In just his second novel Nabokov had begun experimenting with narrative conventions. While it’s maybe not quite as impressive taken out of context, I love the trick he plays in the extract below. Chapter 8 of King, Queen, Knave begins in one scenario with Franz and his lover Martha, but as Franz examines a photo of her husband Dreyer, Nabokov smoothly transitions to the scene within the image, lingers for a few moments, then hops out again. It’s an effect that’s simpler to achieve in film, but in prose it takes you by surprise. It leaves you feeling hyper-aware of each sentence as you begin to suspect that any sentence might spring off on an unexpected tangent.
One such blurry morning, a Sunday, when he and Martha in her beige dress were walking decorously about the snow-powdered garden, she wordlessly showed him a snapshot she had just received from Davos. It showed a smiling Dreyer, in a Scandinavian ski suit, clutching his poles; his skis were beautifully parallel, and all around was bright snow, and on the snow one could distinguish the photographer’s narrow-shouldered shadow.
When the photographer (a fellow-skier and teacher of English, Mr. Vivian Badlook) had clicked the shutter and straightened up, Dreyer, still beaming, moved his left ski forward; however, as he was standing on a slight incline, the ski went further than he had intended, and with a great flourish of ski poles he tumbled heavily on his back while both girls shot past shrieking with laughter.
Here’s a Spotify playlist that I made at the end of last year. It’s a bit of a mishmash of old 78s, distortion and cheap Beatles pastiches (come on Spotify, surely you can talk the boys around by now?).
1. I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
2. Welfare bread – King Khan & the Shrines
3. So bored – Wavves
4. California girls – The Magnetic Fields
5. rr vs. d – Au
6. I keep losing heart – Electrelane
7. Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I show – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
8. The cracks are showing – Vivian Stanshall
9. Shake appeal / Tight pants (live) – The Stooges
10. Red shoes by the drugstore – The Wedding Present
11. Bottle opener – Giddy Motors
12. You can’t catch me – Chuck Berry
13. All my loving – Beatles Rumba Band
14. Living in hope – The Rutles
15. Making plans for Nigel – XTC
16. Two sleepy people – Hoagy Carmichael & Ella Logan
17. Say a litle prayer – Santo & Johnny
18. Barbados – Lord Invader
19. Staging the plaguing of the raised platform – Cornershop
20. Are animals – Au
21. You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve – Johnny Boy
Click here to listen to I Keep Losing Heart on Spotify
I’m a total sucker for songs with modular, separate elements that eventually come together in surprising ways.
‘I lost my place / In your / Line of vision’ begins the song, the vocal line stop-starting, timing at odds with the lone staccato guitar line. Then on the second vocal phrase the rhythm guitar and drums hit, just two beats for a fleeting moment.
Fifteen seconds in, Shahin Motia emits the perfect phrase ‘I hate my body / I love your eyes’ and the drums thwack again and again, battling the guitar riff with bloodyminded steadiness.
And then, suddenly, the whole band are in agreement. Thick guitars mesh together, the off-kilter drums manage to underpin the melody without appearing to relate to it, and Shahin sings ‘You see, you see me, you see me / Hey, you see me, you see me’. It’s mindless but it feels eloquent, somehow.
The song’s modular, bitty. It never allows itself to reach a stable rhythm. The band occasionally drops out leaving just the knifing guitar, only to appear with a shriek moments later. Past the 50 second mark you feel that the band could fray and dissipate at any moment, and then at 1 min 03 secs it’s all over as abruptly as it began.
Click here to listen to Girlfriend is Worse on Spotify.
Fair enough, U2 are now profoundly uncool. And on relistening, much of Zoo Station isn’t nearly as special as I’d believed in 1991 – a large proportion of Bono’s lyrics are banal (‘I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive / I’m ready to say / I’m glad to be alive’). But the first 30 seconds are magnificent.
The track begins with a barely audible ticking, then a huge formless guitar riff lurches in and drops like a stone. The second time round the riff is followed by an industrial clunking that might be distorted drums but is almost felt rather than heard, like the thump of a migraine. Finally, a percussive tapping begins off-beat, perhaps a spanner hitting a pipe in a vast warehouse space. The riff and percussions repeat, slightly out of phase with one another. For the next few seconds the two patterns compete until they eventually mesh into a cohesive rhythm. The undistorted guitars arrive, Bono ruins the party, and the song becomes more and more conventional as the song progresses… but those first 30 seconds were glorious.
Click here to listen to Zoo Station on Spotify.
Let it be known that I choose Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks, Adventureland) to play me in the film of my life.
For the record, my favourite films of the 2000s, in alphabetical order:
24 Hour Party People
28 Weeks Later
Children of Men
City of God
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Good Night, and Good Luck
I’m Not There
In the Bedroom
In the Mood for Love
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rachel Getting Married
Shaun of the Dead
The Last King of Scotland
The Lives of Others
The Royal Tenenbaums
There Will Be Blood
This is England
John Hillcoat, director of the wonderful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, commenting on the swift degradation of society after a catastrophe:
To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.
See Hillcoat’s film production journal here.