Saturday, June 20, 2020

Filling out the thumpety-thump with Nabokov, Waugh, West, and Wang Wei, the last of the "read in May" pile - “It’s a heartbreaking game.”

Well into June, the last four books I read in May, quickly dispatched.

Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (1932), one of Nabokov’s Berlin crime novels, a nasty shocker.  It would be something of a parody of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) if the dates were reversed, so I suppose it is a parody of something else.  It has nothing Russian but plenty of interesting Berlin detail, including some German film industry scenes.  Some of the parallels to Lolita are interesting, too.

Still, this may be Nabokov’s most trivial novel, his simplest novel.  The prose and patterning seem simpler than usual.  Possibly I should blame the inexperienced translator, who may have simplified things.  It was his first translation.

In the evenings, there was dancing at the casino.  The sea looked paler than the flushed sky, and the lights of a passing steamer glowed festively.  A clumsy moth flapped round a rose-shaded lamp; and Albinus danced with Margot.  Her smoothly brushed head barely reached his shoulder. (Ch. 14, 116)

That moth, or its pal, visits the characters ninety pages later.


Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), a great American nightmare.  A newspaperman is having an existential crisis, a religious crisis.  The letters he gets for his advice column, full of real problems, are finally getting to him.  Maybe that’s it.  Here is some representative prose:

The  old man began to scream.  Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair.  (end of “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man”)

Here is more:

His caresses kept pace with the sermon.  When he had reached the end, he buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck.  (end of “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan”)

I should have read this ages ago, and what’s worse is that I knew it, and what’s even worse is that the book is only seventy pages long.  Maybe I’ll have more to say when I’ve read The Day of the Locust.


Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934), where the Bright Young People, a bit less young than in Vile Bodies (1930), meet Fate.  The passage, about halfway through, that interrupts the story and begins “Then this happened:” and ends “Everyone agreed that it was nobody’s fault,” is close to an attack on the usual functioning of the novel as a form.  Re-reading, the tragic accident turns out to be heavily foreshadowed, and I now see that one character, Mrs. Rattery, is a personification of Fate.  She literally falls from the sky and spends the aftermath of the tragedy playing cards, as in this curiously parenthesized paragraph:

(Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backward and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.)

She and Fate and the author overlap.  As she says a page later, folding up the cards, “It’s a heartbreaking game.”

A Handful of Dust is as grim as Jude the Obscure, but played for laughs.  If anyone wonders why or how I often find Hardy so funny, I point you toward Waugh.

All of those quotes are from the “Hard Cheese for Tony” chapter, parts 5 and 6.


Eliot Weinberger & Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987), the classic of comparative translation.  “Poetry is that which is worth translating” (p. 1).  A twenty character Tang Dynasty poem is presented as text, transliteration, and in nineteen versions in three languages, with Weinberger’s commentary and Paz’s commentary on the commentary, and on his own (two) translations.  Along the way, Weinberger writes a little history of 20th century translation practices.

As a critic, he is careful yet casual:  “Where Wang is specific, Bynner’s Wang seems to be watching the world through a haze of opium reflected in a hundred thimbles of wine” (11).  “Rexroth’s great skill is apparent in three tiny gestures” (23).  “The last line adds dark to fill out the thumpety-thump” (35).

Don’t miss the postscript, where Weinberger is credibly accused of “crimes against Chinese poetry” for his “curious neglect” of “Boodberg’s cedule.”


  1. Well, your comment about Waugh teaching you to find Hardy funny is certainly ... intriguing! Miss Lonelyhearts has been on my 'ought to read this some day' list for ages too. I have to say your samples do not tempt me to get to it any sooner.

  2. West is dark, darker than Waugh. A whole strain of later American black humor emerges in West.

    I was vague about the link between Jude and this particular Waugh novel, and I need to reread Hardy before saying too much, but Waugh completely, artistically, and ethically earns his tragedy, and I have doubts that Hardy does the same. That poor little boy in Handful, Waugh makes that kid real.

    What I just wrote is I guess the converse of "why Waugh makes Hardy funny." More directly, I think of Tess, where the narrator can't shut up about how Fate has it in for Tess. Look, buddy, you are Fate! Every bad thing that happens to Tess, you did it!

  3. i've got the Wei book and have read Wei's haiku quite a bit... he's got a special touch... his "finger pointing at the moon" extends a little further than other poets i've read...

  4. Now that's another book, 19 Ways, that I should have read a long time ago. It's just a pamphlet.

    Wang Wei is worth reading endlessly, perhaps even in some of these bad versions.

  5. Mahler allegedly adapted poems by Wang Wei and Meng Haoran for the sixth and final section of his Song of Earth.

    Wang Wei wrote this beautiful poem upon the death of his friend Meng Haoran (who was born and spent most of his life at Xiangyang near the Han river):

    Old friend, you've become invisible now.
    Your Han river flows forever into the East.
    Old man from Xiangyang please answer me,
    Penglai's rivers and hills, are they deserted still?

  6. Whose translation is that?

    I don't think I've ever read a book as such of Wang Wei, but rather the selections in anthologies. Rexroth, etc., etc.

  7. It's from the French version of Patrick Carré, Les Saisons bleues (l'oeuvre de Wang Wei poète et peintre), 1989, p. 221 "Vieil ami, tu es invisible./La Han infiniment se déverse à l'Orient...

    I took the liberty of replacing the reference to an obscure legendary location, Cai or Ts'ai island with another one that at least has an English Wikipedia page, Penglai island.

  8. Thanks, something to look for whenever I find myself in a French bookstore again.

  9. Now I'm especially glad I was finally able to order A Handful of Dust after multiple attempts -- Waugh seems to be a scarce commodity these days. I'm even more interested in reading it after what you write about Hardy, whom I kind of binge read before binge reading was a thing.

    I'm also surprised (at myself!) that I'd somehow never paid more attention to the Nabokov book; the title is familiar but I'd never really looked into it.

    I'll watch for news on The Day of the Locust, which I read years ago and barely remember other than it being dark...

  10. Boy, the current Waugh covers are ugly. And dull, Handful just shows a telephone.

    Jude, Handful, and Bend Sinister could stand as a trilogy of authorial cruelty to children. I developed my ideas about "Hardy"-the narrator and Fate in my posts about Tess, though. Some commenters said they had never noticed that Tess even had a narrator. The narrator is the funny part!

    If you read Laughter in the Dark in Russian, please let me know about the Proust parody passage. The translator simply omits it from the translation, the dirty rat! So it is juts a rumor to me.

  11. Laughter in the Dark (Camera Obscura in its original Russian publication) is intended to be cinematic, with lots of framing and characters linked to those in popular films; as Julian Connolly says in his excellent chapter on the book in the Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, Nabokov "exposes a larger failure of vision -- the failure to observe or examine the rich fabric of life itself." I enjoyed it when I read it in Russian years ago (I haven't read the translation), but Nabokov himself called it his poorest novel, so you're in good company.

    1. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it, Languagehat! It sounds (dare I say it?!) almost fun.

    2. Oh, it is! I recommend giving it a try. And if you read it in Russian, you get to laugh at the cartoon character Cheepy, which Nabokov cut out of the English version.

    3. I enjoyed it a lot, too. And people who subsist more on crime and mystery novels ought to like it. It is a cruel novel, but yes, fun.

      And yes, Cheepy is missing, too! The translator totally reworked a comic strip theme, turning it into an animation theme, or so says Boyd. The gall of that translator.

  12. Nabokov famously dismissed Don Quixote as an old, cruel book (while praising the character of Don Quixote himself: "His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant"), so seeing Nabokov himself being accused of writing a cruel book is kinda funny.

    Simon Leys on his essay on Don Quixote, The Imitation of our Lord Don Quixote, explains how naive readers (Nabokov, Unamuno and Henry de Montherlant included) don't understand how Don Quixote, the book, is immortal precisely because Cervantes stands outside of his book, like God outside of his creation, and allows that noblest of characters, Don Quixote (according to Dostoyevsky there were in all of literature there were only two beautiful characters: Jesus and Don Quixote), to suffer all kinds of indignities like almost all of us will suffer during our lives: "[what irks readers like Nabokov and Montherlant the most, what they] could not forgive Cervantes for —was that, through the entire book, not once does the author express one word of compassion for his hero, or one word of blame for the vulgar bullies who relentlessly mock and persecute him.

    Flaubert (who, by the way, worshipped Don Quixote, as did Faulkner) said that a great writer should stand in his novel like God in his creation. He created everything and yet is nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. He is everywhere and yet invisible, silent, seemingly absent and indifferent. We curse him for his silence and his indifference, which we take as evidence of his cruelty."

  13. Nabokov's great subject is cruelty. Maybe Leys is the naive reader there. Nabokov set traps in his Lectures, traps for undergraduates of his time. I wonder if Leys had read Pnin, where the narrator, "Vladimir Nabokov," is himself the vulgar bully who etc.

  14. That's a very good point you raise AR(T). I didn't do justice to Leys, whose essay's main point is not to disparage Unamuno or Nabokov, nor is it to defend Don Quixote, neither the character nor the book, not even to praise Cervantes (he calls Cervantes a played out old hack at the end of his rope), but Cervantes' method of writing novels by keeping the author outside of the novel's incidents and letting the readers see the characters' unassuaged suffering.

    And that is a valid point, too. Unamuno, Montherlant and Nabokov are active dei ex machina inside their own fictions. A few examples, in Niebla, the main character appeals personally to Unamuno to please not kill him. Nabokov looks away just before Krug is killed (Bend Sinister), allows HH to die in the middle of a beautiful sentence while enraptured (Lolita), sends the ghost of another character to guide the protagonist during his death in a fire (Transparent Things), gives another protagonist an icicled acronym to assuage his fear of death, and keeps sending squirrel angels to watch over Pnin, whose beloved little squirrel (Belochkina being the Russian affectionate diminutive for bielka/squirrel) has presumedly been turned into soap and shoes (vair/squirrel fur shoes which has been corrupted into verre/glass slippers in a certain children's tale whose name I do not care to remember).

    By the way, spoiler alert (but a watched plot never spoils, I've been told).

  15. Those don't spoil the flavor; they enhance it. Those are like that pink Himalayan salt. Tasty. I gotta read Niebla sometime.

    I was going to re-read the Leys essay, but that book is all the way upstairs, and it occurs to me that now I have to read it in French.