NABOKV-L post 0011954, Wed, 21 Sep 2005 11:52:50 -0700

Dolinin statement: "A RESPONSE TO MY CRITICS"
EDNOTE. I have received a great deal of mail (much of it personal) on the recent Shapiro-Dolinin-Nabokov exchange. All parties have vigorously set forth their opinions. I would suggest that Alexander Dolinin’s statement below conclude the discussion.

A Response to My Honest Critics

It is my rule in literary studies never to discuss isolated phrases taken out of their context. I grew up and lived in the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991 and remember too well those infamous letters to Soviet newspapers denouncing Pasternak or Siniavsky or Brodsky which often ran like this: “I haven’t read the novel (poem / story) in question but competent comrades have shown some excerpts to me and I must express my indignation and dismay…” As an author, I rely on the presumption of innocence until my piece has been read and evaluated in its entirety and I know that all my peers always do likewise. However, as many contributors to the NABOKV-L are laymen unaware of my principles and the accepted ethos of scholarly discourse, I feel I owe an explanation to them.
First, my honest but misguided critics should know that the article in question (my 50th on Nabokov) is actually a chapter in the book that covers various aspects of VN’s life and art, and therefore my subject matter, scope, factual material and focus were strictly limited. My task was to discuss the outstanding place of Vladimir Nabokov’s art in the 20th century Russian literature and its complex relations to the Russian literary tradition. I argue (on the basis of extensive research) that in the 1920’s and 1930’s when he was writing in Russian, Nabokov thought of himself as a heir apparent to the heritage of his literary fathers and therefore his Russian writings were connected to the tradition by a nexus of allusions and parallels motivated by his desire to sustain its living fire and continue its development. At the time he didn’t dissociate himself either from the Russian classical poetry and prose (including even Dostoevsky whom he will disparage in the 1950s) or from the contemporary émigré literature as a whole, stating in 1940 that it “was worthy of its past thanks to the purity of its intentions, self-discipline, and ascetic, sinewy strength.” To quote Julian Connolly’s precise recapitulation of my argument in his introduction to the volume, “what Dolinin brings out is that Nabokov was keenly aware of his place in the Russian literary tradition and that far from remaining aloof from the literary quarrels that often preoccupied his fellow émigrés, he was a “lively troublemaker” who persistently battled his contemporaries to assert his primacy in a literary tradition he was striving to define. What is more, Dolinin goes on to explain why it was that when Nabokov translated his Russian-language novels into English, he toned down or eliminated many of the allusions to Russian literature that they had originally contained… As Dolinin sees it, Nabokov did this not merely because he felt that these allusions might be lost on the Anglo-American reader; rather, Nabokov wished to transcend his status as a “Russian” author and to replace that status with a new image as a “cosmopolitan” or “trans-national” author.” In other words, Nabokov, so to say, “emigrated” from Russian literary tradition, and it is only in this purely metaphorical sense that I use the word “emigration” in the article (cf.: “emigration from his native language and literature”). This emigration “of the second order” was a very long, painful and contradictory process. It started long before VN’s actual emigration to America, with English and French writings of the late 1930’s, and ended only in the late 1960s, probably with an attempt of the Russo-American synthesis in Ada and Russian Lolita. I cannot understand how anyone can see in my treatment of this important and almost unexplored literary phenomenon a claim that Nabokov’s change of position was a dishonorable calculated move or, even more absurd, a suggestion that he had to justify his flight from the Soviets and Nazis. What in my view he had to justify for himself (and there is nothing ignoble in it) was a severance of his organic ties to his beloved and conquered literary milieu. It seems to me (though I might be wrong) that for a long time he sometimes missed the tragic but glorious aura of Russian literature as his “homestead” not unlike those Russian expatriates of today who miss the hardships of their previous life at home. In my now infamous simile I actually compare (with a tint of self-irony) my own experience as an expatriate (I thought my deliberate choice of the word would make my meaning absolutely clear) who went abroad “in search of a better life” and, in spite of all the obvious advantages, cannot help feeling certain regrets, and Nabokov’s literary “nostalgia” for the “homestead” of Russian letters. The simile, it’s true, was intended as a little bit playful and might look forced but I don’t see anything disrespectful or offensive about it. After all, a stylistically correct simile with “like” is a comparison between “two distinctly different things” (M.H.Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed., 97), isn’t it?
It is only in this context that I bring up a theme of Nabokov’s “tricky mythmaking and playacting”, and discuss his “evasions, exaggerations, and half-truths.” I wonder what is wrong with these locutions when they refer to literary games with one’s own image, to masks that any great writer has to wear, to misleading, tongue-in-cheek comments on one’s own writings, to various strategies of cultural adaptation, self-fashioning and self-defense? We all know that Nabokov regarded the whole “literary field” as a stage or a playground and enjoyed performing various tricks on it. His public statements about Sirin and Sirin’s art are full of exaggerations, evasions, and half-truths, starting with his passage on Sirin in Conclusive Evidence. In my chapter, I cite quite a few examples from his forewords to English translations of his Russian novels and from his interviews but I could give many, many more. It is an integral part of the majestic game, and Nabokov would not be Nabokov we love without his amusing mythmaking and playacting. Pushkin, by the way, was very good at it, too. I am afraid, though, that in the process of this game the mature Nabokov made some harm to Sirin, downplaying his incredible achievements, and in my article I suggest that now we should redress the imbalance. My conclusion in this part of the article is quite modest: “…it would be wrong to surmise that his Russian writings are stylistically “poorer” than their English counterparts and to follow Nabokov in downgrading them to the rank of apprenticeship. In fact, Nabokov’s Russian oeuvre is no less an accomplishment than the English one and each of them deserves to be regarded in its own right—not diachronically but synchronically, as two parallel realities like Terra and Anti-Terra in Ada” (p. 56). Actually, I try to say in my own words something close to what Nabokov himself meant when, talking to Dmitri about his double literary achievement, he pointed at two mountain peaks of equal height.
As a Russian saying goes, “it is impossible to prove that you are not a camel.” For the first time in my life, I tried to do it and I must confess that it is a very stressful, unrewarding and counter-productive experience. I’ll never give it a second try even if some people continue to call me at least a dromedary.

With best regards, Alexander Dolinin