Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Nabokov from an Alternate Universe

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov,  by Paul Russell, is a fascinating novel about Vladimir Nabokov’s brother, a man who lived a life at least as interesting as that of his more famous brother. Sergey began his life as a member of the St. Petersburg elite in Tsarist Russia, and along with Vladimir, experienced the revolution and exile at an early age. It is a familiar journey from privilege to poverty for this intellectual family, but we find in this fictionalized version of Sergey’s life, that everything takes on a different meaning when seen through his eyes. Lacking literary talents, the good looks and the privilege of heterosexuality that Vladimir enjoyed and exploited so successfully, Sergey must find his way through the dangers and addictive pleasures of Twentieth Century Europe. Everything comes with more difficulty for Sergey, and he ends up dying UnrealLifeSergey_6ain a Nazi concentration camp. Vladimir, the acclaimed writer, on the other hand, becomes a wealthy writer in America, apparently oblivious to the sufferings of his brother. In the introduction to this novel, the author quotes Vladimir from his autobiography, Speak, Memory, when he finally breaks his silence about his gay brother, “For various reasons, I find it inordinately hard to speak about my older brother. He is a mere shadow in the background of my richest and most detailed recollections.” To be fair, it is possible that he cannot speak about his brother because of the pain of the knowledge of his troubled life and death, but to say that he is mere shadow in his mind is very telling, considering that they grew up so closely right through the tumult of revolution, until their exile as teenagers. One can perceive the easy forgetfulness that the perfect and spoiled child often feels when confronted with the plight of a less fortunate sibling. Perhaps for this reason, Paul Russell does not paint a very sympathetic portrait of Vladimir in this novel.

Beautifully written, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov offers an extraordinary alternative reading of the history of the Russian exile. It is a reminder, if we need one, that in this age of wider acceptance, the awareness of the lives of gay people gives us a refreshing new perspective on the world, turning the familiar on its ear, and giving depth to history.

Some reviews of the Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov:

on the Lambda Literary website

in the Washington Post

 

June 28, 2014 Posted by | literature | , , , | Leave a comment

Nickel Fare on Facebook

My novel, Nickel Fare, is a project that has been a long time in the making. It is still a work in progress, not the novel, which is complete and available on Amazon and Kindle, but the process of making it known to potential readers is an ongoing activity with no end in sight.

Here is my Facebook page for Nickel Fare. You will find info about my readings there, and links to my other projects. Take a look!

June 24, 2014 Posted by | literature, writing | , | Leave a comment

Jack Holmes and his Alter-Id: a review of Edmund White’s latest novel

at Amazon

Jack Holmes and His Friend, the latest novel from Edmund White, is a novel with two narrators, Jack Holmes, a gay man, and his best friend, Will Wright, a straight man. Together they weave this tale, describing their relationship of mutual support and attraction. Characters in the story are forever tempted to call it a love affair, but the word love is sadly inappropriate when we are talking about two completely self-centered creatures as these. They admire and complement each other but all for their own personal gain. In the terminology of the Freudian psychology that pervades the story, they are not alter-egos, but rather alter-ids, feeding each other’s compulsive hedonism from their own isolation. When they have sex with other partners, they are really consummating the romance between them, but when they come face to face, they are cold fish. This relationship is a collaboration between men in separate cells, every feeling passed from between the bars on the tips of fingers that can barely touch, every thought etched miniscule on a scrap of paper to be rolled up and pushed through a crack in the wall and then masturbated to in silence.

Jack and Will come to New York in the 1960s to make their way, and they work together in the offices of an upscale magazine. Jack narrates the first segment of the story in which he slowly becomes comfortable in the gay lifestyle that he has chosen for himself: that of well endowed and carefree one night stander who often does not bother to remember the names of his tricks. But one name he can never forget is that of Will Wright, the “Mr. Right” that he obsesses about. He knows quite well that Will is straight, that he is the one man in his life who will never succumb to Jack’s good looks and his physical assets, but that knowledge seems to fuel rather than discourage his ardor. In the the second installment, Will Wright takes up the story, bringing the reader into the 1970s and describing his own dissatisfaction with middle-class monogamy. He envies Jack’s libertine ways and becomes fascinated and finally seduced by Jack’s subtle manipulations, thus making unwise choices that nearly destroy his marriage. When Will’s wife creates a scene in Jack’s office, saying “You’ve stolen my husband!” she does not mean that in a sexual way, but in a psychological way, and she is right.

Yet, the seduction is the whole story for Jack and he has no Act Two for that particular tale. Now that he has Will, he doesn’t need him anymore. In the third part of the story, told from a detached narrator’s point of view, the two drift apart, Jack toward a relationship of convenience with an older man, and Will back to his wife. Neither of them ever open up in love to anyone, neither of them seeming to learn anything from their foolish ways.

This novel will not appeal to everyone, as it is a rather sad story full of missed opportunities and deflected pain. Yet, it is moving, cautionary and perversely entertaining. Whereas such a narrative could be leaden and bitter in less able hands, Edmund White brings such artistic talent and such human insight as well as worldly sophistication to the story that even the most unpleasant incidents can delight the reader. We don’t end up loving these characters, but we do wish them well, if only to keep them from hurting anyone else in their travels through life.

For a more personal take on the story, see my post on the Nickel Fare Facebook page. In that article I look at the ways that Jack Holmes’ New York differs from my own, and how Edmund White’s protagonist differs from my own.

September 3, 2012 Posted by | literature | , , | Leave a comment

Looking back at Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar

How odd to discover Gore Vidal for the first time one week after his death. I picked up his 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar at the OutWrite LGBT Book Fair in DC last week and then proceeded to devour it. I was fascinated by this coming of age novel as it was set in such an important historic period, the 1940s, and because it was written with such subtle colorations by the 22 year old writer. Gore Vidal had already achieved fame with his earlier work and was securely set on a trajectory of fame and fortune when he decided to risk it all by pubishing this loud and proud gay novel in that era of virulent homophobia. It must have taken great courage, as well as foresight, and the knowledge that his novel was an achievement that could defy all the doomsayers. In fact, his novels were pretty much blacklisted for the next six years after this publication, but with his persistent genius, he managed to overcome.

The City and the Pillar is the story of Jim Willard, a young man in Virginia who leaves home after high school and drifts to Seattle, Hollywood and Manhattan learning his way in the semi-clandestine society of homosexuals and yearning for his impossible love. The story ends tragically for that love affair, but one has the feeling that Jim, now an experienced gay man, will survive. I loved the way that this character develops during his travels, gaining self-confidence and stature in his dealings with others. Although he is closed up in himself and not entirely sympathetic, the reader can’t help but root for him wholeheartedly as he navigates the hostile waters of post-war society. Even his transgressive and unconscionable acts at the end of the story felt good, though I would have prefered something a bit more amiable and better motivated. Gore Vidal writes in his introduction that he revised the ending for a new edition in 1965, because the original ending, which ended in death, was too melodramatic. Good call, Gore. He also revised the entire text at that time, so if you read an old edition, make sure it includes these 1965 changes. With my own novel, Nickel Fare, so forward in my mind (I was at OutWrite to read from the novel), I greatly appreciated seeing the parallels that I could draw between this young man Jim Willard and my own coming of age character, Nicangelo. They are both loners adrift without family or close friend and they both must control the demons that eventually rise up from their subconsciouses, so tried by the misfortunes they’ve endured. A critic, using the literary landmarks of the day, called Jim Willard “l’ètranger,” that is, an existentialist stranger drifting through an absurd world. That could describe my Nicangelo as well, as he watches all the certainties and truisms of his youth turn to caricatures before his eyes.

The title puzzled me, as it is not referenced anywhere in the story. In his introduction Gore Vidal seems to indicate that it connotes the idea of an impossible idyll but a google search yielded no results. And then I noticed the epigraph at the beginning of the book, refering to Lot’s wife, who looked back and became a pillar of salt. Jim’s fatal flaw was his retrospection which paralyzed him and made him incapable of finding love, in effect, turning him to stone. There are some blatant stereotypes and some heavy handed Freudian psychology in this story, which I think reflect the primitive level of openly gay literary tradition of that time, more than anything else.

The City and the Pillar clearly deserves a high profile in the library of gay literature, and it did come in at number 9 on the Lambda Book Report’s January, 2000 list of the 100 most influential LGBT books. But I suppose that in a society like ours where the latest trends and newest innovations are always preferable to the old and tried (and often tired), I guess it is no wonder that there is so little mention of the book. Now, with the death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012, a look back at this classic and highly entertaining novel is in order – don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone, but you will be fascinated.

Check out The Gore Vidal Pages

August 14, 2012 Posted by | literature | , , , | 2 Comments

A Book Festival Grows Fast in Brooklyn

Once again the cultural expansion in Brooklyn was on full display this weekend, this time at the Brooklyn Book Festival. There had been a surprising number of side events at bookstores

BBF at Brooklyn Borough Hall

and beer gardens throughout the borough in the three days leading up, (for instance, the Vin Fiz readings posted about below) but I was still unprepared for the extent and scope of the main event itself on Sunday. It was enormous, with vendor booths and stands stretching throughout the lanes of Cadman Plaza in front of Borough Hall. At each hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. there were readings and panel discussions going on at eight different halls, including the courtroom in Borough Hall, the main hall of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the auditorium at St. Francis College. There were a couple of outdoor stages and even the expanses of the beautiful St. Ann’s Church were pressed into service.

There at St. Ann hundreds of people filled the pews under the gothic ceiling to hear an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. It was an astounding sight.

Sheri Holman, Terry McMillan, Nina Revoyr and Bernice McFadden

Star power was certainly on display elsewhere at the festival. Diva power is not one of my favorite spectacles, so I decided to skip Paul Auster, but I did manage to get my nose full of egomania anyway, from some more satisfying providers. Terry McMillan, the author of Waiting to Exhale, was the quintessential diva hamming it up for her adoring fans during her panel, making faces as her fellow panelists read, ostensibly in support of the text, but in the end just making sure that all eyes remained on her. I don’t know much about stagecraft, but I am sure that this is a cardinal sin of ensemble acting. When McMillan read, however, all was forgiven, as her writing is spot-on and her presentation skills were enthralling. She brought the text, from a work in progress, to life with the first syllable. And what a text: the inner voice of a housewife struggling to come to terms with a flawed marriage was powerful and haunting. Another divo who was not above antics to draw attention was Arthur Phillips, who whooped it up at the intro for another writer, again to make sure all eyes were on his chiseled good looks and stubble whiskers which had been perfectly aged to outline his dimples and square, manly jaw. He was the author a few years back, of the gimmicky titled Prague (the novel was about Budapest). And again, it was a case of drop-dead fantastic writing and championship presentation – in this case an autobiographical passage about a young woman throwing herself at his sexy bad self. The writing was tour-de-force brilliant and could even whet the appetite to read more

Kevin Wilson, Jessica Hagedorn and Arthur Phillips

about him in The Tragedy of Arthur. This was a great panel, with Kevin Wilson reading from The Family Fang about a flim-flam family in Atlanta. I instantly liked him when I saw that he was wearing a tie that I own (owned?) that I must have bought for a  dollar about thirty years ago. His reading voice was mellifluous proving how beautifully fitting a Southern voice can be for a thoughtful text. Jessica Hagedorn read from Toxicology about a quirky, aging couple in the West Village. All three were worthy of far more attention than the short hour they had to share.

There were other big draws with some of them, like Edmund White and Bernice McFadden, in the capacity of moderators as well as panelists. There were writers to meet, too. 290 different writers were listed in the program as signing books during the day at various locations! They ranged from the sublime (Joyce Carol Oates at St. Francis) to the slime (Senator Joe Lieberman at Borough Hall).

Amintava Kumar

There were ideas that inspired. I attended the discussion about time travel with Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else, historical fiction centering on Nikola Tesla, and with Diana Galbadon. Galbadon, another big draw at the festival, is the author of the NY Times #1 bestselling series of Outlander novels. With her insight and ironic sense of humor she showed why people are willing to plod through thousands of pages of romance and then beg for more. Unfortunately,  her reading from her latest work showed just how she arrives at thousands of pages – in the excerpt, which consisted of a couple of thousand words, her hero does nothing but look around in one spot of a dark tunnel he finds himself stuck in. I also attended a panel about unreliable subjects in non-fiction writing with a very charming Amintava Kumar (A Foreigner Carries in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb) and a confused discussion about the guidance that religious traditions can give to a spiritual writer, with Michael Mohommad Knight, a follower of the Nation of Islam (the “Black Muslims”), who tried, I think quite unsuccessfully, to explain why he (who is white) believes that the white man is the devil. Other, only slightly less perplexing apologias were given by Darcy Steinke and Peter Bebergal who spoke about the dilemmas that they faced, tapping into traditions for inspiration, but at the same time attempting to maintain their conceptual autonomy.

The festival was ample proof of how much the cultural life of New York City needed to expand beyond the confines of Manhattan island where the concentration of power and wealth leads each culture event to eventually wall up into a rarefied exercise in elitism. Just compare this totally free festival with the New Yorker Festival where audience tickets range from $30 to $75 and well beyond. The open, free wheeling atmosphere of Brooklyn provides a home where a more daringly innovative approach to the arts can thrive. Marty Markowitz, the indefatigable borough president, who usually hits the mark with his unabashed boosterism (usually – I hate the fuhgeddaboutit sign on the Belt Parkway) says in his short welcoming lines in the official program that this festival is “the most hip, smart and diverse book festival in the Northeast – not to mention the biggest!” You got it, Marty!

The ceiling at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church

September 19, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vin Fiz Centennial: the grape soda that flew

100 years ago today Cal Rodgers took off in his Wright Brothers plane from Brooklyn on his way to Los Angeles, in an attempt to win the $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst for the first air journey from coast to coast in less than 30 days. Rodgers’ flight was sponsored by the Armour Meat Company and his plane was named after the new soft drink they were peddling – the Vin Fiz.

The 1912 advertising image

At the oddest literary reading I ever attended (or was  that the Paris metro reading?) excerpts from E. P. Stein’s Flight of the Vin Fiz  and Eileen F. Lebow’s Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fizwere presented in the little exhibition room at Hangar B of Floyd Bennett Field, near where the Vin Fiz took off. That helped me to see the Vin Fiz as a real aircraft, and not as I imagined it: some kind of grape soda. Alas, there was no Vin Fiz served at the event, since the soft drink never really

an overgrown runway at Floyd Bennett Field

took off (see testimonials below). The other Vin Fiz did take off, but it didn’t quite make it to Los Angeles in 30 days… more like 49, having crashed and sputtered several times along the way.

Afterwards, the attendees were allowed to wander around in the hangar to puzzle over the airplane carcasses in various stages of recomposition there. It is a workshop for the reconstruction of historical aircraft, and there were some marvelous examples there. Afterwards, my friend and I wandered around the disused airport that has sat idle along Flatbush Avenue for decades. It was a beautiful day and we watched as enormous airbuses and boeings lumbered low in the sky as they approached JFK airport just a bit to the east. We also took some time

One of the many planes being restored

to watch the model airplane enthusiasts fly their own tiny aircraft on one weedy runway. It was an interesting day to reflect on the caprices of fate: the beverage that gains immortality as an aircraft, the prize that was never won, the world war two bombers and troop transports that retire to lives as tinker toys and the airfield that still lives, but only vicariously. I have to appreciate history’s ironic sense of humor. It leaves me with one burning question. What did Vin Fiz taste like?

With the wonders of the internet I was able to find out not only where it can be found today (in New Hampshire and Ohio!) and also an idea of its taste, judging from the following testimonials from 1911:

“Tastes like a cross between river water (sludge) and horse slop.”

“You have to sneak up on it to get it down.”

“It has a laxative effect.”

Doesn’t that make you just want to go out and get some? Well, you just missed it. An attempt was made to revive the brand in recent years… but it fizzled out. 

September 17, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , | Leave a comment