Williams and Robinson

Giller Prize-winner Ian Williams (l.) will be in conversation with the U.S.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilyn Robinson on writing craft, themes and the power of fiction at the Vancouver Writers Fest. FULL STORY

The narrowness of Vladimir Nabokov

August 07th, 2012

Hungarian-born Stephen Vizinczey, medicine a Canadian citizen who lives in London and Italy, page is the author of In Praise of Older Women, patient An Innocent Millionaire and Lies in Literature. Here he reviews Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977 edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (Weiedenfeld and Nicoloson) and cautions that the title is narrowly aimed at an American academic audience. Nonetheless, the letters offer insight into some of the less-than-interesting habits of a restrained writer and man. But Vizinczey ultimately derives more entertainment from Stendhal’s book of letters recounting his “adventurous life fraught with danger and misfortune.”

“Dip in anywhere, and delight follows,” John Updike assures us on the jacket flap of this 565-page volume.

Don’t you believe it.

If you dip in anywhere you are likely to find yourself reading a business letter to a publisher agent, university president or the head of a foundation, museum or library. There are far too many of them, and all they tell you is that a writer has to write a lot of letters to make a living. Letters on lepidoptera and chess do not relieve the tedium. Dmitri Nabokov imposes on the reader when he claims that this collection reflects his father’s “evolution as a writer and insights into his creative process.”

If the intention was to reflect Nabokov’s evolution as a writer, the most important letters would be the early ones, from his childhood and youth, but they are not here. The best part of the book contains the letters to his family, the only ones with recognisable human content that gives us some notion of Nabokov as a human being. But again, there are too few of them.

The book was compiled for an American publisher and was clearly intended for the American academic market, which devours trivia about writers and literature as a way of distancing incompetent professors from literature itself.

The general reader in the UK where I live (assuming that there is a general reader) would be well advised simply to scan the index and look up the names that interest him or her. Some, of course, leap out of the lists. For example Lyndon Johnson was the recipient of a telegram: “Wishing you a perfect recovery and a speedy return to the admirable work you are accomplishing.” The date is 9 October 1965, the second year of the Vietnam War. This does throw some light, I think, on Nabokov’s rather primitive understanding of politics.

America’s misguided war in Vietnam was the greatest book to Communists: it cast them in the role defending national and Asian independence; and indeed Communism has been dying ever since the war’s disastrous effects subsided. This was clearly seen by many people even at the time, but Nabokov’s political understanding was one the level of slogans, which of course did not prevent him from pontificating n such matters with the greatest hauteur. “Your articles in the Herald Tribune counteract wonderfully the evil and trash of its general politics,” he wrote to William F. Buckley, Jr.

From a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph magazine we learn that Nabokov did not enjoy music: “Dear Sir, I have received your kind letter offering me to interview Mr. Stravinsky in Marrakesh. I’m afraid there must be some misunderstanding. I hardly know him. I do not care for music in any form. I never interview anybody anywhere.”

There is a witty letter to the Sunday Telegraph: “Sir, I cannot resist correcting a cruel misprint in your caption under the photograph of King George V, Tsar Nicolas II, and his son, the Tsarevich. The inadvertent substitution of “Tovarich” for the last word is especially distressing in view of the fact that it was indeed a tovarisch (‘comrade’ in the Bolshevist sense) who was a few years later to murder the poor little boy.”

Nabokov wrote eloquently to The Observer in support of Vladimir Bukovsky, who had been transferred to a labour camp after “five years of martyrdom in a despicable psychiatric jail.” However, in a 1968 letter written for him by his wife Vera, he is decidedly less generous to Marina Tsvetaeva, who lost her husband and daughter to the Stalinist terror and hanged herself in a provincial town where she couldn’t even get work as a laundress:

“We wonder if you realise that although Tsvetaeva was living in a great poverty she was not much worse off than most writers. Tsvetaeva was published more than most other poets, even by those who did not much care for her as a person. Her complaints are very…exaggerated…. In her letters there is constantly recurring whining note which is not exactly endearing.”

All in all, it is not easy to find that “basically reasonable and decent man” of whom Updike speaks on the jacket. In these pages Thomas Mann is “plodding and garrulous;” Sartre and Bertrand Russell are writers “with whom I would not consent to participate in any festival whatever;” Edmund Wilson is an “ignoramus;” Saul Bellow is “a miserable mediocrity;” Sitwell is a “ridiculous mediocrity.”

Doctor Zhivago, which came out in the same year as Lolita and competed with it on the bestseller lists, drove Nabokov into paroxysms of jealous rage. I’m not an uncritical admirer of Doctor Zhivago but still, calling it “that trashy, melodramatic, false and inept book…a sorry thing, clumsy…with stock situations and trite characters…corpselike…false and completely anti-liberal” is a bit thick.

However, Updike, whose review of The Defence Nabokov described as “charming, intelligent, witty and splendidly phrased,” is much admired: “Dear Mr. Updike, I was delighted to receive your charming note. As you know, I love your prose…”

Insofar as these letters really throw light on Nabokov, they help to explain the narrow range of his books. His obsession with literature as artifice, his immersion in the literary and academic worlds, his passion for such non-human pursuits as butterfly-collecting, did not help the novelist. Had he been less of a model family man and teacher, his fiction would have been richer. He lacked the large and often destructive appetites which made most great novelists. Would we have the same Dostoevsky without his involvement in conspiracy and his passion for gambling? Would we have Tolstoy without his drinking, gambling, religious mania and longing to remake Russia? Would we have Balzac without his monstrous acquisitiveness?

Let me draw your attention to a far better book in the same genre: Stendhal: To the Happy Few, Selected Letters, reissued not too long ago by the Soho Book Company, with Cyril Connolly’s old but unsurpassable introduction. Stendhal had not only genius but an adventurous life fraught with danger and misfortune. “You can read your way out of anything with this,” wrote Connolly. “It is another world and a better one.”

That is true.

Essay Date: 1990

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