Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reading Nabokov In Port Townsend

Not really, but I guess I may try it. Actually am reading Roger Ebert's memoir, which is more leaden than his typically short pieces, underscoring the newpaper writer's lament — "I don't think I can write anything longer than 15 inches."
He's gone through all the major interview subjects with nary a usable quote, but offers a gem in a piece about his friend the sports writer Bill Nack, who used to recite favorite passages from books.
From Nabokov's Pnin, a perfect metaphor:
With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener—that highly satisfying, highly philosophical instrument that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.
There are so many perfect things about that paragraph that I despair of ever writing even that much again. Maybe I'll try for a perfect sentence. Oh, wait...

Just to deconstruct this a little. The repetition of ticonderoga is the exact sound of a pencil sharpener. You have to listen, and remember, many times to get that right. He could have said it growled, but it wouldn't have been the same.
The sweet wood. We've all smelled it. Even tasted it. I can smell it now.
Okay, I get why it's highly satisfying, but not why it's highly philosophical unless it's a reference to the ending of the thought, in which case the allusion is lost by the time you get there. So, yeah, I can even criticize Nabokov, but what other "highly" could he have used to balance out the rhythm of the whole thing?
Soundlessly spinning ethereal void. Really dangerously elevated language. It only works because of everything that's come before.
 He does not much break up this somewhat long sentence (long for journalism, long for Hemingway). I would have put a period after void and made "As we all must" it's own short, tap-tap sentence. But that's my rhythm, not his.
Tune in tomorrow as Julimac deconstructs The Bible!

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