Unspeakability

John Lanchester

  • The Magician’s Doubts by Michael Wood
    Chatto, 252 pp, £18.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6197 3

Musing over Don Juan, Byron asked his banker and agent Douglas Kinnaird a rhetorical question: ‘Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world? – and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis à vis? – on a table – and under it?’

Byron was onto something. He was intuiting that his most important character – the one chiefly responsible for his pan-European fame, a celebrity probably unrivalled by that of any other poet before or since – was neither the dark Childe Harold, nor the sexy Don Juan, but their even darker, even sexier author. The Hellespont-swimming, freedom-fighting, countess-shagging Byron, hurtling around Europe with contrails of scandal streaming in his wake, was a more Byronic character than any he had created on the page. This personality, perceived by the reader in and through Byron’s fictions, is still the most appealing thing about his work. It’s hard, in reading him, not to feel your attention wandering from the puppets to the puppeteer; from Childe Harold and Don Juan to the unmatchedly lively letters and journals, the funniest and most consistently readable extended self-portrait in the English language.

Byron’s case, however, is exceptional. Perhaps no other project of authorial self-invention has been as successful – though there is a paradox here, because these self-inventions are often undertaken in response to a degree of external success. Fame seems to bring with it an increased sense of exposure, which in turn induces a hardening of the carapace that protects the writer from the world. Traits coarsen and characteristics are exaggerated; the writer turns into a second-rate figment of his own imagination, as much the victim of himself as a mad scientist in a horror movie. This is the process that turned Hemingway into the ‘arrogant, belligerent and boastful’ caricature whom Edmund Wilson believed to be ‘certainly the worst-invented character to be found in the author’s work’; it is the process that turned Evelyn Waugh into Gilbert Pinfold. Though of course, the transformation is never complete, and never succeeds in fully abolishing the old, vestigial, shyer and more likeable self – if it did, it would be less painful. (Gilbert Pinfold could not have written The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Discuss.)

With most writers who are, in that sense, ‘characters’, the case is less extreme; the constructed self is neither an outright disaster, nor is it the most interesting thing about the writer in question. Often, though, this invented self is a problem. Michael Wood’s oustandingly brilliant new book is in part a corrective to the public persona adopted by his subject. Wood calls this persona ‘Nabokov the mandarin’, and robustly describes it as ‘a set ... of attitudes, prejudices, habits, remarks, performances which is highly visibly, highly stylised, and has almost nothing to do with the writing I admire’. This is the Nabokov we encounter most often in the collection of bits and pieces Strong Opinions, and also here and there in his lectures, interviews and edition of Eugene Onegin; the Nabokov who wrote that Dostoevsky was ‘a much overrated, sentimental and gothic novelist’, or who described Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin as a ‘silly’ opera, or who unconvincingly hung so much political and aesthetic disdain on the idea of poshlost or kitsch; the Nabokov who boasted that ‘the twinkle in the author’s eye as he notes the imbecile drooping of a murderer’s under-lip, or watches the stumpy forefinger of a professional tyrant exploring a profitable nostril in the solitude of his sumptuous bedroom, this twinkle is what punishes your man more surely than the pistol of a tiptoeing conspirator.’ This is the Nabokov we recognise in the descriptions of Nabokophobe critics; a writer who could seem in love with his own cleverness, whose critical manner affects ‘a patiently patrician calm’, with a ‘coolness’ which ‘can easily become the condescending heartlessness which so attenuates [his] fiction’ (Christopher Ricks); who is ‘rich in what is given to few writers and poor in what is given to most men’ (D.J. Enright). We may sneakily feel it appropriate that Nabokov the mandarin spent the last two decades of his life in a hotel suite in Montreux – after all, this lofty, cold, smug, politically neutral figure is himself a kind of one-man Switzerland.

The trouble with this image of Nabokov is that it is a travesty, both of the oeuvre and of the life. Brian Boyd’s two-volume biography established a convincing (or, indeed, irrefutable) case for Nabokov the man, and made his story seem almost dismayingly exemplary; I can’t offhand remember a single incident from which Nabokov comes out badly, once we discount a certain permissible thin-skinnedness and a single extra-marital affair. (Edmund Wilson, by contrast, doesn’t emerge at all well. There’s an especially unattractive moment of game-playing when, some time after an elated, panicking Nabokov had sent him the newly-finished Lolita, Wilson rang at 11 p.m. in order to ask Nabokov to identify a moth he had found – and didn’t say a word about the novel.) Wood’s book does a comparable job on Nabokov’s work, separating Nabokov the mandarin from Nabokov the writer, and then reading the books with a thrilling combination of close attention and broad reference. Here, for instance, is Wood on the moment near the end of Lolita when the now-older Lolita is begged to come away by a desperate Humbert, and she says: ‘No, honey, no.’

Humbert reflects: ‘She had never called me honey before.’ She couldn’t call him honey because she didn’t think of him fondly enough or casually enough: banality was outlawed from their life, which was only romance and torture (for him), drudgery and quarantine (for her). For a moment Humbert seems to glimpse the attraction of the acceptable, of the way other people daily talk and live – the realm of shared feeling which inhabits cliché, and which cliché serves. Of course he can only recognise the feeling because he is excluded from it, but the recognition is something, since it matters that even this tiny and perfunctory brand of tenderness was missing from his relation with Lolita. Missing on both sides, we might add, in spite of Humbert’s liking for tenderness as a word; as kindness is often missing from romantic love.

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