Friday, January 28, 2011

Doctors are the same as lawyers; the only difference is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and kill you too.

'Lest We Forget' on July 22, 1939. Ummm, did anything else happen around that time? St Johns Park, New Town. February 2010.

Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov is one of the master’s late works. It is ostensibly the tale of an odd American, and the memory of his four trips to a small village in Switzerland over the course of his life. The narrative provides an opportunity for reflection on this fellow’s turbulent life. Moreover, it affords the author the occasion to demonstrate a little literary flourish and walk the reader through themes of time, love, authorship, and the metaphysics of memory.

As such, it can be a little hard going. There’s a vivid description of the struggle our protagonist has in climbing up part of a mountain (to reach a ski lift). It very much resembles the task of grasping Nabokov’s thematic exertions. It’s a well constructed piece, but a little too clever by half. Although characterisation is one of the author’s great strengths, the experimental ingenuity on display robs the novel of the necessary warmth to keep us hooked.

One of the joys of reading – contrasted with some of the more passive forms of entertainment – is the reward for effort. One of Nabokov's greatest strengths is the multilayered nature of his novels, which expands the opportunity for reader to take more away from a novel than most. For me, the problem with Transparent Things – and I am certain that this is deliberate – is that what is in essence a very remarkable but simple story, is clouded by layer upon layer of stylistic tricks .

In this sense, the novel is more about what we can’t (or aren’t allowed to) see. The author has control, lets us know it, and never really lets up. Because of this, we’re unable to identify or connect with any of the characters. Ultimately, reading becomes more a cerebral exercise than a pleasure. That’s fine by me, but it didn’t quite ‘click’ for me.

Keep it in mind if you fancy a challenge.

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, presents the tale of an aging (but great) author confronting what he posits as the duality of life: logic and reason versus passion. The object (note, not subject) that provokes this philosophical tension is a beautiful young boy whom the great author falls in love with.

The intention then, is to construct an exploration of the conflict between the god of reason, Apollo, and the god of unreason, Dionysus. Therein lies the greatest challenge of this book, the unceasing – and casual – reference to Classical mythology.

However, don’t let it put you off. Instead, see it as an opportunity to learn.

The protagonist has dedicated his life to Apollo, the god of reason and the intellect, In doing so, he has denied the power of Dionysus, the god of unreason (passion). Essentially, he has led a life of suppression and repression. The obsession with a love that can never be fulfilled, the trip to Venice is essentially one of destruction.

This may well seem very much like spoiler-material, but both title and every page of the story ‘gives the game away’. As such, it is at once an incredibly painful and fulfilling read. Check it out.


me said...

i have tried on a number of occasions to read Death in Venice. Never really managed to get far into it, it's a fairly dense read. I'll get there some day.

On another note, I did walk past Thomas Mann's house in Luebeck three or four times without realising...

Kris said...

Me, it sparks up once the boy arrives. The constant recourse to mythology can get a little tiresome, but in the context of the character and the time, it makes sense. It also is illustrative of where having one’s ‘head in the clouds’ (amongst other places) might get you!