The Scorpion God
The early Nabokov novels, written during the late Twenties and Thirties and published in the Russian émigré journals at the time, are now being carefully translated with the expected minute care by the master and his son. Glory has the prickly worded yet nonchalant detachment of the best young European writing of that period; one can think at once of half a dozen novels of that time, excellent in themselves, but vulgarly knocked out by fashion and history. Henry Green, for example, or the early Anthony Powell. It was a genre standoffish to outsiders, affectionately malicious to those within small, happy circles. For a decade or two the artist was to know himself as an exile and not a journalistic joiner, and, to exiles, language and a few friends are the sacred country. The dictionary is the one holy book; as in another exile-creating period, there will be a turn to Stendhal’s requirement of “exact chemistry” in the description of places, feeling, and people. This rejuvenates a stale world.
When the young man in Nabokov’s fifth Russian novel takes one of the trying girls of the time to the piny and reedy outskirts of Berlin these are, they must be, “lacustrine.” The sensations of being young lie between the rituals of being offhand and the hourly torment of pedantry. As for recording the general experience of growing a will and imposing it on the sensibility, the sense of inner exile has been indispensable to decent writing and has nothing to do with being an aesthete. A youth like Nabokov’s Martin is, in fact, a genuine Russian émigré and his only advantage is that he is a cosmopolitan—Swiss father, Russian mother, holidays at Biarritz before the revolution, flight, English, education, and Wanderjahre afterward—but these accidental things do not explain why he knows in what way waves come in on any shore or why he grows, from day to day, by traveling back, forth, and crisscross in reverie. He may have had the luck to come from Yalta to London and Cambridge via Constantinople and Lausanne, in happy puberty, but his exotic journey will contain an inner one of greater interest.
In his Introduction to Glory Nabokov fires off a cheering shot or two at “the now discredited” Freudians and their “womby wonder” before Martin’s final gesture in secretly getting back into Russia at the end of the novel. The author’s difficulty in finding a title for the novel really contains the key. It was first to be called Romanticheskiy vek (“romantic times”) but was changed to Podvig:
…chosen partly because I had had enough of hearing Western journalists call our era “materialistic,” “practical,” “utilitarian,” etc., but mainly because the purpose of my novel, my only one with a purpose, lay in stressing the thrill and glamour that my young expatriate finds in the most ordinary pleasures as well as in the seemingly meaningless adventure of a lonely life.
Podvig, it seems, literally means “gallant feat” or “exploit,” but there was an overtone of usefulness here, and Nabokov was thinking of the “inutile deed of renown,” something privately chivalrous. The now loaded word “fulfillment” was closer to the idea. Myself I find the finally chosen “Glory” too close to platform rhetoric, which is certainly not intended. There is no moralizing or exhorting in this gay book. Possibly Martin, who is to disappear across the policed Russian border into the forest, is crossing Conrad’s shadow line, but in fact he is following the path of the secret imagination. His charming and impulsive career springs from a fantasy which has been born in his childhood, and the novel is an assertion of the excitement of that value against all others. One can, if one likes, read the story as an assertion of the kind of right an artist knows, but in a young man who is a doer “in training” and not an artist.
But the artist’s coolness was required for the writing of a book so at ease with the everyday humors of people, so startlingly close to nature:
Dinner proceeded in silence if one discounted the old-fashioned slurp with which Zilanov ate his soup.
Not entirely a comic sentence; it contains a historical judgment and even a tragic one in the placing of an old political plotter. It is an important part of the novel’s intent to portray the Russian liberals whose existence has been crudely ignored in Europe and America.
The mixing of past and present and the sense of moving into a future is smoothly, sometimes strikingly, done. If Martin’s mother daydreams of going back to her house in Russia, she will see herself and hear herself saying, “How tall the trees have grown,” a heart-rending phrase that henceforth defines a life. Nostalgia, memory, and their tricks, so much a concern in Russian writing, are watched as they fizz away in the mind’s retort. Back in Berlin after his visits there in his childhood, Martin cannot recover the city as he remembered it.
It was as when you meet someone you have not seen for years; first you recognise his figure and his voice, then you look more closely, and there, before your eyes, the transformation imperceptibly wrought by time is run through in quick display. Features alter, likeness deteriorates, and you have before you a stranger, looking smug after having devoured his own youth and fragile double, whom it will henceforth be hard to picture, unless chance comes to the rescue.
But a novelist depends on his singular view of people as well as on the sensibility of his hero. I find Nabokov’s Cambridge figures standardized but his Russian exiles admirable because they have two lives: what is open, what is concealed. All the love affairs, brief, long, or hopeless—it was a good time for the hopeless love affair with a disorganized girl—are done with a perfect lack of our contemporary exhibitionism. The episode of Martin’s dangerous fancy play about the imaginary country called Zoorland, with Sonia, is brilliant.
The fantasy life of half-serious lovers is one of the central human subjects that is lost to later novelists who have forgotten that love is one thing and sexual messiness another. Sonia is a very real girl, bossy, rude, sweet, not always at her best, and certainly her allure is that she cannot be trusted from day to day. But her ugly rush of tears convinces us, more than anything else, of what Nabokov has told us in the fade-out of the last pages: that Martin has with quite awful and gallant finality gone irretrievably. The continuing gregarious good humor of the book sets off the “gallant feat,” silently prepared from childhood, in all its singularity. Incidentally, prewar Berlin is very well done. Nabokov understands that objects have double lives too; they live in the mind. First lesson for the descriptive writer.
I have always thought since the days of Pincher Martin and, above all, The Inheritors that William Golding was the most original imagination among living English novelists. If he labors (and makes us labor too) in the scene he generally deals with, he dredges up unease from the muddy bottom of time, and the stuff has, at the crisis, a flash of cruel revelation. He deals in the primordial, not as if it were allegory or a scientist’s guess, but as a throb of the pulse of primitive consciousness at the point of change. He has sunk himself far deeper than, say, Ballantyne in Coral Island or the journalistic idea-mongering of science fiction. When he sees the bubble breaking in the mud he knows that something dies at the very moment when something is born. He is strenuous reading but dramatic when your eye gets accustomed to the genesis-like darkness.
The talent has one serious danger: if you are concerned with the moment when the bottom falls out of a torpid culture and a new life-force begins to blunder toward being born, then your anthropology is likely to become slangily instructive. The three short novels in this new book do not altogether escape this. In the classic The Inheritors Golding was admirable in showing that the arrival of the new apeman was wretchedness for the unenlightened apes whose sorrow could come out only in grunts. His feeling was for the losers.
In the new stories he is cunning enough to make the evolutionary winner injured, mad, or, in the most successful case, masking himself as a chronic, compulsive liar. He appears in the best and title story The Scorpion God: the old king fails in the race, the new prince will take over and prolong the happy reign of incest; but it is the liar, dirty, kicked around, but farseeing in his underhand way, who is the growing point. He has, it seems, invented adultery. A stagnant culture is about to revive. In Clonk, Clonk, it is the lame leopard man who will triumph over the warriors; and in the comic Envoy Extraordinary, a decent old Caesar will be too tolerant of a bizarre wit who has, in an insane triumph over time, invented a steam cooker.
This story may come as a light relief to Golding readers. But Golding’s main merit lies in his exact descriptive observation.
The river water was flat, opaque, dead. The only suggestion of movement anywhere was in the trace of steam that rose from the surface. The flock of river birds that stood where the mud of the river bank was hard and shattered with hexagonal cracks looked colourfully at nothing. The beds of dry papyrus—slashed with the occasional stem that had bent, broken and leaned against the others—were still as reedbeds painted in a tomb, except when a seed toppled out of a dried crown; and where a seed fell on the shallows, there it lay and did not stir. But further out the water was deep—must be miles deep; for the sun burned down there too and fused the blue enamel of an undersky that matched the heavy blue vault above the red and yellow cliffs. And now, as if two suns were more than they could bear, the cliffs half hid themselves behind the air and began to shake.
The impatient reader might easily skip that opening passage to The Scorpion God; but rereading it he will see not only the precision but the foreshadowing power of that description. The whole story will look back to that seed toppling out of the dried crown; the liar alone will catch the sense of the two suns. Golding’s strength lies in his image making; less, I think, in his dialogue, for that—except in the comic story—is an awful difficulty. In spite of its exhilaration, I find the middle one, Clonk, Clonk, too close to fairy tale for my taste, but Golding is a wit.