Concerning the quote related to “divine details” there’s a direct reference to it in the Introduction written by John Updike to Lectures on Literature (Harvest Book,Harcourt Inc, 1982,xxiii)


“A former student from the course, Ross Wetzteon, contributed to the TriQuarterly special issue a fond remembrance of Nabokov as a teacher. “ ‘Caress the details,” Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details!’”


While I was trying to retrieve other references to the importance of “details,” now using search instruments, I came to a review that mentions them and also discusses the short-story that has been chosen for discussion, “Spring in Fialta,” among others.

I’ll set down a few excerpts from “Vladimir Nabokov – Reckless Triviality” (a review that’s far from enthusiastic…), by Tony McKibbin.


“Just as a critic once referred to Milan Kundera as a writer of reckless brevity, can we level the phrase ‘reckless triviality’ at Vladimir Nabokov? This is either to damn the Russian émigré with the faintest of praise or offer the highest of compliments. Where the Czech émigré who settled in Paris produced novels of ideas; the Russian who spent much of his later life in the US despised their espousal in fiction form. Thus he could say of Dickens in his Lectures on Literature that he was a great writer not at all because the sociological side was interesting or important, but because of the writing. “It is in his imagery that he is great.” It is here that Nabokov would see what he so admired in literature: the “supremacy for the detail over the general.” [  ]

Here are a couple of openings from Nabokov. “Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. Everything is damp; the piebald trunks of the plane trees, the juniper shrubs, the railings, the gravel. Far away, in a watery vista between jade edges of pale blush houses, which tottered up from their knees to climb the slope (a cypress indicating the way), the blurred Mount St George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture postcards which since 1910, say (those straw hats, those youthful cabmen), have been courting the tourist from the sorry-go-round of their prop, among amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the mantelepiece dream of seashells.” [   ] This is Mannerism as Arnold Hauser describes it in a book of that name: “A mannerist work of art is always a piece of bravura, a triumphant conjuring trick, a firework display with flying sparks and colours…Beauty too beautiful becomes unreal, strength too strong becomes acrobatics, too much content loses all meaning, form independent of content becomes an empty shell.” [  ] Hauser is quoted by John Calder in Calder’s introduction to a Samuel Beckett Reader, but if there is a basic difference between Beckett and Nabokov, it resides in one sensing that while Beckett’s relationship with reality is to be “hopelessly and helplessly at its mercy”, Nabokov would be more inclined to claim that he is its master. “For me ‘style’ is matter”, he says in Selected Letters: 1940-1977. [  ] Over and over again we notice style as an absolute: this is literature’s own metaphysics, but it is also a modern concern, hiding an anxiety of potential meaninglessness that writers surely more significant than Nabokov cannot quite deny [  ]  But in Nabokov, theme and story are abandoned for the specifics of the writing style. In ‘Spring in Fialta’, the story ‘focuses’ on one man’s continuing fascination with a woman whom he first met back in 1917 and whom he would intermittently see until the early thirties. Though he is married with children, though she is married also, he cannot ever forget her, nor be impervious to her affect on him when they meet. “And regardless of what happened to me or to her, in between, we never discussed anything, as we never thought of each other during the intervals in our destiny, so that when we met the pace of life altered at once, all its atoms were re-combined, and we lived in another, lighter time-medium, which was measured not by the lengthy separations, but by those few meetings of which a short, supposedly frivolous life was thus artificially formed.” This is brilliantly descriptive writing, offering up a desire caught in time. This is desire as duration outside of the tick-tocking of the clock that dictates the rest of his life, as the narrator can lose himself in Nina and in a time abstracted from duty and obligation. But can we really believe he and Nina “never thought of each other in the intervals in our destiny,” or does the phrase suit the style? Would a more plausible comment somehow dilute the prose and also the weld between intoxication of feeling and intoxication of style?

Perhaps more than any writer except Joyce, Nabokov wants intoxication of feeling out of an intoxication of style, as if he were looking for an ever expanding sense of onomatopoeia; of using language not only as a sign system conveying feelings indirectly, but trying to create with language a sensuous surface as words don’t only imitate sounds, but also convey emotion through the use of language as a system of sounds.[  ] Frank O’Connor in an essay on Joyce in The Mirror in the Roadway actually uses the term “associational mania” to describe Joyce’s obsessive play on words, a phrase unlikely to be levelled at Nabokov, who focuses much more on the rhythm of language over its connotative possibilities; much more on sibilance and alliteration. The opening of Lolita is a famous example: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

This seems the raison d’etre of Nabokov’s work: to make language sensual [  ] Nabokov offers the pleasure of prose over any other pleasure, as though trying to create a synaesthetic weld between meaning and sound to create language as smooth caress[  ] There seems to sit in Nabokov’s prose a surface precision masking hidden mysteries that Nabokov did not quite possess the depth of feeling to discover. Perhaps this helps explain Nabokov’s obsessions with detail: “caress the detail, the divine detail” – as if a positivist of prose, a person who could not trust or quite understand anything that was not put in front of his eyes. There are some astonishing observations in Nabokov’s stories, but very few revelations.[  ]” ©Tony McKibbin







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