Joseph Conrad became so naturalized in English that the reader cannot tell he is not using his native language, whereas Vladimir Nabokov, for all his stylistic sophistication, retained the tourist’s sense of wonder and amusement, writing a singularly exotic prose studded with rare words, unconventional usages, and luxuriantly burgeoning sentences.
In Pnin both the author and Cornell University are reduced ironically to low mimetic mode, and the book is often highly comic without sacrificing plausibility or subtlety. Satire of American culture, without history or formality, is balanced by satire of the backward-looking world of the Russian émigrés who have little else. Realizing that communication is always imperfect, he focuses on misinterpretation, incorrect usages, mistaken identities, a labored explanation of a cartoon, the absurdity of a basketball net.
One finds Nabokov jabbing at his bêtes noires: Bolshevism, Freud, and abstract art, and intimately caressing his loves: butterflies, chess, people of all sorts, and, most of all, language. Nabokov is a great writer and Lolita is his masterpiece, but in Pnin as well the reader encounters such marvelous gifts as this: “Technically speaking, the narrator’s art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes.”
Mansfield Park [Austen]
Timid and sensitive nearly to the point of neurasthenia, priggish in her deep opposition to amateur theatricals, a persecuted damsel of the sort that has always been popular (apart from Samuel Richardson, one might think of Yuan drama or the covers of thirties pulp magazine), Fanny Price distresses even many confirmed Austen fans. By introducing a family from a lower social milieu, Austen added little but a tinge of the sordid from which not only Fanny and William, but Susan as well, need fortuitous assistance to escape. The real tensions in the books are between the amoral, eighteenth century wit valued in sophisticated circles and the earnest uprightness of Edmund and Fanny. We can only miss the impertinent cleverness of the author who is herself evidence that nature can combine a good character and an epigrammatic skill.
The leading couple come together only in the very last pages as they discover their common taste for discussing the faults of others. Edmund’s infatuation with Mary Crawford, durable through many months, vanishes entirely and suddenly. It takes no longer for his elder brother Tom, through, sympathetic magic perhaps, to turn from a thoughtless self-centered wastrel to a man of integrity. For Sir Thomas, tasked with an indolent wife, disagreeable relatives, and the pesky problems of managing his distant West Indian slaves, propriety had been a trusty foundation, but he resolves his personal deficiencies through his proximity to the newlyweds.
We don’t see the deus ex machina, but it is surely there. Is all her piety, her superiority to society’s judgments consistent with her stress on “breeding”? In the story how one is brought up seems to all but determine one’s fate. Surely, I am not the only modern reader to wonder about Fanny’s word-choice when, concerned about Mary’s corrupting Edmund, she says, “God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable.” Can one read those words without feeling a bit of a chill?
Last of the great Icelandic sagas, that extraordinary efflorescence, dozens of prose narrations, based in history but not shy of legend and folk-tale motifs, produced in a small and poor country. The stoical understated northern sensibility, reflecting a world of privation and casual violence, shaped a number of works of tragic depth, including Njal’s Saga and Grettir’s.
Virtually any line from these works provides a microcosm of their society. Grettir the Strong is respected for his physical prowess, just as if he had been a similarly powerful baboon or a forest stag. Even apart from war and raiding, these Northmen are never far from a brawl as they can be extremely sensitive on points of honor, and the traditions of feuding mandate danger points among family and loyalty groupings that extend for generations. Some elements of law and even democracy did mitigate the bloodshed, but it was often prudent, it seems, to bring a well-armed party even when attending the Althing.
Grettir, himself, is ill-starred, and his fortunes fall particularly after his struggle with the revenant Glam (who had been weird even before his killing by a monster). Just as his opponent is stronger than most men, Glam’s animated corpse “possessed more malignant power than most fiends,” and it curses Grettir with terrible words. From childhood he had been a trial to his father, lazy, unproductive, and bad-tempered. His earlier scrapes had been the result of an impulsive nature, easily offended, old feuds, and a strain of reckless cruelty. After this critical struggle, however, not only is his might limited, but bad luck will govern his fate, condemning him to outlawry, exile, and solitude. Worse, the spectre tells him, “These eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it will drag you to death.” After this, the fierce warrior is afraid of the dark.
Part of the reader’s immersion in early Icelandic society is the result of the saga’s inclusion of many proverbs and verses of skaldic poetry (our hero, for all his rough-and-ready fighting, has been an accomplished poet since childhood). If, as the author had it “One man’s tale is but half a tale,” Grettir, though lacking spirituality or the lighter strains of music, is a moving and fully-fleshed hero, the more rather than the less for his substantial faults.