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a book on Pale Fire, edited Nabokov's collected works for the Library of America, and for another publisher Nabokov's unpublished and uncollected writings, written the introduction to the centennial edition of Nabokov's memoir Speak Memory, published a collection of essays and personal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 New Zealand accent, which she apparently had great difficulty understanding. At one point, he was talking about butterflies -- as he pointed out, surely not an uncommon word 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?', Dmitri finally rolled his wheelchair over and boomed at her "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, perhaps, 'puffed up'? Definitely not.

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.


June 18, 2015

The Media Revolution: Ken Auletta at AWF15

syndetics-lc                             Auckland Writers Festival

Ken Auletta's session at the Auckland Writers Festival reminded me somewhat of the historic "Crisis in a nutshell" rubric in his home publication The New Yorker, the one subtitled "A digest of last week's prophetic and interpretive thought". It doesn't feature Ken Auletta, as he has his own rubric, "Annals of Communication" (and has for 23 years), but I couldn't help being reminded, at this session, of that mix of quotes from lawmakers, activists, writers, and even Beauty Queens, this last I suppose for light relief, though they more often brought despair. Take away the Beauty Queens and I think Ken Auletta represented the rest of the thinking just fine.

"The New York Times is putting content straight onto Facebook. They did a report and found that half of the readers of The New York Times online come via social media. Facebook has 1.4 billion users. This makes The New York Times and Facebook frenemies, competing and cooperating."

"No one has yet been able to make money from online newspapers. The big question is, can I make enough money from online? Can I jettison my paper newspaper? The answer right now is still no."

"Every newspaper in the world is going to throw stuff at digital and see what sticks."

"Digital is a worrisome thing, in that they can see what people are reading. The guys in green eyeshades will see that people aren't reading the political news, the reporters who follow City Hall. They are reading about Kim Kardashian."

"The 6:30 newscasts in the US have 25 million viewers. That's half of what it used to be. And the big problem is that the average age of the watcher is 61."

"Google engineers are very good at thinking outside the box, at finding a way to get what they want. But what is the problem? The problem is that they can only work with things that they measure. When they come across things you can't measure, that's a problem."

"In 2001 Google had zero income and Page and Brin were told they needed a professional manager. They couldn't think of who, and then they heard about Eric Schmidt. They liked Eric Schmidt because he'd been to Burning Man. So they went with him."

"Non-digital people saw Google as a problem. Digital people saw Google as an opportunity."

"What's the biggest threat to Google now? Facebook is the biggest threat."

"When I was interviewing Bill Gates, I asked him what he was worried about. I thought his answer would be Netscape, or Oracle. Bill Gates said, I worry about some guy in a garage inventing something I hadn't thought of. Someone did. Brin and Page did. Google. And now Google is worried about Facebook."

"The positives of digital journalism are journalist-citizens, eg the Arab Spring. No question that the digital world democratises information, and that's both good and bad. But there's no question that totalitarian governments hate digital information, digital news."

"I once watched a panel where a Norwegian was saying that the Internet would bring democracy, all very rational. An Egyptian got up and said they weren't enthusiastic, that they had a different concept of democracy. 'We worry about protecting our culture', he said, meaning, 'our interests'."

And to finish, a noteworthy exchange initiated by a member of the public (and this might be the right moment to note Shayne Currie's inept interviewing, AWF, please don't use him again!) : "Are we going to go back or are we going to just keep trucking on towards 'Everything is out there, nothing belongs to anyone'?"

Auletta: "I don't think that will happen, but it's good to have that prognosis to scare the hell out of us, because we should be scared."


June 08, 2015

Helena Wisniewska Brow and Daniel Mendelsohn in "Family Matters" at AWF15

"Stories, stories. There isn't enough paper in the world to tell our stories."

This was a sober session. How could it be otherwise? Two authors who followed the threads of family stories through time and history to places rent by sorrow and loss, violence and evil. Daniel Mendelsohn had replaced the scarf he'd worn to talk about the art of translating poetry the day before with a necktie. Maybe a coincidence, but it seemed right, as he evoked members of his family who were denied a funeral, a grave, even; but for whom he was able to create a place of remembrance, 500 pages long.

His book The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million relates his quest to find out what had happened to his grandfather's brother, who made the decision to stay in Galicia (then Poland, now Ukraine) when the rest of the family emigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century, and who, along with his wife and their four daughters, disappeared in the Holocaust.

Helena Wisniewska Brow is a kiwi, whose book Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile is about her exploration of the stories she heard from her Polish father while growing up. He was 10 when the USSR invaded Poland. Two years later, he, his mother, and his brother and sisters were deported by the Russians to Siberia, and from there shipped to an internment camp in Iran, where his mother died. The children became part of the group of Polish evacuees who had been offered refuge in New Zealand.

In both cases, the seeds were sown early. The black moods which would overcome Wisniewska Brow's father on Christmas Day, or his obsession with not wasting food. Mendelsohn started his story, as indeed he starts his book, with an early memory which he phrases, touchingly, as he would have perceived it as a child; "I'd walk into a room and people would start to cry".

It was, as we have instinctively understood, because of how he resembled the brother who had stayed behind, reminding the gathered family of their lost ones, who in some way were doubly lost, for no one knew how their story had ended.

"At a certain point in my life around when I turned 40, I was suddenly possessed of an idea, to know exactly what had happened to them."

"No one is a statistic. Specific things are done to people by specific people. It becomes a sort of ethical duty to get them out [of the statistics], to restore to these people their own specificity."

He decided to look for these "six needles in a giant haystack", and eventually tracked down 12 survivors of the population of this little Polish town, scattered among three continents. It took three years. "Each one had a piece of the puzzle."

Peter Wells, chairing the session, asked about how they had gotten to the point where they wanted to ask about the past. They both came back to the stories, the stories of a past they hadn't been a part of, but were somehow being made a part of.

Mendelsohn's take, like all his takes, was clearly thought out. "You have to get to a point where the past becomes more important, and the mysteries are less able to be dismissed. You have to have developed the imagination." His had been fertilised by his grandfather, who couldn't go to the corner store for milk without coming back with a couple of new stories as well. "I was lucky to grow up in the presence of a great storyteller."

On his book tour, he said, someone told him "I think your grandfather knew you were listening and had decided you were the one to tell the stories".

"In every family there's someone who loves listening to the old people", he says. "I was that kid."

One of the thing that Wisniewska Brow found most compelling about her father's stories was how they were not linear. "They are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes."

Mendelsohn added, "You think of history that it starts at A and ends at B, but actually there is no end. Every story goes on."

"I'll never forget. A survivor in Sydney told me in the course of a difficult interview, 'Stories, stories. There isn't enough paper in the world to tell our stories.'"

"Man plans and God laughs", his grandmother used to say.

Still they persisted. If Mendelsohn had likened his search to solving a puzzle, Wisniewska Brow used another metaphor for piecing together and joining up. "Writing the book was like building with a giant lego set, " she said. "All these bits of information. I put them all together, and shuffled them around a bit at the end."

At the end, the two authors were asked by a member of the audience if they could describe the places of their family origins. Mendelsohn called the population of that part of Europe the first multiculturalists. His grandfather spoke seven languages.

"For my father it was Paradise, and now it's gone," concluded Wisniewska Brow.

A sober event, as I said. But not comfortless. Even if only as slightly as an hour can allow, the encounter with these two writers, their dedication and their empathy, was  -- there's no other word for it -- uplifting.

Daniel Mendelsohn told a wonderful story. He was interviewing a Polish woman, one of the survivors, in her home in Israel. Describing a certain dish to him, she stopped and said, "I'll make it for you".

"So I waited 1 1/2 hours for her to make this dish. It was so important to her. She said 'I want you to know what this tastes like, because no one will ever cook this kind of food after I'm dead'."

He didn't tell us what it tasted like, and despite the widespread cynicism audience Q and A seems to inspire these days, let me tell you that no one was silly enough to ask.

-- Karen

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