Alexsandar Hemon

The December 17th issue of the New York Review of Books has an article from John Lanchester about Nabokov’s posthumous novel, The Original of Laura.

In it Lanchester discusses the difference between an author’s signature and their style, and, as a way of explaining this he writes:

‘One example might be from one of Nabokov’s most famous flashes of brilliance, Humbert Humbert’s memory of his mother in Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.” It’s hard not to be dazzled by the parenthesis, which is pure signature; but the heart of the sentence, its moment of style, is in the quieter and much less prominent word “photogenic.” You realize that Humbert knows his mother only from photographs. The sentence’s quiet poetry is the poetry of loss.’

I struggle to express how profoundly such a piece of writing moves me. Firstly the Nabokov, which I naturally love, as if his use of words is already part of the mechanism of my blood flow, and reading them again makes it quicken. But then secondly with Lanchester’s analysis of why it moves me, which I had never previously understood.
This is the thing, I guess. As a reader, some might say a compulsive reader, since my early teens, I both consume words (and produce them), without really knowing how or why one piece moves me and another does not. I’ve tried to understand it but I don’t think intellectualising necessarily helps. What I’ve learned to do is to trust the quality of resonance which sentences generate within me when I read them or hear them. My own or someone else’s.

Occasionally though, I stumble upon examples which are so extraordinary that a certain amount of analysis is essential. Here is one that I recently found in Alexsandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles:

The story is called ‘Good Living.’ The narrator is Bosnian, he is selling magazines door to door in Chicago, the outer suburbs:

‘My best turf was Blue Island, way down Western Avenue, where addresses had five-digit numbers, as though the town was far back of the long line of people waiting to enter downtown paradise. I got along pretty well with the Blue Islanders. They could quickly recognise the indelible lousiness of my job; they offered me food and water; once I nearly got laid. They did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end. In the meantime, all they wanted was to live, wisely use what little love they had accrued, and endure life with the anaesthetic help of television and magazines. I happened to be in the neighbourhood to offer the magazines.’

The first time I encountered this passage I had to stop and read it four times, and then ring up a friend and read it to him aloud, twice, over the telephone, before I could begin to think about continuing my life.

Take, ‘As though the town was far back of the…’ This ‘far back of’ is a peculiarly American use of English, here used by someone writing in their second, adopted, language. Its unusual word order, the extra ‘of’, seems to deliberately push the suburb further back in the sentence, further away from the place where the numbers were smaller, where (apparently) paradise is.

But it turns out that it’s not just onomatopoeic in its placement. It’s also elegant. If I was writing the sentence I would probably have started by trying: ‘as if the town were a long way along, no, cross that out, can’t have a long way along, well then, a long way down, or, a long way towards the back of the long line,’ all of which are unsatisfactory. So I’d rewrite it and rewrite it, and eventually start to question if that was what I really wanted to say when I couldn’t get it to work, perhaps break it up into two or three sentences or try to come up with a different metaphor. It is unlikely I’d have stumbled upon Hemon’s solution: ‘as though the town was far back of the long line of people waiting to enter downtown paradise.’

But then he goes on: ‘They did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; …’ This was the sentence I wanted my friend particularly to hear when I called him up but he got lost in the throwaway line, ‘once I nearly got laid,’ and the story that spins off from there. So I had to read it to him twice:

‘their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end. In the meantime, all they wanted was to live, wisely use what little love they had accrued, and endure life with the anaesthetic help of television and magazines. I happened to be in the neighbourhood to offer the magazines.’

Here is writing of an extremely high order. When I read something like that I feel as though the game is up. We may as well all go home, Beethoven is amongst us, what’s the use?

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2 Comments on “Alexsandar Hemon”

  1. 'a friend' Says:

    Beethoven??? Come on Steven, have a Bex and a lie down. You’re becoming overwrought gazing at that blank computer screen…But I’m bemused by your analysis, and it makes me think that, while this type of analysis is interesting, it hardly explains ‘why’ the writing moves us (if it does move us in the first place).

    Starting with the Nabokov excerpt, which is, of course, delicious:
    Lancaster says that Humbert’s mother being ‘very photogenic’ is on account of Humbert only knowing his mother from photographs, and that it evokes a ‘poetry of loss.’

    This is clever of Lancaster to pick up, and it is an interesting point to read, but in no way does it provide an ‘explanation’ for a person’s response to the writing.
    Personally, if anything, I howl laughing at that line and its psychopathological aestheticising of tragedy. There is no ‘poetry of loss’, and whatever poetry is there is not quiet, but rather noisy in its drawing attention to the juxtaposition of tragedy and artifice. It is pure bathos. And so, I’m afraid, I missed the ‘realisation’ that Lancaster humbly generalises from his own reading out onto all of humanity. What Lancaster is drawing attention to in his writing is his own cleverness by pinning the openness of Nabokov’s prose down to a singular explanation.

    Sure it’s clever, and I enjoy reading it. But I reject it as an explanation of anything.

    Now to the Hemon excerpt: the ‘far back of the long line of people’ phrase is vernacular, but not particularly American. I think of ‘Back of Bourke’ when I read ‘back of…’, and whatever ‘Back of Bourke’ conjures up, these are the implications such a phrase would carry for me. It is rich in connotations precisely because it is vernacular – but these connotations are localized, and impossible to pin down, for exactly the same reason.

    Now, my friend, where I particularly want to take issue with you:

    Your say that your friend “got lost in the throwaway line, ‘once I nearly got laid,’ and the story that spins off from there.” rather than “the sentence I wanted (him/her) particularly to hear”.
    Well, in defence of your friend, one could equally easily write an analysis explaining why that “once I nearly got laid…” line carries the heart of the meaning of the extract. How it carries within it implications of hopefulness, and the loneliness of his job, and how the job consigned him to the status of perpetual outsider to the lives he is describing, and how it’s juxtaposition only serves to highlight their anaesthetised lives.
    But that would be bad form. So one won’t.
    But one does remain astounded that you should consider one particular reading a ‘correct’ one, and the other to have missed the point entirely.

    Surely this is the raison d’être for fiction: that it resists, and confounds explanation. And that for this reason, any analysis is but peering in at the object in question through any one of a number of grubby windows presenting any one of a number of refracted aspects of the object in question.

    This type of analysis is, if anything, a game. It can be fun, it can be beautiful, it can be clever. It can even be useful, if it keeps writers employed in academia.
    But it can never be correct.


    • At the risk of being one of those who sets out to defend himself against critique let me say I had no intention of proposing a correct reading of the piece, and, in fact, would go so far as to say your rendering of ‘once I nearly got laid’ with its resonances of the outsider etc., is perfect, delicious, acute.
      What I meant to say was that the bit I was interested in was the latter two or three lines, in particular the ‘I happened to be in the neighbourhood to offer the magazines.’
      Not being born Australian I did not immediately get the ‘back of Bourke’ reference, attaching it more to the curious American use of ‘of’ in vernacular, where it seems to become a substitute for ‘have’ (I could of done that, but I didn’t)


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