Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Eye

The Eye - Vladimir Nabokov

"A thing I had long suspected - the world's absurdity - became obvious to me."

The Eye is an early (1930) novel from Nabokov which he translated from the original Russian in the mid sixties. In his foreword he talks of the difficulties faced in translating the title.
"The Russian title of this book is SOGLYADATAY (in traditional transliteration), pronounced 'Sugly-dart-eye', with the accent on the penultimate. It is an ancient military term meaning 'spy' or 'watcher', neither of which extends as flexibly as the Russian word. After toying with 'emissary' or 'gladiator', I gave up trying to blend sound and sense, and contented myself with matching the 'eye' on the end of the long stalk."

The book is set in Berlin in 1924-25 amoung the Russian emigre community but Nabokov doesn't try to make any political point - saying - "they might just as well have been Norwegians in Naples or Ambracians in Ambridge." The nature of emigrant communities, where disparate people are thrown together by the simple fact of their nationality is evident in the book, however. 
Nabokov also says that although on the surface a detective novel he "disclaims all intention to trick, puzzle, fool, or otherwise deceive the reader. In fact, only that reader who catches on at once will derive genuine satisfaction from The Eye.

The tone of the novel is comic and much is absurd but yet there is an undercurrent of tragedy and pain. It's many years since I read Pale Fire but this brought it back to me. We can see a real world lurking behind what our narrator (Raskolnikov as interpreted by early Woody Allen) tells us. Much of the fun is in the dissonance between these perspectives, that and the exquisite writing.

The idea of skewed perspectives is flagged on many occasions  - "I had no shell of that kind; and on those terrible, pastel blue mornings, as my heels tapped across the wilderness of the city, I would imagine somebody who goes mad because he begins to perceive clearly the motion of the terrestrial sphere: there he is, staggering, trying to keep his balance, clutching at the furniture..."

Our hero has a job looking after two children and one evening a regular (and married) dinner guest says when leaving one night 'the young man will see me home" and what develops into an affair begins. Her husband, however, is a threatening presence and the narrator is the sort of person to whom bad things are sure to happen - "my whole defenceless being invited calamity. One evening the invitation was accepted." The husband thrashes him in front of the children and he feels even more abjectly humiliated than he did before, running from the house immediately.

His tenuous connection to the world now broken (to find out how, read the book) and he considers himself apart from everyone and becomes the titular Eye, watching the mysterious Smurnov who may or may not be a spy. "In respect to myself I was now an onlooker. My belief in the phantomatic nature of my existence entitled me to certain amusements."

He takes greater and greater risks to find out more about Smurnov and what people think about him. This leads to  sneaking into other peoples rooms - "It is amusing to catch another's room by surprise. The furniture froze in amazement when I switched on the light" and stealing their letters.

The more he looks the more he realises how little we can know of anyone and what they possess in their inner consciousness - "one cannot include among one's belongings the colours of ragged sunset clouds above black houses, or a flower's smell that one inhales endlessly, with tense nostrils, to the point of intoxication, but cannot draw completely out of the corolla." 

Glimpses through doorways and in mirrors, overheard conversations, we are given a world in pieces and positively alive in the mind of the narrator - "The clouds rolled across the sky, assuming various grotesque attitudes like staggering and ballooning buffoons in a hideous carnival, while, hunched up in the blow, holding onto my bowler which I felt would explode like a bomb if I let go of the brim..."

 Nabokov, the avid lepidopterist has created a man who believes that "the only happiness in the world is to observe, to spy, to watch" and whose eye sees himself as cruelly as it sees others, if not more so -  "A wretched, shivering, vulgar little man in a bowler hat stood in the center of the room, for some reason rubbing his hands. That is the glimpse I caught of myself in the mirror."

I feel I have not done this fabulous book any justice. I am writing through a haze of tiredness which I haven't been able to shake off for a couple of weeks. (bouts of insomnia not helping). I shook it off, however, when reading this. 

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