Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0011905, Sat, 17 Sep 2005 12:02:25 -0700

"An Editor's Woes" -- with contributions by Profs Shapiro,
Dolinin, & Mr Nabokov


An editor's life is not always an easy one -- as witness the on-going discussion being conducted by Gavriel Shapiro (GS), Alexander Dolinin (AD), Dmitri Nabokov (DN), with myself as the uncomfortable mediator. On September 6th GS submitted a statement objecting to parts of AD's article "Nabokov as a Russian Writer" in The Cambridge Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, Ed. Julian Connolly. Since the matter has become contentious, especially from DN's point of view, I submit the relevant documents so that NABOKV-L subscribers may be fully informed. Other than messages I sent to the parties involved and a couple of clarifying remarks, my comments are restricted to DN's assessments of my role. These immediately follow DN's two messages addressed to me.
I try to be evenhanded in my dealing with NABOKV-L postings and, be it noted, the appearance of items on the list do NOT necessarily represent the editor's views. Indeed, I disagree strongly with many of them. I do try (none too successfully) to keep the level of discourse civil and to discourage "flames."

----- Forwarded message from gs33@cornell.edu -----
    Date: Tue, 06 Sep 2005 15:11:01 -0400
    From: Gavriel Shapiro <gs33@cornell.edu>
Reply-To: Gavriel Shapiro <gs33@cornell.edu>
 Subject: Re: Dolinin's Chapter in _The Cambridge Companion to Vladimir Nabokov_
EDNOTE. Gavriel Shapiro is the author of two books on Nabokov and teaches in the Russian Department at Cornell. Below he comments on Alexander Dolinin's "The Cambridge Companion to Vladimir Nabokov" Ed. Julian Connolly.)

      To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>
I am writing to express my shock and dismay at Alexander Dolinin's chapter
"Nabokov as a Russian Writer" that appeared in the recently published
Cambridge Companion to Nabokov.
Two brief quotations will suffice:
1. "In a sense, the Russian writer Sirin fell victim to the tricky
mythmaking and playacting Nabokov indulged in during his later years. Like
those unhappy expatriates who leave their native country in search of a
better life and then are doomed again and again to prove to themselves that
their decision was right, Nabokov had to justify his emigration from his
native language and literature to their acquired substitutes. For this
purpose, he would argue that 'the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of
secondary importance' (SO, 63) and present himself as a born cosmopolitan
genius who has never been attached to anything and anybody but his
autonomous imagination and personal memory"  (p. 53).
2. "It seems that memoirists, biographers, and critics alike tend to fall
under the spell of Nabokov's own inventions, evasions, exaggerations, and
half-truths and perpetuate his mythmaking game by sticking to its rules"
(p. 54).
I find the resentful and virulent tone of Dolinin's "formulations"
unbecoming of a scholar. It is rather reminiscent of the infamous Soviet
journalistic lingo.
Aside from the inadmissible tone in which Dolinin's chapter is written, his
assertions are malevolently misleading. Such is the simile in the first
passage: Dolinin knows full well that Nabokov did not leave his native land
for Western Europe "in search of a better life" but had to flee the mortal
danger of the Bolshevik terror, just as twenty years later he came to the
United States because he had to flee the mortal danger of the Nazi menace.
Dolinin must be also well aware that the shift from Russian to English was
Nabokov's personal tragedy. Nabokov's books were banned from his native
country turned Zoorlandian, and his Russian reading audience in the West
was shattered  to smithereens by the cataclysms of World War Two.
Therefore, Dolinin's presenting Nabokov's shift from Russian to English as
a carefully calculated opportunistic move is a cruel and truth-bending
attack on the writer.
In the second passage, Dolinin once again subjects the writer to a
slanderous attack and arrogantly "dismisses" the achievements of Nabokov
It is lamentable that this otherwise fine volume is marred by such
deceitful and disgraceful pronouncements.
Gavriel Shapiro
----- End forwarded message -----

At 04:00 PM 9/6/2005 -0700, Johnson wrote:
Dear Gavriel,
    I think perhaps you are misreading Sasha's article. I am willing run your
eloquent comments but do think it over and let me know.   Best, Don
EDNOTE. As editor I often check with those who submit contentious materials to make sure they are not acting hastily. I sometimes suggest changes of wording to make postings needlessly abrasive. If the author does not agree, I usually go ahead and send the item--sometimes prefaced by an EDNOTE. In this case I sent Dr. Shapiro's posting without comment.
Tues. 06 Sep 2005 20:57
From: Gavriel Shapiro to Don Johnson
Subject: Dolinin's Chapter
Dear Don,

              I carefully read these passages and others like them and will stand by my
characterization. Please print my letter.

Many thanks. Best, Gavriel


Sept 7, 2005.[ Response to above.]
Dear Gavriel,
    OK, I'll run it Thursday with Sasha's response, if any. Although I have not
re-read Sasha's chapter, my own impression is that Sasha is advancing a hypothesis about VN's trying to distance himself from his Russian past (and language) [Sirin]and to identify himself as an English-language writer [Nabokov]. A reasonable and in no way dishonorable strategy in his situation. It will be interesting to see what DN's take is on all this.
                                                      Best, Don
> --------------------------------------------

Wed, 07 SSept 2005 07:54:44 -0400 [Wednesday September 07, 2005 04:54:44 AM PDT]
Gavriel ShShapiro <gs33@cornell.edu>
"Donald B. Johnson" <chtodel@gss.ucsb.edu>
Re: DoliniDolinin's Chapter

Dear DoDear Don,

             In my letter, I do not discuss Dolinin's overall strategy but the tone and
the argthe argument of some of his statements.

I am cuI am curious to know why you intend to postpone the publication of my letter until
Thursda Thursday. It seems to me that up to now there has been no policy of publishing a letter
togethetogether with a response on the Nabokov Forum. I would understand the rationale behind
doing iit in periodicals that appear with large intervals but not on websites. I shall
appreciappreciate it very much if you would run my letter without delay.

Many thThanks.





Weds, September 07, 2005 7:57 PM
From Alexander Dolinin to NABOKV-L

Dear Don,

Here is my short response to Shapiro. I think it is strong and clear enough.
Mr. Shapiro's strange attack betrays an ardent but naive mind that reads tropes literally and takes every argument for argumentum ad hominem. I am afraid that for a professor of literature, it is a liability. The more sophisticated reader, I hope, would easily understand that in my essay I don't discuss Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov's personal problems, tragedies, challenges and choices. What interests me is the "model author" or, better, two "model authors" that happened to be named "Sirin" and "Nabokov," two differently constructed personae, and their strategies in the changing literary field (to use Bourdieu's term). I do question the Nabokov myth but not Nabokov's genius and integrity, nor "achievements of Nabokov scholarship." I am sorry for Mr. Shapiro who is still haunted by ghosts of the "infamous Soviet journalistic lingo" but at the same time cries haro upon a first sign of demythologization, calling me and my piece resentful, virulent, malevolent, slanderous, deceitful, disgraceful, cruel and truth-bending. If it is not a Soviet-style denunciation, I don't know what is.

Alexander Dolinin

EDNOTE. I ran GS's posting and AD's response in sequence on the day following GS's initial transmission and my exchange with him since AD responded on Wednesday, Sept 7th rather than Thursday. None the less DN sent me the note below on Sept. 7, apparently after GS had copied him my response about sending both the GS & AD postings. On the Sept 8, GS sent and I posted his response to AD:
Dear Don,

             I trust you will run my rebuttal to Dolinin's response, entitled "Dolinin's
Defense," in full and without delay.

Many thanks.

Best, Gavriel

Mr. Dolinin's defense, I am afraid, is no more successful than that of his by far more
attractive namesake. His attributing my sharp reaction to his chapter to my being "ardent
but naive" is merely half true. I do become ardent when I see manifestations of cruelty,
dishonesty, and arrogance. As for naive, Mr. Dolinin evidently confuses me with his
pseudonymous namesake from Nabokov's story "Lips to Lips." Unlike his gullible namesake,
however, I see very well through my correspondent's desperate attempts to extricate
himself from the scandalous situation he himself created. Such, for example, is Mr.
Dolinin's disingenuous claim that he does "not discuss Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov's
personal problems, tragedies, challenges and choices." "What interests me," he says, "is
the 'model author' or, better, two 'model authors' that happened to be named 'Sirin' and
'Nabokov,' two differently constructed personae, and their strategies in the changing
literary field." This apologetic statement, although it sounds very scholarly, does not
tally at all with Mr. Dolinin's attacks on Nabokov and his integrity, and no degree of
sophistication is needed to comprehend this.

As for Mr. Dolinin's idea about "Sirin" and "Nabokov" as "two differently constructed
personae," I am willing to give it a try, even though at first glance this bifurcation
seems oversimplified. Let us see: there is "Aleksandr Dolinin," habitually referred to as
"the leading Russian Nabokov scholar," and there is "Alexander Dolinin," the unfortunate
author of the chapter in question. Are they two different individuals or two faces of one
and the same person? It seems that my luckless correspondent's best strategy at this
point is to assert that he has nothing to do with "Alexander Dolinin." No. My
recommendation "betrays an ardent but naive mind": a fleeting character in The Gift had
already tried and miserably failed "to dissociate himself from a villainous namesake, who
subsequently turned out to be his relative, then his double, and finally himself."

My other recommendation for Mr. Dolinin: in the future, to avoid such lamentable
statements as those that appeared in his chapter, he ought to re-read Nabokov. Speak,
Memory and Strong Opinions will be the best way to start. No. This recommendation will
not work either: Mr. Dolinin might unwittingly "fall under the spell of Nabokov's own
inventions, evasions, exaggerations, and half-truths" and, Heavens forbid, will abandon
his resentful tone and will give up his slanderous attacks on the writer, the attacks
that he clumsily dubs "demythologization" and passes them off as representing his
scholarly objectivity.

I suppose I am running out of recommendations for Mr. Dolinin. My last recommendation for
him: to behave as a decent human being and as a conscientious scholar. But perhaps it is
too much to ask.

Gavriel Shapiro
EDnote. As editor, I remarked that I found some of GS's remarks distasteful. Meanwhile I received the following communiqué from DN.

From: DMITRI Nabokov Wed. September 7, 2005 9:22

Dear Don,
I trust you are running Gavriel Shapiro's letter in full and without unethically delaying for Dolinin's reply, and that you have taken the opportunity to familiarize yourself better with Dolinin's published statements. Do you still think the locutions "tricky mythmaking and playacting", and "evasions, exaggerations, and half-truths" are compatible with what you call "a reasonable and in no way dishonorable strategy"?  Do you believe it is scholarly and honorable even to suggest that Vladimir Nabokov needed to "justify" his flight from Soviet censorship at best and Bolshevik barbarity at worst? Don't you recognize the jargon of post-Soviet hacks discussing image-making when you read that Nabokov "would[...]present himself as a born cosmopolitan genius"? If Dolinin has indeed read Speak, Memory, can you trust him when he affirms that Nabokov claimed never to have "been attached to anything and [sic] anybody but his autonomous imagination and personal memory"? And if you have even a smattering of our family history, did it never occur to you that our voyage to America was a last-ditch escape for the three of us to peace and freedom, and that the English language, at that moment, was but an incidental instrument for a frugal livelihood?
 As for Nabokov's feelings about abandoning "his native language and literature", I suggest you join Mr. Dolinin in reading -- or re-reading -- the following words from the afterword to Lolita:
"...My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any those apparatuses -- the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions -- which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way."
I should add that I make strong mention of this matter in an article in next month's Playboy magazine and in an upcoming issue of Izvestia. Where deadlines allow, honor obliges me to mention my outrage at your reaction. Honor also obliges me to declare Mr.Dolinin persona non grata at my father's family house in St. Petersburg.
With my best wishes,
EDNOTE. Since I had already sent out both the GS and AD postings when I received DN's message, I did not send it out on NABOKV-L since the matter seemed to me to be taken care of. Both GS's and Dolinin's views had been presented. In fact, it did not even occur to me that DN's was for publication since it had apparently been sent before DN had seen the two NABOKV-L postings. Since I wondered at the tenor of his response, I sent him the note below. I would also remark that in the past DN has pressured the editor to sent out his messages containing statements I thought inaccurate and unwise. In most cases I bowed to his insistence.

Wed, Sept. 07, 2005 8:15

Dear Dmitri,
   I can only wonder whether you have closely read all of Sasha Dolinin's essay. He is talking about the strategies of literary personas and the transition from one (Sirin) to another (Nabokov)--not about personal deceit.
    Dolinin has made enormous contributions to your father's legacy and I know of no person   who has greater admiration for VN.
Best, Don
EDNOTE. The above message elicited the following reply.
 -----Original Message-----
From: nabokov [mailto:darkbloom@bluewin.ch]
Sent: jeudi, 8. septembre 2005 22:19
To: 'Nikki Smith' [Agent for the Nabokov Estate],
Subject: the coward's way
Dear Don,
I am afraid we've come to a parting of the ways. You have taken the coward's way out -- rather than at least exercising the option of affixing editorial comment, you have simply chosen to pretend that my letter did not exist. You have displayed the same feebleness of character as on previous occasions, such as when, instead of speaking out vigorously against the obscene crackpot Livry, you tried to enlist the umpireship of totally extraneous Brian Boyd in support of your gutless liberal-academic stance.  Well, that didn't work and, with more virile intervention, Livry is being given his comeuppance.
It won't work with Dolinin either. He may be an energetic scholar, he may find it fruitful  to "admire" my father,  he may have been of considerable assistance to me in deciphering the Dar addendum manuscript, and so forth . But he has also siezed the chance of attaching his moniker to every vaguely scholarly assemblage and publication that would have him, and morality be damned. Case in point: putting his name and prestige behind the pirate Russian online Nabokov, and doing so in very questionable company. His has been a career built upon opportunism. If one analyzes it, one begins to understand how, in Dolinin's view, the option of a Soviet Russia might have existed for Nabokov, for Dolinin himself might well have chosen that road if it had been attractively paved. One also understands how Dolinin might have interpreted the change of tongue and "literary persona" (what vile language!) as a career move.
I suspect  that you, Don, are displaying the same lack of morality by fearing to publish a letter that soundly refutes your friend Dolinin's insulting suppositions. All kinds of perks are in the balance, aren't they -- cushy summer courses, conferences, journals, your whole tenuous structure of prestige, and your buddy Dolinin's protective wing. And when it comes down to the nitty gritty, good old Nabokov's honor be damned, along with his own eloquent words.
If I have any say in the matter, neither you nor your ally Mr. Dolinin will henceforth be welcome in my father's St.-Petersburg house, so you had best plan to hold Nabokov One-oh-knife-in-the-back elsewhere.
Pity -- I have fond memories of that magic lunch in Santa Barbara.
I  think it fair to inform you that this matter will soon be covered by widely read publications on two continents. Don't misinterpret -- this  is not a threat (and my name is not Livry). None the less, the honorable thing for you to do -- and the one thing that could restore relations between us -- is to run, in toto, my original letter to you, your snotty reply to me, and this letter of mine. Let the reader not be subject to your cowardly censorship, but judge for himself. And please, no more personal letters to me. I might add that NABOKV-L has slid into a pretty malodorous sinkhole of late.

Dmitri Nabokov
EDNOTE. When I receive items that are troublesome, I generally set them aside for a while to mull them over before responding. I limit myself to some points of fact. The "cushy summer courses" (DN here refers to are the two summer courses (NABOKOV 101) that I have taught at the Nabokov Museum in Saint Petersburg. Let me assure DN that the pay was nominal and that my contributions to the Museum have been largely out of pocket in an effort to assist that worthy institution. I am sure that this has been the case for all of the Nabokov scholars who have taught there--including AD who has been the most active in this endeavour. For my own part I note that conferences are not "perks" in any sense. I dislike both lecturing and travel. I am long retired from teaching and have not now (nor have I ever had) the remotest interest in a "career" or prestige. Nor have I made a penny from NABOKOV STUDIES, NABOKV-L, nor ZEMBLA which I helped to initiate. Quite the contrary. Nor are academics paid for their publications--and indeed sometimes have to find funding to get them published. All I have written and done in connection with VN is out of admiration for his work and the pleasure it has given me. In closing, I would note (wryly) that I have fully responded to DN's demands in his last paragraph.