Update

If one watches the Star Wars movies in the order in which they were made, one sees the ‘droid R2-D2 gain additional abilities and features in each movie, as scriptwriters thought of more ways to use him in their stories. But if one watches the same movies in the order they are numbered, one sees that R2-D2 loses many abilities from his arsenal between episodes three and four. Many of the things he could do in the prequels were missing from his capabilities when we meet him again in Star Wars: A New Hope. The usual explanation for this change is, of course, a Microsoft update.

My desktop computer had a Microsoft update this week. I was editing my book when a pop-up informed me that an update needed to be installed, asking if I wanted to do the update now or schedule it for later. I scheduled it for 12:15 the next morning, and when I finished my editing for the day I made sure to save the file and close it, hoping that the update would not interfere with the book.

The only obvious change to the desktop computer since the update is that the ribbon across the bottom of the screen is pale blue, whereas before it was a darker color. But, as is always the case with Microsoft updates, I have faced other glitches along the way. Thursday, after the update, I composed nearly half of a three-page paper I would need this weekend. When I returned to the computer on Friday, that composition was missing; the computer had no recollection of any unsaved work. This morning, I had to recreate and then finish Thursday’s work. Fortunately, my outline and research were vivid enough that I was able to create the entire paper on deadline and suffer no consequences. But I then had to restart the computer to help it find the printer; before the restart, the computer sent the file somewhere, but the printer sat idle. During the restart, the printer found and printed the file.

My experiences bring to mind, not only R2-D2 of Star Wars, but also a story told by Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway had several unfinished works in his possession when he died in 1961. One of them, the novel Garden of Eden, was edited and published roughly 25 years later. It was then made into a movie. While looking at other things on the computer this month, I came across a description of the movie and decided to buy it. While I waited for it to arrive, I reread the novel. (Spoiler alert) The main character in the novel is recently married, and his bride is eccentric to the point of mental illness. She delights in the knowledge that he is writing memoirs about their honeymoon, but she resents any other writing on his part that does not include her. During that honeymoon, the character also writes a short story based on a hunting expedition he and his father shared years earlier in Africa. The key event of the novel is that the author’s wife burns the story he has written. At first he despairs, saying that once he writes a story, it has left his mind and cannot be recreated. (And he knows that this story was one of his better works.) But, at the end of the novel, he finds that he can write the story a second time, and the new writing is as good as the original, if not better.

This morning was not the first time I have needed to recreate something I had written. Years ago, when I was working with a much older computer (one of the two computers Noah had with him on the ark), I finished a three-page paper, reached out my hand to turn on the printer, and instead flipped off the power switch for the entire computer set-up. I switched it back on immediately, but the paper was gone, erased, completely forgotten by the computer because of that brief loss of power. I had to type it again from the beginning. Again, I was able to write essentially the same paper in less time; where it was different from the original, it was probably better.

Now it is time for me to return to my current book and see what, if anything, the Microsoft update has done to that file. J.

Tropical depression Beta

I have already used all my tropical depression jokes. The rain began before dawn yesterday, brought by Beta, and it has continued right up to the present. The gentle splatter repeats drop by drop, minute after minute, hour after hour. Already autumn has begun. Mornings are dark and cool. We won’t change our clocks until November, in the senseless pretense that we are saving daylight to use in the evening. It would be easy to remain in bed, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. But there are tasks to accomplish, deeds that must be done, and a tropical depression is no excuse to be lazy.

All year I’ve been working on a book about depression—the inner kind, not the weather kind. My working title remains The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. Thinking about depression, analyzing depression, describing and discussing depression: these are depressing things to do. The first draft is nearly done, but I expect to do a lot of rewriting, reorganizing, and other editorial work. Yesterday I tried to summarize the ideas found in The Dark Night of the Soul, and I realized that I will have to sit down and read the entire book again to be able to share it properly.

Last night I was reading in the family library. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed a biography of Ernest Hemingway and read the last fifty pages. His own story, as you may recall, does not have a happy ending. In some ways I relate to Hemingway—we were both born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, and both of us write. Of course his writing brought him fame and fortune, something my writing has not been able to achieve. He traveled and saw more of the world than I have seen. Also, I don’t own a gun. But I’ve read Hemingway’s novels and short stories. Even though we disagree about some important matters, I admire Hemingway’s ability to see the world and to describe it vividly. I also admire his ability to see into people’s thoughts and feelings and to describe them vividly too.

Twenty-five years after Hemingway died, his publisher printed an edited edition of one of Hemingway’s unfinished projects. Garden of Eden is a powerful novel, at least in its abridged form. It describes sordid and ugly actions by sordid and ugly people, but its narrative is not easily forgotten. Ten years ago a movie was made from the novel, although it was not widely distributed. I happened upon a description of that movie recently, which may have contributed to my impulse to read again about the author.

Many things combine to create a tropical depression. Clouds and rain and wind are only part of the story. We are what we eat; but we also are what we read, what we remember, and what we ponder. We cannot always choose our frame of mind; often it is imposed upon us. Some days we can do no more than take one step at a time, firmly confident that each step measures a little more progress toward our destination. J.

Vladimir Nabokov

Earlier this month a woman told me that her mother’s writings are as good as Nabokov’s. In a situation like that, one can only smile and nod, even while one’s mind is silently screaming, “No! No one writes as well as Nabokov!”

The Mount Rushmore of twentieth-century American writers consists of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Of the four, only Faulkner even approaches Nabokov’s ability to paint with the English language, and Faulkner tended to stray a bit too often into stream of consciousness writing and other tricks. Nabokov was a master of written communication. The most amazing fact about Nabokov’s skill with English is that English was not his first or second language. He was born and grew up in Russia, learning to speak and to write in Russian and French. He learned English later, after his family had fled Russia. Yet his later novels are written in English, and his earlier novels were translated from Russian to English under his supervision. Both sets of novels sing in a lyrical manner unapproached by any other writer of the last hundred years and more.

Hemingway in particular is credited with crisp, succinct writing which has influenced thousands of composition and journalism classes. Gone are the long Dickensian descriptions found in nineteenth century English literature. Yet Nabokov accomplished something in English that Hemingway and Steinbeck never approached. Nabokov had a profound sense of the sound and rhythm of language. As a master he toyed with language. His mind was capable of creating descriptions of people and events that are multi-textured, complex without becoming verbose. When I read a Hemingway story, I might think, “I never imagined that character or setting or plot, but if I had, I could have written this story.” When I read a Nabokov story, I ask, “How did he do that? And why is it that I cannot do that?”

I just happen to be reading the short stories and novels of Nabokov this month. Currently I am savoring The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I saw one brief example of Nabokov’s mastery of expression last night, as the title character describes his social awkwardness by calling himself a “colorblind chameleon.” Who but Nabokov could have expressed so much with but two English words?

Tragically, Nabokov is best-known for Lolita, a novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a “nymphet,” a prepubescent girl to whom he is drawn emotionally and physically. The subject is uncomfortable; and, because he writes from the man’s point of view, Nabokov does not directly condemn his character’s thoughts and his actions. Notoriously, the book is frequently banned. Two movies have been made from the book, the first directed by genius Stanley Kubrick and starring genius Peter Sellers–not as the main character, but as his nemesis, Clare Quilty. (The name itself is a beautiful visual pun.) While Lolita contains as much of Nabokov’s skillful writing as any other novel he wrote, the subject matter tends to guide people into the false assumption that Nabokov himself must be perverted. Nabokov makes his characters so convincing, so real, that a reader almost expects each of them to be somehow an autobiographical image of the author.

My favorite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. The heart of the book is a poem of 999 lines–the thousandth line is missing–but the bulk of the book consists of a preface and annotations by a second character, the poet being the first character. The relationship between the poem and poet on the one hand, and the interpreter on the other hand, is displayed astoundingly throughout the book. While it contains a wealth of literary tidbits of the highest quality (such as “Chapman’s Homer” referring simultaneously to a particular translation of an ancient Greek poet and to a more recent success on the baseball diamond), the entire novel contains levels of meaning and significance that can hardly be described, certainly not without spoiling the charm of the book.

Aside from writing, Nabokov’s passions included chess, butterflies, and opposition to totalitarian governments. A little awareness of these topics assists a reader of Nabokov. (For example, Sebastian Knight has a close associate named Clare Bishop.) Lack of awareness of these matters does not keep any reader from enjoying Nabokov’s work. Many of his clever jokes are discovered only during a second or third reading, when the reader can set aside plot and character and instead swim in the flow of Nabokov’s unequalled prose. J.