Many writers and book reviewers highly rate Nabokov. “Lolita” is often in various top ten lists of 20th century novels. I have no wish to read “Lolita“, I have had my fill of psychological obsession with “Love in the Time of Cholera” (Marquez) and ““The Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk”. I would also feel self conscious reading what some consider a “pervy book” on the metro. But when I saw “Look at the Harlequins“, I thought I’d give it a go.
Hemingway is another writers’ favourite, I wasn’t overly impressed with his “Snows of Kiliminjaro“, but I was blown away by my first reading of William Faulkner last summer.
This is a book about a writer, Vadim Vadimovich, I am suspicious of writers who write “fictions” where the protagonist is a writer, I wonder how much is autobiographical. I don’t know much about Nabokov but he was born in Russia like his protagonist in 1899, and then went to Britain, France and America…
The cover bears the quote “One of the greatest masters of prose since Conrad.” I like good prose but I’m more interested in a good story. Margaret Atwood can write a good story with beautiful prose. This mock memoir failed to grab my sustained interest.
The title came from an expression used by Vadim’s great-aunt, Baroness Bredow.
“Stop moping!” she would cry. “Look at the harlequins!”
“What harlequins? Where?”
“Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together – jokes, images – and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!“
Harlequins are also a type of butterfly and the protagonist and the author were great lepidopterists (butterfly collectors). The psychology of collecting fascinates me, as I am a collector (of model cars), too. There is a lot I found of personal interest in this book, even though the “plot” didn’t grab me. Like me, the protagonist suffers from shy bladder syndrome, something I might blog about in the future if I feel brave enough.
Her brother suggested we “repair for a leak.” I declined – not because I did not need it – I did – but because I knew by experience that a talkative neighbour and the sight of his immediate stream would inevitable afflict me with urinary impotence.
There is also much about the art and mechanics of writing.
The zest, the strength the clarity of my art remained unimpaired – at least to a certain extent. I enjoyed, I persuaded myself to enjoy, the solitude of work and that other, even more subtle solitude, the solitude of an author facing, from behind the bright shield of his manuscript, an amorphous audience, barely visible in its dark pit.
There is a lot of playful use of language, the text is liberally peppered with French and Russian words. I am not familiar with Nabokov’s works but there are references to other writers’ works, explicitly like with Pushkin and Tchekhov or obliquely like Kafka (mention of a Scarab and a Central European writer).
The story meanders with too many descriptions of his wives, his lovers, his Russian past, his friends and fans who interrupt the story in various places. The indulgent last novel of a writer past his prime?
My rating 2.5 out of 5