NABOKV-L post 0008596, Wed, 17 Sep 2003 12:13:18 -0700

Subject
Fw: Brian Boyd responses to EDnote on gratuitous text (2),
PLUS EDITOR'S (re-)RESPONSE
Date
Body
EDNOTE. I HAVE INSERTED MY RESPONSES IN CAPS AT VARIOUS PLAVCES IN BRIAN'S
TEXT.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Brian Boyd (FOA ENG)" <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz>
To: "'D. Barton Johnson '" <chtodel@cox.net>
Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2003 1:43 AM
Subject: RE: Brian Boyd responses to EDnote on gratuitous text (2)


> Don is not quite accurate. ADA I.26 has six paragraphs (including Ada's
one
> line), paragraphs 2 to 4 being those that describe the code.

DON WAS FLAT INACCURATE. THAT MEDIAL CODE SECTION CONSISTS OF THREE
PARAGRAPHS, NOT ONE --AS I SAID. THIS COMES OF WORKING AT NIGHT BY THE LIGHT
OF THE COMPUTER SCREEN.
>
> Though this whole thread began with questions about VN's Gratuitous
> Virtuosity, the example that came to Don's mind was a three-paragraph
> passage WITHOUT the verbal or visual or imaginative treats we expect, a
> passage remarkable, that is, not at all for its virtuosity, but only for
its
> apparent gratuitousness-which to Don's taste at least seems to be defined
> precisely in terms of its lack of virtuosity or verbal flair.

MY TERM "GRATUITOUS VIRTUOSITY" WAS ILL CHOSEN IN THAT IT BLENDS TWO
ELEMENTS THAT DO NOT APTLY APPLY TO THE CODE PASSAGE. BRIAN IS RIGHT IN
OBSERVING THAT THE PASSAGE IS IN FACT NOT ONE OF VIRTUOSITY BUT
INTENTIONALLY FLATFOOTED.



>
> But it seems to me this is a passage that VN has deliberately made flat
and
> uninviting, as chapter 16 (Eumaeus) of ULYSSES seems deliberately tired
and
> drained, after the verbal and visual fireworks of the dream-chapter 15
> (Circe)-until you look closely and see how alertly Joyce has woven
together
> all kinds of tired thought and expression.
>
> Here in I.26 Nabokov does something similar. He highlights the distaste
Van
> feels in writing, and the distaste and difficulty he expects the reader to
> feel in reading:
>
> Codes are a BORE to describe; yet a few basic details must be,
RELUCTANTLY,
> given.
>
> There is an AWFUL moment in popular books on cosmic theories (THAT
BREEZILY
> BEGIN WITH PLAIN STRAIGHTFORWARD CHATTY PARAGRAPHS) WHEN THERE SUDDENLY
> START TO SPROUT MATHEMATICAL FORMULAS, WHICH IMMEDIATELY BLIND ONE'S
BRAIN.
> WE DO NOT GO AS FAR AS THAT HERE.
>
> If the description of our lovers' code (the "our" may constitute A SOURCE
OF
> IRRITATION IN ITS OWN RIGHT, but NEVER MIND) WITH A LITTLE MORE ATTENTION
> AND A LITTLE LESS ANTIPATHY, THE SIMPLEST-MINDED READER WILL, ONE TRUSTS,
> UNDERSTAND that "overflowing" into the next ABC BUSINESS.
>
> [notice that in this case the text is actually flawed, the sentence does
not
> work, as if Van's antipathy to what he is writing is so great that he
cannot
> pay close enough attention even to revise properly. The sentence OUGHT to
> say something like "If HE APPROACHES the description of our lovers' code
> (the 'our' may constitute a source of irritation in its own right, but
never
> mind) with a little more attention and a little less antipathy, the
> simplest-minded reader will, one trusts, understand that "overflowing"
into
> the next ABC business." This is indeed the text as emended in the Library
of
> America edition (the only emendation of such a scale in all three
volumes),
> and it may be correct, or it may be that I overlooked how thoroughgoing
was
> Nabokov's impersonation of writerly disenchantment.]
>
> UNFORTUNATELY, COMPLICATIONS AROSE. . . . Owing to these
> improvements the messages became EVEN HARDER TO READ THAN TO WRITE,
> especially as both correspondents, in the exasperation of tender passion,
> inserted afterthoughts, deleted phrases, rephrased insertions and
reinstated
> deletions with misspellings and miscodings, owing as much to their
struggle
> with inexpressible distress as to their overcomplicating its cryptogram.
>
> [I find this very funny and psychologically convincing, and perhaps even
> more likely to suggest that the "If the description . . . " sentence is
> intentionally flawed.]
>
> For example, l2.11. l1.2.20. l2.8 meant "love," with "l" and the number
> following it denoting the line in the Marvell poem, and the next number
> giving the position of the letter in that line, l2.11, meaning "eleventh
> letter in second line." I HOLD THIS TO BE PRETTY CLEAR
>
> [an impatient cry of near-desperation, in fact, on Van's part; and one
> exasperated reader did seek clarification on Nabokv-L some years ago]
>
> AGAIN, this is A NUISANCE TO EXPLAIN, and THE EXPLANATION IS FUN TO READ
> ONLY FOR THE PURPOSE (THWARTED, I AM AFRAID) OF LOOKING FOR ERRORS in the
examples. ANYWAY, IT SOON PROVED TO HAVE DEFECTS EVEN MORE SERIOUS than
those of the first code
>
>
> Nabokov doesn't merely describe the codes and the difficulty of writing
> passionate letters according to codes that must be retained only in
memory,
> he makes us as readers FEEL Van's difficulty and distaste, and the
> irritation that his and Ada's relationship has suddenly come to this. This
> passage has nothing of what we expect of writerly virtuosity (like the
"our
> black rainbow" that Don singles out as the one verbal eyespot in the
> chapter), but it serves a very unexpected and brilliant function at this
> place in Van and Ada's story, as the frustrations of the coded
> correspondence suddenly unite and separate them.
>
> The passage is not verbal showing off, not gratuitous virtuosity; instead,
> it seems flat, a writerly chore reluctantly and irritably fulfilled. But
in
> fact that's what makes the passage so far from gratuitous, because instead
> merely of referring to the epistolary codes from a distance it makes us
> EXPERIENCE the irritation, the complication, and the frustration that
serve
> as such a contrast to the expansive delight of Van and Ada's time together
> at Ardis, to the glow and glee of their love at its freshest. The change
> jars for us as it did for Van and Ada. There is nothing quite like this
> effect elsewhere in Nabokov, or in literature, not even in Chapter 16 of
> ULYSSES. And in ULYSSES the effect is imposed from the outside, AS
> gratuitous virtuosity; in ADA, it arises from Van's situation back then,
as
> a young lover, and now, as an old reminiscer.
>
> I once referred to Coleridge's admission that more than once what he had
> thought a blot in Shakespeare he later came to appreciate as a particular
> beauty, as achieving a deeper effect than any he had ever expected. Time
> after time those who single out examples of Nabokov's gratuitous
virtuosity
> will only impel themselves or others to see how much more he aimed at than
> mere surface display.

SO TRUE. THESE BLOTCHES ARE SOMETIMES AIMED AT TRIPPING THE READER SO S/HE
WILL PONDER WHETHER SOMETHING IMPORTANT UNDERLIES THE OBSTACLE. THEN AGAIN,
SOMETIMES BLOTCHES ARE JUST BLOTCHES. IT STILL SEEMS TO ME THAT THE CODE
PARAGRAPHS ARE MOSTLY STRUCTURAL PADDING AND IN THAT SENSE NECESSARY AS A
TRANSITION BETWEEN 1984 & 1988 (I-25 & 27). ALTHOUGH BRIAN MAKES A PLAUSIBLE
CASE FOR THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MIDSECTION'S (NON-VIRTUOSTIC) CONTENT, THE
STRUCTRAL FILLER (ALL THE TEXT BETWEEN THE FIRST & LAST PARAGRAPHS)COULD BE
DELETED AND/OR REPLACED BY OTHER FILLER MATERIAL WITH LITTLE DAMAGE TO THE
NOVEL. BRIAN'S irritation, complication, and frustration THEME IS EXPRESSED
AT THE END OF PARAGRAPH ONE. THE FOLLOWING TEXT JUST DESCRIBES THE CODE. I
ADMIRE BRIAN'S INGENIOUS ARGUMENT THAT THE CODE EXPLICATION LITERALLY
EMBODIES AND ILLUSTRATES THE IRRITATION THEME, BUT PERHAPS IT IS TOO
SUCCESSFUL. MAYBE IT IS JUST GRATUITOUS?
>
>
> -----Original Message-----
> From: D. Barton Johnson
> To: NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU
> Sent: 17/09/2003 3:56 p.m.
> Subject: Brian Boyd resonses to EDnote on gratuitous text
>
> EDNOTE. Please see my response after Brian's posting. My original Ednote
> is
> at the end..
>
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Brian Boyd (FOA ENG)" <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz>
> To: <chtodel@cox.net>
> Sent: Tuesday, September 16, 2003 5:33 PM
> Subject: EDnote on gratuitous word play
>
>
> From Brian Boyd:
>
> Don Johnson's supposition that ADA I.26 is "all in aid of permitting the
> reader to decode a short, inconsequential phrase in the preceding
> chapter"
> and is therefore an example of Gratuitous Virtuosity is charmingly
> wrong.
>
> 1: The chapter does allow one to crack the coded passage in the
> preceding
> chapter. I will never forget the delight when as a horny 17-year-old I
> first
> read ADA and wondered what steamy sexual practice in I.25 had to be
> encoded
> in a novel that had been mounting steadily in sexual fulfillment and
> frankness. Like all alert readers I could discover a method for cracking
> the
> code in the next chapter, savor the satisfaction of applying it to solve
> the
> riddle, and enjoy the surprise and amusement of Nabokov's deft
> undercutting
> of pornographic expectations. The combination of parody of pornography
> and
> training readers to read actively, with curiosity, memory, imagination,
> and
> awareness of their own and the genre's expectations, hardly seems
> gratuitous.
>
> But within chapter I.26 itself Nabokov is also doing many other things.
>
> 2: Van and Ada are still children. As incestuous lovers on a large
> estate
> under the eyes of vague Marina and unobservant Mlle Larivière, and the
> less
> blind but much more accommodating Blanche, they could make love at will
> at
> Ardis. But despite the shimmer of fantasy that the Antiterran setting
> and
> the precocious characters supply, this is psychologically a realistic
> novel.
> When their schools part them, the most Van and Ada can do, for all their
> desperation to continue as at Ardis, is to write letters to one another.
> And
> the fact that they must resort to code indicates how aware they are that
> their incestuous love is impermissible to others. A lesser novelist
> might
> ignore the break between the summers of fulfillment at Ardis; Nabokov
> has to
> explain both the ongoing momentum of Van and Ada's passion, and the
> obstacles their passion meets: time, space, their lack of independence,
> their need for secrecy, and their other interests, including other
> sexual
> interests.
>
> 3: Letters occupy a key place in the development of the novel as a
> genre,
> solidly from Richardson until the end of the eighteenth-century and
> intermittently thereafter, as Nabokov was very aware as a novelist and a
> critical reader. ADA is saturated with references to the history of the
> novel, from the Tolstoy echo in the opening line, the letter-writing
> scene
> in a stage version of Eugene Onegin that inspires Demon's passion for
> Marina
> and so starts the whole incestuous story, and the "gentle eminence of
> old
> novels" on which Ardis stands. So here in I.26.
>
> 4: In I.40 Van writes "The novelistic theme of written communications
> has
> now really got into its stride" (287). That comment, on the anonymous
> note
> from Blanche warning Van that he is being deceived (by Ada), is another
> example of the use of letters to indicate the strain in Van and Ada's
> relationship, as in their first period of separation, or in their
> second,
> during which Van will not even read Ada's letters. These in turn echo
> the
> strained relationship between Demon and Marina a generation earlier,
> which
> Demon breaks off with a letter at the end of I.2.
>
> 5: Van and Ada's being able to use Rimbaud and Marvell for their code
> indicates their precocity, their literariness, their retentiveness,
> their
> attunement.
>
> 6: But it also points to the first time the Rimbaud and Marvell poems
> come
> together, when Ada and Van are communicating in a virtual code, in order
> to
> exclude Marina, in I.10, a passage that foreshadows their need to block
> parental understanding of their communication, as in the code of I.26,
> the
> cryptic telegram of I.29 or the ultrasecrecy of the Very Private Letters
> agency in II.1.
>
> 7: But I.10's exchange involving Rimbaud and Marvell also very pointedly
> introduces Lucette and the lost "souci d'eau," the "care of the water,"
> that
> anticipates her death by drowning. Letters are inseparable from that
> fate.
> Lucette's slide towards her doom gathers pace when Ada sends a letter to
> Van
> delivered personally by Lucette, since he will not read Ada's other
> letters,
> in a scene that Van reports partly by incorporating a passionate
> love-letter
> from Lucette to him, rich in echoes of Ophelia and her letters that
> Hamlet
> returns before SHE dies by drowning.
>
> The key words that Van uses in I.26 to demonstrate the first code, and
> the
> difference to the encryption caused by a difference in the number of
> letters
> in the word, are "love" and "lovely." "Love" of course is appropriate in
> this novel of ardor, including Lucette's tragic ardor for Van. We first
> encounter Van and Ada making love in the attic, in the first chapter of
> the
> novel. They can escape Lucette's surveillance on this occasion because
> they
> dupe her into wanting to hurriedly learn by heart a poem from an
> anthology
> of Van's. If she can recite the poem word perfect, she keeps the book,
> Van
> explains, "lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips":
>
> "Otherwise, you'll forfeit the reward, and will regret the loss all your
> life."
> "Oh, Van, how lovely of you," said Lucette. . . .
>
> While Ada and Van ascend to the attic-where they discover the evidence
> that
> shows them that they are full brother and sister, and that will indicate
> how
> urgently, later, they will need to keep their correspondence
> encoded-Lucette
> learns the poem, and recalls it for Van in the last letter that she ever
> writes, which Van receives only after her death. A letter that
> incorporates
> a poem it was "lovely" of Van to have offered her surely has no
> accidental
> relationship to coded letters that use the "love"-"lovely" code or short
> poems by Rimbaud and Marvell.
>
> 8: The poem Lucette commits to memory and recalls in her last letter
> itself
> concerns communication between the dead and the living, a motif that
> recurs
> throughout ADA, in a strange relationship to Van's novel Letters from
> Terra
> (a planet many Antiterrans think of as a "Next World" (20)), a novel
> itself
> written in bitter response to the letters Ada sends him in vain after
> their
> parting in 1888. And the pattern of letters particularly involves
> Lucette,
> as in the Scrabble game in ADA I.36 and the Anglo-Russian letters for
> CLITORIS that Lucette introduces, recalling another Scrabble game, when
> she
> brings Van a letter from Ada for him to read, in a passage Van lifts
> from a
> letter of Lucette's that he in turn makes echo Hamlet's letter to
> Ophelia.
> Throughout the novel letters, epistolary or alphabetic, will suggest
> encoded
> communication between the Next World and This; I.26 introduces the theme
> of
> encoded forbidden communication in its starkest form.
>
> 9: The unexpected theme of communication, especially secret
> communication,
> through water also pervades the novel, from Aqua crazy enough to imagine
> she
> hears water talking, to the novel's hydraulic dorophones, to the
> "ondulas"
> that send Theresa's messages from Terra in Letters from Terra, before
> she
> flies over herself and swims "like a micromermaid" on a microscope
> slide, or
> "little Lucette" who flushes her blank suicide note down the toilet on a
> transatlantic liner before drowning and then sending "maybe a mermaid's
> message" to Ada to rejoin Van. In I.26 Van works himself into an
> impatient
> expository tangle in explaining the first code of his secret
> correspondence
> with Ada, through the examples of "love" and "lovely," especially as he
> describes the "letters overflowing into the new alphabetic series . . .
> that
> 'overflowing' into the next ABC business."
>
> 9: Notice that the letter Lucette brings to Van from Ada announces Ada's
> intention to marry if Van does not respond. The dwindling frequency of
> the
> coded correspondence in I.26 also encodes Ada's deepening relationship
> with
> other men over her first four years apart from Van.
>
> 10: I.26 is the shortest chapter in ADA, less than two pages in some
> editions, and it is not meant to thrill. Just as TRANSPARENT THINGS as a
> whole was short and jarringly uncomfortable after ADA's protracted
> radiance,
> I.26 is short, aridly unsensuous, frustrating for Van to write and us
> for to
> read, because this is the first chapter after Van and Ada's first
> parting,
> at the end of the radiance of Ardis the First. Ada, all too conscious
> that
> the chapter encodes her increasing entanglement with other men at Van's
> expense, ends it thus: "(I suggest omitting this little chapter
> altogether.
> Ada's note.)"
>
> Since Don has written more about Nabokov as "alphabetic man of letters,"
> and
> about "taking ADA clitorally," than anyone else, I am surprised that he
> of
> all people should think I.26 an example of gratuitous virtuosity. It is
> the
> chapter with the least to offer in ADA-it was MEANT to be thus, in
> pointed
> contrast to the rapturous idyll of Ardis-and it was still the chapter
> that
> satisfied Nabokov least. But gratuitous? 9/17/2003 7:49
> AM
>
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> -
> EDITOR's RESPONSE.
>
> Brian is, as always, dazzling. I agree with almost everything
> he
> says. But he chooses to focus on I-26 as a link in the book's
> Communications Theme that he traces here so nicely. No argument here.
> My
> modest point is merely that the description of the code's
> construction,
> the major subject matter of the chapter, is unnecessary. Reflecting on
> Brian's comments (esp. #10)leads to another thought. The chapter has
> three
> paragraphs. The first and last are brief; the medial (which contains all
> of
> the code explanation) is long and complex. It is this that seems
> "gratuitous"--a word that sets off strong feelings, perhaps because it
> can
> either mean (apart from "free") either "not required" OR "unwarranted."
> I
> have only the "not required" sense in view, although I do not
> (necessarily)
> object to unnecessary text.
> Now, I said in my original note that the chapter (meaning only the
> code
> portion) could be deleted without loss. This is not quite accurate. The
> short opening and closing paragraphs cannot be dropped without loss for
> the
> book. The chapter provides a very necessary transition between the
> summers
> of Ardis I (1884) and Ardis (1888). As Ada says, the interval is "our
> black
> rainbow"-- an expression that is the chapter's stylistic highlight.
> More
> specifically, the chapter constitutes a necessary transition between
> Chapters 25 & 27. Skip 26 and try reading the end of 25 and 27. Doesn't
> work. It will, however, if you include the first and last paragraphs of
> 26.
> These are the vital transition material that bind 1884 & 1888 together.
> But
> the two paragraphs make a skimpy chapter funless filled in by the long
> code
> paragraph that provides a buffer zone between paragraph one and
> paragraph
> three and, as well, between the contents of chapters 26 & 28. In short,
> the
> central bulk of I-26 is structural stuffing. It is easily replaced by
> some
> other "neutral" filler. It is, I would say "gratuitous" in the sense of
> particular content.
>
>
>
>
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> -
> ORIGINAL EDNOTE:
>
> Nick Grundy has challenged me to find a good example of Gratuitous
> Virtuosity in VN's work. In general, I am not persuaded that GV is a sin
> (and even sometimes a mitzvah---GV, GV!) but, if pushed, I would
> nominate
> ADA, I-26 which explicates the code used by Van & Ada during their
> 1884-88
> separation. The three-page chapter would seem to be all in aid of
> permitting
> the reader to decode a short, inconsequential phrase in the preceding
> chapter:
>
> Van plunged into the dense undergrowth. He wore a silk shirt, a
> velvet
> jacket, black breeches, riding boots with star spurs - and this attire
> was
> hardly convenient for making klv zdB AoyvBno wkh gwzxm dqg kzwAAqvo a
> gwttp
> vq wjfhm Ada in a natural bower of aspens; xliC mujzikml..... .
>
> The "decrypt" (as we ex-cryptanalysists racily put it): is
> "[making]
> his way through the brush and crossing the brook to reach Ada".......,
> they
> embraced." At the end of I-26 Ada herself suggests "omitting this
> little
> chapter altogether." Boyd in the Cyberedition of his book on ADA points
> out
> that the coded passage calls attention to surrounding textual allusions
> to
> Marvell and Rimbaud poems. Yes, but such would be the case even if I-26
> is
> omitted. Nor can the chapter can be justified on structural
> grounds---nothing in the book would be affected if the chapter were not
> there. In closing, I remark my opening comment that GV is not
> necessarily a
> mortal sin. A close look at Ada shows that there are other "gratuitous"
> chapters.