Friday, June 25, 2010

Where we meet

Among the many thrills of travelling, is the quiet pleasure of reading a story set in the place you're visiting.

A couple of years ago, for instance, my partner took one of Ian Rankin's marvellous crime novels along when we went to the Edinburgh Festival. We saw great theatre pieces and striking art exhibitions, but what made our stay really memorable, was drinking a pint or two in Inspector Rebus's favourite pubs, following his trail through the ancient streets, seeing the squares and the statues of the Scottish city through the eyes of a beloved fictional character - and the author who created him, of course.

Last year a friend visited Turkey with Orhan Pamuk's evocative masterpiece, Istanbul: Memories and the city, as her most important item of luggage. In fact, the desire to see Istanbul had sprung directly from reading the Nobel Prize winner's description of his home town, and she loved rereading the book while exploring the city. Another friend found that a first visit to Barcelona was vastly enhanced by Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, in which the Catalan capital is vividly depicted. And how can any reader discover the Egyptian city of Alexandria without being constantly reminded of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet?

There are endless examples of this very particular reading pleasure, which I also experienced again recently during a short visit to Lisbon. Until then, my main literary reference for the Portugese capital was the inimitable Fernando Pessoa, whose lonely statue can be admired among the outdoor tables of one of the most popular eating, meeting and drinking establishments in the centre of town. But as my Lisbon guide happened to be a writer, I was taken to quite a few bookshops, some even selling English books. And this is where I met John Berger's Here Is Where we Meet.

Here Is Where we Meet is a collection of inter-related autobiographical 'stories' set in various European cities, starting with a strange encounter in Lisbon and ending with a memory of this encounter. The fact that I've visited all the other cities in the book too, obviously added to my enjoyment, but that wasn't essential. What was - essential - was that I started reading about Lisbon while I was still in Lisbon, recognising the names of streets and parks; sometimes even reading about a certain square while sitting in a cafe on the same square. Or reading about Lisbon's beautiful yellow trams while actually travelling in one of them...

'It's not any place, John, it's a meeting place. There aren't many cities left with trams, are there?'

This remark comes from the author's mother, whom he unexpectantly meets in Lisbon - truly unexpectantly, since she's been dead for 15 years and has never been to Lisbon while still alive. The remarkable conversation between living son and long-dead mother sets the tone for the rest of the book, an enchanting melange of magic and realism, short story and essay, novel and autobiograhy, a unique blend of genres that John Berger has long ago made his own.

Of course Berger has always been much more than just another storyteller. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for the novel G, but his most influential work is probably still Ways of Seeing, a long essay published in the same year which has forever changed the way we look at art and its relationship to time, place, politics and life in general.

During the course of Here Is Where we Meet the author meets other people - some alive, some dead, all fascinating characters - in other places. About two thirds through the book, a single sentence is printed in the middle of an empty page: 'The number of lives that enter our own is incalculable.' This simple phrase somehow sums up the mystery of the book; this and a sentence found on the back cover: 'No one appreciates the detail of being alive more than the dead.'

And please note, you don't have to be religious, you don't have to believe in ghosts, angels or aliens, to appreciate the sensual details and the serious intelligence of Berger's writing. The penultimate piece, The Szum and the Ching, is a breath-takingly beautiful and life-affirming story of exile and homecoming set in London, Paris and the Polish countryside. But the first piece, Lisboa, remains my favourite, part of my memories of Lisbon and its yellow trams and its Fado bars and its Santa Junta lift - in which the dead descend to earth, according to the author's dead mother.

Apart from all these reasons for loving Lisboa - the city and the story - the book also provided me with a totally convincing explanation for the existence of Fado:

'Lisboetas often talk of a feeling, a mood, which they call saudade, usually translated as nostalgia, which is incorrect. Nostalgia implies a comfort, even an indolence such as Lisboa has never enjoyed. Vienna is the capital of nostalgia. This city is still, and has always been, buffeted by too many winds to be nostalgic. Saudade, I decided... was the feeling of fury at having to hear the words too late pronounced too calmly. And Fado is its unforgettable music. Perhaps Lisboa is a special stopover for the dead, perhaps here the dead show themselves off more than in any other city.'

Remember that, next time you're in Lisbon, and don't say you weren't warned.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Did Nabokov like soccer?

What would Vladimir Nabokov have thought of the World Cup? This is the niggling question at the back of my mind on the opening day of Fifa 2010 in South Africa.

I recently read Pale Fire, see, in which he wrote:
'I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores...'
And the list goes on.

Does this sound like someone who'd get excited about a soccer game? No, I'm afraid this makes the great writer sound like an elitist and opinionated old fart. And just in case you think I'm making the tyical reader's mistake 'of dotting all the i's with the author's head', as Nabokov himself so succintly put it, let me remind you that he admitted, in a famous BBC TV interview in 1962, that John Shade, the fictional poet composing this list of loathing in Pale Fire, 'does borrow some of my opinions'. And to prove his point, he quoted and endorsed the above passage.

I can understand a Russian-American intellectual detesting bull-fighting or swimming pools - but jazz? How could the author who produced some of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, loath jazz? Enough to break my jazz-loving little heart.

But apparently the wise man didn't detest all popular past-times. He was actually good enough in tennis and boxing to earn money teaching both these sports during his perambulatory young adulthood. Lolita's eponymous heroine happens to be an excellent tennis player, and a passage in the novel has been called 'the best description of tennis anywhere' in The New Yorker magazine. It starts like this: 'She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounce the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score...'

Don't you just love that 'white-lined time'?

Remember, also, that Nabokov's only child, Dmitri, became a professional racing car driver. True, these are all individual sports, not a universally popular team sport like soccer - so the jury is still out on Nabokov vs Fifa 2010. If anyone reading this could enlighten me, I'd be really grateful.

Because I adore this opinionated old fart's writing. Every time I read one of his novels, I'm overawed by what he managed to do with the English language - which was not even his mother tongue, for crying out loud! Indeed, what he called his 'private tragedy' - 'that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English' - could probably be regarded as one of the best things that ever happened to American literature.

Yes, he was ruthlessly opinionated, not hesitating to demolish his fellow-American literary contemporaries. He tried to read Saul Bellow's Herzog, he claimed, but it was so boring that he had to give up. And among his Russian predecessors, he confidently declared that Tolstoy was the greatest novelist and Pushkin the greatest poet - adding that this made him feel like a school master marking papers and that Dostoyevsky would probably be waiting at his office door, wanting to know why he got such poor results.

This is a fine example of Nabokov's irrepressible humour - the other important reason why his writing is so irresistible. Yes, he loved showing off and using complicated words, even inventing his own words, but his irony, wit and humour always saved him from pretentiousness. Anyway, how can any fanatic reader resist a book like Pale Fire, a marvellous mixture of poetry and prose, a campus novel hiding a detective story, a series of Russian dolls each revealing another literary genre? Pale Fire has been called 'a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem', and many other adjectives.

It can also be called, quite simply, a masterpiece. The second canto of the 999-line poem written by the fictional poet John Shade, around which the whole novel is constructed, begins with 10 unforgettable lines about the mystery of life and death:
'There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.

There was the day when I began to doubt
Man's sanity: How could he live without
Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom
Awaited conciousness beyond the tomb?'

Every time I read this, I can forgive Vladimir Nabokov absolutely anything - including his loathing of jazz - and I actually don't give a damn whether he liked soccer or not. Viva Vladimir viva!