Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003392, Thu, 24 Sep 1998 19:38:31 -0700

Re: VN and literary criticism (fwd)
Date: Thu, 24 Sep 1998 18:09:03 +0400
From: "Peter A. Kartsev" <petr@glas.apc.org>
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.UCSB.EDU>
Subject: Re: VN and literary criticism

My yesterday's posting on this topic was written hurriedly and late at
night, otherwise I would not have failed to make the following point.
What makes VN, in my opinion, an excellent literary critic, is the fact
that he has a set of coherent esthetic criteria, unorthodox but
eminently sensible, whose validity is supported by the whole brilliant
body of his work. One may disagree with his opinions on Faulkner or Mann
or Dostoyevski, but the fact remains that in his frame of reference they
ARE insignificant. Virtually any book by Nabokov encompasses a set of
values that are incompatible with those of the above-mentioned writers.
Whatever he was, he was never inconsistent.
A few comments on Anatoly Vorobey's posting. He dismisses as
"ridiculous" everything that he cannot accept, as for instance the claim
that Bunin's verse is better than his prose. Excuse me, but what claim
does he mean? The quotation from SM goes like this: "I had always
preferred his little-known verse to his celebrated prose". I can see no
claim here, just a personal opinion. Mr. Vorobey wants us to treat
Nabokov with the contempt he deserves for this "hypocrisy". I, for one,
cannot oblige.
Further on, Mr. Vorobey derides Nabokov for criticising Stendhal and
Sartre, and praising Khodasevich, without providing the reader with any
"examples". I can well remember my Soviet school literature lessons at
which we were given a simple, if rigid, scheme for writing our essays:
"thesis - example" (incidentally, my teacher was the wife of a future
Secretary General of the Communist Party; her lexicon was remarkably
similar to that of Mr. Vorobey). Anyway, since then I have been
persuaded that an example is not the highest form of mental process, but
I can almost believe that Mr. Vorobey attended the same school.
A critic who has nothing to say can always find enough examples to
create the illusion that he is saying something. Good criticism is not
about examples, or "substance" (here's a convenient word, that can mean
anything and nothing). Its purpose is not to guide the student into
orthodoxy with a firm hand. It is always subjective; the only
"objectivity" possible in judging a work of art is nothing but
conformity to established general opinion, which in itself has no value
whatsoever. Good criticism should stimulate the reader into caring
enough to have an opinion of his own. I dare to suggest that VN's
"brashness" serves this purpose much better than the "burn the heretics"
On the whole, there is nothing new in this situation. In 18th-century
England, for instance, Fielding was widely criticised for vocally
finding Richardson a pretentious bore. Yet who reads Richardson today?
(Stevenson relates somewhere a delightful anecdote about these two, a
picaresque early version of the Nabokov-Wilson dispute). Mr. Vorobey
believes that in days of yore all literary battles were polite. Even if
Stevenson's story is apocryphal, both Pushkin and Pope can prove him
wrong. On the other hand, I can think of no case when Nabokov was
impolite or insulting in stating his views. Can Mr. Vorobey make a
similar claim for himself?

Peter Kartsev