NABOKV-L post 0017469, Mon, 15 Dec 2008 12:58:53 EST

Re: Dostoyevsky and Nabokov

In a message dated 14/12/2008 20:20:04 GMT Standard Time,
neptunes_only_daughter@HOTMAIL.COM writes:

I have a very simple question for the list. It is a well known fact that
Nabokov didn't like Dostoyevsky. My question is "why ?".

Nabokov explains in his Lectures on Russian Literature (1981). The following
extracts may go some way to answering your question:

1. Dostoevski's lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons
suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic
misadventures of human dignity -- all this is difficult to admire. (p. 104)

2. The very best thing he ever wrote seems to me to be The Double. ... It
is a perfect work of art, that story... (p. 104)

3. I must have been twelve when forty-five years ago I read Crime and
Punishment for the first time and thought it a wonderfully powerful and exciting
book. I read it again at nineteen, during the awful years of civil war in
Russia, and thought it long-winded, terribly sentimental, and badly written...
And only quite recently did I realize what is so wrong about the book.
The flaw, the crack in it, which in my opinion causes the whole
edifice to crumble ethically and esthetically may be found in part ten, chapter 4.
It is in the beginning of the redemption scene when Raskolnikov, the killer,
discovers through the girl Sonya the New Testament. She has been reading to
him about Jesus and the raising of Lazarus. So far so good. But then comes
this singular sentence that for sheer stupidity has hardly the equal in
world-famous literature: "The candle was flickering out, dimly lighting up in the
poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had been reading together
the eternal book." "The murderer and the harlot" and "the eternal book" --
what a triangle. This is a crucial phrase, of a typically Dostoevskian
rhetorical twist. Now what is so dreadfully wrong about it? Why is it so crude and so
I suggest that neither a true artist nor a true moralist -- neither a
good Christian nor a good philosopher -- neither a poet nor a sociologist --
should have placed side by side, in one breath, in one gust of false
eloquence, a killer together with whom? -- a poor streetwalker, bending their
completely different heads over that holy book. The Christian God, as understood by
those who believe in the Christian God, has pardoned the harlot nineteen
centuries ago. The killer, on the other hand, must be first of all examined
medically. The two are on completely different levels. The inhuman and idiotic
crime of Raskolnikov cannot be even remotely compared to the plight of a girl
who impairs human dignity by selling her body. The murderer and the harlot
reading the eternal book -- what nonsense. There is no rhetorical link between a
filthy murderer, and this unfortunate girl. There is only the conventional
link of the Gothic novel and the sentimental novel. It is a shoddy literary
trick, not a masterpiece of pathos and piety. Moroever, look at the absence of
artistic balance. We have been shown Raskolnikov's crime in all sordid detail
and we also have been given half a dozen different explanations for his
exploit. We have never been shown Sonya in the exerecise of her trade. The
situation is a glorified cliche. The harlot's sin is taken for granted. Now I submit
that the true artist is the person who never takes anything for granted.
(pp. 110-113)

Nabokov goes on to ask:

Why did Raskolnikov kill? The motivation is extremely muddled... (p.
Did Dostoevski succeed in making it all plausible? I doubt it... (p.

Nabokov says in Lectures on Literature (1980) that the scene in Ulysses
where Mr Bloom brings his wife her breakfast is "one of the greatest passages in
all literature". (p. 306)

I think that Nabokov's account of what is wrong with Crime and Punishment is
one of the greatest passages in all literary criticism. The only flaw in it
seems to me Nabokov's muddled suggestion that Raskolnikov "must be first of
all examined medically". What has Raskolnikov's ethical squalor and depravity
to do with medicine?

Anthony Stadlen

Anthony Stadlen
2A Alexandra Avenue
GB - London N22 7XE
Tel.: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857

"Existential Psychotherapy & Inner Circle Seminars" at
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