vidal on book reviews

“The people who write book reviews, write about the arts – the people who write about these things are nobodies. Often they’re honest enough to know that they are nobodies and they have no right to these opinions. Yes, everybody’s got the same feelings, I know that. And all feelings are equal. [But] when it comes to high culture, everybody’s not equal. Some people know more than other people. If I’m going to be instructed on brain surgery, I’m not going read Stephen King. It’s the first rule of criticism. No one but your mother cares about your opinion. Start with that. You’re a blank slate. Forget the author. He’s at least written on his slate. And you’re going to write about his writing on his slate. And you’re going to pass [judgment]: ‘Oh, I just hated his work. My god he’s an awful man. I can just tell.’ Well, this kind of bogus moralizing goes on. We haven’t had a decent literary critic in my lifetime. We’ve had good critics who bury themselves in the academy and are never seen again, particularly by their students. We occasionally have great explainers like Edmund Wilson, who stopped reviewing novels around 1945. Just when my generation really needed a critic, he’s doing the Iroquois Indians – which is probably far more useful. So we are adrift. Even the worst newspaper in England has better book reviewers than The New York Times. So don’t pass judgment. Now, what do you do if you have to review a book? The most difficult thing on earth, and most people don’t know how difficult it is, because most people can’t do it: describe what it was that you read. If you do that properly you don’t have to throw adjectives around and make cute noises. Just describe it. The words that you use for the description will lead the criticism. Now if you can plow that into some heads, you will have done great work.”

(Gore Vidal, interviewed by John Esther in the Gay & Lesbian Review.)

the problem with nabokov

“Next day, in their little drawing room, with its black divan, yellow cushions, and draftproof bay whose new window seemed to magnify the slow steady straight-falling snowflakes (coincidentally stylized on the cover of the current issue of The Beau & the Butterfly which lay on the window ledge), Ada discussed her ‘dramatic career.’ The whole matter secretly nauseated Van (so that, by contrast, her Natural History passion acquired a nostalgic splendor). For him the written word existed only in its abstract purity, in its unrepeatable appeal to an equally ideal mind. It belonged solely to its creator and could not be spoken or enacted by a mime (as Ada insisted) without letting the deadly stab of another’s mind destroy the artist in the very lair of his art. A written play was intrinsically superior to the best performance of it, even if directed by the author himself. Otherwise, Van agreed with Ada that the talking screen was certainly preferable to the live theater for the simple reason that with the former a directory could attain, and maintain, his own standards of perfection throughout an unlimited number of performances.”

(Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, p. 323)

crusoe in england

A new volcano has erupted,
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being born:
at first a breath of steam, ten miles away;
and then a black fleck—basalt, probably—
rose in the mate’s binoculars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books has ever got it right.

Well, I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides—
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.
I’d think that if they were the size
I thought volcanoes should be, then I had
become a giant;
and if I had become a giant,
I couldn’t bear to think what size
the goats and turtles were,
or the gulls, or the overlapping rollers
—a glittering hexagon of rollers
closing and closing in, but never quite,
glittering and glittering, though the sky
was mostly overcast.

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters—their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much?
And why sometimes the whole place hissed?
The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,
hissing like teakettles.
(And I’d have given years, or taken a few,
for any sort of kettle, of course.)
The folds of lava, running out to sea,
would hiss. I’d turn. And then they’d prove
to be more turtles.
The beaches were all lava, variegated,
black, red, and white, and gray;
the marbled colors made a fine display.
And I had waterspouts. Oh,
half a dozen at a time, far out,
they’d come and go, advancing and retreating,
their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches
of scuffed-up white.
Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
sacerdotal beings of glass . . . I watched
the water spiral up in them like smoke.
Beautiful, yes, but not much company.

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.

The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
rose from the sea,
and there was one of it and one of me.
The island had one kind of everything:
one tree snail, a bright violet-blue
with a thin shell, crept over everything,
over the one variety of tree,
a sooty, scrub affair.
Snail shells lay under these in drifts
and, at a distance,
you’d swear that they were beds of irises.
There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects;
and so I made home-brew. I’d drink
the awful, fizzy, stinging stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries.
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough of something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems—well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss . . .” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

The island smelled of goat and guano.
The goats were white, so were the gulls,
and both too tame, or else they thought
I was a goat, too, or a gull.
Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek,
baa . . . shriek . . . baa . . . I still can’t shake
them from my ears; they’re hurting now.
The questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies
over a ground of hissing rain
and hissing, ambulating turtles
got on my nerves.
When all the gulls flew up at once, they sounded
like a big tree in a strong wind, its leaves.
I’d shut my eyes and think about a tree,
an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere.
I’d heard of cattle getting island-sick.
I thought the goats were.
One billy-goat would stand on the volcano
I’d christened Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair
(I’d time enough to play with names),
and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air.
I’d grab his beard and look at him.
His pupils, horizontal, narrowed up
and expressed nothing, or a little malice.
I got so tired of the very colors!
One day I dyed a baby goat bright red
with my red berries, just to see
something a little different.
And then his mother wouldn’t recognize him.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of things
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, eventually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I’m old.
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf—
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle . . .
Now it won’t look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

(Elizabeth Bishop, from Geography III.)