Review: Pia Pera and Sena Jeter Naslund.
October 1, 1999
Oct 1, 1999
13 Min read time
Review: Pia Pera and Sena Jeter Naslund.
Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer
Sena Jeter Naslund
A phenomenon that may be called borrowed fiction is enjoying much popular and critical success these days. Perhaps the most striking recent example is Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning appropriation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. But the practice is not unique to fiction: Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho virtually reproduces Hitchcock’s film classic frame by laborious frame; and since Manet’s repainting of Titian’s Venus of Urbino as a defiantly decadent Parisian woman, in 1863, artists have been appropriating each other as a means of jarring the way we see and redefining their predecessors. But the device in fiction differs from these others in key ways.
As with Foe, J. M. Coetzee’s 1988 riff on the Robinson Crusoe story, or, in a more overtly commercial vein, Pat Conroy’s recently publicized negotiation to write a "sequel" to Gone With the Wind, borrowed fiction generally requires not just a preceding work of art, but an ur-text that has seeped into popular consciousness to become the property of the culture at large. This makes it the legitimate cousin of the much older tradition of shared myth: Goethe and Marlowe with Faust, Milton with Genesis, Sophocles and Euripides conducting through their plays what amounts to a public conversation about Electra. There is, however, a crucial difference between shared myth and borrowed fiction: it is the nature of myth to be skeletal, the mere hint of a story upon which a writer is free to hang a wholly invented world. (So Mann constructs a four volume novel from the two-page biblical story of Joseph in Egypt.) Borrowed fiction, on the other hand, depends on the highly specific text that inspires it–one replete with all the tics and idiosyncrasies of an individual novelist’s imagination. Those idiosyncrasies are precisely what make borrowed fiction a peculiarly challenging and aesthetically perilous enterprise.
Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife assumes not only a specific story, but a whole mode of writing: her ur-text is no less than Moby Dick, the emblematic American novel, and her assumption of its premises include the passionate tenor of Melville’s language itself. "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last," reads this novel’s opening line. "Yet looking up–into the clouds–I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark ..."
The speaker is Una Spenser, the strong-willed adventuress through whose eyes this sprawling yarn is told. Naslund has an intriguing idea–a famous fictional male meets his female counterpart–and this is not the first time she has trolled existing literature to employ it: her previous novel, Sherlock In Love, was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle. The author may be regarded, then, as something of a specialist in borrowed fiction, and indeed she handles her appropriated characters as if they had always belonged to her.
Naslund takes Una from her unusual childhood through a haphazard series of adventures–shipwreck, cannibalism, a first husband lost to madness–to the point where she is rescued by Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod, prior to its famous last voyage. The overheated plot has its swashbuckling charm, but Una’s profound limitation as narrator soon asserts itself–a limitation that Una herself articulates in one her many pronouncements. "You know, I have never found Hamlet convincing... All that hesitation. A person would either kill the king or go to another country."
This is more revealing than it might at first sight seem. What to Una is "hesitation" may be more accurately described by the complex terms the original evokes: ambivalence and self-doubt. These are exactly the qualities that Ahab’s Wife is lacking. Una is beleaguered by certitude. And almost every character in Ahab’s Wife–Melville’s creations, Naslund’s, and the many real historical figures who pass through the story to mingle with them–is flattened out by the tenacious one-
dimensionality with which she views the world. Thus, when a bounty hunter of runaway slaves suddenly sees the error of his ways, Una declares by way of explanation: "I knew there was goodness in him." Frederick Douglass is described as "larger than life," after his "chiseled features" are duly noted. And Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Moby Dick is famously dedicated–the writer who first wrestled with the tensions at the core of American Calvinism–is put in his place with the words: "I see confusion, darkness, repression, and cruelty in you!"
Una’s antagonism toward Hawthorne leaves no doubt that her spiritual affinity is with the romantic strain in American literature, as exemplified by Melville and carried on later in the century by Whitman. The paradox is that the quality of Una’s intellectual rigidity–if not its substance–has more in common with her comic book version of the "repressed" and "confused" Hawthorne than the embracing lyricism of Melville. Inadvertently, Ahab’s Wife is the spiritual opposite of the masterpiece that inspires it.
Clearly we are in the realm of picture postcard history, purified of nuance and human complexity. This would be easy to accept if Ahab’s Wife were no more than the romantic fantasy it sometimes pretends to be. But Una insists that she prefers "the real to the unreal." Her simplistic treatment of whaling, abolitionism, transcendentalism, and a host of other topics, belie this assertion.
When Ahab finally appears on Page 251 he proves to be the most dynamic presence in Naslund’s large cast. We recognize his uncompromising monomaniacal energy at once; he belongs to our collective imagination. One of borrowed fiction’s greatest assets is the shared ground that we as readers bring to it from the start. But that capital is easily squandered. Ahab’s vividness, and the greater dimension that Una assumes in relation to him, only serve to point out the novel’s banality when it returns to its own unborrowed terms. As soon as Una loses him to the White Whale, she slips back into the New Age jargon where she most comfortably resides: "... where is the journey to the place that is limitless? I find it within... No, I do not unmarry Ahab. I marry myself."
Later in the novel, Ishmael, Moby Dick’s narrator, also makes an appearance. Entire passages are lifted from Melville and put in Ishmael’s mouth in the form of dialogue. Like many of Naslund’s contrivances, this is meant to be clever. But it reminds us of something else: in Moby Dick Ishmael presents himself as an observer and an outsider from the beginning. This narrative stance is crucial to Moby Dick’s deceptively delicate balance: Ishmael’s insightful coolness serves as a foil to the outsize passions and calamities he describes. By contrast, Una’s fundamentally unprobing narrative voice is startling.
• • •
Naslund has borrowed too much from too many places, so that visiting her fictional landscape is like a trip to a theme park: Melvilleland, Nantucketland, Abolitionland, etc. As a consequence her inventive storytelling ability is buried. She has mistaken the device of borrowed fiction for an end in itself, rather than using it as the springboard from which to explore an authentic world of her own.
In Lo’s Diary, the Italian writer Pia Pera approaches her borrowed fiction from a different angle: she reverses Vladimir Nabokov’s "confession" of a pedophile by retelling it from the point of view of Lolita, the preyed upon pubescent child. Unlike Moby Dick, Lolita’s copyright has not yet reverted to the public, and Lo’s Diary comes to us with a troubled publishing history. Farrar, Straus & Giroux bought American rights to the novel, then quickly backed out when Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son and literary executor, went to court to block its publication. At stake was the legal status of much borrowed fiction. Does a novelist own his characters, the way the creator of the sitcom Cheers, for instance, might own Dr. Frasier Crane? For the moment the question remains unresolved; Lolita’s day in court was avoided when Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press and a veteran of several landmark censorship battles in the late 1950s and early ’60s, negotiated a settlement. Dmitri Nabokov would drop his lawsuit in return for 25 percent of the book’s royalties (which he promptly donated to PEN) and the right to include his own preface to the novel. Rosset’s latest venture, Foxrock, would publish. The sardonic tone of Nabokov’s preface comes as no surprise; in it he expresses his contempt for Lo’s Diary, and falls just short of accusing its author of plagiarism: "One Pia Pera (henceforth PP)... decided to seek inspiration, fortune, and fame from a book called Lolita."
Dmitri is probably being unduly protective of his father. The appropriation of Lolita occurred long before Lo’s Diary. With the help of Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of the novel, she assumed a grip on the collective mind that surely transcended Nabokov’s intention. Lolita became the iconic nymphet, the universal symbol for early pubescent allure–one needn’t have heard of Nabokov or even seen the movie to know the meaning of her name. By the ineffable process of cultural pollination, Lolita had become the property of the world.
Once again, the premise is enticing. In Nabokov’s novel, Lolita is drowned under the tidal wave of Humbert’s consciousness. As a sentient, thinking individual she is largely beside the point–Lo is, quite literally, prey. What, then, was she feeling during those purgatorial years when Humbert dragged her across America and raped her?
Not much, if Pia Pera is to be believed. The main surprise of Lo’s Diary is how unsurprising it actually is. Everything about Lo that Nabokov had hinted at–her precocious sexuality, her rivalry with her mother, her flip, hard-hearted American girl pose–is fleshed out at great length, so that what we get is the girl we had more or less already imagined–with none of Nabokov’s wit or ironically high-blown rhetoric. Pera is not on a mission to bring justice to a literary victim; she clearly means to celebrate Lolita as a sexual outlaw. One of the novel’s epigraphs lists her alongside James Dean, Charles Bukowski, and Pippy Longstocking as "a famous dropout."
In other words, she is in existential control of her destiny. And indeed, a remarkable aspect of Lo’s Diary is how sexually formed she is from the opening entry. The diary begins when Lo is eleven, continues until she’s almost fifteen, yet there isn’t a hint of the psycho-sexual conversion from childhood to adolescence that is the dramatic passage of those years. Long before laying eyes on Humbert, Lo had cracked the code of predatory seduction: "You have to keep a firm hand on a man," she instructs us, "just like a horse." The reader may wonder if this kind of manipulative pre-formation is innate to the nymphet; but Pera’s not interested in exploring the mythological aspects of her protagonist. She clearly is striving to create a realistic portrait of an exceptional early-atomic-age child.
To this end, we are supplied a plethora of new "information" about Lolita’s past. Her deceased father was an inventor, one of whose contraptions was an electric chair that he kept in the garage; Lo would help him experiment with the voltage by frying lizards. Her younger brother, Nelson, died in a similar fashion to the lizards: electrocuted in a lightning storm when he was two years old. These two ghosts are the only idealized beings in Lo’s life. But she’s not one to indulge in cheap sentiment; when her mother buys her a pet hamster, she names it Nelson after her brother, then tortures it to death on a burning hot light bulb.
So, what was Lo thinking in that engraved instant when she saw Humbert for the first time? "Wow ... to catch this Daddy No. 2 wouldn’t be something to sneeze at." Without skipping a beat she lobs him "a big inviting smile, because you shouldn’t take all hope away from a man, though you don’t have to pour it down his throat, either." This is followed by her brushing against him and blowing "a tiny breath up under his nose. In other words I combine two different sensations, a system that I would call multiple-reinforced seduction." Then, the coup de grace: "I did it for Mom. To keep him here."
• • •
With this last notion Pera touches on the most untenable, and potentially fascinating, aspect of Lolita’s predicament: She’s engaged in a fierce sexual rivalry with her mother which she justifies as a strategy to keep Humbert in their home. She’s seducing him to make Mom happy.
Unfortunately, these conflicting impulses are left unexplored, and the opportunity for Lo’s Diary to break free of Nabokov and move into uncharted territory is lost. Instead, we get Lo’s numbingly repetitive diatribes about her mother:
... the basic equation is Mom=shit. Shitmom: the key to every mystery of the locked maternal lap. Mother full of shit, Mothershit overloaded with hatred. Mothershit inflated with rage against the disobedient dwarf. Mothershit desperate to bend everything to its will. Momshit, the bony cackling hen, domineering and clumsy. Momshit, Shitmom: and vice versa and vice versa and vice versa to infinity.
One of the most stunningly perverse lines in Nabokov’s Lolita comes when Humbert announces: "I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop in Lolita’s morals." He is referring to the moment when, after many months of his step-daughter’s sexual enslavement, he is obliged to begin paying her to sleep with him. In the original, Humbert’s precipitous downward spiral begins around this time; in Pera, it is the moment when her novel finally begins to assume some power of its own. The source of this power is her depiction of Lolita’s real despair, something unavailable to a narrative world controlled by Humbert. Forced by a jealous Humbert to leave a dance party of her peers and go to bed with him, Lo’s frustration erupts and the sheer abnormality of her existence is movingly described:
Who cares, really at that moment I feel like I might as well be fucked dry, because it’s a shit life when you go out to a dance and right at the best part some Professor Guibert arrives and you discover that the powder and the pearls and the lipstick and the chiffon are only for him and for me there’s nothing, nothing, nothing. I am right where I was before, penetrated by my revolting father, and I don’t even get anything, because afterward he twists my wrist and takes away what he promised, leaving me only ten [dollars], and even that’s too much, according to him. So the next morning I ... am dead tired and have such fury in my body that I’m almost happy when Humbert goes back inside me. By now it’s just fine not to have a drop of energy, to feel myself beaten, feel myself disappear and not think anymore about anything.
The passage comes near the end of Lo’s Diary, and it is not enough to redeem the book’s many missed opportunities. By the time we read it, we are as benumbed as Lo by her bloodless journey across America with Humbert. Despite the sheer number of words she has poured out at us, we finish Lo’s Diary with less of a picture of Lolita than we got from Nabokov’s original, even though that picture came filtered through the scrim of Humbert’s obsessive mind.
In his 1956 afterword to Lolita, 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. There are not many such books."
While paying homage to Nabokov, Pera has failed to heed his larger lesson, just as Naslund managed to pervert Melville’s most basic aesthetic. Lolita succeeded not because of its plot (it barely has one) but because of the particular curiosity, ecstasy, and intelligence of its narrator.
"Imagine me: I shall not exist if you do not imagine me," says Humbert, expressing the plea of every character who strives to come alive on the page. Lo’s Diary and Ahab’s Wife show that a reader’s ability to imagine a character is never guaranteed–even if that character pre-exists in the work of a master.
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October 01, 1999
13 Min read time