Thursday, 6 June 2019

Dialogues and Dandies

Nabokov's brilliant study of Gogol ends with a dialogue between author and publisher, which begins

' – "Well," – said my publisher, – "I like it – but I do think the student ought to be told what it is all about."
 I said ...
 – "No," – he said, – "I don't mean that. I mean the student ought to be told more about Gogol's books. I mean the plots. He would want to know what the books are about."
 I said ...'

Those are eloquent dots, and there are more of them as Nabokov tries, apparently in vain, to get his publisher to understand what he has already written, with luminous clarity, in the book.
 Nabokov appends this dialogue as a way of explaining why he has added a Chronology that he clearly thought unnecessary, though it is well worth reading, indeed is a little masterpiece in itself.

I had just (re)read the last pages of Nikolai Gogol when, loitering in one of my favourite charity shops, the volume illustrated above caught my eye. They'd knocked the price down to a quid, to get rid of it, so naturally I snapped it up.
 Opening it, I discovered that the entire book consists of a dialogue between the author and his publisher... The latter thinks highly of the author's MS, but regards it as hopelessly uncommercial: 'I am sure we should not dispose of a hundred copies of your book.' However, when the author declares that 'I perfectly see the force of your observations, and so far as circulation goes, I may as well throw the MS in the fire!', the publisher insists that he shouldn't do any such thing, as 'there is still an interest in writing for the few'. From there the conversation drifts off into the changes that the years have brought, and so, easily enough, into the author's memories of the personalities and events of his younger years. The conversation becomes the book – a 200-page memoir in dialogue form.
 Alexander, Lord Lamington (to give the simplest form of his triple-barrelled name), was a prominent member of the wonderfully romantic Young England party that flourished in the 1840s, and for decades an ornament of high society and the literary world. In the Days of the Dandies began life as a series in Blackwood's Magazine – a series cut short by Lamington's death in 1890. The book version was published in 1906, and my copy once graced the shelves of the W.H. Smith subscription library on the Strand. It's printed on thick, flannel-like paper and is surprisingly readable – thanks in part, I'm sure, to the dialogue form. As a straight memoir, it might, I suspect, be rather wearing.

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