Had Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, the eponymous hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s 13th novel, not looked for and failed to find, in a bookshop, a copy of Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden, I would not have known about it, or been curious to read it.
While Martin Eden, the hero of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel, happily takes his best suit and his “wheel” to the local pawnshop, and goes without food for days in order to scrimp the cost of postage so that he can resend his rejected manuscripts, what he refuses to go without is the rented typewriter with which he plies his trade.
“… he could not puzzle out the cause of their rejection, until one day, he reads in a newspaper that manuscripts should always be typewritten. That explained it. Of course editors were so busy that they could not afford the time and strain of reading handwriting. Martin rented a typewriter and spent a day mastering the machine. Each day he typed what he composed, and he typed his earlier manuscripts as fast as they were returned to him. He was surprised when the typed ones began to come back …”
Consistently behind with his payments on the rented typewriter, Eden manages to cling onto it long enough to put together a vast collection of short-stories, poetry and criticism. Indeed, it’s only when the typewriter is finally repossessed that his work begins to garner the attention of publishers.
But success comes too late for Eden to impress the (idealised) love of his life, Ruth, who breaks off their engagement under pressure from her parents.
The novel gathers pace when Eden befriends a fellow writer and intellectual, Brissenden, a tragic figure hastening his death (from tuberculosis) by drinking heavily.
Following the unreliable reporting of a political meeting at which he is a speaker, Eden is ostracised by his community as a socialist agitator. But Eden is no socialist. He identifies himself as an anti-socialist individualist and has strong opinions about the “slave mentality” of those (among his own class and the bourgeoisie) who advise him to give up writing and get a job:
“The thirteen colonies threw off their rulers and formed the Republic so-called. The slaves were their own masters. There were no more masters of the sword. But you couldn’t get along without masters of some sort—not the great, virile, noble men, but the shrewd and spidery traders and money-lenders. And they enslaved you over again—but not frankly, as the true, noble men do with weight of their own right arms, but secretly, by spidery machinations and by wheedling and cajolery and lies. They have purchased your slave judges, they have debauched your slave legislatures, and they have forced to worse horrors than chattel slavery your slave boys and girls. Two million of your children are toiling today in this trader-oligarchy of the United States. Ten million of you slaves are not properly sheltered nor properly fed.”
It is Brissenden who helps Eden to realise that the bourgoise lifestyle he aspires to, and the woman he loves, are not for him. And yet, at the same time, he cannot return to his working-class life or the women he left behind.
Having achieved the fame and fortune he could only dream about a few years before, Eden no longer wants either. He loses the will to write, to love, to live. At a low ebb following the death of his friend, he quotes an unknown poet:
Great book. I can see why Timofey Pnin sought it out as a possible gift for his son.
Nabokov himself was a proponent of individualism, and rejected concepts and ideologies that curtailed individual freedom and expression. He also hated happy endings (possibly another reason why he chose to endorse Martin Eden).
“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy endings. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” [The Narrator, Pnin, 1957]
Common sense deserted him and he stands abandoned,
castaway at the centre of a pond that doubles as a wishing well.
Old pennies, tarnished and sunk, and discoloured at the edges,
have bonded together like discarded medal ribbons,
while above them, newer coins glisten in the sun
and are fished-out by children, only to be thrown back in.
History repeats itself and so too, sin.
The battle is re-enacted and he is resurrected
in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Killed in action, he is now the main attraction.
But lo, see how the greenhouse is padlocked
and has whitewashed panes to keep the secret in,
of tropical plants propagated in pots
and a pump that feeds oxygen to a tank
brimming with Japanese carp.
No hope of a warm bath for he,
stone cold at the cenotaph
on this second Sunday in November.
Still, it is important we remember
never to believe what we are told.