Wednesday, April 23, 2014

`Philistinism in All Its Phases'

The literary critic with the earliest and most sustained influence on me as a reader and writer was not a literary critic but a novelist of the first rank – Vladimir Nabokov. His tastes, prejudices and enthusiasms I absorbed as my own – at first, by osmosis and faith; later, by testing them against the writers and books in question. His judgments could be wrong-headed, but interestingly so, and some I have subsequently modified or rejected. You could learn from his lapses. A reader has alerted me to a list of Nabokov’s literary assessments culled from Strong Opinions (1973).  I pass it along not as a guide to anything, or as a proposed Bloomian or Adleresque mini-canon, but simply as insight into one reader/writer’s literary education. Nabokov contributed much to my aesthetic conscience. 

The most immediate reversal in bookish values spurred by Nabokov was my abrupt sense of revulsion at Dostoevsky, which has never left me. The timing was critical. I’d read the novels starting in seventh grade. The melodrama appealed to me, all that Slavic angst, phony mysticism and sub-Dickensian comedy. A few years later, when I read Nabokov’s wonderful monograph Nikolai Gogol, he gave a name to what attracted some of us to Dostoevsky: poshlost.  “Dusty,” as Nabokov dismissed him, is forever linked with my callow, awkward, backward, soft-headed, pre-critical adolescence. In his Paris Review interview with Herbert Gold in 1964 (collected in Strong Opinions), Nabokov glosses poshlost further: 

“Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.” 

In other words, things have degenerated even further in half a century. I never fell for Freud’s frauds but Nabokov helped me see through such “puffed-up” (a favorite term of dismissal) reputations as Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky, D.H. Lawrence, Balzac, Thomas Wolfe, Camus, Sartre, Brecht, Kazantzakis, Galsworthy, García Lorca and Rabindranath Tagore (“a formidable mediocrity”). Today, it’s difficult to understand how anyone took them seriously, but all were certified as “important” when I was a young reader. We need guides, not gospel, so as not to get lost and tangled in the underbrush of literature. Nabokov was my first and most influential. He could be wrong – about Robbe-Grillet and Salinger, for instance; but he could be admirably right, as he was about Sterne, Melville and Beckett. The author of Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory was born on this date, April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday – in 1899, and died on July 2, 1977.

1 comment:

Don said...

I'm currently reading Speak, Memory for the first time, and hadn't realized his view of Balzac. I get why the others you list were considered "puffed up", but I wouldn't lump the best of Balzac (e.g., Cousin Bette) with them. Or perhaps Balzac just hits some childish chord in me. Regardless, Speak, Memory is living up to its reputation as an extraordinary book.