The “disastrous” in US literary culture

9 October 2009
Vladimir Nabokov, showing the pin he liked to stick in commentators

Vladimir Nabokov, showing the pin he liked to stick in commentators

Ron Rosenbaum has always been one of the leading — and most interesting, not to mention smartest — commentators on all things Nabokov. Which is why lots of people looked to him to figure out what to make of the publication of Original of Laura, Nabokov’s famous unfinished novel. (See the earlier MobyLives stories here and here.) So, now that it’s almost here — the book, or rather the notes for the book, will be published by Knopf next month — what does Rosenbaum, given a sneak peak, think?
“It was a manuscript I sought to save from burning, then decided should be burned, and now burned to see, despite my reservations,” he reports in his Slate column. “What can I say? The act has already been done, committed. And I had been conflicted, and I had devoted considerable time to something that might have ended up a pile of ashes …. Still: The part of me that agonized about whether the book should be published wonders, Was I wrong or was I right? Will the vengeful ghost of Vladimir Nabokov haunt me from now on?”
In the end, after getting over his disturbance at finding himself mentioned in the acknowldgments, the author’s handwritten fixes move Rosenbaum into thinking it’s a welcome look into the author’s humanity — he says little about the content otherwise.
But it’s enough to upset another smart commentator, Dan Green at The Reading Experience. As he explains in his own commentary, “I find Ron Rosenbaum’s response to his perusal of the Nabokov Original of Laura manuscript pretty creepy.”
Says Green, “But what Rosenbaum seems to have taken away most from his encounter with The Original of Laura is that on page xix of the book’s front matter Dmitri Nabokov thanks. . .Ron Rosenbaum. This is probably the creepiest part of Rosenbaum’s essay, as he goes all gushy about the role he believes he played in bringing The Original of Laura to light …. The whole episode makes me wish Vladimir Nabokov had burned the manuscript himself so we would have been spared the ruminations of Ron Rosenbaum.”
Maybe the best entry of all in this discussion: Steve Mitchemore’s breakdown on his This Space blog (where he calls Green “his country’s most durable defender of the merely literary,” which is what’s precisely great about Dan Green), and says: “What Dan’s righteous take down of Rosenbaum emphasises for me is the absence of the disastrous in contemporary US literature, the disaster that ramifies out of fun or beauty and into life. At present US literary culture appears to be one in which gushing pieces that grab the most convenient alibi for discussing literature can guarantee themselves the front pages and the ability to set the literary agenda. (In this way it is identical to Britain). There seems to be a huge gulf between say, on the one hand, the studiously pitched levity of Steven Augustine’s comment to Dan’s post and, on the other, David Foster Wallace’s suicide, yet very little in-between. Tao Lin’s novel Eeeee eee eeee, for example, may be an exception to the rule”
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