Month: September 2016

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Posted September 27, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

Pale Fire by Vladimir NabokovTitle: Pale Fire (Goodreads)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 246
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel centred around a 999 line poem of the same name by fictional poet John Shade. It is primarily focused on a literary commentary by Charles Kinbote, an academic with an obsession with the poet. Starting with the poem in four cantos, then leading into Kinbote’s analysis, Pale Fire is a wonderfully complex novel on obsession and literary criticism. While Nabokov’s 1962 post-modern masterpiece might sound dense on the surface,  I found the novel itself easy to read, but difficult to unpack.

Before sharing my thoughts on Pale Fire, I feel it is important to point out Vladimir Nabokov’s academic career in America. While in America, Nabokov worked as a lecturer mainly in Russian and European literature, most notably at Cornell University from 1948-1959. The reason why this is important is the fact that this experience would have contributed the satirical nature of Pale Fire. I often found the novel to be a tongue in cheek look at literary criticism. On reading this, I found myself laughing at the leaps Kinbote often took to explain the Shade poem. I could not help but think this was a reflection of some of the assignments Nabokov read as a lit professor.

Looking deeper into Pale Fire and there is a lot to gain from the novel. What I noticed first seems to be a popular trope for Nabokov, and that is the unreliable narrator. I cannot help but comparing Charles Kinbote to Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Not only is he unreliable but the obsession with the poet John Shade feels very similar. His obsession towards the poet and the art leads to an artistic passion, however this turns into a struggle with desire exceeding creative capability. It is here we get an interesting idea of critical commentary verses the desire to creating literature.

As things progress the novel shifts to an exploration into reality. I found myself questioning the sanity of Kinbote and maybe he is actually King Charles of Zembla. He could in fact be the exiled king or far more likely, he is suffering from dangerous delusions. From what I know after reading Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading (the only other novels I have read) Nabokov likes to play around with obsession, in particular the dangerous realities it may lead to. It is here where I wished I had read Speak Memory or a biography on Nabokov, because I get a feeling of autobiographical elements in Pale Fire. There are moments that seem to parallel his own life, in regards to fleeing the Soviet Union and even teaching literature. Zembla resembles the Soviet Union but portrayed in a nostalgic way. Like Kinbote looks at the country through rose-coloured classes, not remembering the harsh reality.

Apart from the wonderful writing style to be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, you can expect to see plenty of allegories and references. One thing I love about Russian literature (and I call Nabokov a Russian simply because he was born there) is the way they often reference other novels; it is the same joy I get from reading books about books. Pale Fire is jammed packed with references from The Brothers Karamazov, A Hero of Our Time, James Joyce, Keats, Proust and even mentions Lolita. A better review could go into a lot of detail exploring the references and what they mean to the novel but I will not go into those detail.

Pale Fire is a book that will take a lifetime to read, there is so much here to explore and that is what appeals to me. The more I read from Nabokov the more I want to read, and re-read. I do feel like I need to learn more about this author before diving back into his novels. Speak Memory will be my next read from Nabokov but I am half tempted to crack open a collection of essays I have called Lectures on Russian Literature. I am excited to return to Pale Fire in the future and talk even more about the novel.


The Complexities of Being a Book Nerd

Posted September 16, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

mount-tbrThe life of a book nerd can be a confusing one. I have so many conflicting moments, I find it hard to know what is actually going on inside my own head. Let’s start with a recent bookish existential crisis I had. I have talked about this previously; I worked out that if I was to live for another fifty years, I would only get to around five thousand books. This really stuck with me, I decided to set myself a task. I called it Project 5000, and the goal was to make every book count. Before picking up a book, I think to myself “Is this a book that I would want to include in the 5000?” My goal was not to read anything that I only had a minor interest in and focus on the books that really interested me.

Lately I have been having a completely different train of thought; I have been thinking more about re-reading. While I know I have so many books I want to get to and only have a limited amount of time, the desire to go back to older books directly contradicts my goals behind Project 5000. However, I have grown as a person and a reader, and there are many books that are crying out to be re-read. While watching The Gilmore Girls, I was drawn to a profound quote by Richard Gilmore, “a good book takes a lifetime to read”. This idea has haunted me for a while; the whole idea that great books need to be constantly returned to just feels right. I have read Frankenstein multiple times; I had at one point planned to re-read it every year. While that has not worked out, I still feel drawn to return to it. I would also like to re-read more of my favourites, like Crime and Punishment or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It is not just favourites, I would love to dip into the Foundation series again or just see how I feel about The Catcher in the Rye now I have grown as a reader.

I seem to go in cycles for my reading desires, at the moment I want to read philosophy but that will change. One month I could be interested in reading Russian classics and the next I might be craving science fiction or pulp novels. I can never plan out my reading because I never know what I will be interested in reading. I have a huge interest in the Soviet era, philosophy and books in translation, so I do know that my reading may often be linked to one of those interests. That does not make my reading life any easier, there is so much out there to explore.

One major issue I feel I have is the fact that I feel so far behind in my reading journey. There are so many books out there that I should have read already. This is ridiculous, I know I have read so many great books and should be proud of my reading journey. I am cursed with a never ending TBR pile and I have to find ways to manage that.

Currently I am already planning my reading goals for 2017. I know I will continue my journey in having more than 50% of my reading be translations (currently it is 46% for 2016 and trending upwards). I want to read more non-fiction (9 books this year) and more re-reading (only three this year). I do not want to commit to these goals just yet, I have to think on this some more. However I wanted to give you some insights into what goes on in my head and just how complex being book nerd can be.


The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Posted September 12, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 2 Comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel DaoudTitle: The Meursault Investigation (Goodreads)
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2013
Pages: 143
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the key components to philosophy is the ability to argue your point, this is done in many different ways and Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger does exactly that. Kamel Daoud took the same approach for his counterargument, with his novel The Meursault Investigation. This novel seemed to have taken the world by storm, winning the Goncourt du Premier Roman, the Prix des Cinq Continents, the Prix François Mauriac and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. It follows Harum seventy years after his brother Musa (the Arab) was killed by Meursault. Harum is reflecting back on his life and the impact Meursault’s story has had on himself, his family and Algeria.

Kamel Daoud’s response to The Stranger is basically saying that life is not absurd, it has meaning. Taking a life has consequences and execution is not simply a life for a life. Meursault killing the Arab had a big impact, and never referring to him by name allowed Camus to focus his story but at the risk of missing the bigger picture. So seventy years later, well after Algeria has declared their independence from France, the story of Meursault is still a topic of discussion.

First of all, the death of Musa has an impact on the life of Harum and his family. The Meursault Investigation starts off exploring the life of Harum and his mother and how the death of Musa effected them. The novel spirals out, first looking at the effect it had on Harum, then his mother and family and then finally Algeria. This may come across as repetitive but I think it was important to understand the impact.

I watched a lecture by Daoud that talks about The Stranger and comparing it to Robinson Crusoe. This is an exploration into post-colonialism; Meursault meets someone who was different to him and kills him. Robinson Crusoe did the same thing to Friday, just not physically; he forced him to convert to his idea of civilisation. That meant changing the way his acted, dressed and most of all his religious beliefs. The fact that Meursault killed an Arab on the beach could be symbolic of the island. If you follow this train of thought, The Meursault Investigation turns into a very complex philosophical argument, not only against The Stranger but the opinions of Western society (especially France) towards the raise of Islam.

The Meursault Investigation is an angry novel with some very deep philosophical ideas embedded into the pages. Published originally in French (translated by John Cullen) this novel evoked similar reactions for me as Submission by Michel Houellebecq in the way it explores France’s reaction to Islam. I understand people’s criticism about repetitive in The Meursault Investigation but I feel like it was necessary as Daoud needs to keep circling back to the death of the Arab and exploring how it affected everyone. This is the butterfly effect and I enjoyed every moment of this novel.


The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

Posted September 8, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Dead Lake by Hamid IsmailovTitle: The Dead Lake (Goodreads)
Author: Hamid Ismailov
Translator: Andrew Bromfield
Published: Peirene Press, 2014
Pages: 128
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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While I actively avoid a novel that is described as a modern fairy-tale, it is a good term to use while talking about The Dead Lake. The novella tells the story of Yerzhan growing up in the remote parts of Kazakhstan, in an area that the Soviets used for atomic weapons testing. As a young boy he tried to impress the neighbour’s daughter by diving into a forbidden lake. The lake was radioactive and diving into the water changed Yerzhan forever.

Diving into the dead lake means that Yerzhan will now never grow into a man, he is doomed to watch his love grow into a beautiful woman while he will forever be a prepubescent boy. The plot is very fairy-tale like and the reader has a front row seat into a struggle in masculinity. While never growing old may seem like a dream for some people, never reaching puberty would not be desirable. While re-reading Interview with the Vampire, I wanted this exact issue explored with Claudia. The idea that while Yerzhan may never physically age, time and experience means he grows and matures. His inner self is not reflected physically and he is doomed to be always treated like a child.

While the plot tells a fairy-tale like story, underneath all this there is something different happening. The Dead Lake is an exploration into the environmental impact of the cold war. Not just exploring the effects the Soviets had on Karakhstan but rather the impact both American and the USSR had on the world to demonstrate their power. I believe this novella was based on Lake Chagan, which the Soviets conducted nuclear tests on in 1965 and is still radioactive today. Around about 100 times more than the permitted level of radionuclides in drinking water.

This grim book deals with some hard hitting topics but credit to Hamid Ismailov for producing a beautiful novella. The writing in The Dead Lake is so lyrical and poetic it just flows off the page. I found myself captivated by the writing and completely sucked into the story. While it is no secret that I am a fan of Soviet and post-Soviet literature, there is something special about this novella. I love the idea of a bildungsroman where the protagonist is physically unable to truly come of age, I would like to read more novels like this.


Treading Air by Ariella van Luyn

Posted September 6, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Treading Air by Ariella van LuynTitle: Treading Air (Goodreads)
Author: Ariella van Luyn
Published: Affirm Press, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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There is a certain sense of glee to be had when you read a novel set in a familiar location. That moment when you recognise a street or the author accurately describes a location; that feeling is comforting and is what drove me through Ariella van Luyn’s debut novel Treading Air. The story takes place in two locations, in Townsville and Brisbane during the 1920s and 1940s, following the life of Lizze O’Dea. From an attraction and eventual marriage to battle scared Joe, to the new life in an unfamiliar town, Treading Air is a cinematic portrayal of independence, love and sex.

I often felt like there was something very familiar with the plot of Treading Air; a sense that I have read this novel before. Which I had, it was from French author Joseph Kessel, and the novel that was turned into the surrealist classic film of the same name, Belle de Jour. I could not unsee the similarities, a lonely housewife discovering her sexuality as a sex worker. There are more similarities to be explored but I do not want to give away anything.

Once I discovered this connection, I had a hard time really enjoying Treading Air, to the point where I considered abandoning the book once or twice. I merely kept going due to the fact that this was the selection for book club and I wanted to give it as much attention as possible. Treading Air is based on a real woman, the author found some information about her while looking through historical archives and thought that the story was too good not to write. They say truth is stranger than fiction, yet it was fiction where I found this story previously.

In the end I ended with two major issues with this novel. Firstly I think there could have been some interesting insights into the motivation and mindset of a sex worker that could have been explored. I feel that because the novel was written in third person we were never really in the mind of Lizzie and there could have been value to be had there. Secondly one piece of advice I hear about writing it ‘show don’t tell’ which is not always true (there are some great authors that tell rather than show) but in the case of this debut by Ariella van Luyn, it would have made for a better novel.

Do not get me wrong, this is not a bad book and I am curious to see what Ariella van Luyn does next. I personally felt it lacked some of the key components that I am interested in, especially in a novel about sex workers. Rather than pick Treading Air apart any further, I would simply say I was disappointed. I know others have enjoyed this novel but it just was not for me. If the synopsis does interest you, do not be afraid to give it a go.