NABOKV-L post 0008904, Thu, 13 Nov 2003 12:47:43 -0800

Fw: The Gift ch4
----- Original Message -----
From: "Walter Miale" <>
To: "Vladimir Nabokov Forum" <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>
Sent: Wednesday, November 12, 2003 10:09 PM
Subject: Re: Fw: The Gift ch4

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> >From: Walter Miale <
> >Subject: RE: The Gift ch4
> I very much enjoyed The Gift and the warm rays it shines on life. But
> I had trouble both with Chapter 2 --the tale of Fyodor's father, who
> appears to treat his wife despicably but with this not coloring in
> any visible way Fyodor's account of him-- and with what I think was a
> gross flaw in chapter 4, where Chernyshevsky is treated, as Boyd put
> it, as an intellectual bufoon, unworthy of being taken seriously. In
> my view, despite his being a klutzy and klunky writer, despite being
> put on a pedestal by Lenin and adopted as the fount of wisdom by
> generations of philistine commisars, Ch. had extraordinary redeeming
> qualities. He held not that writers and artists should be subservient
> to state power --on the contrary, his attitude toward state
> censorship was one of insolent defiance and wiley ingenuity-- but he
> did believe that aesthetic values should derive from the ethical. In
> this he may (or may not) have been wrong, but was his view
> contemptible?
> Chernyshevsky acted fearlessly and heroically in defiance of state
> authority, on behalf of the serfs, and in advocacy of democratic
> reforms, and then while in jail he wrote a book published at not
> inconsiderable risk to himself, in which he promulgated a vision of
> economic democracy that is far closer to Swedish cooperatives than to
> Soviet Communism. And indeed, he spent the rest of his life suffering
> the consequences.
> The nearsighted Nikolai Gavrilovich would barrel down the Nevsky
> Prospect, splunching and elbowing aside the insufferably proud. Me, I
> like the image, although Dostoyevsky's parody (in Notes from
> Underground) was sublime.
> Dear Dmitri Nabokov, I mean no disrespect to your father, to whom I
> owe countless hours of literary delight and reflection, but I think
> in the treatment of Chernyshevsky there was a good measure of blaming
> him for the crimes of others, including the very crimes of which he
> himself was victim, and I think that this, along with what appears to
> me an almost incoherent portrayal of Fyodor's attitude toward his
> father, detracts from an otherwise haunting and philosophical work of
> art.
> **********************************************************
> **********************************************************
> My first post on this subject (1/17/03):
> I have not re-read the novel, much less re-re-read it, but a
> difficulty I sometimes have with chess studies and problems is the
> suspicion that there is no solution. I'm afraid in this case there
> may be simple overlooktions on my part. In any case, I would be
> grateful for answers to at least some of the questions below.
> ********
> A little less than half way through Chapter Two of The Gift, the
> narrator tells of the time his mother on her own initiative undertook
> to journey two thousand miles across Russia and central Asia to join
> his father, and of how the moment his father saw her, he "slit his
> eyes, and in a horribly unexpected voice spoke three words: 'You go
> home,'" and turned around to continue his conversation with some
> Cossacks. Before his mother got very far, his father overtook her and
> they evidently exchanged embraces at least, but she continued home,
> apparently without a word of explanation of her husband's conduct,
> about which Fyodor registers no surprise or takes any further
> interest.
> This rather tyrannical behavior of his father toward his mother does
> not appear to color Fyodor's attitude toward him, which seems to be
> one of unqualified adulation. I don't know if Godunov-Cherdyntsev
> senior had a mistress in his tent at the time or what, but is the
> vehemence with which he excludes his wife from his life compatible
> with the honor his son ascribes to him? Why does Fyodor report the
> incident without comment or reflection?
> Eight or ten pages later, following a passage in which Fyodor says
> that his father had zero interest in ethnography and wouldn't go a
> short distance out of his way to visit Lhasa, which he referred to as
> "one more filthy little town," Fyodor, in a paragraph that begins
> with an account of his father's clock-stopping petulance, which could
> be triggered by a miscomputation by a steward or a flippant remark by
> a friend, writes, "He who in his time had slaughtered countless
> multitudes of birds. . . could not forgive me a Leshino sparrow
> wantonly shot down with a Montecristo rifle. . . . He. . .could not
> stand hypocrisy. . ." The irony here seems to be unmistakable, but as
> far as I can see, this is out of keeping with the tone of the chapter
> and with Fyodor's attitude of unmodulated reverence toward his
> father. In short, the reader perceives G-Ch senior's faults, which
> appear in the first instance to amount to knavery, as Fyodor recounts
> these happenings, even though Fyodor, as far as I can see, manifests
> no emotion concerning them. He actually describes his father in the
> paragraph cited as even tempered. What is VN doing? How "reliable" a
> narrator is Godunov with respect to his father? Does the novel,
> analagously to other of Nabokov's novels, manifest a moral viewpoint
> that is not shared by the fictive author? How to account for the
> dissonance? I have heard that G-Ch senior was one of Nabokov's
> favorite characters. But could he have admired the character's
> character?
> ********
> Why is the portrayal of Zina, who is so eccentral a focus of the
> novel, so blurry?
> ********
> Godunov-Cherdyntsev/Nabokov expresses a faint bit of respect for N.G.
> Chernyshevsky's humane instincts and disposition, but the portrayal
> overall is blistering. As Boyd puts it, "Fyodor treats Chernyshevsky
> as an intellectual buffoon whose ideas do not deserve the compliment
> of rational opposition." Of course Chernyshevsky the novelist and
> thinker was an easy target and, grandfather as he was (?) of
> socialist realism, a worthwhile target, but did he really deserve
> what Godunov and Nabokov heaped on him?
> Yes, not for nothing apparently was Chernyshevsky a favorite of
> Lenin; yes, he manifested pronounced strains of crackpotism--if
> G-Ch's account is correct; yes, his prose was klonky, not to say
> cringey, and in poetry he preferred (G-Ch tells us) double dactyls to
> iambs and trochees, and he didn't think much of Poushkin. If Ch
> really did not appreciate Poushkin, this was no doubt a manifestation
> of an impoverished aesthetic, but it was, wasn't it, an aesthetic
> that was altogether dominated by ethical values that the author(s) of
> the bio in The Gift did not share, such as the importance of
> cooperation to achieve social ends. Chernyshevsky did present his
> contemporaries with a vision, however ineptly drawn, of benevolent
> enterprise, of the founding of coops, a form of association that
> became the basis not of Soviet communism but of Swedish economic
> democracy, and he apparently acted selflessly and heroically to
> further social change in the early days of Alexander II and the great
> reforms of the era. --But how significant was his political activity?
> It is hard to tell from Nabokov's account, so light is it with regard
> to certain details, though heavy with ridicule. Was the general sense
> of Chernyshevsky as a hero and a saint (which led to so unfriendly a
> reception of the monograph and the novel) so far fetched? Was it
> mistaken? Did fate really bring such suffering to Chernyshevsky
> because he was so muddled, or was a more important factor his acute
> and courageous social conscience? Should we have expected Godunov and
> Nabokov to engage Chernyshevsky more on the latter's own terms? (For
> example: "Liberal landowners, liberal writers, liberal professors
> lull you with hopes in the progressive aims of our government.") Did
> the critics of Fyodor's monograph present an adequate defense of
> Chernyshevsky? Or did their failure to do so, along with a skewed
> depiction in the monograph, constitute a shortcoming of The Gift?
> Further, was Chernyshevsky's idea that art and poetry are keys to
> real life rather than things over and above it, as dense as the
> polemic of The Gift would have it? Does his view really denigrate
> art? For Chernyshevsky, beauty of form characterises an aim not only
> of art but of all human work. This brings to mind the epigram
> Marshall McLuhan attributed to a Balinese: We have no art. We do
> everything well. (Speaking of McLuhan, I'm reminded of his comment on
> some negative reviews of William Burroughs: "It is a little like
> trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man
> who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from
> the roof of our home.")
> When, in a situation paralleling Fyodor's mother's journey,
> Chernyshevsky's wife traveled to Siberia to be with him he, like
> Fyodor's father on the outskirts of Tashkent, sent her home in short
> order--in this case after a four-day visit after a three-month trip;
> but this was for her own safety, not so that he could carry on
> carrying on. Godunov has no comment on this, except to emphasize
> "--four days, reader!--", which is still more comment than he makes
> on the c. four-hour visit and turnaround of his mother in the depths
> of Kazakhstan.
> Chernyshevsky's contemporary, Dostoyevsky, had long ago, in a
> hilarious parody, cut him to ribbons. Apparently that treatment,
> despite its severity, didn't "take", but did the beast really need
> another flogging?
> The Gift and Nabokov himself manifest(ed) an exemplary and inspiring
> attitude to the annoyances and bitter blows of fate. I can't say how
> likely it is that reading the novel will make one happy, but reading
> it does crystalize a sense of knowing "the secret" of happiness, no
> small thing, and the book dramatizes this knowledge artfully and
> artistically and perhaps, for all my doubts, happily. I do wonder
> about the limits of its attitude toward adversity: how would it apply
> to a more extreme situation, to concentration camp say --or plague--
> as opposed to exile? What might Jude the obscure done with Fyodor
> Konstantinovich's recipe for happiness? But more to the point here,
> don't we find in The Gift, despite its affirmation and uplift, a
> troubling appearance of the "civic cynicism" theme in the life of its
> author who, for all the compassion and decency embodied in his work,
> in his literary criticism, and in his life, seemed --correct me if I
> am mistaken-- to have little sense of how people working
> cooperatively could benefit the community or right the wrongs of
> society? In The Gift (and elsewhere), and not only in the portrait of
> Chernyshevsky but in the account of the silly union meeting and the
> passage in which Godunov laments the stupidity of having gone to it
> instead of spending the evening with his girlfriend, didn't Nabokov
> tend to disparage the notion --which is of the essence of democracy--
> that this is possible, and to convey his strong sense that trying to
> do so is an exercise in futility?