The Book Club

And Yet …

Dear Richard

After the age of 23 or so, perhaps we are all recovering from an earlier infatuation with Nabokov’s work. You and I are not rare in this regard, I guess; it is like growing out of a fondness for vividly complex ties. In particular, the pedagogical Nabokov appeals to the younger reader, who has perhaps not yet read Mann or Camus or Dostoyevsky or Faulkner, and is intimidatedly grateful to Nabokov for telling him that he need not bother. But then one reads these other writers, and realises that it is Nabokov who has not read them … (I mean, Buddenbrooks is worth about four of the smaller Nabokov novels.)

In general, it is not Nabokov’s didacticism as such that irritates, but its wrong-headedness, and the bad influence it has had on contemporary writing; it is not Nabokov’s certainty that annoys me but his narrowness, which is then inflated so that it stands for the only kind of art. Tolstoy was certain about almost everything, but it was a wide certainty, even when he told the world, in What is Art? , that most literature except the very simplest folk tales should be discarded. Nabokov’s has been a bad influence insofar as he has propagated a polished anti-intellectualism. As I said yesterday, the Nabokovian aesthetic–which is a delicious surfeit of sensory details, a fetishization of visual detail, and a horror of the essayistic or exegetical or obviously philosphical–is lethal in almost any hands but Nabokov’s. (And I realize that it is a bit unfair to blame the father for what the unborn grandchildren get up to.) It doesn’t just license the mandarinism of Updike, or the cold achievements of Amis’ prose. Perhaps at its furthest reach it licenses a writer who seems to have nothing to do with Nabokov, like Raymond Carver; for Nabokov, in a strange way, is the decisive practitioner and formulator of a writing that “shows” rather than “tells,” as they put it in creative-writing school. From Nabokov, and from Hemingway, comes the idea that the writer’s task is to select the hard, chosen detail, and that this detail will speak for itself.

You rightly mention Nabokov’s lectures, and his discussion of Tolstoy. Of course how Tolstoy describes the train in which Anna meets Vronsky is important. I don’t begrudge Nabokov his emphasis. We love Tolstoy so much because he plants himself so thickly in the middle of his scenes, and pushes his reality toward us, a reality of immense detail: I always remember, with great delight, the impatience with which Levin rouses the doctor who is going to deliver his wife’s child. His wife has started labor, and Levin, a new father, thinks that the child is imminent. But the doctor knows better, and takes his time, and offers the frantic Levin breakfast. But what I remember is that the doctor unhurriedly smokes, one after the other, “thick cigarettes.” The detail is so perfect, such an emblem of obstructive dawdling. Nothing is thicker than those thick cigarettes, as Levin watches them slowly dwindle. Nabokov, to my knowledge, does not mention the cigarettes, but it is exactly the kind of detail he would have liked.

So Tolstoyan detail is very important, and Nabokov used, as an example of that mastery of detail, something you alluded to yesterday: Anna’s sudden realization, after meeting Vronsky, that her husband seems ridiculous. She realizes it because she sees, as if for the first time, her husband’s ears, which stick out of his hat. A Nabokovian detail? Well, no, not quite, and you sensitively suggested as much yesterday. I would say that Karenin’s ears are Tolstoyan rather than Nabokovian because the detail is so very human, and so very accidental. When we read that passage, we say to ourselves: “Yes, that is how suddenly, and how trivially, our destinies are sometimes decided for us!” This goes back to what I was saying yesterday: Tolstoy’s detail is not chosen and hoarded “artistically,” but surrendered humanly to Anna. It is Anna’s observation, and it is not selected so that we may admire the superb skills of the writer (unlike, say, this from The Gift: “a small vessel had burst in his left eye and the crimson invading it from the canthus imparted a certain gypsy quality to the dark glimmer of the pupil”). It takes us deep into a human truth; enrolled in that one fatal adjustment of Anna’s lies the tragedy of the novel. Yes, we should, as Nabokov encourages us to do, “caress the divine details.” But, first, it matters what kinds of details we are being enjoined to caress; and second, what Nabokov tells us to do in the classroom he does not need to tell us to do through his art. Sometimes we read Nabokov’s fiction and feel like calling out, “Yes, I get the message. The details are important!”

But I don’t want to end on this negative note. The old fire of infatuation may now only be a torch of admiration, but what an awful lot there is to admire! Such beauty (“the mobile shade of the trees”), and many, many moments of real sympathy. At his best, despite all my strictures, Nabokov is able to wring great pathos from the delicate games he plays. One such moment occurs near the end of Speak, Memory, when Nabokov is describing the Russian-émigré writers he knew in Berlin. He depicts an awkward lunch with the Nobel laureate, Ivan Bunin, then comes a sumptuous sentence about Poplavski: “I did not meet Poplavski who died young, a far violin among near balalaikas.” And then Nabokov writes: “But the author that interested me most was naturally Sirin.” Sirin was the pen-name of Nabokov when he was writing in Russian in Berlin in the ‘20s and early ‘30s. (And notice that Nabokov does not write “interested me most, naturally, was Sirin,” but “interested me most was naturally Sirin,” slyly, ironically pushing “naturally” and “Sirin” next to each other, when in fact there was nothing “natural” about Sirin; he was an artificial name; invented.) Nabokov describes Sirin’s career, beginning in 1925 (the date of Nabokov’s first novel), “until he vanished as strangely as he had come,” and then writes that: “Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness.”

It is impossible not to be moved by this. It is not merely a game; or rather, it is a game of high beauty. Remember that Nabokov wrote this passage in English, in America, in 1950, having left Europe ten years before. So, it is an elegy for a lost self, a Nabokov who was once called Sirin and who once wrote in Russian, and who did truly vanish “as strangely as he had come.” But there is a further delicacy. When Nabokov wrote these words, he was an obscure American writer, still making his way in American letters. Certainly, very, very few of the potential readers of Speak, Memory would have known that Sirin was Nabokov in an earlier incarnation. Nabokov’s Russian novels had not been translated into English at this time. His earlier career was a total blank in the States.

So, when Nabokov wrote those words, he was not playing quite the game of recognition he seems to be playing now. Most of his readers will not have got the joke, and Nabokov knew this. As far as Nabokov’s American readership was concerned, Sirin has indeed nothing to do with Nabokov–not merely a lost self, but an entirely other self, a different writer completely, an unknown: an absence, filled with Nabokov’s gorgeous game. And not a game, but a very beautiful irony. For what an extraordinary self-elegy, what an extraordinary farewell to a lost piece of oneself, to offer that lost piece up to the blameless ignorance of a new American readership, in a new American exile, confident that this new readership will not even recognize that such a sacrifice is taking place! How very beautiful! This is a “game” that almost none of Nabokov’s earliest readers would have recognised as a game; thus a game that nullifies itself, or rather fortifies itself, in the very process of being played. For whose eyes, for whose private knowledge, if not his readership’s, did Nabokov write the passage about Sirin, I wonder? For Véra’s of course.

I have enjoyed our exchange.

James Wood