Monday, March 16, 2009

Reading/Watching Mid-March

I finished Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation To A Beheading at the beginning of the month. I remember mostly the words.

The language was startling, superhuman, as if he single-handedly took it upon himself to invent a whole new way of writing sentences, making metaphors and stringing together words. And he did it again and again in twenty or so works of writing. Meanwhile, he studied butterflies.

This novel was consistently funny (in a muted way) and nightmarish yet frequently as claustrophobic as the book's phantasmal jail cell where most of the action takes place. I read it with an increasing sense of dread while at the same time I was constantly floored by the perfection of his sentences. It was almost a poem, or an aesthetic exercise in futility, where every word counted for something while at the same time signifying nothing beyond the beauty of its utterance. Nabokov, I read somewhere, declared that all good art is composed of "beauty plus pity." The situation of the accused in this book is beyond pitiable but rendered in the most beautiful possible way.

I remember reading Pale Fire a long time ago back, I think, before I could fully appreciate it. And I also only read Lolita for the first time last year, an experience which definitely warrants a re-reading.

As much as I love Nabokov's singular style, the same way I appreciate writers like Saul Bellow, I think I'd rather strive for the sharp and limpid prose of Paul Bowles, whose stories collected in The Delicate Prey I've been slowly reading and savoring these past couple months. What I love about Bowles are the same things I love about J.M. Coetzee, namely an angular, sensual prose that relies more on stark imagery and contrasts than colorful word-play and discursiveness. Maybe also a part of me is smitten by the roles that both Bowles and Coetzee play, both in their fictions and their non-fictions, of being ambiguous witnesses in seemingly distant lands who knit together parables of cultural discord and dislocation.

I think too I'm a sucker for a writer who can capture space and place with a vivid intensity that I can almost smell. I've discovered lately that I especially like reading things that play to my sense of smell, because I think it is the most subtle and elusive sensory component to capture effectively. It also strikes at the deepest parts of memory and consciousness.

As for rendering space, in Bowles's case, most of these stories I've read take place in tropical, muggy, mostly Latin-American places, where giant birds alight on dripping tree limbs in misty forests, or else children harboring odd secrets hunt for money through sweltering plazas. His sensuality is rife with contrasts, the moral lessons are dark and often as not amoral and there are frequently appalling and sudden clashes between Others, be them travellers and natives, husbands and wives, or children and elders. They are enviable tales, some of the best I've read, and I'm looking forward to reading his novels and essays.

Meanwhile, I watched two Marlene Dietrich movies, Blond Venus and Scarlet Empress. Scarlet Empress was a bizarre and tantalizing viewing experience, if only because Dietrich has got to be one of the most beautiful women who ever lived, especially in the conflict-fraught role of Catherine the Great, forcibly betrothed to a mad idiot and made into the marionette of an aging, antagonistic matriarch. She embodies the transformation from a doe-eyed Prussian innocent to a wilful, seductive and dominating Queen exquisitely, all within the most lavish and decadent Tsarist kitsch movie sets I've ever seen.

I also watched The Innocents, one of my favorite scary movies, with a screenplay by Truman Capote and a story based on The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James. It has some of the best haunted house lighting too which, to me, means a great deal.

I think I'll wait for another post to talk about grad school rejection, my new workshop, and this great Belgian detective-noir writer I just discovered.

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