Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003390, Wed, 23 Sep 1998 13:29:52 -0700

Re: VN and literary criticism (fwd)

I think we need to make a distinction between literary criticism
as practiced by many writers (often judgmental and whimsical -- but also
fascinating) and professional literary critics and scholars. I suspect
it's unfair to both groups to approach the two with the same standards.
Nabokov's literary criticism is a compilation of his early Rul' reviews,
occasional essays, prefaces and reviews in the US (as in his article on
Lermontov which appeared in the 1940s in the _Russian Review_, his preface
on the same author in his and Dmitri's translation of _The Hero of Our
Time_; reviews he wrote for the _New Republic_ when Wilson was
guest-editing the magazine), Cornell lectures, and, to some extent,
pronouncements on authors as found in _Strong Opinions_.

It is only in the first two instances that he was really
functioning as a somewhat professional "critic." In his lectures he
was primarily a teacher -- and, as all of us know, our lectures and our
conference papers or articles are far from being the same thing. Unlike
someone like Virginia Woolf, who took literary criticism seriously and
produced a steady stream of critical essays and reviews devoted to a
number of writers, periods, and literatures, Nabokov, like Joyce, was just
an occasional practitioner of the genre once he had established himself as
a writer in his own right. I think it is largely our problem -- not his --
when we choose to treat his critical output as more than it really was, or
as equal to that of some other writers, like Woolf or E.M. Forster, to
say nothing of T.S. Eliot, for whom in his later life criticism became as
important -- if not more so -- than his poetry.

In my entry on VN's Uncollected Critical Writings for the
_Garland Companion_, I used Nabokov's own praise for Iuly Aikhenvald --
"his critical judgment was never partial and not always even sparing, but
he had one quality that was disticly rare: he was always careful not to
offend" -- to contrast it with Nabokov's approach to criticism. I still
believe in what I said then:

"Nabokov himself frequently lacked the same critical compassion. He
had a special talent for devastating sarcasm and no qualms about
unleashing it... Unlike Aikhenvald's, Nabokov's critical reviews --
whether in Russian or in English -- are rarely informative: he often
dismisses authors and books before a reader can even form a semblance of a
notion of what they are all about. But it may not be totally appropriate
to compare Nabokov and Aikhenvald or other professional critics who strive
to be impartial and objective. Writers-turned-critics are frequently much
more judgmental and impatient with other people's work precisely because
they are writers and thus have definite ideas about what they themselves
would have done with the same topic or material. It only stands to reason
that in the case of Vladimir Nabokov, a man of indisputably 'strong
opinions,' these ideas would tend to be even more definite than most."

Galya Diment