Doug Bruns

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Would Nabokov think you a “good” reader?

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.'”

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

My sophomore year in college found me in a comparative literature class. I didn’t know what comparative literature was, but it sounded up my alley. My introduction to the discipline was ill-fated, learning quickly that the serious student was the one reading the texts in the original language. That makes sense. I was fated with the knowledge that with my genetic indifference to languages not womb-embedded, I would be better served building on my tenuous hold of the known, and forsake aspirations foreign. The course, however, instilled in me a keen interest in world literature that continues to this day. For that I am grateful.

The comp-lit class was taught by an associate professor. He was young and enthusiastic and brimming with energy. It did not take him long to introduce us to Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the reclusive writer, whom our young professor had once interviewed in Montreux, Switzerland, where the master was spending his autumnal days. I did not know of this Nabokov, but my curiosity was aroused. I soon consumed all things Nabokovian.

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A half-dozen years later Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature. The writer had, for nearly twenty years, flexed his substantial literary muscle in the classroom, first at Wellesley then Cornell–and here were his lectures. According to Lectures, this is how “the course” opens:

“With a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build the castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

With that, Nabokov launches into his lectures. One former student of the course, Ross Wetzsteon, recalls Nabokov the teacher advising, “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details.'”

Here is the syllabus:

I’ve read several of these books with Nabokov’s notes at my elbow. It is not unlike, I bet, sitting in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma.

Let me share with you an extended passage by the master from the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers:

“One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz–ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.”

Nabokov’s approach was sailing against the winds of the popular literary criticism movement of the time, deconstructionism. We won’t wade into that pool here, but suffice it to

Nabokov's notes on Kafka, with bug.

Nabokov’s notes on Kafka, with bug.

say, his approach to literature was not de jour–but it was lasting, thankfully. A quick perusal of Lectures on Literature reveals one major tenant of Nabokov’s appreciation and understanding of literature: the visual. He teaches to sketch major ideas. Draw Kafka’s bug, or map Leopold Bloom‘s perambulations through Dublin.

Nabokov's copy of Madam Bovary

Nabokov’s copy of Madam Bovary

Also, read with a writing instrument. And use it:

I’ll leave you with this thought, also from the introduction:

“Incidentally, I used the word ‘reader’ very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot ‘read’ a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why…”

I think, with that, I will be obnoxious and make you seek out the master’s answer as to why a good reader is a rereader.

I only wish he had taught Moby Dick. Class dismissed.

Thanks for reading,

d

And the Winner Is…

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 16, 2013 at 6:00 am
Nobel Prize Medal

Nobel Prize Medal

Nothing underscores the paucity of being monolingual like walking into a bookstore in a foreign country.  “To have another language is to possess a second soul,” proclaimed Goethe. In this instance, I was in France and the bookstore had a small table stacked with English titles. I walked out with Blindness by José Saramago. I was not familiar with the title, nor did I know anything of Saramago–except this: he was a Nobel laureate in Literature. I only knew this because the book sported a marketing emblem declaring it so. If you were to ask me the five best books I’ve ever read, Blindness would be on the list. I’m not sure what the other four would be. The point being, not every book written by a Nobel winner is going to be good, let alone great. But if good literature is your thing, you’ve probably stacked the odds in your favor by selecting one of these authors.

With that in mind, I thought you might be interested the “alumni association” of Nobel winners in literature. Be aware, the list is not without controversy. For instance, three of the greatest writers of the twentieth century didn’t get the nod from Stockholm: Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov.

Here is the list of the more fortunate:

2012 ~ Mo Ya

2006 ~ Orhan Pamuk
2002 ~ Imre Kertész
2000 ~ Gao Xingjian
1999 ~ Günter Grass
1997 ~ Dario Fo
1995 ~ Seamus Heaney
1994 ~ Kenzaburo Oe
1993 ~ Toni Morrison
1992 ~ Derek Walcott
1990 ~ Octavio Paz
1986 ~ Wole Soyinka
1985 ~ Claude Simon
1981 ~ Elias Canetti
1976 ~ Saul Bellow
1973 ~ Patrick White
1971 ~ Pablo Neruda
1961 ~ Ivo Andric
1957 ~ Albert Camus
1946 ~ Hermann Hesse
1943 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1942 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1941 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1940 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1938 ~ Pearl Buck
1935 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1929 ~ Thomas Mann
1928 ~ Sigrid Undset
1927 ~ Henri Bergson
1918 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1914 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
If you think great literature will earn you place in the pantheon of the immortals, think again. How many of these names are already lost to history?

In the Beginning was the Word

In Books, Creativity, Music, Writers, Writing on January 8, 2013 at 6:00 am

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Since we seem to be leaning toward the literary of late, I thought I would share a piece I wrote a very long time ago, twenty-one years to be precise. It was published in the Baltimore Sun, March 25, 1992. (Hey, it’s my blog, as I auto-plagiarize as I see fit.)

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Words are all we have ~ Samuel Beckett

The mechanics of reading follow roughly along these lines: The cones and rods of the eye are struck by photons of light reflected off the words on the page. This activity, transmitted by way of the optic nerve, is received as a hail of electrical blips somewhere in the lobes of the brain. A neural string of cells explodes, registering and triggering a response. Somehow, understanding, or cognition, results.

That, of course, is an approximate rendering of the process. Very little about it is actually understood.

The event that set me thinking along these lines occurred over a leisurely breakfast recently. It was one of those rare mornings when the children were quietly occupied elsewhere and the coffee in my cup was still warm. My wife sat reading across from me. I heard a sniffle, and, not moving my head, I looked up to see a tear rolling down her cheek. In a moment she was up and searching for a tissue, while I sat pondering the silent triggering of a tear duct.

My wife was reading the popular autobiography of Lewis Puller, Jr., “Fortunate Son.” Puller returned home from Vietnam without his legs, his buttocks, and parts of both hands. That’s enough to make one cry. But his account does more than simply rouse the reader to sympathy. It is artistic beyond imagery. Puller’s voice is both lyrical and humane, a voice speaking to what is best in us all, and to what is not best. That is why my wife cried. That is one of the things good writing does; it affects us.

Music can be just as potent. It is said the young Beethoven could easily discern what it would take to reduce his parlor audience to tears and then proceed to do just that. Afterward, he would mock those in the audience, calling them spoiled children and fools. I suspect he found their response to his music superficial, working as he did at a level of unfathomable artistic understanding.

Later, the Romantics exploited music’s emotive quality. One critic stopped calling it music altogether. It is all emotion now, he claimed.

The written word, however, is more directly related to the intellectual process of the human species than is music. Most of us do not think in musical terms. We think in words. (Fine musicians do both, I am told.) Most of us think in a type of linear verbal progression, almost from left to right. Stop reading this now and try to think in any other way.

It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.

Historically, civilizations arose when organized knowledge encountered adequate methods of writing. This first occurred in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, where business transactions required documentation. Archaeology has discovered the records of ancient traders, but it not the stuff that stirs the emotions or provokes the intellect. I have heard it debated among reasonable and educated adults that civilization, by definition, is not civilization until the poets arrive.

In the beginning was the Word. Scholars debate the intent of the gospel writer in this passage and wonder over the influences at work here. But I venture that the poets understand the meaning. Any of us alive enough as to be provoked by the written word knows the wonderful and mysterious tapestry that is one human spirit alighting on another. That is the core of the artistic experience and is the beginning of everything we value about ourselves as humans. It is rejuvenating to think that with the word we ceased being beasts and became human.

Ernest Hemingway, in a cogent moment, observed that long after the temples have decayed, the written word will survive, even flourish. This is not the word of the daily transaction. He was referring to the word that sparks the neural cells and makes one rise in search of a tissue, the word that sends the telltale tingle down the spine, as Vladimir Nabokov noted.

It would be a shame if the biologists were ever to explain the process.

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Thanks for reading and take care,

D

On writing

In Creativity, Reading, Writers, Writing on June 4, 2012 at 6:00 am
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Writing, old school.

There are some very popular–and quite good–blogs out there for writers. Dispensing advice to writers is one of those popular themes that help make a blog successful. I mentioned the advantage of this approach recently (see Blog as metaphore), the value of being an expert and sticking close to your expertise.

On writing specifically, I gather from the popularity of these blogs that there are a lot of aspiring writers seeking help and advice. I would probably be well served to better study some of this stuff. But, truth is, I don’t much like reading about writing. I like to read good writing, but don’t have patience to read about the craft of it. I suspect at work is the same distrust I hold toward the MFA degree. There too, I know I would benefit, but am more inclined to go it alone. That should come as no surprise.

A couple of years ago, with time on my hands, I considered taking the MFA. I went to a well-known school and attended a graduate seminar. Within minutes I knew I would not be able to sit the next two years listening to students read their works in progress. It was not a bad experience, and was likely quite beneficial for those participating. I simply would rather be home reading Nabokov or Cheever.

Reading about writing is like reading about sex rather than having sex. It’s okay, I guess, but why bother?

Yet, here I am writing about writing…

I recognize good writing when I see it. And when I see it I long to be a better writer. That is my school of writing.

A writer I greatly respect, Jim Harrison, said to a writer friend not long ago, “Just concentrate on the writing. That’s all that matters.” I admire the elegance of that advice and keep it noted on a card at my desk.

Sometimes, as happened just yesterday, I pick up a book, read a word or two, realize inspiration, put the book down and start writing. This does not happen frequently, but when its does I recognize it and take advantage of it. It’s a cosmic gift. Most of the time, however, I simply sit down and go to work.

About four or five months ago, I upped the ante here at “…house…” and started posting everyday, six days a week. It is a yeoman’s task I set for myself and we will see how it turns out. I decided that since this blog has evolved into my major writing project, I would work at it everyday hard and with discipline. That is how one approaches the important things.

Carole has noted that this discipline carries with it a weight. I occasionally exhibit evidence of this burden. Somedays I worry and fret that I won’t have anything to write about tomorrow. She admonishes me. She reminds me that I’ve grown a nice little audience of readers here at “…the house….” Further, she points out that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. What more could I want? I know all this to be true. Yet, still…

There is value in being worried enough that you won’t be good enough to do the job well enough. And therein lies motivation.

I believe that summarizes my thoughts on writing.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate your support.

“Inspiration is for amateurs…”

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 2, 2012 at 6:20 am

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s the artist Chuck Close. I remembered this as I sat down to my computer, lifted my fingers over the keyboard and stared at the screen. After a bit I went over to Facebook, then scanned my RSS reader, came back to the blank screen, stood up, walked around some, looked out the window a while, sat back down and typed the Close quote.

I’m a creature of habit. I get up with the sun, drink my coffee, have breakfast, walk my dog, workout, read, have lunch, then I sit down for an afternoon of writing. I am usually at my desk by one o’clock and leave around four or five. Sometimes I get something of value, sometimes not. Regardless, I work. Mr. Close is a creative genius–and he works. I’m far from a creative genius so I must work that much the harder. After time, I’ve found, the work adds up and pays off. Put in the time and you will be rewarded. Wait for inspiration and you…wait. One hundred-fifty years before Chuck Close, Émile Zola said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

I am fascinated by lives slouching toward the creative. I want to know who did the work and how it was done. I turn to biography, autobiography and memoir when in this mood.

I’ve pulled a few books off my shelves, books that represent some of the creative lives I most admire. I thought you might enjoy some of the titles. For fun, I’ve included the first sentence to each. Here goes, in no specific order.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feyman, by James Gleick. “Nothing is certain.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. “I was born in San Francisco, California.” (Not an autobiography, nor a biography. That’s Gertrude Stein for you. Yet a wonderful look at the creative life.)

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann, “Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past, but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it. (This is the definitive biography–and perhaps the best example–next to Boswell, of course–of the art of the genre.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. “The figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein exerts a very special fascination that is not wholly explained by the enormous influence he has had on the development of philosophy this century.”

A Movable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.” (A memoir by which to measure all memoir. This is my favorite Hemingway.)

Diane Arbus, by Patricia Bosworth. “As a teenager Diane Arbus used to stand on the window ledge of her parents’ apartment at the San Remo, eleven stores above Central Park West.” (This biography depicts the most unsettling and frenetic portrait of creative genius I can recall reading.)

Off to the Side, by Jim Harrison. “Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrion in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskeon River.” (Harrison, my favorite living American writer.)

Self-Consciousness, memoirs by John Updike. “Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown up on the carrousel in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylavnia, searching for the meaning of my existence as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for pennies.” (That’s such a lovely first sentence, maybe a perfect sentence.)

Bruce Chatwin, a biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. “On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria.” (Chatwin casts a huge influence over me. I’ll write about him at a later date.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. “Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!’–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!’–to ‘the whole play and performance’.”

I’m not sure this constitutes “work” as Mr. Close meant it. But it must suffice for now.

First Sentences – II

In Books, Writers on July 31, 2010 at 11:05 am

“The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” ~ Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

“Suppose evil scientists removed your brain from your body while you slept, and set it up in a life-support system in a vat.” Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett

“Then there was the bad weather.” ~ A Movable Feast, Ernest Heminway

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” ~ Ulysses, James Joyce

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.” ~ The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” ~ Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” ~ All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

“Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indespensable to me to say who I am.” ~ Ecco Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche