Saturday, August 04, 2012

`There Is Only One School: That of Talent'

“You asked me who are my favorite writers. It would be easier to tell you who are my least favorite. I am happy to be almost always in agreement with the judgments expressed by Nabokov in Strong Opinions, which I’ve just finished reading.” 

So says the late and always charming Aldo Buzzi in “A Self-Interview,” collected in A Weakness for Almost Everything (Steerforth Press, 1999). By nature, Buzzi is an enthusiast, one who identifies himself not by what he hates but what he loves. But even lovers make discriminations, and it was Nabokov who first helped me do so with some sense of taste and discernment in literary matters. His prejudices became mine and most remain so after more than four decades. My years in high school and college -- the late sixties and early seventies -- coincided with Nabokov’s critical ascendancy as a great American writer. His Russian novels and stories were appearing annually in English translation, Ada came out in 1969 (landing VN on the cover of Time at age seventy) and Transparent Things three years later. 

A collection of his interviews and fugitive pieces, Strong Opinions, was published in 1973. From it, Buzzi quotes Nabokov’s assessments of the “second-rate and ephemeral” work of “puffed-up writers” – Camus, Lorca, Kazantzakis, Brecht, Faulkner, Pasternak, Ilya Ehrenburg, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Galsworthy, Dreiser, “a person called Tagore, another called Maxim Gorky, a third called Romain Rolland.” That’s an impressive roll call of mediocrity, and only with Faulkner at his best would I dissent. Elsewhere, Nabokov exiles to oblivion such writers as Dostoevsky, Sholokhov, Thomas Mann, Gide, Thomas Wolfe and, most famously, Freud, “the Viennese quack.” He reveres Melville, Joyce and Proust, Chekhov and Tolstoy. Time has been kind to Nabokov’s judgments. Buzzi goes on to describe À la recherche du temps perdu as the “ideal novel,” and who would disagree except to suggest Pale Fire? 

When Herbert Gold asks Nabokov in 1966 about Blok and Mandelstam, the novelist replies: “I note incidentally that professors of literature still assign these two poets to different schools. There is only one school: that of talent.”


Anonymous said...

Dostoevsky was the first great writer I read seriously. I continue to read his books and appreciate Dostoevsky's genius, especially so after reading Joseph Frank's five-volume literary biography of Dostoevsky, published between 1976 and 2003.



B.R. said...

Thanks for posting this. Nabokov's derisive dismissal: "a person called so-and-so" is brutal - but welcome and clear oxygen. It seems as if there is very little stomach for culling, lacking a better term, in lots of current criticism.