So... not Hemingway.
September 12, 2008 7:38 AM   Subscribe

ProseFilter: Nabokov's Lolita was once hailed as "a love letter to the English language." I'm looking for modern and contemporary authors with similar aspirations.

I have a hankering for prose almost to rich for my blood. I specifically love Nabokov's ability to draw tensile connections between object and literary signifier: in Lolita, skies are "heavenlogged," killers are "goatish," plain women are "terrestrial."

I also waded through Ada, and very much enjoyed Atonement, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Midnight's Children, Middlesex, Song of Solomon, and God of Small Things.

What else should I pick up?
posted by zoomorphic to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to add: I've read and loved Joyce, especially Dubliners, but I'd prefer more contemporary authors. I also browsed this question and while it hit on a few gems, I'm not simply looking for cheeky wit.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:43 AM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Martin Amis has been described as "constitutionally incapable of writing a boring phrase." His prose is remarkable, though his books can be hit-or-miss. I particularly liked Money and Time's Arrow.

Richard Powers is ridiculously erudite and has prose to match. A bit long-winded, but might be up your alley. The Time of Our Singing might be a good place to start.

An obvious recommendation is David Foster Wallace, who is exhaustingly brilliant. If you have a spare month, tackle Infinite Jest.

My last recommendation may be off the mark, but I'll throw it out anyway. George Saunders' prose is much sparser than that of the authors you cite, but there is something about his imagination and situations that made me experience language in a different way. His short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is just fabulous.
posted by googly at 7:57 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not especially contemporary, but I think that Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction is in line with what you're asking. Nabokov's The Gift is essentially a love letter to Russian literature. Not sure if that counts, but it's certainly 100x better than Ada.
posted by milarepa at 8:00 AM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 8:23 AM on September 12, 2008

And here I thought that Lolita was a love letter from Humbert Humbert to Humbert Humbert, hence the purple prose. On that note, if you're in the mood for parodies of prose "too rich for your blood" (and a few dozen other styles), have a look at Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew.

Now imagine a cartoon Nabokov after being whacked in the skull with a mallet: G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr makes my head swim and swim. The NYRB Books page about it links to an excerpt in PDF format.
posted by cobra libre at 8:38 AM on September 12, 2008

My personal biases and tastes are pretty clear so I won't even mention the namesake. But also while you're on Nabokov, I'd go for Pale Fire which I think is his best composed work. Also Gaddis sure loves them pretty words. See The Recognitions if you have the time. Lowry's Under the Volcano and DeLillo's Underworld are others with high aspirations.
posted by drpynchon at 9:11 AM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Michael Ondaatje, whose English Patient is like butter. He was an esteemed poet before he was a novelist. If you liked Rushdie and A. Roy, you'll like MO. (Having read EP, I found the movie to be pedestrian.)
posted by neuron at 9:11 AM on September 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have to nominate Michael Chabon. Briefly mentioned up above as not having enough "fireworks per page". Maybe so, but there are entire sections of Kavalier and Clay that are so incredibly poetic and lyrical. I also love DFW but it's harder for his prose to flow because it is so so meaty and often requires a dictionary look up per page. Plus the copious footnotes make it impossible to read in any kind of rhythm, and the footnotes really must be read.
posted by vito90 at 9:17 AM on September 12, 2008

Alexander Theroux, who had his first novel in decades published this year. Haven't read it yet, but Darconville's Cat is fantastic, as is Three Wogs. Simply incredible use of language.

I'll also preemptively disagree with anyone who comes in and recommends Marisha Pessl. She's good, but that "second coming of Nabokov" shit that idiot critics were throwing around when Special Topics in Calamity Physics came out was nonsense.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:26 AM on September 12, 2008

Response by poster: These are great responses, thanks! Keep them coming. I'm especially excited about Michael Ondaatje and Chabon, whom I've been meaning to pick up for years.

While Infinite Jest makes a lovely door stop, I've always found DFW and his ilk (Pynchon, DeLillo) too metallic, too calculating, a little bloodless. Lolita struck me with lightning, Gravity's Rainbow clobbered me with a mallet. Can I pull the gender card on this? I'm not really a fan of geek-masculine hangups with media and technology, and conspiracy theories put me to sleep.

If I want to go down the geek-lit road, I much prefer Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to The Crying of Po-Mo White Dudes in Lot 49.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:40 AM on September 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

While reading David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I frequently found myself stopping to savor a phrase or word choice that struck me as beautiful. His descriptions of scenes are incredibly vivid, too, in a subtle way. I never got the sense that he was spending a lot of words to describe things, and yet I came away with beautiful, detailed mental images of everything in a way that I don't get from most fiction.
posted by vytae at 9:47 AM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Anything by Peter Carey. Illywacker is the most Lolita like.
posted by luckypozzo at 9:50 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Anything by Percival Everett. Percival Everett is the greatest overlooked writer of the present day. Erasure is my favorite of his books, but the one that has the most beautiful prose is American Desert, in my opinion.

The Longest Memory, by Fred d'Aguiar, is one of the most truly poetic novels I've ever read.

Beka Lamb, by Zee Edgell, is The Great Belizean Novel--it juxtaposes a young girl's first experience of death and loss with the struggle for Belizean independence in truly luminous prose.

26a, by Diana Evans, is a recent English novel that combines realism and magic realism in an amazing evocation of twin girls who travel between England and Nigeria--and between the physical world and the spirit world.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:10 AM on September 12, 2008

Michael Ondaatje and John Berger
posted by meerkatty at 10:21 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some of the authors proposed here strike me as not even in the same galaxy as Nabokov as prose stylists (Chabon? seriously?). Some of this is a matter of taste, of course (as Foster Wallace fans will claim their man is in the Nabokov ballpark despite anything I'd say), but Nabokov's density of meaning and massive vocabulary ought to exclude the bulk of New Yorker-esque fiction from consideration.

Take a look at John Banville (try Shroud). For Pynchon, I'd suggest taking a crack at the newest novel, Against the Day, which has a flair for the Henry Jamesian long sentence a little different from his previous work – and come to think of it, no reason to stay contemporary. You should read some Henry James, some Faulkner, some Joyce, some Woolf.
posted by RogerB at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2008

Perhaps this is too far off the mark, but would you consider branching out to reading a play? Tom Stoppard might suit you and frankly, I prefer reading his plays to watching them. If you're interested, I'd start with Travesties and Arcadia.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 10:39 AM on September 12, 2008

a great deal of what the Dalkey Archive publishes would be to your liking -- their books are all very smart and beautifully well done and tend towards being translations of the work of European novelists you've never heard of before.

they also publish a literary review on/through their website, that is a good source for new authors. I'm in the midst of reading my way through the nouveau roman, and the translations of Nathalie Sarraute that they publish are very good. you might like them, but I suspect that of the new novelists, Alain Robbes-Grillet would be a bit more to your taste.

and I never tire of recommending Eric Chevillard, who is more contemporary than Sarraute or Robbes-Grillet. he reads a bit like Beckett, but is more colourfully surreal and his playfulness is more anarchic. the translation of On the Ceiling that Jordan Stump did is very good and is available from the University of Nebraska Press.
posted by object-a at 11:05 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Donald Barthelme? Maybe you would have some of the same objections to him that you have to Pynchon, but although they're often compared they don't really seem that similar to me. You can go to that link (one of MeFi moderator Jessamyn's many webpages) and refresh your browser a few times to see Barthelme quotes if you're not familiar with him.

(Everyone should be familiar with Barthelme, in my opinion.)
posted by homelystar at 11:15 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hope this is modern enough:

He gets ghettoized as "fantasy," but Peake's Gormenghast books -- particularly the second one -- are marvels of the English language. The "fantasy" of the books is all in the setting, but once you've established that the story takes place in a rrrrrrrrreally big castle -- which is no more fantastic than Foster Wallace's near-future or Chabon's Sitka, Alaska, really -- the story is very straightforward, very human, incredibly imaginative and told with a deftness of language that leaves me breathless every time I revisit it.
Mr. Flay appeared to clutter up the doorway as he stood revealed, his arms folded, surveying the smaller man before him in an expressionless way. It did not look as though such a bony face as his could give normal utterance, but rather that instead of sounds, something more brittle, more ancient, something dryer would emerge, something perhaps more in the nature of a splinter or a fragment of stone. Nevertheless the harsh lips parted. 'It's me,' he said, and took a step forward into the room, his knee joints cracking as he did so. His passage across a room--in fact his passage through life--was accompanied by these cracking sounds, one per step, which might be likened to the breaking of dry twigs.
It's not modern-jazzy like Wallace or Chabon (whom I also like) or as deeply lyrical as Ondaatje (whom I love), but Peake combines an odd formality with an innovative use of language that just hits all the right notes for me.
posted by Shepherd at 11:22 AM on September 12, 2008

Another recommendation--I wonder if you might like Randa Jarrar? A Map of Home is her only book so far, I think, but there are some shorter pieces online.
posted by homelystar at 11:22 AM on September 12, 2008

I seem to wind up recommending this fairly often on MeFi, but maybe John Fowles The Magus?

It was a Sunday in late May, blue as a bird’s wing. I climbed up the goatpaths to the island’s ridge-back, from where the green froth of the pine-tops rolled two miles down to the coast. The sea stretched like a silk carpet across to the shadowy wall of mountains on the mainland to the west, a wall that reverberated away south, fifty or sixty miles to the horizon, under the vast bell of the empyrean. It was an azure world, stupendously pure, and as always when I stood on the central ridge of the island and saw it before me, I forgot most of my troubles. I walked along the central ridge, westwards, between the two vast views north and south. Lizards flashed up the pine trunks like living emerald necklaces. There was thyme and rosemary, and other herbs; bushes with flowers like dandelions dipped in sky, a wild, lambent blue.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:37 AM on September 12, 2008

Some of these recommendations baffle me (as a devout lover of all things Nabokov and especially Pale Fire) but I guess that's the beauty of reading--we each take something different from the text.

Have you read anything by Ann Patchett? I loved, loved loved Bel Canto and found in it the same joy of language and play. I am waffling about recommending Zadie Smith's White Teeth. Consider this a lukewarm recommendation.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 11:47 AM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Saul Bellow.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 11:49 AM on September 12, 2008

This will seem like a strange recommendation because it's really a modern translation of an old text, but pick up Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. Seriously. It predates the invention of prose fiction, but there's plenty of dramatic tension. And Heaney's English is sublime. It abounds in exactly the sorts of rich descriptions and muscular phrasing that is so characteristic of Nabokov's style. Both men have the same facility with the language and the same creativity in expression; they seem in their inventiveness to strike back to some hidden and vital core of our speech. I imagine Nabokov would have grinned to hear Heaney describe a woman as "a balm in bed for the battle-scarred Swede."

Also, you are going to reach a limit in your search, I'm afraid. Ada is one of the finest pieces of writing in the English language ever. If it has a peer, I have not found it yet.
posted by felix betachat at 11:50 AM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. brutal & beautiful.
posted by staboo at 11:51 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, somehow I forgot to recommend My Home is Far Away by Dawn Powell. Many of her books are witty and brilliant and perhaps a bit slight, but My Home is Far Away is lyrical and profound.

And going back a bit, don't miss the novels of Henry Green. They're amazing, the closest thing in English to Saramago or Simon.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:54 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. It's arguably the greatest work in all of science fiction and Wolfe is among the best prose stylists I've ever encountered. Don't let the "science fiction" label scare you - it's among the best novels I've ever read.
posted by prozach1576 at 12:29 PM on September 12, 2008

Also Suttree by Cormac McCarthy -- some of the most amazing prose I have ever encountered. Just read the first 2 or 3 pages and you'll know if it's what you're looking for.
posted by newmoistness at 1:30 PM on September 12, 2008

I think William Gass has been incredibly overlooked. He's not contemporary, but I think it's generally accepted that, as a wordsmith, he's one of the masters of the 20th century. In terms of literary complexity, he's like Nabokov, but his sentences are even sharper. Reading his prose gave me a weird exhilaration that I haven't felt from any other author.
posted by one_bean at 1:50 PM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Second Powers (great novelist, though his prose isn't dense and tasty in the same way), Ondaatje, Chabon (not as great, no, but a wonderful writer), Gene Wolfe. Also: don't go pitting The Gift against Ada! They're both great!
posted by languagehat at 2:53 PM on September 12, 2008

Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy is one of the most amazing achievements of late 20th-century English literature. Winner of bazillions of prizes, and well-deserving of all of them (and more!)

Sorry to keep posting bits and pieces, but the migraine is giving me forgettihead.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:27 PM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: If you like the yawning-in-the-sunshine delicately gorgeous prose style of Nabokov, you might find Mariette in Ecstasy up your alley stylistically if not content-wise. It's a bit thin in story really, but I had to stay awake until 5 in the morning the day I idly flipped it open because it I was so taken with its jewel-box perfect sentences. This excerpt from the review on Amazon sums it up well:

Hardly the makings of a page-turner, yet Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy is a gripping, even life-changing book. For the Sisters of the Crucifixion, each day is a ceaseless round of work, study, and prayer--one hardly separate from the other. Their daily life is itself an act of devotion, caught here in a series of illuminated tableaux: hundreds of yellow butterflies alighting on eight gray habits, moving through a field; a sister praying as she "turns over a great slab of dough that rolls as slowly as a white pig"; nuns warming their hands on the flanks of horses, swinging scythes through timothy grass, crushing grapes with their feet.

And as for what was mentioned above, I heartily agree with the William Gass, Michael Ondaatje, Saul Bellow, and John Berger recommendations--especially the Berger. He writes some of the hands down most beautiful prose I've ever read, even when the story seems thin.

I get where people are coming from when they recommend Richard Powers, but I think he's slightly different from the precise thing you're reaching for stylistically. However, he is great in a slightly different more nerdy way, and you'll probably like him on his own separate merits too. I know I do...
posted by ifjuly at 3:47 PM on September 12, 2008

I'm going to go kind of abstract and recommend some Kathy Acker. She's one of the only other writers I've come across that has that same feeling of really using language like Nabakov did, although in a completely different way than his work. I'm not going to be able to describe it eloquently. But both writes tickle that same part of my brain.

I feel seriously dumb today and am not expressing this well at all. Go read the wiki article. She's great. Blood and Guts in High School is a good place to start, and her first book.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 5:56 PM on September 12, 2008

John Updike's Rabbit novels.

Chabon? For realz?
posted by rachelpapers at 6:10 PM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: Not terribly contemporary but you might enjoy Djuna Barnes' Nightwood. Then again, maybe not.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 7:47 PM on September 12, 2008

I just discovered the works of John Crowley and I think they fit the bill. The language is exquisite.
posted by dhruva at 8:01 PM on September 12, 2008

Best answer: I think Denis Johnson really exercises language in the pursuit of lyrical moments in the midst of a narrative. In his book Resuscitation of a Hanged Man there is this sentence:

"The grasses outside no longer seemed to lie down in the wind, but cringed before the sexual approach of something ultimate. "
posted by codefinger at 2:05 AM on September 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Adam Thorpe's Ulverton.
posted by Abiezer at 7:10 AM on September 13, 2008

Sarah Hall's The Electric Michelangelo is the tale of outcats and freaks in an extinct Coney Island that treats the bizarre, Carnivale-esque characters as tenderly as it evokes imagery. I don't have it in front of me, but here's an excerpt from Amazon found quickly that will hopefully do (come on! red-ruined!)

"She resembled a piece of boiled pork, or a blanched cloth, with all her colour removed. Just her mouth remained vivid, saturated by brightness, garish against her skin, and like the inside of a fruit when she spoke, red-ruined, glistening and damp."
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:19 PM on September 14, 2008

felix betachat: Beowulf... It predates the invention of prose fiction, but there's plenty of dramatic tension.

I think Petronius and Apuleius would disagree with you there, chief. You probably didn't want to use 'but' rather than 'and' there, either, lest we overlook the epic, or, say, drama.

Seconding the recommendation of books published by the Dalkey Archive, though of course not all of their authors employ extravagantly florid prose. Parts of Ulysses ought to satisfy anyone's desire for sentences brimming with tasty prosy morsels, though I hope the poor novel can be appreciated for its diversity of styles.
posted by cobra libre at 1:47 PM on September 15, 2008

Thirding Cormac McCarthy
posted by magic curl at 7:29 PM on September 16, 2008

Before this expires: Gina Berriault's short story collection Women in Their Beds is nonpareil. She's one of the writers who helped me realize at a young age that sometimes writing can paradoxically be the most accurate portrayal imaginable while also being more beautiful than anything it could possibly describe. I can't believe I didn't think of her...maybe I was on a guy bender or something. When I moved to another state I didn't pack any of my beloved books, and got so desperate to reread her pitch-perfect sentences I went out and bought a second copy. I want to include excerpts to show you just beautiful her writing is, but trying to pluck one out seems somehow sacrilegious. Please read her. Start there.

And for the record, when I typed "jewel box perfect sentences" up there before, I had a sense it was a phrase I'd heard before. And looking at my copy of Women in Their Beds I see--a-ha!--it was a phrase used to describe it. Hell, so was "nonpareil," ha. So for the record, here's what people said:

"Of the writers whose work I know--my generation, anybody's generation--Gina Berriault's stories are nonpareil. Just simply wonderful. This book is so, so welcome."
-Richard Ford

"Each of Gina Berriault's stories contain a world, beautifully illuminated by the light of the life within it. Her writing, line for line, is the most emotionally precise I know and her stories are among the wisest and most heartbreaking in American fiction."
-Robert Stone

"Gina Berriault is one of our best and most neglected writers. These stories are written with compassion and in beautiful prose, which alone is a pleasure."
-Andre Dubus

"In these thirty-five stories, one struggles to find a sentence that is anything less than jewel-box perfect."
-The New York Times Book Review
posted by ifjuly at 7:58 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

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