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Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov’s Passionate Love Letters to Véra and

His Affectionate Bestiary of Nicknames for Her

Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions.

The most important event of his life took place when at 24 he met 21-year-old Véra.

She would come to be Not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also one of creative history’s greatest sidekicks by acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

By Maria Popova

So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company.

But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours.

They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:

I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…

[…]

Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

[…]

See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.

By November, his love has only intensified:

How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds?

Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it — and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret — so sharp! — that we haven’t lived through it together — whether it’s the most, the most personal, intransmissible — or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road — you see what I mean, my happiness?

And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words — and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone… in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision

You can be bruised by an ugly diminutive — because you are so absolutely resonant — like seawater, my lovely.

I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.

Vladimir’s letter to Véra from November 8, 1923

After a charming aside professing that he had begun writing a poem for her on the page but a “very inconvenient little tail got left” and he had no other paper on which to start over, he continues in his characteristic spirit of earnest lyricism with a sprinkle of disarming irreverence:

Most of all I want you to be happy, and it seems to me that I could give you that happiness — a sunny, simple happiness — and not an altogether common one…

I am ready to give you all of my blood, if I had to — it’s hard to explain — sounds flat — but that’s how it is. here, I’ll tell you — with my love I could have filled ten centuries of fire, songs, and valor — ten whole centuries, enormous and winged, — full of knights riding up blazing hills — and legends about giants — and fierce Troys — and orange sails — and pirates — and poets.

And this is not literature since if you reread carefully you will see that the knights have turned out to be fat.

But Nabokov makes clear that his feelings supersede the playful and expand into the profound:

I simply want to tell you that somehow I can’t imagine life without you…

I love you, I want you, I need you unbearably… Your eyes — which shine so wonder-struck when, with your head thrown back, you tell something funny — your eyes, your voice, lips, your shoulders — so light, sunny…

You came into my life — not as one comes to visit … but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from ‘The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.’ Click image for more.

In a letter from December 30 reminiscent of Lolita’s famous opening line, he writes:

I love you very much. Love you in a bad way (don’t be angry, my happiness). Love you in a good way. Love your teeth…

I love you, my sun, my life, I love your eyes — closed — all the little tails of your thoughts, your stretchy vowels, your whole soul from head to heels.

On the one hand, the half-century span of Vladimir’s love letters to Véra do follow the neurobiological progression of love, moving from the passionate attraction that defines the beginning of a romance to the deep, calmer attachment of longtime love.

On the other, however, they suggest that the very act of writing love letters can help sustain the excitement and passion of a long-term relationship, countering what Stendhal called the “crystallization” that leads to disenchantment.

In fact, in 1926 — three years into the relationship — Nabokov, a lifelong lover of wordplay, enlists an especially endearing strategy in infusing their correspondence with passionate sparkle.

While Véra is at a Swiss sanatorium to regain weight she had lost due to anxiety and depression, Nabokov begins addressing her by an increasingly amusing series of nicknames — no doubt in part to amuse and cheer her up, in part to live up to his earlier assertion that she “can be bruised by an ugly diminutive,” but also possibly as a language-lover’s creative exercise for himself, a playful daily assignment of sorts.

The traditional terms of endearment opening his earlier letters — “my happiness,” “my love and joy,” “my dear life” — give way to a loving bestiary of nicknames, inspired by Vladimir and Véra’s shared love of animals.

Among his addresses to her that summer are “Sparrowling,” “Pussykins,” “Mousie,” “Mymousch” (after the Russian for “monkey”), “Mothling,” “Roosterkin,” “Long bird of paradise with the precious tail” (in a letter that closes with “Goodbye, my heavenly, my long one, with the dazzling tail and the little dachshund paws”), “Fire-Beastie,” and the especially wonderful “Pupuss,” which Nabokov parenthetically explains as “a little cross between a puppy and a kitten.”

In one letter from June of 1926, he opens by addressing Véra as “Mosquittle” and, after reporting on how his work is going, gushes:

My tender Mosquittle, I love you. I love you, my superlative Mosquittle… My sweet creature… I love you. I am going to bed, Mosquittle… Good night, my darling, my tenderness, my happiness.

In one letter that would no doubt have embarrassed the very private Véra (who destroyed all of her own letters to Vladimir), he addresses her by “Skunky” — a nickname itself far from offensive in the context of his already established warmth of adoration and its menagerous manifestations, but one that may have mortified Véra by the venereal basis for it that Nabokov’s naughty closing lines imply:

Well, Skunky, good night. You will never guess (I am kissing you) what exactly I am kissing.

But jest aside, it’s worth noting here what a true masterwork of linguistic craftsmanship — in the true Virginia Woolfian sense — these letters are for translator Olga Voronina.

As if it weren’t daunting enough to translate the man who reserved rather ungenerous words for translators, Nabokov’s love of wordplay and his penchant for untranslatable words render his quirky animal-inspired endearments especially challenging.

But even his favorite standard endearment lacks for an English equivalent. Voronina writes in the preface:

Most often, he prefers to call his wife dushen’ka, literally a diminutive of the Russian word dusha (“soul,” “psyche”). It would have been possible to translate this word as “darling” (our choice), “sweetheart” or “dearest” (options from a discarded pile), had the writer not bedecked it with other tender adjectives: dorogaya (“dear”), lyubimaya (“beloved”), milaya (“lovely,” “sweet”), and bestsennaya (“priceless”).

We used “dear darling” a few times in spite of its sounding too alliterative, resorted to “beloved darling” rarely, tried “sweet darling” once or twice, and once (April 15, 1939) had to go along with “My beloved and precious darling.” Unfortunately, even that baroque phrase does not fully convey the fretful and persistent affection of the Russian “dushen’ka moya lyubimaya i dragotsennaya,” with its one and a half times as many syllables and with the adjectives coming cajolingly after the noun.

In some cases, readers simply have to accept it as a given that Nabokov did not use his tenderness sparingly.

And that’s precisely the point — the true gift of these letters is how they immerse the reader in a soul-warming bath of Nabokov’s tender and exuberant love, not only for his wife but for literature and for life itself.

What John Updike once wrote on the jacket of Nabokov’s Selected Letters, 1940–1977“Dip in anywhere, and delight follows. What a writer! And, really, what a basically reasonable and decent man.” — is even more vibrantly true in Letters to Véra.

Highly Creative People? What they do differently?

Creative thinking is a stable, defining characteristic in some personalities. It may also change based on situation and context.
 
Inspiration and ideas often arise seemingly out of nowhere and then fail to show up when we most need them, and creative thinking requires complex cognition, and may be distinct from the thinking process.
 
I lately watched a documentary on the “plasticity” or malleability of the brain, on how people born with half a brain acquire the capabilities of the missing brain. 
 
Carolyn Gregoire@huffingtonpost.com posted this March 4, 2014                                  

18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently   

(A list of too many things that are not necessarily related to creativity?)                                                                         

Creativity works in mysterious and often paradoxical ways. 

Neuroscience paints a complicated picture of creativity. As scientists now understand it, creativity is far more complex than the right-left brain distinction would have us think (the theory being that left brain = rational and analytical, and the right brain = creative and emotional).

In fact, creativity is thought to involve a number of cognitive processes, neural pathways and emotions, and we still don’t have the full picture of how the imaginative mind works.

And psychologically speaking, creative personality types are difficult to pin down, largely because they’re complex, paradoxical and tend to avoid habit or routine. (I’m doubtful)

And it’s not just a stereotype of the “tortured artist” — artists really may be more complicated people.

Research has suggested that creativity involves the coming together of a multitude of traits, behaviors and social influences in a single person.

“It’s actually hard for creative people to know themselves because the creative self is more complex than the non-creative self,” Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at New York University who has spent years researching creativity, told The Huffington Post. “The things that stand out the most are the paradoxes of the creative self … Imaginative people have messier minds.”

While there’s no “typical” creative type, there are some tell-tale characteristics and behaviors of highly creative people. Here are 18 things they do differently.

They daydream.

daydreaming child

Creative types know, despite what their third-grade teachers may have said, that daydreaming is anything but a waste of time. (I’m glad I have a specific category called Daydreaming projects, and wish I could get feedback)

According to Kaufman and psychologist Rebecca L. McMillan, who co-authored a paper titled “Ode To Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” mind-wandering can aid in the process of “creative incubation.” And of course, many of us know from experience that our best ideas come seemingly out of the blue when our minds are elsewhere.

Although daydreaming may seem mindless, a 2012 study suggested it could actually involve a highly engaged brain state — daydreaming can lead to sudden connections and insights because it’s related to our ability to recall information in the face of distractions. Neuroscientists have also found that daydreaming involves the same brain processes associated with imagination and creativity.

(Daydreaming projects are necessarily very detailed and produce the objections to moral and safety issues that the project may be lacking…)

They observe everything.

The world is a creative person’s oyster — they see possibilities everywhere and are constantly taking in information that becomes fodder for creative expression. As Henry James is widely quoted, a writer is someone on whom “nothing is lost.”

The writer Joan Didion kept a notebook with her at all times, and said that she wrote down observations about people and events as, ultimately, a way to better understand the complexities and contradictions of her own mind:

“However dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I,'” Didion wrote in her essay On Keeping A Notebook. “We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its marker.”

They work the hours that work for them.

Many great artists have said that they do their best work either very early in the morning or late at night.

Vladimir Nabokov started writing immediately after he woke up at 6 or 7 a.m., and Frank Lloyd Wright made a practice of waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. and working for several hours before heading back to bed.

No matter when it is, individuals with high creative output will often figure out what time it is that their minds start firing up, and structure their days accordingly.

They take time for solitude.

solitude

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone,” wrote the American existential psychologist Rollo May.

Artists and creatives are often stereotyped as being loners, and while this may not actually be the case, solitude can be the key to producing their best work. For Kaufman, this links back to daydreaming — we need to give ourselves the time alone to simply allow our minds to wander.

“You need to get in touch with that inner monologue to be able to express it,” he says. “It’s hard to find that inner creative voice if you’re … not getting in touch with yourself and reflecting on yourself.”

They turn life’s obstacles around.

Many of the most iconic stories and songs of all time have been inspired by gut-wrenching pain and heartbreak — and the silver lining of these challenges is that they may have been the catalyst to create great art.

An emerging field of psychology called post-traumatic growth is suggesting that many people are able to use their hardships and early-life trauma for substantial creative growth. Specifically, researchers have found that trauma can help people to grow in the areas of interpersonal relationships, spirituality, appreciation of life, personal strength, and — most importantly for creativity — seeing new possibilities in life.

“A lot of people are able to use that as the fuel they need to come up with a different perspective on reality,” says Kaufman. “What’s happened is that their view of the world as a safe place, or as a certain type of place, has been shattered at some point in their life, causing them to go on the periphery and see things in a new, fresh light, and that’s very conducive to creativity.”

They seek out new experiences.

solo traveler

Creative people love to expose themselves to new experiences, sensations and states of mind — and this openness is a significant predictor of creative output.

Openness to experience is consistently the strongest predictor of creative achievement,” says Kaufman. “This consists of lots of different facets, but they’re all related to each other: Intellectual curiosity, thrill seeking, openness to your emotions, openness to fantasy. The thing that brings them all together is a drive for cognitive and behavioral exploration of the world, your inner world and your outer world.”

They “fail up.”

resilience

Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says Kaufman. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that sticks, and creatives — at least the successful ones — learn not to take failure so personally.

“Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often,” Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece on Einstein’s creative genius.

They ask the big questions.

Creative people are insatiably curious — they generally opt to live the examined life, and even as they get older, maintain a sense of curiosity about life. Whether through intense conversation or solitary mind-wandering, creatives look at the world around them and want to know why, and how, it is the way it is.

They people-watch.

people watching

Observant by nature and curious about the lives of others, creative types often love to people-watch — and they may generate some of their best ideas from it.

“[Marcel] Proust spent almost his whole life people-watching, and he wrote down his observations, and it eventually came out in his books,” says Kaufman. “For a lot of writers, people-watching is very important … They’re keen observers of human nature.”

They take risks. 

Part of doing creative work is taking risks, and many creative types thrive off of taking risks in various aspects of their lives.

“There is a deep and meaningful connection between risk taking and creativity and it’s one that’s often overlooked,” contributor Steven Kotler wrote in Forbes. “Creativity is the act of making something from nothing. It requires making public those bets first placed by imagination. This is not a job for the timid. Time wasted, reputation tarnished, money not well spent — these are all by-products of creativity gone awry.

They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression.

self expression

Nietzsche believed that one’s life and the world should be viewed as a work of art. Creative types may be more likely to see the world this way, and to constantly seek opportunities for self-expression in everyday life.

“Creative expression is self-expression,” says Kaufman. “Creativity is nothing more than an individual expression of your needs, desires and uniqueness.”

They follow their true passions.

Creative people tend to be intrinsically motivated — meaning that they’re motivated to act from some internal desire, rather than a desire for external reward or recognition.

Psychologists have shown that creative people are energized by challenging activities, a sign of intrinsic motivation, and the research suggests that simply thinking of intrinsic reasons to perform an activity may be enough to boost creativity.

“Eminent creators choose and become passionately involved in challenging, risky problems that provide a powerful sense of power from the ability to use their talents,” write M.A. Collins and T.M. Amabile in The Handbook of Creativity.

They get out of their own heads.

creative writing

Kaufman argues that another purpose of daydreaming is to help us to get out of our own limited perspective and explore other ways of thinking, which can be an important asset to creative work.

“Daydreaming has evolved to allow us to let go of the present,” says Kaufman. “The same brain network associated with daydreaming is the brain network associated with theory of mind — I like calling it the ‘imagination brain network’ — it allows you to imagine your future self, but it also allows you to imagine what someone else is thinking.”

Research has also suggested that inducing “psychological distance” — that is, taking another person’s perspective or thinking about a question as if it was unreal or unfamiliar — can boost creative thinking.

They lose track of the time.

Creative types may find that when they’re writing, dancing, painting or expressing themselves in another way, they get “in the zone,” or what’s known as a flow state, which can help them to create at their highest level.

Flow is a mental state when an individual transcends conscious thought to reach a heightened state of effortless concentration and calmness. When someone is in this state, they’re practically immune to any internal or external pressures and distractions that could hinder their performance.

You get into the flow state when you’re performing an activity you enjoy that you’re good at, but that also challenges you — as any good creative project does.

“[Creative people] have found the thing they love, but they’ve also built up the skill in it to be able to get into the flow state,” says Kaufman. “The flow state requires a match between your skill set and the task or activity you’re engaging in.”

They surround themselves with beauty.

Creatives tend to have excellent taste, and as a result, they enjoy being surrounded by beauty.

A study recently published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts showed that musicians — including orchestra musicians, music teachers, and soloists — exhibit a high sensitivity and responsiveness to artistic beauty.

They connect the dots.

doodle

If there’s one thing that distinguishes highly creative people from others, it’s the ability to see possibilities where other don’t — or, in other words, vision. Many great artists and writers have said that creativity is simply the ability to connect the dots that others might never think to connect.

In the words of Steve Jobs:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

They constantly shake things up.

Diversity of experience, more than anything else, is critical to creativity, says Kaufman. Creatives like to shake things up, experience new things, and avoid anything that makes life more monotonous or mundane.

“Creative people have more diversity of experiences, and habit is the killer of diversity of experience,” says Kaufman.

They make time for mindfulness.

Creative types understand the value of a clear and focused mind — because their work depends on it. Many artists, entrepreneurs, writers and other creative workers, such as David Lynch, have turned to meditation as a tool for tapping into their most creative state of mind.

And science backs up the idea that mindfulness really can boost your brain power in a number of ways.

A 2012 Dutch study suggested that certain meditation techniques can promote creative thinking. And mindfulness practices have been linked with improved memory and focus, better emotional well-being, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved mental clarity — all of which can lead to better creative thought.

Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski are taking The Third Metric on a 3-city tour: NY, DC & LA.  Tickets are on sale now at thirdmetric.com.

Do you master a Second Language? The proper way to be Born Again

The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote in French, talks of the change of language as a catastrophic event in any author’s biography.   “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past. I changed my entire life,” says Cioran. And rightly so.

The world reveals itself in a certain manner to the Japanese writer, and in quite another to the one who writes in Finnish.

Literary virtuosity almost always betrays a sense of deep, comfortable immersion into a familiar soil. As such, if for any reason the writer has to change languages, the experience is nothing short of life-threatening.
Not only do you have to start everything again from scratch, but you also have to undo what you have been doing for almost as long as you have been around. Changing languages is not for the fainthearted, nor for the impatient.
 
 (And I did change writing in 3 languages, 3 times)
 
COSTICA BRADATAN posted this August 4, 2013 in the Opinionated of NYT Born Again in a Second Language

In her exploration of the Catholic religion, “Letter to a Priest,” written the year before her death in 1943, Simone Weil noticed at some point that “for any man a change of religion is as dangerous a thing as a change of language is for a writer. It may turn out a success, but it can also have disastrous consequences.”

When you become a writer, you don’t do so in abstract, but in relation to a certain language. To practice writing is to grow roots into that language; the better writer you become, the deeper the roots.

Painful as it can be at a strictly human level, the experience can also be philosophically fascinating. Rarely do we get the chance to observe a more dramatic re-making of oneself.

For a writer’s language, far from being a mere means of expression, is above all a mode of subjective existence and a way of experiencing the world. She needs the language not just to describe things, but to see them.  A writer’s language is not just something she uses, but a constitutive part of what she is. This is why to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.

When changing languages you descend to a zero-point of your existence. There must be even a moment, however brief, when you cease to be. You’ve just quit the old language and the new one hasn’t received you yet.

You are now in limbo, between worlds, hanging over the abyss. A change of language usually happens when the writer is exiled or self-exiled. Yet the physical exile is doubled in such cases by an ontological one — an exile on the margins of being. It is as though, for a moment, as she passes through the void – the narrow crack between languages, where there are no words to hold on to and nothing can be named – the self of the writer is not any more.

Weil’s comparison to the religious conversion is indeed apt because, just like in the case of the convert, the writer who changes languages undergoes a death-and-rebirth experience. In an important way, that person dies and then comes back as another.

When she starts writing in the new language the world is born anew to the writer. Yet the most spectacular rebirth is her own. For this is a project of total reconstruction of the self, where no stone is left unturned and nothing will look the same again.

Your native language – what you were before – appears as less and less familiar to you.

But that doesn’t bother you at all; in fact, you look forward to a moment when you will use it as just another foreign language.

Not long after adopting French, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, complained of his native English: “Horrible language, which I still know too well.” The ontological promise of complete renewal that comes with the new language is nothing short of intoxicating.

When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.

Asked, in 1954, why he chose to change languages, Beckett answered: out of a “need to be ill equipped”. His response is exceedingly sly because, if you listen more attentively, its boastful tone is deafening. For in French the need “to be ill equipped” (d’être mal armé) doesn’t sound very different from the need to be (another) Mallarmé (d’être Mallarmé). Anything less than a Mallarmé status would not have been enough for a Beckett on his quest for the new self. Eventually, he didn’t become Mallarmé, but Samuel Beckett, the French author of “Molloy,” “Malone Dies,” or “Waiting for Godot,” which is probably just as good. And as if there was not enough alienation in his adoption of a new language, he alienated himself one more time by translating his French work into English.

Elsewhere Beckett claimed that he preferred French because it allowed him to write “without style.” Yet writing “without style” is one of the writing styles most difficult to accomplish; you really need to be well equipped to do it.

Tucker Nichols

There is something “natural” in one’s becoming a writer in one’s native language. Having reached self-consciousness into that language, having assimilated it along with the mother’s milk, so to speak, such a writer finds himself in a somewhat privileged position: he only has to bring to perfection whatever he has received.

Granted, rigorous training, self-discipline and constant practice are necessary; after all, art is the opposite of nature. Yet no matter how you look at it, there is a distinct sense of continuity and organic growing in this writer’s trajectory.

Becoming a writer in a language that is not yours by birth, though, goes against nature; there is nothing organic in this process, only artifice. There are no linguistic “instincts” to guide you on the path and the language’s guardian angels rarely whisper into your ear; you are truly on your own. Says Cioran: “When I wrote in Romanian, words were not independent of me. As soon as I began to write in French I consciously chose each word. I had them before me, outside of me, each in its place. And I chose them: now I’ll take you, then you.”

Many who shift to writing in a second language develop an unusually acute linguistic awareness. In an interview he gave in 1979, some seven years after he moved to the United States from his native Russia, Joseph Brodsky speaks of his ongoing “love affair with the English language.”

Language is such an overwhelming presence for these people that it comes to structure their new biographies. “English is the only interesting thing that’s left in my life,” says Brodsky. The need to find “le mot juste” starts out as a concern, turns into an obsession, and ends up as a way of life. These writers excel at the art of making virtue of necessity: out of a need to understand how the new language works, they turn into linguistic maniacs; out of a concern for correctness, they become compulsive grammarians.

When he moved to France at the age of 26, Cioran’s command of French was barely decent, yet he ended up as one of the greatest stylists of that language. Similarly, Joseph Conrad learned English relatively late in life – which did not prevent him from coming to be one of its most sophisticated representatives.

Vladimir Nabokov is doubtlessly another such representative, even though he started learning English at an early age. The same pattern again and again: everything out of nothing, from halting ignorance to a mode of expression of the first order.

Towards the end of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451” the reader comes across something whose significance exceeds the confines of the story. It is the scene where Montague meets the “book people.” In a world where printed texts are banned, they have dedicated their lives to preserving the “great books” of the humankind; each commits a book to memory and spends the whole life reciting it. They are living texts, these people, language incarnated. Apart from the masterpieces that inhabit them, they don’t mean much.

Their bodies matter as little as the paper on which a book is printed. In a way, a writer who has changed languages is not very different from these people. In the long run, because of their compulsive preoccupation with linguistic precision and stylistic perfection, a colonization of sorts takes place: language penetrates all the details of that writer’s life, it informs and re-shapes it, it proclaims its dominion over her – it takes over. The writer’s self is now under the occupation of an invading power: her own writing in the new language.

In a certain sense, then, it could be said that in the end you don’t really change languages; the language changes you. At a deeper, more personal level, writing literature in another language has a distinctly performative dimension: as you do it something happens to you, the language acts upon you. The book you are writing ends up writing you in turn. The result is a “ghostification” of sorts.

For to change languages,  a writer is to undergo a process of dematerialization: before you know it, you are language more than anything else.

One day, suddenly, a certain intuition starts visiting you, namely that you are not made primarily out of flesh anymore, but out of lines and rhymes, of rhetorical strategies and narrative patterns.

Just like the “book people,” you don’t mean much apart the texts that inhabit you. More than a man or a woman of flesh and blood, you are now rather a fleshing out of the language itself, a literary project, very much like the books you write.

The writer who has changed languages is truly a ghost writer – the only one worthy of the name.

Having done all this, having gone through the pain of changing languages and undergone the death-and-rebirth initiation, you are sometimes given – as a reward, as it were – access to a metaphysical insight of an odd, savage beauty.

It is the notion that the world may be nothing other than a story in the making and that we, who inhabit it, may be nothing more than characters. Characters in search of an author, that is.


Costica Bradatan

Costica Bradatan is an associate professor of honors at Texas Tech University and the religion/comparative studies editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. His most recent book is “Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe.”

“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov

I don’t recall when I first heard of “Lolita”.

One day, during my frequent visits to Barnes and Nobles in Montgomery County, I stumbled on the book “Lolita”.

Barnes and Nobles didn’t make it a comfortable place for people like me who could not afford to buy books, or the delicious pastries in the adjacent coffee shop, you go in from a door in the megabookstore.

It was hard to find a comfortable chair or table to read, and I sat on the floor.

I attended the talks of authors invited to publicize their recent books, sold at the store, in a corner, a dozen chairs set up for the audience…

Even at an advanced age, I felt uneasy to be discovered reading “Lolita”, and I am a slow reader, and I had to hurry to read as much as I could…I didn’t get the story: Just glimpses of what to expect…

Ten years later, I stumbled on the movie, in black and white, on one of the TV channels. I understood the story, and missed the interesting and most valuable treasures in the book…

And here I am, comprehending “Lolita” via “Reading Lolita in Teheran” by Azar Nafisi.

Basically, I am reviewing this book through the eyes, sensitivity, and comprehension of Nafisi…

Humbert Humbert is writing from jail on a murder charge, and not of the terrible harms he committed on Lolita…

Humbert is travelling and teaching literature in universities, maybe on sabbatical…He has an unfulfilled young love in Annabel Leigh.

At one of his sabbatical, he lands as a tenant at Charlotte Haze’s and rent a room. Charlotte is a bereaved middle-aged widow, and she suffered the loss of her 2-year old boy, and she has a 12-year old daughter Dolores or Dolly (Spanish for pain).

Charlotte marries Humbert and he treat her badly, as a faked southern cultured woman…The movie gave me the impression that Humbert planned the death of Charlotte…

Humbert arrives at Lolita’s summer camp to pick her up as her guardian father, and didn’t attempt to tell her the purpose of the visit. Nabokov writes on this visit of Humbert:

“Let me retain for a moment that scene…hog Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching Lolita’s head, pulling a drawer out of her desk, pouring change into my impatient palm, neatly spreading a banknote over it…photographs of girl-children, some gaudy moth or butterfly, still half- alive, safely pinned to the wall (nature study), the framed diploma of the camp’s dietitian, my trembling hands, a card produced by efficient Holmes with report of Dolly Haze’s behavior for July “fair to good, keen on swimming and boating”. a sound of trees and birds, and my pounding heart…

I am standing with my back to the open door, and I felt the blood rush to my head as I heard her respiration and voice behind me…”

This scene is the prelude to two years of captivity, during which the unwitting Lolita drifts from one motel to another with her guardian-lover. Humbert prevents Lolita to mix with children her age, watches over her so she never has boyfriends, frightens her into secrecy, bribes her with money for act of sex…

And all the while, Humbert parades as a normal husband, normal stepfather, normal human being

Humbert selected Lolita, Lo, or Lola for Dolly. She was Lolita when she sobbed on nights he had his ways with her. He tried all kinds of tricks to get in Lolita’s pants, drugging her, promising plenty of money and never delivering on his promises, threatening her and a few times beating her… As Humbert wrote: “She had absolutely nowhere else to go

The very first painful night, Lolita demands some money to call her mother. Humbert answers: “You can’t call your mother. She is dead” And in the middle of the night, Lolita came sobbing into Humbert’s bed, and “we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go”

Humbert wrote: “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another fanciful Lolita, more real than Lolita…Having no will, no consciousness, indeed no real life of her own…”

But Dolly had a past, and she is in lack of her mother and her brother and a steady place to live and friends…

Humbert turned Dolly into a reincarnation of his lost unfulfilled young love…

Nabokov tells on Lolita through Humbert, an imaginary past…Humbert is solipsizing Lolita, attempting to orphan the child for a third time by robbing her of her past, a figment in someone else’s dream.

Lolita’s truth, desires, life…must lose colors before Humbert’s one obsession of turning a kid into his mistress.

A half-living butterfly, fixed on a wall…This perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.

Humbert is exonerating his terrible actions by implicating the victim: “It was she who seduced me…Not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful badly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket…had utterly depraved. She saw the stark act merely as part of a youngster’s future world, unknown to others…”

Or in other paragraphs: “the vile slut, her obscene young legs (sitting on his lap), engrossed in the lighter section of a newspaper, indifferent to my ecstasy, as if it were something she sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket…”

“Invitation to a Beheading” by Vladimir Nabokov

This indirect review is extracted from “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi had invited 7 of its students to her home “sanctuary” to discuss literature, primarily English books. For two years, the students showed up every Thursday morning, rain or shine, with reading assignment completed and noted down in diaries…

The original Russian version was published in installments in 1935, and the English version was published in 1959.

Nabokov begins with the announcement that Cincinnatus C., his fragile hero, has been sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostic turpitude”: All citizens are expected to be “transparent”for the common “good feeling” of the community…

Worse, a condemned person to death has this “privilege” of knowing the time of the execution. Cincinnatus C was not to have any idea when his time has come. This is one of the many arbitrariness of the system.

In fact, the executioner, Mr. Pierre, is the cell-mate of the hero, and the hero doesn’t know it. The two prisoners must learn to befriend and cooperate in the act of the execution…

Everything in the cell is fake: the windows, the moon, the spider in the corner…The director of the prison, the jailer,  the defense lawyer are the same person: They change roles and positions.

The world of the novel is one of empty rituals, celebrated in a gaudy feast: Every act has no significant sense, and death is a spectacle that citizens are invited to purchase ticket to watch the execution…

It is through these empty rituals that Brutality becomes possible. This close relation between banality and brutality is expressed by the term “Poshlust

Poshlust is not simply the trashy exhibitionist: It is the falsely “importance, beauty, cleverness, attractiveness…” of authority figures, politicians, the dominant classes…that are required to display…

What standout in the novel is this nightmarish quality of living in a totalitarian atmosphere of perpetual dread…The forces of Evils are also frail creatures and ridiculous, and can be easily defeated: This tragedy of total waste…

Cincinnatus C. is fighting with his instincts and he takes refuge in writing as means for escape, an open space: He refuses to become like all the rest in the community.

In totalitarian and theocratic systems, citizens poke fun at their own miseries, in order to survive, one day at a time: There is no knowing when the arbitrary and absurd decision strikes down

You are completely alone in an illusory world, full of false promises, unable to discriminate the savior from the executioner: An acute sense that reality is fickle and frail.

And yet, when all options are taken away, there is this possibility of a boundless freedom: You could invent to be the violin or be devoured by the void in the empty room...(I am reminded of the movie of the Marquis de Sade who wrote erotic novels, and when all options to write were denied him, even with his blood, he used his excrement to write on the walls of his prison cell…)

At the start of the first session, one of the girls shouted “Upsilambda“. This word is Nabokov’ creation , a possible combination of the 20th Greek letter and the 11th letter. It might signify that vague sense of joy, the impossible joy of a suspended leap, a symbol for a sensation that separates the good readers from the ordinary ones…

Nabokov novel is the modern time initiator to many other novels that tried to describe and express what goes on in totalitarian systems, like “1984” by George Orwell or Fahrenheit…

Note 1: Nabokov wrote in the foreword of the English version: “This novel does not offer “tout pour tout”: It is a violin in the void…I know…a few readers will jump up, ruffling their hair…”

Note 2: To Azar, the work of fiction that would most resonates with lives in this Islamic Republic of Iran are:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, 1984 (George Orwell), Invitation to a beheading (Vladimir Nabokov), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), Persian classical literature, A Thousand and One Night, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin), Madam Bovary (Flaubert), Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and of course Lolita

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi resigned from her last academic post at the Tabatabai University in Tehran.  The administration refused for two years to accept the resignation. It is not polite to resign: It is the system that takes the initiative to fire people…

It is the fall of 1995. Azar decided to invite 8 of her best female students to visit her at her home every Thursday morning to discuss literature.  (Thursday and Friday are week-end in Moslem countries).

The theme of the meetings is “Relation between fiction and reality“. Nafisi repeated her warning:

“Do not, at any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction. Refrain from trying to turn a fiction story into a carbon copy of real life….We search in fiction the epiphany of truth…”

One male student insisted on his rights to be included, and he was allowed to read the assigned books and talk on special days.

The girls would shed their veils, scarves, loose black robes…as they entered this sanctuary of mind “open space”: Splashes of color separated the girls, their styles, clothes, length of hair, smiles, laughters…Even the two girls who insisted on keeping their head scarves didn’t look the same.

The girls gained individual outline, shape, inimitable self.

The window faced the Elburz Mountain Chains, covered with snow even in summer.

This reading sanctuary mocked the reality of the black scarves, timid faces in this sprawled city, confiscated and driven underground…

To Azar, the work of fiction that would most resonate with lives in this Islamic Republic of Iran are:

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

2. 1984 (George orwell)

3. Invitation to a beheading (Vladimir Nabokov)

4. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)…

For two years, rain or shine, the students arrived to discuss their reading assignments. Only one student defaulted early on.

This circle of girls read Persian classical literature, A thousand and One Night, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin), Madam Bovary (Flaubert), Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and Lolita

You have got to use your imagination, picturing girls defying the tyranny of time, politics, ideologies, constraints, the absurd and arbitrary decisions…Girls who didn’t dare imagine themselves other than how they were defined in the family and community…

Girls who transcended to other “open spaces“, of most private and secret moments, most extraordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down shady streets, reading Lolita in Tehran…

Girls giving a different color to Tehran, redefining Nabokov’s novel, and extending variations on Lolita…

Modern Batch of Banned Manuscripts (April 20, 2009)

 

            Censuring of books was not the sole domain of the Vatican or other religious sacerdotal castes; the State governments, special associations “for preserving morals”, and other politically oriented organizations shared in restricting freedom of opinions.  Private court cases are preponderant at this age for extorting royalty fees or any other excuses such as safeguarding privacy.

 

            Gustave Flaubert published “Madame Bovary” in 1856 and the novel was deemed the worst scandal in that half of century. The French government realized that the novel represented the end of romanticism and the advent of reality of life in the provinces. Emma was no longer satisfied with her quaint life and wanted to experiment with her passions. The French State prosecutor banned “Madame Bovary”, “Les Fleurs du Mal” by Baudelaire, and “Mysteres du People” by Eugene Sue.  In 2007, a poll survey of the Anglo-Americans showed that “Madame Bovary” came second after “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy.

            In 1863, the theologian Ernest Renan published “Life of Jesus”; it reconstructed the life of Jesus devoid of divine nature. It was an instant scandal and the manuscript was re-published 24 times before the end of 1864.  Renan was excommunicated after his death!

James Joyce published in 1918 “Ulysses”; it was an epic poem that recounts the peregrination of an Irish man, Leopold Bloom, in Dublin between 8 a.m. and 3 a.m.  One episode “Nausicaa” brought hell fire of censure from every corner.  Leopold courted a girl swimming nude during fire work and their orgasm coincided with the explosion of the “bouquet” of the fire work. The book “Ulysses” was persecuted by successive court orders for over ten years.

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by David H. Lawrence was published in 1928.  It disturbed the social order of class structure because an aristocratic lady deigned to become in love of her employee.  Even thirty-two years later, Britain would prosecute an Italian version.

“Tropics of Cancer” by Henry Miller was published in 1934 in Paris. It is about the personal sexual adventures of the author in minute details. For over 30 years no US publishers would dare touch this manuscript for “obscenity”. Miller’s “Sexus” was even banned in France between the years 1950 to 1964.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine published “Bagatelles pour un massacre”in 1937.  It was labeled hostile to Jews.  It enjoyed many editions during Nazi occupation of France but was never re-edited after 1945 on the ground that his widowed, Lucette Destouches, the sole owner of rights, wanted to respect the author’s wishes!  Celine had published the famous “Voyage au bout de la nuit”.

Nikos Kazantzakis published in Athens “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1954. It relates a dream that Christ had while crucified of how it would have been his life among his wife and children. Christ would wake up from the dream and then He shouted “Everything is accomplished”.  It was 34 years later when projected as a movie by Martin Scorsese that all hell broke loose; movie theaters were attacked and burned; 14 of movie watchers were injured.

Christian Bourgois was declined by 13 editors before his first novel “L’Epi Monstre” is published in 1961; Christian has 21 years of age and that wrote the manuscript in 10 days. Christian was a nurse with the French army during the Algerian Revolution.  The story is about a communist widower who had incestuous relations with his two girls; one commits suicide and the other is killed by her father. The ban will be lifted in 2002.  Bougois published “Jeanne la Pudeur” and was also banned

Vassili Grossman (1905-1964) wrote “Life and Destiny”; he was a reporter for the Bolshevik daily “The Red Star” during the Second World War and witnessed the horrors of the war and detention centers. Vassili took precautions to leaving two microfilms of his manuscript with Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Dimitrijevic.  The KGB had confiscated the manuscript, the carbon copy, and the typewriter ribbons.  “Life and Destiny” was published in 1980; it is in the genre of “War and Peace” of 800 pages that uncovers the resemblance of totalitarianism, the rejection of to all kinds of submissions, and the communication with “little people”.  It demonstrates the tyranny of the “Good” and how it can become an epidemic worst than “Evil”

“The Archipelago of Gulag” by Alexander Soljenitsyne was published in 1973 in Paris; it is a vast essay of literary investigation into concentration camps and testimonies of 227 detainees (zeks).  Soljenitsyne was expulsed from the Soviet Union and he wrote the next two volumes in the USA; he received the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1970 and then was received with full honor in Russia in 1994.  The manuscript was published in Russia in 1989.

During Nazi Germany occupation of France 714,000 books were burned in Paris.  The list of banned manuscripts started with 1060 and it kept climbing as Germany invaded Russia and then the US entered war.

Vladimir Nabokov published “Lolita” in 1955 in Paris for fear of being banned in the USA.  The manuscript had to wait until 1958 to be allowed to circulate in libraries. The story did not contain any pornographic descriptions and was recounted in Oxfordian exactitude about the love of a professor to his adoptive child after murdering her mother.

Before the latest wave of outcries for child molesting Tony Duvert published “Paysage de Fantaisie” in 1973 about his experience and inclinations for young boys and received the Medicis Prize for it.  Olivier Petre-Grenouilleau published “Traites Negrieres” where he claims that the Moslem’s Slave trades in Africa far outnumbered the European trade; he did the unpardonable commentary when he discriminated the suffering of the Jews during Nazi Germany and the suffering of the slaves.  In 2008, Sylvain Gouguenheim published “Aristote au mont Saint-Michel” where his researched led him to clarify that Aristotle’s philosophy was accepted in Europe as the Arab translated it; 56 philosophers and historians signed a petition proclaiming that the manuscript is not scientific.


adonis49

adonis49

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