Rationing Genius

How to read the works of authors who are no longer with us?

Three writers, in particular, present me with a problem: Borges, Nabokov and W. G. Sebald, each exquisite writers with a limited body of work (particularly Sebald). I have no wish to hurtle  through their complete oeuvre, only to be left with re-reading and secondary material (though that will eventually happen). At the moment I ration myself.Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, in the 1999 Everyman’s Library edition introduced by Nabokov expert Brian Boyd has sat patiently on my shelf for a few years. It is as magnificent as expected, precise and funny.

A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in December 1905 when I was six and my brother five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly graying: the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial mustache; that blotchy complexion, which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which, out of sheer fright, bursts into a salvo of crackling.

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