March 2012

Kevin Frazier

features

Star-Crossed: William Shakespeare and Vladimir Nabokov, Page 2

8 – Hamlet: “Wild and Whirling Words”

“I am but mad north-northwest,” Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, adding: “when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Hamlet thinks his madness is an act. In part it is. But his choice of madness as his instrument for deceiving others is also his instrument for deceiving himself.

His depression and his anger are already so heightened and destructive that he can’t control them. In his first soliloquy he rages at his mother, and the rage explodes outward onto all women everywhere. This pattern of specific anger flooding into general fury will overwhelm him repeatedly during the play. But it isn’t just his anger he can’t control. He has become a mystery to his own mind. Set adrift from the certainties of his role as his parents’ son, he no longer knows who he is, or what anything is in relationship to anything else. All the connections he would once have taken for granted, from the friendship of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Ophelia’s love, now appear uncertain and potentially malevolent.

He’s not uniformly depressed. He’s not uniformly enraged. He’s not uniformly anything. Hamlet is many people in one body. He has a crowd of Hamlets rioting inside him. He has probably always been like this to an extent: all of us are. But his mood swings have grown spectacularly rapid and extreme, sweeping between grim silence and ecstatic celebration, between tender adoration of Ophelia and cruel mockery of her, between excitement over the Players’ performances and despair at his own failure to act.

When Horatio arrives with the news of the Ghost, Hamlet’s pleasure at seeing his old friend suggests the easy student banter that must have existed between them: Horatio’s claim of “a truant disposition,” Hamlet’s amiable defense of his friend’s reputation. Quickly, though, Hamlet turns the banter into something else. He talks of the funeral baked meats furnishing the marriage tables. He then disorients everyone with an abrupt remark that breaks the line of thought he’s been pursuing: “My father, methinks I see my father.” Doubly confused because of his encounter with the Ghost, Horatio asks: “Where?” Hamlet says, “In my mind’s eye” and Horatio says something comforting and respectful, in the understated style that separates him from flatterers like Osric: “I saw him once. ’A was a goodly king.” Hamlet downshifts into yet another tone, elegiac, quietly celebratory, with those layered meanings that come to him as readily as his layered feelings do: “’A was a man, take him for all in all. / I shall not look upon his like again.” This is Hamlet at his steadiest and most congenial. Even here, though, he can’t quite hold on to himself. He can’t quite stop the currents of emotion clashing in him and turning him first this way, then that.

His instability breaks loose more dramatically when he accompanies Horatio and Marcellus to see the Ghost. Hamlet is calm and meditative in the lead-up to the encounter. He talks with Horatio about the cold, and is musing on “the dram of evil” when the Ghost makes his entrance. Hamlet’s astonished and feverish demand for an answer from the Ghost is understandable, but his behavior soon becomes more bizarre. When the Ghost walks away, Horatio wants Hamlet to stay back and let the Ghost go. Horatio worries the Ghost might tempt Hamlet “to the dreadful summit of the cliff,” or will “assume some other horrible form, / Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness.” But Hamlet won’t be restrained, and threatens “to make a ghost” of anyone who tries to stop him. Horatio grasps the fragility of Hamlet’s mind, and already believes that Hamlet’s actions are crazed. “He waxes desperate with imagination,” Horatio says as Hamlet exits. When the Ghost tells the story of his murder, Hamlet first welcomes the need for revenge: “Thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmixed with baser matter.” He has found a way to be whole, to be unified, and he wants to surrender to it. He yearns for the clarity of a single purpose. But as soon as Horatio and Marcellus catch up with him, he falls back into his disruptive changeability, churning him toward flux and confusion. At first he won’t tell them what the Ghost said. He asks if they will keep what he reveals secret. They promise they will. Then he bursts forth with a hostility that is grossly insulting if it’s a response to their promise and grossly disconnected if it’s not: “There’s never a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he’s an arrant knave.” Horatio tries to pull Hamlet back into the conversation, and to alert Hamlet to his rudeness. “There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave / To tell us this,” Horatio says. Overreacting, Hamlet switches to a travesty of moderation and good sense: “Why, right, you are in the right; / And so, without more circumstance at all, / I hold it fit that we shake hands and part.” Horatio is taken aback. He says: “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.” Hamlet is a talker, and Horatio is one of the first to recognize how strange his friend’s speech has become. Hamlet constantly chases his thoughts with whatever surge of words come to him, pursues the flow of his phrases in any direction they might carry him, and then whips off in a totally different direction an instant later. His words are wild and whirling because they’re caught in the gales of his wild and whirling ideas, the waves of his wild and whirling identities. The sea storms driving his language can blow him so far off course that nobody can follow him before he’s already squalling somewhere else.

The scene ends with Hamlet making Horatio and Marcellus swear not to reveal they have seen the Ghost, and with the Ghost unnerving Horatio by speaking from beneath the ground: “Swear by his sword.” Horatio can’t contain his amazement: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!” Hamlet undergoes yet another major mood swing. The moment’s transcendence intoxicates him. The sublime and the uncanny are always where Hamlet seems happiest, carried beyond the grubby problems of the Danish court, and now is when he declares his comfort with the incalculable, the awe-inspiring: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It’s also in this elevated state that he sets forth his plan to play at madness. For Hamlet to use madness as the cover for his plotting is like an alcoholic using drunkenness as a disguise for sobriety. Yes, it might work, but the obvious risk is that playing at madness will inspire real madness, playing at a bender will lead to a binge. Hamlet is toying with his sanity, for a purpose he believes is clear. But does he know what he’s doing? Is his pretense of madness really an effort to tempt madness, to call it forth and give it the chance to devour him? Is it a move toward self-destruction masquerading as a move toward revenge? How much of his subsequent behavior is play-acting and how much of it is a release of feelings that take possession of him even as he thinks he’s guiding them? Shakespeare doesn’t give us any pat answers to questions like that. He lets them come spinning out of the play, out of its wild and whirling words, and if we try to grasp at them and hold them for analysis, they rush away, too fast and too alive for us to catch.

9 – Lust is Blind: Laughter in the Dark

Laughter in the Dark is as rigorously cynical as Candide. This isn’t my favorite mode of Nabokov’s writing, but we always need books like these, to clear out our musty old warehouses full of padded sentimentality and plush schmaltz. The three main characters are horrible people, but most of us know that we could, in the wrong circumstances, end up like them, if we haven’t already done so in one way or another. The characters aren’t horrible because they’re inhuman. They’re horrible because being human includes being as sleazy, self-centered, and callous as Albinus and Margot and Rex.

The novel is a malevolent fairy tale. “Once upon a time,” Nabokov writes, “there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his whole life ended in disaster.” Albinus falls for the young Margot, who works as an usher at a movie theater. She likes him for his money but otherwise doesn’t care much about him. The only man she truly finds interesting is Axel Rex. Rex is a minor artist who specializes in nasty practical jokes. When he comes across Margot again, he includes her in his games for deceiving and humiliating Albinus. The games become bigger and uglier, especially after Albinus loses his sight in a car accident. Having abandoned his wife and his child, Albinus is entirely at the mercy of Margot’s greed and Rex’s malice.

The story is uninhibitedly hideous, a glossy black spider that forces you to admire the curving gleam of its abdomen and the flexible strength of its deft, fast-moving legs. If you have any sort of taste for dead-baby jokes or cat-juggling humor, the writing will amuse you. And if you have any experience with how sometimes even your worst fears are overly optimistic, Laughter in the Dark can serve as a reliable numbing device, comforting in its chill, like an anesthetic for the amputation of an infected limb.

10 – Hamlet: Friends and Players

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s close friends, transformed into enemies and second-rate actors. Meanwhile the Players, more distant and less troubling acquaintances, maintain their hold on Hamlet’s affection.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who both grew up with Hamlet, enter the play through their first audience with Gertrude and Claudius. Claudius wants them to visit Hamlet now. He asks them “to gather / So much as from occasion you may glean, / Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus, / That opened lies within our remedy.” Put this way, the spying seems benevolent: Find out, please, what’s wrong with him so we can do something to help the poor boy. Guildenstern hopes the mission will work to Hamlet’s benefit: “Heavens make our presence and our practices / Pleasant and helpful to him!”

You can easily imagine an alternate Hamlet where things work out nicely for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Ghost doesn’t appear. Hamlet is mercurial but not so paranoid about Claudius and his intentions, since the murder remains unknown. While Hamlet still catches his boyhood friends in their clumsy efforts to report on him, his anger with them isn’t so deep or lasting. And of course Claudius never writes the letter ordering Hamlet’s execution and never sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the voyage where Hamlet will turn the letter against them. We don’t have any special reason to believe Claudius would try to destroy Hamlet if Hamlet didn’t discover the murder. It seems more likely that Claudius would prefer to keep Hamlet as his successor, would like to develop a trouble-free and even loving relationship with his stepson. And who knows? Maybe years would pass, Hamlet would marry Ophelia, she would chastise him for his harshness with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet would apologize to them, Claudius and Gertrude would thrive as king and queen, and the mature Hamlet would realize his life under the new regime is better than he has been willing to admit. This alternate Hamlet might even come to cherish the memory of how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern once risked his too-hasty anger in their desire to save him from the worst of his grief. After all, a memory of that sort wouldn’t be inaccurate. Really, it would be far closer to the truth than the violent resentment he ends up wielding against them.

As things are, however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin their awkward play-acting when Hamlet is bound to find it most suspicious and upsetting. It’s one thing to believe your friends are spying on behalf of a pathetic king who has an interest in winning your favor. It’s another thing to know they’re spying on behalf of the man who murdered your father. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think they’re on a mission of mercy. Hamlet thinks they’re unwitting but dangerous participants in a killer’s counterstrategies.  

Yet even in his conversation with them, so soon after the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet neglects his revenge. He vibrates and shimmers and moves from one purpose or attitude to another. He debates with his friends the question of whether Denmark is a prison: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play straight men to his wit. When he says he could count himself a king of infinite space if he didn’t have bad dreams, Guildernstern tries to keep up: “Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.” Hamlet replies: “A dream itself is but a shadow.” Rosencrantz thinks he can make something neat and unobjectionable out of this: “Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.” Hamlet, however, isn’t done. “Then are our beggars bodies,” he says, “and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows.” Hamlet hints that if “the very substance of the ambitious” is only the shadow of a dream, then leaders and martyred heroes are merely the shadows of the dreams of ordinary beggars, whose lack of the empty substance of the ambitious gives them more body than their betters. It’s a thought a prince is likely to find absurd, and it’s compressed to dim suggestion rather than fully developed. But while Hamlet makes the point mockingly here, it holds the bud of his musings on kings traveling through the guts of beggars, and of Alexander’s dust stopping a bunghole. He’s starting to question the point of being a leader or of acting heroically when death reduces everyone to dirt, and where a trick of wording, a sleight-of-thought, can raise beggars above monarchs. (Tolstoy would use this idea of leaders as the shadows of ordinary people to declare, in War and Peace, that the world’s supposed rulers are the powerless puppets of their population.) Hamlet’s sense of self is in danger of turning into something like an optical illusion, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t caprice.

He then soars off into the “What a piece of work is a man” monologue. He offers the monologue as a kind of reward to his friends for finally admitting the king sent for them. He promises to tell them why they’ve been brought in as spies, so they won’t have to confess it. This is what he says he’s doing, but it’s not what he does. As usual, some stray current of passing words and passing thoughts rushes him away from his original destination. He starts with the admission that he has “lost all my mirth,” and we expect him to explain his depression over his father’s death and possibly his anger with the queen. But he changes course mid-sentence. Maybe he’s trying to decide how much is safe to tell his friends. Maybe he doesn’t want to touch on his mother’s marriage. But whatever the initial impulse, he begins setting rapture against bleakness, beauty against barrenness: “it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.” Drawing his listeners’ attention to the sky, he lets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see what he sees, gauge the disparity between the euphoric top and miserable bottom of his impressions: “this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with with gold fire: why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” Which Hamlet is speaking here, the one who experiences the intense pleasure of the sky’s gold fretting, or the one who finds nothing but foul vapors? Both are speaking, we suspect, just as both Hamlets are alive inside him, each setting off the other’s extremity. Both Hamlets then continue the monologue together, in conscious contrast with each other, as the image shifts from sky to person. Now, though, the equilibrium has tipped in favor of the exultant: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fortunate that the Players now arrive, steering Hamlet’s thoughts down a less dangerous corridor of emotion. Later, after “The Mousetrap,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will alienate Hamlet permanently, by continuing to approach him not as friends but as the king’s minions. For the moment, however, starting with Rosencrantz’s announcement that the Players are coming, Hamlet grants them a reprieve from his anger.

The Players have nothing to do with the court and its politics, and Hamlet seizes enthusiastically on the chance to discuss them. Rosencrantz talks about how the Players have been forced to take to the road because, in the city, their performances have faced strong rivalry from the fashion for children’s companies. Hamlet proves, against expectations, to be a good listener. He’s as ready to hear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out as he was to interrupt and belittle them a moment earlier. For anybody playing the role of Hamlet, this is one of the best scenes to communicate some of the charm and outward-directed energy that formerly made the prince, as Ophelia says, the “expectancy and rose of the fair state.” He defends the Players with passion and intelligence. He doesn’t just stand up for them: he makes the pragmatic point that the child actors shouldn’t wreck their own future by turning audiences against adult theater and driving the Players out of business. As a king, you feel, Hamlet would be an inspired patron of the arts.

Hamlet welcomes the Players as a release from his practical problems, but also as a way of thinking through those problems at an artistic remove. We’ll never get to the bottom of why Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius immediately. It’s one of the play’s most stubborn mysteries. We do know, though, that Hamlet is suspended in a force-field of emotional, intellectual, and metaphysical doubts. Some of the doubts are obvious and explicit, some are strongly suggested, and some are tantalizingly obscure. Why, for instance, can’t Hamlet keep his mind on his revenge when he’s talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? And why is he able to bring the subject so much more sharply into focus for himself through his apparently frivolous decision to ask the Players to perform the Pyrrhus-and-Hecuba monologue? It’s the very artifice of the monologue, the knowledge that the actor is merely pretending to be enraged, that spurs Hamlet to the first soliloquy he devotes to his paralysis, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.”

Yet Hamlet is the one who requested the Pyrrhus-and-Hecuba monologue, and the monologue acts not as an evasion but as a prism refracting certain elements of Hamlet’s dilemma. In the speech, Pyrrhus, covered with gore, seeks to kill Priam. As Troy collapses all around them, Pyrrhus starts to drive his sword at Priam’s head. Yet at the moment when action seems closest to fulfillment, stasis overtakes Pyrrhus and freezes him. “For lo, his sword, / Which was descending on the milky head / Of reverend Priam, seemed i’ th’ air to stick. / So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood, / And like a neutral to his will and matter / Did nothing.” The surrounding collapse, the “hideous crash” that has “Taken prisoner Pyrrhus’ ear,” is responsible for the stasis, the moment of prolonged hesitation in his sword thrust. The hesitation, and its cause, would have special significance for Hamlet. He’s in the middle of his own collapsing world. It’s falling down around him just as Troy fell around Pyrrhus and Priam. The collapse for Hamlet isn’t just the death of his father and the remarriage of his mother, or even the revelation of the murder. It’s more thorough and profound than that, because it involves the destruction of all of Hamlet’s certainties about everything. Nothing is solid. Nothing is secure. He hasn’t lost only the certainties of the past but the possibility of finding new certainties in the future. In common with Pyrrhus, he is stuck, unable to go forward, “like a neutral to his will and matter.” And he must hope that, as Pyrrhus does, he will recover his resolve and strike at Claudius with even greater strength than he would have found without his moment of hesitation. The speech actually makes hesitation sound quite impressive, less a form of weakness than a form of gathering force: “But as we often see, against some storm, / A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still, / The bold winds speechless, and the orb below / As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder / Doth rend the region, so after Pyrrhus’ pause, / A roused vengeance sets him new awork.” The lines sketch a fantasy in Hamlet’s mind, a dream where his sensitivity, his doubts, his paralysis can be passed off as the instant of silence before the crash of terrible thunder. Hamlet has requested the monologue to reassure himself about his tenacity. He then urges the Player toward the next part of the monologue, the vision of “the mobled queen.” He seeks to rouse his own outrage at his father’s murder, and to compare the inadequacy of Gertrude’s grief with the exorbitant suffering of Hecuba when she sees her husband Priam killed. The monologue overshoots its mark, however, as Hamlet’s identification with the speech passes into estrangement. Hecuba’s artificial rage merely emphasizes Hamlet’s immobility. Compared to her, Hamlet thinks, he’s disgracefully “muddy-mettled.”                       

Hamlet treats the Players well. They bring out his battered and inconsistent underpinnings of noblesse oblige. “Use them after your own honor and dignity,” he tells Polonius. “The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.” Given the chaos of Hamlet’s personal situation, it’s easier for him to enjoy people who aren’t too close to him. He takes pleasure in the Players, relaxes in their presence. They offer a useful yet soothing refuge for his overtaxed imagination. He owes less to them than he owes to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and has far less reason to love them. This works, however, to the Players’ advantage. They survive their encounters with Hamlet, which is more than you can say for many of the other characters. I like to think of the Players returning to Elsinore a year after their performance of “The Mousetrap,” so they can visit the young Fortinbras, newly elected king of Denmark, and ask him to patronize them. I have a hunch, though, that Fortinbras would feel more secure supporting one of the children’s companies. He might prefer to let the Players quietly dissolve.

11 – Execution: Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister

Invitation to a Beheading is the only outright failure in the Nabokov canon. Whether he had read Kafka when the book began being serialized in 1935 or whether the similarities are just a coincidence, it reads like a paler, looser version of The Trial. Kafka’s novel had appeared in print a decade earlier. Its storyline bears more than a passing resemblance to the storyline of Beheading. In both novels an innocent man in an unnamed and surreal environment is convicted of absurd crimes by a bizarre bureaucracy and is sentenced to execution. But where Kafka creates an atmosphere that’s distinct and unforgettable, Nabokov fails at what he usually does best. Beheading isn’t vivid or exhilarating. Its imaginary land doesn’t stick in your imagination. Compared to the acutely developed absurdity of Josef K.’s prosecution, the travails of Cincinnatus C. are slick and callow. They’re made up of bits of slapstick and grotesquerie, jumbled together, more raucous than engaging.

The climax, which especially excited Nabokov, is a good idea badly done. Cincinnatus C. goes to his execution. He refuses to accept what’s happening. He decides his killers and his entire world are lifeless, two-dimensional. Then he walks away as the execution site loses form and starts to blow away. Implicitly, he refuses to be part of his fictional setting anymore. He steps out of his novel: “amidst the dust, and the falling things, and the flapping scenery, Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.” Yet the sequence falls flat. Like the entire book, it has a rushed, sketchy quality.  

For the story to work, for it to be more than just the outline of a novel, Cincinnatus needs to have a consciousness that’s more vital than the bumblers and clowns harassing him. And he doesn’t. He’s a blank. At one point the novel mentions “the secret life of Cincinnatus and his guilty flame.” But his secret life is never more than a rumor. His guilty flame never burns for us. Nabokov often creates people with wonderful inner worlds: characters like Luzhin and Dreyer and Martin in the Russian novels, and characters like Pnin and the Shades in the English ones. Cincinnatus just seems to be a mistake, a missed opportunity. He’s someone who should have been touched by Nabokov’s usual wand strokes and wasn’t.

Nabokov must have been aware of the problem. In Bend Sinister, the first novel he wrote after his move to America, he returns to the components of Beheading and uses them to shape a much better work.

First and foremost, he puts quite a bit of effort into making Krug, the main character, an individual with a full, flawed personality. Krug misses his dead wife. Her death haunts the reflections and colors of the oblong puddle in the exquisite first chapter. In addition, Krug’s love for his son, David, is convincing and powerful. It gives the story an extra dimension, takes us out of Krug’s philosophical ideas and into the horror of totalitarianism.

“The lever of love,” as Nabokov dubs it in his introduction, is the fascist method of punishing other people for a dissident’s actions. Activists shut up and do what the state wants because otherwise their relatives will be persecuted. The technique is probably as common now as it was in 1947, when Bend Sinister was published. (The dictatorship of Turkmenistan, to take one current example that doesn’t receive enough attention, still punishes dissenters by going after their family and friends.) How many of us would be willing to sacrifice the people closest to us so we could criticize our leaders? How many of us would take the chance of our spouse or sibling being beaten in the basement of the headquarters of the secret police so we could pass along information to foreign journalists? Krug, dedicated to his son but far too haughty for his own good, doesn’t realize the danger David is in until it’s too late. Krug’s amused contempt for the novel’s dictator, the ludicrous Paduk, is a form of self-indulgence. Krug thinks he will always have the right to mock Paduk. Nothing Paduk can do will hurt him, he believes, as long as he maintains his proud laughter, his full-throated independence. Then Paduk teaches Krug the boorishness of power, the lesson that makes political oppression so infuriating yet also so tiresome. You don’t need to be talented or smart if you can imprison, torture, and kill the person who disagrees with you. Krug is too arrogant to worry about physical punishment for himself. But his arrogance, which makes him a disagreeable character for many readers as much as for Paduk, is incapable of protecting David and indeed leads David to destruction.

Most of the novel dwells on Krug’s smug responses to the regime’s stupidity: its imposition of political demands on literature, the pseudo-socialistic nonsense of Ekwilism, the comic ineptitude of every aspect of the government’s operations. Nabokov, the son of a member of the Provisional Government, had to leave Russia because of the rise of the Bolsheviks. He was then present for the ascent of Hitler in Germany. His brother died in a Nazi concentration camp. His wife was Jewish. Nabokov and she would likely have ended up in a camp as well if they hadn’t left Europe for America. Long before most people had recognized any similarity between Stalin and Hitler, Nabokov understood the extravagant brutality of totalitarianism regardless of its stated political or economic doctrines. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin makes high comedy out of Hitler’s pompous self-regard. But imagine how different The Great Dictator would be if, toward the end, we were given a scene where, with the same comic pomposity, the dictator and his followers torture someone to death. This is what Nabokov provides in Bend Sinister. David’s murder is described in the kind of bureaucratic psycho-babble that attempts to bury ignorance and error under the blandness of official jargon. It’s a nightmarish passage. The government intends to intimidate Krug by detaining the boy. Accidentally, however, the authorities send David to be the subject of “release games.” In the release games, prison inmates convicted of violent crimes are encouraged to discharge their impulses on a defenseless subject. The officials observing the process are always especially gratified to see “the community spirit (positive)” start “conquering the individual whims (negative)” of the inmates as they gather around the subject and begin to take action. In many cases, the authorities report, “the development from harmless pinching and poking or mild sexual investigation to limb tearing, bone breaking, deoculation, etc., took a considerable time.” The subject sometimes survives, sometimes doesn’t. David doesn’t.

Krug escapes in the end. The escape is modeled on the final pages of Invitation to a Beheading. Krug starts chasing after Paduk. A bullet takes off part of Krug’s ear, but he continues his pursuit of the dictator. Then Nabokov comes to Krug’s rescue: “Krug ran towards him, and just a fraction of an instant before another and better bullet hit him, he shouted again: You, you—and the wall vanished, like a rapidly withdrawn slide, and I stretched myself and got up from among the chaos of written and rewritten pages, to investigate the sudden twang that something had made in striking the wire netting of my window.” The author has heard the sound of a moth against the netting. Going to investigate the noise, he thinks about Krug: “I knew that the immortality I had conferred on the poor fellow was a slippery solipsism, a play upon words.” But as Nabokov would contemplate more thoroughly in his later works, a play upon words might serve as a suggestion of everything we vaguely sense but can’t really understand. Krug’s deliverance holds the promise that life, no matter how much we learn about it, will always contain, as the conclusion of Ada tells us, “much, much more.”

12 -- Hamlet: Ophelia Overthrown

Hamlet is responsible for wiping out an entire family. He kills Polonius for no good reason. The death of Polonius leads to the deaths of Ophelia and Laertes. Father, daughter, and son are destroyed. They become human sacrifices to Hamlet's feigned and unfeigned madness, his feigned and unfeigned fury. As we've seen, Hamlet can't control all the people inside him. He can't keep reliable track of the line between his conscious plotting and his unconscious surrender to despair and anger and insanity. Polonius and his two children die within the whirlwind of Hamlet's confusion, his inability to figure out who he is or what he's doing.

His treatment of Ophelia is puzzling from the start. He loves her. He says so in the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene and then again at her graveside. He also writes it to her in the letter Polonius reads aloud to Gertrude and Claudius. But when does he turn against her? When does he start to doubt her and dissolve his image of her in the acid of his hatred for all women? We can't really tell when he originally started to show affection for Ophelia. It seems to be a recent development. Both Laertes and Polonius treat it as a new situation. They act as if they're advising her on it for the first time. We can guess that Hamlet turned to Ophelia after his father's death. Or maybe he has been interested in her for much longer, but the death brought the interest into the open. People in the court seem to have noticed it. Laertes and Polonius both fear she's already damaging her reputation.

Gertrude, for one, has given the match some thought. When told by Polonius that Hamlet's change is due to Ophelia's rejection of him, Gertrude finds the notion credible. "It may be, very like," she says (though she's smart enough to know that the old king's death and her remarriage are still the most likely causes). Moreover, she favors Ophelia as a wife for Hamlet. "I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet's wildness," she says to Ophelia. "So shall I hope your virtues / Will bring him to his wonted way again, / To both your honors." At Ophelia's funeral, Gertrude is even more explicit. "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife," she says in farewell. "I thought thy bride bed to have decked, sweet maid, / And not to have strewed thy grave."

Hamlet must be aware of Gertrude's approval. Even if she hasn't talked to him about it, she would almost certainly have found a way to discourage him from any potential match she disliked. Laertes and Polonius meddle in a relationship that, if they had stayed out of it, might have led to a happy ending for everyone. Again, we can imagine a version of the play where Hamlet never learns about the murder and eventually calms down enough to marry Ophelia and go on with his life. Polonius has forced Ophelia to reject Hamlet, in order to protect her from becoming his dishonored mistress. It's a bad move given Gertrude's support for Ophelia and Hamlet's love for her. It's not, however, an unreasonable decision for Polonius to have made in his position, and it needn't have resulted in disaster. It's the kind of misunderstanding that, in Shakespeare's comedies, might have provided a few entertaining complications on the way to the wedding ceremony.

But in Hamlet the Ghost's revelation changes everything. Ophelia follows her father's orders and spurns Hamlet at almost exactly the same time as he learns about his father's murder. This is when things become complicated. After the scene where Hamlet talks to the Ghost, and after he has told Horatio and Marcellus about his intent to play at madness, the first action Hamlet takes is to visit Ophelia in her bedroom. She describes the visit to her father afterwards, in terms that caricature the standard image of the dejected lover. Hamlet has appeared to her "with his doublet all unbraced, / No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle, / Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, / And with a look so piteous in purport, / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors." Compare this with Rosalind's satirical description of the signs of a depressed lover in As You Like It: "Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation." Has Hamlet deliberately aped these conventions to confuse Ophelia and hoodwink Polonius? Did he immediately guess that Polonius is behind Ophelia's rejection? Is this the first act of pretended madness, a form of misdirection to send Polonius and Claudius hunting in the wrong direction? From what we've seen of Hamlet, we can say it's improbable that his visit to Ophelia's bedroom expresses only a single purpose. It's likely to have motives as contradictory as the motives behind most of his actions. He might be mocking despair over Ophelia's rejection, but the mockery might simultaneously reveal a sincere rage at her rebuffs, a rage he won't admit to himself. Also, he might be making fun of his love for Ophelia even as the love tightens its hold on him. On yet another plane of his feelings, he must be preparing the groundwork for his later assault on Ophelia's honesty and honor. He must be setting her up for the hatred he'll inflict on her. Even before the Ghost's appearance, Gertrude's remarriage has turned Hamlet against women as a group ("frailty, thy name is woman"). Shakespeare leaves the timing vague, but somewhere between the period when Hamlet starts showing his interest in Ophelia and the nunnery scene, Hamlet begins to view her through his rage at his mother. The most likely tipping point, where the taint in his love for Ophelia becomes too strong for him to ignore, would seem to be when he recognizes that Ophelia is acting on her father's orders. He must think she's rejecting him dishonestly, not in line with her emotions but with someone else's commands. The chances are high that when he visits her room he has either reached this conclusion already or is well on his way to it.

Regardless of how it develops, though, the poison that infects Hamlet's feelings for Ophelia is potent. Even the points that should help her end by working against her. Gertrude's support might have benefited Ophelia in the beginning. Hamlet probably wouldn't be so disillusioned with Gertrude if he hadn't adored and respected her, seen her as an ideal queen. In demonizing Gertrude after the announcement of her remarriage, he also demonizes the woman she has preferred as a potential daughter-in-law.

Is there anything Ophelia could do to change Hamlet's mind in the nunnery scene? Not realistically. She's trapped. She has little choice except to obey her orders. She's acting under royal command to speak to Hamlet so Polonius and Claudius can eavesdrop on the conversation. She knows both men are there, listening. She's as active and independent in the scene as possible. When Hamlet insults her, her defense is intelligent and self-possessed. Hamlet says that her honesty "should admit no discourse to her beauty." Ophelia replies pointedly, one of the few times in the play that he finds his wit equally matched: "Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?" She never falters intellectually. She simply abandons the attempt to spar with him when it becomes obvious that he's not arguing with her but spewing out one insult after another. His words often clash in their uncontrolled hostility. "I did love you once," he says. She answers that he had made her believe so, and he explodes at her in direct contradiction: "You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not." She makes one last, and completely accurate, attempt to defend herself: "I was the more deceived." But from this moment on, Hamlet's rage takes over. Ophelia's comments show a concern for his well-being that contrasts starkly with his unrestrained cruelty. "O help him, you sweet heavens!" she pleas when he orders her to the nunnery. "Heavenly powers, restore him!" she says after he has given her his "plague for thy dowry." Even when his tirade is over and he leaves, her first thought isn't about his contempt for her or the lapse of his love. She realizes that the contempt has little to do with her, that she has just heard the ravings of someone who is freefalling, plummeting away from everything he has known or felt or believed. "O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" she says. Hamlet might think he has been feigning madness in the scene, communicating with Polonius and Claudius, but Ophelia grasps the truth. The feigned madness is genuine madness, beyond Hamlet's strength to manage. Ophelia knows the overthrow of reason when she sees it. She has the example of her father in front of her. The two men she loves best are losing their minds.

Then, of course, she loses her own. Her difficult and overbearing lover kills her difficult and overbearing father. The murder itself is madness. Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her room. Polonius is eavesdropping again. For a moment, Gertrude fears that Hamlet is about to kill her. She cries for help. Polonius reveals his presence by crying for help as well. Hamlet stabs impulsively through the arras, without seeing his victim. After all his hesitations, after all the doubts and scruples that have delayed him so far, Hamlet finally jolts into action. "O me, what hast thou done?" Gertrude exclaims. Hamlet reveals that he has no idea. "Nay," he says, "I know not. Is it the King?" Gertrude calls it "a rash and bloody deed." Polonius has died while calling out for assistance for his queen. It's only Hamlet who refuses to detect anything dignified or admirable in this, and who tries to justify the killing through branding Polonius an "intruding fool." By any sane standard, the murder expresses not a reasonable choice on Hamlet's part but another one of his wild and crazily disproportionate detonations, the physical version of his explosive attack on Ophelia.

Ophelia's madness, like her father's senility, provides yet another angle on Hamlet's disintegration. Hamlet absorbs each of the blows against his mind at an interval. First he learns of his father's death. Then he learns of the remarriage. Then he learns of the murder. All three revelations come so quickly on each other that he can't adjust to them. Each pushes him further into confusion and despair. But for Ophelia it's even worse. The blows come all at once, without the slightest pause for her to make sense of them. The act that turns her lover into a killer turns her father into a corpse. She must also think, with some justification, that Hamlet's tormenting combination of love and hatred for her is partly responsible for his crazed action. She can't know exactly how much she has contributed to the murder of her father, but she's not wrong to feel she bears some share in it. Hamlet is a play where everybody is forced to accept how we all contribute to each other's sorrows. We shouldn't think of Ophelia as a weak and innocent ingŽnue who can't survive an unexpected load of pain. The play gives us much more evidence to think of her as strong and intelligent. She's broken not by her frailty but by her insight, her awareness of her unintended participation in her father's death.

Hamlet contemplates suicide; Ophelia commits it. Hamlet's madness has a large and damaging element of narcissism in it; Ophelia's madness has no narcissism at all. Her insanity is as pure and all-encompassing as Hamlet's is mixed and erratic. She doesn't fight against her despair. She lets it take her. She lets the water fill her dress, "Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death." Hamlet thinks he rejects the world. He says no to everything, but he doesn't quite believe his own words. He never totally relinquishes the possibility that life is worth keeping. When Ophelia says no, she means it.

13 – Goodbye, My Book: The Gift

The Gift is the final novel Nabokov wrote in Russian. Its publication history is messy. The émigré magazine Sovremennye Zapiski serialized four of the book’s five chapters from 1937 to 1938. The magazine refused to publish the fourth chapter, which offers an unflattering biography of one of the legends of Russian literature, Chernyshevski. It wasn’t until many years later, in 1952, that the full Russian text of the novel was finally set in book form, by a New York publishing house.

The structure of The Gift differs from most of Nabokov’s writing. Often his novels consist of lots of short chapters or segments, with an occasional longer section cropping up here and there. Glory is a 200-page book in 48 chapters. Lolita comes to about 300 pages, with 69 chapters. Laughter in the Dark has 39 chapters for a total of about 250 pages. Each of the five chapters of The Gift, however, is unbroken and unusually long. The book has a solid, chunky feel to it. It can, however, be a little disappointing on a first run-through. It’s a bit too traditional for people who go to Nabokov for his formal experiments, and a bit too experimental for anyone who expects the “good, thick old-fashioned novel” that the first few pages promise. Yet over time you come to appreciate the peculiar flavor of the novel’s blend, a taste that partakes of a strong physical evocation of émigré Berlin together with a strong poetic and intellectual evocation of Russian literature and Russian culture.

The Gift has a secret plotline embedded in it. One of the main characters, Zina, enters the book through hints that we only discover how to appreciate in the final chapter. She’s like a benign version of Lolita’s Quilty, another character whose line of appearances doesn’t come clear till the conclusion. In The Gift, the young author Fyodor keeps almost running into Zina and missing her. Only midway through the novel do they come together, and only in the last chapter are we passed the keys to their earlier near-misses. Though the story is set in the 1920s, the perspective of the writing is Fyodor’s view from the 1930s, when he’s looking back on his youth and on his development as an author and as Zina’s partner.

Chapter One is constructed around Fyodor’s first book of poems. From his Berlin boardinghouse Fyodor watches the arrival of a moving van. The van is one of the Zina markings: it’s bringing all the furniture of the Lorentzes to the boardinghouse. The Lorentzes know Zina and would provide an obvious way for Zina and Fyodor to meet. The connection, however, never leads anywhere. Zina and Fyodor note it only in retrospect, when they like to contemplate how long they circled each other without connecting. After turning his attention away from the van, Fyodor starts to read his just-published book of poems. The poems are the minor works of a new author: polished but bland. Cleverly, Nabokov enhances them by surrounding them with descriptions in his later and more luxurious style, drawing out all the untapped literary possibilities in Fyodor’s memories of his Russian boyhood. The coupling of the poems with Fyodor’s thoughts and recollections is impressive. It combines literary parody and literary critique with a close-packed summoning of the Russia he has lost, while still maintaining the slightly seedy texture of his current Berlin surroundings. When he has finished reading the poems, he goes to a literary party, one of many literary events in the book. Among the émigré writers, the one he admires most is Koncheyev. They leave a gathering together. They talk. They discuss poets and novelists with a harmonious enthusiasm that’s like a young writer’s fantasy of conversation with an older writer. And a fantasy is what it turns out to be. “Whose business is it,” Fyodor thinks, “that actually we parted at the very first corner, and that I have been reciting a fictitious dialogue with myself as supplied by a self-teaching handbook of literary inspiration?”

In Chapter Two, Fyodor pays tribute to his dead father. He imagines composing a biography of his father’s adventures as a naturalist, an explorer of Siberia and Central Asia. Gathering his research, Fyodor thinks his way through the stages of the father’s story. The father’s life radiates a noble Pushkinian aura. “With Pushkin’s voice,” Fyodor thinks, “merged the voice of his father” and “Pushkin’s era commingled with the rhythm of his father’s life” even though the father was born long after Pushkin’s death. In his mind Fyodor joins his father in traveling toward the Tyan-Shan range: “the caravan ascended over steep slopes and narrow ledges, slipped down to the north, to the steppe teeming with saigas, ascended again to the south, here fording torrents, there trying to get across high water -- and up, up, along almost impassible trails.” Nabokov’s own training as a naturalist saves most of the long and detailed mental journey from the embarrassments of Orientalism. Nabokov knows his plants, his steppes, his dunes, and knows how to disclose the father’s warm yet solitary personality through his scientific enthusiasm for the trip’s sights and sounds and smells. Yet Fyodor soon realizes he won’t ever write the biography. He tells his mother: “it seems to me a sacrilege to take all this and dilute it with myself.” The book will only exist in the preliminary cloud that Nabokov has allowed us to drift through. Also, Fyodor learns that he needs to find a new place to live, a practical problem intruding on his literary problems. He visits a flat, is ready to reject it when he sees something that changes his mind: across an armchair “there lay in airy repose a gauze dress, pale bluish and very short.” Fyodor vaguely wants to meet the wearer of the dress and decides to take the flat. This will finally bring him into contact with Zina, even though the dress belongs not to her but to her cousin.

Chapter Three excavates the early days of Fyodor’s relationship with Zina. She seems unfriendly at first. Gradually, though, Fyodor realizes that the problem is the presence of her creepy stepfather, who might have married Zina’s mother so he can be around Zina. (Humbert marries Charlotte so he can stay near Lolita, and it’s interesting that Nabokov prefigures part of Humbert’s story from the vantage point of the stalked and disgusted daughter.) Fyodor draws much closer to Zina once they’re able to spend time talking together. Is there any other modern novelist who can be as romantic as Nabokov? The cruelty and cynicism and intellectual games of his fiction overshadow but never wipe out his moments of unguarded tenderness and grace. “Through the glass,” Fyodor notes when he stands next to Zina in front of the glass door leading out from their apartment building, “the ashen light from the street fell on both of them and the shadow of the iron design on the door undulated over her and continued obliquely over him, like a shoulder-belt, while a prismatic rainbow lay on the wall.” This is his first moment alone with Zina, and it expands in his mind: “And as often happened with him -- though it was deeper this time than ever before -- Fyodor suddenly felt -- in this glassy darkness -- the strangeness of life, the strangeness of its magic, as if a corner of it had been turned back for an instant and he had glimpsed its unusual lining.” His progress with Zina goes hand-in-hand with his progress as a writer. Having made a false start on the biography of his father, Fyodor now begins his biography of Chernyshevski. His desire to write about Chernyshevski starts, hazily at first, with his desire to understand why Russia has “become so shoddy, so crabbed and gray.” He wonders if politically active, socially conscious writing such as Chernyshevski’s “concealed a fatal flaw, which in the course of progress toward the objective had grown more and more evident, until it was revealed that this ‘light’ was burning in the window of a prison overseer, and that was all?” It’s a young author’s rhetorical question, a bit narrow in its presumptions, and Fyodor will move beyond it during his research and composition.

The text of the Chernyshevski biography takes up all of Chapter Four. We would recognize it now as a piece of creative nonfiction. It’s factually sound but stylistically impish and determined not to fall into the patterns of normal biographical writing. The biography is critical of Chernyshevski as a novelist and a progressive thinker, marginally more sympathetic toward him as a person. It’s a little as if a young writer nowadays were to write a brash biography of Foucault that dismissed his ideas and books as well-intentioned but silly holdovers from the distant past, too dated and uninspiring even to argue against any longer.

The Russian émigré community’s reaction to the biography comes in Chapter Five. As a hero of Russian progressivism, Chernyshevski is a beloved figure, and Fyodor’s work offends many reviewers. Nabokov was already a veteran literary critic during his Berlin period: his mimicry of assorted reviewing styles is delicious. Fyodor enjoys his new reputation as a gadfly, appreciates the controversy that drives the biography’s sales. The only positive review of the book comes from Koncheyev. Walking in the forest, Fyodor has a second literary conversation with Koncheyev, a conversation that’s revealed to be another daydream. The novel wraps up, however, with Fyodor finally finding someone he can talk to about literature even more freely than he has imagined talking with Koncheyev. Zina, intelligent and well-read, proves to be the ideal literary companion Fyodor has sought throughout the book. On the night they plan to consummate their relationship, they discuss Fyodor’s idea for the novel we’ve just been reading. It will be a history of his literary development, with their secret love story threaded through the pages. The Gift closes with a Pushkinian sonnet. The sonnet says goodbye to the book and steers us toward the transcendent: “the shadows of my world extend,” Fyodor writes, “beyond the skyline of the page.” As he leaves us, we picture him strolling away with Zina, now and forever.

14 – Hamlet: Transformation Redux

The most extreme metamorphosis in Hamlet is the change from life to death. Hamlet fears the transition from the terrible but known problems of his life to the unknown problems of the afterworld, of everything outside our understanding. Contemplating the attractions of suicide, Hamlet still sees its risks: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” The Ghost’s visit has awakened his deepest fears about the unknown: “the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly off to others that we know not of.” Death entrances Hamlet. It won’t let go of him. Its possibilities are so much bigger and more confounding than the politics of the court that he can’t stop looking away from life and toward the afterlife. As a prince, he’s troubled by the feeling that death has no respect for his view of himself as someone special and important. “Your worm,” he tells Claudius, “is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service -- two dishes, but to one table.” In the gravediggers’ scene, he can’t get past the indignity that death inflicts on everyone, no matter how accomplished: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?” But this is only physical indignity. Hamlet’s apprehensions also linger on metaphysical indignity, the quality and nature of the dreams to come when life is over. He has seen the Ghost retreat toward the morning fires of his harrowing purgatory, and he idealizes his father, believes his father to have been the embodiment of all that is admirable and good. His own soul, in comparison, is far more perilously positioned. “I could accuse myself of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me,” he says to Ophelia. “I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.” Hamlet has much to fear of death, much to fear of the punishments his sins might allot for him. He doesn’t know what awaits him, but he knows the afterworld is far beyond his mortal understanding. This incomprehensibility, for someone as intelligent as Hamlet, might be the most terrifying prospect of all.

Yet the uncertainties and paradoxes of the afterworld also penetrate the world of the living. Almost nobody in Hamlet makes the right decision when it matters most: it’s not clear that any such thing as a right decision is possible in the play’s convoluted and perplexing context. Laertes and Claudius are as determined and active as Hamlet is brooding and hesitant, but their aggressiveness doesn’t protect them from their violent ends. Gertrude switches her loyalty from Claudius to Hamlet once she knows the truth about her first husband’s murder, but her change doesn’t save her son, and doesn’t stop her from drinking out of the poisoned cup.

Not only do the characters die: they cause the deaths of the people they love. Claudius loves Gertrude and kills her by mistake. Polonius loves his children and takes a series of minor, defensible actions that ensure Ophelia’s drowning and Laertes’s fatal duel. Hamlet loves Ophelia and Gertrude, and helps force them both to their graves.

Despite this pattern of failure, however, Shakespeare doesn’t allow us to rest easy with the idea of fate, the perhaps consolingly clear notion that our decisions are irrelevant and incapable of influencing anything. Hamlet, for instance, decides to surrender to fate at exactly the worst moment, when the surrender will do the most harm to the most people. Just before the climactic duel with Laertes, Hamlet talks with Horatio. Explaining how he opened the letter ordering his execution out of a rash surge of unexpected fear, Hamlet says: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” Hamlet takes, however, perhaps the wrong lesson from the incident. Once he opened the letter, he didn’t just relax and do nothing, waiting to see if England would carry out the order to execute him. Instead, he wrote a new letter requesting that England execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio is impressed, relieved to see Hamlet at last taking action: “Why, what a king is this!”

For a moment it appears that Hamlet’s story is the story of Pyrrhus: his hesitation was merely the prelude to his massive strength once he finally stirred into motion. Hamlet says Claudius deserved to lose his minions (Hamlet’s old friends) and asks: “Is it not to be damned / To let this canker of our nature come / To further evil?” Horatio points out that Hamlet doesn’t have much time to act against Claudius now: “It must be shortly known to him from England / What is the issue of the business there.” Hamlet insists he is aware of it and knows this is the moment of his advantage: “It will be short; the interim’s mine.” It looks as though Hamlet has mind up his mind to strike Claudius right away, before the ambassador from England can arrive to reveal Hamlet’s discovery of the letter. Yet watch what happens next. Osric appears, proposes Claudius’s offer of the show-match with Laertes. Hamlet wastes time drawing out the conversation with Osric, making fun of the messenger’s pretensions. Moreover, he agrees to the duel, even though time is short (so short that the ambassador from England will arrive just as the duel-cum-massacre is concluding). Once Osric is gone, Hamlet senses that something is wrong. “But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart,” he says. Horatio urges him not to go forward with the duel. “If your mind dislike anything,” Horatio says, “obey it.” But Hamlet refuses to listen to his own doubts, very similar to the doubts that motivated him to open the letter on the ship. He leaves everything to fate. “Not a whit,” he says, “we defy augury.” He further declares that the only thing that matters is being prepared for death: “The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.” If he had told himself this on the journey to England, he would have been executed, and Gertrude and Laertes would have lived while Claudius would have continued as king and Denmark would have avoided the rule of young Fortinbras. His execution would have saved two innocent lives (four counting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and would have protected his father’s legacy and saved Denmark from foreign rule. You could say that Hamlet achieves serenity precisely when serenity is the wrong thing to achieve. Even during the duel, Shakespeare takes the trouble to show that this passive “Let be” isn’t Hamlet’s final, ripened mode as a person. When the dying Laertes confesses that Claudius is to blame for the treachery that has resulted in the poisoning of Hamlet and Gertrude, Hamlet doesn’t retreat into his newfound philosophical passivity. He attacks Claudius and kills him. That’s Hamlet: inconsistent to the last, incapable of sticking to any single concept or course of conduct. As if to add to the strangeness, the final thing he does is betray his father’s greatest victory. “I do prophesy th’ election lights on Fortinbras,” he says. “He has my dying voice.” The destruction of Hamlet Senior’s legacy is complete. His son has given up Denmark to the son of the man Hamlet Senior killed in order to enlarge Denmark’s territory. The young Fortinbras has acted and won, has aspired and reached his aspiration, just as Hamlet Senior did in the past.

What the hell is going on here? Action is pointless, except when it isn’t. Fate rules everything, except when it doesn’t. We kill and betray the people we love, except when we don’t. I think every writer hopes at some point to create art that’s as endlessly elusive and entrancing as life itself. Hamlet might be the work that comes closest to that impossible goal. Even more impressively, its elusiveness is exhilarating rather than frustrating, as heady and breathtaking as Shakespeare’s language, which, like an enchanted version of the pipe Hamlet offers Guildenstern, is able to sound all of the characters from their lowest note to the top of their compass.

15 – Brothers in Ink: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knightis the mellowest of Nabokov’s novels, the one that strains least to astonish us with its brilliance. Nabokov started it in 1938, in Paris, when he was feeling his way towards a potential future as an English-language writer. The narrator claims to be the half-brother of a novelist, Sebastian Knight. The brother investigates the novelist’s past. He wants to clear up the misconceptions about Sebastian from a recent biography. The more the brother looks into Sebastian’s life, though, the more we come to think we’re not getting the whole story. There are some romantic complications, some literary references to Twelfth Night, some summaries of the plots of Sebastian’s novels. The brother is close to Sebastian, so close they might be the same person. The novel has quite a few deliberate ambiguities, but its pleasures are straightforward and obvious. It has the feel of a tweedy, well-worn suit, pleasantly thick to the touch.