Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000305, Sat, 23 Jul 1994 16:20:31 -0700

Green, VN, & England (fwd)
Martin Green, Nabokov and England

Martin Green is a British literary and cultural critic (mostly
resident in the U.S.), who has written prolifically on a variety of
subjects--Nabokov among them. Since, however, much of his Nabokov com-
mentary has been submerged in books of a more general nature, he is
not so well known among Nabokovians as he might be. The following
remarks do not pretend to do justice to Green's wide-ranging work or
even to the whole of his Nabokov criticism, but are, rather, reflec-
tions on the role of Nabokov in his one of his works, specifically--
AFTER 1918. They bear, most particularly on VN's impact on Green's
evolving literary tastes and on the broader issue of Nabokov's recep-
tion in England. Although Green's commentary dates from the mid-
seventies, I suspect that much of what he says remains valid both for
himself and for the British literary scene. My intuition on this last
point is supported by some comments from the British Nabokovian Roy
Johnson--whom I hereby thank.
Green's book is a delightful study of the small group of
"dandies," who mostly attended Eton and then, just after WWI, Oxford.
The nucleus of the group was Harold Acton, later author of MEMOIRS OF
AN AESTHETE, and Brian Howard, whose writing and flamboyant personal
style had a marked influence upon the tastes of a segment of Britain's
cultural elite in the 20s. From Roman Catholic families, part-
American, devotees of Diaghilev's Ballet and the French avant-garde,
aesthetes to the point of blatant preciosity, gay, and very rich,
Howard and Acton cut a wide swath through the staid English cultural
scene. Novelist Evelyn Waugh, the best known writer to chronicle the
group, and drew upon Acton and Howard for his characters Sebastian
Flyte and Anthony Blanche in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED.
Green sees this efflorescence of dandyism, these "children of the
sun," as an exemplar of an irregular, cyclic appearance that alter-
nates between "dandies" (e.g., the Cavalier poets of Charles II, Beau
Brummel of the early XIXth century, Oscar Wilde of the 90s, etc.) and
writers who incarnate the more typical, staid, traditional moral
strain in English cultural life, i.e., Leavis' "grand tradition."
Green follows the rise and fall of his dandies from their heyday in
the 20s through the mid-fifties when the morally earnest "angry young
men" took over the leading position on the British scene. The impact
of the dandies, however, had begun to fade by the thirties when
writers of the left rose to prominence. Green sees Lawrence and Orwell
as the paradigmatic figures here, while the dandy strain ended in the
moral ambiguities of the defectors Burgess and Maclean. Green also
confesses himself to have been a firm adherent of Leavis' canon and
its inheritors, the "decent men" of English literature.
So how does Nabokov come into all of this? Green points out that
while the dandies were making their mark at Oxford, Nabokov was a
snobbish, alien and alienated student at Cambridge. He too was an heir
of the Georgians and, on the personal level, a dandy par excellence.
Green does not suggest any personal interaction, and notes that the
dandy movement was very much an Oxford phenomemon. He does, however,
remark Nabokov's family connections with those Russian artistic move-
ments that played such a part in European modernisn in the years just
before and after WWI. He also notes Sergei Nabokov's (later and
slight) connections with the world of the Diaghilev ballet and VN's
later use of Diaghilev as the basis for a minor charactor in SOLUS
REX. Green finds a different role for VN in his book. As he follows
his dandies through the 20s and 30s, Green includes short sections in
which Nabokov's writings of the period are described in counterpoint
to those of the dandies.
Green, whose social instincts were not those of the dandies, entered
Cambridge in 1945 and, as he says, "listened only to Leavis." He found
Waugh and Cyril Connolly, with their snobbish aestheticism, detestable. In
the following decade, it was with some discomfort that Green, now an
American academic, watched former angry young men like Kingsley Amis and
Phillip Larkin gradually move toward dandyism. He experienced even greater
discomfort as he realized that he too was becoming less "anti-dandy,"
albeit still on the side of "the decent man." The "dandy/decent" dialectic
was becoming less sharply polarized.
What was it, in Green's view, that led to his reorientation? In
large part---Nabokov: "Even in REAPPRAISALS, 1963, one of my
enthusiasms had been for Nabokov, with his outrageous aestheticism
(420). The critic is quick to insist that he had not deserted the camp
of the decent, but rather had transcended the dialectic. Thanks to
Nabokov's extraordinary talent, he had been able "carry the dandy
sensibility to heights of achievement that have to be compared with
those of great novelists of very different temperament, like Leo Tol-
stoy and D. H. Lawrence" (192). Green was also one of the critics who
early on detected the strong moral undercurrent in much of Nabokov's
Green, who sees the critic's job as "to discover and be in the
thick of the crucial debate of the time" [certainly a Leavisite and
most un-Nabokovian attitude] ends his study of "the children of the
sun" with a striking assertion. Reaffirming his distaste for Auden,
Lewis, and Tolkien, he continues "It is not they but Nabokov who hold
the key to the locked door of England's dungeon. I hold on to that
sense as some promise that my own development is not leading me up and
out into a self-designed empyrean" (431).
Green has gone on to examine Nabokov's writing in his later books:
to mention one that I am familiar with--THE TRIUMPH OF PIERROT (with
John Swan) (1986)--a study of the cultural history of the commedia
dell'arte firgure Pierrot which became an icon of early 20th century
modernism. The critic has also continued to plumb the depths of moral
earnestness in a massive parallel study of Tolstoy and Ghandi.
Green's avowal of Nabokov's impact upon his own cultural outlook
is imposing, but pales in significance before his rather grandiose
claim of Nabokov's possession of "the key to England's dungeon." The
critic takes dark note of England's "continued prejudice against mod-
ernism" and argues that "Nabokov...has signally failed to find
appreciation in England, going on to cite hostile reviews from Herbert
Read, Phillip Toynbee, and even Kingsley Amis. Although CHILDREN OF
THE SUN was written in the mid-seventies, one suspects that Nabokov's
general critical reputation in England remains substantially lower
than in the U.S. It is certainly true that less Nabokov criticism and
scholarship comes out of England than one might expect. There are,
to be sure, distinguished exceptions, but perhaps Green's observation
about the hold of the Leavisites on the British critical canon is
valid.S. I also have the impression that Nabokov works are taught
more rarely in England than the U.S. On the brighter side, in the
years since Green put forward his thoughts a number of British writers
have emerged whose work would certainly be different had they not
carefully read Nabokov. Among the older--Tom Stoppard, Clive James, and,
more lately, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
I offer the above musings as material for discussion. Please
address any comments to NABOKV-L.
D. Barton Johnson