John Simon is perfectly entitled not to like Nabokov much, or my enthusiasm for him. But I must admit I find it strange when I make a comparison of Nabokov with another artist and a reviewer assumes this is a denigration of the other artist, as if when I called the young-lime hue of a young elm leaf more luminous than that of a young oak leaf I would be disparaging the oak, when I am simply trying to signal distinctions in terms others might understand. Let me quote a continuous passage of Simon, with my interpolations:
>Do, however, consider some of the judgments scattered throughout his book, and bear in mind that this is only the first volume; later works by the master are likely to call forth even greater outbursts of adulation. Already we learn, though, that even if Nabokov admired Shakespeares way of mixing comedy and tragedy, he wanted them more radically confounded, and did so confound them, putting him, in one respect at least, ahead of Shakespeare.
[Isn't it useful to explain part of Nabokov's motivation, his admiration for this or that feature in another writer, and his desire to take it further, in one specific work (The Tragedy of Mr Morn)? Does that imply that taking further features you find in other writers is necessarily a better way to write? Does it imply in any way a judgement that Nabokov is superior to Shakespeare?]
> One of Nabokovs stories, Terror, may have influenced Sartres Nausea, though, as Boyd approvingly quotes Nabokov himself, without sharing any of that novels fatal defects.
[I merely quote Nabokov and note that a translation of this story from Russian into German in 1928 could have been the route by which that influence could have occurred.]
>And when it comes to dialogue, Nabokovs can be barer and more realistic than Pinters. Nabokov, then, is more existential than Sartre, more absurdist than Pinter.
[Where do I imply such things? Sometimes in The Man from the USSR Nabokov's dialogue can be surprisingly spare. There's nothing whatever of Pinterian absurdism in that, but there is a remarkable plainness at times, offsetting the flourishes, that is quite different from Pinter's fascinatingly stylized and sinister bareness. In Nabokov of course this bareness also has a different role because it serves as a counterpoint to the frequent imagistic exuberance, where early Pinter achieves an ominous consistency of tone.]
>In Nabokovs first novel, Mary, Ganins memories do not depend on the accident of tasting a madeleine from the patisserie Proust; we are, I assume, to conclude that Ganin is a finer hero than Marcel, and, since he does not stuff himself with French pastries, a trimmer one as well.
[If John Simon had cared to try to understand, he might have realized I was contrasting Nabokov's stress on deliberate memory and Proust's on involuntary memory. Both are genuine aspects of memory, and Nabokov, for whom deliberate memory mattered more in any case, perhaps emphasized this particularly because Proust had placed what he thought an undue weight on involuntary memory. But there is certainly no disparagement of Proust intended on my part or Nabokov's, and no elevation of Ganin.]
>Already as a schoolboy, Nabokov had reinterpreted the Hegelian dialectic of history, Boyd reveals, though he neglects to tell us whether this occurred in homework or in class recitation.
[My only evidence was Speak, Memory, which I cited for interested readers to consult. Is "class recitation" meant to be funny?]
>Nabokov, moreover, is more economical than Balzac, substituting as he does rapid shifts of focus for more ponderous Balzacian amassment of information. These shifts allow Nabokov to mix the exact detail of a Van Eyck with the casually unfilled space of a Hokusai; plainly, Balzac never moved in such fastor, at any rate, rapidly shiftingcompany.
[But it is true that Nabokov is more economical than Balzac and many other nineteenth-century novelists for whom economy, in a world where novels had much less competition from other mechanized media, mattered much less. And why can one not bring in visual artists to suggest Nabokov's handling of visual detail--and especially visual artists Nabokov has himself singled out and I and many others, independently of Nabokov, happen to love?]
From: Vladimir Nabokov Forum on behalf of NABOKV-L
Sent: Mon 3/12/2007 5:32 PM
Subject: [NABOKV-L] THOUGHTS: John Simon on Boyd's VN: The Russian Years
This has probably been tossed about already but I finally read John Simon's
review of Boyd's first volume of the biography and I must say, as much as I
like Boyd, as much as I like VN even, Simon makes several hits, perhaps
palpable ones too. Here is a link:
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