That’s Vla dimir Nabo kov on my computer s creen ...
Sunday Book Review
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When Writers Speak
Why are wonderful writers sometimes such dull conversationalists? Blame it on the brain.
By ARTHUR KRYSTAL
Published: September 25, 2009
That’s Vladimir Nabokov on my computer screen, looking both dapper and disheveled. He’s wearing a suit and a multibuttoned vest that scrunches the top of his tie, making it poke out of his shirt like an old-fashioned cravat. Large, lumpish, delicate and black-spectacled, he’s perched on a couch alongside the sleeker, sad-faced Lionel Trilling. Both men are fielding questions from a suave interlocutor with a B-movie mustache. The interview was taped sometime in the late 1950s in what appears to be a faculty club or perhaps a television studio decked out to resemble one. The men are discussing “Lolita.” “I do not . . . I don’t wish to touch hearts,” Nabokov says in his unidentifiable accent. “I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”
Not bad, I think, as I sit staring at the dark granular box on my YouTube screen. In fact, a damned good line to come up with off the cuff. But wait! What’s that Nabokov’s doing with his hands? He’s turning over index cards. He’s glancing at notes. He’s reading. Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work. Am I disappointed? I am at first, but then I think: writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write. Hazlitt, that most self-conscious of writers, remarked that he did not see why an author “is bound to talk, any more than he is bound to dance, or ride, or fence better than other people. Reading, study, silence, thought are a bad introduction to loquacity.”
Sounds right to me. Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I’m writing. I don’t claim this merely because there is usually no one around to observe the false starts and groan-inducing sentences that make a mockery of my presumed intelligence, but because when the work is going well, I’m expressing opinions that I’ve never uttered in conversation and that otherwise might never occur to me. Nor am I the first to have this thought, which, naturally, occurred to me while composing. According to Edgar Allan Poe, writing in Graham’s Magazine, “Some Frenchman — possibly Montaigne — says: ‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.” I can’t find these words in my copy of Montaigne, but I agree with the thought, whoever might have formed it. And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis.
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Arthur Krystal is the author of two essay collections, “Agitations” and “The Half-Life of an American Essayist.”
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