Vladimir Nabokov’s talent for dismissing fellow writers led Saul Bellow to call him a “wicked wizard,” a subtle alliterative pun on Nabokov’s own description of Bellow as a “miserable mediocrity.” Bellow’s Nobel Prize did little to alter Nabokov’s opinion. From Nabokov, a master of detail and prose, we’d expect long and elegant vivisections of the respected authors he tosses away, some of them longstanding canonical authors. But his dismissals are famous for their brevity and venomousness, as though the perpetrators of the books he despises have committed a personal offence against him as a reader, and those critics and fellow readers who have indulged the criminal are to be treated with shortness and disdain. The list of offenders includes Faulkner, Dostoevsky (“a third rate writer”), Eliot (“a fraud and a fake”), Malraux, Henry James, Colette (“second-rate vocational literature”), Thomas Mann (“this ponderous conventionalist, this tower of triteness”), and Ezra Pound (“disgusting and entirely second-rate”).
The complete list is vast and reads like the schedule for an exhaustive course in world literature. Nabokov was careful in his placement of these dismissals, limiting the harshest of them to private letters – he avoided public mockery of living authors, and was notably upset when journalist Israel Shenker printed some off-the-record quips he’d made about Solzhenitsyn and Bellow. His published critical articles were pointedly academic and less acidic, even when he was writing about someone whose work he loathed. Sartre, who had crudely attacked Nabokov’s Despair when the French-language version appeared(1), received a politely even-handed debunking in a published review in 1949(2), probably the first negative treatment of Sartre in America. It was an elegant, professional critique that demonstrated the powers of focus and analysis Nabokov called upon to back up any dismissal when it was appropriate.
Nabokov did not merely dismiss writers on the basis of style—his admiration of Chekhov and Tolstoy, who were not great stylists, and his disdain for Racine and Stendahl, who were, proves the unpredictability of his choices. Simon Karlinksky posits that Nabokov was chiefly irritated by “writers who rely too much on readymade conventions and formulae… or those who strive for effects with are emotional rather than artistic.” While these observations have some truth to them, they do not precisely explain Nabokov’s annoyance with, for example, most of the French “nouveau-roman” writers, or with the “flimsy little fables” of Borges. Pinning down the precise outlines of Nabokov’s dismissive urge is next to impossible, as his tastes were complex, sometimes impatient, and extremely demanding. Still, an exploration of the work he found disposable does reveal a pattern of elements that Nabokov thought were intrinsic to the value of any literary work.
Professor Nabokov was an anti-canonical academic before the term became chic. Karlinsky mentions that “Not since Tolstoy has there been a writer with as little reverence for established literary reputations as Nabokov.” Tolstoy made it to Nabokov’s first rank of Russian writers, as discussed in one of his lectures – “Leaving aside… precursors Pushkin and Lermontov, we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev. This is rather like grading students’ papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks.” Failing grades were not confined to his lectures—in his correspondence, interviews, and essays, Nabokov seemed aware of the undeniable entertainment value of his dismissals—and Nabokov was just as entertained by them himself. Most of the bleak sum-ups of writers included above read like hilarious one-liners—but when called upon to reinforce his brief rejections, he did so with the same analytical power he used to review Sartre, as he often displayed in his exchanges with Edmund Wilson. In Nabokov’s fleshier arguments, it becomes clear that his hatred and scorn of weak literature arose from a very specific and powerful love for strong literature, the sort of writing that informed his own.
The famous Nabokov / Wilson letters are studded with Nabokov’s brush-offs of authors that Wilson considered vanguard material. Wilson had a strong interest in writers with a socio-political bent to their work. Nabokov didn’t. This divergent taste paired with Wilson’s naive championing of Soviet Russia led to some amusing and enlightening epistolary scuffles, culminating in the dissolution of their friendship over Wilson’s brutal, incomprehensible attack on Nabokov’s annotated translation of Eugene Onegin. Their discussion of Faulkner, brief as it was, provides an interesting insight into the nature of Nabokov’s dismissals.
Wilson mailed Nabokov one of his spare review copies of Light in August in Novem ber of 1948, with a note including the following: “In spite of his (Faulkner’s) carelessness, I should think he would be rather congenial to you. I have been reading him spellbound lately. I think he is the most remarkable contemporary American novelist.” Nabokov’s first reply was lost in the mail, but he obligingly re-sent his critique when Wilson complained of not receiving it. Nabokov begins his letter by explaining just how much he detests Faulkner’s style, before moving on to the sociological element of the text. “…Faulkner’s belated romanticism and quite impossible biblical rumblings and “starkness” (which is not starkness at all but skeletonized triteness), and all the rest of the bombast seem to me so offensive that I can only explain his popularity in France by the fact that all her own popular mediocre writers (Malraux included) of recent years have also had their fling at “l’homme marchait, la nuit etait sombre”. The book you sent me is one of the tritest and most tedious examples of a trite and tedious genre.”
Karlinksy’s theory that Nabokov’s critical dismissals operated on a hatred of convention and formula is in full force here, but Faulkner’s specific social aims also find a place in Nabokov’s letter. “…I imagine this kind of thing (white trash, velvety Negroes, those bloodhounds out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin melodramas, steadily baying through thousands of swampy books) may be necessary in a social sense, but it is not literature, just as the thousands of stories and novels about downtrodden peasants and fierce ispravniki(3) in Russia… although socially effective and ethically admirable, were not literature. I simply cannot believe that you, with all your knowledge and taste, are not made to squirm by such things as the dialogues between the “positive” characters in Faulkner (and especially those absolutely ghastly italics).” He concludes with a final swipe at Wilson’s heroes: “Maybe you are just pulling my leg when you advise me to read him, or impotent Henry James, or the Rev. Eliot?”
Nabokov’s criteria for dismissal, expanded beyond issues of style, encompassed a writer’s privileging of social problems over artistry. But that is only one more stitch in steadily expanding pattern of Nabokov’s tastes. “Age is chary, but it is also forgetful, and in order to choose instantly what to reread on a night of Orphic thirst and what to reject for ever, I am careful to put an A, or a C, or a D-minus, against this or that item in the anthology.” D.H. Lawrence and Henry James earning failing grades functioned as an amusing hook for a demonstration of Nabokov’s love for literature that was not “the sexy, phony type of best seller, the violent, vulgar novel, the novelistic treatment of social or political problems, and in general, novels consisting mainly of dialogue or social comment – these are absolutely banned from my bedside.” He was a famous proponent of the use of detail and description in proper prose, and the introductions to his translated work are infested with a reader he despises, one who “skips descriptions” in a constant scavenger quest for “Freudian symbols.” His essay “Inspiration” contains brief analyses of six stories he finds admirable, and an introductory note that illumines his way of looking at literature.
Examples are the stained-glass windows of knowledge. From a small number of A-plus stories I have chosen half a dozen particular favourites of mine. I list their titles below and parenthesize briefly the passage—or one of the passages—in which genuine afflation appears to be present, no matter how trivial the inspired detail may look to a dull criticule.
John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” (“Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.” The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.)
John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been” (“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of those Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.” I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.)
J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle…” This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.)
Herbert Gold’s “Death in Miami Beach” (“Finally we die, opposable thumbs and all.” Or to do even better justice to this admirable piece: “Barbados turtles as large as children… crucified like thieves… the tough leather of their skin does not disguise their present helplessness and pain.”)
John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (“What is the story’s point? Ambrose is ill. He perspires in the dark passages; candied apples-on-a-stick, delicious-looking, disappointing to eat. Funhouses need men’s and ladies’ rooms at interval.” I had some trouble pinning down what I needed amidst the lovely swift speckled imagery.)
Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (…and the fatal merciless passionate ocean.” Although there are several other divine vibrations in this story that so miraculously blends an old cinema film with a personal past, the quoted phrase wins its citation for power and impeccable rhythm.)(4)
In The Gift, the last of his Russian novels, the characters of Fyodor and Koncheyev engage in a friendly argument over literature. Karlinksy points out that Fyodor’s opening salvo in the discussion seems to be a very close reflection of Nabokov’s own opinions: “there are only two kinds of books: bedside and wastebasket. Either I love a writer fervently, or throw him out entirely.” Indeed, this is a time-reversed echo of the “banned from my bedside” comment Nabokov included in “Inspiration,” written some thirty-five years later. But in his introduction to The Gift, Nabokov cautions the reader against equating the author with Fyodor, the protagonist, and admits to contributing more of himself to Koncheyev, Fyodor’s opponent in the gentle debate. Koncheyev is opposed to dismissing authors entirely, calling Fyodor’s approach “dangerous.” He then proceeds to list redeeming details and scenes written by authors scorned by Fyodor (and Nabokov), such as Leskov, whose image of Christ as “the Ghostly Galilean, cool and gentle, in a robe the colour of a ripening plum” is undeniably beautiful. Fyodor is encouraged to join in the game, finding in Dostoevsky’s Karamazov “a circular wine mark left by a wet wine glass on an outdoor table…” that he finds worth saving. Essentially, these characters use Nabokov’s approach to picking out greatness in great works to salvage greatness from flawed works. It is the closest Nabokov comes to being forgiving and less than ruthless in his literary tastes.
Martin Amis, who views Saul Bellow and Nabokov as his “twin peaks,” his personal novelists of the twentieth century, attempts to explain Nabokov’s wounding evaluation of Bellow by saying that “Nabokov clearly derived sensual pleasure from being dismissive: it is the patrician in him.” This theory is allied to the perception that Nabokov and most of Russia’s émigré intellectuals were subject to for years: as fallen, embittered aristocrats. A frustrating label that Nabokov alluded to in his introduction to The Gift, his longest treatment of the émigré scene in Europe. “We remained unknown to American intellectuals (who, bewitched by Communist propaganda, saw us merely as villainous generals, oil magnates, and gaunt ladies with lorgnettes).” Amis’s theory is as incomplete as the rest. The violence of Nabokov’s dismissals can be attributed both to his wit, which he was always hesitant to leave dormant, and to his distinct artistic sense. There is something either vaguely or powerfully Nabokovian about the strong details he singles out from the stories he loves and those he is sceptical of: they have that distinct, idiosyncratic power that the best of Nabokov’s own details do. His tendency was to dismiss authors who were toiling in what he thought of as a useless and infertile territory of literary exploration. From an analysis of the long list of authors that Nabokov dismissed, we can draw up some demarcations of this negative territory, but it remains both distinct and untraceable, a phantom quantity that is as impressive and formless as the brilliance of Nabokov’s own work.
1. Sartre used the review to speak disapprovingly of the Russian émigrés.
2. “Sartre’s First Try,” New York Times Book Review, April 24, 1949.
3. Police Officials
4. “Inspiration,” Saturday Review, November 20th, 1972
Naben Ruthnum plays guitar in Bend Sinister. He lives in Vancouver.