Disenchanted

I have a particular fondness for books about books and the experience of reading, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a genre that has steadily withstood the vagaries of the commercial market for non-fiction, especially in America. In the past week alone I’ve come across intriguing reviews for books written about the world of Narnia, and the genesis of Charlotte’s Web. A little while back I saw that a Harvard academic, Lila Azam Zanganeh had published a book about her love affair with Nabokov’s work, entitled The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, and enthusiastically, I secured myself a copy. I began it yesterday, full of expectations for this ‘creative biography’ only to realise within a few pages that I had stumbled on the worst book I’d read by far in 2011.

But these things are subjective, and never more so than with a book like this one. So I’ll try to do it justice (first). Zanganeh grew up an Iranian exile in Paris and then American. Never a keen reader, she nevertheless tackled the books of Nabokov that she knew her mother loved, and found the experience transformative. It took her four months with a dictionary by her side to get through one of Nabokov’s novels, but this slow process of reading brought her such satisfaction and fulfilment that she knew she would one day want to write about it. This book is not-quite biography, not-quite literary criticism and not-quite a memoir, but it has elements of all three. In her own words, it is the ‘record of an adventure’, that aims to evoke, not the straightforward details of a life, nor an interpretation of a great author’s work, but a whimsical, quirky account of the relationship between Nabokov and his doting fan.

In a style that aims to mimic Nabokov’s distinctive voice, Zanganeh gives us glimpses of the author’s life and work, adding her own commentary; there are lots of typographical tricks and unusual structures; she produces an imaginary interview with him, and riffs on some of his most significant principles, such as the Nabokovian notion of consciousness. She also creates an eccentric glossary of some of her favourite words, with her own definitions. At all times, Zanganeh seeks to unite her voice with Nabokov’s in an attempt at an unusual kind of harmony between reader and writer that is also an expression and account of the happiness his work may bring.

And now I’m going to stop being fair and just, so you may choose to look away.  The main problem lies in Zanganeh’s attempt to mimic Nabokov’s voice. I’ve only ever come across one writer able to overwrite his sentences outrageously and get away with it – and that’s Nabokov. There’s a distinction between enthusiasm and pure gush, between homage and pastiche, and Zanganeh’s hyperbolic sentences all too often fall on the wrong side of the dividing line. ‘Even in darkness, Nabokov tells us, things quiver with lambent beauty’, she writes, which sounds okay, but what does it mean?  How about this for a mouthful: ‘Time’s pale fire now wheeled the weight of the world, shedding light on the discreteness of things, cracking open the dormer window of consciousness.‘ The definitions she provides in the glossary are sometimes more baffling than the words. For ‘bliss’, we are given ‘A Batch of Lucid Images Sliding over Sibilants. Also, the thrill of seeing dark nebulae slowly turning into luciferous spheres.’

I could go on: ‘Bashfully yielding details of a world which emerges in a trail of ellipses’ and ‘Amid spinning planets, where nothing is impossible, and mad lovers are immortal, details are the only spell.’ Genuine poetic language is accurate and specific. Beauty is clarity. What this sounds like is the kind of first year essay I used to be given by students trying too hard.

‘Are you attempting to sound like the lectures you’re attending?’ I’d ask.

‘Well… yes,’ the student would reply.

‘Do you understand what the lecturers are saying?’

‘Well, no…’.

I would hand the essay back. ‘Then it can’t be a good idea to write like that, can it?’

There’s a further dimension to this verbal adulation of Nabokov that’s a tad disconcerting, and that’s the way the narrator of the story inserts herself in relation to him. There’s a big picture of Zanganeh on the back flap and she’s young and very beautiful. She describes how she read Lolitain my washed-out red bathing suit’, covering the pages with stains of suntan oil. She invites the reader to peep through a telescope, where ‘you’ll glimpse a reader sprawled in an armchair, legs stretched out on a hassock. When zooming in, you might also catch a besotted grin and twinkling brown eyes. Fancy ablaze, forefinger gliding on the page, it is none other than I, your narrator….. SHABANG! Your third-rate springy telescope folds right back with a snap and hits you in the nose.’ So yes, all this is getting a little too close to comfort by aligning the narrator with Humbert Humbert’s love interest. Whenever she describes ‘herself’ as the book goes along, the parts she refers to are relentlessly naked. In a fantasy sketch where she tries to hunt butterflies, the sun is on her ‘naked back’. In another fantasy she creeps out of the house to meet Nabokov, stepping ‘with naked soles on the freezing sun-mottled bricks.’ It’s all a bit icky, you know? It’s one thing to be an intrusive narrator, but this is going a tad too far. Male readers may of course get more benefit from it.

What I felt in the end, was that, although this was a book about being a devoted reader, it had very little concern for the actual readers of the book. We are cast as malleable audience, addressed sometimes as ‘you’ and hauled into the pages for some audience participation, whether we like it or not, or left to watch Nabokov and Zanganeh perform a dance of the veiled voices, marvelling at their brilliance and creativity. I liked the bits that were ordinarily biographical, where I was learning something about Nabokov’s life. But the rest of it left me cold. What, for instance, was the point she was making about happiness? I had no idea; it had something to do with lots of descriptions of light. I was annoyed; this is the kind of thing that gives literature a bad name as pretentious writing, as being up itself, as too clever for its own good.

But, as I say, all this is highly subjective, and I have tried to quote Zanganeh a lot so that you can see and judge for yourself. I’m sure some readers really like this sort of thing and good for them. I’m with Geoff Dyer, who suggests ‘don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov’. And I’ll conclude with Zanganeh’s thoughts on the matter:

 

One summer alive through a century.

 

(And as far as this reader is concerned, one moist-lilac morning of giddiness, in a room beyond the looking glass.)

 

At present again the world spins. It runs through my fingers. And quietly I cast my net.

 

 “Pure Time, Perceptual Time, Tangible Time, Time free of content, context and running commentary…”

 

 Nothing is forfeited in the radiant now.

 

A firefly pursuing darkness.

 

 A palm resting on a naked shoulder.

 

A single word making light of gravity.’

17 thoughts on “Disenchanted

  1. Much though I regret your torment, I almost wish you’d read more books you don’t like. There’s a fine art to elegant excoriation, and you’ve mastered it.

  2. This is disappointing news, as from the initial description of the book I’d be very interested in it, Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of my favorite books. It didn’t sound too bad until you got to the definition for ‘bliss’ and it was downhill from there. As much as I love intrusive narrators, a narrator casting herself as Lolita would freak me out quite a bit.

  3. Ah, what a shame – I’d heard this book being talked up quite enthusiastically somewhere and had vaguely planned to read it, but my plans have suddenly become a lot vaguer now! I think you’re a little hard on yourself when you say you’re “going to stop being fair and just” – this struck me as a scrupulously fair review, because you quote extensively from the author’s own words and explain exactly what you don’t like about it, while acknowledging that it may appeal to other people. Can’t say fairer than that. It’s never easy reviewing a book you dislike (I’ve found it a lot harder now that I’m a published author and know how personally I take every review!), but I thought you did a good job of it.

  4. Wow, this sounds utterly appalling – and those quotations are mind-boggling. But you’ve dissected it fairly… Since I’ve only read one short book by Nabakov (Mary) I don’t think this would have been for me anyway.

  5. Wouldn’t want too many people zooming in on my besotted grin while I’m stretched out naked on a…what was that…a hassock? And if one of my neighbors was brave enough to try it, he would surely see a sight that might ruin him forever…perhaps even stunt his growth…which would be much worse than getting smacked in the nose by a springy-sprongy telescope. Seriously.

  6. Oh yea! For once I come to your site and find a book that doesn’t sound like it’s at all up my alley. It sounds like the sort of gushing, fan-based writing I used to engage in when I was sixteen. Would hate to subject others to that and can’t imagine why a publisher would choose to do so, but, as you say, it’s all subjective, isn’t it? Some agent and then editor obviously liked it.

  7. Too bad this didn’t work for you but from the moment you wrote she imitated him I thought I wouldn’t like it either. Bah.
    If this had been goo I’m sure it would have made me think of Erik Orsenna’s lovely novel Deux étés, a novel about the man who translated Ada. Did you read it?

  8. I’ve been thinking lately, coincidentally, about what you wrote on one of your past posts, ‘creative non-fiction’, and now, ‘creative biography’? I recently finished reading and writing a review on Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. I have this question in my mind as I read the book, how much of it is true, how much is creative bio? To further confuse anyone seeking the answer, even Hemingway offered shifting views about truth and fiction.

    Another thing is the superfluous writing you’ve noted here, I wonder what Stein would have said about that, for she’d said to Hemingway: “Three sentences about the color of the sky. The sky is the sky and that’s all.” Interesting how diverse style can be, and can still attract admirers… it could all be purely subjective, as you said.

  9. David – oh you are very kind! Thank you. You should see my colleagues at Cambridge when they get started – I am a mere novice compared to them when it comes to evaluative disembowellment!

    iwriteinbooks – it IS hard, isn’t it? I find I have to be really careful which words I choose because it’s so easy to sound harsh, and after all, it is only my own response to the book.

    Miriam – I have Reading Lolita in Tehran to read (and have read bits of it, I confess!) and it looks wonderful and is not at all structured like this book. It was around about the chapter on definitions that I began skimming a little – something I hardly ever do! Ah well, there are several intriguing books about books around at the moment – better luck next time.

    Andrew – you know, that’s something I’m very aware of when writing this blog – the response of the author. Occasionally I’ve had authors leave comments on this site and it’s always a real thrill to me if I’ve written something that really highlights their own sense of what they were writing for and about. I don’t think anyone ever pours less than their heart and soul into a book, so I never like slamming them (and on the whole, I don’t agree with it as a practice – that excessive reaction says more about the reader than the book, I think). I’m very relieved if you think that this was fair as, alas, it’s the only book this year I’ve really disliked.

    Simon – and I will bet that as a grad student you have been forced to work your way through all sorts of eccentric, obscure and complex books, right? You have to have a bit of resilience when it comes to elaborate stylists! So you can see that this is quite something. I haven’t read Mary by Nabokov, although I have it in that penguin collection of mini-books. Nabokov I’m still interested in, but by the sounds of it, I think you’d like the book about Charlotte’s Web (by Michael Sims) a lot better. Or the Narnia one (by Laura Miller).

    Grad – lol! I swear you are doing yourself a severe disservice, but your comment did make me laugh! I look like a chicken wing in a bikini, so nope, not going to invite readers to witness that, either!

    Richard – this was an equally hilarious comment. Thank you for the laugh!

    Emily – lol, yes! It is real fan girl stuff, with a sort of superficial veneer of literary profundity. It comes with puffs from Salman Rushdie, no less, and Orhan Pamuk, so clearly there are people out there who think this is real literature. Well, I won’t argue, but if you want me, I’ll be in the aisle with Colette and Willa Cather….

    Caroline – what a coincidence! Just yesterday I was sent for review a novel by Eric Orsenna, The Indies Enterprise. It looks great and I am very impressed by the publisher, http://www.hauspublishing.com/ who look most intriguing. I’m really looking forward to reading it, even more so now I know you like him.

    Arti – As you know, I am generally a fan of creative non-fiction and think it’s got masses of potential. But when I look back over the books I’ve enjoyed, I find I do like to have some borderlines pointed out to me between what’s real and what’s creative. I especially like it when the books are self-aware about that precise difference and explore it – Janet Malcolm, for instance, is brilliant at this and I find it immensely satisfying. But essentially what bothered me about the book was its style. I’m not quite such a purist as Stein, but I don’t like writing that isn’t accurate and precise. I think the author was being true to Nabokov’s belief that style is the all important factor in a book – he disliked books of ideas. But if you have a good idea, at least there’s something to grip even the most ambivalent reader.

  10. I’m afraid my recent review of Pale Fire was a bit gushy (including metaphors about spinning!) but may not have gone this far! Oh, and you’ll like Erik Orsenna. I teach one of his gentler books to my conversation class.

  11. Oh, dear — I have a copy of these book, and I want to give it a try one day, but it does sound like exactly the kind of writing I don’t like at all. I heard an interview with her that was interesting in parts, but also vague in others, where I didn’t quite feel I was grasping her point. I was worried that her book might be similar, and I’m afraid it is. But I will still try it!

  12. She’s not an “academic.” She was “a teaching assistant” at Harvard but keeps writing in her bio that she taught “literature, cinema, and Romance languages at Harvard University,” making it sound as though she were a professor. So pretentious.

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