Friday, November 08, 2019

'The One Real Treasure a True Writer Has'

Judged by the volume of pleasure delivered per sentence, no writer ranks higher for me than Vladimir Nabokov. We read writers for many reasons, including guilt, snobbery, salaciousness and the desire to learn things. Nabokov sought and delivered what he called “aesthetic bliss” – hardly the only criterion for evaluating a book’s worth, but a rare and precious one.

Dave Lull alerted me to Bernard Pivot’s interview with Nabokov for an episode of Apostrophes, the prime-time literary talk show on French television. The episode was broadcast in 1975, two years before the novelist’s death at age seventy-eight, and I sense the presence of a mellower Nabokov, friendlier, more obliging, less combative than the one we know from earlier interviews. He dismisses his customary bĂȘtes noires – Freud, Faulkner, fakes – but lingers nostalgically on fondly recalled memories of Russia and the U.S. Nabokov mingles his discontents with gratitude and wonder:  
“I don’t care at all for the writer who does not see the wonders of this century, little things – the free-and-easiness of male attire, the bathroom that has replaced the foul lavabo – and great things like the sublime liberty of thought in our double West, and the moon, the moon. I remember with what a shiver of delight, envy, and anguish I watched on the television screen man’s first floating steps on the talcum powder of our satellite and how I despised all those who maintained it wasn’t worth the expense of billions of dollars to walk in the dust of a dead world. So I detest, therefore, engagĂ© scandalmongers, writers without mystery, the unfortunates who feed on the Viennese charlatan’s elixirs. Those I love, on the other hand, are those who know, as I know, that words alone are the real value of a masterpiece, a principle as old as it is true.”

He is the writer dead in my lifetime whose absence I most often mourn. After reading the interview, I carried with me to a doctor’s appointment The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995). Almost at random I chose to read in the waiting room “Perfection,” written in Russian in 1932 and translated by Nabokov and his son Dmitri for inclusion in Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (1975). No writer so marries melancholy to comedy and a celebration of the visible world. Nearly every sentence delivers a tingle of recognition. When a boy makes fun of Ivanov on a street in Berlin, he mistakes the “didactic mimicry” for a suggestion that he look at the sky where he sees “three lovely cloudlets, holding each other by the hand, . . . drifting diagonally across the sky; the third one fell slowly behind, and its outline, and the outline of the friendly hand still stretched out to it, slowly lost their graceful significance.”

One recalls the indecent fun made of Pnin by his tormentors. The clouds delicately foreshadow Ivanov’s sadly heroic fate at the end of the story, which in turn recalls Nabokov’s recurrent theme of a potential afterlife, particularly in Pale Fire. Close attention paid to this world often suggests the existence of another. And always, we have the pleasure of his prose. In the interview he says:

“One must draw everything one can from words, because it’s the one real treasure a true writer has. Big general ideas are in yesterday’s newspaper. If I like to take a word and turn it over to see its underside, shiny or dull or adorned with motley hues absent on its upperside, it’s not at all out of idle curiosity, one finds all sorts of curious things by studying the underside of a word – unexpected shadows of other words, harmonies between them, hidden beauties that suddenly reveal something beyond the word. Serious wordplay, as I have in mind, is neither a game of chance nor a mere embellishment of style. It’s a new verbal species that the marvelling author offers to the poor reader, who doesn’t want to look; to the good reader, who suddenly sees a completely new facet of an iridescent sentence.”

1 comment:

D. I. Dalrymple said...