Wednesday, August 15, 2012

`And Sadness Is His Very Home'

In 1969, when the American Academy of Arts and Letters presented its Award of Merit to Vladimir Nabokov one month after his seventieth birthday, it was only the sixth time the honor had gone to a novelist. The earlier winners, without exception, were lesser artists gleefully derided by Nabokov: John O’Hara, Aldous Huxley, Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Dreiser. The tribute to Nabokov at the awards ceremony was delivered by another fiction writer, this one worthy of the task. William Maxwell said of the writer whose stories he had been editing for The New Yorker since 1955: 

“He is one more in the line of great Russian storytellers, and, strangely, he is our own. We got him through accident; history displaced him. Personal deprivation made him a great literary artist. We are forever indebted to him for a divine comedy about the faculty of communication between the hand and the head, and for a grand tragedy in which a blind man is undone in a game of hide-and-seek with his tittering tormentors.” 

High praise from Maxwell, whose writerly heroes included Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. The great taxonomist of butterflies still makes taxonomy-minded critics and scholars uncomfortable. Maxwell may be referring to Albert Albinus’ blindness in Laughter in the Dark, though many of his novels – Invitation to a Beheading, Bend Sinister -- are populated with “tittering tormentors.”

“Nabokov’s characters are deceiving and self-deceiving human beings in whom we recognize, profoundly, ourselves. His plots are chess games, in which the chessmen try to make up their own rules and, naturally, they fail at it. Their failure is transmuted into art. His account of a heartless middle-aged man’s sexual pursuit of an even more heartless pre-adolescent girl turns out to be, by a feat of prestidigitation, heartbreaking. No living novelist is better at sensory description, or has written more movingly of the longing of the living to be reunited with the dead.”

Self-deception is at the heart of Nabokov’s themes. Chess games, yes, but as heated as a match between masters. Nabokov still gets slurred as a “cold” writer, a heartless technician. The only scene in modern fiction comparably heartbreaking to the final meeting between Humbert and Lolita is Leopold Bloom’s vision of his dead son Rudy in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses. Unless it’s the death and afterlife of Hazel Shade in Pale Fire, and her father’s “longing of the living to be reunited with the dead.”       

“He is the vaudeville magician par excellence, astonishing us again and again by producing out of the air, in front of our eyes, life untampered with. He is also a poet dealing in prose fiction with the shifting, fictitious nature of reality, with the artifice that we call Time, with the aurora borealis of memory. There is no discoverable limit to the range of his talent. And sadness is his very home.”

“Life untampered with”: So much for Nabokov the “anti-realist.” Is Maxwell a “realist?” That’s how he’s critically pigeonholed. A section of his best novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, is narrated by a dog. For Maxwell, too, “sadness is his very home,” though the comedy is less central. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes: “I confess I do not believe in time.” 

[The quoted passages are taken from Conversations with William Maxwell (University Press of Mississippi, 2012), edited by Barbara Burkhardt.]


Anonymous said...

Nabokov? Wasn't he a paedophile?

Roger Boylan said...

Along with Shakespeare the regicide, Dostoevsky the axe-murderer, and Flaubert the flamboyant adulteress...

Anonymous said...

"In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes: 'I confess I do not believe in time.' "

I understand a statement such as "I do not believe in God", but what does "I do not believe in time' mean? Could it be that Nabokov did not use a wristwatch or an alarm clock or banned clocks from his house? The philosophers Wittgenstein or Oets Bouwsma would have had a delightful time teasing out the nonsense of Nabokov's statement.


Levi Stahl said...

I hadn't seen that the book of conversations with Maxwell had been published. That's great news; I'm going to have to go get a copy tomorrow.