Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001173, Wed, 3 Jul 1996 11:16:04 -0700

Nabokoviana: Galatea 2.2
Admirers of Nabokov might very well enjoy the work of Richard
Powers. His _Operation Wandering Soul_ was perhaps the best novel I read
last year. I have just finished his 1995 _Galatea 2.2_ which has
Nabokovian echoes in both themes and style. The plot is Pygmalion; the
narrator, a writer named "Richard Powers" who has written the same four
novels as has _Galatea 2.2_'s author and who will write the
quasi-autobiographical novel that we are reading. (Cf. LATH! and THE GIFT)
The narrator is inveigled into "training" a massive computer (Galatea) to
write a comprehensive exam in English lit such that a judge cannot
distinguish it from that of a real grad student. This not very promising
plot leads to a great deal of speculation on the nature of creativity and
consciousness, all dazzlingly interwoven into the story line. Memory is
one of the subthemes and "Powers" talks of "advance retrospective" in a
couple of places. (98)
In the course of "Helen"'s (the computer's) training, "she" and
the narrator discuss the evergrowing growing number of books in a world
in which fewer and fewer people read them. "Helen" asks the question:

"Why do people write so much? Why do they write at all?"
I read her one of the great moments in contemporary American
fiction.. "Only it's not by an American, it's no longer contemporary, and
it doesn't even take place inside the fictional frame." This was
Nabokov's postscript to LOLITA, where he relates the book's genesis. He
describes hearing of an ape who produced the first known work of animal
art, a rough sketch of the bars of the beast's cage.
I told Helen, inside such a cage as ours, a book bursts like
someone else's cell specifications. And the difference between two cages
completes an inductive proof of thought's infinitude. (291)...."

This last is echoed at the novel's end (328) when the sadder but wiser
narrator mulls over his experience and plans his new book:

"I'd come to any number of public inventions. That we could fit time into
a continuous story. That we could teach a machine to speak. That we might
care what it would say. That the world's endless thingness had a name.
That somebody else's prison-bar picture might spring you. That we could
love more than once. That we could know what once means."

Powers has a fine ear for language and language play as witnessed
in a couple of not so random examples: 1) "She (Galatea-Helen) saw how the
mind makes forever, in order to store the things it has already lost.
She's learned how story, failing to post words beyond time, recalls them
to the moment before Now left home" (310). 2) "The tale we tell is the
must that we make by living it. (313).

D. Barton Johnson
Department of Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies
Phelps Hall
University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Phone and Fax: (805) 687-1825
Home Phone: (805) 682-4618