Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

 1970 printing jacket, image from
I'm back on the Nabokov trail!

I read Mary like ten years ago, when I was living in New York, but I had forgotten most of it by the time I borrowed it from a university library earlier this month.  (Sometimes I wonder why I read all these books, seeing as I just forget most of what I read; I envy people like Marilu Henner, who have super powerful memories.)  

This week I read the 1970 McGraw-Hill hardcover edition, translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with Nabokov himself.  Mary originally appeared in Russian in 1926 as Mashenka Ada apparently got a lot of press (it was a Time magazine cover story, for example) and on the cover of this printing of Mary is inscribed "The First Novel by the Author of LOLITA and ADA."

Mary is short, just 114 pages in this edition, but it is very satisfying, full of well-drawn characters, interesting relationships, vivid images and touching emotion.  Like Laughter in the Dark, which I think of as a tale of the triumph of evil over good, and Pnin, which is about a man who loses everything, Mary is a tragic story, showing us several unhappy love relationships.  Like Pnin, Mary is one of the more "real" or "conventional" of Nabokov's novels; there are no science fiction or supernatural elements, nobody has a mental illness or gets involved in an outre erotic relationship.

The setting is a Berlin boarding house in the 1920s inhabited by Russian emigres.  They make a sad group, most of them with personal problems on top of the fact that the Reds drove them out of their country.  There is Podtyagin, the elderly and sick poet who fears he has wasted his life and who is desperate to get to Paris, but finds himself too incompetent to navigate the bureaucracy that hands out passports and visas.  And Klara, a 26 year old woman who hates her job and owns only one dress.  Klara is hopelessly in love with the main character, Ganin, who barely notices her.

Ganin is a young man from a wealthy family and a veteran of the Russian Civil War.  Ganin suddenly realizes that another of the inmates of the boarding house, Alfyorov, is married to his first love, a girl named Mary, and she will be arriving soon in Berlin after being separated from her husband for four years.  Ganin callously dumps the woman he is currently seeing and plots to steal Mary away from her husband, and while waiting for Mary to arrive spends much of the book in vivid reminiscences of his love affair with Mary back in Russia.

In the end, Ganin leaves Berlin before Mary even arrives, abandoning his plan to carry her away with him.  Has he realized that he doesn't really love Mary any more?  Has he had some kind of moral awakening, and decided not to cause trouble for Alfyorov and Mary?  Either way, Nabokov, telling us that the four days in Berlin in which Ganin has been waiting for Mary and reliving his long past relationship with her "were perhaps the happiest days of his life," suggests that our inner lives of fantasy and memory are happier than our real physical lives.     

I enjoyed every page of Mary.  The actions and feelings of all the characters ring true, there are no tedious or difficult passages, and I like all the little details about life in the boarding house and the streets of Berlin.  It is also fun to see little similarities here and there to later Nabokov works; Ganin, for example, once could walk on his hands, like the main character of Ada. 

I've (re)read a lot of Proust, and so I am always finding similarities to Proust in the books I read, but Mary seems particularly Proustian in details and in major themes.  Of course the themes of unhappy love and of memory are very Proustian.  More specifically, Nabokov mentions the ability of smells to evoke memories, and presents to us a protagonist who desires women who are out of his reach, and tires of women as soon as he has possessed them.  In In Search of Lost Time the only people who enjoy their love affairs are lesbians, and in Mary the only people who seem happy are a pair of gay ballet dancers, whom Nabokov tells us are "as giggly as women" and, when organizing a party, are "as excited as two women."  The scene in which Ganin, laying in bed, studies the wallpaper, seeing faces in the printed flowers or tracing a path through their pattern, reminded me of such scenes in Swann's Way as when Marcel is fascinated by the sight of church steeples in the distance, and when he describes his room at the seaside hotel, in which the ocean is reflected in glass bookcases.

A smooth, comfortable, touching piece of work; I strongly recommend Mary.


The 1971 paperback edition of Mary by Fawcett has a charming cover illustration by Tom Miller which reminded me of those old pre-Fabio romance novels.  A few minutes googling brought me to a blog about gothic romance novels called My Love-Haunted Heart, and a website about Tom Miller, where it was revealed that the same image was used a year later on Julie Wellsley's Chateau of Secrets!

Even though the image struck me as being generic, the painting actually reproduces Mary's appearance in one of Ganin's flashbacks, on page 72 of the edition I read: "She was wearing a diaphanous white dress which Ganin did not know.  Her black bow had gone, and, in result, her adorable head seemed smaller.  There were blue cornflowers in her piled-up hair."  That passage immediately brought to mind the Miller illustration, and put a smile on my face.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Trace of Dreams by Gordon Eklund

False advertising!
One of the criticisms of the free market you'll hear sometimes from the lefties is that it provides too many choices.  When you go to the supermarket and you find a dozen kinds of peanut butter, maybe instead of being happy that you have the opportunity to select a type of peanut butter that suits your own personal budgetary, taste, health and ideological requirements, you get all confused and even depressed because you can't figure out which one to buy.  And when you are back home you can't enjoy your peanut butter and jelly sandwich because you are haunted by the suspicion that one of the other peanut butters would have been better than the one you are eating.

(UPDATE MAY 27 2015: I got some pushback in the comments regarding the idea that "lefties" are hostile to consumers having lots of choices.  So I felt vindicated this week when socialist Bernie Sanders sounded off, claiming there is something wrong with our society because there are over a dozen kinds of deodorant and sneakers on the market.)

This seems like a pretty lame argument for putting the means of production in the hands of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but I am sometimes reminded of it when I'm in my study, looking at my bookshelves and the pile of library books on the floor.  What should I read next?  Like in that Portishead song, I'm always so unsure.  So, I am likely to grasp at any outside influence that might provide me direction, and last week when Joachim Boaz reminded us via twitter of Gordon Eklund's birthday, I seized upon A Trace of Dreams, Ace 82070, which I purchased earlier this year for 75 cents.

A Trace of Dreams, published in 1972, has an interesting cover painting depicting a commando raid in a city of skyscrapers, and a charming frontispiece by Jack Gaughan.  (These illustrations have nothing whatsoever to do with the story.)  The novel is 256 pages long, and should win some kind of award because the very first word of the text includes a typographical error.  I wondered if this was a black omen, like when Ovid's maid stubbed her toe on the doorstep; were the Parcae warning me this book was going to be terrible?  I wasn't exactly crazy about Eklund's story in Quark/3, so my hopes were not high.

Publication page and page 5 of my copy
A Trace of Dreams is mostly a first person narrative, the reminiscences of Mathew, a man who was an officer in a sort of guerilla band on the planet Meridian.  There is a framing device; we are in fact hearing Mathew's grandson telling us the story as it was related to him in parts over a period of years.  These layers between the actual story and the reader encourage skepticism of the reliability of the story, as do Mathew's admissions that he has left some things out and admonishments to his audience that we should figure the story's mysteries out on our own.

Meridian was one of the earliest planets colonized by humans, and is home to the Greens, three-eyed natives who at first appear to be quite unsophisticated.  (They live in huts and are believed to have IQs of around 30.)  Many Greens work for the humans as laborers and mercenary soldiers.  The government of Meridian, known as the Republic, was overthrown, and a ruthless group called The Triad took over.  Opponents of the Triad took to the hills and forests to form bands of freedom fighters.  One such band was lead by James Black, a man known as "The Dark Star."  (Here I will warn prospective readers that, despite what it says on the book's cover, Black does not in fact lead his followers to Earth, and Earth is in fact not in ruins.)  In a few years the Triad collapsed and the Republic returned, but Black and his little band decided to stay in the woods and continue their guerrilla war against the government.  When the band is five years old Mathew, a teenage immigrant from Earth, joins them, becoming an officer after a few years.

Eklund doesn't portray Black's band (which is known as the Apostles of the Dark Star and numbers fewer than one hundred people) in a very flattering manner; the book feels like a debunking of violent revolutionary movements.  The band murders people in cold blood and piles up their bones into a weird sort of monument.  They conduct raids on farms and towns nearby in order to steal food and kidnap women, but don't do much to depose the Republic.  Eklund doesn't portray the Republic as being particularly oppressive, nor the guerrillas as being particularly ideological, so the Apostles come off as just a bunch of bandits.  As the ad copy on the back of the book points out, the guerrilla war is little more than a game.  Not only is it normal for television crews to come to the guerrilla camp to film celebrations and accompany the freedom fighters on raids, but we are repeatedly reminded that the Republic could easily wipe out the Apostles, but choose not to do so.

Mathew and James Black seem to enjoy living in the woods in tents year after year, living off the food grown and processed by the people they pretend they are trying to liberate, but then a woman, Quentin, comes to the camp and shakes everything up.  She seduces Black, and, on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Apostles, Black announces that they are launching a major offensive.  With the apparent collusion of the government, the Apostles take over a farm and factory complex, and start running it, selling the food and making a tidy profit.  Mathew runs a work gang, while Black wears fancy clothes and sits in a fancy office.

Quentin isn't the only female in the novel who manipulates men and stirs things up.  Mathew's girlfriend, Loyola, believes Quentin has "destroyed" the Apostles by getting them out of the woods, and she urges Mathew to murder Quentin.  When their assassination plot fails, Loyola and Mathew flee in an aircar, but because Mathew is an inexperienced pilot they crash right in the middle of the woods of the Greens.

The Greens are revealed to be a superior race.  They heal Mathew and Loyola's wounds in a mysterious way, are found to have the ability to shape shift, and employ teleportation machines.  Mathew and Loyola also observe their strange sex practices and longevity treatments.  In the final pages of the book it is revealed that the Greens were created by an ancient master race, as was Quentin.  Quentin is a kind of organic robot which the Greens can shut off and on, and use to investigate, or create mischief for, the humans.  Mathew becomes determined to search the galaxy for further evidence of this ancient super race, which may still live out there somewhere, and may have also created humankind.  The Republic orders all humans to leave Meridian; Mathew isn't sure why, but suspects the Greens have revealed their power to the government and issued an ultimatum.

A Trace of Dreams is long and dull.  The plot moves slowly, and usually I had no idea why people were doing what they were doing, and usually I didn't care what happened.  None of the characters or political or racial groups are interesting or compelling; most of them are ciphers whose motivations are difficult to understand.  (It is possible that the Greens are manipulating everybody with their hinted at psychic powers.)  Because we know the war is a joke, and Eklund doesn't present much reason why we should hope one side or the other wins, the war generates no tension or interest.  The relationships between the Greens and Quentin, and between the Greens and humans, which have the potential to be exciting, are barely sketched out.  Similarly, Mathew's relationships with James Black and Loyola, and with some other characters I haven't mentioned (a college professor who is the Apostles' intellectual leader, and an alien from another planet with odd powers, including the power to get drunk without drinking), could have generated interest, but instead they just kind of sit there.

Eklund's project in A Trace of Dreams seems to be to suggest that the universe is inexplicable and things happen because we are being manipulated by powers that are evil or simply indifferent, and perhaps to argue that war and politics are a scam.  Such themes could have an emotional impact on the reader, but Eklund fails to inspire any feeling.  

There are a few surprising and memorable scenes.  Like Marcel in Swann's Way, Mathew looks through a window and witnesses a disturbing sex act which demonstrates that humans and Greens can interbreed.  Halfway through the novel we learn that people born on Earth are raised by computers, and never know their biological parents; they spend six years in vats, taught to speak and walk through wires connected to their brains.  Because of overpopulation on Earth, the computers condition their charges to find sex and children repellent.  Also memorable is the scene in which, as part of his initiation into the Apostles, Mathew has to execute his "brother," a boy from the same vat, with a pistol; his bones are added to the macabre monument.  These good scenes make me suspect that A Trace of Dreams could have been a good book if it was 156 instead of 256 pages, it had fewer characters, and it devoted more time to Mathew's relationships with characters like James Black and Quentin.  

I can't blame Eklund for them, but, as the omen on page 5 warned me, the book does have lots of typographical errors, as well as one of those printing errors in which a few lines are accidentally repeated.  Also, Eklund's editor should have told him that "revolver" isn't a synonym for "pistol," especially if the pistol has a "clip," a "safety" and ejects spent cartridges while firing.

A Trace of Dreams isn't a total disaster, but it has way too many problems for me to recommend it.  Marginal thumbs down.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Vengeance of Quark/3: Dangerous Visions from Sallis, Saxton, and Hill

Back in June I read Quark/3, a 1971 anthology full of challenging speculative fiction by writers I had limited familiarity with.  This week I opened up my 1972 hardcover of Again, Dangerous Visions, to sample a second time the work of three Quark/3 contributors: poet and crime writer James Sallis, feminist and committed gardener Josephine Saxton, and journalist and novelist Richard Hill.

"Tissue" by James Sallis

On this here blog I called Sallis's story in Quark/3, "Field," a "prose poem" that was "not good."  Of the 13 pieces of fiction in Quark/3 I ranked it 11th, and declared it a "certifiable disaster."  Ouch.

Harlan Ellison, editor of Again, Dangerous Visions, includes a five page introduction to "Tissue" in the anthology.  Sallis, we learn, "is clearly one of the most important writers produced by our genre in some time," and Ellison compares him to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky, suggesting Sallis is a genius with an unstable, even self-destructive, mentality.  Fun fact: like my wife and I, and Thomas Disch, Sallis has lived in both Iowa and in New York.

"Tissue" is in fact two stories, whose titles are not capitalized.  These tales have been reprinted separately in Sallis collections in 1995 and 2000.  The first is "at the fitting shop."  This story, four pages, consists entirely of dialogue and includes no quotation marks.  It is an extended joke about how easy it is to get lost in a large department store.  (In my head the characters had the voices of Jack Benny and Frank Nelson.)  The punchline of the joke is that this is an alternate universe in which at puberty young men go to a store's plumbing department to buy a penis.  There are various models to choose from, each with evocative names, like "Polish Sausage" or "Mandrake Special."  I guess this is a satire of American consumerism and morality (to purchase a penis you are legally required to produce a note from your minister, priest or rabbi.)

"at the fitting shop" is alright; it gets my coveted "acceptable" rating.

The second story is the four page "53rd american dream."  This is a surreal story about a monstrous family; the children (Tom, Tim and Jim) regularly murder and devour the maid, the father (Bruce) has sharp teeth and detachable facial features, the mother (who I guess is some kind of huge arachnid or insect) can be disassembled alive--her cast off limbs are capable of independent movement.  The joke is that the mother and father try to be good parents, following advice from a book on parenting; part of this advice is to not make a mystery of their sex life, and so the kids get to watch and cheer on dad as he flagellates their mother until she achieves orgasm.  The story is full of brand names like Brillo, Beautyrest, and Neiman Marcus, I suppose some kind of reference to American consumerism.  Maybe we are supposed to see the family as representative of rich WASPs (Neiman Marcus is upscale, isn't it?) who exploit poor ethnics (the murdered maids have names like Olga and Griselda.)

"53rd american dream" is OK; the more surreal passages are a little hard to visualize, which makes the story seem long.  I think I prefer the snappier "at the fitting shop."

Both tales are much better than "Field," a pleasant surprise.

Emshwiller's illustration for "at the fitting shop"

"Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon" by Josephine Saxton

I liked "Nature Boy," Saxton's story in Quark/3, and rated it the #4 story in that anthology.

After a page and a half of Ellison's jokes we get Saxton's page and a half autobiography.  She never watches TV, she loves to cook, swim, read, write, garden and paint and she is fascinated by religion, psychology and the occult.

The story itself is 13 pages.  Elouise is a healthy young woman on a planet where everybody, by law, is required to have some kind of disease or birth defect.  Elouise is dragged onto a stage to be examined by a legion of doctors--Saxton presents us with a scene which all you gynecology students out there may enjoy.  Then a mob of people even less healthy than the average citizen of Pergamon storm into the theater and demand Eloise; do they want to worship her, or sacrifice her?  Elouise manages to escape, in the process killing almost everybody in the building (over a hundred people) with poison.

The writing is fine, but the story feels long.  We learn on the second page that on Pergamon people are required to be ill and Elouise is healthy; there isn't any subtle buildup to this bizarre fact, and it isn't sprung on us as a surprise.  The illnesses of the many incidental characters are described in lengthy detail; I wasn't sure if this was supposed to be funny or disgusting or both.  (The whole story has a jocular tone, with jokes about how the doctors love to play golf, for example.)  I'm afraid I was neither disgusted nor amused.  Saxton's focus is, perhaps, Elouise's own psychology; she wants to be among people like herself, and alternately wishes she was on a planet of healthy people, or was ill like her fellow Pergamonians.  Unfortunately I didn't find Elouise's psychology very compelling. 

In the Afterword to the story Saxton tells us that "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon" is about the struggle for freedom and how politics is not a means to achieve freedom, the dangers of identifying with people in the mass, the importance of accepting yourself, and the fact that nothing gained at the expense of others is legitimate.  All that sounds more interesting than the actual story, which didn't do anything for me; it wasn't bad, but didn't excite any pleasure or admiration either.

A little disappointing; inferior to "Nature Boy."  

Emshwiller's illustration for "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon"

"Moth Race" by Richard Hill 

When I read Quark/3 I thought Hill's "Brave Salt," a bizarre farce, was even worse than Sallis's "Field."  So I didn't start this story with much enthusiasm.  I was relieved to find "Moth Race" was a traditional story with a plot, images, and emotion.

In the future the world is run by a mysterious totalitarian government that enforces order and material equality.  Everybody has to take pills that dampen aggression (as well as racial prejudice.)  Intelligence test results guide the government in assigning people jobs; a small number of people who do well on the tests are permitted to travel and/or have children.  Everyone is provided (bland) food and health care, and government-provided TV transmits not only sound and images, but taste and physical sensations, such as having sex with a famous actress or eating lobster, to liven up everybody's drab constricted life.

Once a year comes The Race, a day on which people do not need to take the "easypills."  Brave people volunteer to ride in a car on a track; if someone can survive two laps around the track, he or she becomes the Champion, and will be permitted to eat luxury food and travel the world.  (It is the Champion's erotic and culinary experiences that are transmitted to the populace via TV.)  The Race, however, is no test of skill: the car goes at a set speed, and traps appear so unpredictably and so quickly that it is impossible to dodge them.  The Race is either totally random, or rigged, and only one person of the multitude of volunteers has ever survived The Race to become Champion.

In the story the Champion, perhaps bored with life or fed up with societal corruption, volunteers to ride The Race again, and is killed.  We are invited to speculate as to the long term effects of this action; will it destabilize the static dictatorial society?

There have been lots of science fiction stories with this kind of setting and plot, but "Moth Race" is well-written and has a slightly different point of view: the main character is a spectator at The Race, (not the Champion, whose motives remain a mystery), and The Race is a refutation of ideas of free will and merit, not a vehicle for an adventure story.  So I enjoyed "Moth Race," and think it a worthwhile read.  Like Sallis's contribution to Again, Dangerous Visions, Hill's story is a pleasant surprise.


I was a little disappointed with the Saxton, but revisiting these three writers has been a good experience.  I'd be willing to read shorts by all of them again.

I should also note that one of the nice things about Again, Dangerous Visions is Ed Emshwiller's illustrations for each story; many of them are quite good. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Quest Beyond the Stars by Edmond Hamilton

In May I purchased four volumes of the Captain Future science fiction adventure series; all four written by Edmond Hamilton.  I read the nineteenth volume, Outlaw World, in June.  Today, after returning from a road trip to New Jersey, the land of my birth, and Manhattan, my old stomping grounds, I finished the ninth Captain Future novel, Quest Beyond the Stars.  My copy is the Popular Library printing from 1969 with the Jeff Jones cover painting I am calling "Study of Four Spheres."  The last page of this edition is an advertisement for a set of paperback reference books which we are told are "indispensable" should you aspire to "get-ahead."  Quest Beyond the Stars first appeared in magazine form in 1942. 

Front and back cover of my slightly water-damaged copy
The Captain Future stories are set in a universe in which planets like Mercury and Venus, as well as Earth, have indigenous human life, and these civilizations are united under a system-wide government.  (It appears that the entire galaxy was seeded with human life in the distant past by people from Deneb, so wherever Captain Future goes he meets people who are more or less human, albeit with different colored skin and of various heights and girths.)  At the start of this story we learn that Mercury is in trouble: atmosphere plants (perhaps inspired by those on Mars in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom books?) produce the air Mercurians need to breathe, but the raw materials consumed by the plants are running low.  As a result, the System government is forcibly transporting the population of Mercury to Ganymede.  Apparently Ganymede is not exactly the garden spot of the solar system, because in the first chapter a Mercurian starts a riot by claiming the government is lying about the materials shortage, and is just drafting the people of Mercury to colonize Ganymede for their own purposes.  Luckily Captain Future is there to quell the riot by out-debating this climate change denier.

Don't you dare call it pulp
Captain Future, whose real name is Curtis Newton, is a genius scientist, and pledges to solve the Mercury crisis in a way that will save the Mercurians from having to move to crummy old Ganymede.  Hamilton lays some real life (if nowadays exploded) scientific theory on us, referring to Robert A. Millikan's theory that cosmic rays are the "birth cries" of new atoms being "created" out there some where.  If Newton can find out where these atoms are created (by transforming radiation, Hamilton explains), perhaps he can figure out how the process works and reproduce it on Mercury to fuel the atmosphere plants.

Our man Curt quickly modifies his space ship so that he can travel "two thousand times the speed of light," and he and his team (the "Futuremen") blast off from their moon base to find the "Birthplace of Matter."  The Futuremen include Simon Wright, AKA "The Brain," a genius scientist whose brain was removed from a decaying body and placed in a levitating box, Otho the synthetic man who broods because he is different from natural men, and Grag, the seven foot tall robot.

Winter 1942 publication
The Birthplace of Matter turns out to be hidden in an almost impenetrable cloud of dust billions of miles in extent.  Newton and company, on the outskirts of the cloud, meet people from all over the galaxy who have been shipwrecked while trying to get to the Birthplace.  These aliens join Newton's crew and with their help the Futuremen penetrate the cloud to a clear space inside; here they discover several star systems.  The green people from one of these systems are at war with the white people from another, and our heroes do the sorts of things we expect people to do in an adventure story: they get captured, they sneak through ventilation ducts, they liberate a beautiful princess from a dungeon, they participate in energy gun firefights and a space naval battle.  At the end of the book they achieve their hopes, a technology that will abolish scarcity and put a lot of economists out of business.

Quest Beyond the Stars is a good example of 1940s SF; it glamorizes science and scientists while still primarily being a swashbuckling adventure.  I found it a diverting entertainment; as a kid I loved laser gun shootouts and space naval battles a la Star Wars and Space Battleship Yamato, and I guess I still do.  Quest Beyond the Stars might also deserve some diversity points--while it is true that our hero is a redhead and he rescues a blonde princess from vicious non-whites, the princess is a brave leader of soldiers and among Newton's comrades are courageous and honorable red and blue people.

If I'd had these books I might today still be in NYC, a titan of Wall Street or a dean at Columbia 
I've enjoyed both my encounters with Captain Future, and I will definitely read the other two Captain Future books I bought up in Minnesota, and pick up any other volumes I encounter in my travels.     

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Faithful followers of this here blog will know I am just coming off a long term relationship with Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor, a 600 page novel about horny teenage cousins living on an alternate Earth that was spared the plague of Communists and Nazis which cursed our own world.  Despite the perils of so-called "rebound relationships," the day I returned Ada to the library I checked out a 1960 British printing of Nabokov's 1957 novel Pnin.  Will this be true love, or just a pathetic attempt to fill the V.V.-shaped hole in my heart?

Pnin is set in our own, all too horrible, real world.  The title character, Assistant Professor Timofey Pnin of Waindell College, a Russian intellectual, fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919, completed his studies in Prague, and arrived in Paris in 1925, from which he fled to America in 1940.  His childhood sweetheart Mira, from whom he was separated by the 1918-1922 Civil War, escaped from the Communists to settle in Berlin, only to die in a Nazi death camp.

Escape to America did not end poor Pnin's troubles.  During the ocean voyage to the New World his wife Liza, poetess and psychiatrist, abandoned him for one of her psychiatric colleagues.  His academic career is little more than a series of disasters.  Pnin is unable to achieve tenure, unable to afford decent lodgings, and is subordinate to and passed over for promotion by scholars inferior to himself.  (The head of the Waindell French Department doesn't care for literature and doesn't even speak French, and so refuses to hire the francophone Pnin to teach French classes when a more famous scholar is hired to teach the Russian classes.)  His absentmindedness and poor English make him a joke among the college community, and in the climax of the book (in 1954) Pnin is let go and drives off from the college for parts unknown.

Like Ada, Pnin is written primarily in the third person, but is in fact a first person narrative.  The narrator is an acquaintance of Pnin's, a fellow Russian emigre and academic.  Our narrator claims to be a friend of Pnin's, but Pnin himself considers our narrator (whose initials, like those of the narrator of Ada, are V. V.) his enemy.  V. V., back in Paris, seduced Liza and then tossed her aside; Liza only married Pnin after begging V. V. to marry her. V. V. also subtly takes credit for Pnin's few successes.  And, the scholar replacing Pnin at Waindell is none other than V. V.

Appropriately, seeing as it is written by Pnin's enemy, the novel, which tells the tragic story of Pnin's life, is written in a light-hearted tone, at times approaching slapstick comedy, with the hapless and innocent Pnin the butt of almost all the jokes.  As with the V. V. of Ada, we have reason to question the reliability of Pnin's narrator.  In one of the few scenes in which both Pnin and V.V. appear, Pnin vigorously disputes the veracity of a story V. V. tells about him.

Nabokov's style is very good, smooth and studded with fine images.  There are the usual Nabokov touches-- talk of butterflies, and jocular mockery of psychiatry, for example.  Most importantly, Pnin works as both a comedy and a tragedy. I laughed at Pnin's malapropisms and blunders, and I was moved to the point of tears by such scenes as Pnin going to Washington D. C. to investigate exactly how Mira died at Buchenwald, or wailing "I haf nofing left," after his hopes of a reunion with Liza are dashed.  Over the course of the novel Pnin loses his country, his love, his hopes of a home and a career.  "Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?" Pnin asks.  Can we disagree?    

Weighing in at a mere 191 pages Pnin is more of a fling than the long term relationship that Ada became, but it was a satisfying fling.  Highly recommended.  Today I will be back at the library, selecting my next Nabokov experience.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Earth Quarter by Damon Knight

Joachim Boaz's recent review of a Damon Knight collection known as Three Novels or Natural State and Other Short Stories, as well as his twitter conversation about Knight with other members of the SF community, brought the famous science fiction editor to the forefront of my mind.  So I took down from the shelf my 1970 Lancer copy of World Without Children and The Earth Quarter: Two Science Fiction Novels of Tomorrow.  In October of last year I read the 65 page "novel" "World Without Children" and wasn't impressed with it.  (Back in September of 2011 I read Knight's novel, Hell's Pavement, and wasn't crazy about it either.)  But hope springs eternal, so I took a chance on the 120 page The Earth Quarter.

Earth Quarter first appeared in 1955 in a shortened form in If. In 1961 an expanded version was printed under the title The Sun Saboteurs in an Ace Double with G. McDonald Wallis's The Light of Lilith.  I think the text I read was the same as that which appeared as The Sun Saboteurs, but who knows?

The novel starts in the human ghetto in a city on the planet Palu, home of the alien Niori, who have far better technology than ever was developed on Earth.  The galaxy is full of intelligent civilizations, and the people of Earth are on the absolute bottom of the totem pole.  Earth is a total wreck after "the Famines and the Collapse," which the ghetto dwellers see as "the judgement of God" and/or the result of "humanity's folly, cruelty and blindness."  In the most memorable passage in the story, a prominent citizen of the human ghetto describes how Chicago, his home town, is now "a stone jungle," where diseases, bandits, wolves or bears will kill you before your fortieth birthday. And if you make it to 40, you'll wish you were dead!

Rack does in fact wear his jacket as a cape in the story
With the inhabitants of Earth living in barbarism, or, if they are lucky, feudalism, and a hundred small emigre communities living on alien planets, the human race is in trouble. Unless something is done, the human race will die out.

But what to do?  One group of activists, the Minority People's League, wants to ask the aliens for help rebuilding a modern society on the Earth.  Their representatives travel from one planet to another, trying to build support among the inhabitants of the human ghettos.  Opposed to the League are radical terrorists, lead by the charismatic Rack.  They want to secretly build an invincible space navy and exterminate all the alien civilizations.  (It is plausible for less than a million humans based on one hidden planet to overthrow untold billions of aliens on hundreds of planets because all the alien races are exactingly honest and thoroughly pacific--they are absolutely unprepared to deal with human mendacity and aggression.)

Six of the novel's seven chapters are set in the human ghetto on Palu, and chronicle the rise of the radicals and the eclipse of the Minority People's League.  There are many different characters, I guess representing different elements of society and political and philosophical attitudes.  Part of Knight's project seems to be to debunk traditional virtues like loyalty, bravery, and so forth.  Our viewpoint character, Lazlo Cudyk, is an equivocating intellectual who isn't sure what to do, and mostly acts as a spectator while the radicals, the Minority People's League, and some conservative types all conspire and fight against each other (the human ghetto is basically lawless, and neither the human nor Niori authorities investigate or punish the murders and attempted murders Cudyk witnesses), and the bourgeoisie try to make money and avoid risk (as you might expect from a member of the leftist Futurians, Knight's most hostile portrayal is of a selfish cigar-smoking capitalist--as befits an intellectual, Cudyk smokes a pipe!)

We get one chapter on Rack's spaceship, where his cunning and leadership ability, and the sincere bond between him and his men, is demonstrated.

Rack and his small force of ships manage to wipe out dozens of alien systems, murdering billions and billions of aliens, by using a bomb that causes a star to explode (or something.)  Eventually the aliens get their act together and capture the radicals; Rack's men sacrifice themselves so Rack can escape.  Rack sneaks back to the ghetto on Palu, where a mob, of which Cudyk is a member, tears him to pieces.  The Niori then expel the humans, sending them to Earth; from now on the aliens will make sure humans don't get their hands on any space ships, presumably consigning humanity to an eternity of poverty among ruins.

I think this is Rack giving his fallen comrades an honorable "burial at sea"
Knight isn't writing an adventure story here (though the single chapter on Rack's terror bombing ship is actually pretty exciting); he means to tell us something about the human condition, I suppose that our ambition, lust for glory, pursuit of wealth, et al, are nothing more than destructive insanity.  His style is bland, but liberally sprinkled with literary references and philosophic passages.  Cudyk quotes Olaf Stalpedon, T. S. Eliot and Ambrose Bierce, and voices such cryptic bon mots as "the universe always smooths out anomalies" and "the way forward was the way back; the way back was the way forward." There are psychological subplots, like that about a young woman with a strict father; she is afraid to be happy, falls in love with a Niori, and goes insane.  Her insanity manifests itself in the habit of walking through the ghetto stark naked.  (The aliens, we learn, not only never lie or fight--they never suffer mental illness, either.)

The novel is vulnerable to the criticisms that it includes no alien characters to speak of, we learn very little about alien life, and that it is a little silly to think that there are scores of alien races and none of them fight wars or commit crimes or suffer mental illness.  And some may not like the fact that 90% of The Earth Quarter consists of people sitting around jawing, the plot is driven by the villain while the hero does nothing, and the villain is more interesting than the hero. 

There are a lot of science fiction stories that use alien paragons to show how us humans are a bunch of jerks, and I guess The Earth Quarter isn't the worst in the pile.  For one thing, by including in the story sympathetic Christians and a condemnation of the NKVD, Knight broadens the novel's appeal a bit, and inoculates himself from the charge that he is just another commie whining about capitalism and conventional religion.  I'm giving this one a grade of "OK;" The Earth Quarter is acceptable, if not memorable or groundbreaking.  

IN MEMORIAM:  In the course of reading The Earth Quarter, the dry-as-a-bone glue on my copy of Lancer 74-601 gave up the ghost, with the result that the book fell to pieces.  Luckily the front cover, which I adore, is still in good condition, and I didn't lose any of the pages.  I have a collection of those clear plastic bags from half-Price Books, and into one I will inter this relic, where it will rest in peace until unearthed by some future generation SF fan, eager to learn the wisdom and enjoy the artistry of Damon Knight (such as it is.)


Monday, July 7, 2014

Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

Despite the mountain of recently purchased and unread paperbacks in my study, in the last week of June I checked out a college library's 1969 hardcover copy of Vladimir Nabokov's formidable 626 page novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.  I fell in love with the volume: the black cover with the gold print on the spine and the indented text on the front, the feel of the paper, the size and style of the typefaces.  The top edges of the pages are a soothing green, reminding me of the green of a decoration on a 34th street apartment's balcony, far above the sidewalk, which I would admire when walking between the 33rd street subway station and the office.

It is fortunate I find the physical presence of the book congenial, because the project of reading Ada turned out to be a long term relationship.  I started Ada on the 25th of June, and finally finished it on July 6th, having been delayed by holiday plans and other distractions.

In some ways Ada is a traditional novel, reminiscent of Proust: set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at such locales as a country estate, a Manhattan penthouse, European luxury hotels and a transatlantic ocean liner, Ada tells the story of the love affair between two aristocratic cousins, Ivan ("Van") Veen and Adaleida ("Ada") Veen.  Van and Ada, both of them beautiful geniuses, go through various tribulations and subplots as they pursue their careers in the arts and academia, and are surrounded by a multitude of other characters who act as distractions from and impediments to their relationship.  As with Proust, a major theme of the novel is sexual jealousy: the promiscuous cousins rarely resist the many temptations that come their way.

In other ways, Ada is strange, a sort of science fiction novel set on an alternate Earth where, among other things, the United States has a strongly Russian and French character, and much wider borders: on the first page of text (page 3) we learn that Van and Ada's maternal grandmother "was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d'Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country...."  New England towns have names like Kaluga and Ladoga.  The British conquered and annexed France at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, causing mass immigration of Frenchmen to America.  People say "Thank Log" instead of "Thank God." Electricity is more or less outlawed, and people communicate via the "hydrophone," a telephone that somehow uses water as a medium. 

Nabokov piles up many odd details about the world of Ada, many of them twisted versions of people places and events from our own world, many of them conveyed to the reader through wordplay and puns.  Canada is called "Canady," Maine is "Mayne," the phrase "New York" is never used: that major city is always called "Manhattan."  A two piece bathing suit is called a "bickny."  We find a wackier example on pages 29 and 30, where we learn about the staff of a mental hospital where Aqua Veen nee Durmanov, Van's mother and Ada's aunt, commits suicide.  One of the doctors there is a Dr. Froid, an emigre from Vienne, Isere, another Teutonic head shrinker is Dr. Sig Heiler.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the world of Ada is that its inhabitants, who call their planet  Demonia or Antiterra, have an inkling of the existence of our own world, which they call Terra.  Some people doubt the existence of Terra, but both scholarly works and science fiction novels (which the people of Demonia call "physics fiction") speculate about Terra, and it is widely believed that the souls of the dead go to Terra. 

The book can be rough going, especially the first three chapters (pages 3 to 32) which are a sort of background to Van and Ada's family, and a late philosophical chapter (pages 569-599) about the nature of Time.  There are many characters and they have various nicknames, and sentences can be long and include phrases in Russian or French, as well as rarely seen English words.  On the very first page we are confronted by "granoblastically."  On page 389 we encounter "prasine."  (When I googled "prasine," the first webpage to come up was the word's page on wiktionary, and the example of usage provided was the very sentence in Ada I had before me.)

Hubba hubba editions of Ada from Penguin
There are also many learned references, for example to painters Bronzino (page 34) and Bosch (page 463.)  Proust, Tolstoy and Chekov are referred to numerous times, sometimes obliquely.  (Nabokov's own books, Lolita prominently, are also alluded to.)  How similar are the real Bronzino and the real Proust to the Antiterran versions of these luminaries?  The Bronzino painting Nabokov seems to be referring to is known as "Venus, Cupido and Satyr," but in the text Nabokov makes no reference to Venus, instead calling that character simply "a lady."  More jarringly, the Proust in Ada's world, we are told on page 79, was "crusty" and "liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping."  

Adding to the challenges presented by Ada is the fact that we have an unreliable narrator.   Nabokov's narrative, though mostly written in the third person, is in fact a manuscript written by Van in the 1960s and read by Ada, and includes marginalia from Ada as well as notes from an unnamed editor (perhaps Violet Knox) who points out some of Van's typographical errors.  Before I had quite realized this I suffered a disconcerting surprise.  I swore on page 37 we were told there was nobody waiting for Van at the train station, even though he had hoped to find a saddled horse there, and so he had to ride a horse drawn carriage driven by a coachman to Ardis Hall.  But on page 38 when Van gets to Ardis Hall we are told that "A servant in waiting took his horse."  This nagged at me for over a hundred pages, and then, sure enough, when Van left Ardis Hall at the end of the summer on page 168, Nabokov played the same trick.  Van departs in an automobile with a driver and stops halfway to the train station to pick flowers.  When he is finished collecting the flowers he climbs "back" on a horse!

Another aspect of the novel that some might find "challenging" is all the sex.  There is a ton of sex in Ada, and almost all of it is somehow transgressive or subversive, be it incestuous, adulterous, or between prostitutes and johns.  I didn't find the sex in Ada particularly titillating or arousing, but such judgements are very subjective, and perhaps Ada's erotic content would appeal to people with incest fetishes or a fascination with underage sex, or who are into voyeurism and exhibitionism; poor Lucette, Ada's jealous little sister, as well as a photographer, often observe Ada and Van's couplings.

Despite all the challenges presented by Ada, I enjoyed it.  The human drama--people falling in love, getting jealous, committing suicide and participating in duels--is good.  There are lots of fun characters and incidents I haven't mentioned.  I liked the odd alien surprises, like the flying carpets, and enjoyed trying to figure out the mysteries of politics and history on Demonia.  Nabokov's style, full of puns and vivid images as well as allusions to other artists and writers, is good.  Ada may not be a novel to be picked up lightly, but it is definitely worth the effort.  I can easily see myself rereading this one in a few years, and I may spend the next few days looking up some of the no-doubt numerous reviews and analyses available online and at nearby college libraries. 

Family tree from edition I read

Below the fold find a synopsis of the plot: