Posts Tagged ‘Pale Fire’
(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.)
The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. These promises don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that gracefully deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with a sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, which I finished last year after failing to get through it for more than a decade, comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re willing to read it on its own terms.
Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.
A physical book is a wonderful object, but one of its less appreciated features is the fact that you can easily turn pages in both directions. Most works of narrative art unfold in a fixed fashion—unless you pause and rewind, you can’t go back to an earlier scene of a television show or movie to clarify a point you missed, and you’re even more stuck if you’re watching a play—but printed books, while superficially linear, give you easy access to every page at once. In theory, so do electronic editions, but in practice, they’re less accessible than they seem, especially if, like me, you tend to remember where you read something earlier based on its physical location, and spend a minute or two scanning the bottom of every page on the left until you find the part you remember. Kindle books are great for a lot of things, but they aren’t especially good for skimming, and there’s something particularly satisfying about going back in a book to reread an earlier section while holding your current place with a finger.
Books weren’t always like this: the earliest extended works on parchment or papyrus were scrolls, which made it a little more difficult to skip back to the beginning. And the tangible properties of a conveniently bound volume are what make certain kinds of storytelling possible. When reading Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. According to a New Yorker profile of the late author, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, suggested that readers might find footnotes less cumbersome, but Wallace was adamant, saying that endnotes would “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.”
Well, it is cute, but it also works: the notes exist as a kind of parallel but separate entity, discursive and digressive, in a way that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Wallace has put them at the bottom of the page, as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine. They also make the notion of the novel’s “end” deliberately unclear. And I don’t think it would have the same impact in electronic form, with each note provided with a convenient link: much of the meaning of Wallace’s notes comes from the act of departure, in which we temporarily escape from the main continent of the text to visit a nearby peninsula. Similarly, books like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially demand constant nonlinear navigation through the text, would lose much of their power on Kindle. We’re so used to moving from one link to another online that any structural novelty the books possess would disappear, or be rendered invisible, if they were read on a tablet or screen.
In fact, it’s these weird, nonlinear antibooks that paradoxically make the strongest case for books as a physical medium. These stories push deliberately against the constraints of their form, but that doesn’t mean they want to be liberated: they gain their significance from the act of turning pages back and forth. And there’s a related point here that needs to be stressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of the book, and of how novels and stories can fully utilize the act of reading online. But all of our great novels are hypertexts already. As far back as Dante, you had an author who was hoping to be read both vertically and horizontally—each canto in The Divine Comedy has thematic parallels with the canto of the same number in the two other sections—and any reader of Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow ends up confronting every part of the text in relation to any other. Which implies, at least to me, that the true future of the electronic novel is one that pushes the other way: toward an unnatural linearity that removes the possibility of going back. Of course, I have no idea how this would look. But it’s exciting to think about.
A good book is like a journey, for the reader as well as the writer, and some journeys take longer than others: I just made it to the end of one that took me fifteen years to complete. This book is Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, but before I talk about it here, I need to explain why I find novels like this so fascinating. According to the Norwegian scholar Espen J. Aareseth, there are two kinds of literature: ergodic, which places nontrivial demands on the reader in assembling or traversing the text, and nonergodic, which asks nothing more of the reader than “eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.” Aarseth defines the former term rather narrowly, but for me, it refers to books that constantly remind you of your process as a reader, often by forcing you to regularly turn pages in both directions. And not surprisingly, such works tend to cast a certain spell over compulsive readers who may not be able to finish them, including me.
As a result, I’ve always been drawn to this sort of story, perhaps because my own fiction is so relentlessly linear. The trouble is that such novels often promise more than they’re finally able to deliver, once all the pieces have been put into place. House of Leaves, for instance, does a terrifying job of hinting at some unspeakable horror lying in wait for readers who can make it all the way through—it’s the only book of the past decade that gave me nightmares—but it ultimately disintegrates before our eyes. Cloud Atlas, as I’ve noted before, is a brilliant piece of writing and imagination, but it finally comes off as a set of nested novelettes with only occasional stabs at larger meaning. Until recently, the only ergodic novel I’d read that really lived up to its promise was Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which does exactly what such a novel ought to do: implicate the reader, inextricably, in the process of its own creation, until it seems less like a book than a place we’ve gone to visit and can never quite escape.
Which brings me to Dictionary of the Khazars. I bought this novel by the Serbian poet Milorad Pavic more than fifteen years ago, intrigued both by its design, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a novel, and its unique structure: it’s arranged as a dictionary, or rather three parallel dictionaries, the entries of which can be read in any order, either by following cross-references or simply browsing at random. In the years that followed, I often leafed through the book, to the point where I know certain entries extremely well, but never read more than a third of the material, mostly because it was hard to keep track of how much I had remaining. And while I never forgot it, I don’t think I would have finished it if I hadn’t recently become interested in the historical Khazars themselves, as part of the novel I’m currently trying to write. On a whim, then, along with the more factual sources I was reading, I decided to give Pavic another try, on the off chance he could provide me with some useful ideas.
And what I discovered, much to my astonishment, is that this is one of the few novels of its kind that really lives up to its promise. Dictionary of the Khazars constantly hints at a greater pattern that will be visible to readers who finish the entire book, and amazingly enough, it delivers—when you’ve read the last few pages, the full picture locks into place, and the effect is shattering and unforgettable. The result makes House of Leaves or Cloud Atlas seem half-baked by comparison, and the difference is less one of inspiration than of pure craft: Pavic, who died several years ago, is just as inventive and fanciful as his ergodic peers, but if the book’s individual entries reflect a maddening poetic imagination, its overall structure is ruthlessly logical. (Note that the order of the entries isn’t entirely random: at least one crucial entry and the book’s second appendix aren’t cross-referenced anywhere else, which subtly ensures that the reader will approach them last.) It’s nothing less than one of the best modern novels I’ve read in a long time. And it only took me fifteen years to get here.
For any writer who has ever despaired over finding just the right title for a novel or story, take heart: even the very best authors can’t figure it out. Borges, for one, likes to point out that the titles of nearly all the world’s great books are pretty bad:
Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.
From among my own favorites, I need only mention In Search of Lost Time—the greatest novel ever written, as well as perhaps the most embarrassing title—and any of Updike’s Rabbit or Bech books. (Rabbit Redux may be the ugliest title I’ve ever seen, although there are plenty of competitors, including Bech: A Book.) There are, of course, exceptions: Gravity’s Rainbow is hard to beat for a title that is beautiful, relevant, and evocative. Other good ones: Pale Fire, House of Leaves, The Name of the Rose (which the author cheerfully admits was meant to be meaningless). But in general, it’s safe to say that most great books have terrible titles.
I’m not even that fond of my own titles, possibly because I’ve spent way too much time staring at them on the first pages of recalcitrant Word documents. Kamera was never called anything else, even before I had a plot, although it was initially spelled Camera, inspired in part by an R.E.M. song. (The alternative spelling is the result of a complicated triple pun that I can’t explain without spoiling a plot point.) By contrast, Midrash, the tentative title of my second novel, took me forever to come up with, and may still end up being changed. (If the title seems cryptic now, consider yourself lucky: I originally wanted to call the novel Merkabah, which almost gave my agent a heart attack.)
As you can see, I’m fond of cryptic one-word titles, although I’m aware that they don’t necessarily sell the novel. (In any case, I’m not sure if any title can really “sell” a novel at all—unless we’re talking about something like The Nanny Diaries.) The best titles, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t advertisements for the book so much as cryptograms, coded messages on which the reader is invited to project his or her own interpretations. The more opaque, or even meaningless, the better. Which may be why my own favorite title for any novel is The Information, by Martin Amis, which is about as cryptic as it gets. (Too bad the novel itself isn’t very good. But perhaps that was inevitable.)
The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.
First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)
And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.
Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:
Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.
On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:
Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.
And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:
Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.
The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)
And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:
So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.