What is a world, and how is it made? Or to put it another way, in Tom Waits’s immortal words, ‘Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?’
We might be inclined to wonder that if Waits doesn’t know the answer to that, who does? Nabokov, apparently, confirming my general suspicions. This week on the blogalectic, Masha starts us off with this striking and salient quotation:
A masterpiece of fiction is an original world
and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader.
Masha suggests that Jenna and I tend to read books with a bit more charity, whereas she tends to read with more criticism. I’m not often accused of charity, so I found her remark unduly flattering.
Masha says, ‘your charity impresses me, but do you draw a line where quality is concerned?’ Well, yes. Though I hope always to say with Kant, ‘Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen’: The sense of humanity has not yet left me. It has left too much of public discourse, literary criticism included. So while my line is long and sharp and deep, and while I read critically and exactingly and believe that life is too short for dull books, I try to keep a sense of humanity amidst it all.
Which brings us back to Nabokov. I do not like Nabokov. I think he is one of the great literary charlatans and utterly wasted a talent for beautiful prose. But I like and respect Masha, who likes Nabokov. That tells me there is something about this man’s writings worth considering, something about his thoughts worth pondering. It tells me to remain open to the possibility that there may be something in these words that I cannot see.
‘A masterpiece of fiction,’ says Nabokov, ‘is an original world’. Which brings us back to the question: what is a world and how is it built? As writers and as readers we exist in a world, tangible, exciting, and inscrutable. Tolkien, of course, advanced the idea of sub-creation, and here I think he draws closer to the mark.
A masterpiece of fiction is a derivative world. It belongs not only to the tradition of all of literature, and to the mind of the artist, but to the sensory, emotional, and spiritual world we perceive around us, that fills our minds and fires our imaginations and make us looks for new countries in the cupboard. We cannot create, but we sub-create faux-worlds and fictions in childish homage to the created world. Whether we sub-create with the gloom of a dark etching or the wildness of a Sunday cartoon, we are writing variations on an endless, playful theme. To claim utter originality is to assume a godlike parareality which is itself derivative from the idea of creation, and as such bearing little relation to life or masterpieces of art or fiction.
When Nabokov says that masterpieces of fiction are ‘not likely to fit the world of the reader’, I can’t help but feel he’s being disingenuous. Really, this amounts to little more than an excuse for the alien hostility and inhumanity of the world Nabokov and his disciples sub-created, bitter, despoiled paradises of crows. It reminds me ultimately of the grad student syllogism: ‘Great artists are persecuted, and I’m persecuted, so I’m a great artist.’ Because my fiction is hostile and uninhabitable, Nabokov seems to say, it is a masterpiece. If you could understand it, how could it be great?
The truth is, we make worlds to suit ourselves. It was Chesterton or perhaps Lewis (or likely both) who said that truth is always stranger than fiction, because we make fiction to please ourselves. In real life, people are always breaking out of character. The world is filled with cataclysmic amounts of details that never accumulate or amount to anything. The gun is on the wall in the first act, taken down and replaced with the picture of late Uncle Harry in the second, the picture is knocked down by the cat in the third and in the end we move out and the next people hang up an Indonesian doily. No wonder the fictional worlds of Nabokov do not fit with the world of his readers—his world are staid, well-wrought, and orderly places, where things happen harmoniously together in beautiful prose. In the real world, people talk in clichés.
Masha further reminds us of the words of Oscar Wilde:
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
This is an unhappy thought. A dreamer sees his way only by moonlight, and so is the first to see the dawn—the cruel, blinding dawn and the end of dreams. The bright, flat day of machines and offices and engines and literary criticism and ledger books. The dreamer sees first and clearly the desolation and forgetfulness of all things, the dying of beauty and the banal sterility of the sunshine.
The need for art, and for fiction, is not that it can redress and herald some great epiphany of wisdom, but that it can order the moonlight and the sunrise. It can give us the elves in the grass and golden, heartless Apollo. A work of fiction is a derivative world wrought to a writer’s fancy, which he invites his readers to enter. A masterpiece is the revealing of the writer’s truest dream in a way that makes the readers feel it’s their own. A masterpiece is a world of night and shadows and moonlight, of wonder and anticipation and tears and laughter, that fits, and feels more homelike because it’s more true—even if it be more terrible and sad, or best of all more prone to laugher—than the capricious, flattening factual world. As Van Gogh said:
I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.