Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jenny Offill / Dept. of Sepeculation / Review

Jenny Offill
Photograph by Nicolas Latimer
Dept. of Speculation review – intense vignettes of domestic life

John Self is charmed by Jenny Offill's fragmentary novel about marriage and parenthood

John Self
Friday 14 March 2014 09.00 GMT

A book this sad shouldn't be so much fun to read. But contradictions are what you might expect from an author whose first novel was called Last Things. Fifteen years later, this is her second, and it was worth the wait. Dept. of Speculation is a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity and sweetness.
There aren't many characters, and no one is named: there is the husband, their daughter and a few acquaintances. The story is told in fragments, like memories that float in when you're trying to think about other things. "Memories are microscopic," the woman says. "Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them." Her thoughts and recollections have an aphoristic neatness to them, enhanced by the way each paragraph is set alone on the page, white space above and below. They are like your cleverest friend's Facebook updates. She describes how an ex-boyfriend appears on her doorstep. "He seemed to have come all the way from San Francisco just to have coffee. On the way to the diner, he apologised for never really loving me. He hoped to make amends. 'Wait,' I said. 'Are you doing the steps?'"
There is a risk in charming the reader early on like this – unless you can keep it up. Jenny Offill can keep it up: almost every one of these vignettes is interesting and perfectly put. Because they come to the woman's mind unbidden, they are often stripped of context, making the reader work to find out what is happening. Elsewhere, we learn details only as she does, giving moments of surprise and joy. Her mother tells her to "whack" her choking baby on the back – choking on what? – "and I do until the leaf, green, still beautiful, comes out in my hand".
Offill is particularly strong on the strangeness of parenthood, as a time when the years roar by but the days within them can drag. "What did you do today, you'd say when you got home from work and I'd try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing." We learn that she never intended to be a mother, nor a wife: she wanted to be an art monster. "Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him." The closest she gets to being an art monster is to ghostwrite a memoir for a businessman who almost became an astronaut. She sums up how their lives differ in a few words. "He made a fortune selling bug zappers. Last year, I got one as a Christmas present."
Sharp as all this is ("Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I'd say"), it would seem limited if there weren't texture added by the shadows beneath the sunshine. The woman is unforgiving of herself, persecuted by thoughts of her own inadequacy as a wife, as a mother, in her job as a teacher. "There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it." And a crisis takes hold in the story, gradually and then suddenly, which is reflected by a shift in the narrative angle, as the woman increases her distance from her family and from herself. Her distracted state is reflected in the book's skittish structure. Dept. of Speculation is a shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don't quite understand, until they give in and read it too.
 John Self blogs at The Asylum

David Duchovny / I’ve more self-doubt as an actor than as a writer

David Duchovny: ‘I order up to four books every week.’ Photograph: Armando Gallo/Camera Press

David Duchovny

‘I’ve more self-doubt as an actor

 than as a writer’

David Duchovny talks about his debut novel, his fear of ageing, and the prospect of a reboot for The X-Files

Rachel Cooke
Sunday 22 February 2015 08.15 GMT

David Duchovny is best known for his role as FBI agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files, and as dissolute writer Hank Moody in Californication. He has a BA in English literature from Princeton, where he wrote a dissertation on the early novels of Samuel Beckett, and an MA from Yale. He has now published a novel, Holy Cow, in which a cow called Elsie, a pig called Shalom and a turkey called Tom escape a farm in upstate New York in search of a better life.
How did you get the idea for Holy Cow?
I had an idle idea while driving one day that if I were a cow I’d probably do my best to get to India. I thought that was funny. But then I thought: what else could happen? If I were a pig, I’d try and get to a place where kosher laws were enforced and I wouldn’t be eaten. And… a turkey might think that Turkey would be safe. So then we’ve got our three… This sounded to me like it could be a kids’ movie, so I wrote up a treatment and pitched it as an animated film. But the story includes some Muslim-Jewish political discussion, some drug-taking, and the circumcision of a pig. They politely passed. So I shelved it until, a year and a half ago, I thought: why don’t I write it up as a novel?
It seems to come with a message about how we treat farm animals, and perhaps that we eat too much meat.
I’m not a polemicist. I’m not a proselytiser for vegetarianism or climate change. I don’t force my personal morality on others, and I don’t like books that try to. To me, it’s a work of entertainment first and foremost. A decent work of art raises more questions than it answers. If it answers questions, it becomes propaganda. The book really comes out of my earliest reading: I grew up on Aesop’s Fables… the first stories I ever heard involved talking animals.
Which is harder, writing or acting?
I can’t say that I enjoy writing; it’s difficult. I would say I enjoy having written. But I’ve way more self-doubt as an actor – I come from more of a writing background than a performing background. My sense of myself from an early age was as an observer, a thinker. I didn’t even see that many movies as a kid.
What about reviews? When you act, you’re part of a team; you can hide. But as a writer, your name’s the only one on the jacket.
I don’t read any reviews of anything I do. I haven’t for 10 years, and it has made life a lot better. So much criticism today is snarky and ad hominem. I’m of the school that says: judge the work, not who did it. It’s hard for actors; it’s their body and face they’re using. As a writer it should be easier, but I don’t think it is. I didn’t want to use a pseudonym: I want people to read the book, so why not use whatever celebrity I have to bring attention to it? But reading reviews is like finding your beloved’s journal: the only reason you’re going to open it is because you want to hurt yourself.
You abandoned your PhD at Yale… what was it about?
The title of the dissertation that never will be was: Magic and technology in contemporary fiction and poetry. The writers I was going to discuss were James Merrill, Norman Mailer, Ishmael Reed, Robertson Davies, Thomas Pynchon. I didn’t finish it because I’m a lazy piece of shit. I started acting, and once I left the halls of academia, it was hard to keep the focus on something so rarefied.
Did you regret giving it up?
I still have regrets; I’m a regretful person. Before I had any success as an actor, when I was receiving rejection after rejection, I thought: what the hell are you doing? You worked your ass off, you were at the best places, you were set up to have an interesting and nice life teaching and writing, and now you’re auditioning for a potato-chip commercial in your bathing suit.
Do you buy a lot of new books?
I order up to four every week. The last two I enjoyed were Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which I found to be devastatingly sad, and Outline by Rachel Cusk. She writes beautifully about things that are very difficult to write about.
Both those novels are about women who are getting older and feel invisible, a subject the movies don’t ever touch on. This isn’t a problem for men, is it? They just get (supposedly) more attractive, especially on screen, where their wives and girlfriends only get younger.

Well, that’s the cliche, and there is a standard that is kinder to men than to women. That’s unfair, though I don’t know how you legislate against it. But of course I worry about ageing. I don’t want to get old. I’d have a facelift if they ever worked… But it seems to me they don’t look good.
What’s coming up for you next?
I’m writing another novel, and I have an album coming out, Hell Or High Water. I also have a new show on NBC, Aquarius. It’s set in late-60s LA, and I play a homicide detective who’s watching the world change and isn’t so happy about it. An old flame of mine calls me and says that her daughter has run off with this guy, Charles Manson. This is before that name rings anybody’s bell. So I get caught up in the counterculture, a world I don’t understand, because I grew up in the 20s and 30s.
Why don’t you come to London and do a play by your beloved Beckett?
[Laughs] Well, Gillian [Anderson, his X-Files co-star] has done so well in London. But she’s a proper actress. She studied; I taught myself on the job. Doing theatre wouldn’t be a return to my roots — that would be going back to grad school. I do love London, though. If you came to me with a brilliant play, I imagine I’d try to do it.
There is still talk of a Mulder and Scully reunion. Aren’t you done with The X-Files?
If you’d asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have said: yes, I’ve had enough. But at this point, it’s almost like going out on a greatest hits tour. It would be a lark. And I think it’s going to happen pretty soon.
Holy Cow is published by Headline (£9.99).

Friday, February 27, 2015

Balzac / Colonel Chabert


By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell


To Madame la Comtesse Ida de Bocarme nee du Chasteler.


"HULLO! There is that old Box-coat again!"
This exclamation was made by a lawyer's clerk of the class called in French offices a gutter-jumper—a messenger in fact—who at this moment was eating a piece of dry bread with a hearty appetite. He pulled off a morsel of crumb to make into a bullet, and fired it gleefully through the open pane of the window against which he was leaning. The pellet, well aimed, rebounded almost as high as the window, after hitting the hat of a stranger who was crossing the courtyard of a house in the Rue Vivienne, where dwelt Maitre Derville, attorney-at-law.
"Come, Simonnin, don't play tricks on people, or I will turn you out of doors. However poor a client may be, he is still a man, hang it all!" said the head clerk, pausing in the addition of a bill of costs.

Balzac / Eugenie Grandet


by Honoré de Balzac

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

DEDICATION To Maria. May your name, that of one whose portrait is the noblest ornament of this work, lie on its opening pages like a branch of sacred box, taken from an unknown tree, but sanctified by religion, and kept ever fresh and green by pious hands to bless the house. De Balzac.



There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.
Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.

Balzac / Father Goriot


By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Ellen Marriage

Mme. Vauquer (nee de Conflans) is an elderly person, who for the past forty years has kept a lodging-house in the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, in the district that lies between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marcel. Her house (known in the neighborhood as the Maison Vauquer) receives men and women, old and young, and no word has ever been breathed against her respectable establishment; but, at the same time, it must be said that as a matter of fact no young woman has been under her roof for thirty years, and that if a young man stays there for any length of time it is a sure sign that his allowance must be of the slenderest. In 1819, however, the time when this drama opens, there was an almost penniless young girl among Mme. Vauquer's boarders.

The 100 best novels No 70 / Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

The 100 best novels 

No. 70

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

George Orwell’s dystopian classic cost its author dear but is arguably the best-known novel in English of the 20th century

Robert McCrum
Monday 19 January 2015 05.45 GMT

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Time is out of joint, and everyday life has no comfort any more: from Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) to Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell had been incubating a profound inner dissonance with his society. Even as a child, he had been fascinated by the futuristic imagination of HG Wells (and later, Aldous Huxley). Finally, at the end of his short life, he fulfilled his dream. Nineteen Eighty-Four, arguably the most famous English novel of the 20th century, is a zeitgeist book. Orwell’s dystopian vision was deeply rooted both in its author’s political morality, and in its time, the postwar years of western Europe. Its themes (the threat of the totalitarian state, censorship and the manipulation of language) continue to reverberate, with prophetic menace, like distant gunfire, into the present.
After the third world war, Britain is now Airstrip One in the American superstate of Oceania, permanently in conflict with Eurasia and Eastasia. Winston Smith, a former journalist employed by the Ministry of Truth to rewrite old newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports state policy, decides to launch his own hopeless private rebellion against the oppression of “the Party” and its all-seeing, all-powerful dictator, Big Brother. Winston’s revolt gets added impetus from his association with Julia, another dissident, who wants to use her rampant sexuality to defy the repression of “the Party”.
When Winston and Julia’s brief affair is discovered by the Thought Police they are subjected to the torments of Room 101 at the hands of the merciless O’Brien. “If you want a picture of the future,” says this demonic figure, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” At the end, now brainwashed into submission, Winston awaits his execution as “the last man in Europe”, the working title of Orwell’s first draft.
The plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four is one thing; its ideas are something else. In the 65 years since its publication, “Big Brother is watching you”, “newspeak”, “doublethink” “prole”, “thoughtcrime”, “unperson”, “reality control” and “the Two Minutes Hate” have become inseparable from the English language. Orwell himself, in the words of one critic, “the wintry conscience of his generation”, has become a kind of secular saint, which is an incarnation that might surprise his former colleagues on this newspaper, the Observer.

 note on the text

Orwell had been attached to David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. His editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency”, and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the backstory of Nineteen Eighty-Four.The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make grim reading, and help to explain the persistent bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. The idea for “The Last Man in Europe” had been in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war. His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to acquire a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife, Eileen, adopted their only son, Richard, whom I was once lucky enough to interview about his father. Orwell was also partly inspired by the meeting of the allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, a colleague on the Observer, for which Orwell was working as a foreign correspondent, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.
Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observerin the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the interaction of fiction and journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind. There were other influences at work. Soon after Richard was adopted, Orwell’s flat was wrecked by a doodlebug. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received the news that his wife, Eileen, had died under anaesthesia during a routine operation.
Now David Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the northern tip of this desolate part of the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train to Jura, a risky move. He was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century, and he had always suffered from a bad chest. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. “Smothered under journalism,” as he told one friend, “I have become more and more like a sucked orange.”
Part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect, the world was waking up to his genius. “Everyone keeps coming at me,” he complained to Koestler, “wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc – you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.”
On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions but the promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides came with its own price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he had described the struggle to complete a book: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.” Then that famous Orwellian coda: “Good prose is like a window pane.”
From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. At first, after “a quite unendurable winter”, he revelled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. “I am struggling with this book,” he wrote to his agent, “which I may finish by the end of the year – at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.”
Life at Barnhill was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cosy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world. Once his new regime was settled, Orwell could finally make a start. At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: “I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.”
Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: “Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess having very little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.” Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed “rough draft” by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. In late October 1947, oppressed with “wretched health”, Orwell recognised that his novel was still “a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely”. Just before Christmas, he broke the news that he had been diagnosed with TB.
In 1947 there was no cure for TB – doctors prescribed fresh air and a regular diet – but there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment from the US. The side-effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails) but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. “It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,” Orwell told his publisher. “It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.”
As he prepared to leave hospital, Orwell received the letter from his publisher that, in hindsight, would be another nail in his coffin. “It really is rather important,” wrote Warburg to his star author, “from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.”
Just when he should have been convalescing, Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising Warburg to deliver it in “early December”, and coping with “filthy weather” on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: “I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.”
The typing of the fair copy of “The Last Man in Europe” became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his “unbelievably bad” manuscript, the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words”. With characteristic candour, he noted: “I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.”
He was still undecided about the title: “I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,” he wrote, “but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.” By the end of October, Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

In a desperate race against time, Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the “unbelievably bad” manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.
By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle “the grisly job” of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.
Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that “it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day”. Besides, he added, it was “wonderful” what mistakes a professional typist could make, and “in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms”.
The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognised its qualities at once (“among the most terrifying books I have ever read”) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted “if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot”.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US). Secker & Warburg in the UK, and Harcourt Brace in New York were eager to get it out into bookshops as soon as possible. Orwell’s American editor, Robert Giroux, whom I remember with fondness from the 1980s, did not wait for the English page proofs from which to set his edition, as was customary. Instead, he prepared a fresh copy for the American printer, with the result that the two first editions are significantly different in many small ways.
The novel was almost universally recognised as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January he suffered a massive haemorrhage in hospital and died alone.
Orwell’s title remains something of a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writers GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.
In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon “The Last Man in Europe”. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg, who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four would be a more commercial title. It remains one of the all-time classics of the 20th century.

Three more from George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933); Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936);Animal Farm (1945).

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 100 best novels No 75 / Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

The 100 best novels 

No 75 

 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee
Robert McCrum
Monday 23 February 2015 05.45 GMT

n 1962, almost a decade after its first appearance, Nabokov told the BBC that “Lolita is a special favourite of mine. It was my most difficult book – the book that treated a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”
The author’s passion for this erotic tragicomedy is part of its charm and its appeal. Nabokov knows he is crossing boundaries of good taste but he exults in his truancy from convention anyway. Everything, and everyone, is up for grabs. From the famous opening line, Lolita is the work of a writer in love with the potentiality of the English language: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Nabokov’s novel is both a comic tour de force and a transgressive romp. As Martin Amis, a devoted advocate, has written, Lolita is “both irresistible and unforgivable”.

Subtitled “the confessions of a white widowed male”, the novel is an intoxicating mix of apologia, prison diary and urgent appeal to the members of a jury by a 38-year old defendant, Dr Humbert Humbert, a professor of literature. Humbert, who is obsessed with “nymphets” (Nabokov’s coinage), girls on the edge of puberty, has been charged with the murder of Clare Quilty, a playwright. As Humbert’s confession unfolds, in two unequal parts – the latter a travelogue that prompted Christopher Isherwood to joke that it was “the best travel book ever written about America” – the reader discovers that his defence is “crime of passion”: he slaughtered Quilty out of love for Dolores Haze, his “Lolita”.
Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is hardly debauching an innocent. In a twist that makes for uncomfortable reading in the context of contemporary anxieties about child abuse, Nabokov establishes that Lolita is sexually precocious already. When it comes to the moment when she and Humbert are “technically lovers”, it was, in Nabokov’s brilliant and clinical reversal, “she who seduced me”.


A note on the text

Nabokov’s mother tongue was Russian, just as Joseph Conrad’s was Polish. But, like Conrad, he takes his place here as a master of the English (and American) language. Nabokov’s own retrospective account, dated 12 November 1956, “On a book entitled Lolita”, provides the essential narrative of his novel’s gestation.
He writes that “the first little throb ofLolita went through me late in 1939, or early in 1940, in Paris.” At the time, he says, he was “laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia”. The upshot of this “little throb” was “a short story some 30 pages long”, written in Russian. But Nabokov was displeased with this preliminary sketch and says he “destroyed it some time after moving to America in 1940”.

But the fever-germ of his masterpiece was lodged in his imagination. In 1949, he continues, “the throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to plague me again”. Now writing in English as a would-be American, he began a new version. Progress was painfully slow. “Other books intervened,” he writes, but still he could not reconcile himself to consigning his unfinished draft to the incinerator.
Meanwhile, the exiled Nabokov, a distinguished lepidopterist, could never resist the lure of errant butterflies. “Literature and butterflies,” he once said, “are the two sweetest passions known to man.” Every summer he and his wife would head out west to Colorado, Arizona or Wyoming in pursuit of Variegated Fritillaries and Polyommatus blues. It was there, out in Telluride, that he resumed writing Lolita“in the evenings, or on cloudy days”. By the spring of 1954 he had completed a longhand draft and “began casting around for a publisher”.
Dominique Swain as Lolita

It was now that the fun started. The immediate response of the four American publishers to whom it was submitted (Farrar Straus, Viking, Simon & Schuster and New Directions) was that they would not touch it with a bargepole. One editor, a timid soul, exclaimed “Do you think I’m crazy?” Others expressed fears about prosecution, and hinted darkly at the risk of prison. In despair, Nabokov turned to publication in France with Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, an imprint specialising in what has been described as a list of “pornographic trash”. Nabokov duly signed a contract with the Olympia Press for publication of the book, which would not appear anonymously (as had been mooted in America) but came out in volume form (two volumes, actually) under his own name.

Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks littered with typographical errors. Nevertheless, the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, though virtually no one had reviewed it. Then, towards the end of 1955, Graham Greene, choosing his books of the year for the Sunday Times, described it as one of the best books of the year. This statement provoked a reaction from theSunday Express, whose editor called it “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography”. The novel became a banned book, in a manner unthinkable today. For two years, copies of Lolita were proscribed by the authorities and hunted down by British customs. Eventually, the young publisher George Weidenfeld saw his chance. In 1959 he brought out a British edition, challenging the law. After a tense standoff, the attorney general decided not to prosecute. Weidenfeld made his first fortune, and Lolita entered British literary mythology. In America, the first US edition was issued by Putnam’s in August 1958. The book went into several printings and it is said that the novel became the first since Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind to sell more than 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.

One of Lolita’s first supporters, the great critic Lionel Trilling, addressed what is perhaps a central issue at the heart of this controversial novel, when he warned of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with such an eloquent narrator: “We find ourselves the more shocked when we realise that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents… We have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Time and format do not permit this entry to explore the many fascinating literary critical reactions to this book. It will never cease to horrify some readers and delight others. De gustibus non est disputandum.
James Mason and Sue Lyon
Lolita by Stanley Kubrick

Looking back, Nabokov declared Lolita to be a record of his “love affair with the English language”. His private tragedy, he declared, tongue in cheek, was that “I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions – which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage his own way.”
Second-rate ? We should be so lucky.

Three more from Vladimir Nabokov

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941); Pnin (1957); Pale Fire (1962).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 100 best novels 5 / Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

The 100 best novels: No 5  

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

ow many readers, if they are honest, discovered some of the greatest novels through film or television? GatsbyPride and PrejudiceThe English PatientDr Zhivago? I first got interested in Tom Jones having seen John Osborne's famous adaptation, starring the young Albert Finney as the eponymous hero. That's an exceptional film. Classics often don't make good films, or only do so – such as Oliver! – through a process of reinterpretation.
Tom Jones, however, might have been made for the screen. Never mind its numerous chapters and teeming cast of misfits and scoundrels, the central character is an attractively unbridled young man of fierce temper and unrestrained sexuality who pursues true love through contemporary Britain in a sequence of scandalous and hilarious adventures. Published in the mid-18th century, Tom Jones is a classic English novel that captures the spirit of its age and whose famous characters – Squire Western, the chaplain Thwackum, the scheming Blifil, seductive Molly Seagrim and Sophia, Tom's true love – have come to represent Augustan society in all its loquacious, turbulent, comic variety.
The secret of Tom Jones was to be intimately connected to its contemporary audience. By the 1740s, the English novel was attracting new kinds of reader and, in turn, new kinds of writer. Not only was there an explosion of print media and a booming middle-class audience, there were innovative novelists for whom this popular new genre offered the prospect of a decent living. Many would continue to starve in Grub Street, but some had begun to make money. Samuel Johnson, famously, sold his over-earnest romance, Rasselas, to pay for his mother's funeral.
Henry Fielding was typical of this new generation. Born in 1707, he was a wholly 18th-century man. With a classical education at Eton, family connections and a good career in the law, in which he is sometimes credited with laying the foundations of the Metropolitan police, he turned to fiction partly to fund an extravagant lifestyle and partly to engage with a stimulating contemporary audience.

Fielding was writing at a time of intense social and political change and took up his pen in response to the crises of the moment. Until the repressive Licensing Act of 1737, he had enjoyed a reputation as the author of satirical burlesques. When the Jacobite uprising (the '45) threatened the Hanoverian settlement, Fielding sprang to the defence of George II, and edited the True Patriot.
In hindsight, the English novel was an obvious new arena for his imagination, but it was literary rivalry that pushed him, in middle age, on to the path of fiction. In 1740, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, the tale of a young woman who becomes a great lady and finds true happiness by defending her chastity, was the London sensation of the season, an early bestseller. Fielding's response to Pamela was complicated. He admired its success, scorned its sententious moralising, and attacked it in an anonymous parody, Shamela (1741). Thriving on the competition with Richardson, Fielding next completed his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), which began as a further parody of Pamela before finding its own narrative voice. After this debut, following the dramas of the '45, Fielding began work on his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
For Coleridge, this long novel was, withOedipus Rex and The Alchemist, one of "the three most perfect plots ever planned". It was also highly original and deeply comic. Fielding broke away from Richardson's epistolary technique of "writing to the moment" to compose his narrative in the third person. This engaging picaresque tale about the adventures of Tom, a high-spirited bastard, rollicking through England, was an instant hit, selling some 10,000 copies at a time when the population of London was only around 700,000.
One conservative critic denounced Tom Jones as "a motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery", which can't have done sales any harm. Samuel Johnson, more measured, thought that such novels were a dangerous distraction "to the young, the ignorant and the idle…", offering merely "the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas". However, for better or worse, this mass audience represented the future of the genre, and inspired Fielding's opening credo, which was to provide "an entertainment" for public consumption. "The author", he wrote in his first chapter, should provide "a mental entertainment", where "all persons are welcome for their money". Quite so.
A Note on the Text:
Fielding had read parts of Tom Jones to friends and circulated privately printed episodes from the novel in the autumn of 1748. The official publication date was 10 February 1749, though Fielding's bookseller, Andrew Millar, began distributing copies a week earlier, playing the role of publisher in an age when such a profession did not exist. The first edition was exhausted at once; second and third editions followed on 28 February and 12 April. The fourth edition came at the end of the same year and it's this text that remains the basis for modern editions.
Three other Fielding books:
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742); A Journey from this World to the Next (1749); Amelia (1751)