Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Act of Attention

Vladmir Nabokov, and a pencilOne my absolute favorite fiction writers is Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), author of Pale Fire, Lolita, The Defense, 14 other novels (in both Russian and English), a ton of essays and short stories, an incredible memoir titled Speak, Memory, and many lectures on literature, too.

I’ve written here about Nabokov before, including in a post titled “Poker ‘Reality’” where I talked a little about a parenthetical point he once made that the word “reality” is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.” As the title implies, the post takes a stab at applying Nabokov’s point about the subjective nature of “reality” to poker.

I found myself hunting down another quote from Nabokov this morning -- the reason for which I’ll probably reveal in a post later in the week -- and had a kind of mini-revelation while doing so. It has been a long time since I read all of those novels and stories. And truthfully, now that I think about it, I was probably much too young to understand them much at all when I did.

That got me thinking about other writers I once studied in earnest, and how it’s similarly the case that when I read them I also was much younger, much less experienced, and much less equipped to respond to their messages. To their art.

You recognize what I’m referring to, I’m sure. Think of reading Hamlet in high school. Were you really ready to understand the prince’s plight? Maybe you read it later, as a young adult perhaps closer in age to the protagonist. Your ideas about his situation and struggle were better informed then, your responses more thoughtful.

But now you know even more. Now you’d recognize still more angles to consider, more ways to judge the young Dane. You’d see more, including all that you glossed over before as not immediately apparent. And if you read it tomorrow you would realize what you had missed today. And so on.

When I think of Nabokov’s books I think of an artist crafting jaw-droppingly clever, stunningly elaborate worlds out of the smallest details imaginable. Sticking out is the memory of a lengthy description of a pencil, an outrageous digression in Transparent Things (one of his last novels). I’m pulling the book off my shelf right now to find the passage...

Ah, there it is. Hugh Person, the main character, opens a desk drawer and the pencil spills out.

“It was not a hexagonal beauty of Virginia juniper or African cedar, with the maker’s name imprinted in silver foil, but a very plain, round, technically faceless old pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac. It had been mislaid ten years ago by a carpenter who had not finished examining, let alone fixing, the old desk, having gone away for a tool that he never found. Now comes the act of attention.”

'Transparent Things' (1972) by Vladimir NabokovWow... I am seeing how the history of the pencil and the description continue for a couple of pages, taking up the entire short chapter. A chronicle of Hugh Person’s act of attention. I’d forgotten.

Details escape us. And even when they don’t, we often miss how they relate to everything else. How they mean. Think about all those hands of poker you played, and all that you missed while playing them. And all you’d see now, if you could play them all again. If you could reread.

It’s a short novel. I think I’ll reread it right now. You know, to see what I missed.

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