Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003323, Fri, 21 Aug 1998 16:33:10 -0700

Re: Sentimentality in VN (& Salinger)
>From Mary Bellino (iambe@javanet.com):

You really can never "safely say" anything is sentimental, because the
term is so hard to define. One of Salinger's characters, I believe, did
define sentimentality as "when you care more about a thing than God
cares about it," which is a useful and clever definition as long as God
doesn't resemble Salinger too closely. Certainly it's easy to make the
case that Salinger cared more about the Glass family than God would have
cared about them. Salinger's (arguably excessive) use of sentimentality
derives I think from the fact that the bulk of his published writing
dates (more or less) from his youth, when he had a young man's talent
and a young man's preoccupations. His natural talent was for social
satire (his models were Lardner and to a lesser extent Fitzgerald), but
his preoccupation with mysticism could not really be expressed by that
talent. He simply hadn't developed a large emotional palette to draw on
when figuring out what to do with his characters. Throughout all of his
novels and stories, the instances of what might be called
"sentimentality" invariably have to do with children, with little
brothers and sisters and that little girl on the beach, and with the
desire of the troubled adolescent or young-adult protagonist to somehow
rejoin or at least make an emotional connection to that pure and
innocent childhood world. For Nabokov, things were a little more
complicated; for one thing, he asks us to look at what happens to the
_child_ when some adult (e.g. Humbert) tries to use her (e.g. Lolita) as
a means of replaying or re-connecting to that adult's childhood. What do
you suppose happens to little Sibyl (Seymour's young girl on the beach)
when she hears a gun go off and later hears her parents talking about
Seymour's suicide? Salinger didn't think about those implications;
Nabokov would have. Salinger takes the sentimentality and runs.
But getting back to Nabokov and _his_ views, I suspect that there would
be considerable overlap between his definition of sentimentality and his
definition of poshlost. I don't think there is any true sentimentality,
in the pejorative sense of the term (that's a little bit of a _petitio_,
I admit), in any of his works -- that is, other than for satiric
purposes. We need a better word for what Ryan describes 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 don't think the word "sentimentality" can be used to cover
Nabokov's "beauty plus pity" definition of art; the eighteenth-century
"sensibility" comes a little closer but still isn't quite right.

Two good articles on this vexing topic, if you haven't already seen
them: Mark Jefferson, "What's Wrong with Sentimentality?" (_Mind_ 1983,
519-29); Mary Midgley, "Brutality and Sentimentality" (_Philosophy_
1979, 385-89.