The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

As I was reading The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, more than 600 pages of them, I had to set aside what I already knew of his colossal literary achievements to better appreciate how they came to be, how long he spent publishing his work in tiny emigre newspapers, how little he was appreciated before Lolita and Pale Fire were published, two books that made him impossible to ignore.
He had many literary friends and admirers throughout his career, of course. Perhaps the most famous, and famously arrogant, was Edmund Wilson, a man of letters equal to Nabokov in many ways but not, as he stupidly insisted, in his knowledge of the Russian language.
But the fact is that Nabokov’s own stories tell the tale of his melancholy moments in Europe—especially in Berlin—better than a deservedly proud man would like to tell them directly, in his own voice.
He wrote about lots and lots of losers, losers who missed their main chance at love, a career, exotic travel, a good friendship. And he wrote about lots of romantics who yearned for the kind of explosive aesthetic revelation that only a master like Nabokov could really concoct.
I don’t see any point in retelling any of the dozens of stories in this volume. They’re there to be read, not summarized. Early in his career Nabokov clearly had some Chekhov in him. As he hit stride, one senses an affinity for Turgenev. Someone like Dostoevsky would have appalled him, only to be treated with comedy. Tolstoy? Well, Tolstoy did have that drop-dead lucidity about him; the problem with him, though, was that like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy became a devout moralist and refused to do what Nabokov consistently did—use his powers to transcend the little good and bad distinctions and glory in the pure beauty of life observed and described for and of itself.
At one point in these stories a character is dismissed because he relates to the world through feelings, not concrete, scientific assessment. Here’s a key to Nabokov. He was an expert lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and as such he was more exacting and precise than mere feelings permit. That’s where his famous—almost unbelievable—style explodes on the page; he captures tiny, intriguing details and fits them within a kind of narrative nomenclature that doesn’t really require plot. The thing is the thing. It was self-evident to Nabokov that demonstrable existence—the existence of clouds, of rain, of trams, of long flabby chins, of self-pity, of lies—possesses an inherent aesthetic thrill that required no trumped-up metaphysical, moral or religious justification. All he had to do was find the right words and fit them into the right moments, and voila, a story was born.
These days we hear over and over again “show, don’t tell.” It’s so boring, and it’s so wrong. Nabokov told plenty of tales, he summarized, he leaped forward in time, he sniggered, he forced the reader to agree, the woman was beautiful, the man was doomed.
What Nabokov could not abide, says his son in the introduction to this volume, was cruelty. I found that an interesting revelation. In fact, there is everything in Nabokov except cruelty, or its endorsement. This matches well with his need for aesthetic freedom. He simply avoided certain subjects without, I must say, failing to belittle the dolts who stole Russia from him.
The other major man of letters who has taken a similar position on cruelty is the philosopher Richard Rorty. He recognizes that it is difficult not to be cruel by accident or unintentionally, but he insists this is the great human project: to imagine human experience devoid of cruelty. Realistic? No, but if you have Nabokov’s talent, you can still make the proposition believable.

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Iraq Ten Years Later

Last week I did an interview with on the current situation in Iraq. I thought I’d summarize what I said here.

Ten years ago today I was in Baghdad just finishing up a strategy that was supposed to–and did–put that tragic country on a political path by suppressing the insurgency then burgeoning and making elections the number one goal. I wrote this story in my book, Nights in the Pink Motel/Naval Institute Press, 2008.

The election took place as we planned in January, 2005. Sunni voters sat out that election and paid a price they could not have afforded anyway. Iraq as presently constituted is dominated by a majority Shiite population. But the first elected Iraqi prime minister was a disappointment and soon enough Nuri al-Maliki took over, another Shiite leader. He became what we knew was possible, an Iraqi version of Mubarak (since overthrown). The level of hatred and need for revenge Shiites like Maliki feel toward the Sunni population (Saddam was Sunni, of course) quickly overcame his better judgment. Subsequent years of persecuting Sunni citizens and excluding them from the government led to deep fissures that the new militant force, ISIS, has successfully exploited. ISIS flooded into Iraq in part because Iraqi Sunni elements saw it as a way to break al-Maliki’s grip on Iraqi politics. I’m simplifying here, but the gist of the matter is that Iraq was created by the British after World War I, fusing Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish provinces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire into a single state. This was a terrible mistake because those three groups had little in common. Ultimately, Saddam gained control of the country by force, intimidation, torture, exclusion, and general brutality.

The United States made a terrible mistake in assuming the British legacy could be put right by toppling Saddam. The result was the brutal insurgency going on in the summer of 2004, when I came on the scene as an aide to the U.S. ambassador. The Iraqi parliament somehow has held together as a dysfunctional element of national disunity. Right now it must find a way to push al-Maliki out of office, replace him with a unifier, and keep the Kurds from getting off the Iraqi train entirely.

This will be the easy part, even though it will take some weeks or months. Afterward, the new Iraqi government (if there is one) will have to fight ISIS for years to take back the territory and major cities it has seized. At some point indigenous Sunni populations (ISIS is not indigenous to Iraq, it first gained traction in the Syrian civil war) will have to withdraw their cooperation with ISIS. Or to express this process more accurately, the Sunni populations will have to undermine and help run ISIS out of town. This likely will happen because ISIS will overplay its hand in imposing sharia on the Sunnis of Iraq; they’ll reject radical Islam, and they’ll do it from one day to the next. The question is, what day?

A fundamental issue for so-called Western powers and publics is swallowing something I said above: this is a struggle that will take years. We in the West like things done in news cycles, be they 24-hour cycles or 100-day cycles. That’s not the way things work in the context of historic clashes and struggles in places like the Middle East.

A second fundamental issue for Western powers and publics is coming to terms with why the Middle East matters. The chief reason is oil. When U.S. politicians suggest that American oil independence will save us a lot of grief in the Middle East, they’re knowingly lying. Oil is a foundational element of the world economy, and it is fungible, meaning that American oil companies would sell American oil abroad for a better price if they could get it–America be damned–and that the rest of the world cannot prosper, as presently constituted, without oil. And if the rest of the world cannot prosper, neither can the U.S.

Add to this a third fundamental issue: Fossil fuel–oil,gas, and coal–ultimately is ruining our planet. Again, it will take years, not news cycles, to do something about moving away from fossil fuels to energy sources that do not contribute to global warming, with all of its dangerous consequences.

These factors all interlock. Any strategy for the Middle East has to take time, sectarian hatred, and colossal economic/energy forces into account. That is a complex proposition that is difficult for world leaders to express, much less sell,to their electorates. But the fact is that it is not “easier” to go to war; blood is not the energy source that will bring peace to the Middle East and arrest the looming threat of global warming.

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New Story: The Duchess of Malfi

The Pavilion ( just published one of my stories, “The Duchess of Malfi.” This is a short piece that plays on some memories I have of spending a few days with Gore Vidal in Madrid back in the ’80s. A friend who knew Vidal better than I said I “nailed” him — a compliment, by the way, not reference to any aggression.

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New Stories: “Citizenship Test” and “Moss”

My latest and perhaps most wicked story just came out in ShoutoutUK. It’s called “Citizenship Test” and can be found at The premise is that one can become a citizen by taking a written test and then participating in a hands-on test of an appropriately materialistic nature.


Tomorrow The Whistling Fire will publish an entirely different, sweeter, more meditative story called “Moss.” The staff reader who recommended it to the editor said it was the most beautiful piece she’d come across in her three years with the journal. I’ve published in The Whistling Fire before and love its title and content. Just search for The Whistling Fire online, and you’ll find it.

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The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index by Robert Harris is a change of pace for a writer who has written so well about the ancient world. In this novel, we’re in today’s world—and tomorrow’s.

Hoffman, the main character, is a genius level mathematician/physicist who has set up a hedge fund with a partner named Quarry. The key is an algorithm Hoffman developed that, aided by computers, learns market patterns and generates wild returns. As a scientist, Hoffman is more interested in artificial intelligence than he is in money, but he’s become a billionaire . . . and he’s in trouble in three ways: First, his marriage to an artist is rocky. Second, he may be returning to a depressed state of mind, with the suggestion of schizophrenia. Third, if he’s not a paranoid schizophrenic, he’s being pursued by someone who plays with his mind, has penetrated his computer systems, and even attacked him in his $60 million home in Geneva.

This is a fast-paced story with a thoughtful police detective involved and a burgeoning theme of the algorithm varying its strategy so that it piles up the firm’s risk factors as it pursues huge profits on a given day by short-selling.

In effect the algorithm manages to take over Hoffman’s identity and begin giving instructions to people designed to get Hoffman out of its way. In other words, artificial intelligence becomes real intelligence; it absorbs or possesses what Schopenhauer called “will.”

Schopenhauer isn’t the intellectual backdrop to all this. Rather, Harris draws expertly on Darwin for most of the provocative quotes at the beginning of his chapters. In a sense this makes no difference because Darwin described naturalistically exactly what Schopenhauer theorized philosophically—some powerful force pushes through existence on earth, having its way and its say, indifferent to the survival of any given species.

Reading The Fear Index is fun if repellant because Harris unravels his plot skillfully and there is enough character-development around him (he’s not so intriguing as a person) to make the dramatis personae interesting.

The repellant dimension is two-fold: What we have here explicitly falls into the general scheme of popular fixations on the world coming to an end; fear attracts people; they like to be scared, but they also like to survive in the end. The question is whether it’s worth surviving in a world that actually comes pretty close to this speculative proposition. Computing and mathematics, coupled with money, have generated a non-governmental, world-ruling autonomy wherein the rich get so rich it’s unimaginable and the not-rich have no competitive chance.

As a good writer, deft in the use of setting, Harris matches stride with the best of what I would call TV-writing. This novel cries out to become a mini-series. It is entertainment of a relatively high order, though it sacrifices depth for pace, plausibility for possibility, and originality for somewhat generic conventionality.


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Submission–A Short Story

For my latest story, set in Afghanistan in the 1990s, check out Scintilla online. It’s a special issue themed “Literature of War: At Home and Abroad.”

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Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, published in 2001, stands up disturbingly well over time. It’s been thirteen years, and we’ve seen the mega-banks and mega-investors (and all the little guys beneath them) crushed by a cataclysm of greed, but serious reforms were fought off, tax adjustments to realign the burdens on taxpayers more equitably have been booed out of the stadium, and the notion of a super-investor spending an entire day riding around in a stretch limo in Manhattan, running his currency and investing operations from there, remains comically plausible. Our anti-hero, Eric Packer suffers from what could be called the DeLillo disease or the Pynchon disease or the Orwell or Gaddis or NSA disease, namely the fantasy that somehow there is a code in the universe that can be deciphered ahead of time, and it will either make you almost meaninglessly rich or meaninglessly dead. DeLillo’s minimalist satire of such fantasists is all the sharper and more deadly for its doses of sympathy for Eric who displays a keen eye for the grandeur in the metaphysical workings of the world economy, yes, but also for the little folk and foibles of New York City. His flat writing––DeLillo’s––accentuates the cultural and technological gaudiness of New York as well as its human richness. There are theorists, assassins, bodyguards, poets, broken-down barbers, and unruly protestors in this densely packed novel who achieve a strange kind of unbelievable credibility because Eric has a death wish (for himself and for his business) that sharpens his perceptions and appreciation of almost everything in gusts of detail that are, undeniably, New York-like. When we see this stuff in movies––the private limos, the predictable sexual encounters with red hot lovers, the all-knowing screens full of encyclopedic data––we take it as schtick, at least by now, I would think. But prose works harder than movies. Prose takes work to create every single image, inflection, adjective, and event. There are no contextual gifts caused by the camera or the simple natural beauty of women who wouldn’t even require make-up to seem divine. In prose everything happens through word after word, not all at once. I don’t mean to denigrate movies. I know how hard it is to make one. In fact, I’d never want to make one because it is the most tedious business imaginable. But the fact is that a face or a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge or a half-empty parking lot on the Lower East Side comes naturally to the lens, and it’s not the way for writers. A DeLillo, who writes and writes about vague conspiracies, has to earn the full engagement of his readers with just the right word, the word that is what the reader would have used had the reader possessed DeLillo’s gifts. Again, the edginess of Cosmopolis is its sharp proximity to revolting reality, the sense that the totality of control in the world rests uncomfortably in a few frail, mortal hands, and that it can all come crashing down in an instant. DeLillo’s approach to this notion is powerful because the odious Eric festers with lusts and inadequacies and jealousies that make him human, if barely. Eric’s nemesis, on the other hand, is less persuasive. This is an individual who is identified in separate sections of the narrative as someone who once worked for Eric and lost his position and now lives in the scummiest, most desperate of circumstances. In literary terms, he is Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is forced, not persuasive. The most curious thing about the end of the book is how superior Eric is in comparison to his assassin. He makes good points in trying to defuse the confrontation; but the suggestion is that the very far-seeing talent that made him rich is also what, in a ghoulish set of images, makes him dead.

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