list for the book. The lyricism and wit of the letters may have been hard to catch at the session, but I've since read some excerpts online, including ten splendid ones posted by the Thought Catalog site under the title "Love letters that will make you swoon". Maria Popova compares them to Frida Kahlo's letters to Diego Rivera, or the letters between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis.

What is next for the doyen of Nabokov studies? "I want to do a book on Lolita, because I don't think any of us understand Lolita as Nabokov intended us to understand it." I'll be on the request list for that one, too.

My favourite of the stories Brian Boyd told us was the one about how Véra, aged 85 while she and he were working on the letters, was so deaf as to render some conversations difficult, especially if you add on the NZ accent, which she apparently had great difficulty understanding. At one point, he was talking about butterflies -- not an uncommon word, you'd think, for a conversation about her noted lepidopterist husband.

"She kept understanding me to be saying 'paradise'. After two or three rounds of 'Butterflies,' 'Paradise?', 'No, butterflies!', 'Paradise?', finally Dmitri rolled his wheelchair over and boomed  "BUT-TA-FLIES!"


-- Karen

June 22, 2015

Daniel Mendelsohn was "An irresistible critic" at AWF15

Egyptian cat sarcophagus

He had seemed grey-eyed, seated on the low dais of the slightly drab, multifunctional room where his two earlier sessions were held, but under the lights of the ASB Theatre Daniel Mendelsohn's eyes glittered bright blue. They called to mind those ancient Egyptian cat sculptures whose eye sockets, archaeologists tell us, were filled with blue glass. I remembered that his publicity photo had something else suggestive of those four-legged sacred beings: that raised eyebrow look which Dante called altero.

How to translate altero, derived from the past participle of the Latin verb alere, to grow, as in, a person who stands above the rest? Funnily, considering that I used to be a translator and I'm describing someone who spent 12 years translating the works of the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy into English, an exact translation escapes me. Suggestion after suggestion from online dictionaries and translator forums seem to only point up what it is not: it is not 'superior', even less so 'arrogant', and not at all 'vainglorious', a word I have never used in speech (has anyone in the last 50 years?), but which I was amused to see matched to the Italian borioso, a new word for me, from the Latin borea, meaning 'wind'. As in, I suppose, 'puffed up'. Wrong again!

Perhaps the closest word was "lordly". In fact, what the photo had prompted me to wonder -- just a bit -- was if Daniel Mendelsohn, whose writings I so admire, might not let me down in person by turning out to be someone who would lord his superior talent and taste over us.

With every appearance he made, the worry receded, until it was laid definitely to rest at this third session, in which he appeared as an "irresistible critic". He was... irresistible, with his takeaway flat white, reading glasses, and mix of impudent throwaway lines and candid, intelligent reflections.

Ian Wedde, who gets top marks as an interviewer, started off by asking about the critical mentality, or the critical sensibility. Mendelsohn's take on it involved what he called the "vivacity" of the argument, or dialogue, as a way of being social, as a way of living.

Wedde brought up Mendelsohn's descriptions of his grandfather's talent for storytelling, which we had heard him extol affectionately in his previous session, in relation to his memoir The lost: a search for six of six million. Was that a formative influence?

It was. "The allure for me is storytelling. I think that as a critic, as well as a memoirist, the activity I'm engaged in is to narrate something. You narrate the path by which you arrived at the opinion of the work that you now have".

The word "critic", he told us, comes from the Greek krinein, to make a judgement. And, "We come from a society that increasingly doesn't want to. People say, 'Who am I to judge?'.  Well, you have a brain -- you are!"

The importance of using your brain led to considerations about his formation as a scholar of the classics, beginning with the study of the Greek and Latin languages. "Greek and Latin: the rigour of the grammar enforces a rigour of thought. I don't know why that had such appeal to me, but as a kid I was already trying to learn Greek."

The study of classics turned out to be a useful formation in many other ways as well.

"As a classicist you have to process an immense amount of material." He gave us a glorious vignette from his University years, in which he was in the office of his classicist mentor. "She took a drag on her cigarette and said to me, 'Of course you can't write anything until you've read everything'."

What she was describing, he said, was the "scholarly duty to a body of knowledge". In some ways, the same concept applies to criticism. "I have a wonderful editor who says criticism is a service industry. You don't have time to read everything. I do. That's my job."

The job does not include telling you what you should think or do. "Of course, I want my audience to be with me, but I don't care if you read the book or see the movie."

It played as impertinent, but at heart it's a serious creed which Mendelsohn shares with the critics he grew up reading in the pages of The New Yorker, about whom he explained, "By dramatising the process by which they arrived at their judgement, the critics implied that you also could form your own opinion".

It was a point he had made in "A Critic's Manifesto", a piece which appeared in The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog a few years ago, a thoughtful and, if it's not too strong a term, enthusiastic exploration of the role of the professional critic in our society (and of Mendelsohn's own development as a critic), which should be read by anyone interested in the topic, but above all by anyone who, like Dave Eggers, thinks that only a person who has written a book, or made a movie, has the right to dismiss a book, or a movie.

Mendelsohn quoted for us what might be considered the manifesto of the Manifesto: "Knowledge plus taste equals meaningful judgement. The key word is meaningful".

Wedde brought up the subject of highbrow vs lowbrow. Mendelsohn responded by declaring a taste for Noel Coward, and "I'm not interested in a high-low separation. It can sound funny coming from a classicist, but you know everyone went to see Greek Drama".

Our culture isolates the categories, he said, but he doesn't. "In my own enjoyment of things I don't think I'm a snooty person -- you know I watch 'Revenge'. I watch 'Scandal'. I have no patience for people who say 'I don't watch TV'. I mean, this is your culture. As an intellectual you have to inhabit your culture."

"If you're doing anything seriously, that's your invitation to me. If you take it seriously, I'll do it seriously."

He went on to express the opinion -- which had me, for one, exulting -- that one of the most non-serious pursuits of our society is the ranking of books and movies, for which we have Amazon to thank. "The idea that it is a useful criterion -- it was a 5 star book -- is completely idiotic to me."

After all, "Everything interesting is mixed". 

To finish off, he read us an excerpt from his upcoming book. It was about how after his father retired from his job as a scientist, he asked Daniel if he could sit in on the class he was teaching at Bard University on The Odyssey. Partly, we are given to understand, it was because he was curious about the poem itself, which had never really appealed to him, his preference being for The Iliad. But even more, it was about getting to know his son better, to experience this thing which was such a chunk of his life.

Every day he would appear, it was the winter semester, snowy weather in upstate New York, they'd meet in the car park and walk to the classroom together, his father, already quite old, in his eighties I think, always careful how he stepped, because he was afraid of falling.

And then after the class ends Daniel sees an ad for an Odyssey cruise which retraces Odysseus's route home, and he and his father go on it together. Numerous adventures rise up before them, just like in the Cavafy poem, and in the end, again like the Cavafy poem, they never do get to Ithaca, the canal of Corinth closed by a strike, and ... and then, they come home, and soon after that, "My father fell."

He stopped reading there, but you knew what that was leading to, because he had said his father is no longer alive.

It was maybe the best reading I'd ever heard at a literary festival. Mendelsohn read beautifully, his measured cadence perfectly matching the long and lyrical sentences, which managed however to be as simply and clearly written as Hemingway could ever have wished. Write the truest sentence you know.

Although I never did come up with a word for altero, I did find a definition by Armando Testi which could have described Mendelsohn reading the words he had clearly worked and re-worked so that they would say exactly what they needed to say, "A pride which is always unruffled, which we may perceive as majesty."

As I waited in the signing line, I couldn't help accosting the woman next to me to enthuse about the reading. She said, "I loved the story but I'm really not sure about having yet another term for dying -- I already didn't like passing and now we've got falling".

I said, "I think (you know how you're so polite, but inside I was sure she was completely off course, to use an odyssean metaphor) that he really was talking about falling. Remember at the beginning he said his father was always afraid of falling? I think that was meant as a premonition of what would happen at the end. Then of course with old people, whether 'falling' means falling on an icy path and breaking a femur, or falling to the floor from a heart attack, we can imagine that it will lead to death. But I'm sure falling meant falling!" She said, "Oh, I hadn't thought of that, maybe you're right!"

Looking back, however, I think she could have been right. I think that if anyone could pull it off, Daniel Mendelsohn, classics scholar and believer in the endless possibilities of human expression, could have created a new metaphor for death, born from the language of myth. "He fell."

Thanks to the iMalqata blog for the image of the Egyptian bronze cat. Now in the Michael C. Carlos Museum, it would have been  part of a cat sarcophagus, and was once given as a gift by Charlie Chaplin to his wife,  Paulette Goddard.


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