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This occured to me today because I just started reading Nabokov's Glory, and found I had to force myself through the first couple of pages. I love Nabokov and I'm sure I'll get into it soon enough, but I decided to go back and figure out what the problem was. And it was that the opening pages of this novel are written too narrowly for a particular time and culture (the Russian intelligensia of 1932). There are allusions, references, assumptions that the young Nabokov expected his readers would understand, and at the time they probably did. But I don't--not instinctively, anyway. The pages make sense, of course, but they leave a vague sense of obscureness, of exclusion.
You won't get this with Chekhov. As Rhian was saying yesterday, he holds up awfully well. One feels he was writing for the ages, not for his culture. The work is ostensibly about his culture, but its true subject is universal human emotion. You don't need a footnote in "The Lady With The Dog" to tell you that Yalta is where Muscovites went on vacation. It doesn't matter; we get it. What matters is the bit where the civil servant leans out of the carriage and tells Gurov that the sturgeon was a bit off, and Gurov is for some reason deeply wounded. He desires a certain kind of succor and instead is confronted by his alienation from other people and their petty concerns. This is universal--as long as people read short stories, this scene will make sense.
I can't help but feel as though all the September 11th novels we've seen so far will be forgotten very very soon. The novels of contemporary manners, the novels of urban snark and hip self-consciousness: they are too much about what we think we are, not what we actually are. When we immerse ourselves in the here and now, we lose sight of the fact that most of our daily worries are about things that will be gone in a century, if not next week. But it's hard to write about what will be left. Those are the things that hurt us the most, that make us feel the most helpless.
Which is not to say I'll soon be deleting my Twitter account. Life in 2011 is too damned much fun. I think I'll try to lock my cave door a little more often, though.