Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature opens with “Good Readers and Good Writers,” an introductory lecture he delivered to his students at Cornell University. Near the conclusion he proposes what I take to be a useful, amusing way to distinguish among writers and their books, rather than an ironclad critical stricture:
“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”
This is Nabokov at his most charmingly provocative. To the storyteller, he continues, “we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time.”
Nabokov being Nabokov, we’re likely surprised he includes writer-as-teacher in his scheme, though he promptly qualifies the category: “Propagandist, moralist, prophet – this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts.” Here, Nabokov implies his conviction that artist and scientist are cousins, not members of different species. He concludes:
“Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.”
Nabokov’s notion of the tripartite writer comes to mind as I’m reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time for the third time. (Nabokov encouragingly says, in the same lecture: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”) Powell, for my money, qualifies as a major writer in Nabokov’s sense, though I suspect the author of Lolita would not have agreed. As a storyteller Powell is compulsive as he chronicles an English generation across half a century. As a teacher – yes, we learn much, from English customs and colloquialisms, to class-based folkways and the impact of war on soldiers and civilians, to incidentals of food and clothing. Also, satirists are teachers. Nabokov once said a satire was a lesson; a parody, a game. He was defending his own eminence as a parodist.
Powell casts an enchanter’s spell, especially in rereading. First, there is the prose – elegant, precise, witty, occasionally bitchy. Then there is the master artificer’s gift of convincing us we have entered a parallel universe, one than mirrors our own but plays by its own rules of physics and theory of music. Life – our life – is never quite so beautiful or sad, fortunately. He effortlessly induces self-forgetting in the right reader.
A seasoned reader inevitably wants to try out Nabokov’s scheme on other writers, especially favorites, looking for close fits and those who defy the template. Triple-crown winners include Chekhov, Henry James and Penelope Fitzgerald, always; Gogol, Melville, Faulkner and Beckett, sometimes. Christina Stead did it in one novel, The Man Who Loved Children. So did John Williams, in Stoner.
Writers who don’t even come close are also instructive. Dreiser, for instance, can tell a story (especially in Sister Carrie), but as a teacher he’s an earnest, Naturalistic puppet master: “Propagandist, moralist, prophet,” to quote Nabokov. And I suspect Dreiser has never enchanted a reader, not even among his admirers.
But what do we do with Bellow? And the man who started this parlor game, Nabokov? Nominations accepted.