Nabokov versus Vonnegut

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Publicat de: Ionela Șerban
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Profesor îndrumător / Prezentat Profesorului: Madalina Nicolaescu
Facultatea de Limbi si Literaturi Straine, UB

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After the war a group of American writers referred to as the Beat Generation communicated their profound disaffection with contemporary society through their unconventional writings and lifestyle. In the 1950s began the experimentation in style and form that continues even to the present day.

As a result of World War II, Nabokov and Vonnegut created texts in which narrators or protagonists are displaced, are “outsiders” in a sense. The notion of “home” is altered, especially in Vonnegut’s case, as he never feels really “at home” in post-war America.

Both Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Nabokov are the products of lost paradises, which reverberate in their work with a nostalgia unmarred by self-pity. Nabokov’s idyllic, cushy Russian youth has the advantage of sounding like paradise; Vonnegut’s was prewar Indianapolis, which doesn't. His parents didn't have a happy adulthood: his mother finally killed herself not long before Kurt was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Even so, he's one of the few American writers to have had a happy childhood, which was also a privileged one, until his prosperous family went bust in the Depression.

Vladimir Nabokov, although Russian-born, became one of the greatest masters of English prose - Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962), novels with American settings, are remarkable examples of tragicomedy that make readers question the standard categories for prose. Lolita, a brilliantly detailed, unconventional story, recounts the intense and obsessive involvement of a middle-aged European man with a sexually precocious young American girl, whom Nabokov termed a nymphet. The controversial book caused a sensation in Europe, and when it was published in the United States in 1958, it received a similar reception. Lolita came as a wake-up call to repressed America and her rigid sexual mores, but Nabokov abhorred the idea that the themes of his work garnered more attention than the form. For him, the literary act was one “of language and not of ideas” - an approach that aligned him with many of his Modernist contemporaries. Nabokov’s linguistic tricks and commitment to sensory experience recall James Joyce, and have inspired the evolution of Postmodern fiction, including the work of Thomas Pynchon . Nabokov displayed an arrant mastery of language, lyrical sentences combined with his sometimes shameless indulgence of formal devices.

Kurt Vonnegut based his often considered greatest novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) on his experiences in a German prison camp during World War II. The setting of this multilevel narrative alternates between the camp and a fictional planet, incorporating elements of science fiction in the process .

The popularity of Slaughterhouse Five is due, in part, to its timeliness; it deals with many issues that were vital to the late sixties: war, ecology, overpopulation, and consumerism. It is one of the most popular examples of American cultural change, perfectly catching America's transformative mood. Shunned as distastefully low-brow […] and insufficiently commercial to suit the exploitative tastes of high-power publishers, Vonnegut's fiction limped along for years on the genuinely democratic basis of family magazine and pulp paperback circulation.

Vonnegut cannot use the traditional form of the novel in presenting the contemporary terms of viewing life, as the conventional novel conforms to assumptions of cause and effect and rigidities of time and substance that he questions. Consequently he needs a form that, while providing the reader with an intelligible account, does not appear to rationalize the events; in particular he needs a form that recognizes duration as a fourth dimension. Therefore, he avoids framing his story in linear narration, choosing a circular structure. Such a view of the art of the novel has much to do with the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who provides corrective lenses for Earthlings. For Pilgrim, who learns of a new view of life as he becomes “unstuck in time”, the lenses are corrective metaphorically as well as physically. The nonlinear characterization of Billy Pilgrim emphasizes that he is not simply an established identity who undergoes a series of changes but all the different things he is at different times.

His life is not revealed chronologically, by beginning in medias res, or by flashback; rather, the reader knows its end from the start, and the parts are filled in, from all segments of his life, as the novel progresses. Many of the juxtaposed segments do not relate sequentially or thematically but intermixing all together, they build a total impression of a montage.

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