What Lolita and Laozi have taught me about writing

DaodejingLaozi6th century BC
LolitaVladimir Nabokov1955
The Rhetoric of FictionWayne C Booth1961
Tender is the NightF Scott Fitzgerald1934
Books I read in January 2021

Daodeijing – Laozi

Where trustworthiness is lacking, there is a lack of trust.

This was a great book to begin the year with. Like far too many of the books on my bookshelf, it has been sitting there for nearly a decade: unread, unexplored, unlived. It is the core text of the Taoist belief and as such, while reading, I was expecting to have some sort of great epiphany about the meaning of life. But epiphanies, like orgasms, cannot be forced and when you are too busy trying to find one, it will not show itself. You can pretend, but that’s not going to help anyone. The quotation that stuck is the one above, telling perhaps of what it is that I was looking for.

Like far too many of the books on my bookshelf, it has been sitting there for nearly a decade: unread, unexplored, unlived.

The name of The Daodeijing, or the Tao Te Ching, has been translated variously following one’s understanding of the words “Tao” (the way) and “Te” (virtue): The Classic of the Way’s Virtue(s), The Book of the Tao and Its VirtueThe Book of the Way and of VirtueThe Tao and its Characteristics, The Canon of Reason and Virtue, The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, and A Treatise on the Principle and Its Action. My understanding of the Way made me think of the Stoic thought of understanding the universe: there are movements of nature that are totally beyond human comprehension, but simply acknowledging this incomprehensibility is reassuring. My understanding of virtue, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired…

Finally, I learnt that the tradition of reading the text lies also in the commentary. In my version, Oxford World’s Classics, the left-hand side is commentary, whereas the right is the text. The text itself is vague, seemingly contradictory, reliant on paradox and typically hermetic; the commentary, a tradition dating back to the beginning of the book, aims to open up the secrets to its laypersons. Compared to the Bible, which is full of parables, personages and predicaments, the Daodeijing is compact. Below is a Twitter bot that will help you with daily instruction!

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

“You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”

Where do I begin with this book? My girlfriend recommended it to me – apparently she recommends it to a lot of people and I suppose I would join her in recommending it. But you should only read it if you are willing to forget everything you have heard about the book. For one, I didn’t realise that Hubert Hubert was a European. A very European European who goes to the US due to a chance inheritance from a relative in New York City – one of those devices that enables the protagonist not to have to earn money. I have become suspicious of those now. I also didn’t realise that it was a commentary on the Cult of Youth that has dominated the US and this is seen by the fact that Hubert visits with Lolita pretty much every single state in the country. I also, obviously, didn’t know how the book ended, which is one of the most pathetically comical and impenetrable endings I have read recently.

A friend read it recently too and wrote “What a mind-twister and deranged work of art”. It is. After a couple of chapters, I turned to my sweetheart and said ‘This guys [our most unreliable narrator] is a mad man”. He plays with words and language like a mad man. He is the ultimate narcissist, the ultimate deceiver, a chilling seducer and believes himself master of his own destiny. There are resonances of Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse” and other unreliable narrators.

This is not my copy of the book. Mine is the one with the girl in the bathing suit…

The Rhetoric of Fiction – Wayne C Booth

“A great work establishes the “sincerity” of its implied author, regardless of how grossly the man who created that author may belie in his other forms of conduct the values embodied in his work. For all we know, the only sincere moments of his life may have been lived as he wrote his novel.”

This is a book that I should have read in its entirety twelve years ago when I began my degree in French and Latin; I should have read it years ago because it would have saved me a lot of hassle in trying to understand prose, which I am only doing recently and which these blog posts are aimed at exploring.

I am not going to talk at length here of what the book is about, but I will share with you the ‘eureka’ moment I had concerning writing, as per the post title. When writing a book, you need to think about the subject – the story, if you will. This, as Wayne C Booth says, can usually be condensed into a words: the cult of personality and perception of others; how money corrupts; the incomprehensibility of the universe. Then, it is up to the writer to decide how to tell that story: Man flees Europe after messy affair, kidnaps child and drives around US; Young American doctor marries into wealth and pays the price; the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

This is relevant for me, because I am trying to finish a novel. Ah yes, I confess it. I too want to be among the Pleiades… My story is about a working class lad from the North who goes to Oxford University and… I promise it’s fiction! It’s definitely not about me. No way. Never. I wonder what could give you that idea?

Tender Is The Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“In the dead white hours in Zürich staring into a stranger’s pantry across the upshine of a street-lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.”

This is the third time I have tried to read this book. And finally I managed to finish it. Not because it’s bad, but rather because it is good – in the last two attempts, I have purposefully stopped because I did not want to finish it. I wanted Dr Dick Diver (maybe one of the best names of a literary character?) to stay as he was, young, ambitious and loved. Or maybe because, I confess it, in my last attempts to read it, I saw myself in the character, though I wasn’t a doctor, I hadn’t married wealth and I didn’t live in the Cote D’Azur. But I did drink. And I did, ever so perceptibly, perceive my own slippery slope beneath me, stripping of me of my faculties, robbing me of my charm, leaving me a miser of human connection.

I was inspired to read it from ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction’ which analyses its structure. The last version Fitzgerald confirmed is a chronological narration of the Rise and Fall of Dick, but the first published version starts with the decline and then flashes back to the happier moments. Wayne C Booth argues that in this case, the straight chronology is better suited, even though most novels at the time had moved beyond that ‘womb-to-tomb’ style narration.

But what really gets you through the work is the author’s writing style (“Nor known, nor smelt, nor tasted, he might have added; only hot-cheeked girls in hot secret rooms. The young maidens he had known at New Haven in 1914 kissed men, saying “There!,” hands at the man’s chest to push him away. Now there was this scarcely saved waif of disaster bringing him the essence of a continent….”); events of US socialites in the period between the wars (duels, parties in Paris, film sets, palaces, fights with Italian police and all that); and finally the irony (daddy’s girls with daddy issues, genius corrupted by gold, and that final chapter).

This first edition sold at auction for $37,500.

If you have made it this far, I thank you for reading my thoughts on these books. Maybe you have read them too and have found my interpretations wildly off the mark? Maybe you will use some of the insights at your next Zoom cocktail party? Maybe you’ll like the post, share it with your friends and family, and leave a comment below? I am at your disposal, dear Reader.

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