November 2008 Archives

What's the anagram of Dmitri Nabokov?

Nabokov fans know that many of his Russian works were translated into English by his son, Dmitri. But I bet there's a lot about Dmitri that you don't know. While still working my way through Our Private Lives, I discovered a chapter from Dmitri Nabokov's journal and learned quite a bit about him.

Nabokov the Younger was accepted into Harvard Law and declined, so this combined with his bilingual (and I think more than bi) skills tells you he's no dummy. He was also quite a successful opera singer. On top of this, he spent much of his youth climbing mountains. You know, for fun. (His journal excerpt is peppered with names of other mountain climbing friends, casually followed by "he died three years later on top of Mount ___"). Once the thrill of mountaineering wore off, he began racing cars. Finally dissuaded from this in the interest of keeping himself safe to sing, he then moved on to speedboat racing. He was also in a life-threatening car accident, due, he notes diffidently, to someone tampering with his car with the intent to kill him.

At this point, I am pretty sure Dmitri Nabokov does not exist. This is clearly a character Nabokov himself invented, a literary version of a son.

EXCEPT. Dmitri Nabokov HAS A WEBLOG.

Does that not deserve all caps? I kind of think it does.

So, running with my theory that Dmitri Nabokov is an invented person, don't we have to assume that his father is still secretly alive, and maintaining this blog in the character of his imaginary son?

And the logical next question is: how has Sean never written about this? Zembla, over to you.


Have you seen this child?

Michael Ondaatje is a son of a bitch, kinda

I can't seem to get over my anger at Michael Ondaatje for Divisidero. It's ridiculous; he gave me In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: surely I owe him more than he owes me. But Divisidero was bad, and worse, it was mine.

Ever since I read about some character chastising Anne of Green Gables to "write what you know," I've hated the idea, because it seems to imply that a white suburban girl has no business creating a character who is anything else. And there are plenty of non-white non-suburban non-girl characters floating around in my head.

But reading Divisidero, I found myself in reluctant agreement with this cliche for the first time. Write what you know, because it prevents you from writing -- poorly -- what someone else knows better.

Ondaatje writes about Northern California like someone who's seen it from a plane. He uses the gruff and evocative names of mining towns like they're his own. He writes about the summer grass as brown, when everyone knows it's gold. And he stole Divisidero Street right out from under me.

My whole adult life I've been trying to shape characters to the streets in my life. Shrader, Ben Thorne, Slum Gullion, Elliott Drive: the point is, these dots in space are mine, they belong to me. (And also to Mark Cunningham, but he's a local and has rights.) Ondaatje's pen came sweeping down from Canada and stole things from me with no understanding of what he was taking, like a thief sweeping an unexamined conglomeration of items off a bureau top and into a burlap sack.

In addition to all this, the book is simply not very good. The language is evocative and haunting and all that Ondaatje stuff, but he seems to have decided that plot points are for the weak. His characters drift around this story like half-imagined half-assed ghosts, and you finish the book feeling cheated. It's as if his first draft of the novel got published by mistake.

I have loved and supported Ondaatje for years; I have distributed his Billy the Kid to several unwilling friends for their own good; I have purchased and read and re-read everything he writes, except some of the poetry. And this is my thanks?

Henceforth, prepare for my onslaught on Sri Lanka, Mr. Ondaatje, prepare for my novel about Canadian life (meaning no disrespect to Robertson Davies), prepare for my Being Michael Ondaatje film in which you will not even play yourself. You took Divisidero Street from me. This means war.


I TOLD you we could

I'm reading Our Private Lives, a collection of journal excerpts from public people. There are a lot of professional writers in here, but also politicians, a cowgirl, an oil man, and so on.

I was reading Gerald Early's excerpt a few days before the election and came across this, about the 1984 presidential race:

Many blacks I talked to thought [Jesse] Jackson should not have capitulated in 1984 to Mondale which, in hindsight, would appear to anyone to have been an horrendous move guaranteed [...] to set back the possibility of a black seriously running for president for maybe another twenty years.

About twenty years later, here we are at last.

This, incidentally, is the reason to keep a journal. Because who knows, twenty years down the line you might be proved right about something and you can go around all day saying I told you so. And also it's cathartic, but whatever. Bragging rights!

I'd recommend this or any other published journal to anyone who wants to write a journal of their own. Seeing how someone can make their day-to-day lives interesting to a reader -- even when it seems quite uninteresting to the writer -- helps you put your own life in perspective. If you're uncomfortable focusing on your own thoughts and feelings, you can simply write down the things you see and hear each day, which helps you sort over the day's experiences and retain them.


This is not my diary.

David Foster Wallace and Zachary Gray

My friend Tracy called me to tell me when David Foster Wallace died. She and her husband introduced me to DFW's work in the first place, loaning me their ten-pound copy of Infinite Jest, and I had the sense she felt in some way responsible for the dismay I was going to be feeling over this news. Trouble was, I felt no dismay.

I only recently realized why DFW's death doesn't upset me. I realized it because last week I re-read all the Austin chronicles by Madeline L'Engle, and for the first time I really grasped that there will never be another installment in the story of Vicki Austin and her absurdly religious yet endearing family, because L'Engle died last year.

You don't feel the death of an artist until you've wrung every drop of meaning and enjoyment from his or her work and start looking around greedily for more. (With L'Engle, I still have all her books for adults to read, but that doesn't comfort me when I think that I'll never find out what happens to Poly O'Keefe or Zachary Gray.) It's going to be a long, long time before I can confidently say I've really absorbed Infinite Jest, and until that time, David Foster Wallace will not be dead for me.

As for L'Engle: thank goodness for Hollywood, which will go on making crappy, crappy films of twelve-year-old-me's favorite novels long after the author is gone. Hooray!


Jared Padalecki, you can flop your hair all you want: you are not and will never be Zachary Gray.