Thursday, January 20, 2022

'He Says Something I Think I Can Endorse'

In late 1937, Nabokov is working to finish the greatest of his Russian novels, Dar (The Gift). Earlier in the year he and his family had moved from Berlin to Paris, where he retranslated and partially rewrote Kamera obskura (1933). Retitled Laughter in the Dark, it would become, in April 1938, the first of Nabokov’s novels published in the United States. Bobbs-Merrill, the publisher, sent him a publicity questionnaire. Asked to name his “personal dislikes,” Nabokov replies:

“Books with a Message. Studs. Dictators. East Wind. Oysters. Wireless sets; voluble conversation about same.”


The first item is classic Nabokov, a familiar irritant but a good reminder in an age when agitprop is confused with literature. “Studs”? Lonigan? Terkel? A sexually accomplished male? An uncastrated horse? A shirt accessory? Probably the last.


“Dictators”? Who doesn’t hate them? Who is too frightened to say so? “East Wind” I don’t know. A reference to destructiveness, rooted in Greek mythology? Or Stalin? I like oysters though I knew a woman who called them “snot on the half-shell.” Radio, of course, is almost dead. A shame.


Twenty-five years later, Nabokov would assemble another list of dislikes and put into the mouth of a fictional character. This comes from “Pale Fire,” the poem by John Shade that gives Nabokov’s 1962 novel its title:


“Now I shall speak of evil as none has

Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;

The white-hosed moron torturing a black

Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;

Primitivist folk masks, progressive schools;

Music in supermarkets, swimming pools;

Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,

Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.”


In a 1962 BBC interview, Nabokov claimed Shade’s tastes as his own: “It is also true that some of my more responsible characters are given some of my own ideas. There is John Shade in Pale Fire, the poet. He does borrow some of my own opinions. There is one passage in his poem, which is part of the book, where he says something I think I can endorse. [Nabokov then cites the passage quoted above.]”


In another question, Nabokov is asked about “clubs, fraternities, organizations, etc.” He answers, reasonably: “I dislike clubs, I hate organizations, and I loathe fraternities.”


As a writer, Nabokov is by nature a celebrator – of art, consciousness, freedom, memory, love. All of us carry around a mental hit list of life’s aversions. Some of us learn not to dwell on them in too adolescent a fashion.

[The Nabokov questionnaire is collected in Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (eds. Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, 2019.)]


Hai Di Nguyen said...

1/ "“Dictators”? Who doesn’t hate them?"
There are many people who admire dictators, the question is: do they think those are not dictators, or do they know it but think being a dictator is not bad?

2/ I agree with Nabokov about many things, but not about jazz. I love jazz.

Craig said...

Nabokov said a lot of odd things about not liking music of all sorts.
Yet he seems to have enjoyed the operas his son performed in.
I think it best to treat his public utterances as part of his "public" character.

Hai Di Nguyen said...

That's probably true.
I don't know what he said about the operas his son performed in, but have heard of things he said about music in general.
I don't take his words very seriously. He's not a pure aesthete as he claimed to be, for example.