Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003321, Fri, 21 Aug 1998 16:22:20 -0700

Re: Sentimentality in VN (fwd)
From: Rodney Welch <RWelch@scjob.sces.org>


Most interesting you should bring this up, as I frequently cross swords with people over
just what sentimentality is.

Several fine definitions exist, maybe the finest being VN's own: "the non-artistic
exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to evoke automatically traditional compassion in
the reader." (Forgive any omissions; I'm quoting from a leaky memory.) Salinger's
Seymour Glass said sentimentality is when we apply more tenderness to a thing than God
does. Here's another, indirect definition: the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once
said of certain rock musicians that they don't know the difference between emotion and
emoting -- and that to me sums up the difference between writing that is sentimental
and writing that isn't.

Some people see any and all art that has to do with matters of the heart as being
sentimental, but it isn't so. If you have lost a loved one, and are grieving, are you
being sentimental? No -- you are responding in a purely human way to personal loss. It
is likewise true that to merely record someone grieving does not necessarily mean you
are being sentimental -- but you are being sentimental if you are milking the audience.

The dividing line, for me, comes when an artist stops telling the truth and starts
pushing those "automatic compassion" buttons.

One of my favorite passages in literature is in "Swann's Way," when Charles Swann learns
that Odette de Crecy has been unfaithful to him. It is heart-breaking, but I never found
it sentimental. It never seemed dishonest. The same goes for David's death in "Bend
Sinister" or Hazel's death in "Pale Fire" -- VN fully intended for this to affect the
reader emotionally. Those scenes jerk tears, but the compassion they provoke never seems
to me less than genuine.

Some may not agree. I suppose when you get down to it, sentimentality can be almost as
deceptive as poshlust, and as subjective.

Rodney Welch
Columbia, SC
> EDITOR'S NOTE. Ryan Asmussen, drummer of the Boston group "Fathouse"
> (whose CD "a pin, a cork, a card," bears a picture of a case of VN's
> catches) raises aninteresing point below. Reactions?
> ----------------------
> From: Ryan Asmussen <rra@bu.edu>
> Dear All:
> In his essay "Inspiration" (Saturday Review, November 20, 1972), Nabokov
> briefly pauses to consider a passage in J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for
> Bananafish" in which, as he says, "genuine afflation appears to be present":
> "Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle..."
> VN comments, "This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured
> here by a casual conchometrist."
> I can't help but think, when I think of this wonderful, as VN puts it,
> "A-plus", story, of the moment in it when Seymour Glass at the beach, soon
> to be a suicide, gently kisses the arch of a little girl's foot. And when
> I think of this, when thinking of VN, I can't then help but think,
> obviously enough, of "Lolita"... I'm not so very much interested in
> drawing any parallels between these two works, but I wonder how much of
> this sort of 'sentimentality', I think it's safe to say, can be said to
> define VN's own work; in other words, how much use does he make of emotions
> some would characterize as tender or romantic or nostalgic, but tinged
> somewhat with a slight sloppiness or awkwardness, yet very real not only
> <despite> that, but <for> all of that. I use 'sentimentality' in the best
> sense possible, I should explain, hoping to approach his "beauty plus pity"
> definition of art. As a writer, I've always been intrigued by its use and
> misuse in fiction. To me, feelings or actions that are oftentimes labeled
> as sentimental are really rather profound and important.
> Of course, if I was a proper enthusiast I'd have on hand a few
> representative selections from his writings to back up what I mean.
> Instead, I can only offer a tilt of the head and a pleading, "Do you know
> what I mean?"
> Yours,
> Ryan
> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
> Ryan Asmussen
> Administrative Assistant to the Chairman
> Biomedical Engineering Department
> Boston University
> 44 Cummington Street
> Boston, MA 02215
> (617) 353-8068
> e-mail: rra@bu.edu
> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~