Short Saturday: Borges and Nabokov

In Short Saturday I will journal my journey to find 5-star quality short stories, whose virtual trophy right now is held by Truman Capote and Haruki Murakami. Unlike my book reviews, I will talk more about my thoughts and what I learn, why I choose the story and how I come upon it. Unlike books, I’m willing to take more risk for shorts, because they are.. well.. short, so I won’t waste too much time if I don’t like them. Expect to see a lot of trash and hopefully, some gems. As it is now, I am not a fan of short stories. Dare I say, yet? But hey, like people say, it’s all about the journey, not destination.

podcastcoverFICTIONMark David has recommended The New Yorker Fiction Podcasts to me for a while. In fact he has written a post on it last month. But only last week after he shouted at strongly encouraged me to try one when I talked about Borges’s The Library of Babel,  did I manage to listen to two of them.

In each episode, a contemporary writer reads a short work by a classic writer. There’s a bit of talk and discussion before and after the reading of the story. I loved the discussion parts of the podcasts, but I’m not sure if I got much out of the two stories being read. I’ve mentioned before how I’m a poor listener, and it doesn’t help when the story is not very listen-able. (We have word for readable! How about listenable?)

Without further ado, the two I picked were:

The Gospel According to Mark by Jorge Luis Borges, read by Paul Theroux

I’m not sure if I got it. I repeated the ending about 5 times and each time it made me go “huh?”. But I continued on and luckily Paul explained more about what’s going on in the story. Originally published in 1970, it is about a young man who visits a friend’s holiday house in Argentina. He meets a family of illiterate workers to whom he reads some books, but the only one they’re interested in the most is an old Bible. He reads the gospel of Mark which contains the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness He granted to the world. When he was found to lay with the daughter of the family, well…

Paul Theroux actually read to Borges when he was alive (and blind). And that’s awesome because Paul is a fantastic reader. I’d never heard of him before this. Apparently he has written many novels and travelogues. After quick wiki-ing, I found that he won James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1981 for The Mosquito Coast (join win with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children) and Whitbread Prize for Best Novel  in 1978 for Picture Palace. Have you read any of his books before?

My Russian Education by Vladimir Nabokov, read by Orhan Pamuk

I feel kinda bad to say this, but most of the words read by Pamuk went over my head, because I had problem with his accent. Therefore I’m unable to rate this in any way. But I’m sure I will (re)read the story in text format in the future, because it’s Nabokov’s autobiography, though published as fiction. The story is based on how his father was shot dead. It was originally published in 1948 by the New Yorker and it is one chapter out of 12 that was later published in 1951 as a book titled Speak, Memory (My Russian Education is Chapter 9 in the book).

I loved to listen to how Pamuk loved Nabokov. I always love the whole writers speaking very highly of other writers. It’s very adorable. I read Lolita by Nabokov in 2008 and I really admired how Nabokov used English language. Sure, I didn’t understand a lot of the passages, but that’s beside the point… because I admired the ones that I did understand! :)

Did you read any short story this week?

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

A conversation with a friend a while back:
Me: I try to read more classics, but some classics I would just never read.
Friend: Like what for example?
M: Ooh.. Like Moby Dick..
F: Why? (He read Moby Dick at school and although it’s probably something he wouldn’t have picked up by himself, it wasn’t bad.)
M: ‘Cos it’s about whale.. and boats..
F: It’s actually about obsession. There’s this captain who’s obsessed about killing (catching?) a whale that he deemed to destroy his life.
M: Well, I just read Wuthering Heights.
F: What is it about?
M: Obsession..

Apparently if I want to summarize Lolita in a sentence (or a word), I’d say it’s also about obsession. What’s with obsession? A lot of great literatures seem to have it as central theme. Take Great Gatsby for another example.

As most people know, Lolita is a novel which tells a grown man’s devouring passion and obsession for a 12 year old girl, who he endearingly calls Lolita. I started to read the book about a year or two ago, stopped third way, then continued again a few weeks ago for 2008 NaNoReMo (Matt seems to be late at updating his progress though).

I admit that I speed-read some passages that I gave up to understand the meaning while they don’t add anything to the storyline (though to the characters, yes). I insisted to persist til the end this time and I so did. A lot of new vocabulary for me. Huge amount. Gigantic. I didn’t bother to look for most of them though. How Nabokov managed to do this with his English as his second or third language is beyond me.

So some passages were just blurry to me, though once in a while some just really hit. I managed to catch some of the dark humor as well. All in all, not at all a bad experience. I’m wondering if I ever will read Nabokov’s work again though. Heavy stuff.

I like the way he describes thing and use words for situations that people don’t normally use. Just for example:

“After they had all gone my Lo said ugh, closed her eyes, and dropped into a chair with all four limbs starfished to express the utmost disgust and exhaustion and swore it was the most revolting bunch of boys she had ever seen.” ~p226

Starfished! Nice :). The imagery is great. I can totally imagine her limbs all soft and limp from exhaustion dropped on a chair.

There are quite a few love statements coming from Humbert Humbert, and they could be oh-so-great if he directs them toward a mature woman. But then you’d remember that he’s thinking of an underage girl and it’d make you cringe. In a way, it also makes readers sympathize with him. What a poor guy, we’d think. Driven mad by a power so forceful he’s unable to control it. Is it really love? Is it mere obsession?

“You see, I loved her. It is love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.” ~p307

After reading this, it’s probably hard for me to see random grown men strangers in the same light again. There could be more perverts in this world than we realize.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Pages: 361

First line(s)
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Last line
And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.


These are taken from sort of an afterword from Nabokov: Vladimir Nabokov On a Book Entitled Lolita at the end of the book I read.

On fiction:

… Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

On English:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses- the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions- which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

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