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Look At The Harlequins! (1990)

Look at the Harlequins! (1990)
3.69 of 5 Votes: 4
0679727280 (ISBN13: 9780679727286)
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Look At The Harlequins! (1990)
Look At The Harlequins! (1990)

About book: The two-star rating here is disingenuous: I enjoyed reading this a lot more than I enjoyed reading most of the two-star books on my shelf. Nonetheless, more than two stars wouldn't seem right. Here's why.Saul Maloff concludes his review of LATH! thus:But novels are not composed of beautiful sentences. Occasionally--perhaps especially when he has stunned us with his performance in sentence after sentence--we long for a huge, lumbering, sweating, grunting workhorse of a sentence that will ploddingly perfom the brute labor of bearing its terrible, necessary burden from here to there. But of course getting "there" is not the point of Vadim's [LATH!'s narrator's] novel; the point lies in the elaboration of fantastic, fugal designs, gorgeous patterns and textures, all with contemptuous grace and virtuosity. Such art is in the essence and by disdainful intention decadent, flung in the faces of the "facetious criticules in the Sunday papers" who charge him with "aristocratic obscurity." Nabokov is our great decadent, our reigning mandarin and eccentric, a supreme, determinedly minor artist whom major ones might well envy while criticules continue to carp and gnash the stubs of their teeth. Here's the Nabokov problem in a nutshell: how to square his "determinedly minor" nature with the apparently major ambition and, arguably, quality of much of his work. On one side there's Nabokov the nerd, the pedant, the crank -- the funny little man, "mandarin and eccentric," who insists on reminding us again and again of his funny little obsessions, his chess problems, his distaste for Freud and (bafflingly) Einstein, his vague mystical theories of time and space, his opinions about translation, etc. On the other side there's Nabokov the great novelist -- the guy who wrote Lolita, which might well be the prototypical Great Modern Novel. Nabokov the nerd says that morality does not concern him; Nabokov the great novelist writes the perfect (too perfect) subject matter for undergraduate essays on morality and irony (I don't mean that derisively). Nabokov the great novelist plucks the heartstrings with practically unequalled virtuosity; Nabokov the nerd, when confronted, denies any responsibility for his double's behavior and warms up that old, very old, very tedious lecture on how it's not the heart that is affected by great literature, and not the brain either, but the spine. . . .Both sides, "major" and "minor," are present (in various mixtures and dialectical arrangements) in all his work, though the minor side dominates in the interviews and essays, which confuses matters greatly. For me -- just speaking personally -- the appeal of the Nabokov brand lies not in either side, but precisely in the mottled mixture of the two, the music made by the interleaving of major and minor. The great novelist brings in all his heavy weaponry, but just as his glorious gun show is really getting started, the deafening sound of the shots vanishes and is replaced by the quiet, smug little voice of the nerd, telling you about his latest chess move, about a butterfly that pretends to be another butterfly, about bad translations of Eugene Onegin. Soaring passages run aground, caught in sudden unexpected eddies of arcana. This isn't a defect -- the fun is precisely in seeing someone so very good get away with so much mischief. The nerd conquers the literary world and puts up banners everywhere reminding people of his fiddly obsessions. The reader smiles, and wants to say: if you can't beat him, join him. One can certainly imagine less endearing world-conquerors.For me the height of this act is the very long and odd Ada, the simultaneous climax (given the novel in question the innuendo is not gratuitous) of the major and minor Nabokovs. It's undoubtedly major -- it aspires to be a parodic-romantic-horrific-lyrical capstone on the whole history of the novel -- and yet defiantly, absurdly, hilariously minor, treating at unprecedented length and with unprecedented indulgence the nerd's fixations. The revenge of the nerds! A lot of people, though, see Ada as the point where Nabokov finally went off the rails completely. Where I see a subtle and devious wreathing of the major and minor, they see the submission of the former to the cancerous growth of the latter. It's this disagreement that led me to LATH!, which by every account is a lesser ("minor"?) Nabokov novel, his last, the end of the road to nowhere he began treading with Ada. Given how much I'd previously enjoyed following Nabokov down that road, LATH! seemed at least worth a try.At this point, the problem with LATH! is easy to state: it's all minor. It's a pile of Nabokov fanboy trivia and ephemera, with no grand ambition (when it's only in the context of grand ambition that the trivia becomes fun). The book is a first-person account of the life of a novelist named Vadim, and the whole thing is a comedic riff on Nabokov's own life. Vadim's own books are mirror-universe versions of Nabokov's own (where N's first English novel is The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Vadim's is "See Under Real," which sounds from his description like a hybrid of RLSK and Pale Fire). Vadim's life is little but a series of injokes about Nabokov's books, and about the speculations that have been made about his life on the basis of his books. Like many Nabokov protagonists, Vadim is insane. Unlike most of his predecessors, he knows he's insane, and makes a point of delivering a long speech about his condition to any woman who might consider marrying him. The joke is that Vadim's condition -- an Oliver Sacksian quirk of visual imagination that leads him unable to imagine performing an about face -- is so trivial and uninteresting that these speeches are pointless. In terms of dramatic potential, we're a long way from Cincinnatus or Kinbote. (And in that difference we can glimpse the smirk of the nerd. "Who cares about dramatic potential? I write what I write, and either you feel it in your spine or you don't.")A few good jokes, a few good lines . . . but even the writing style is dimming here. Too much reliance, for instance, on unexpected reversals of conventional phrases. On page 85: "I consistently try to dwell as lightly as inhumanly possible . . . " Only three pages later: ". . . on that particular night on the fourth or fifth or fiftieth anniversary of my darling's death . . . " These little twists, trapdoors of prose, can induce a heady vertigo when used judiciously, when there is some sort of solid ground for them to undermine. Here, there's no reason to care. So what if Vadim is unreliable or inhuman or I don't know what? What is there here to be reliable about?The book's title first appears in the text in this wonderful passage, which I'm sure will remain in my memory when everything else about LATH! has faded:An extraordinary grand-aunt, Baroness Bredow, born Tolstoy, amply replaced closer blood. As a child of seven or eight, already harboring the secrets of a confirmed madman, I seemed even to her (who also was far from normal) unduly sulky and indolent; actually, of course, I kept daydreaming in a most outrageous fashion."Stop moping!" she would cry: "Look at the harlequins!""What harlequins? Where?""Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together -- jokes, images -- and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!"I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory's front porch, here she slowly comes, sideways sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step edge with the rubber tip of her black cane."Stop moping! Look at the harlequins!": a good mantra, and a reminder of the comfort that minorness can provide in a sometimes oppressively major world. But as for this novel? A reader interested in obeying the injunction should probably look elsewhere.

Nabokov invites the reader to Look At The Harlequins! Which is almost an acronym for lathe, which would suggest that the pages are wood shavings and not to be taken seriously. Or as seriously as you'd take a harlequin that came prancing through your house. Want to know who I don't take seriously? My harlequin last night was Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider. That was some horrible overacting, even by comic book adaptation standards. And...and Peter Fonda's hairstylist was trying to recreate Gary Oldman's "old Dracula" beehive hairstyle on a less-tubular skull (a nod to Cage's uncle?). And Donal Logue was killed to very little fanfare, and even fewer tears. And Sam Elliot as The Original Ghost Rider was, well, underused. You don't bring Sam Elliot on to play the gruff gravedigger who bursts into flame on top of a horse of fire and then...and then have him ride off in the opposite direction: away from the showdown.Nicholas Cage at planning stage: "This can't be a buddy pic. I did a buddy pic with John Travolta. I've been there, and I ain't going back.""But, Nicky-baby, super-heroes are teaming-up all the time. The fans would love this.""OK. You listen to me. I'm a fan. I love those comic books. And I don't love it. And my fans want to see me, alone, fighting the devil mano-o-mano.""That'd be mano-o-diablo, Nicky-baby.""Whatever. Fix it. And kill off Donal. If I have to do another movie with a dumb, fat sidekick...""Nicky-baby. Baby, baby, baby. The only other 'dumb, fat sidekick' you've had on-screen in the past five years was yourself."*And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Harlequin: for we are funny.One thing about Nabokov, though. He wasn't using a ghost writer in LATH; no, but he did suffer from mnemonic possession. Baby, baby, baby he's a blazin' away...*Started to play with the title. Rearranged the letters, looking for some secret code from Nabokov. Came up with such things as: Queen, Rook, Last Tale, The Last Look, Heart, The Real Sin, The Liar's Hook, Hark! Lies...*Now this is how you remix and "amplify" your life into fiction, Mr. Roth.
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Ralph Scriabin
Anyone who's read enough Nabokov should surely see that his once-(relatively)-brilliant metaphors have been recycled and hacked up with dapples of aging ire -- wrath against the world too weak for any direful springs. Springs all over with leaks of style, structure, ideas from previous novels (and not in the "satyric" line of excuse), taped together with a coil of tape that clearly states "by the author of Ada and Pale Fire and Transparent Things" -- too bad he's also the author of Look at the Harlequins.
LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! (1974). Vladimir Nabokov. ***.This was Nabokov’s last novel. If this had been the first of his books that I read, it would have been my last. It was a thinly disguised autobiography of an ex-pat writer living, mostly, in France, and his love life – including four marriages. The piece itself was well written, but the story had no legs. I am embarrassed to give one of Nabokov’s novels only three stars, but that’s how I called it. After a while, the read became tedious, and I found myself putting the book down more and more often. I think the author peaked out after “Lolita.”
Nabokov's last novel is layered with autobiography, invented autobiography, and themes from his most memorable books. It's a clever assemblage for those who are familiar with his work, a sort of a "Greatest Hits" album. However, I don't think *not* knowing this background would make it so much less enjoyable. Someone who picks it up simply as a fictional autobiography would still find it amusing and intelligent. But I loved that Vadim was such a collection of traits - his own, Van Veen's, Humbert's, Kinbote's, etc. His wives and amours, ditto.
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