Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Speak, Memory: A Polished Gem

On February 12, 1997, according to the unblemished College of St. Benedict's/College of St. John's price sticker on the back of the book, $13.00 bought one a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, "Speak, Memory." I picked it up for $6.98 (not quite half price) at my neighborhood Half Price Books store. Anne Fadiman's essays, discussed below, led me to search out some Nabokov, and the front cover quote suggesting that a prominent magazine considered this "The finest autobiography written in our time" intrigued me.

Let me just say that I'm chagrined lately. In my younger days I wrote bitter reviews and critiques and savaged most everything I read. But lately I seem to be more impressed with the books I read, less critical, and frankly awestruck by the ability of our species to create things of beauty. (See, e.g., my fawning opera reviews on this blog.) But it could also just be that I'm just growing up.

[The theory that I am finally growing up is supported by a recent incident at work. Twenty-some years ago I worked with a young woman, my age, who was edgy and probably--no, definitely--more mature than I was. We worked together for a few months. One day after work, within a few blocks of the office, she pulled up next to me at a stop light. For some reason, mostly puckishness, perhaps some dislike, I looked at her and gave her the finger. We never really talked much again, though we never worked together much after that either. Fast forward twenty-four years. In the course of my work I am visiting an office building in the downtown area. And the "fingered" woman is there in the reception area. When others were off talking about something I took her aside and told her that I did something many years ago that I regretted. She knew exactly what I meant--and then announced to the nearby receptionist: "After all these years, Vercingetorix is finally growing up!"]

But apart from just growing up, I'm also reading better stuff. Better variety.

Well, how does one begin to recount the brilliance of "Speak, Memory"?

It's probably worth starting with the process of its creation, because this helps explain its impressiveness. The work, though claimed to have been planned in structure, is a collection of fifteen autobiographical essays, originally written in no particular order, concerning Nabokov's life from 1903 to 1940. Individual chapters of this autobiography appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Monthly and other literary magazines over a period of many years. They were thus surely edited and presumably re-edited. Once the work was assembled by combining the chapters, it was polished further by Nabokov for a later edition, next translated into Russian by his wife, and then translated back into English--this last something that Nabokov states was an arduous task.

I have never read anything that contains the density of beautiful words that this work contains. I would like to analyze it with a computer, because the variety of different words used is simply overwhelming. And every word is apt.

Nabokov's relationship to English is interesting. He was raised as a member of the privileged Russian nobility in pre-revolutionary Russia and was therefore a polyglot (Russian, English, French for starters) of the first order. At one point he bemoans that his English is not as good as his Russian (at another turn he suggests it's his Russian that's a bit weak, which is more believable), but I think that he is one of the very best English writers. Those words he uses that I know are used perfectly and wonderfully. And then there are the many that I don't know: "coeval," "fatidic," "palpebral," "frass," "ophyron," "susurrous," "fulvous," and on and on.

So, what else? Well, he writes some of the most wondrous sentences. And his mind is so engaging. For me, because of my hobbies and interests, the bits on chess problems and Cambridge were interesting. Others will enjoy the portraits of Russian life and the various characters of his youth.

In summary: Great words, placed with care in splendid sentences, surrounded by important ideas--all illumined by Nabokov's undeniable brilliance. What are you waiting for?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small: Brillant Essays

After finishing Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris recently, I picked up a copy of her 2007 collection of essays, At Large and At Small. Fadiman pleases in so many ways.

This collection is more diverse than Ex Libris, because it is not unified by a single subject. Three of the essays concern the greatest pleasures of life: ice cream, the mail, and coffee. Some are biographical, as with the essays on the lives of Charles Lamb, Samuel Coleridge, and arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson. A few were autobiographical musings about family matters, such as moving, her family's response to 9-11, and the collections of childhood. All are well written and interesting.

But the thing that I discovered about her in reading these essays and something that impressed me greatly was her common sense. This became apparent to me when reading the essay Procrustes and the Culture Wars. In it she oozes reason and calm while discussing some of the great literary questions: Why should we read?; Should the life of the writer affect our evaluation of the work?; Should a book be demoted for failing to meet current standards of behavior?; How should we react to language that does not include us? Rarely are these subjects touched so sensibly. Her explication of the legend of Procrustes was enjoyable because it has always intrigued me--ever since I first stumbled on the word "Procrustes" in my first year of law school.

And then there is my secret reason for liking the book: Fadiman's verbal menagerie. She trots out "omphalous," "polysemous," "oriflamme," "vexillology," "souseholes," and the like.

I bought this book for $6.00 from a vendor on amazon.com; it gave me far more enjoyment than this weekend's $13.00 ticket to Alice in Wonderland, the latest Hollywood 3-D blockbuster.

And now I'm on to a recommendation of Fadiman's, Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory. Here's a work that will have you running for your dictionary!

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.