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Archive for the ‘Vladimir Nabokov’ Category

Which is Nabokov’s best novel? Any ranking is subjective but the reasons behind a “best of” rank can be illuminating.  So here is my personal list with notes, which includes a little cheating. Of the eight “best” Nabokov books on my list, you’ll notice only six are novels.

Lolita (1955)

Lolita - The Best Nabokov novelLolita is Nabokov’s best novel because it is the book that best synthesizes all his major characteristics as a writer:

(1) A love of language

(2) Delight in word play, patterns, puzzles, and games

(3) A highly intelligent, narcissistic-sociopath narrator

(4) A resilient victim who is  the center of Nabokov’s sympathy

(5) A pre-occupation with perception, consciousness, time, and memory

(6) A belief in fate and the existence of a great design behind what seem to be the random and irrelevant facts of ordinary life

(7) The conviction that art is a refuge from the assault of death

In addition, Lolita is the disturbing story of a successful child rapist. It features brilliant miniature portraits of postwar America – almost Vermeer-like in their lucidity – as well as a phantasmagorical climax that takes place in a fairytale nightmare land. Lolita is funny, harrowing, heartbreaking, and transcendent. It caused a scandal, was a critical and then a popular success, and made Nabokov a mint of money. As art and cultural phenomenon, Lolita excels. The Lolita article on Wikipedia is pretty good.

Speak, Memory (1966)

Speak Memory Nabokov - a best Nabokov bookNot a novel, but a memoir of Nabokov’s life from childhood to the moment he escapes France weeks before the 1940 German invasion – Speak, Memory is a classic of autobiography that leaves most of Nabokov’s story untold.

Instead, it focuses on Nabokov’s most cherished memories of his family and friends; his youth in Russia and his young adulthood in Western European exile; on the natural world and butterfly hunting; on a recital of the Nabokov family’s august history and their liberal politics; on stories of Vladimir’s education and tutors and governesses, including the famous “Mademoiselle O”; on poetry; and more.

Through it all permeates the great Nabokovian pre-occupation and conviction that there is more than darkness before the beginning and after the end of life; that our living persists and this persistence is wonderful; and that the people we love won’t disappear into nothingness after death. You find this theme frequently in Nabokov, but its purest distillation is here in this great book. *

Pnin (1957)

Pnin a Best Nabokov novelProfessor Timofey Pnin is Nabokov’s most deeply comic and deeply human character, and his response to the incessant comic cruelty Cervantes inflicts on Don Quixote. The structure of the novel is slight and episodic (Pnin began life as serial pieces published in The New Yorker) and lacks the dazzling pyrotechnics of books like Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. What Pnin offers instead is hilarity, enormous tenderness for the agonies of an ordinary life, and the danger of laughing at rather than laughing with Timofey; which is complicated by the fact that the arrogant narrator of this novel is not a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote, but Vladimir Nabokov himself.

Pale Fire (1962)

In terms of structure, technique, and pure virtuosity – and as a landmark of post-modern fiction – Pale Fire is Nabokov’s masterpiece. But it is a cold masterpiece.

The novel is constructed from a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets composed by one of the book’s characters (the Robert-Frost-like John Shade), with a forward, commentary, and index written by another (the extravagantly delusional Charles Kinbote).

The major conceit of Pale Fire is that Kinbote’s commentary has nothing to do with Shade’s poem, which creates a WTF experience for the unwarned first-time reader rivaled in English-language novels of the 20th century only by the “Benny” section of Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.

Nabokov’s prose in Pale Fire is brilliant; there is no better example of “the novel as chess problem” in his work; and Charles Kinbote is the craziest if not the most dangerous of Nabokov’s narrators (although it is difficult to tell what is “real” and what is imagination in his novels).

However, the human tenderness in Pale Fire – frequently buried in Nabokov’s major works – is particularly difficult to find here. It exists in Shade’s poem, which tells the story of his unhappy daughter’s suicide, and the long grief of Shade and his wife over their loss. But this is overwhelmed by Kinbote’s monumental self-absorption and the intricate innovation of Nabokov’s design. Nabokov’s supreme novel for the mind. The Pale Fire article on Wikipedia is pretty good.

The Gift (1937)

The Gift - a best Nabokov novelThe last and best of the novels Nabokov wrote in Russian, The Gift is a portrait of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, finding his way as an artist and falling in love with the woman who would become his wife.

Nabokov transforms this commonplace premise into a novel which is dense with detail, filled with examples of Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s writing, and convinced that fate is working secretly to assure the young writer’s happiness.

Nabokov’s powers of observation and description come to the forefront in The Gift, particularly since the novel, like many lives, is short on plot. This will please fans of modernism (if you like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I think you’ll like The Gift) but there are metafictional touches as well.

The novel features a 90-page chapter entirely devoted to a book by Fyodor called The Life of Chernyshevski as well as a generous sample of hostile reviews of it. Most especially, at the end, you see Fyodor coming up with the idea to write a book that will become The Gift itself.

Ada (1969)

Ada is Nabokov’s Finnegan’s Wake. Meaning that  you can see Ada as either the summation of Nabokov’s artistic vision which pushes to their limits his genius as an author, the form of the novel, and the abilities of the audience. Or you can see Ada as a deeply self-indulgent, over-intricate and deliberately obscure, reader-hostile mess.

I’m inclined to the former view, although I think Ada is a good example of the axiom that more is not always better, and even Nabokov fans will need to endure a fair amount of confusion, re-read the novel several times, or rely on expert help (such as Brian Boyd’s Nabokov’s Ada or the chapters in his biography of Vladimir).

Ada is occupied with the 80+ year love affair between Van and Ada Veen who are, as it turns out, brother and sister and which takes place on a parallel / alternative Earth sometimes called Anti Terra and sometimes Demonia. All seven of the Nabokov qualities are in evidence, plus a fair amount of literary parody as well as a few science fiction touches and other assorted material that will keep readers so inclined to puzzle out Ada happily at work. Satisfactory plot summary of Ada on Wikipedia.

Bend Sinister (1947)

Nabokov always insisted he was indifferent to politics, but Bend Sinister suggests he wasn’t indifferent to the cruelty governments inflict on individuals.

The novel takes place in the nightmare city of Padukgrad, run by the dictator Paduk and his “Party of the Average Man”.  Paduk wants Adam Krug, a renowned philosopher, to give a speech in support of his government. When Krug refuses, Paduk threatens his son, and the bungling brutality of Paduk’s thugs leads to tragedy.

In Bend Sinister, Nabokov focuses on Adam Krug’s love for his son and his cheerful contempt for the dictator Paduk, a childhood acquaintance. Although the novel takes place in a fictitious country, and feels like other Nabokovian worlds, Bend Sinister is an accurate portrait of the dynamics of the total state. What is fantasy, and what gives the novel its final punch, is when Nabokov reaches into the novel and mercifully saves a character from the suffering that state inflicts. (For a longer discussion of Nabokov and totalitarianism, see my post Tyrants Destroyed: Politics in the Novels of Vladimir Nabokov.)

Strong Opinions (1973)

Readers of this collection of interviews, edited to the last comma by Nabokov himself, could be forgiven for concluding Vladimir was even more arrogant and imperious than his reputation.

Nabokov does spank the hell out of just about everyone in Strong Opinions: Freud; a long list of “second rate” writers including Balzac, Dostoevski, Lawrence, Camus, Sartre, and Faulkner; consumers of “poshlost” or cheap, vulgar sometimes popular and sometimes exalted culture; Westerners duped by Soviet propaganda; members of any literary, social, or political group; fans of “general ideas” and “everyday reality” and “social interest” and “moral messages” in novels; Edmund Wilson and his grasp of Russian. The spanking goes on.

Nabokov does condemn cruelty and brutality in all its forms. He expresses a great sunny and personal happiness. And he provides useful facts, such as the pronunciation of his last name (“Na-bo-kov. A heavy open ‘o’ as in ‘knickerbocker’”) in his September 1965 interview with Robert Hughes. As complete a portrait of the public Nabokov as Speak Memory is a portrait of the private.

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* Equal to Speak Memory as autobiography is My Mother’s House by Colette, which I also review on this blog.

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Bend Sinister Vladimir NabokovFor most of his life, Vladimir Nabokov declared himself indifferent to politics and expressed his satisfaction with never having joined any group or participated in any organized human activity.

Nabokov insisted that there were no “messages” in his work. He expressed contempt for literature that discussed general ideas, offered social commentary, dealt with everyday “reality” (a word Nabokov frequently put in quotes), or promised human interest.

Instead, Nabokov said he valued books that were grounded in the imagination and talent of the specific writer, and which offered aesthetic bliss which he recognized by a thrill in his spine.

Nabokov’s own novels seemingly confirm these principles. They are deeply idiosyncratic; full of dense word play, complex patterns, and recondite references; and deliver a great deal of what looks like misanthropy.

All of this argues you won’t find a trace of politics in Nabokov’s work just as he claimed. But here’s the thing. I don’t believe him. And neither should you.

The first reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is he knew from personal experience that indifference to politics does not stop politics from affecting you.

Nabokov and his family escaped the Russian Revolution in 1917. His liberal politician father was assassinated by Russian fascists in 1922. Nabokov fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and soon to be Nazi-conquered France in 1940 to protect his family and in particular his wife, Vera, who was Jewish. His brother Sergey died in a German concentration camp, where he was sent after speaking out against the Nazis.

The second reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that while he may have bragged about never having joined any group, he also took great pride in his adopted country of the United States.

Strong Opinions Vladimir NabokovNabokov described himself as “American as April in Arizona” and said he felt a “suffusion of warm, light-hearted pride” when he showed his American passport at European borders (Strong Opinions, p. 98). He kept his US citizenship, and continued to pay American taxes, even after he and Vera moved to Switzerland.

By contrast, Nabokov was outspoken and unrelenting in his contempt for the leaders of the Soviet Union and the vast harm they had done to the Russian nation. Nabokov also had no problem arguing with the American liberals who continued to embraced Soviet propaganda long after they should have known better.

The third reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that he consistently stated that the worst act a human being could commit was an act of cruelty. He believed that cruelty was the essence of all tyrants, and it is cruelty that he condemned in all his major novels.

This condemnation of cruelty can be hard to see because of Nabokov’s techniques as a writer, however.

Nabokov never wavered in his dislike of plainly written novels with obvious messages, and this dislike was reinforced by his observation that bad writers and bad leaders were much alike.

Nabokov saw bad writers and bad leaders as equally trite, vulgar, and stupid. They both thought and wrote and spoke in a debased language of general ideas, and both believed that human beings can be reduced to a few general “types” that are easily defined by commonplace characteristics.

Nabokov expresses this idea most succinctly in his short story, Tyrants Destroyed, when he wrote, “the real human being is a poet and [the tyrant] is the incarnate negation of a poet” (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, p. 446).

Nabokov also seems to have understood that the bad writer, especially the bad writer with a good reputation, actually legitimized the propaganda of a dictatorship’s officially sanctioned authors. If Balzac or Lawrence or Camus were first-rate artists, rather than second-rate scribblers, then the novels of approved Soviet writers could also be great works of art rather than tools of manipulation and misinformation.

So Nabokov responded by creating a highly personal – sometimes, stubbornly personal – body of work that emphasized the uniqueness of his characters and the originality of his imagination.

This approach, in itself, was an attack on authoritarian states like the Soviet Union, which insisted that the group was more important than the individual and which were threatened by any work that didn’t enthusiastically celebrate the state’s manifold virtues in a manner easily understood by the average person.

Pnin Vladimir NabokovNabokov’s work was also a relentless assault on cruelty. Nabokov didn’t usually link cruelty directly to a dictator, although the tyrant Paduk in the novel Bend Sinister is an exception. Instead, Nabokov created brilliant, charismatic monsters who blinded readers to their viciousness, monsters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Kinbote in Pale Fire, and to a lesser degree Van Veen in Ada.

Nabokov could also take the side of those who suffered cruelty, most famously in the character of Professor Timofrey Pnin (a refuge from Soviet Russia like Nabokov) and but also with characters such as the philosophy professor, Adam Krug, from Bend Sinister who is helpless to stop the bungling thugs of that book’s tyrant from murdering his only child.

As usual, Nabokov expressed it best. In October 1971, when Nabokov was 72 and had finished writing all his major works, he said this to the interviewer Kurt Hoffman (Strong Opinions, p. 193):

“I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and the cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.”

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I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s masterpiece is frightening story of abuse, a Gogolish road-trip through post-war America, a funhouse of unreliable mirrors, and a tale of selfish vice vanquished (but not excused) by love. After Humbert Humbert destroys his doppelgänger in the fairy-tale mansion on Grimm Road, he and Nabokov make a furious last dash to preserve Dolores Haze from time and death. They succeed.

 

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Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, Yale Univ PressNikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls first gained fame as a caustic satire of Russian society when it was published in 1842. Today’s readers will value it as a mesmerizing phantasmagoria of human vice, mendacity, and mediocrity.

The title refers to a defect in Russian law that frequently required the owners of serfs (or “souls”) to pay taxes on their human property even after the serfs have died. The story follows Chichikov, a small-time confidence man, as he buys these souls at steep discounts, saving the owners from the taxes and gaining for himself fraudulent collateral he can use in subsequent schemes.

Gogol offers a parade of vividly detailed human caricatures described in language which is baroque, grotesque, exuberant, and exact. Nabokov fans will find much that is familiar in Gogol’s prose. I enjoyed the translation of Dead Souls by Bernard Guilbert Guerney which Nabokov recommended .

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The one true moral responsibility of literature is to strengthen our imaginative sympathy for other people. Nabokov’s exploration of the deep humanity within the seemingly comic figure of Professor Timofrey Pnin is the most perfect example in English. The story is episodic, but the writing is flawless.

Think Nabokov is an arrogant misanthrope? Look for Victor’s glass bowl and “the shining road” on which Pnin escapes into Pale Fire, where Nabokov makes him the head of a thriving Russian department.

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