Nabokovilia: Martin Amis's "Oktober"

I was carrying a book: the forthcoming “Letters to Véra,” by Véra’s husband, Vladimir Nabokov. But the voices around me were unrelaxingly shrill—I could concentrate on what I was reading, just about, but I could extract no pleasure from it. So I took my drink back into the foyer, where the pianist, after a break, had resumed. The businessman was still on the phone; as before, we were sitting two tables apart, and back to back. Occasionally I heard snatches (“Have you got any office method where you are? Have you?”). But now I was slowly and appreciatively turning the pages, listening to that other voice, V.N.’s: humorous, resilient, full of energy. The letters begin in 1923; two years earlier, he sent his mother a short poem, as proof “that my mood is as radiant as ever. If I live to be a hundred, my spirit will still go around in short trousers.”
When January dawned in 1924, Vladimir (a year older than the century) was in Prague, helping his mother and his two younger sisters settle into their cheap and freezing new apartment. (“Jesus, it’s called basic gumption. Do you know how you spell that?”) These former boyars were now displaced and deracinated—and had “no money at all.” (“5C? No. Obviously. 4C. 4C, for Christ’s sake.”) Vladimir himself, like his future wife, the Judin Véra Slonim, had settled in Berlin, along with almost half a million other Russian fugitives from 1917. And in Berlin the two of them would blithely and stubbornly remain. Their lone child, Dmitri, was born there in 1934. The Nuremberg Laws were passed in September, 1935, and they began to be enforced and expanded after the Berlin Olympics of 1936; but not until 1937 did the Nabokovs hurriedly decamp to France, after a (seemingly never-ending) struggle with visas and exit permits and Nansen passports.
All ambient sounds suddenly ceased, and the businessman was saying, “D’you know who this is? Do you? It’s Geoffrey. Geoffrey Vane. Geoffrey. Geoff. Yeah. You know me. And you know what I’m like. . . . Right, my patience is at an end. Congratulations. Or, as you’d say, super. . . . Now. Get your fucking Mac and turn to your fucking e-mails. Do you understand me? Do you understand me? Go to the communication from the fucking agent. The on-site agent. You know, that fucking Argy—Feron. Fucking Roddy Feron. Got it? Now bring up the fucking attachment. Got it? Right—fucking 4C.”

Convergences: Poets & Geologists & Driving & Mermaids.

John McPhee tells you not to hitch a ride with geologists. Martin Amis tell you who not to hitch a ride with poets. Montaigne says, Who needs a car when you have a tail?

McPhee's Annals of the Former World:
Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, a roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane. (...)
"If I'm going to drive safely, I can't do geology."

Amis's The Information:
Poets can't, don't, shouldn't drive. (British poets can't or don't drive. American poets drive, but shouldn't.)

Horace, by way of Montaigne:
Poets can create monsters at will; say a fair maid with the tail of a fish, that is, a mermaid.

Nabokovilia: Martin Amis (The Information and London Fields)

Little by little, bit by bit, I'll be reintroducing bits of Nabokovilia from the old site. Here is the first (additional bits of Martin Amis Nabokovilia available here.)

From The Information:

Even when he was in familiar company (his immediate family, for instance) it sometimes seemed to Richard that those gathered in the room were not quite authentic selves -- that they had gone away and then come back not quite right, half remade or reborn by some blasphemous, backhanded, and above all inexpensive process. In a circus, in a funhouse. All flaky and carny. Not quite themselves. Himself very much included.

He said, 'Is this without interest? Nabokov said he was frankly homosexual in his literary tastes. I don't think men and women write and read in exactly the same way. They go at it differently.'
'And I suppose,' she said, 'that there are racial differences too?'
He didn't answer. For a moment Richard looked worryingly short-necked. He was in fact coping with a digestive matter, or at least he was sitting tight until the digestive matter resolved itself one way or the other.

'But that was... Wasn't that just a maneuver? To avoid a homosexuality scandal," said Richard carefully. 'Advice from Gide. Before Proust went to Gallimard.'

'Nabokov,' suggested Balfour.

'Yeah but that was just a book of love poems. When he was a schoolboy.'

'Nevertheless. Philip Larkin. And of course James Joyce.'

Richard had hated all the poets and novelists too, but the playwrights, the playwrights... With Nabokov, and others, Richard regarded the drama as a primitive and long-exhausted form. The drama boasted Shakespeare (which was an excellent cosmic joke), and Chekhov, and a couple of sepulchral Scandinavians. Then where were you?

From London Fields:

When she arranged this meeting with Guy, over the telephone, Nicola stressed the need for commando or bank-caper synchrony ('Unpunctuality throws me utterly. It's tiresome, I know. The orphanage, perhaps...'); but this didn't stop her keeping him waiting for a good fifteen minutes ('Please, sit down!' she called from the bedroom. 'I do apologize'). She needed fifteen minutes. One to envelope her bikini in a plain white cotton dress. Another to give the bedclothes a fantastic worrying. What was the delightful phrase in Lolita: the guilty dissaray of hotel linen suggesting and ex-convicts saturnalia with a couple of fat old whores? The rest of the time Nicola needed for make-up...

More Nabokovilia in Martin Amis

So I knew there was some Nabokovilia in Martin Amis's London Fields and The Information, but it wasn't till I visited the former and revisited the latter that I found even more.

See page 303 of London Fields:
Vladimir Nabokov, encouragingly, was a champion insomniac. He believed that this was the best way to divide people: those who slept and those who didn't. The great line in Transparent Things, on of the saddest novels in English: "Night is always a giant but this one was specially terrible."
Fee fie fo fum, goes the giant. How did VN ever slay the thing? I wander. I write. I wring my hands. Insomnia has something to be said for it, in my case. It beats dreaming.

And see too page 238 of The Information:
To paraphrase a critic who also knew about beetles and what they liked, Kafka's beetle took a beetle pleasure, a beetle solace, in all the darkness and the dust and the discards.

Three observations:

  1. Amis, in The War Against Cliche, his collection of book reviews, loves to use the same sort of Transparent-Things-insomniacs-or-not-"There's only two kinds of people in this world" line as an opening hook (not often, but often enough: some examples: "It was in Joysprick (1973), I think, that Anthony Burgess first made his grand-sounding distinction between the 'A' novelist and the 'B' novelist" (113), "There are two kinds of long novel" (121), "Dipsomaniacs are either born that way, or they just end up that way" (207)). 
  2. The Information's Richard Tull's beetle thoughts have been only slightly reshuffled in transport. Nabokov's original line, from the Kafka chapter in Lectures on Literature, reads: "...curiously enough, Gregor, though a very sick beetle -- the apple wound is festering, and he is starving -- finds some beetle pleasure in crawling among all that dusty rubbish." (Tull festers a bit himself: bitter, ignored, he is a writer of unreadable fiction condemned to read and review lengthy, unreadable biographies.)
  3. There's Nabokov in Kingsley too! I'll be checking out the letters and Stanley and the Women presently.