I’m just getting my footing as to what it is that I intend to say about the book in the Nabokov MFA series. The process, to rehash, is that I first read a classic book, in this case "Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen, and then the auxiliary text from Nabokov’s "Lectures on Literature," to get his perspective on the novel.
For some reason, there was a sense of dread in starting this book, or perhaps the weight of the whole proposed Nabokov MFA was in play, because I know Mansfield Park has traveled with me extensively, with the goal of being read. It was with me at least once in Pennsylvania, maybe twice now, and also sat untouched in Texas for two weeks. There was always "one more book" that demanded my attention before it.
Part of it was the weight of it being serious literature, from the early 19th century, and one of the links I found online beforehand calling it Austen’s "most difficult and least accessible work," or words to that effect.
So, I was pleasantly surprised to begin the book and find it very readable and delightful. If I had to guess, I probably read 80 percent of the book aloud in my living room. I much preferred this to reading silently in public, as did occur less often, because the silent read never seemed to have the same rhythm and cadence. Plus, there is nothing like reading aloud to crystallize the focus.
My first impression upon reading it was the delightful voice of the book. The book is narrated in the third party, but the narrator is not omniscient as it shows us the inner life of the protagonist (and the protagonist only, if I am not mistaken), so we are clearly rooting for Fanny Price from the beginning.
This is not a book report, so this won’t really be a plot summary, aside from the broadest of strokes. Fanny is taken in to live with her aunt in the delightful manor that serves as the title of the book. At home, Fanny was one of ten children, in a poorer family, and this move propels her into high society.
So, with Fanny at the center of the novel, all of the other characters go about their class issues, and romantic interests, and everything else and we see most of it from Fanny’s perspective.
The narrative was just so delightful. And any latent fears the thought of curling up with serious literature had evoked in me prior were no longer present once the book was in full swing. I am delaying writing that I, in fact, understood everything about the book at all times, which was probably just Cliff Notes flashbacks of old haunting me.
Austen’s delicate weaving and storytelling really paint a picture of this time and its people, but also tells a simple human story. I’m not a follower of the 19th century, British class system or anything else, but that was never oft putting in reading it.
I don’t really think my intention is a plot synopsis, though. So, we will move on to the Nabokov portion of the program, which was always going to be the spookier half of each lesson in my mind. There is something about wanting to glimpse what he finds beautiful and important about the work on my own, without having to read it in his words and then say, "Oh, but of course, how could I have been so stupid."
His introduction alone frightens, when he talks of the level of detail he finds important: "The color of Fanny Price’s eyes… and the furnishing of her cold little room are important." My mind races to remember this detail and, aside from her room being cold, I’ve got nothing. But I am bewildered as to the importance of her eye color to the book. This is foreshadowing for what would come later.
Nabokov has very clear guidelines even as to how a work of literature should be read. In fact, he insists that you cannot read a book, you must reread it. He likens the physical aspect of reading a book the holding, the eye movement, everything really as preventing artistic appreciation, because the work never gets to live as a painting does, which is to say it is experienced on the viewer’s terms, without the constriction of starting at point A and moving toward point B. When you reread, you get to stand back and admire the work.
Nabokov also advises a detachment from reading. He eschews the notion of empathizing with the protagonist, but rather floating on top of the text so that you can admire it from more than one perspective. He writes:
"It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass."
I point this out and go through the trouble of excerpting his reading methodology in part to understand it better.
The Nabokov book actually has some of his drawings and notes written directly over the Austen text included. It really shows the importance he placed on detail.
Mansfield Park begins "About thirty years ago," and his notes start figuring out in which precise year the novel would take place, based on the year of its authorship. His answer comes later in the text, as Fanny is received at a formal ball, which takes place at a specific age, month, and day of the week. Armed with this information, Nabokov checks against calendars in the late 1700s to determine in what year the ball would have taken place, thus establishing when all other events are occurring.
He also draws maps of how he imagines the grounds of Mansfield Park and other locations in the novel. I must admit that at the present date, I see no larger purpose here as to how the ball taking place in 1795 or 1793 affect the story in any manner. I bring it up because of my curiosity as to why Nabokov found it so important. If I recall properly from other Nabokov writings, when I read the Kafka, he finds it of the utmost relevance that after reading the book, you should be able to sketch the layout of the apartment. You should also understand that the lead character turns into a dung beetle, based on his corroboration of the details in the book with an insect guide presumably (although Nabokov was a noted fan of lepidoptera, that is to say, butterflies, so this may have been easy for him).
He points out that in his college classes (and these were undergraduate classes, by the way, despite my calling this my personal MFA program), that in having his students read Mansfield Park, they also had to read a bunch of additional texts. One character makes reference that he could recite the speeches from Henry the Eighth, so Henry the Eighth must be read. The characters intend to stage a play in the book’s second volume, so the text of the play is added to the curriculum. Fanny references a poem; so two cantos of that larger work are required. But, as much as it seemed to show his amazing resolve to details, the conclusions were not elusive without them.
The play let the characters in the book experiment with interpersonal relationships that tended to not exist in their normal interactions, which stirred up some of the romantic feelings between people where it would not have been proper otherwise. But, since they are acting, they are allowed to put themselves in those situations. Reading the Austen, all of that is clear, though.
The first half of Nabokov’s lecture, though, preserved beautifully because he was more of a reciter at the podium than an engaged speaker in class, shows the importance he puts on words. It tells the story of the novel using Austen’s words as often as possible, with him merely paraphrasing to link her quotations together artfully. There is such a respect for her language shown by this methodology that indicates the importance he gives the craft.
While reading the book, I was actually struck that although the language was beautiful, there were no monologues or quotable passages that linger, and while that is true, Nabokov goes out of his way to find some of the best phrases in the book to let Austen nearly tell the story to his class herself.
To that end, it is rather easy for people to only read the Nabokov book, just to get insight into his mind and a sense of the novels. Although, I am sticking with the program as originally intended, which means nearly a thousand pages of Dickens next.
He highlights words Austen uses repeatedly to steer the reader’s perception of the characters, and details how Austen delivers characterization within the voice of the novel.
At one point, he notes that "Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality."
When Austen ties everything up at a much quicker pace than the rest of the novel, though a disdained method of information arriving in letters, Nabokov notes that the proper choice might have been another volume of 500 pages, but that Austen chose a "shortcut of no great artistic merit."
That said, he closes out the essay with a backhanded compliment:
"I do not believe anybody can be taught to write fiction unless he already possesses literary talent. Only in the latter case can a young author be helped to find himself, to free his language from clichés, to eliminate clumsiness, to form a habit of searching with unflinching patient for the right word, the only right word which will convey with the utmost precision the exact shade and intensity of thought. In such matters there are worse teachers than Jane Austen."
So, that is it for Mansfield Park. While Nabokov was a fan of rereading, it will not be reread again so soon. Although, to be clear, none of the Nabokov MFA books will be traded after finished. They all get to stay on the bookshelves here, so that someday, they can teach me more when I have hit a place where they will contain entirely new lessons.
The biggest takeaway from Nabokov going into the Dickens is just trying to appreciate his propensity for detail, and hoping to better read the book in a manner that he would consider instructional.