February 18, 2004

Escape in a book

In Marguerite Yourcenar's short story How the painter Wang Fo was saved (available in this collection), the emporer decrees that, before his eyes are put out, the painter will have the opportunity to create one last masterpiece, a seascape, a work the painter had begun but abandoned. Complying with the tyrant's orders, Wang Fo paints, and the room begins to fill with water. A boat appears on the horizon, comes into the foreground; his servant, whom the emporer had just beheaded, beckons to the painter, who wades out to the boat. They make their getaway, certain that the emporer's army will be unable to follow them. "They're not able to escape in a painting," the servant says.

I was reminded about that story by Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which the characters escape the totalitarian world of Islamist Iran in an enclosed room, in books.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is not quite like other works on similar themes -- Milosz's Captive Mind or My Century by Aleksander Wat come to mind (I could have mentioned Zbigniew Herbert as well -- three Poles). One of the oddities for me, though, is the importance they attach to Nabokov.

I should point out that I'm quite fond of some of his novels, and don't doubt his talent as a writer. I'm particularly fond of some of his earlier works -- The Eye and Mary (his first novel) left lasting impressions. But whenever I think of Nabokov, I recall his dismissive attitude to Dostoevsky in his Lectures on Russian Literature.

I wish I had the text in front of me; I think Nabokov begins by relegating Dostoevsky to the teen fiction section of bookstores -- "I loved him when I was a kid." He spends a lot of time on Crime and Punishment, and argues that Dostoevsky's writing is morally stunted, even monstrous.

There is a scene in the novel in which Raskolnikov, the murderer (the murderer who murders to become a Napoleon), prays with Sonia, a young woman forced into prostitution to support her broken family. The scene is quite poignant -- Raskolnikov begins to forgive her her degradation, little realizing that he's also taking his first step back from the abyss, back from the kind of impulses that animate, say, a Zarqawi or a bin Laden. Dostoevsky, who originally wrote the novel in the first person, with Raskolnikov as narrator, bends the reader's perceptions to see things through Raskolnikov's eyes; he sees himself as innocent, perhaps frustrated in his goals, perhaps clumsy, but not as immoral. Sonia, on the other hand, who degrades herself solely to feed her siblings, is, in Raskolnikov's universe, a sinner -- and beneath him. Nabokov objects to the narration of the scene; to Dostoevsky's elevation of a cold blooded murderer over a woman forced by material want into prostitution -- truly a monstrous moral judgment. But it's not Dostoevsky making that judgment, but rather Raskolnikov.

And that's the thing about Dostoevsky -- in his books, unlike in the tale by Yourcenar or the novels of Nabokov, there is no escape.

Posted by Ideofact at February 18, 2004 11:56 PM