Vladimir Nabokov confesses to butterflies in the stomach

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

Not every novelist has opinions. Some of the greatest have a touch of the idiot savant, such as Adalbert Stifter, Ronald Firbank and Henry Green. And those novelists who do have opinions aren’t always worth listening to. But Vladimir Nabokov’s views are of compelling interest — paradoxically, because he regularly insisted that his novels sent no message, made no moral case and presented no argument. The beauty of his views on literary and other matters rests on his openness to laughter. He used to complain that his lectures to undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell were greeted in silence; he was sure that if he had heard them he would have been in fits of laughter from start to finish. The possibility of laughter, never very far away, is what gives Nabokov’s intelligence the confidence of the first-rate.

His non-fiction stands up astonishingly well. There is Speak, Memory, the greatest of autobiographies; there is Strong Opinions, an idiosyncratic collection of reviews and interviews, mostly from the early 1960s onwards; and there are three masterly, intensely practical and hilarious volumes of lectures on, among other things, Russian literature and Don Quixote.

Think, Write, Speak is something of a mopping-up exercise, containing uncollected and unpublished essays and reviews, as well as a large number of interviews with the press. These last could have been approached in a more rational way. The editors have followed the eccentric practice in Strong Opinions of only printing Nabokov’s reported speech from each press interview, omitting any scene-setting or commentary the journalist might have included. There are a handful of truly insightful pieces: Penelope Gilliatt catches Nabokov in full flight, and there is a magnificent account of a butterfly-hunting expedition by Robert H. Boyle for Sports Illustrated.

Not many journalists succeeded in getting Nabokov to talk about butterflies: he knew too much, and they knew nothing at all. Boyle somehow got Nabokov to talk generously about this passion, including the startling information that he once ate some in Vermont to see if they were poisonous: ‘The taste of both was vile, but I had no ill effects. They tasted like almonds and perhaps a green cheese combination. I ate them raw.’

It would have been a good idea to have included the whole piece, at the expense of several of the ridiculous interviews by Italian or German journalists who ask things like: ‘Do you think that all creative and imaginative work is destined to disappear or to survive in America’s technological society?’ They all, without exception, question the morality of Lolita, as well as Nabokov’s decision to live in Switzerland, which they find inexplicable.

It’s true that even when talking to posturing dullards Nabokov manages to sound interesting. But probably the main substance of the book lies in some remarkable essays, reviews and lectures. A hilarious de haut en bas talk on ‘The Railway Accident’, a short story by Thomas Mann from the volume Nocturnes (‘Nobody in their right mind would use the word Nocturnes for a title, but let that pass’) skewers Mann on every level — style, message-sending and practicality — noting that in his fiction one can put one’s fist through a window without having ‘a single scratch to show’.

There are other tirades on literary topics. A brilliant passage in the Gilliatt interview explains with joyous exuberance just how incompetent Doctor Zhivago is as a novel:

That marvellous scene where he had to get rid of the little girl to let the characters make love, and he sends her out skating. In Siberia. To keep warm they give her the mother’s scarf. And then she sleeps deeply in a hut while there is all this going on.

What saves this from being loweringly negative is a clear and happy sense of what fiction ought to be doing, and how it can be made much better. Nabokov must have been a superb teacher. A 1943 profile shows him being utterly sweet to his pupils: ‘So good to hear Russian spoken again! I am practically back in Moscow!’ (Not, on reflection, an unmixed joy for him.) The essay ‘On Learning Russian’ contains the delightful classroom observation that ‘a Russian vowel is an orange, an English vowel is a lemon’ — observe the shape of your mouth when you pronounce the o’s in ‘Tolstoy’ and in ‘clothes’.

Some of the bravest and most inspiring writing here comes in violently funny reviews of Soviet ‘literature’. Nabokov, who never tired of pointing out that the fortune he made from Lolita after 1955 didn’t begin to compensate for the family money confiscated  by the Bolsheviks after 1917, was at once selfish and principled in his loathing. ‘No literature,’ he says, ‘can be expected to produce anything of permanent value when its only objective, as ruled by the state, is to embody this or that governmental whim.’

The fate of this essay, ‘Soviet Literature, 1940’, was to prove his point. It was commissioned for a 1941 issue of Decision, a magazine edited by Klaus Mann, and actually made it into proof. It was pulled, however, under official pressure. Its first lines compared a Nazi promulgation — that though the artist ‘should develop freely’, the party ‘demands acknowledgement of our creed’ — with Lenin’s maxim — that ‘every artist has the right to create freely, but we communists must guide him according to plan’. After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, this observation was no longer allowed. The American government, too, had demanded acknowledgement of its creed.

Nabokov had a lot to laugh about. An earlier talk, ‘A Few Words on the Wretchedness of Soviet Fiction’, simply summarises the action of Cement, a ludicrous novel by one Feodor Gladkov. The comedy is irresistible, but we are made aware that it has its chilling aspects: ‘Hello there, fellers! What a hell of a mess you’ve made of the factory, my friends! You ought all to be shot, my dear comrades!’

In a later essay, Nabokov drily notes the terrified encomia of the Soviet novelist Marietta Shaguinian on an approved Azerbaijani short story

by someone called Mamed-Kuli-Zade… that ‘it is hardly possible to find in the literature of the whole world many stories that attain the same level of artistic force and social truth’.

Shaguinian ended up writing interminable novels about the life of Lenin, which usefully won the Lenin Prize. Nabokov, on the other hand, never won anything — which tells you everything you need to know about literary prizes.

Of course, this is all a performance. Any journalist who presumed they knew what Nabokov really thought about anything — let alone those Italian idiots who were under the impression that Lolita had an autobiographical aspect — was quickly seen off. Did anyone know what was inside there? Did even Nabokov? Or was there just the splendour of his sentences, which can present feeling, impersonate it and retreat heartlessly from it, making the reader weep or laugh heartily when someone is horribly killed in two words — ‘(picnic, lightning)’?

Nobody knew — least of all the berk whose opinion that Nabokov had ‘never been too close to anybody’ called forth this splendid, gloriously conceited but somehow tranquil observation:

One is often tempted to ask an opulent-looking stranger how much money he has in the bank; but he mumbles evasively.


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