The Texture of Time
November 14, 2008 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Nabokov and the Moment of Truth. VN talks about metaphors of time, great books, and reads the first line of Lolita.

“I’ve 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, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term Great Books, is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.”
posted by mattbucher (18 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent link. I agree with the quote, except that Faulkner at times rose to incredible heights—higher than Nabokov, in my mind. He was, however, wildly uneven. Nabokov was always "great;" Faulkner was sometimes beyond greatness but spent most of his time in a swamp of mediocrity.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed seeing Nabokov break out the cards that would eventually become Ada.
posted by ktrey at 11:59 AM on November 14, 2008

I will not hear a word spoken against hypnotic chair love!

Mostly because that is part of my hypnotic treatment. I just can't hear any objections. They sound like the buzzing of gnats to me, and all I can hear are the delighted moans of my sturdy wooden lover.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:22 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

A strange clip; I don't know whether it's cobbled together from a number of sources or just chopped out of a single documentary, but it doesn't really matter—seeing and hearing Nabokov is always a blast. For me it was worth it just to hear him read the start of Лолита (for those who don't know, he translated it into Russian himself) and to see him playing chess. (I sometimes wonder how much literature would have gained had he spent less time on chess and butterflies, but hell, everyone's entitled to their little pleasures.)

As for his attacks on other writers, like those of most geniuses they're absurd. Pay attention to what a genius praises, ignore what he attacks. If you're willing to take seriously the idea that Dostoevsky and Faulkner were terrible writers, I don't know what to say to you.

Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 1:35 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

For any French-speakers, here's the first part of an entire Apostrophes show dedicated to Nabokov (on the occasion of the appearance of the French version of Ada).
posted by languagehat at 1:44 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was surprised to hear him rank Bely's Petersburg with Joyce and Kafka. I haven't read it, though.
posted by mattbucher at 1:54 PM on November 14, 2008

Saul Bellow, anyone?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:54 PM on November 14, 2008

If you're willing to take seriously the idea that Dostoevsky and Faulkner were terrible writers...

I agree. But Death in Venice is truly awful. And I seem to remember not liking Doctor Zhivago much either. But it's been a long time since I read it.

That said: Thank you for posting this clip, mattbucher.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:05 PM on November 14, 2008

I was surprised to hear him rank Bely's Petersburg with Joyce and Kafka. I haven't read it, though.

It's a great, great book, but I'm not sure how much of it can be appreciated 1) in translation and 2) without any awareness of context (both literary and historical). The latter might seem beside the point, but would Ulysses seem as great if one knew little or nothing about either Ireland or the prose tradition Joyce was breaking with? Anyway, I highly recommend reading it, and I would love to hear reactions from those who give it a try. (Address in profile!)
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't read Proust's magnum opus (cited in the clip as one of Nabokov's top three works of 20th century literature), and I cynically suspect the enterprise is an elaborate and sadistic joke. A seven volume novel called In Search of Lost Time? I think I know how it ends...
posted by Curry at 2:54 PM on November 14, 2008

MetaFilter: Light of my life, fire of my loins.
posted by Curry at 2:58 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

languagehat: I've read Petersburg, and I suspect that it and Ulysses and other modernist experiments were deeply important generational markers to literary young people of the Maestro's youth, just as, say, spacey novels like Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up To Me, or Trout Fishing in America (to mention two now-unreadable works) were to ours.
posted by Faze at 4:04 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nabokov could have had his own radio show, his way of reading that line from Lolita was fantabulous.
posted by ersatz at 6:47 PM on November 14, 2008

dostoevsky is a bad writer much the same way that p k dick is a bad writer.
posted by geos at 7:24 PM on November 14, 2008

languagehat: I think Nabokov didn't say Dostoevsky was bad, he just said he doesn't have ear for his works except for 'Double', which he said was excellent. If he thought Dosto was bad he'd say so, he wasn't cautious about shooting down Cervantes or Mann (both of whom I really do like more than N.). Dosto and N. are really two polar opposites, though. They could not like or dislike each other - they're too different.
posted by rainy at 1:05 AM on November 15, 2008

I think Nabokov didn't say Dostoevsky was bad

Well, let me quote him and you be the judge. He called him a "rather mediocre" writer, with "wastelands of literary platitudes," as well as "a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar":
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.


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).


A good third [of readers] do not know the difference between real literature and pseudo-literature, and to such readers Dostoevsky may seem more important and more artistic than such trash as our American historical novels or things called From Here to Eternity and such like balderdash.
Dostoevsky was a great writer who did things Nabokov had no interest in doing, and for some reason Nabokov was unable to simply ignore him or say "he's not to my taste," he had to bash him about the head and shoulders and try to convince everyone he didn't deserve his high standing. Regrettable, but as I said, geniuses are given to that sort of behavior.

Faze: Somehow, cranky/absurd opinions come across differently if you're Nabokov than if you're some guy on MetaFilter.
posted by languagehat at 6:19 AM on November 15, 2008

languagehat: that's interesting, I didn't know that. It might be that Nabokov was right and both of us are wrong and Dostoevsky is indeed a bad writer. I haven't read that many good books. Pushkin does seem a little plain to me, compared to Dostoevsky, though. Maybe I need to re-read him.
posted by rainy at 2:48 PM on November 15, 2008

languagehat: I read Petersburg in translation (the Maguire-Malmstead), and I love its hallucinogenic imagery and bizarre hilarity. I think the reason why Petersburg gets ignored or abandoned half-way through has less to do with cultural difficulties and more to do with what some consider Bely's coldness towards his humans. Though I wouldn't agree with that critique, he's certainly not as wet and palpitating as Joyce. The Symbolist stuff also tends to annoy the hell out of people.

But anyway, excellent post, and I'm kicking myself that I still can't bloody well read Russian...
posted by Football Bat at 3:09 PM on November 15, 2008

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