Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Math and trap doors

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

“Oh, yes,” I’ve been saying to my friends. “I’m just back from the Banff International Research Station for Innovative Mathematics and Discovery.” I feel like a kid impressing her classmates with news of a trip to Disneyland.

I toss the name off as if I could actually tell a Gaussian distribution curve from a Faustian one. This airiness conceals the huge alarm I felt that first morning, walking into a smallish classroom with the Banff mountains like bright, attentive students beyond the picture windows.

I was here through the kind invitation of Robert Moody. A mutual friend had introduced me to him when I needed to find some illustrations for my new book, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science.  When he finally read the published book, he thought I might be interested in coming to a particular BIRS workshop on “Mathematics: Measure, Maker and Muse of the Arts.”

The invitation to Banff thrilled me, but it also tipped me through a trap door in my psyche.  I would be surrounded by people who negotiated the academic environment easily. The list of participants detailed their various affiliations, but I had to be categorized as ‘independent.’ That sounds a lot sturdier than I felt. University had been a very scary place for me four decades ago. All my fellow students seemed to know so much more than me, to be so much more sophisticated than a kid from Outer Scarberia. I never seemed to have the right answers in class, the right clothes. And at that time I was only coping with the English program – a language I could supposedly understand – not the dense math language of symbol  and equation.

So here I was. Nor could I just sit at the back of the class and absorb. At some point I was going to have to stand up and wring myself out. I’d have to talk to them. By the time I actually did so, my brain was melting jelly.

I intended to talk about metaphor, how it is an underlying mode of thought, not just a decoration, and applies to all realms of creation. Fortunately, writers can read bits of what they’ve written, and at least those sentences are coherent. I got through the outline of what I meant to say. But, in the discussion afterwards, when David Mumford asked a question about how we might teach metaphor better, I could only look at him and think, “A Fields medalist is asking me a question. What the $%@# do I say now?”

I gave some feebly irrelevant response. It was only afterwards, when the neural jelly was starting to re-set, that I thought, “For heavens sake, Alice, that whole chapter of the book is about how we can teach and learn metaphorical thinking!”

Even though this Uriah-Heep ‘umbleness had taken over my brain like an evil twin, I did manage to shake its cling aside during the week and step into that Magic Kingdom where information and ideas make their click-click-click combinations.  A number of talks concerned the area of stylometry in visual art. How can you use mathematics to identify features – brushstrokes, textural fluctuations – to decide whether a painting really is by Van Gogh or if it belongs to his Arles period? It may sound like a question that’s only interesting to art historians, but it also goes to the heart of making art. A painting is a physical object created through muscle control and repetitive modes of thought. How stuck do we get as artists into relying on our habits? Can we ever shake those patterns up at a fundamental level?

(Could I ever really write a decent haiku?)

As the week went by,  an effervescence of topics led in all directions, crossing like Venetian canals. James Wang  told us how his group has built a website to compare their computer-generated rankings of a photograph’s aesthetic quality with how much people actually like the photos. The work of trying to create computer versions of human thought is fascinating in and of itself, but in his preface to the main talk, James casually mentioned his earlier work on identifying the gender of the handprints in ancient cave paintings.

(You mean all those beautiful drawings were created by men and women? It wasn’t just a guy thing?)

Craig Kaplan showed how you can use a famous math challenge, the Travelling Salesman Problem, to create an algorithm that will draw half-tone pictures. (How does a brain assemble lines and dots into images?) Luke Wolcott used extracts from his thesis as the lyrics for a musical composition, using the phrase ‘you have to stay in this universe.’ (Mathematicians are always being told they ‘have to stay in this universe’ when they’re solving an equation. Don’t we all?)

We looked at the math of Persian mosaic designs and shoved round tables together to create large versions with blue tape. We looked at the exhibits being designed for the new Museum of Mathematics in New York and tried to twist the puzzle pieces brought by mathematical sculptor George Hart back into their neat cubes.

Now that I am home and the mountains are no longer looking over my shoulder, I have slammed the trap door shut on my evil twin and am thinking how rich the intersections of thought make us. I would answer David Mumford’s question properly now.

We don’t ‘teach’ metaphor any more than we teach people to breathe. We put a pile of different things together and encourage them to find the points of contact and the relationships between those points. It doesn’t matter whether we are in a schoolroom, a seniors’ centre or a gathering of eminent mathematicians. We just play in order to develop metaphor’s basic ‘muscle memory’ in the brain. We put a poet in a room with mathematicians, a mathematician in the room with poets.  We take ourselves to Disneyland – not the Disneyland of pre-programmed rides and candy floss, but the Magic Kingdom of collision, of discovery, of our human handprints on rock.

A poem for the Year of the Rabbit

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

turning point

“Turning Point” is a poem originally written for the last Year of the Rabbit, in 1998. Our hopes don’t change.

In defense of Sheherazad

Friday, August 27th, 2010

A group of fundamentalist lawyers in Egypt, oddly called “Lawyers without Shackles” wants to shackle Sheherazad. They’d like to purify the salacious passages in The Thousand and One Nights, that glorious phantasmagoria of narrative that has endured for centuries.

I immediately want to spring vehemently to Sheherazad’s defense. After all, she was one of the inspirations for my own Office Tower Tales about the tricky relations of power between men and women. Every writer draws on the immense roiling cauldron of literature as a source of inspiration. To censor a work is to remove it from a treasury that belongs to the world, not to one small stone-walled cellar.

But then I took a breath. It’s too easy to think of this containment effort uniquely in terms of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism and forget that 19th-century translators also tidied up the Arabian Nights for the tender ears of Victorians. They put Sir Richard Burton’s fuller, frolicking version on high shelves behind glass doors, out of the reach of children. (Not that the average child cold have made sense of Burton’s ornately twee diction anyway.)

In fact, oh modern parent, I’d challenge you to read Sheherazad’s story of the porter’s dalliance in the house of three beautiful sisters to your nine-year-old without a bright blush. I’m glad there was a version my mother could read to me without prompting innocent questions about pussy.

The issue of censorship is too big and complex for a blog item. Of course I defend our right to the uncensored versions. But I have this much in common with people who want to control what we read: I agree that stories and art are powerful. They can change how we think. The tales we tell ourselves over and over condition our brains, and sometimes we should be careful what stories we tell.

However, what these poor shackled lawyers don’t quite get is that removing the sex from The Thousand and One Nights actually removes its morality. Oh, perhaps you might eliminate the porter’s dalliance without too much harm – it’s an elaborate anecdote leading to a shaggy-dog pun. But in the rest of the narrative, the sex is central.

King Shahrayar and his brothers witness graphic episodes of infidelity on the part of their wives. They are deeply wounded, hurt almost to the death, and become convinced that women are irretrievably false. The King’s solution is to punish the whole gender – he’ll marry a new bride each day and send her to the chopping block right after the wedding night. He’s not going to be betrayed again.

Sheherazad realizes this embittered monarch has to be stopped. His violence is unhinging society. So she offers herself as a bride; her armament is story. She artfully keeps the king interested – he won’t have her beheaded until he finds out the end of the tale the next night … and the next … and the next.

When I first read the Bowdlerized version of the Arabian Nights, I couldn’t figure out why the king was going around killing wives one after the other. He didn’t seem to deserve any kind of redemption. I felt  a sensible woman would have taken a knife into the bedchamber rather than a narrative and helped society as well as herself by finishing him off.

The moral of the complete story is that women are sexual beings, that sexuality can bring harm and destabilization as well as delight, but that female sexuality cannot be controlled by male violence. In one significant episode, part of their process of embitterment, the king and his brother meet a sleeping demon with his head in the lap of a beautiful young woman. The demon keeps her in a locked glass box at the bottom of the sea, but she shows Shayrayar the rings from 98 men who have made love to her when she carefully moved the demon’s sleeping head from her lap. She invites the king and his brother to make that number up to a nice, round one hundred lovers. In this case, cuckolding the violent demon is almost a commendable act. He is ‘the enemy of mankind,’ says the young woman. This episode really convinces the king that women will get around any locks or controls put on them.

It is Sheherazad — wise, good and merry — who solves the moral conundrum posed by this episode.  Through her storytelling, she inhibits the possessive aggressiveness of men (“the enemy of mankind’) and puts the sexuality of male and female into context so that social cohesion can be restored and maintained.

The attempt to clean naughty bits out of the Arabian Nights has an air of faint silliness, like to trying to keep the princess in her glass box.  Sheherazad’s complete narrative, on the other hand, shows us that we need to encounter sexuality, understand its power and keep it in its place. Otherwise, we risk the kind of world where a husband who murders women can somehow become a suitable and accepted hero.

Is that really a story for any child to grow up hearing?

Sister act

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

A fat box arrived in the mail last week – my sister’s book, “Closed Adoption Policy in the 1960s: Exploring the construction of motive through fiction” by Carol Major. It’s the result of her doctorate in creative writing, published by a company that selects PhD theses and prints them up for sale mainly to university libraries. Someone is going to pick up that academic tome and fall into a wonderful novel.

It’s a bit odd, really, being a poet with a sister who writes novels. (“Are there any more writers in your family?” asked one magazine editor nervously after the publication had accepted pieces from me, my father and Carol.) I guess I have to admit that I felt apprehensive when she first took up writing a few years back, as though she was treading on my turf. After all, she had been the vivacious, popular one with great hair. And right away she was writing better dialogue than I did.

I figured I had two things insulating me from competition. One, that’s she’s down in Australia and so would be sending her work into quite a different market. The other was that I had a fifteen-year head start on her in terms of publishing books while she had been bringing up a family.

I didn’t realize that I had another publishing advantage – that I was writing poetry instead of novels. Poets whine a lot about the difficulty of finding a publisher. I had to start a publishing company with friends to bring out my own first book. However, though poetry may be marginal in terms of readership, it is paradoxically a little easier to publish it. Nobody expects a book of poetry to sell more than a few hundred copies, so nobody has big expectations. My early books could be published by tiny optimistic presses from Victoria to Fredricton, until I was taken in by the University of Alberta Press.

But novels – they’re fatter, financially more demanding to print and market. Printing five hundred copies doesn’t seem to be an option. The stakes are higher, the expectations steeper. Carol’s novel was taken up promptly by a leading agent in Australia and shopped around to the big publishing houses. But it didn’t quite fit anyone’s season, anyone’s niche. “We’re not sure how to market it,” she was told. They didn’t think they could sell the fifty thousand copies that would make it worth their while.

And yet, when I opened that box last week, I sat down and read the whole story all over again, absorbed in its characters and lyric description. It’s the story of a woman coming to terms with the fact that she gave a child up for adoption. Carol has caught that cusp of time in the early 70s when a tectonic shift in social attitudes took place. A whole institutional system had existed to find babies for nice families and coerced girls into giving up those babies in order to be ‘good’ and self-sacrificing. Then suddenly, the card house of social attitudes collapsed.  Carol makes this story real and vital.

I’m over the sibling rivalry. I would even cheerfully give up my head-start; I wish my sister had been able to write much sooner. She has been caught in a different tectonic shift: the massive financial upheaval of the book-publishing industry in the early 21st century, which feels it can’t afford to gamble (even if every new title is inherently a gamble.) So we end up with the winner-take-all fractal phenomenon described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in which one book will account for a massive percentage of sales.

We need more than the literature of best-sellers, and perhaps the technological upheaval in electronic book publishing will allow that to happen. I’m moderately hopeful that, just as my indie musician friends are connecting with audiences in different ways, novelists will be able to do that too. Then readers will be able to find the wonderful other books like Carol’s. But for now – get your university library to order in a copy of “Closed Adoption Policy in the 1960s.” Don’t tell them it’s a novel. Sneak down and read it over lunch.

A poem for Valentine’s

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

For centuries, poets have been instructing their poems to go off and carry words and feelings out into the world, hoping they will find kindly readers.  “Go little poem,” (or “book,” or “song,”) is a common phrase that goes back to the literature of ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages, such an ‘envoy’ often apologized for the poem’s inadequacies and asked for the reader’s forgiveness.

I like messing around with traditional forms like the sonnet. For my Valentine envoy, I imagined my poem as one of those small Voyager spacecraft, travelling out beyond the boundaries of the solar system. An alien intelligence, finding one of them, would surely realize right away that it was an artefact made with purpose.

And, of course, the poem is for my dear Valentine, David.

Valentine Envoi

 Go, little poem, into the space between

planets, across the unbounded page

inscribed by stars. A tiny, ticking machine

of levers and polished surfaces –

clear evidence of intent, design.


Let the aliens who intercept it

learn the virtues of this love of mine,

his kindly constellation. Let them share

my wonder at the dense relationship

of soul and smile, within the dear,

dear boundaries of skin. Go little ship

of space beyond the gravity of time,

and — beating always — prove

that there is, indeed, a god

of love.



A Christmas poem

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Where did I put it…

It must be here, somewhere,
under the remnants of wrappings,
bows, December’s red-and-green frenzy.

The cat thinks it’s hiding in the needles
of the Christmas tree, can be poked into motion
like a tremulous ornament.

The dog thinks it must be in the food cupboard –
has sniffed its ginger tail, caught a whiff
of soft cinnamon paws.

But none of us can find this little, still creature.
Perhaps if I looked outside, in the trees’ woven basket,
looped with the moon’s silver ribbons?

But no, I keep fumbling through the frantic shine
of credit cards and hunting in my handbags.
Oh, where have I put it this time?


by Alice Major, who hopes you can find
the Christmas spirit

New Year, old resolutions

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

I had coffee a couple of weeks back with a young woman who asked me several times when I knew that I truly was a writer. She seemed to think there is some kind of corner you turn, and voila, your future is revealed. I couldn’t answer her very well.

Her question made me think of all the New Year’s resolutions I had made – ‘This year, I will focus more on writing. I’ll get that manuscript finished by March … May … September…”

It also reminded me of going to a  summer session at the Humber College School for Writers, when I was faced with that very question.

This is from my journal, August 11, 1992:

“Finally, writing is an act of generosity.”

Richard Ford said that this evening, during an address that was informed by generosity – generous in his acknowledgement of his wife’s contribution to his work, his grandfather’s contribution to his life; generous to his readers, his audience, his world. A gaggle of female voices in the hall outside my dorm cubicle testifies to Ford’s charm.

“Wasn’t he just wonderful?” I agree. He made Margaret Atwood and Ann Beattie seem cocky and self-absorbed by comparison.

But in the middle of his talk, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. They came when he talked about the impetus that kept him writing – the deliberate sense of closing off his other options, of saying, in effect, “I must succeed at this because there is nothing else for me to do.”

The tears were an echo of tears I shed earlier today, after my one-on-one interview with Dionne Brand. Not that she was unkind, though I had a slight sense of being condescended to. She made a number of constructive comments and seemed to approve moderately of Words selected and imposed on time. But our session was cut short by the arrival of the next interviewee, so I felt truncated as though there were things I wanted to say as well as to hear.

I cried then too as a release of emotional tension, an anticlimactic sense muddled up with a curious dread: I have committed myself to this writing fate; I must succeed in it, and there is every likelihood I’ll fail – or at least not succeed enough to count.

But during Richard Ford’s lecture, the tears came from knowing I have not yet truly committed myself, that I leave other options open. I have not said – so that my soul believes it – “I must succeed at this because there is nothing else for me to do.”

I feel caught in limbo, half a writer. There is no fact that any of the speakers here have given me that I didn’t know already (other than, of course, their personal biographical details). But, one after the other, they have hammered home that to be a writer is to take on a life, to write, write, write. I squirm and sidestep, but essentially this is the pin I have to decide to stick through my own gut.

I had hoped this session would provide me with a rush of energy, an impetus of self-confidence. Instead, I’m lonely, can’t even phone David because he’s out of town on a project. I’m hungry – the cafeteria food is grim and all I could stomach for dinner was a carton of yoghurt. I’m frightened. The universe is out there and it doesn’t give a hoot about me.

But perhaps, somehow, this is the lesson I really need.

* * *
Every novelist or poet or dramatist has a different path to vocation. Lucky ones know early that this is their destination. But, to answer my young friend, there never came an afternoon when I suddenly knew that I was (drumroll) “A Writer.” Even now, eight books later, being a poet seems to be a decision that I have to make and make again.

The world always keeps other doors ajar, and says, “Maybe you should have done that instead. It would be more useful, more valuable, more recognized.” And every new year has to resolve itself.

GG awards and grumbling

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

I was rather relieved to find out there was a controversy over this year’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry. It reminded me of something I should know – just how human this process of awarding literary prizes is.

Like the other 123 poets who were not short-listed for the 2008 prize, I was disappointed when the list came out. I spent ten years writing The Office Tower Tales, and – though I am obviously prejudiced in my assessment – I felt my book was good enough to be there with the others that did make it. (I don’t think I’m completely delusional in this matter. I’ve had spontaneously good reviews of the work, even by people I don’t know.)

When a list of the ‘best’ books of the year comes out and you’re not on it, you tend to think it has been set in some sort of Mosaic edict, that you just didn’t measure up to some fixed standard of excellence. You weren’t fast enough, you didn’t get the compulsory figures right or you didn’t show enough verve in your long program.

But when you get down to it, a literary prize only reflects what that year’s jury liked best. It’s not completely arbitrary. There’s a certain threshold of more-than-basic competence that you have to meet to get in the door. Beyond that, our human perceptions of what subjects are interesting, what approaches are new or what touches our emotions are individual.

I should have known this right away on my pale-blue afternoon of disappointment. I’ve been through the process of jurying poetry prizes. I know how baffling it can be when you bring forward your list of favourites and find they hardly intersect at all with those of your fellow jurors. And I know the dynamics of negotiation that go into reaching some sort of cohesion around the short list, never mind agreeing on a winner.

On the one hand, subject matter or poetic approach that seems exciting and novel to one person can seem dreadfully derivative to another who happens to be more exposed to a particular trend. On the other hand, you can’t help assessing a poet that you’ve actually heard reading her work differently than one you’ve met only on the flat page.

But I always forget all this when I’m the one being judged. So to find out that this year’s G-G jury decision has been fired on because two of the jurors had particularly close connections with the winning book was oddly comforting. Not because I could sniff and say the whole process is flawed, that the Soviet judges always give an artificially high rating to their country’s skaters. It just reminds me the process is about people, not absolute standards.

How on earth do you read 129 books of poetry with equal attention and diligence? The most I’ve had to read for any one competition is a couple of dozen books, and even then, let me tell you, your eyes glaze over. Poetry is something that grows on you with familiarity. It is very difficult not to favour a voice that you have heard, a voice you have some personal acquaintance with. It’s far too easy to slur over unfamiliar pages that you only read once.

We sometimes say that the Canadian poetry world is too incestuous and that’s why juries are flawed. You’re bound to know people whose books come before you. Maybe the problem is that we’re not quite incestuous enough – we don’t know every poet, so it’s hard to distinguish who is genuinely memorable from poets who are trading on our unconscious assessments because we know them personally.

In the early days of the GG’s, Northrop Frye could read and review all the Canadian poetry books published in any given year. A process that involved three jurors was a pretty good way of assessing the relative merits of fifteen or twenty books. I don’t see how it can possibly work with more than a hundred titles, all of which have cleared some basic quality hurdles to become published in the first place.

Did this year’s jury do the best they could? Were they as dispassionate, as careful as they could have been? I don’t know. It’s a question for their own hearts. When I look at the list of titles submitted to the GG awards this year, I know I would have chosen a different short list. There are many books by poets I admire and who deserve the recognition. (Including that sadly-overlooked-but-brilliant oeuvre, The Office Tower Tales.) But I also know my list would have been just as idiosyncratic – as much about what I like and have been exposed to.

We have prizes such as the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, not to choose something that’s ‘best’, but to remind the reading public that poetry is written here, in this country.  Of course, if that is the real purpose, I often wonder whether we could spend the money more effectively. Why not have a gala performance of 8-10 poets at the National Arts Centre stage their readings brilliantly and broadcast/podcast the results? It would probably do more to liven up the audience for poetry than a gold-foil circle on a book.

If we do want to find a ‘best’ book, we probably need to look at how. The processes that work in a small system don’t work when it becomes bigger. In the first few stages of fetal development, you can depend on cell-to-cell diffusion to provide nutrients and remove waste. But that quickly becomes inadequate as more cells are added and go beyond the capacity for immediate connection. You need circulatory systems in something as complex as a human being.

And we probably probably need them in poetry competitions too.

Dog days

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Exercise – they say dog-owners get more of it and are healthier as a result. Ha! I used to get long, healthy walks in the river valley. Then I got a dog.

“We’re going for a walk, Whiffle,” I say to our 12-pound conniption of black fur, who promptly does that dog thing of double back-flips. It’s like trying to get into the car with the entire Chinese circus.

We head to my favourite part of the river valley, Louise McKinney Park behind the convention centre. There’s a path that goes down through banks of hardy roses to the footbridge. From there you can hike for miles along the trails.

Lemme at it, says Whiffle, leaping from the car door. And we’re off, my arm stretched out as she swings from side to side, so that I look like a water diviner with a particularly willful wand.

Rabbit…Dog A … Dog B … she snuffles. Dog A again … rabbit … rabbit … Whoa! what’s that? And I’m spun like a compass needle.

It’s time to assert dominance. “Sit,” I say loudly. She looks doubtfully up at me and then at the muddy path. You really want me to sit on this?

“SIT,” I growl again and she lowers her bum like a Victorian lady with a bustle. I align myself with the leash held to match the diagram in the obedience manual, then order “Walk.” For a few yards we manage a sedate pace that wouldn’t flutter an centenarian’s pulse.

But by the first switchback through the rose garden, Whiffle is once again hull-down on the trail of rapture. She’s desperate to take the turn-off to one of the flat lawns that punctuate the headlong slope of the river valley.

Please, please, please, she gasps, just this side of strangulation.

Now one of the things I like about Louise McKinney Park is that it’s often very quiet. I look around – there’s no one here. Yes, I know it’s not an off-leash area, but she’s just a little dog.

“If I let you off the lead, will you come right back when I tell you to?”

Her eyes express the puppy equivalent of Honest, cross my heart, hope to die.

I take another furtive look towards the ramparts of Jasper Avenue at the top of the valley. All clear. “Okay, just for a minute,” I tell her.

Off she flies, and almost immediately I look up to see a man on the path above me in a peaked cap that looks ominously official. My brain flashes to Edmonton’s $100 fine for letting dogs run loose in parks. I have to get that wretched dog back before we’re both shipped off to the pound.

But Whiffle’s already on the far side of the lawn. I scuttle after her, whispering, “Whiffle, come.” It’s hardly the masterful sound I need to get her attention.

“Come!” A squawk like an anguished magpie. I look nervously up at the hat. Has he noticed?

Whiffle hasn’t. Rabbit, Dog C … she’s dancing out of reach. The hat is strolling down the first switchback. Desperation lends authority to my final croaked “Come!”

Oh, if you make a point of it. Whiffle lets me reconnect the lead and we skulk off to the stairs at the far end of the lawn so I won’t have to make eye contact with the man in the hat.

Back in the car, Whiffle licks my nose. Wasn’t that fun!

“Fun!” I tell her bitterly. “I’ve had the cardiac workout of a goldfish in a teacup, and you’ve got burrs in your ears.”

But I needed the exercise, she says.

“You need exercise, you go to the gym,” I tell her. “I’m taking a walk by myself.”


Originally published in Avenue magazine

Reading Nabokov: Shut up, memory

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

From a journal entry, August, 2001

Just finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. How observant an eye. How gorgeous a prosodist. How I dislike him.

There’s a meanness that hovers in the offing of his writing, a fastidious drawing-back of the skirts and nostrils that goes beyond mere daintiness into discrimination in its ugly sense. Whether it’s the peasant girl at a gate or the burghers in a Berlin park, these are beings beneath him.

I’m sure he could love very deeply – his father, his son, his butterflies. But the ordinary unwashed – he can’t love them, or understand why sometimes you don’t or can’t wash.

I know this is partly my good old knee-jerk leftish upbringing coming into play. I was utterly taken aback by the sheer wealth of his early surroundings – the estate in the country, the town houses in St. Petersburg, the summers in Biarritz, the servants, the governesses, the dentists in Berlin.

“About bloody time there was a revolution,” I was muttering by the end of the first chapter.

But I doubt my reaction is completely determined by solidarity with the workers. It’s a personal thing – a reaction to what seems small, self-centered. He is astonished when his governess, Mademoiselle, seems to remember a different relationship than the one he recalls. But he never thinks there is any doubt of his memory being the more accurate one.

Walt Whitman wrote, “If you love to have a servant stand behind your chair at dinner, it will appear in your writing – or if you possess a vile opinion of women or if you grudge anything … these will appear by what you leave unsaid more than by what you say.”

What Nabokov constantly leaves unsaid is, “I might have been wrong. Someone else might interpret the situation otherwise, and be just as correct.”

Oh, now and again he expresses a mild regret at writing a harsh review of someone. Once, he’s not sure, in the struggle of remembered emotions during an embarrassing school situation, whether he was empathetically silent or one of the rowdy teenagers who humiliated the tutor. (I’ll bet it was the latter, Vladimir.)

But mostly his sense of privilege is so deeply engrained that it is invisible to him, and this privilege extends to being the one whose account of the past is right.

And then there’s that affectation in the last chapters of never naming his wife and son, referring only to ‘you’ and ‘our son.’ I’m sure his official, external reason would have been to protect their privacy, not to claim them in public. But there’s a horrible possessiveness to that continual beat of ‘our child’. As though by depriving these people of their names, Vera and Dmitri, he denies them an independent existence.

Oh, it’s very lovely, very detailed, very synaesthetic, all those pictures in the park. But I never feel he recognizes they have different eyes to look through. (You need to get out more, Vladimir.)

There’s one point in the memoir where Nabokov describes a failed dinner with Ivan Bunin, the Russian novelist and Nobel laureate who was also from an aristocratic background. Nabokov is not impressed by the fine restaurant – he’s had plenty of quails in his childhood, he prefers to eat lying down on a couch. (You have my sympathies, Vera.)

Towards the end of this tiresome evening, Bunin says, “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation.”

Just a page earlier, I’d been thinking, “Gawd, does this guy ever get his comeuppance?” So when I read that, I recognized a deep fellow feeling with Bunin.

In describing the incident, Nabokov was ostensibly being honest, citing the critical remark by a famous man. But underneath that (or on top of it), he is being smug. See, here I am in later life, not alone, not in great pain. After all, he issues this ‘final version’ of his memoir in his mid-sixties, in Montreux, Switzerland, well known, well-published. Life has never been hard – slightly impoverished for a while, but never hard.

Perhaps there were moments in his life where he knew he was alone and in pain. You can’t look into another man’s mind – only into his memoirs. But, as Whitman noted, they are curiously reliable. What we write cannot conceal what we are.

Nabokov thought comfortably well of himself. Conceit is an ugly thing. Bad enough when some macho guy in a mullet flashes his gold chains and a grin at you in the bar. But worse when an intellectual looks disdainfully in his direction and thinks, “I’m better than you are.”




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