Thursday, 25 September 2008


One of the differences between novelists and poets is that novelists make people up and make them do things. This assumes - or so I, as a poet, assume - that others can be knowable, or, rather, that they can be presented in a way that makes them seem knowable. So you get the phenomenon that novelists talk about, when a character: 'just develops and takes over the book'. As I remember, Barthes was very sceptical of character and preferred to concentrate on action, which just shows he was a poet at heart. Doesn't he say somewhere that a lyric poem is a single complex indivisible signifier? I can't be bothered to get the book out now but I remember thinking at the time: yes, that's my kind of theorist.

Because, I suspect, language behaves more like a lyric poem than a chain of clear signifiers arranged according to syntax. That idea is, for now, just between ourselves, but one day I'll get out there and prove it. Politicians and advertisers already know it, as do lovers and the knitters and spinners in the sun. You will say that that is not how we produce a balance sheet or an economy and I'll admit you're right, but I'll point to the current financial crisis and insist it proves my point.

But back to character. People are clearly characters. Today for instance a relative from Australia came and he is clearly one of those (a character, I mean). Characters in books talk and act and move through life on the basis of the consequences of how they talk and act. Novelists will tell us what they think as well but that only matters in so far as they act. See Barthes on actions. So relative has lunch. He talks and acts, and I can see the life he is referring to is a complex thing, troubled, fancy, paradoxical, sad and different, and that there is most clearly a ghost in the machine (I always assume there are ghosts in machines, it's much the safest). But what could I possibly say about the ghost, his ghost - his character - that I could actually persuade myself to believe?

Nothing, reader.

And it's the same with others. I am not totally autistic so I do admit there are others in the world. I am aware of their ghosts flitting about here and there, and am certainly aware of the machine of their actions. But as an honest poet I will admit that their sheer existence is such an extraordinary object, their actions so much like tiny versions of Olympic opening ceremonies, that I am fascinated by the firework display of their being and can't even pretend to see who exactly is applying a match to the blue touch paper of their presence.

You may think that is a serious personality defect on my part. A monstrous self-centredness. But I don't regard myself as any more privileged, any more knowable, any less strange and firework like, even to myself. And, as I have said before, I sometimes look at animals, our domestic cats being the closest to hand, and consider their own strange ghosts and tempers and machines. Just as strange, just as apparitional, just as autonomous. There is a certain egalitarian principle there, I hope you agree.

If I have socialist, materialist instincts at all, they follow from this level playing field of strangeness. In the end you trust others precisely because of their weirdness, density, impenetrability: their discreteness (not discretion, never discretion). It is a peculiar instinctive morality that goes to make poets. It is a peculiar lack of imagination, not a surfeit, as is often believed.

We spend so much time imagining the real we never really get on to imagining character and character development. The best of us know it exists and that development is the heart of being human. It's just that its workings have a sacred opacity. It's just that we feel that the unknowability is an essential part of the same thing. The worst of us feel the same but the worst don't know anything else. They are plain bastards.

Beware of so-called poet-princes, monsters who call themselves poets and write reams of what they call poetry but which is in fact a kind of self-hypnotic voodoo. Listen very hard. Listen sceptically. Because all poets worth their salt are sceptics. And though they can talk they are primarily listeners. Even their doziness, otherworldiness, daze, or what Graves referred to as the poetic trance, is a product of sceptical listening, not to notions of character but to phenomena, to all that may be listened to.

And as for politicians and princes, don't waste time imagining characters. Watch what they do. What they do is their character.

These are notes to myself, reader. When I say 'you' I mean 'I'. Please remember that. Thank you.


Mark Granier said...

Interesting, and I agree with much of this. Here's something that you might enjoy, from a George A. Plimpton interview with Nabokov in The Paris Review:

E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes
taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this
ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

My knowledge of Mr. Forster's works is limited to one
novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered
that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand;
it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes
with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip
to India or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley

Ouch! Full interview here:

Gwil W said...

Ah Vlad the Impaler!
Once I foolishly tackled his Bend Sinister without an English dictionary to hand. What did I make of his characters? Did brilliant philosopher Adam Krug take over the novel? I don't know, because I couldn't make head nor tail of it. And this pompous Nabokov had the temerity to take Orwell to task and call him 2nd rate. I shudder.
If you want to read a good novel by a really good writer I'd say read almost anything by Graham Greene. At the moment I'm into autobiographies - The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh, The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig.
Prosit George!
Gwilym Williams

Mark Granier said...

And of course Nabokov's autobiography, 'Speak, Memory', is one of the greatest ever (and a dictionary does help).

Gwil W said...

Thanks. Heard of it. Haven't read it. I'll see if I can borrow it from the library.

George S said...

Yes, Mark, quite agree on Speak Memory!

I've never felt forced to choose between Nabokov and Orwell. Orwell is a hero. Nabokov is a poet/novelist. The latter class can say daft things, self not excepted, but it's all in a good cause. .

Or so I've heard.

There are a couple of nice YouTube clips I have saved of Nabokov on American TV. I'll put them up soon..

Poet in R, I should confess, if you didn't know it already, that my own mother's family was Transylvanian, nothing too gory but occasionally given to impaling.

ps I loved Forster too. A Room with a View knocked me out when I was about 20. Haven't re-read it. Curious to know how it would strike me now. I wish people wouldn't make films of books (well, sometimes). I wish time did not pass.

Gwil W said...

Sometimes, not often I admit, someone makes a film of a book that just hits the right note - eg Our Man in Havanna, The Third Man. I'd like someone to make a film of Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote -or perhaps they already did and I missed it.
George - I had no idea you were related to a Transylvannian Impaler (quickly reaches for clove of garlic and silver cross). I'm glad you warned me.
- Off to 'enjoy' your Nabokov clips.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for those George, wonderful stuff, and wonderfully of its time. I could smell the cigarette smoke, Brylcreem and tweed, and Nabokov's restless energy:

"You've put a word in the language, 'nymphet'. Do you feel you've accomplished something? Is this going to be your monument?"

"It is a very small monument but it is a delicate monument and it is pleasant to have, somewhere in the garden, in the shade."

A lot of water under the bridge since then, among other things.

George S said...

The Goldwyn version of that is: We have all passed a lot of water under the bridge since.

A fair amount of crazy stuff under the bridge too.

Gwil W said...

Apropos Brylcreem etc.-

"...young Paduk, his sleek hair resembling a wig too small for his shaven head, sat between Brun the Ape and a lacquered dummy..."

(Bend Sinister p75 or so)

I must watch those clips again. Is he really paying attention?

George S said...

Hmm... Something seems to be nodding there. Though in the previous paragraph VN writes:

"...With his father's reluctant consent, the top of Paduk's pale-blue cranium was allowed to grow just enough hair to resemble Etermon's beautifully groomed pate..."

and in the next paragraph:

"...a very black fly which Schimpffer had especially prepared for the occasion by dipping it in India ink was walking on the shaven part of Paduk's studiously bent head...' (My italics)

So part was shaved, part not. It's grotesque writing. It ain't realism exactly. It's a bit like Della Casa's renaissance book of manners in which he describes in great detail people drooling etc.

Gwil W said...

Just to go back to Orwell now that I've unearthed the source of my original complaint -

In the introduction to Bend Sinister VN writes:

"...comparisons between Bend Sinister and Kafka's creations or Orwell's cliches would go merely to prove that the automaton could not have read either the great German writer or the mediocre English one..."

(overlooking the fact the FK is not a German as VN would have us believe but an Austro-Hungarian Monarchy Jew from Prague, where there's now an excellent Kafka museum, I find VN to be pompous in the extreme - clearly he hasn't read much Orwell - his Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a wonderful love story. One of the best you can read)

George S said...

OK, so Nabokov was pompous (and took a certain pride in it), and sometimes - possibly often - he was wrong in fact and judgment, but his lectures are splendid reads and his prose, to me and many others, is a rich, luscious, grotesque, marvellously close to being overblown delight. He loves language. He understands something very important about the density, texture, sensuality, prickliness, loss and strangeness of life that is beyond good sense and proper notions.

I would never take him as a moral guide, as I might Orwell, but he is simply of one type, Orwell another.

Mark Granier said...

Re. Kafka being a German writer, I imagine Nabokov merely meant that his first language was German.

Nabokov does sound a bit pompous (my friend Anthony said that his words wore bow ties). But I'd love to see him debate these things himself. I read his Lectures on Russian and English Literature and his judgments are often brilliant. I particularly enjoyed his impatience with any form of intellectual dishonesty, whether in Joyce or Dostoyevsky. He acknowledged that Ulysses was a work of genius, though thought the Homeric allusions were rather pointless. He didn't much care for Crime And Punishment, and his reasoning was very compelling.

I don't know why he seemed to dislike Orwell so much, but I can imagine Animal Farm wearing his patience out. Perhaps that was all he read.

Mark Granier said...

Just saw George's comment. Exactly, Nabokov loved language. He had a magnificent impatience with moral or allegory or anything that stood in the way of the unfurling narrative, the good story.

His sometimes overblown metaphors are often wonderfully playful. I recall reading a Nabokov essay in which he said that the best place for a writer was in an ivory tower. But in order to make such a tower one must slay an awful lot of elephants of a particular breed, the one called Common Sense.

Or that the least interesting thing about the boy who cried wolf was that fact that he got eaten by the wolf in question. The main point was that he might have been the first inventor of stories, the first novelist.

Gwil W said...

I agree 100% that VN is a clever wordsmith but I think its also possible without the pomposity.

Gwil W said...

Mark, I couldn't find a copy of Nabokov's autobiography in the local library but I managed to find Jane Grayson's 'Vladimir Nabokov' (Penguin Illustrated Lives).
It starts 'All Nabokovians* ...' and then there's a long list of acknowledgements - Dimitri Nabokov thru Zinovy Zinik.
*I guess that's us.