Monday, April 07, 2008

Four Nabokovs

An extract from The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction by Michael Wood. Even more interesting in the context of all the recent commentary and moral outrage about V.S. Naipaul's biography: (An excellent book by the way. Serious and challenging but entirely free of the clique-ish mentality which mars most academic books. Thanks to Steve for nudging me to pick it up. I have only read the first chapter so far called "The Deaths of the Author". More when I am done with it.)


What does it mean to separate, for whatever reason, the person and the writer, or as Eliot lugubriously puts it, "the man who suffers and the mind which creates"? Who is Nabokov, and how many Nabokovs do we need? [...] I also think we have to be prepared for the ghosts, for the unruliness of the mystery. No lively self will stay buried merely for our critical or conceptual comfort, and there will be times when even the most divided or hypothetical of writers will look undeniably solid and whole.
So how many Nabokovs? Four or five, perhaps, but that's being economical. The man in several persons, and the writer perhaps even more...

1) the historical person whose life has been impeccably told by his biographer Brian Boyd, and whom I glance at occasionally here, but who is not my principal subject.

2) a set (also historical) of attitudes, prejudices, habits, remarks, performances which is highly visible, highly stylized, and which I find dull and narrow, and having almost nothing to do with the writing I admire: Nabokov the mandarin.

3)a (real) person I guess at but who keeps himself pretty well hidden: he is not only tender and observant but also diffident, even scared worried about almost everything the mandarin so airily dismisses. I would think this person was a sentimental invention of my own if Nabokov's texts were not demonstrably so full of him, and if I had any reason to invent him. Given the choice I would prefer another Nabokov in his place - someone less predictably the obverse of the haughty public presence. This diffident, doubting person is the one I think of most often as the author in Barthes' later sense: the textual revenant rather than the face on the dustjacket..

4) identifiable habits of writing and narrating: mannered, intricate, alliterative, allusive, perverse, hilarious, lyrical, sombre, nostalgic, kindly, frivolous, passionate, cruel, cold, stupid, magical, precise, philosophical and unforgettable. Particular clusters of these characteristics are what we identify as Nabokov the author in Swift's sense: the performance on the sheets of paper.


Cheshire Cat said...

Is the Naipaul bio available in North America yet? I haven't seen reviews in newspapers here, so I assumed it wasn't...

Alok said...

No, It is slated for late this year. I read it somewhere.