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Agent Nabokov - Sarmoung
Elsewhere Radio Orchestrar / Flickr December 2008
Friday, August 1st, 2008 04:02 pm
Agent Nabokov

I awake early. The ghosts are back, I say to myself idly a few hours before in the darkness. It's hardly surprising. I'm heading to Tokyo later in the morning. A few days in the capital and then north. There's a dream I want to write down, or rather there's something that arises from that dream. Should I just start writing now or, as I know I would, perhaps I'd prefer to go the toilet and have a cup of coffee in my hand when I do...?


There are lesbians. Or rather there aren't. There are just two young women with boyish cropped hair I'm walking with along a path and we're rustling some canoes for an early morning journey along a river. The canoes or kayaks are of the open style, whatever that's called, rather the enclosed. That seemed relevant on waking. Either before, or perhaps after, chronology fading or rather forming, I'm with Michael and perhaps one of these women. He's waving a copy of Gogol and complaining about the censorship. It's true, there are little strips of paper glued to sections of the page. It looks like certain epithets have been struck out. What on earth can Gogol have written that it still needs to be censored so many years later? Quiet, he motions, for it appears we are in Russia, something immediately post-Soviet, since we're queueing for access to a confectionery shop. They have Curlywurlies here?, I think to myself, noticing the window display. Perhaps. We enter the shop, but that bleeds into the canoe section.

Earlier, a garden. Large formal houses. One house is in fact just a decorative skin around a vast air conditioning unit. Another dream, I think in the dream, it reminds me. Something hidden deep within the foundations. Something that should not be uncovered. I remember trying to discover it. A perilous crawling approach along a narrow wall. An approach I perhaps abandoned halfway. In the current dream, this air conditioning unit helps ensure that this subterranean area doesn't fester in the damp, keeps things circulating, dry.

I awake. Oh, the ghosts are back. An unreliable fluorescent light on the narrow steep stairway that I generally leave on to stop me cascading down in the dark. The only switch is at the bottom. The light flickers as if announcing an arrival or departure.

A friend, I think, came round last weekend on the way to a restaurant. This seems like one of those haunted houses in a horror film, he said. Don't be ridiculous, I say, there's no way this place is haunted, it's a workshop. Now, that old doctor's surgery I once lived in... Nevertheless, the laundry airing from the ceiling takes on supernatural form during the night, although I mostly lie here thinking how preposterously obvious it is. Going back to Tokyo, therefore let's rustle up some uncomfortable memories. Anyway, we go out for dinner, a few drinks, he's not broke but running low on funds. Here, I say, handing him some money, take this. He doesn't turn up for an appointment later in the week or let me know why. Maybe it's nothing, although the amount of money is hardly ambitious on his behalf. The youth of today, I'm tempted to mumble.

Anyway, what stirs me for the first time in months to write is that I have something to write that contains itself. Nabokov! I think on waking, what with thoughts of Gogol. To my knowledge, why has no one ever written a novel (or series of) with Nabokov as a Cold War secret agent? I take it that Nabokov (was at Cornell?) must have been involved in the training of American spies, however peripherally, particularly given his prodigious linguistic skills and his fervent anti-communism. I doubt it was his main job, but surely he must have been consulted from time to time or at least referred promising looking students. When did Nabokov arrive in the USA? Could you tie in Anderton and the rest of them? I imagine a novel in which an American agent is deep cover somewhere in the Soviet Union and through some mistake or other decision gets lumbered with Nabokov as his partner. The two proceed through the country in an obvious homage to Dead Souls, searching and locating something or another. Quite possibly these censored (in a dream) missing sections of Gogol. Nabokov was a Gogol expert, who else would you want on the job? Possibly someone who didn't speak in iambic tetrameter or risk exposure through excessive lyrical sensibilities or complaints about the fall in standards of zakuski since the good old days.

It works for me. Nabokov confronted with actual Russia and not the gilded Russia of childhood memory. I'm not sure you could stretch the concept for a series, but you may as well leave it open ended. I'm without the internet, so I'm not sure of his chronology. If you could get Nabokov in the USSR for the post-war Stalin period, that would be great. Indeed, Nabokov could poison Stalin or at least get caught up in the plot. You may as well throw in Shostakovich for good measure. They could have a proper punch-up outside some secluded dacha village for the intelligentsia and then make up afterwards over zakuski. The American foil would help prevent it becoming overly Russian and would mean that things would have to be explained for non-specialists. All sounds good to me. You could plug a DaVinci code angle, since publishing houses still seem keen for this rubbish, by claiming that Gogol was in fact a high-ranking Freemason and that the reason for the destruction of the missing sections of Dead Souls was that they contained the encoded location of, err, say, some long-hidden Mongol treasure trove or even some powerful holy relic that escaped the sack of Constantinople that would force Rome to capitulate and finally establish Moscow's supremacy over.... Might be going a bit far there.

So, I write this just so it's out there and I can sue anyone who tries to touch the idea without sliding a percentage this way. Perhaps. Who would write such a book?(If it's not already written, I suspect it might be somewhere) I'm a possible candidate but it's not that likely. I could always submit the idea to a publisher as a large advance cheque would certainly help encourage the creative process and pay for a year lounging around the London Library with a couple of trips away. It's the sort of thing I imagine Boris Akunin could write quite effortlessly as he's a dab hand at literary styling, but I suspect the Russian domestic market might not be that interested even if the outside world was. As an ex-student of his, and with another workable connection, I might just have enough blat' to get Orlando Figes to do an "Anthony Burghess" for the front cover.

One thing that I am looking forward to in Tokyo is an afternoon wandering the secondhand bookshop district. There really isn't anything like it in Osaka. The English language choice is fairly pitiful (although possibly better in Kyoto or Kobe) whether new or old. Most of the time I read local food magazines since I can claim that's work and it's easy on the eye. On the few times I do look at the book stock, it's a regrettably mainstream American experience. It looks like the fiction choice at Walmart, with a small and random classics section, if you can handle the idea of reading Plotinus or Stendhal, etc, in this heat. What does get through aside from the Grishams of the world often seem to be this. The description reads: "Set in the luxuriant backdrop of 1860's Siam,...." or "In the world of Victorian anaesthesiology, one name stands out above all others, but there is a mystery....". What I'm trying to say, as I'm tiring and should start packing, is that they state right on the packet what you're getting. I've done a fair bit of research, here it is, I've strung it together with some narrative and injected a bit of humanism, local mysticism or what-have-you. I can write coherent English and I won't make you feel too stupid. Eight or nine quid, it's quite large in size, probably take you a long weekend or seventeen days of suburban train journeys to and from work. Of course, having read the book, you don't know whether you've learned anything more about tea production or clown farming as you're not sure which bits were the fiction or the fact.

I imagine that I'll be playing some imaginary trailer in my head on the way to Tokyo. One of those deep voice-overs and one of those trailers that has nothing to do with the actual story at all. "In the struggle for truth, sometimes a lie is your only friend..." That sort of thing that doesn't mean anything. "He was America's most secret weapon..." Fade in Nabokov's voice lecturing about Pushkin or someone. Scenes of the gulag. A fist pounding a table. A child's tears as father is dragged from a dingy flat. Snowscape. Two figures struggling across the steppe. Circle and zoom in from helicopter. "When you have nothing to lose and everything to gain..." Kremlin. Motorcade across Red Square. Old bloke looking thoughtful with snow shovel. Back to helicopter. "How can you remember if you never forget..." Golden fields. Girl in pigtails with ribbons, boy in sailor suit with butterfly net. Running. Laughter. Dark forest. Boy's terrified face. Back to helicopter shot. Closer. "A secret is waiting..." Faster in on forest. There's something moving in there. Ominous atonal string swell. Boy's face. Crushed butterflies. And then, for some reason I'm not in control of, back to helicopter shot and turning his face (still indistinct) towards sky/camera and shouting "The sleeper has awakened!". Cut to lecture room, Nabokov intoning and tweedy at blackboard, turns. Fuck, it's Jim Carrey.

Note: I am sure that I've seen a picture of Nabokov with a tie in Russian that read something like "Fuck Communism!", but I can't find an image for it now I'm online. Oh well. The chronology works fine though. Nabokov was in Germany until 1937 and then left France for America in 1940. Stayed there until 1961 where he remained resident in the Montreux Palace Hotel until his death in 1977. Did it not occur to him to buy a house and make his own club sandwiches?