Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Nabokov’s Definition of Art

In an oft-quoted sentence from his afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” That last, parenthetical definition intrigues me, as it has intrigued many others; its four nouns appear at first glance to be a casual list, a list of four states Nabokov cherished, each appealing in its way but here arranged in an odd alignment, as if meant to be read as synonyms for “art” and one another. Read instead as ingredients, a kind of recipe for art, they make a bit more sense, but remain a strangely idiosyncratic selection. This eccentricity, however, draws one in, to puzzle over the elusiveness of a more solid, logical link between “art” and “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.”

Nabokov’s vision of the world as filled with hidden treasures, surprises waiting to reward the individual who places a high value on curiosity and exploration (the naturalist studying the tricky designs of nature, the good re-reader studying the tricky designs of literature) is well known, and has been superbly articulated by his foremost biographer and explicator Brian Boyd. I believe that, in perfect accordance with such a vision, “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy” may be read not simply as a list but as a sequence, four stages in a process, one that suggests a “way”—a path, as, for example, Buddhism is a path—that is for Nabokov the secret of joy.

Curiosity is the prerequisite, the necessary prelude and first step. Oddness often piques it, as the oddness of Nabokov’s description of art piqued mine, because that which is odd or different may reveal new information or new perspectives, lead to discoveries, serve as a catalyst for growth. The old saying “opposites attract” might be modified to a more accurate “otherness attracts”—in matters of intellect, culture, and learning as well as in love. Tenderness and kindness follow, and they are not identical: although both words can mean gentleness, “tenderness” suggests a fond emotional or intellectual caress, whereas “kindness” suggests a deliberate act of compassion. If we find, in our curiosity, that we are drawn to a person or thing that inspires feelings of tenderness, we react with kindness. Just as friendship leads one to behave with greater sympathy and tolerance toward the friend than one might toward a total stranger, a fondness for a particular author, book, or idea leads one to devote greater time, care, and attention to the object of interest; and here, taken to an enviable extreme, the devotion of the passionate student may segue into a series of ascending steps, noble and invigorating. Climbed well, these steps can lead to a state of grace, even if only a fleeting one; a sense of having touched or entered a higher realm of feeling and being, a rapturous or divine moment: ecstasy. I imagine this “ecstasy” as comparable to, or compatible with, the Greek enthousiasmos, which traces back etymologically to roots that literally mean “to be in God” (and lead to the Greek word enthousiazein—“to be inspired”—before evolving into enthousiasmos and our own “enthusiasm”).

In his best works, Nabokov’s prose, marked by an extraordinarily heightened cross-referencing of details, wordplay, and hidden patterns, and designed to provide infinite rewards for re-reading (or should I say “provide rewards for infinite re-reading”?), serves as an elaborately prepared field of practice, and an endless workout, for readers interested in this “way.” Nabokov’s ideal reader is an amalgam of polymath detective, doting lover, wise constructor, and intellectual-sensualist, likely to yell “Eureka!” on the way to euphoria. Such an explorer canvases the landscapes of Nabokov’s “unreal estate” with pleasure, to coordinate the fictional details strewn there and coo over the myriad insights and intrigues that arise from sly combinations, as when a peculiar set of particulars implies that a character who died in an early chapter may be exerting a subtle spectral influence in a later one, as a ghost invisible not only to the other characters but also to the uninitiated, casual, or first-time reader. The good re-reader discovers that in a Nabokov work, and in life, reality reveals further layers of depth and complexity in direct proportion to one’s willingness, one’s efforts, to continue seeking them—ecstatically.

But, of course, to describe this as a “path” or “way” demands the placement of tongue in cheek, for Nabokov, the passionate individualist, could abide no groups, movements, or schools of thought. Consider it, then, a lesson from an ingenious professor, distilled into four nouns and placed, quietly, between parentheses—a literary aside, given as a mere clue to his priorities, which only incidentally doubles as the key to a mode of thinking and living that might entirely transform one’s vision, point the way to an ongoing process of revelation and inspiration, and lead to an endless series of sublime delights.

Copyright 2006 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved. Originally published in the scholarly journal The Nabokovian.



I like very much this author photo from Vladimir Nabokov’s later years, showing him soaked by a sudden rainstorm, delighted. I know that for some, his mischievous, playful spirit is often overshadowed, if not altogether eclipsed, by his intimidating intellectual prowess, recondite allusions, and (mis)perceived arrogance. Consider, however, that face, the face of a man who brandished a net to capture fluttering things; and place it alongside this, from biographer Brian Boyd’s introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies:
His love of Lepidoptera drew upon and further sharpened his love of the particular and the habits of detailed observation that gave him such fictional command over the physical world—biologically (birds, flowers, trees), geographically (localities, landscapes, ecologies), socially (manorial Russia, boardinghouse Berlin, motel America), and bodily (gesture, anatomy, sensation). He thought that only the ridiculously unobservant could be pessimists in a world as full of surprising specificity as ours, and he arranged his own art accordingly.
My brief essay on Nabokov’s tantalizing definition of art as “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy” offers an indication of why Nabokov’s smile reflects such a genuine, knowing sort of joy.

(Photo by Horst Tappe)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Luc Métivet

The forthcoming issue of The Folio Club (issue number four) will include a brief essay of mine entitled “Paris” which begins as follows:
For many years I’ve kept a framed poster of a French lithograph by Luc Métivet, a contemporary of Toulouse-Lautrec, on the wall of my apartment. It has followed me from one apartment to the next for nearly three decades...
Although I do not specify the image or discuss Métivet further in my “Paris” essay, I want to do so here. The framed reproduction to which I refer is of his most famous work (above), an 1893 poster advertising a performance by Eugénie Buffet at Ambassadeurs. It’s a well-known image, readily available from countless retailers of inexpensive, mass-produced posters and prints, often alongside the most frequently reproduced Toulouse-Lautrec posters. I happened upon it the same way I imagine many others do: as a newly arrived college freshman, sorting through stacks of posters being sold on-campus to students eager to decorate their dorm room walls. But unlike all the other posters that passed through my life in those years, this one stayed with me, it had a subtle pleasant power, my father and brother framed it for me in a light wooden frame that suited it perfectly, and it became a sort of companion.

I knew nothing at all about the artist of this beloved work, and for many years my curiosity remained quietly in place, merely a mild sense that I was in the presence of a pleasant mystery. Whenever I made a slight effort to learn more, I learned only of the existence of this one poster; but now, within the past twenty-four hours, I’ve discovered that the multiple reasons for my longstanding failure include a comically simple one: although he signed his most famous image “Luc Métivet” he is more often listed (and discussed) under the longer form of his name “Lucien Métivet” or the even longer, full version: Lucien Marie François Métivet. Armed with this information and the miracles of the Google search engine, I have uncovered a few scraps of biographical data and a number of images.

He is identified as a “French illustrator, painter, graphic artist” who lived from 1863 to 1930 or 1932. The year of his death is apparently a matter of conjecture; one online source concludes that “the last years of his life were marked by obscurity and the date of his death is not known.” His main working years, however, were graced with a creative spark: he was “a highly successful poster artist and contributor to Parisian humor magazines like Le Rire and La Semaine de Suzette.”

Le Rire (“the laugh” or “laughter”) was a popular satirical weekly founded in Paris by Felix Juven in 1894, and published from October 1894 all the way into the 1950s. From the beginning it featured many of the leading poster artists of the period, including Toulouse-Lautrec (who contributed numerous drawings during its first three years), Métivet, and other figures now recognized by collectors of Belle Époque illustration, such as Faivre, Forain, Hermann-Paul, Jossot, Léandre, Roedel, Roubille, Steinlen, Vallotton, and Willette.

The biographical note about Métivet at tells us that Métivet was:
a master in caricature, humorous illustration and lithographic techniques. After his debut exhibition with the Salon des Artistes Francais, he published a series of satirical drawings in the Critique. He soon abandoned that style in favour of poster art and became one of the most prominent illustrators of the 19th century. He became one of the leading illustrators of Le Rire, and in 1926 he illustrated the humorous tales of Balzac.
“At the Sculpture Exhibition” is a hilarious image that Métivet did for the cover of Le Rire; it appeared in May 1896, during the publication’s second year. In its audacity and satirical delight this drawing exemplifies for me the kind of humorous illustration that must have inspired future generations of cartoonists. Here a high-society lady peers at a statue of a male nude. The image is funny enough on its own, but the caption makes the implications even naughtier: “–Tiens! mon ancien cocher!” (“Hey! My former coachman!”) I see a visual echo down the decades, if a rather genteel one, in the famous debut cover of the New Yorker, from 1925, with its iconic dandy peering through his monocle at a butterfly.

Other Métivet works I’ve found online include two versions of a second poster for Eugénie Buffet (in a different appearance, Concert de la Cigale), a series of comparatively less polished illustrations that can be seen on Wikimedia Commons, and this interesting cartoon (“Marianne 1920”) that Métivet drew in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the French republic in 1920:

(The caption translates as “I've heard a lot of speeches in 50 years,” a phrase intended as the words of the disillusioned Marianne, i.e. the Republic.)

I’m delighted to finally know more about Monsieur Métivet after all these years, and to discover that the creator of the “fine art” poster that has remained the centerpiece of my home décor for so long was, in fact, a cartoonist. How exactly “one of the most prominent illustrators of the 19th century” all but eluded my detection and remained obscure to me for decades I can’t quite fathom, and perhaps this proves that I myself would be an excellent subject for a cover of Le Rire: the dotty fellow with magnifying glass seeking a subject hiding in plain sight. I only wish I could summon Luc Métivet here, alive and well, to draw it; or, failing that, I’d like to find an appropriately located portal in time, to slip through just briefly, so that I could at least thank him and shake his hand.



You can learn more about Métivet from my two subsequent essays about him for the Paris Review, related to his comic take on fashion and his World War One drawings (with slideshow). An abundant selection of additional images can be found on this Tumblr devoted to his work.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


The following journal entry dates from several years back, but the images and ideas it describes still inspire me.
May 5, 2003. This morning I dreamt I had an extraordinary home, not merely “by the sea” but almost one with it: powerful waves crashing, thunderously, against a transparent wall. Picture a typical apartment—a living room or bedroom (though furnished more darkly than mine)—but with one wall replaced by unbreakable but clear plastic or glass, and giant ocean waves breaking against it. Strangely no view of sky or earth, just the waves coming forward, rising, crashing against the room, taking up the entire wall.

In the dream I felt both awed and intimidated, as something like a tidal wave approached and frighteningly smashed against the wall, right in front of me. But then my intimidation turned to satisfaction as I realized that I would not be harmed; in a sense, I felt that these tremendous waves smashing so perilously close were acknowledging me—like an aggressive beast that does me an honor rather than hurting me. I did not feel in command of the waves—they were too wild, too mighty to be controlled by anyone—but I felt coexistent with them, and almost equal (although quite different and nowhere near their equal in physical strength). And I felt unusually fortunate to be able to live, with relatively little fear, in such intense proximity to their ferocity.

I find it interesting that this dream of bursting waves came to me early this Monday morning after a weekend during which I struggled to reconsider certain aspects of my fictional work-in-progress. (It is now Monday night, and I am finally jotting this down before going to sleep again, after a too-full workday followed by a too-short evening.) It is the kind of dream I do not like to limit by interpretation, but I can’t help but make the Jungian associations of sea and mind, sea and unconscious. It is as if the crashing waves, source of my psychological and creative vitality, pounding right against that side of “where I live” through which I can see them, want to make it clear to me that they are still wild, still powerful, still right next to where I live—and, though almost terrifying in their potential, still allied with my being. I felt a gift of, or from, their strength—a renewal of awareness of power, and a reminder that I am lucky to be able, on some level, to live in their realm.

Perhaps this is also an inheritance of some of the power I tapped into on my visit to the West Coast nearly two years ago, where the quite real Pacific crashing against rocky coastline inspired me so deeply. Although this dream was much different, surreal, it did carry a barely discernible trace of West Coast waves and salt air. Is the power of these psychic ocean waves accessible to me now, as an author and, more generally, in my personal life as well? Of course; it must be.
Image: Carla Crow, Aluna. Mixed medium collage on Handmade Mulberry Bark Paper, 24"x32", 2010. (More at Salon Foxy.)