Monday, January 25, 2010

A link

I was going to post this in my comments below, but it's a different subject, so I thought I'd give it a spot here. Anyway, here is a link to a post on being a good reader at So Many Books with a link to a book with one of Nabokov's essays on the same subject.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

February read?

A few possibilities:

I've got Bel Canto sitting on my to be read shelf. I don't know much about it; but it's one of those books I picked up because everywhere I turned someone whose opinion I respected was recommending it. Anyone interested in giving it a whirl?


Or else I was raving about Rumer Godden at my blog, Emily suggested perhaps Godden might be a good pick for our group.

I'm about due for a re-read of my fav, In This House of Brede. Or if everyone's read that, I could stand to re-read Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy or the much shorter An Episode of Sparrows. I just finished China Court and so am fresh enough I could discuss it. Or Black Narcissus is next on the list of books I want to read. Too many choices? Probably. Godden has that effect on me, though.

Any thoughts?

Beauty as Reality

(This is just my comment from the thread two down, but it didn't really go with the thread, and it's my thoughts on the reading, so I'm recycling it as a post.)

What struck me as I read was the descriptions of the beauty of the fields and the paths and the lake. That beauty was real -- it existed separately from the cruelty and ignorance of the travelers and the suffering of Vasily. I think that his glimpses of objective beauty gave Vasily what little strength he had to resist the encroaching horror of the trip.

It made me think of the bit in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam are traveling through a blighted landscape toward Mordor, and they see, for a moment, a glimpse of the stars through a tear in the black clouds. That reminder of a beauty and goodness that exists outside the cruelty and ugliness that surrounded them gave them strength and reminded them of their purpose. As I read I thought of the victims of Communism, perhaps shut away for years in prisons, perhaps tortured relentlessly, who might have taken strength from a memory of real beauty that cannot be blotted out by the consuming hardness of their physical surroundings.

I don't think that this is a huge theme of the story, but as Nabokov makes specific reference more than once to these mysterious visions of beauty, I found that they were the part of the story that remained with me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Anyone Reading "Cloud, Castle, Lake" as an Allegory?

Vasily is identified only as "my representative" and a refugee. Seems likely Vasily and narrator are the same person, or perhaps a symbol for the artist or writer, the seeker of beauty and freedom, Nobokov himself. Seems all the more likely considering narrator does not remember Vasily's name in the beginning, but does know the names of everyone else in the party, who are, oddly, almost all named Schultz or Greta. Narrator is perhaps using the device of speaking about oneself under the guise of "a friend of mine."

Narrator has detailed knowlege of intricate sightings on the tour, details so intimate it seems unlikely that VI would have related them to anyone else: "But still his precious, experienced eyes noted what was necessary. Against the background of fir-tree gloom a dry needle was hanging vertically on an invisible thread."

And finally, there are the weird changes between first person and third person narrator: "Vasiliy Ivanovich, as the least burdened, was given an enormous round loaf of bread to carry under his arm. How I hate you, our daily!" [and allegorically speaking, wouldn't the artist (who, when at work, often "appears" to be doing nothing) have contempt for the quotidian burdens when beauty is just out of his reach?]

Their journey to the place of beauty takes around three days, first by train, then by car, then on foot (each a step closer to nature). And yet the person in charge at the end of the story says they are to return in one day. Implies there is some dreamlike quality to this excursion, because they could not possibly make a three day trip home in one day. (It's difficult to reach a place of enlightenment, but it is not difficult to fall from it).

The beauty is always more desirable to VI when it is viewed through windows. He loves it on the train, and in the car, viewed from a distance. When the beauty is inaccessible he calls it, "My love! My obedient one!" But when they are on foot, VI becomes hot and exhausted and falls asleep. He could almost access the beauty on foot, and yet somehow, he fails to make contact. The artistic quest, perhaps? We just want the final product, the cloud, the castle, the lake in perfect array, but we don’t want to work to get there.

The artist’s final product should contain all the anticipation of the journey and all the nostalgia of the past, in perfect harmony with the present: “there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one -in the inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had, my love! my obedient one!-was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long-promised, and it so understood the beholder that Vasiliy Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away.”

But the vision is fleeting, maybe even unattainable. When the mind wants to stay there, in some place of enlightenment, it’s the carnal nature of the person, or perhaps the religious nature, (those dirty mean Germans according to Nobokov), that drags it back to reality, scourging it and crucifying it with corkscrews (“It occurred to them, among other things, to use a corkscrew on his palms; then on his feet. The post-office clerk, who had been to Russia, fashioned a knout out of a stick and a belt, and began to use it with devilish dexterity. Atta boy!”).

And after this terrible journey, glimpsing enlightenment, and not being able to remain there, the artist is unfit for humanity: “After returning to Berlin, he called on me, was much changed, sat down quietly, putting his hands on his knees, told his story; kept on repeating that he must resign his position, begged me to let him go, insisted that he could not continue, that he had not the strength to belong to mankind any longer. Of course, I let him go.”

Not sure if I'm interpreting this correctly. Thoughts?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On "Cloud, Castle, Lake"

Just read “Cloud, Castle, Lake” and am puzzling over it. Here are these coarse and cruel Germans, and then the somewhat spineless Vasily Ivanovich, forced into traveling with them. His fellow travelers are repulsive, but being on a train, he is unable to escape them except briefly at their final stop. While the Germans seem stereotypes of the extreme nationalism of the Nazis, I have to admit my own stereotyping – wanting to draw an equal sign between Russian and Communism instead of remembering all the exiles driven out during the revolution who opposed that ideology.

At first reading I was drawn into the possibility of Vasily’s escape – who wouldn’t want to extend that triumphant moment when Vasily recognizes in the transcendence of the landscape the possibility of happiness? The imagery is beautiful – I can picture the cloud reflecting in the lake and the castle jutting up above the landscape – vivid enough to make me think I’ve been there. I wonder if I am imagining some actual lake we visited in Colorado or an image on a calendar.

But I wonder at Vasily Ivanovich for presuming to think he could just stay there, that his happiness would be complete because of this room with a view. And at the unmitigated coarseness of the Germans. They become caricatures, and in their lack of humanity, weaken Vasily’s character. Is his playing along at their singing and games supposed to show how easy it is to get drawn in by bullying and propaganda? Or to show his courage for sneaking off to the little inn by the lake? Should he not have gone back to the group to announce he wasn’t returning but let them look for him?


Vasily’s defeat seems indicative of a failure of the romantic individualist. This story seems to exemplify what I just read in a friend’s “Last Lecture” about “The Romance of Domesticity,” in which he describes Romanticism’s myth of escape as a heresy based on the idea that man’s real happiness and wholeness is found somewhere else in this world, not, as the Christian believes, in the next. He points out that what is true in Romanticism is the feeling that we are wayfarers and the longing for something more exciting, something lovelier, something more fulfilling, just like Vasily. For the Christian, these restless longings are intimations of the desire for union with God. And while the Romantic believes that imagination leads to knowledge and action, (eg, Vasily’s move to extricate himself from the ugliness of his travelers after a harmonious vision), the Christian uses imagination to take inspiration from the extraordinary that can be seen in the ordinary. So the narrator, telling Vasily Ivanovich’s story to the object of his affection, is able to avoid the despair that Vasily feels upon his return after his failure to escape because he is in love, the ultimate means of sanctifying the ordinary.


If I hadn’t read the story right after reading these lecture notes, I wonder if I would’ve sympathized with Vasily more instead of pitying him almost to the point of contempt.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twilight of the West?

Not to go too far off on a tangent, but has anyone read this new essay by Michael D. O'Brien decrying the Twilight series? I love Mr. O'Brien's novels, but his work as a self-styled gatekeeper of morality in adolescent fiction is unsettling to me. The essay is long -- more than half is taken up with a historical survey of vampire legend and literature -- and he begins his argument about halfway down. His argument is based on his distaste for the transmutation of symbols, in this case, that of the vampire, who in legend and lore is the evil undead, but who, in the figures of Edward and his family, is moral and possessed of a conscience and perhaps even an immortal soul. According to O'Brien, this turning of the historical tradition on its head is opening the door to evil through moral relativism.

Now, here's the thing: I think he may be quite right. But my problem with his argument is the "evidence" he uses to support it, particularly some dreams reported by author Stephanie Meyers on her website. He suggests that her dreams may in fact be apparitions of evil spirits. Well, maybe they could; any dream could. But I guess I just feel insulted by the idea of suggesting that someone's dreams, as self-reported on her promotional website, may or may not be the work of the devil, and further insulted that a self-appointed Cassandra about the destruction of our youth by Harry Potter and his henchmen would use an author's promotional web content as any kind of evidence of anything at all. Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive because I'm a researcher, or perhaps it's because I've been accused myself on my blog of having dreams inspired by the devil. Anyhow, the Twilight books are crap and may even be dangerous, but there has to be a more cogent way to say so. And I don't think suggesting that they are a catalyst for the decline of Western culture is that way.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Miscellaneous Month

So we'll do Nobokov, Cloud Castle Lake.

And if anyone wants to put up a poem to pass the time, we'll throw that in as well.

This should give us all time to get over reader's block, and post vacation stress disorder, and pregnancy fatigues, vitamin D deficiencies, and whatever else ails us.

Back to Melanie in February.

Hope everyone had a marvelous Christmas and New Year. Happy Epiphany as well!