Sunday, June 08, 2008

"The past makes noble fuel."

{Photo by rocketlass of my brother trying to light the world's lousiest grill. He failed.}

Vladimir Nabokov
is an author whom one should quote reluctantly and carefully in support of a point one is trying to make. The greatest trick of reading him, after all, is parsing the various levels of playfulness, trickery, and irony. Like Jane Austen's characters--whose words one so often sees adorning bookstore tchochkes--he often isn't saying quite what he's saying; to quote him with confidence is a fool's game.

Here, wind--have some caution, as I plunge in nonetheless! Given the recent furor over Nabokov's final, unfinished work, The Original of Laura (which, it appears, will see the golden light of day after all), I naturally perked up when I came across several incidents of the loss or destruction of writing in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). As you probably know, this blog takes a staunch anti-burning position, however unjustifiable: I'm greedy, and I want all the detritus and ephemera of my favorite authors at my fingertips. Letters, diaries, drafts, notebooks, shopping lists, crosswords, pornographic sketches--authors who don't want me to see all that stuff should have regular, rousing trash-barrel fire rituals during their lives, a la Henry James.

But what did Nabokov himself think? You all have your grains of salt handy, right? Then here goes.

This first passage of burning is worth sharing for its beautiful prose alone. Sebastian Knight's brother, under orders from the late author, takes up a batch of his brother's letters to put them to the match:
For a wild instant I struggled with the temptation to examine closer both bundles. I am sorry to say the better man won. But as I was burning them in the grate one sheet of the blue became loose, curving backwards under the torturing flame, and before the crumpling blackness had crept over it, a few words appeared in full radiance, then swooned and all was over.
What effective, patient imagery, subduing and delineating every tiny moment! The way the words briefly appear "in full radiance" reminds me of burning letters to Santa in my grandparents' stove when I was a kid, imagining my wishes reconstituting themselves in wavering figures of smoke against the wintry sky above the house.

The next passage tells not of active destruction, but of the inevitable losses imposed by casualness and time. A college friend of Sebastian tells his brother about Sebastian's "vaguely un-English" juvenile poems. Rummaging among his papers, the friend is unable to come up with any samples:
"Perhaps, in some trunk at my sister's place," he said vaguely," but I'm not even sure . . . Little things like that are the darlings of oblivion, and moreover I know Sebastian would have applauded their loss."
And Nabokov gives me yet another phrase to try to add to my lexicon: "the darlings of oblivion." {Alternatively, I could simply start a band with that name. Our first album could be called The Prismatic Bezel.}

Later in the novel, the subject of the burned love letters arises again, as Sebastian's brother attempts to find their unknown subject. At one point, he believes himself to be very close to finding the answer, talking with the friend of a woman whom he suspects might have been his brother's paramour:
"Why must you write a book about him, and how is it you don't know the woman's name?"

"Sebastian Knight was very secretive," I explained. "And that lady's letters which he kept . . . Well, you see--he wished them destroyed after his death."

"That's right," she said cheerfully," I quite understand. By all means, burn love-letters. The past makes noble fuel."
I'll close with the clearest statement in Sebastian Knight of an authorial position on burning. (Though, again, we must remember that this is not only not necessarily Nabokov's position--it's not necessarily even Sebastian Knight's position, related to us as it is by his brother. Layers, layers, layers!) Soon after Sebastian's death, his brother takes on the job of going through his effects:
He had left everything to me and I had a letter from him instructing me to burn certain of his papers. It was so obscurely worderd that at first I thought it might refer to rough drafts or discarded manuscripts, but I soon found out that except for a few pages, he himself had destroyed them long ago, for he belonged to that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except the perfect achivement: the printed book; that its actual existence is inconsistent with that of its spectre, the uncouth manuscript flaunting its imperfections like a revengeful ghost carrying its own head under its arm; and that for this reason the litter of the workshop, no matter its sentimental or commercial value, must never subsist.
As someone who writes and edits almost entirely on a computer, I've begun to wonder whether Nabokov might have adapted to that technology, had he lived longer. Write, rewrite, overwrite . . . and nothing is left for the literary scavengers except the final document as sent to one's publisher. Oh, but what is lost along the way!

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