Kickshaws and Motley
Miryachit': (Russian Miryachit', inf.) to be epileptic (Pavlovsky). A peculiar nervous disease observed in Siberia and in some non-European countries, the chief characteristic of which consists in mimicry by the patient of everything said or done by another.
The Department of Linguistics boasted three members.Waggish Asst. Professor William McPed had transcribed (clicks and all) the Lumba tongue, spoken by at least ten thousand men, women, and children somewhere between Zambia and Zululand ("to purify the language of the tribe," quipped quick-witted Bill). The head of the department and occupant of the Harry Amurath Chair in Slavic was Roman Lefshets, much noted and footnoted since his pioneering work (at age 19!) on "Some Phonemic Phenomena of Sandhi and Futhorc."
A prodigious worker, a fine scholar, Lefshets had tried his hand at every branch of his youthful science, and everywhere he had left his mark. He had analyzed juncture in Glossic and Braille. He had composed grammars of Gilyak and Bats. He had decoded the "Bezumnij Yazik" of the Petrograd Pentad (Walter Lighthorse, Alec Twist, Anna Eckmate, Barry Parsnip, and Cosmo Breadline, as McPed anticly called them). He had invented "Phonemic Verse," a system of prosody based not on the hoary and unscientific principles of accent or syllable, but on the up-to-date method of a uniform number of phonemes per line. Hundreds of his former students were now famous professors in great universities. The Turko-Dutch scholar Derzha Veen (who with his sister had arrived in America just after the war, two penniless but eager orphans) had been his pupil. As had Oleg Shurin, brother-in-law of Derzha (Oleg had married Dazha, or Dasha, or Sasha, Veen during a dull moment at the World Congress of Poetics, in Boston, in 1956).
Lefshets had also taught Fritz Auspumpen, the world expert on runic neumes and brother of Visiting Lecturer (from Merkin College) Hans Auspumpen. Hans, a cunning linguist in his own right, was doing a really bangup job on the bilabial fricative (again a bit of a sinwit, eh, Bill?). But the old man was close to retirement, and there was only one graduate student (shared with Auspumpen), a pale-faced Indian girl, Miss Diana Moonbeam from Ça Ira, Virginia...
Excerpts from the interview
Famous writer and a rather fatuous interviewer:
R.F.I.: There are a number of readers who are beginning to regard you as a sage in all sorts of subjects, even political ones. Do you think that despite your disclaimers you may in fact have a profound non-literary effect?
N.: No, no. At least I hope not. As I have said elsewhere, "Je ne suis pas un petit télégraphiste." I wouldn't know how to give a spiritual massage. I pass the metaphysical buck. I bypass the museum of general ideas (which is to your left as you stroll down University Avenue). I cannot be linked to any cult of organized non-thought. I have no yen for yurodivies. I do not delight in the Vedic verities of Vishnuland. The stale truths of Mediterranean profundits leave me cold. And the fact that the title of my last Russian novel, transliterated, is DAR, and the title of my latest English novel is ADA, has no political implications whatsoever.
I.: I wonder if in your life, if not in your art, you can dissociate yourself so completely from current events?
N.: But I do not. I am perfectly aware of the virtues of the United States government, quite apart from the simple fact that it keeps us all from being caught smack in the stipe of a mushroom cloud. I was completely taken by the stellar exploits of those brave astrofellows, landing in the Tranquil Sea, so low in albedo, so lovely in name, dimmest and sweetest of the moon's maria. And I understand the need for dealing with the latest coup in Kumquat and the thorny problem of industrial melanism. But movements, manifestoes, model mayors of model cities--these aspects do not interest me.
I.: What about organized religion? In your autobiography you mention the ceremonies of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the commentary to Pale Fire you refer to "the numberless thinkers and poets in the history of human creativity whose freedom of mind was enhanced rather than stunted by Faith." In the poem itself you reveal a religious sense of mystery, as when you write, "This life may be a rough draft of the next/To which we have the footnotes, not the text."
N.: Oh, when I was young and in Russia I went to church occasionally. Purely for the sights and sounds--the icons, the greybeard priests, the slow swing of the thurible and the melismatic wail of the women. As for the sterner offerings of non-Russian varieties, I am perfectly content to take the good works without the faith. One doesn't have to travel in Dante's circles, after all, to appreciate those far-from-terse rhymes, and I am also fond of those tender madonnas and frail angels. In that respect I am a strict monist. But the rest of it--going to hear a good reverend read from His latest work (Rome: The Godly Head), the tedium of worship, the bother, sin and holy toast--that doesn't interest me. I prefer to respect the wishes of the anonymous donor of existence.
I.: You have written that "Poets never kill" and that "the murderer is always the victim's inferior." In Despair, Lolita, Pale Fire, and Invitation to a Beheading you come out clearly against the taking of human life. Do you think your own private brand of morality inescapably informs your novels? What about the general problem of Good and Evil in contemporary fiction?
N.: I never think about it. Speaking as a reader, I never enjoyed the chaste chapbooks of the Charskayas and Victorian novels of my youth, and I do not experience the ecstasy of evil that is so attractive to French suctorialists and in which American pizdatel'stvos are now doing such a thriving business. I prefer books that are neither Bowdlerized nor Baudelairized.
I.: Speaking of Baudelaire, many of your heroes are perverse madmen who certainly require some kind of care. You often mock the "Viennese witch doctor" and the "frauds" in the "Signy-Mondieu" crowd, and I relish that observation of Humbert Humbert, that the difference between the rapist and the therapist is merely a matter of spacing. But isn't it true that psychiatry, or rather its excesses, is not a threat any more, and that you may be beating a dead horse? And doesn't some of it have value? In both Lolita and Ada you brilliantly explore the interrelation of sex and psyche yourself, and it is surely true that some of our best young novelists owe a great deal to Freud.
N.: That haplographic calembour of Humbert (bis) is one of the few things he says that I do agree with--and by the way, you abridged it charmingly. Sex and psychiatry make dismal bedfellows. In point of fact sex is a very dull subject, but I try to make it interesting. The well-paid young ladies of the Venus Villas offer treats for every taste, and thither repairs my male hero (between sips, or rather dips, of his leman-Ada) to engorge himself on a smorgasbord of orgasms. These resorts and kurorts, Humbert's longings, and the passion play of Vaniada have nothing to do with the grotesque and ridiculous business that recent story-tailors and type-writers have made of it.
I.: What are you working on now?
N.: At the moment I am preparing a book of essays on various writers, mostly from my university lectures. I may call it Potions of Eisell.
I.: Could you say something about them?
N.: Well, in my essay on Joyce I begin with Ulysses. I focus on the hapless wittol Bloom--much more interesting than hobbledehoy Dedalus. I steer clear of old Greeks. I correct a few mistakes--a spelling error in Nighttown, an anachronism in one of the maternity hospital parodies, that sort of thing. I dwell on the sybotic and Ithacan episodes, of which there is a delicate hint in poor Humbert's tentative approximations, and on that nightfest of the whimsy (the author's, not Bloom's). I deplore the excesses of Molly's verzücktes Jasagen. Then I move on to Joyce's last book, that unfortunate attempt at twin-twinning the oddity (as he might put it). A Plurability Canto, a Romany Fleuve (bits of shelta float here and there in it), and a damp disaster. There are five or six other essays, but the cat is already crawling half out of the bag.
I.: Before we leave the subject entirely, can you tell me if any living writers will be discussed?
N.: I am thinking of including a short piece on that Argentinian maker of transcendental pastels, whose name critics so curiously connect with mine. I still admire his arcane grammars and irretrievable sunsets, the fire and algebra of his fictions. And some of his formulas are quite good--as that definition of Infinity in "The Bookshop of Isidor Circle": "ese lemniscato espantoso y sempiterno" (Infinity, that dreadful and everlasting lemniscate). What a splendid evocation of olamic nausea. The lunfardo-loaded tales, however, are nothing but local color and lexical slumming. Now I am really afraid that grimalkin may escape.
I.: What have you been doing aside from writing? Reading? Traveling?
N.: I wander, nightly, in the enchanted realm between Marlowe and Marvell. Then, a few minutes of the old palpebral cinema, the ultimate dissolve into a rainbow mist, and finally a wretched imitation of sleep. As for other journeys, in connection with the above little essay I did make a short field trip to Ireland. Dun cows, and green meads, and the particolored animated rubrics in the Book of Kells. I ran to the pub of Davey Byrnes. I walked to 7 Eccles Street. I limped to Glasnevin Cemetery. I crawled to the Hill of Howth. In short, I was the most dutiful of Dubliners.
I.: While we're on the subject of travel, would you ever consider returning to America?
N.: I look forward to visiting North American shores this summer, and will pass a few weeks at a seldom frequented interlacustrine retreat in southern Ontario. There, between Lake Quirke and Lake Panache (the inner pair) I plan to spend ack emma hunting butterflies and pip emma reading my favorite American authors, Webster, Scudder, and Gray. The last, as your readers may be interested to learn, has just been revised by the botanist Leon Pasternak (no relation to the prize-winning novelist), best known for his unforgettable saga of some Old Worldly members of the pea family, Medicago.
I.: During that visit, will you be making any arrangements to deposit your papers with a library?
N.: Absolutely not, because no manuscripts, galleys, rough drafts, or penultimates exist. In this I have been ruthless. The misery of pilcrows, the crude products of blunt invention, the limp iambus of a private passion--none of this, not a shim or a shadow of it, should be left behind. I have destroyed my every version except the last. No notecards to Lolita nor nabroski to Dar. There will be no variorum edition of Pale Fire, with commentary by divers hands. Galasp and Colkitto will not argue over the Fair Copy of Ada. There is no reprieve for those fey pages. They will burn. They are flammable. There are inflammable.
I.: From your own recent experience, do you have any further thoughts in literary criticism? Any final advice to literary critics?
N.: Literature dealt with on a taxonomic basis is not in my line, to use a favorite expression of Count Vronsky. All of those labels, donnish dog tags, exquisite etiquettes which are welcome for certain specimens won't do for books. Viktor Shklovskij, formerly a fine critic, author of The Knight's Move, once coined the term "ostranenie" or "making strange." American Slavists are quick to use it. But is it to refer to Tolstoy's naďve Natasha alone? It might just well apply to the metaphysical conceit. A pun makes strange, and so does a paragram, or even a slip or a lipograph, as guests at a certain literary dinner have reason to know. What doesn't make strange, estrange, strangify a book, if the author is a genuine artist? No, leave those terms alone. Avoid textbook truth. A fine nib and a nimble wit--that's what you want.
What is our passion? What do we love?
The world of books offers us one unpalatable writer imitating another, examples of müllerian rather than batesian mimicry. But year after year, by way of recompense, in vendective review, in limpid iambs, in the pomp and surquidry of his prose, this fabulous tarand continues, as the Ameicans say, to deliver the goods.16 We are thankful for Vladimir Nabokov, ornament of the age and Shakespeare's current avatar.
16. I am thinking of mammoths and madonnas, the secret of durable pigments, the refuge of heart.
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