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Good Writing Recently Read

September 2, 2010

In the lounge, as seen through its entrance, the huge memorable oil—three ample-haunched Ledas swapping lacustrine impressions—had been replaced by a neoprimitive masterpiece showing three yellow eggs and a pair of plumber’s gloves on what looked like wet bathroom tiling. As Van stepped into the “elevator” followed by a black-coated receptionist, it acknowledged his footfall with a hollow clank and then, upon moving, feverishly began transmitting a fragmentary report on some competition—possibly a tricycle race. Van could not help feeling sorry that this blind functional box (even smaller than the slop-pail lift he had formerly used at the back) now substituted for the luxurious affair of yore—an ascentive hall of mirrors—whose famous operator (white whiskers, eight languages) had become a button.

–Vladimir Nabokov, Ada

Nabokov’s strange and long late novel is filled with writing of frightening cleverness. I particularly liked this passage, opening with some typical obscure vocabulary and alliteration (Ledas…lacustrine), intense irony (neoprimitive masterpiece), hilarious descriptions (tricycle race), devastatingly succinct and full character descriptions (famous operator (white whiskers, eight languages) — six words to summon a whole person and his sad fate) and sheer joy in language.

‘Stay…’ said Nikitin, stopping her. ‘Good-evening, Godefroi….Allow me….’

He gasped, he did not know what to say; with one hand he held her hand and with the other the blue material. And she was half frightened, half surprised, and looked at him with big eyes.

‘Allow me…’ Nikitin went on, afraid she would go away. ‘There’s something I must say to you….Only…it’s inconvenient here. I cannot, I am incapable….Understand, Godefroi, I can’t – that’s all….’

The blue material slipped on to the floor, and Nikitin took Masha by the other hand. She turned pale, moved her lips, then stepped back from Nikitin and found herself in the corner between the wall and the cupboard.

‘On my honour, I assure you…’ he said softly. Masha, on my honour….’

She threw back her head and he kissed her lips, and that the kiss might last longer he put his fingers to her cheeks; and it somehow happened that he found himself in the corner between the cupboard and the wall, and she put her arms round his neck and pressed her head against his chin.

–Anton Chekov, The Teacher of Literature, from a short story collection.

Chekov’s writing in contrast appears so simple, direct, free of Nabokov’s often overwhelming obsessiveness and exuberant intellectual games. The shift from stuttering and awkward to being simply absorbed in passion is perfectly timed, and brings to mind another bit from Ada:

What, then, was it that raised the animal act to a level higher than even that of the most exact arts or the wildest flights of pure science? It would not be sufficient to say that in his love-making with Ada he discovered the pang, the ogon’, the agony of supreme “reality.” Reality, better say, lost the quotes it wore like claws—in a world where independent and original minds must cling to things or pull things apart in order to ward off madness or death (which is the master madness). For one spasm or two, he was safe. The new naked reality needed no tentacle or anchor; it lasted a moment, but could be repeated as often as he and she were physically able to make love.

The marvel is that all this verbosity and intellectual struggling is effortlessly contained in that last little simple paragraph of the Chekov quote (albeit in a much more chaste and refined version). Which is probably why Nabokov wrote:

I do love Chekhov dearly. I fail, however, to rationalize my felling for him: I can easily do so in regard to a greater artist, Tolstoy, with the flash of this or that unforgettable passage (‘…how sweetly she said: “and even very much”‘ – Vronsky recalling Kitty’s reply to some trivial question that we will never know)…but when I imagine Chekov with the same detachment all I can make out is a medley of dreadful prosaims, ready-made epithets, repetitions, doctors, unconvincing vamps, and so forth; yet it is his works which I would take on a trip to another planet.

Reading these two works back to back was rather fascinating, the contrast between Chekov’s ability to almost imperceptibly deftly describe the human condition with the simplest language vs. Nabokov’s incredible virtuoso skills, seemingly capable of anything, but not without making the reader abundantly aware of just how obsessed with language the author is.

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