Friday, January 18, 2008
Seems like a great idea for a recurring feature, doesn’t it? Anyway, here’s Ron Rosenbaum, writing about whether Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura” should be burned: “Think of that: the final ‘distillation’ of the work of perhaps the greatest, certainly the most complex, writer of the past century."
1) Perhaps the greatest?
2) Certainly the most complex?
I don’t like to argue about #1. Let’s try the other. Did Nabokov write anything as complex as a Harry Stephen Keeler novel? Not in terms of plot. Did he openly disdain the most obvious counterexample, even if you somehow agree that he was #1 equivalent with Joyce? Yes. Would anyone care to argue that one of Nabokov’s works is more complex than Finnegans Wake? What are other complexity contenders for those in #1 set with Nabokov, however you choose to construe that?
It sounds as if he is saying the Nabokov himself is the most complex writer. That he was complex. Impossible to determine of course.
Is complexity a virtue in either the personal or the literary case? It definitely would make me think twice before answering a personal ad where the person says he/she is complex but as a spectator of someone’s life through biography, etc. I guess I sort of appreciate it.
Come to think of it I’m not even sure what complexity means when it comes to novels. Sentence structure? Plot? Pnin is complex isn’t it but how do you decide when one novel is more complex than another?
Others who could lay claim to the complexity title, whatever that is, would include Faulkner, Gaddis and Pynchon. And Gene Wolfe.
I’m a Gene Wolfe booster. But nothing of his is really in the same category as Finnegans Wake, I don’t think. Faulkner, Gaddis, or Pynchon either. Perhaps Rosenbaum tacitly assumed that Joyce was off the table when he made the comment, or perhaps it was Slate-mandated contrarianism, which you may remember from such gems as Saletan on Rushton and any of the Hitchens columns.
All depends on what “complex” means. Ron Silliman’s poetry, insofar as every single sentence extends its meanings in completely different direction, would ultimately be more complicated than Nabokov, maybe even Joyce. But then again, just because a piece of IKEA furniture is difficult to assemble doesn’t mean it’s a great piece of furniture.
As a nihilist, I find this question difficult. For us, burning books and manuscripts is always a good thing, but then, defying the express wishes of a snooty perfectionist would be a good thing too. Choices, choices.
I’m surprised that Kafka was not mentioned. A lot of his best stuff was supposed to be burned (by Max Brod, I think), though as I remember, Born told Kafka that he wouldn’t do it and that Kafka should find another executor.
Someone who started young and modelled on “Finnegans Wake” could probably out-complex Joyce (by working in Hebrew and Chinese script, for example), but why?
Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual? I am about halfway through it (in the translation) but it is currently taking a long, long rest from its labors on the floor next to my bed. Reawakening not assured.
I’m thinking Ada might be the most “complex” of Nabakov’s works. Although in the spirit of William Goldman I offer the following “good parts” abridgement:
I You We fucked my cousin half-sister sister. Prepare to die.
As a major thinker and critic I agree with all of the above that all writers are awesome and sooper dooper complixated as long as they are in fulfillment of the criteria of being white and man.
This leads us to far more fruitful territory - which books ought to have been burned? And in a marvellous twist of serendipity, the answer (search your hearts) has been mentioned; Finnegan’s Wake.
I wonder if what Mr. Rosenbaum is implying is to the degree that the readings of Nabokov are so heavily psychologized, evidenced by his reference to “Lolitology,” elevates the complexity of his work to its supposed labyrinthine heights. As the layers of analysis as a result get encrusted on the text itself, we read back into Nabokov all of this sedimented psychological inquiry.
Of course, Rosenbaum seems to think this state lamentable especially in the case of Lolita. It is unlikely, I would hold, that it could be possible to state so unironically Nabokov’s superior complexity without the legacy and controversy attendant to that novel.
bodycat misspelled ‘lolology’.
Bakhtin’s writings were more usefully burnt.
Nabokov’s work was intermittently wonderful (sometimes top-heavy; is “Ada” really “all that”?), but he wasn’t a superbeing, with access to divine currents beyond our ken. I’m sure the “Laura” text will be interesting to trainspotting completists, but heaping more paper on the apocrypha pile won’t change much.
Someone should do a study, btw, on how the “religion gene” applies to the study of literature. How much are we willing to pay for a Nabokov/Hemingway/Joyce relic… such as a toenail? Personally speaking, the (author-intentionally) published books are quite enough to keep me happy. Some more than others.
Okay Derek, how about Barnes? Stein? Marguerite Young? Or for personal complexity, Gayl Jones?