Ray

Faulkner and Nabokov on "Faune" and Lifar!

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A friend recently forwarded this link to Nabokov's 1940 review of Lifar's Serge Diaghilev: An Intimate Memoir, and Faulkner's 1919 meditation on L'après-midi d'un faune, both of which appeared in The New Republic. (You need to scroll down past the first item to get to these gems.) Nabokov's review is scathing; sometimes bordering on homophobic, but mostly just acerbic. A quip:

The book consists of two parts [...] and for serious students of the Russian ballet, it will be quite sufficient to dip into these first 246 pages, where compilation prevails over original effort. True, there is too much of the good thing, and I for one have never been able to stomach these minute details of a biographee's infancy. But there is worse: Mr. Lifar's style is so pompous and long winded that it runs away with him. Such expressions as divine, sublime, quest for the Holy City, memory of a distant heaven, applied to an irascible gentleman in top-hat and silk muffler, who happened to possess a wonderful flair in the matter of dancing, may be put down to the devotion of a pupil to his master; but I refuse to be solemnly told that "childish memories persisted in Diaghilev all through his life," and that "in Benois' decor for the 'Gotterdammerung' [with which Diaghilev was not directly connected] it is as though some tiny corner of the Perm province haunts him [Diaghilev].”

Faulkner's begins with this (it sounds like poetry, but despite the midstream capitalization there are no line breaks):

I follow through the singing trees Her streaming clouded hair and face And lascivious dreaming knees Like gleaming water from some place Of sleeping streams, or autumn leaves Slow shed through still, love-wearied air.

EDITED TO ADD: Apologies if these have been posted/discussed before. I didn't find them on a cursory search.

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Both are fascinating -

As you also suspect, I bet the Faulkner was written with line breaks at the capitalization that got omitted either by error here or for lack of space in print.

I wish I had read the Lifar to get a sense of the validity of Nabokov's criticisms. It's written with the vehemence of someone who is writing about contemporary, not historical, figures - and that's enlightening.

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Thanks for the link, Ray. You are right about the Faulkner. It is a poem and the line breaks are marked with the capitalizations. That Nabokov review is a stitch. I can certainly understand how he would have found Lifar's prose heavy going. I also liked this:

The second part of the book is devoted to what the author considers to be Diaghilev's best find: Serge Lifar.

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Thanks for posting the Nabokov review, Ray. I enjoyed it immensely. But it's not as scathing as it surely could have been, and Lifar does not come off as a bad character, just naive. Nabokov fairly cites the values and its limitations of the book and did take the effort to read it in its Russian and English versions. It's interesting his characterization of what he calls the Russian Renaissance, "blending as it does priceless artistic magic with a touch of eerie futility" in the 1890s that lasted until about 1915 when

the utilitarian and didactic tendencies of the sixties and seventies that had retreated for a short time, like a wave that leaves the wet sand aglow with painted pebbles, came rolling back with far greater force.

to which he perhaps gives a more sympathetic image (the painted pebbles of utilitarianism) than he intended.

This is nice:

In later years he developed a mania for book-collecting, which Mr. Lifar deplores, but which seems to have been the most lovable trait in the man's character.

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I think you're right, Quiggin. And there's this:

His real achievement was that he knocked into shape and then showed the world that exquisite combination of movement, color and sound, the Russian ballet.

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I wish I had read the Lifar to get a sense of the validity of Nabokov's criticisms. It's written with the vehemence of someone who is writing about contemporary, not historical, figures - and that's enlightening.

I had a copy of the book and Nabokov's criticisms are 'right on'. It was one of the first ballet books I bought along with a bio of Diaghilev by Haskell/Nouvel. It oozes with pomposity both in the writing style and Lifar's importance in D's life. When the POB was in NY in the late '40's he autographed it to me as "un amie de la danse"...

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I wish I had read the Lifar to get a sense of the validity of Nabokov's criticisms. It's written with the vehemence of someone who is writing about contemporary, not historical, figures - and that's enlightening.

I had a copy of the book and Nabokov's criticisms are 'right on'. It was one of the first ballet books I bought along with a bio of Diaghilev by Haskell/Nouvel. It oozes with pomposity both in the writing style and Lifar's importance in D's life. When the POB was in NY in the late '40's he autographed it to me as "un amie de la danse"...

Oh, but I think Leigh's onto something right--Lifar's book tells a story that Nabokov simply isn't interested in listening to (and it's a fabulous read, I think). In fact, I wonder if they asked VN to review the book simply b/c he was a Russian ex-pat! His knowledge of Diaghilev seems gleaned from the popular presses descriptions and caricatures. (I do love, though, the parts that Quiggin quotes in re the "Russian renaissance"--I don't think I've heard that period characterized in quite that way before.) In any case, despite their respective faults or deficiencies both writers offer us something that contemporary observers never can: proximity to their subject, the movement, and the country of origin.

And here's the Faulker with line breaks restored:

I follow through the singing trees

Her streaming clouded hair and face

And lascivious dreaming knees

Like gleaming water from some place

Of sleeping streams, or autumn leaves

Slow shed through still, love-wearied air.

She pauses: and as one who grieves

Shakes down her blown and vagrant hair

To veil her face, but not her eyes—

A hot quick spark, each sudden glance,

Or like the wild brown bee that flies

Sweet winged, a sharp extravagance

Of kisses on my limbs and neck.

She whirls and dances through the trees

That life and sway like arms and fleck

Her with quick shadows, and the breeze

Lies on her short and circled breast.

Now hand in hand with her I go,

The green night in the silver west

Of virgin stars, pale row on row

Like ghostly hands, and ere she sleep

In silent meadows, dim and deep—

In dreams of stars and dreaming dream.

I have a nameless wish to go

To some far silent midnight noon

Where lonely streams whisper and flow

And sigh on sands blanched by the moon,

And blond limbed dancers whirling past,

The senile worn moon staring through

The sighing trees, until at last,

Their hair is powdered bright with dew.

And their sad slow limbs and brows

And petals drifting on the breeze

Shed from the fingers of the boughs;

Then suddenly on all of these,

A sound like some great deep bell stroke

Falls, and they dance, unclad and cold—

It was the earth's great heart they broke

For springs before the world grew old.

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I love the Faulkner, and he's one of the few who is up there with Mallarme, however far apart; of course he knows he didn't write the original. Who else wrote up versions of Mallarme? Russell something, or Lowell something or other? I was just talking to someone about those last summer. I've read most of the Faulkner novels, and even the weaker ones are good as far as I'm concerned. Big Nabokov fan, too, but have read only 'Lolita' and 'Ada'. This post makes me want to read more of everybody you've brought up, though. This: "I have a nameless wish to go

To some far silent midnight noon" is sublime.

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Ray, thank you so much, for the initial links and for the restored Faulkner, someone I hardly ever get to read and now I'm feeling the lack.

I do think that Leigh puts his finger on a big element with the observation that Lifar is talking about his contemporaries -- it's a truly valuable perspective, just as important as someone who writes with more balance from a distance. And it extends to critics writing about dances as well...!

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