Saturday, June 04, 2005

Nabokov's Strong Opinions


Nabokov, just as he is famous for the great books he wrote, is equally known for his arrogant, olympian disdain and aristocratic dismissal of some of the greatest names in literature, many his contemporaries but also the writers of the past and well entrenched in the canon (he called Cervantes a cruel sadist). What is specially delightful about reading his interviews and comments is the way in which he goes about doing the demolition job. He obviously relishes it and somehow as a reader I always find something very charming in his arrogance, even when he is speaking about some of my favourite writers. For example, here is Nabokov on Dostoevsky:

Dostoevski, who dealt with themes accepted by most readers as universal in both scope and significance, is considered one of the world's great authors. Yet you have described him as "a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar." Why?

Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his tremendous, farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment-- by this reader anyway.


And another outburst on Dostoevsky:

Dostoevski the publicist is one of those megaphones of elephantine platitudes (still heard today), the roar of which so ridiculously demotes Shakespeare and Pushkin to the vague level of all the plaster idols of academic tradition, from Cervantes to George Eliot (not to speak of the crumbling Manns and Faulkners of our times).


Here is another example, where he dismisses one writer after the other (including our own Tagore--"a person called Tagore", sigh!). He obviously never found any value in having a literary circle of his own. Good for him.

Because of your mastery of our language, you are frequently compared with Joseph Conrad.

Well, I'll put it this way. When a boy, I was a voracious reader, as all boy writers seem to be, and between 8 and 14 I used to enjoy tremendously the romantic productions-- romantic in the large sense-- of such people as Conan Doyle, Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, and other authors who are essentially writers for very young people. But as I have well said somewhere before, I differ from Joseph Conradically. First of ail, he had not been writing in his native tongue before he became an English writer, and secondly, I cannot stand today his polished cliches and primitive clashes. He once wrote that he preferred Mrs. Garnett's translation of Anna Karenin to the original! This makes one dream-- "ca fait rever" as Flaubert used to say when faced with some abysmal stupidity. Ever since the days when such formidable mediocrities as Galsworthy, Dreiser, a person called Tagore, another called Maxim Gorky, a third called Romain Rolland, used to be accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called "great books". That, for instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner's corncobby chronicles can be considered "masterpieces," or at least what journalists call "great books," is to me an absurd delusion, as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair. My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce's Ulysses,Kafka's Transformation, Biely's Petersburg, and the first half of Proust's fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.


Nabokov defining Poshlost is the most hilarious of all but I will save that for another post.

17 comments:

coolie said...

I have his lectures on Cervantes and his Lectures on Literature with an introduction by John Updike, compiled from his University lecture notes for Ulysses, Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Swanns Way, Madam Bovary, Dr Jekyll & Mister Hyde & Metamorphosis.

What is so delightful in reading these lectures is the voice you describe, so lushly arrogant, a beautiful arrogance that is charming, persuasive, seemingly natural, witty, cutting, cheeky, authoritative, and sly.

Alok said...

I haven't read those lectures yet. They are high up on my to-read list!

You are right about Nabokov's voice. Sometimes I wish someone would retort back specially when he says something nasty about some writers that you rather like(Dostoevsky, a sladash comedian? huh!), but then, as you say, his voice is so disarming that you can not but nod your head in ascendance, and of course with a smile, acknowledging his sly wit.

Xavier Solis said...

It’s so beautiful to see that Nabokov’s name still causes interest among the readers all over the world. I myself discovered Nabokov not so long time ago. And fell in love with his writings immediately. By now I have finished reading all his Russian novels and short-stories and am about to deep into his English prose. I am from Russia and fortunately for me know some English. So I can enjoy all his work. Speaking about Nabokov’s lectures, yes, they may seem very subjective, but, in my opinion, Sirin had the right to judge severely all those writers because his own prose is perfect. And if you proved your ability to write then you can share your own views on literature even though they may be “wild”. I am very grateful to Nabokov for his lectures because thanks to them I found out truly literature masterpieces. Those lectures taught me to be choosy, to be if not good but definitely a better reader than I used to be. Now my eyes are open and I see that Dostoevsky’s prose is far from perfect. For instance, one of his sentences has 5 (five!!) “was”. It seems that the “prophet” never re-read and corrected his writings. Even Tolstoy has some really awkward sentences, but I think you don’t notice it in translations because translators usually improve the original text. And there is one more thing due to which I should be grateful to Nabokov. I understood that I want to be a writer. Now I have written about twenty short-stories and I keep on dreaming about composing a novel written in a perfect style. At least I have a dream.

If you feel like writing to me, here’s my e-mail xaviersolis@mail.ru

Alok said...

Thanks for the comment Xavier. It always pleases me to meet a fellow Nabokov enthusiast. Even on the internet!

Guptavati said...

Thanks for the interview link.I land up on this blog a two days after beginning Ada.I sometimes wonder if Nabokov was bitter that he did not get the Nobel(like Joyce).But then ,how many many people can characterize Camus and Mann as mediocrities?? But I loved the interview just for these two lines that he says,"My English is patball to Joyce's champion game".

Alok said...

I haven't read Ada yet. But I have heard it was Nabokov's answer, or tribute, to Joyce.

Yes reading Nabokov's interviews are always fun! He had his own idea of what genuine literature should be and always defended it to the hilt.

Andrew said...

So Joyce comes top of his 20th century list, and here's Joyce on Dostoevsky:
"...he is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence."

Shapurji said...

lol at his judgments on Faulkner, Mann and Tagore
While I'm not a huge reader or fan of Tagore, as a person of Indian origin, I respect what he meant for Indians during the colonial era when he won the Nobel Prize.
I love Nabokov for his brilliant novels and general prose. His literary criticism is interesting but not as impressive or persuasive as his literary work.
That being said, I absolutely love his choices for greatest 20th century novels, but I don't really think in terms of "greatest novel" of this or that. "Greatest" is in the eye of the beholder and varies according to social and cultural context. That being said, Kafka, Joyce and Proust are certainly among the greatest writers of the century, as is Nabokov, Faulkner and Mann!

Shapurji said...

Indeed, his opinions are often petty.
And his notion of creativity while strong in many respects, also betrays a certain naivete about the supposed "lack of" social and political influences that he felt.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, Nabokov was an aesthete. I like his writing, but it always seems so academic, like I'm just reading the splendid prose of a master, whose style is but reference. I do not feel that my whole soul, my whole view of the world is being transformed. Dostoevsky certainly wasn't as good a prose writer, as he often admits in his own novels (a lot of the time, by the way he's using this voice as a device; and I personally think this non-literary style works for him; and sometimes in its own grotesque or gothic way it is quite beautiful) but more importantly he what he has to say is far more profound, far more touching, he taps upon something so primordial, that quite frankly Nabakov pales in comparison. Nabakov maybe a truer artist, Dostoevsky is a truer human.

And even for an aesthete Nabakov isn't that great, Joyce, Proust or Virginia woolfe make him look like a joke. He is so far behind the people he quotes as being his heroes, like Tolstoy, that it's not even worth mentioning. Don't get me wrong I like Nabakov, but I wish he would just have just stuck to writing, rather than using his own subjective disposition to influence the reading habits of others. I've read bits of his criticism and its just quite frankly nauseating. John Paul

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i said...

was sick when at school they enforced me to read dostoyevski.

40 years later still feel sick about sado-mazo exercises of his.

v nabokov isnot always right, but here he is.

is

herman said...

since school - 40 years ago feel sick about dostoyevski.

he proves his surname. "dostal..."

nabokov is not always right but i stick with his best books choice and it's works.

Anonymous said...

Nabokov's Lectures on literature would better be named as 'Nabokov's history of literature' ... considering his style and rules ... His outburts on other authors are witty though .... However he reworked Dostoevsky throughout his fiction expanding his themes and images.... The most obvious ones are Lolita, Despair, The Eye,etc..... would better be named as 'Nabokov's history of literature' ... considering his style and rules ... His outburts on other authors are witty though .... However he reworked Dostoevsky throughout his fiction expanding his themes and images.... The most obvious ones are Lolita, Despair, The Eye,etc.....

Anonymous said...

Having said that it must be added that his approach was better than most of the other critics ... Critical works should be modeled like his 'Lectures on Literature' His understanding was profound and he understood Dostoevsky better than most critics specially those Camus and Sartres..... Attention should be paid on detail rather than the general ... Just look at his lecture on Metamorphosis and Ulysses ....
Note - I am not John Paul who is exactly what Nabokov calls a 'mediocre' reader and I would love to add imbecile

tanderegg said...

Wow, spammers these days are really getting sophisticated. I didn't realize they appreciated literary debates! BTW, John Paul, I think your comment is dead on.

Anonymous said...

There is so much truth in fiction, the very nature of it allows for such deep honesty, particularly about the writer. Nabokov is not a great writer because he has perfected the art of composition, nor is he for exposing the world to the harsh realities of human nature, although it helps. Personally I cannot enjoy his writing because in his quest for perfection he forgot to be creative and his writing reeks of his own issues, it's like reading his diary. Someone like Dostoevsky, while not perfect in his delivery, was far more complex. He looked outward to a fault and examined humanity in a beautifully humble and emotional way. He too shows himself in his writing, as all inevitably do, and it's clear his art came from a much different, more sincere and creative place than Nabokov ever could have imagined for himself.