Waugh, Nabokov and a Booker Nominee

In today’s Times newspaper, critic and novelist D J Taylor reviews a long-shot Booker prize nominee entitled Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. This is a 1000 page novel written in the form of a single sentence. The review opens with this observation:

It was Evelyn Waugh, emerging from the footnoted 999-line poem that is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), who came up with the idea of the “stunt novel”. By this he meant a work of fiction whose form is so self-consciously arresting, “experimental”, or otherwise peculiar — letters chucked at random across the page, syntactical mash-ups, interior monologues — that it becomes undetachable from its content, to the point that neither can be properly considered in the absence of the other. Clearly, most of the great avant-garde novels of the past century and a bit can be slotted into Waugh’s category.

Waugh’s comment appeared in a 16 June 1962 letter to Ann Fleming. The comment continued after that brief opening: “but a clever one.” Waugh had written dismissive letters regarding Nabokov’s previous novel Lolita in which he described it as “smut”. He suspected that the London edition had been Bowdlerized and commented that the Yank edition was “full of very high-brow allusions,” leading him to wonder whether there may be a modern Bowdler “whose office is to introduce ‘literary merit’ into smut.”  He asked his correspondent (John Donaldson) whether he might have access to a copy of the Paris edition to see whether “it may be a mare’s nest but if I have hit on a truth it will be jolly funny.” There is an editorial footnote commenting “It was a mare’s nest” but not indicating whose opinion that may have been. (Letters, 516, 586).

Taylor’s review of the Booker nominee continues by comparing it to such other noted experimental novels as Joyce’s Ulysses, B S Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) and Rayner Heppenstall’s Two Moons (1969). A further comparison might have included one of  David Foster Wallace’s doorstoppers or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. While they may have comparable heft, perhaps they weren’t sufficiently experimental.

The review concludes with this:

Several hundred thousand words later, the reader stumbles forth exhausted with the sense of having gone up several hundred cul-de-sacs, in which passages of great beauty alternate with tedious lists. And so delight in the spectacle of a tiny independent publisher from Norwich taking on the big boys in the Booker is tempered by a suspicion that over much of Ducks, Newburyport hangs a faint air of desultoriness.

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