Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003397, Mon, 28 Sep 1998 14:22:54 -0700

VN & Sentiment (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE. The thread "VN & Sentiment" has had a number of thoughtful
postings. Below, Galya Korovina, who is to be thanked for calling the St.
Petersburg NABOKOVSKII VESTNIK to the attention of NABOKV-L, offers
another view of this complex theme.

From: Gkorovina@aol.com

For me, the key to understanding how Nabokov managed to evoke a
strong emotional response without becoming sentimental or melodramatic
lies in the passage from _Speak, Memory_ where he describes how his mother
addressed him with the formal "you" (vy) rather than the informal "thou"
(ty) she usually used: "as my mother would do in moments of intense
tenderness, when my temperature had gone up or I had lost a tiny train
passenger (as if the singular were too thin to bear the load of her

In a similar way, Nabokov himself became increasingly reserved and
addressed situations with a respectful formality rather than a familiar
manner. That is, in moments of "intense tenderness" (pronzitel'naia
nezhnost'), he stepped back for his characters. He was careful neither to
tell his reader explicitly what to feel nor to drop bread crumbs showing
the way to the "unearned emotion" mentioned earlier in this discussion.
Rather, with magic skill he allowed his reader to step back as well, to
see what VN himself saw, and then experience the same intense tenderness
and compassion. Unlike Dostoevsky, Nabokov did not need to use the lesser
didactic prop of being moved himself. "Dai rasskazat' mne, muza, bez
volneniia! " Allow me, my Muse, to tell this calmly ... (From the poem
"Ticket," [Bilet] which appeared in _Rul_ [Berlin] in 1927. I was unable
to locate a translation of this poem into English and so apologize in
advance for my imperfect attempt to render its meaning for the purposes of
this discussion. <GK)

Nabokov hardly needed any lesser devices. His magnificent ability
to observe and describe the world that he himself staged made that world
more believable and moving than the reality. After all, those few
scandalous cases when an adult attempted to consummate his passion for a
"nymphet" remind one more of _The Enchanter_, with its swift and degrading
outcome for a doomed obsession, than of _Lolita_, with its long period of
eerie domesticity. Unfortunately, relatively few people have ever heard
of _The Enchanter_; even more unfortunately -- because it is a tale so
beautifully told that is utterly enchanting and emotionally
credible --_Lolita_ has become a symbol of pedophilia in the mass
consciousness. I don't think I even need to add that _Lolita_ is about a
passionate love doomed to be unrequited, and not about pedophilia.

Or a love story that is not as loud as Lolita but in its own way
is even less probable, had it not been told by Nabokov -- _The Defense_.
Whereas _Lolita_ is about the prohibited desire that is truly tempting and
understandable, particularly in the upper limits of the "nymphet" age,
_The Defense_ is about the boundless love of a rather attractive young
woman for a "stout, gloomy man who ate greedily and sloppily," owned a hat
with a "blurred dark spot over the hatmaker's name" and "a large, checked
handkerchief that was unusually dirty," and who besides that "rarely
changed his linen." A selfless love and tender respect that worship
mysterious creativity rather than its outward rewards. After all, what
was there for the rich young Luzhina in conquests made in "a hall in a
cafe or club," among the all-male and far from glamorous crowd that she
was not always welcome to join? Nabokov steps back, and the infatuated
Luzhina shares with the reader "this outmoded, eccentric waistcoat that
one could not bear to look at without tears, and that poor curl, and the
bare, white neck all creased like a child's." A truly remarkable feature
of _The Defense_ is that this deeply moving and captivating tale is told
in a very cool and reserved manner. It is a tale that evokes deep
affection, while successfully avoiding all the traps of sentimentality.

Because Nabokov was such a brilliant stage director, he didn't
even crack, let alone break, Pnin's punch bowl on the night Pnin in his
kitchen was "staring at the blackness beyond the threshold of the open
back door," having just learned that a modest security was no longer
within his reach. Had this bowl and a few more bowls been broken
unnecessarily, _Pnin_ would have been in danger of becoming the kind of
book a sentimental governess might select for reading to a New Russian
chil -- and then interrupt her reading to exclaim feelingly, "Poor, poor
Pnin," just as Luzhin's "stout French governess" read _The Count of Monte
Cristo_ aloud to him (and interrupted her reading to exclaim feelingly,
"Poor, poor Dantes!".

(Am I painting a kitschy pastiche by mixing New Russian mores and bygone
days, complete with book-reading governess, of all things? Not at all.
Occasionally I look through the glossy magazines published for whatever stands
for New Russian high society because I am interested in photograph and rare
book auctions. The artistic design of these magazines is on a level with the
gorgeous American W , but the articles are often better, informative and
gently educational. I have seen many ads for governesses in both the Help
Wanted and the Position Sought sections and have always thought that their
talent recruiters ought to scoop Nyack, New York, in the vicinity of the
Tolstoy Farm, for the auntly descendants of the White Russians who speak
delicious old-fashioned Russian rather than the Soviet Russian dialect.)

The aptly quoted commentary to _Eugene Onegin_ ("`Sentimental'
implies little beyond the shedding of conventional tears over the
misadventures of conventional virtue in verse or prose") reminded me of
the part in _The Catcher in the Rye_ where Salinger illustrated the
limited value of such conventional tears: "I went to the movies at Radio
City. . . . After the Christmas thing was over, the goddam picture
started. It was so putrid I couldn't take my eyes of it. . . . All I can
say is, don't see it if you don't want to puke all over yourself. . . .
The part that got me was, there was a lady sitting next to me that cried
all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried.
You'd have thought she did it because she was kindhearted as hell, but I
was sitting right next to her, and she wasn't. She had that little kid
with her that was bored as hell and had to go to the bathroom, but she
wouldn't take him. She kept telling him to sit still and behave himself."

After this neat scene, Salinger got/made Holden sound "gushy," to
borrow a term from Galya Diment's posting, or rather, melodramatic, which
is typical of them both, adding the unnecessary : "She was about as
kindhearted as a goddam wolf. You take somebody that cries their goddam
eyes out over phony stuff in the movies, and nine times out of ten they're
mean bastards at heart. I am not kidding."

Fade-in: The reclusive J.D. Salinger, who is among the ten
concealed subscribers to NABOKV-L, is reading this and wondering why
doesn't this goddam Korovina (me) write her own goddam book and leave out
whatever sentences she considers "gushy" or "melodramatic."

I would like to add that Salinger's abbreviated emotional palette,
mentioned in an excellent posting by Mary Bellino, though obvious, was
less annoying and repetitively expressed in the eyes of his numerous
admiring Soviet readers. Salinger's Russian translator, the magnificent
Rita Rait-Kovaleva had to bend to prudish Soviet standards as regards rude
slang and so rendered Holden's monotonous swearing with strong and
colorful language, unmistakingly that of a frustrated teenager but a
little less gross and a little more varied and warm. I still remember how
disappointed I was when I finally laid my hands on the English original,
and, among other disappointments, the "rozovaia kombinashka," worn under a
green dress by Sunny, the prostitute old Maurice sent to Holden's hotel
room in "Nad propastiu vo rzhi," turned into an insipid "pink slip" in
_The Catcher in the Rye_. Well, Rita Rait-Kovaleva was believed to have
the best Russian language in the literary circles of her generation,
writers included, and her skill as a translator was legendary. When Gore
Vidal visited Moscow, he soon got peeved by the overwhelming admiration
and interest in Kurt Vonnegut (translated by Rita Rait-Kovaleva) and
remarked dryly that Kurt's novels lost somewhat in the original.

I think that the best Salinger's stories, such as "A Perfect Day
for Bananafish," are superior to _The Catcher in the Rye_, which is a
well-told if often melodramatic story about a not very likable,
narcissistic, and melodramatic teenager who is not getting his parents'
money's worth from the world. Holden, who cries over the ducks from the
frozen pond, and his sad mother ("half the time up all night smoking
cigarettes"), whose young son, Allie, Holden's brother, has recently died
of leukemia, look to me like a distorted mirror image of the woman he
hated, the one who was crying her heart out in the movies, annoyed at the
boy whose life she could have made nicer, if briefly. Also, the not
particularly plausible homosexual pass Mr. Antolini made at Holden is as
excessive a feature, artistically, of sad Holden s odyssey in New York as
Pnin's bowl would have been if it had indeed broken. The sophisticated
and very perceptive Mr. Antolini, who taught at N.Y.U. and dined with
Holden's father, was likely to know more ethical and promising ways to
satisfy his cravings in New York than petting an exhausted and distressed
teenager who happened to be crashing at his place for want of anywhere
else to go.

Actually, I already said all the negative things I had to say
about _The Catcher in the Rye_ when I compared it unfavorably oh so long
ago, in a term paper on contemporary American literature, with another
American coming-of-age novel that for a while was my favorite book: _The
Centaur_, by John Updike (brilliantly translated into Russian by Victor
Khinkis). Sadly, I realize I have forgotten the name of the main
character, a teenager who also, like Holden, spent two long and miserable
days in a snowbound city, in his case a tiny town in Pennsylvania, though
I remember the name of the girl he was in love with -- Penny. And the
name of the woman-- Vera -- at whose house he stayed the second, luxurious
night, Vera whose gums flashed when she smiled and who served him
breakfast "like a wife," orange juice and a perfectly ripe banana for his
cereal, a treat for a boy who lived on a ramshackle farm in a household
"marked with haste and improvidence," where the rarely bought bananas
would "go from green to rotten without a skip." Those two days and nights
the boy was torn with worry, despair, and helpless love for his larger-
than-life and eccentric family and overwhelmed by sheer physical hardship,
first love, and the incurable disease that he tried to hide from everyone
but felt compelled to reveal to Penny, so he didn't have much in the way
of emotional resources left to worry about ducks from frozen ponds.

I realized that I wanted to reread _The Centaur,_ at least in
part, but, sadly, it was not among the numerous available recent Updikes
in the Barnes & Noble mall near me, nor was _The Coup_, my other early
Updike favorite. And in vain I inquired, like Mademoiselle, "Giddy-eh?"
scanning the Top 100 list for Updike's name. Well, since I have brought
up John Updike, let me finish with two quotes from Updike's tribute on
Nabokov's seventieth birthday. First, "Even the least warming aspects of
his [VN's] image -- he implacable hatreds, the reflexive contempt --
testify, like fortress walls, to the reality of the siege this strange
century lays against our privacy and pride." And, since this is a
discussion of VN and Sentiment: "Far from cold, he [VN] has access to
European vaults of sentiment sealed to Americans."

Galya Korovina
gorod New York