Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003382, Wed, 23 Sep 1998 09:27:32 -0700

VN and literary criticism (fwd)
Galya Diment wrote:

> So, do we just write it off as juvenalia -- or is there more
> to it than that? In his later life, as we all know, VN was very proud of> his "Swallow" (also known as the "Swift") poem. I suspect that, like
> Joyce, he did have different criteria for excessive "emoting" in poetry
> and prose -- but that does not explain it all away either.

From: Anatoly Vorobey,

I don't think there's much mystery here, if we let go the myth of
Nabokov's unfailing excellence as a critic and a scholar -
that myth has outlived itself as evidenced, e.g., by some recent
postings here on Nabokov and women writers.

The fact is, writers, including great writers, often write bad verse,
and often make lousy literary critics. This isn't very surprising, nor
does it belittle such writers. The uneasy feeling we get (at least those
of us who do get it) when reading Nabokov's praise of his ridiculous
"Swallow" poem is, I think, simply due to our firm belief that Nabokov
*is* a great literary critic, that he has some sharp inner eye which
allows him to distinguish the great from the pretentious, the
genius from the hack writer. The very brashness of Nabokov's
dismissive remarks on some "great books" sometimes intimidates us
into believing his harsh judgement and praising the skill of the judge,
without questioning and checking whether his criticism really has any

There is no inherent necessity to subscribe to a writer's critical views
just because one admires the writer's own literary output. This certainly
can be backed up by numerous examples. Do we really need T.S.Eliot's
permit to enjoy (or condemn, for that matter) Kipling's verse? Do I
have to treat Shakespeare's plays with contempt just because they were
scorned by Tolstoy, whose novels I enjoy immensely? Finally, do I have
to admit any extra credibility to the ridiculous view that Bunin's verse
is better than his prose, just because Nabokov said that?

When reading Nabokov's critical articles, lectures or interviews, I often
have to remind myself that writing criticism and writing literature
isn't the same thing. The catchy metaphors and the exquisite scorn can't
be done better than he does them; but if no coherent argument supplements
them, no actual criticism is done, and the work should be attacked rather
than praised for its literary qualities, for these qualities, while
necessary in any good critical work, are not the essence of it.

A good literary critic shouldn't just praise or condemn a writer or
a book; he should explain his reasons and deepen our understanding. The
question one must ask after reading a critic is: "What do I know or understand
now about the author or work in question that I didn't know before?"
And writing some work off as a piece of poshlost without even citing
examples or doing any analysis just isn't good enough. What do I know more
about Sartre after reading Nabokov's casual rebuttal of him in
_Strong Opinions_? Nothing; I just feel warm and fuzzy inside if my
judgement agrees with that of the Great Critic, or intimidated if
it doesn't. I've read Nabokov spout some random amusing nonsense about
Stendhal (his plain French and everything); does he actually support
it with *anything* but his brashness anywhere? The man writes a large
article on Khodasevich (the one in _Strong Opinions_) and doesn't even
attempt to look at his verse, to explain the difference between him and
other poets of the era in literary, rather than political, terms. All
we realize after reading that article is that Nabokov thinks Khodasevich
was a great poet who continued Pushkin's tradition. And so on, and so forth;
I'd be delighted to bring more examples if needed.

Another very interesting example is the Nabokov-Wilson public exchange (I can't
bring myself to call it 'debate'). I think that only in this century,
with its rule of catering for everyone's ego and watching out for hurt
pride (which makes nasty talk the forbidden fruit for the intellectuals),
could this exchange be regarded and praised as a fine example of rhetoric
and literary debate. Men of letters of 19th or 18th century, who were
able to combine harsh criticism with politeness without being hypocritical,
would (or so I would like to think) have reacted to Nabokov's ridiculously
infantile rantings and insults with the cold contempt they deserve. The
exquisite perversity of praising them for their -- well, for what? --
is a phenomenon of our times.

Finally, back to the topic of Nabokov's little poetical soap operas: is
his ill judgement of his own verse really surprising given his overall
view on Russian poetry of 20th century, which manages to miss or
disregard just about anything interesting that happened there while
keeping focus on such wonderful achievements as, oh, I don't know, Bunin's
poems? Sometimes being a conservative just means you're going to miss
the real thing.

Anatoly Vorobey
mellon@pobox.com http://pobox.com/~mellon/
"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly" - G.K.Chesterton