Monday, October 01, 2007

The Purpose of the Novel

It is possible to read a novel because you are impressed by the writing more than the story itself. Or: what drives you on is not the story, even if it has its interests, but the hope of some patches of good writing cunningly interspersed throughout the text like oases arrived at just in time for a life saving drink on a long desert journey.

When I came across a quote from Nabokov which I put in a post, Cutting Remarks, it was natural to re-read him. Of course, revising his life and work is easy now.

The only Nabokov on my shelves now is a yellowed 1960 Penguin paperback :
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Been lying around for years: not me the book. Hadn't read it before. Or, maybe I did what we all do when in need of a novel: after the first few lines decided it wasn't quite what I was after at the time.

Now, inflamed with the admittedly simple axiom of what Shattuck, on Proust, talks about “..the purpose of all fiction, which both mimics life and provides a template that life can seem to mimic...”, and mimicry and camouflage in and of Nabokov, it is to Nabokov that I turn for examples of this business of life and art; art and life.

Sebastian Knight is said to have been written (1938: his first novel in English, published in 1941) in his Paris flat, sitting in the loo (it does say if he sat on it) with a suitcase over bidet for a desk. If you haven't read it yet and are tempted to, don't spoil it by checking reviews and background (and wiki) inadvertently getting a spoiler.

There is that thing about what you know about the author as you read the book, which either is a distraction or a source of fascination.

Here - it is not giving too much away just to give a an example of the style and humour - the narrator is SK's younger half brother :

When Sebastian visited us in Paris at the close of his first university year, I was struck by his foreign appearance. He wore a canary yellow jumper under his tweed coat. His flannel trousers were baggy, and his thick socks sagged, innocent of suspenders. The stripes of his tie were loud and for some reason he carried his handkerchief in his sleeve. He smoked his pipe in the street, knocking it out against his heel. He had developed a new way of standing with his back to the fire, his hands deep in his trouser pockets. He spoke Russian gingerly, lapsing into English as soon as the conversation drew out anything longer than a couple of sentences....

The very first sentence of the book tells us Sebastian Knight was born in 1899 in "... the former capital of my country", so from the beginning we are primed to think Nabokov might be using his own life as a template. Only a short way into the book I couldn't resist a few reviews, several preoccupied with it being based firmly on Nabokov's own life.

This I find very instructive:

Conversations on contemporary Drama by Clayton Meeker Hamilton:


A Manual of the Art of Fiction by Clayton Meeker Hamilton, 1918. It is easy to read, the full title indicating its target audience: A Manual of the Art of Fiction, Prepared for the Use of Schools and Colleges. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1918. 808.3 H18

If you have read TRLSK and wouldn't mind running through it one more time:

from The Constant Reader:

Demoss, John. The 'Real' Real Life: Sebastian Knight and the Critics

The Fledgling Fictionalist by Michael H. Begnal

The Life and Works of Vladimir Nabokov

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