Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Narrative Is Not Necessary

Last week I came to a small realization about literature.

We were reading two of Nabokov's short stories—"Sounds" and "Gods"—and at first I was really annoyed because they didn't have strong narrative structures. OK, technically "Sounds" did have a narrative structure, but the plot was so...banal: a man watches a woman play the piano, they go to a friend's house, have an uninteresting conversation, leave, the man runs back to pick up a forgotten item, he comes back, the woman proposes to leave her husband for him, he rejects her, and they go their separate ways.

My friends, however, were enraptured. They talked about the beauty of the language, its flow and rhyme and rhythm, but for me that wasn't enough to make me like the story. It had to have a strong narrative; it had to be eventful and "worth telling."

Not true, I came to realize, and for several reasons. First: For me, one of literature's charms (and, arguably, one of its essential features) is its ability to take ordinary events and makes them extraordinary. Most often writers use plot to effect this transformation (e.g. having a mistreated orphan discover he's a wizard [Harry Potter]); but it can also be done through language—and Nabokov does so extremely effectively. Alliteration and assonance abound; sentences ebb and flow without hitch; and, in the end, if you read carefully, you find yourself transferring the beauty of the language to the beauty of the events. A seemingly insipid afternoon turns into a colorful, evocative event.

Another reason: Although the events of the story seem trivial, they're really not. In fact, it is these small, everyday acts that contain all the deep meaning and significance of extraordinary acts, just in more subtle ways. Heartbreak, determination, victory—these are all contained in glances and gestures. It's all there, if you only take a close look.

Lastly: The line between poetry and fiction is less strict than I thought it was. "Sounds" is better understood as poetic fiction rather than pure short story; and poetry is, after all, not just about what happens but about how we "see" what happens.

Now, after having this change of heart, I can actually benefit from reading "Sounds": it seems more pleasurable, more relevant and provides me with a richer way of seeing the world. I know, then, that the discussion was worthwhile, for anything that makes reality richer and more beautiful always is.


  1. Didn't you notice the lack of a strong narrrative in some of the short stories in Joyce's "Dubliners"? Perhaps it wasn't to the same extent as what you describe here; I haven't read Nabokov.

  2. I noticed it a little bit, but it didn't jar me as much as Nabokov's style. I think it's because I was able to see how the "Dubliners" stories fit together, whereas with Nabokov I was reading them stand-alone. I'll email them to you to give you an idea of what I'm referring to.