The Book Club

None Too Human

Dear Richard,

I think I am more moved by Speak, Memory, than are you. The Nabokov who, in that book, writes that “heart-to-heart talks, confessions in the Dostoevskian manner, are also not in my line,” can be a frustrating autobiographer. But I evade this frustration by converting Speak, Memory out of the category of confession and into the realm of artistic lie. Thus the book takes its place, for me, in the procession of Nabokov’s more-or-less-autobiographical fiction. I don’t want him to be more truthful so much as a little less artistic; not more open but differently closed (if you’ll allow me the paradox).

My difficulties with Nabokov are aesthetic–though of course, the aesthetic is the human, and you are right to suggest that there is a strange swerve away from human sympathy at many moments in Nabokov’s work. My complaint in our first exchange was that criticism, faced with that swerve, worships it, and perversely sees in it a great humaneness. Criticism celebrates Nabokov’s aestheticism as the most refined moral warning against the dangers of that very same aestheticism. I did that myself, yesterday, a bit; and one would have to be blind not to see this theme in Nabokov’s work. Nevertheless, people like Brian Boyd and Richard Rorty (in his chapter “Nabokov on Cruelty” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) are so concerned to find the humane in Nabokov that Nabokov’s aestheticism can do no wrong, and is never found to be inhumane. Why, Brian Boyd makes Lolita sound like the Bible.

I’m inclined to find fault with Nabokov, while cherishing him for all his lusters, and to come to a position somewhere between Rorty’s veneration of Nabokov as a moral sage, always pressing his case against “cruelty,” and the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis’ unfair complaint (in his essay “Nabokov, or Nostalgia”) that Nabokov’s is “a magnificent complex, and sterile art.” I feel, paradoxically, that Nabokov is neither wholly humane nor wholly sterile.

Speaking artistically, I used to love Nabokov’s variant of Shklovsky’s technique, “making it strange.” It is still enthralling to encounter a description of an oil slick on a sidewalk as “a rainbow of oil, with the purple predominant and a plumelike twist. Asphalt’s parakeet” (The Gift); or “the ivy rippled in the wind like the black skin of a horse” (Pnin); or a half-rolled, black umbrella likened to “a duck in deep mourning” (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight); or a bat, which in its swooping is only “the clumsy mimic of a swallow”; or “wispy clouds–greyhounds of heaven” (“Cloud, Castle, Lake”).

But Nabokov’s brilliance in this regard has had an overpowering, and not always very fruitful, influence on two or three generations after him (John Updike, Martin Amis). First, it has incarnated the idea–for which Flaubert is ultimately, if complicatedly, responsible–that detail is above all visual, that the writer scans the world with his brilliant eye, and then uses that eye to turn the world into riddling metaphor. (Thus Amis decribes urban pigeons, with their distinctive dark heads, as “dressed in their criminal balaclavas.”) Second, both in practice and in teaching (“caress the divine details”), Nabokov imparts the idea that fictional narrative is, at its highest moments, a string of such details, a convoy of little visual perfections (again, Flaubert is to blame here, too). I remember Martin Amis once saying that when he reads he ticks every good sentence, and that his idea of a great book would be one in which every sentence is ticked. A Nabokovian idea, but surely a monstrous one, and one that inevitably leads to the dismissal, as it did in Nabokov’s pedagogy, of about every other great novelist.

Third, and consequently, the Nabokovian idea of cherished detail and stuffed perfection is too artistic an idea for a form that must surrender itself to the freedom of its characters. For characters are generally not artistic at all, are they? In this respect, novels are not like poems, and it is wrongheaded to try to turn them into poems. We do not read novels to feel the constant artistic control of the author, but to share in the wayward, inartistic freedom of created human beings. (That such humans are set free by that same artistic control is, of course, merely a trivial paradox, and not a hindering one.) Thus, the problem with Nabokov’s beautiful details, his “making strange,” is that they are the kind of details that only Nabokov could notice and write up so perfectly. Very few of us will come to see an oil slick as “asphalt’s parakeet.” As a result, Nabokov is forced either to speak over his characters, or to make them into artists of one kind or another.

Nabokov was dismissive of Chekhov’s “prosaicisms,” but the wonder of Chekhov’s similes and metaphors is that they are not, in this sense, “artistic” at all, but are the kinds of connections that ordinary people–i.e. Chekhov’s characters–might make. For instance, when one man in Chekhov hears the lonely cry of a bittern, “which sounded exactly as if a cow had been locked up and left in a shed all night.” Or when a peasant hears “an expensive-sounding” accordion. This seems to me a much purer idea of “making strange” than Nabokov’s more obvious, “artistic” one. And Nabokov’s version is easier too, in the end, than Chekhov’s. Chekhov’s involves the surrendering of the “artistic” while, of course, retaining final artistic control; Nabokov’s involves the mere assertion of artistic control. After several hours of effort we might well come up with, in our study, “asphalt’s parakeet.” But you have to know a community to let a character hear “an expensive-sounding accordion.” That takes a lifetime.

It is Nabokov that licenses John Updike’s very characteristic passing observation, in Roger’s Version, that a woman was “poignantly breastless.” It seems, at first, fine writing; it has the Nabokovian sheen, that slight flick of grandiloquence. How nice that Updike has noticed this passing woman! But then it seems rather monstrous, and empty. Why is it poignant (a big word, after all) to be breastless? And to whom is it poignant? To the woman? No, to Updike, in his study in Massachusetts. But why to Updike? Because he feels for this person? No, simply because it sounds nice. So it is that when Nabokov writes, in Speak, Memory, that “I felt a quiver of acute pity for Lenski–for the meek folds at the back of his shaven head,” we don’t believe him. Partly because, as you pointed out yesterday, he is not very nice to Lenski elsewhere in the book. But essentially because the language gives him away. If Nabokov feels such pity, why is it such a delicious little “quiver”? And while one does, sometimes, find a certain pathos in people’s necks–the fat cylinder of a tired commuter opposite one on the train, or the long, neglected stem of the woman you met almost exactly a year ago in Chicago, with the twisting dark curls and the firm chin, whom you have loved from afar, etc., etc. (Nabokov’s style really is contagious!)–one needs more human evocation, more ordinary sympathy, more evidence, than Nabokov provides, before one simply believes him just because he tells us he feels it. If Lenski really existed, as a created character, then we might believe in Nabokov’s feelings. But Lenski is just a counter, to be moved about on the artistic board. He is a pattern.

As you suggested yesterday, Nabokov is at his best when “crystalline and cartoonish.” That’s not enough for me, nor for you, I suspect.

Yours sincerely
James Wood