January 29, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Nabokov, Narrative, and the Mighty Adjective

Some names come attached to labels like “master prose stylist.” Nabokov (take a quiz on him here) is one. (For the record, I’m with you, Rob Kunzig, on the question of whether or not to burn Laura). It’s hard to tell exactly what it means to be a prose stylist, and one senses that the label has taken on a life of its own. But maybe what “master prose stylist” means is that the guy could write.

“Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage.”

This passage from the first pages of Speak Memory knocked me back. How much gravity Nabokov is able to put invest in one small adjective! The “gaudily painted savage” is unfortunate, and I like to think that Nabokov, writing now, would choose a different comparison there. But the bruised fists are perfect.

There are two reasons I admire Nabokov’s use of the adjective in this passage. First, adjectives are mere modifiers, notoriously weak because they’re generally incapable of calling up a thing or moving it. Second, he’s using the adjective, and a common one at that, to imply a narrative trajectory. With the single word, Nabokov not only makes the “colossal effort” into a concrete action, but he makes a story of that action by suggesting its existence over a crushing amount of time.

I can think of a place in Lolita, too, where Nabokov deploys an adjective in the same way. The most affecting, IMHO, utterance in that novel gets its power from a phrase that’s a lot like “bruised fists.” When Humbert says, “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments…” it’s the durable that really does the work. “Durable” draws in the eons against which Humbert’s portrait must stand. The prospect of slow erasure, Lolita’s and ours, is suddenly palpable.

The problem of writing events over time, or narrating, is one I struggle with when writing poetry. A sequence of events is so often the impetus for a poem, but simply relating the events in sequence kills the poem. It can be necessary to give the reader a narrative context, but one must do so without the lapsing into a direct treatment of the matter at hand. Finding the right way to convey narrative elements is a part of finding the poem’s form, although, under the influence of Ellen Bryant Voight, I prefer to think of the task as discovering “what structure is available that will accommodate the materials the poem will need.” Nabokov’s narrative-through-adjective tells a story as a poet has to: obliquely, economically, and non-sequentially.

Do we have “great prose stylists” anymore? Nominees? Besides Kevin Federline?
P.S. In searching for an image to add to this post, I found myself Googling images tagged “bruised” and “fists.” Bad idea.