Unpopular writers 4: Vladimir Nabokov
Unpopular may not be the first word many readers associate with the author of Lolita, although Orville Prescot wrote the following New York Times Review in 1958, three years after publication:
“Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”
It was by far his most famous novel, and often considered his finest work in English, indeed the author himself remarked that: “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” While I found it neither dull nor repulsive, I would not describe it as fine. It sticks under the epidermis most effectively, a tale I am glad was told in this way and has endured as it has.
Nabokov’s love of wordplay – incorporating synesthetic detail and acrostics – are an aspect of his style that endears him to the reader or repels them outright, as this ability can teeter on smugness. Regardless, his capacity for speaking English before his native Russian may be a contributing factor to his aptitude. It is certainly why he has often been compared with Conrad (who may be number 6 or so in this series) as the latter also thought and wrote in three languages. Nabokov disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, lamenting to the critic Edmund Wilson: “I am too old to change Conradically”, which John Updike later called “itself a jest of genius”.
Following on Lola’s grubby heels, Pale Fire is diverse and extraordinary, a poioumenon on life, the universe and everything; the lauded memoir, Speak, Memory gives some insight into his earlier life while also informing the reader that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” just in case they were starting to relax and hope to merely learn a few things about Lepidoptera. This covers fourteen accomplished writing years.
The question of unpopularity features in relation to Nabokov partly because of Ada. His longest novel, the composition to which he devoted the most time, and the tip of his descent as a writer. His attention to language becomes over zealous – perhaps why Yevgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the ‘clatter of surgical tools’ in Nabokov’s prose. Character development gives way to meticulous record keeping almost for its own sake. This pedantry is illustrated by his requirements for interviews, according to the Paris Review: “all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English; this is a constant seriocomic form of teasing. He speaks with a dramatic Cambridge accent, very slightly nuanced by an occasional Russian pronunciation. Spoken English is, in fact, no hazard to him… his frequent apologies for his grasp of English clearly belong in the context of Nabokov’s special mournful joking: he means it, he does not mean it, he is grieving for his loss, he is outraged if anyone criticizes his style”. That fact that he wrote on “filing cards, which are gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they become his novels” may explain why the author exclaimed: “My characters are galley slaves”. This is reminiscent of a student revising methodically for an Anatomy exam rather than depicting a character based on shared human experience.
Surprisingly, Martin Amis, in his review of The Original of Laura, wrote perceptively that: “Nabokov, in his decline, imposes on even the keenest reader a horrible brew of piety, literal-mindedness, vulgarity and philistinism.” With his earlier works, when “Left to themselves, The Enchanter, Lolita, and Transparent Things might have formed a lustrous and utterly unnerving trilogy. But they are not left to themselves; by sheer weight of numbers, by sheer iteration, the nympholepsy novels begin to infect one another – they cross-contaminate. We gratefully take all we can from them; and yet . . . Where else in the canon do we find such wayward fixity?” In short, read his earlier works when possible, compare the author’s style with anyone else at your peril, and anything created after the Beatles parted ways is arguably a waste of time.