Looking over my copy of Lectures on Literature, particularly the chapter on Madame Bovary, I see an image of a page from one of his copies of Flaubert’s book and am struck by the chaos of his “glosses.” When he does not agree, for example, with the way a certain word has been translated (and he was fluent in French), he simply blots it out and corrects it.
His relationship with the text was an active one; he was what to many post-structuralists would have been the perfect reader, a Barthesian reader-writer whose text in front of him is rewritten as he reads. He was, in a sense, much like the Medieval commentators who scrutinized and speculated, sometimes mystically, over a simple letter, a tense, the prosody of a line, an allusion, a number, over any and all detail in a church father’s or pagan philosopher’s text. Entire volumes like Boethius’s commentaries or Duns Scotus’s were disentangled out of only syllables in Porphyry and Peter the Lombard, respectively.
Nabokov labors with similar compulsion. Nevertheless, his texts are fantasies, mockeries and facades of history, of poetry, all of which, as I mentioned in my previous post, contain elements of humanity, but which corrode in a dangerous ecology where incest, pedophilia, disjointed urbanity, and a little ego-centric weirdness seem to thrive. His words and worlds entrance with their puzzles, their butterflies, their dancing, their hedonism; but leave us naked when we, while in search for that cavernous warmth found only in literature, realize that Nabokov’s pink wallpapers do not protect against the cold. And all of this is heartbreaking, for his capacity to capture the manifestations of loss, be they of country or lover, is second to none. I defer to the following quote from Pnin:
“In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin—not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind. . .but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.” (134-5, Vintage)
Mira Belochkin was captured and killed by the Nazis. Her image, through a squirrel, haunts this novel as it haunts the mind of the protagonist like an irreconcilable and old, lived-with heartache. It almost has no place in the academic world of funny, hapless Pnin, his emigré magazines, Russian valises, listless students, and bureaucratic professors, and yet, such is life.
All in all, however, I admire the technicality of his work, and I would have let the opinion of an author be as yet another route in the seas of creative expression. In fact, far be it from me to prescribe what good art is (personal experience has shown that at best, when challenged, people will not listen and at worst, you will lose friends—so to each their own!), but I will criticize what I consider potentially stultifying and dangerous perspectives.
Returning to his Lectures, I give here his passage on Madame Bovary:
“But do not ask whether a poem or a novel is true. Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature. The girl Emma Bovary never existed: the book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.” (125, Harcourt)
What to make of this? Is a book truly impractical?
Below are more fragments:
“A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.” (Strong Opinions, 33, Vintage)
“To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature.” (Lectures, 5)
“Style and structure are the essence of a book, great ideas are hogwash.” (Strong Opinions, xiii, quoted by John Updike’s wife)
“Great novels are great fairy tales.” (Lectures, 2)
“Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him.” (Lectures, 5)
It seems to me that related to his disinclination with making novels “practical” is his distaste for Ideas. Now, one would not need to read his autobiography entirely to guess that this distaste (he despised Dostoevsky and Mann and thought nothing of his contemporary existentialists) was likely due to personal experience. He was, for all intents and purposes, a refugee having fled Russia not long after the Bolshevik Revolution, which he calls ever so giddily and, in my opinion, deliciously, “that trite deus ex machina” (Speak, Memory, 229 Vintage). And how could we blame him when the sleeping nymphs and playful, unicycling bears of his Petersburgian romances were black-bagged and show-trialled in the courts of peasants and laborers, executed and starved by socialist realism and five-year plans? I think his distaste for Ideas and by a reverse metonymy, the One Red Idea, must have translated into an aesthetic outlook that released him from thinking writing in general has no moral responsibilities to the human condition. And this shows up pervasively throughout his work: just see how he refers to other Russians his characters meet along the way, particularly those that concern themselves with the politics of their native land.
Much has already been talked about our own “postmodern condition” and about how the humanities are mired in a swamp of cynicism. Perhaps, if one were to see our modern world today, which the media is now saying is a “post-truth” society (just as some author declared post-2008 America was post-racial… What is with people calling everything post- now? Does it not sound like a profound lack of academic and cultural creativity?), there may be something to be said about a relationship between this literature of irresponsibility and the gaping skepticism in the humanities. It is a scintillating question that is far beyond our current topic, but I venture to say, and to argue, that no work of fiction is pure fantasy, that though Nabokov may be arguing from a point of view in which the “practical” is what simply deposits money into your bank account, he cannot reduce the importance of literature for the social individual to a mere educated fancy. Like religion, which does not put money into your bank account (in fact, it may take it), literature can offer a means of making the dark days ahead more bearable, it can inspire, and set an entire people in motion; it can give meaning to the practical. Yes, it is no “practical” thing—a screwdriver is a practical thing—but it, and poetry and theatre and every time a pen landed on paper, is the patrimony of civilization. And a civilization is not one person.