Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

Beefier hands and more of them

All of the Moore–Updike ping pong from last week has me thinking of Moore’s descriptive powers. Updike is rightly praised for his indefatigable eye. Moore is praised for her “zingers,” her jokes, her unseen sideswipes into the absurd. And yes, she does have those (and great paragraphs, too!), but she also has great descriptive powers. Her descriptions are not of the pointillist nature of Updike’s, but they are metaphorically richer. Here is an example from A Gate at the Stairs:

I began working in my father’s baby greens field that very week. My job was to run in front of the shaver, a special attachment on the thresher, which he had contrived himself and which he was amused by and drove proudly like a car, though our field was so small that it was hard for him to make the turn-arounds. I ran ahead of it with fake feather and plastic hawk-wing extensions on my arms, whacking at the greens to scare the mice so they would not get into the mix. (If we had to take the greens to the triple-wash facility, it ate into the profit.) My father had actually designed my outfit for this, partially from a kite we had once brought to the Dellacrosse Kites on Ice festival. The costume had an aquiline-beaked mask and long wings I slipped my arms through, dipping them as I ran, brushing near the ground, beating the leaves, to resemble an actual predator and to encourage rodents to run from the shaver: nobody wanted sliced mice in their salads. At least not this decade.

[. . .]

Sometimes in the afternoon, upstairs in my room and still with my hawk outfit on, I would get out Ole Upright Bob, the double bass, dust him off, his bow quiver clipped at the tail beneath the bridge, like a scrotum, and we would rustle up a tune. There was a kind of buoyancy in making these four low strings sing something that was not a dirge. It was a demanding instrument, the stand-up bass — by comparison, my guitar, with its buttery, mushy fingerings, was a toy — and sometimes I just played it with open strings, Miles’s “Nardis,” which was basic, and which spelled starry backwards in Latin, or something, and which I loved, and which didn’t take a lot out of me. I had once, in the state music tryouts, played a solo from a double bass concerto by Sergei Koussevitzky, who in 1930 had been on the cover of Time magazine. That’s about all I knew about him. But either I wasn’t that good or the sight of a girl standing beside this huge wooden creature, grabbing its neck and stroking its gut, pulling the music out of the strings by force, made them ill at ease, and I was not selected. The faces of the panel listening were the very embodiment of skepticism made flesh, as if they were all saying Get a load of this!, and I had never experienced the weaponry of such expressions before. Subsequently, I drifted away from classical entirely, needing to leave behind the memory of that event. It was an aspect of childhood adults forgot to think about when they encouraged their children to try new things.

My mother came to the doorway once, seeing me winged and wrapped around my bass, one hand moving squidlike down the neck of him, the other bouncing the bow in a kind of staccato, and she said, “No wonder I couldn’t sleep. Look at you. What a sight.” There I was, I supposed, a bass-faced bird, embracing the sloped shoulders of another bird whose long-necked wooden crested head, like a knight in chess, hovered over my head as if it were a fellow creature advising me what to do. Still, she smiled. I was playing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She thought that it was my own arrangement, but it was one I had copied, or tried to copy — if only I’d had beefier hands and more of them — from Christian McBride.

“Your grandmother used to sing that song!” she exclaimed, and then went back to her room to rest.

I’m sure that with a little digging, I could come up with an equally metaphorically interesting string of paragraphs in Updike’s work; it’s not so much that as how Moore gently ladles her absurdities so that they somehow reharmonize into touching evocations of character. I’m mixing my metaphors terribly; my thoughts are all aflux. Moore is able, in her best moments, to be both absurd and terribly sympathetic.

Perhaps another way to cast this would be to think of Updike as a musical virtuoso, and like a virtuoso, he is sometimes unbearable; he never relents from being a virtuoso, in reminding you of his talents, whereas Moore is the type of singer (go with me) who is someone you actually want to listen to.

Yet another way of saying this is that I have often thought — and this is a point that James Wood has made in a much more substantive way — that part of Updike’s “problem” was his eloquence. He could never not be eloquent, and his irrepressible verbal felicity was a handicap, especially in some (some!) of his fiction. You, as a reader, were never allowed to forget that you were being dazzled by Updike’s brilliant prose. Of course, whether or not this is “good” or “bad” for fiction depends on the kinds of effects one is after, whether you want the reader to forget the author for a while, etc. But, to continue a mental comparison with Nabokov that I’ve got continually running in my head, Nabokov encountered this same problem, and he seemed to tame it somewhat by always conspicuously positioning his narrators or framing them in some way so that their eloquence was a feature of the narrative itself, rather than just there in the air like water vapor.

To put it even another way (aphoristically, reductively), to become a virtuoso is to deny taste.