NABOKV-L post 0026276, Wed, 8 Jul 2015 00:06:41 -0300

Word games and psychologizing - a follow up
Former posting: A friend compared a couple of bilingual word games he encountered in a recent novel by Jonathan Franzen to those that were favored by Nabokov. I think there are no two more different writers than Nabokov and Franzen [ ]What’s in a few word games, I asked myself. Nevertheless, a little research in the internet showed me how often Nabokov’s and Franzen’s names happened to be mentioned in close proximity:[snip to] Literature and the Moral Question, by David L. Ulin. Los Angeles Times …* [to]:” I'm with Nabokov on being intensely irritated by that remark of E.M. Forster's…”**[to]” Vladimir Nabokov — celebrated author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer — was never afraid to have strong opinions. In this short and delightfully curmudgeonly excerpt from a vintage French documentary, Nabokov pulls a Jonathan Franzen and shares some of the things he detests***

Jansy Mello’s follow up: Maria Popova mentioned both V. Nabokov and J. Franzen together by indicating VN’s strong opinions in a “curmudgeonly excerpt from a vintage French documentary”. It’s when she added: “Nabokov pulls a Jonathan Franzen.” (I suppose she is referring to the episode when “Mr. Franzen publicly disparaged Oprah Winfrey's literary taste -- suggesting at one point that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in ''the high-art literary tradition'' and might turn off some readers […] Ms. Winfrey did not revoke her selection but politely withdrew the invitation to appear on her show. And instead of rallying to Mr. Franzen, most of the literary world took her side, deriding him as arrogant and ungrateful.” (

Two other quotes refer to moral purposes, authorial intention and to meaning: the contrast between both authors, at least while they speak about literature and art, is all too clear. I’ll be borrowing now from Jacqueline Hamrit’s argumentation [related to VN’s assertion: “Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as “What is the author’s purpose?” or still worse “What is the guy trying to say?” Now I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origin and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination – which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another”], and also the reference she makes to “the gap between saying and meaning” and to every author’s “inexplicable secret”****, to illustrate the impossibility of fully “opening our strange and idiosyncratic centers to the world…” as observed by D.L.Ulin.

Franzen believes that the author’s “primary responsibility” as a “story teller … is to create something that means something” whereas, as J. Hamrit points out, meaning “indeed overflows authorial intention. Nabokov seems therefore to claim here that knowing his intention is neither available nor desirable because he had no clear and definite intention [ ] writing is therefore not a question of transmitting a message, but a strange aporetic experience, both pleasant and painful, or at least disturbing. [ ] Writing is consequently a question of desire carried away by inspiration, something that remains an inexplicable secret.”[ ] Besides, readers are not passive receivers of an author’s message, they add a private meaning to it and share with them a responsibility for how they’ll cope with it.

There’s no substitute for V.Nabokov’s own words about what in his eyes is “high-art,” but this is a kind of measurement that he didn’t use: he seemed to be content with “a major writer” : “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.”
“Individual magic” is as exciting today as it has always been, of course. And yet, are modern enchanters aware of this unexplainable quality (that I associate to the conquest of freedom) in their writing?


*… “- The issue is that art is not, cannot, be a matter of doctrine, no matter how much we might wish it were so. Art, rather, is most effective when it surprises us, leading to affinities, empathies, we might not otherwise allow…Perhaps the most famous contemporary example of this is Humbert Humbert, the pedophilic narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” who literally seduces us with his voice. It is only when we look up from the page that we realize with whom we’ve identified — and the shock is in our recognition of his terrible humanity, which renders him as (yes) a lot like us. Is Nabokov’s novel morally offensive? Patently, it is not. We live in a universe of treacherous choices, of corruption and degradation on both the individual and the collective level. To pretend otherwise is the true moral offense, to write as if it were possible to reduce the nuance, the ambiguity, of experience to stark shades of black and white. This is what Jonathan Franzen meant, I think, in his remarks, from an interview also posted over the weekend, about moral simplicity, which have been widely read as a dig at young adult literature. Maybe so — but more to the point, he was getting at the difficulty of navigating a world with no clear markers, in which it’s all we can do, much of the time, to make it through the day. ‘People don’t want moral complexity,’ Franzen argues. ‘Moral complexity is a luxury [ ] Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?’ That, I want to say, is the true morality of writing, the willingness to expose ourselves, to open our strange and idiosyncratic centers to the world. That is the only way not to be aesthetically offensive — or ethically, as well. There is no morality in art except the morality of speaking honestly, even (or especially) when that means saying something we can’t bear to hear.” David L. Ulin. Copyright © 2015, <>

**. “…It's as if to say, you know, "I'm such a special genius that my creations have such enormous vividness, such passionate life that I really have no control over them". That's a weird thing for a fiction writer to say because it first of all can't possibly be true. But also it would seem to suggest that that kind of writer is abdicating a responsibility for meaning, because what the characters do has everything to do with what the story means and if it's like you're letting the characters say "well no, sorry, I don't like the story you're trying to tell". You've somehow - if you could do it, which I don't think you can - you would be abdicating the primary responsibility of the story teller which is to create something that means something” <>

*** <>

**** Authorship in Nabokov’s Prefaces by Jacqueline Hamrit. Ch. One On a Book Entitled Lolita, 16/17.


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