NABOKV-L post 0000051, Wed, 4 Aug 1993 16:33:50 -0700

VN & Ayn Rand (fwd)
---------- Text of forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 4 Aug 1993 16:29:32 -0700 (PDT)
From: Donald Barton Johnson <chtodel@humanitas>
To: Donald Barton Johnson <chtodel@humanitas>
Subject: VN & Ayn Rand

The Odd Couple: Vladimir Nabokov & Ayn Rand

D. Barton Johnson

[CAVEAT LECTOR: The following remarks stem from a conversation between

the author and Charles Schlacks, the publisher of numerous scholarly

journals in the Slavic field and an Ayn Rand buff. I thought it might

be of interest to Nabokv-L and Amlit subscribers. Do NOT quote any of

the contents in print. Firstly, because I intend to develop them for

publication elsewhere; secondly, because most of this is off the top

of my (and Charles') head, and has NOT been checked for accuracy. Nor

are sources given. Your comments are invited and, if later

incorporated, will be credited. -- DBJ]


Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand (nee Alisa Rozenbaum), both born in

imperial Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1905 and 1899 respectively,

became bestselling American writers in the 1950's. Occupying polar

positions on the literary spectrum, they indeed make strange bedfel-


Most of Ayn Rand's admirers and detractors are, I suspect, little

aware of the impact of her Russian background and its role in her

intellectual and literary development. Rand, who briefly went to

school with one of Nabokov's sisters, grew up in a very different

cultural milieu from that of the Nabokov family. If the aristocratic

young Nabokov breathed in the recherche atmosphere of the Symbolists,

Alisa Rozenbaum was of the petite bourgeoisie. Such bestselling

writers as Anastasiya Verbitskaya (who far outsold Tolstoy) or Mikhail

Atsybashev (_Sanin_) supplied the reading matter of the pseudo- (and

not so pseudo-)intelligentsia, a far less elitist group than their

Western counterparts. Their ideological potboilers featured socially

and sexually emancipated heroines and heroes spouting half-baked

Nietzscheanism. With strong characters, sensationally overwrought

plots, crude didacticism, and clumsy prose their novels, at least in

part, find their Russian origin in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's famous

1863 novel _What is to be Done?_ (_Chto delat'?_). The literary line

of descent from Chernyshevsky's mess of pottage to Gorky's 1905

_Mother_, and with a segue through the Verbitskaya and Artsybashev

school, to Ayn Rand's epics of the forties and fifties is clear


Rand left Bolshevik Russia shortly after graduating from Petrograd

University. Arriving in the U.S. two years later in 1926, she got var-

ious jobs in the film industry by sheer drive and persistence, despite

her with minimal English. (Coincidentally, the young emigre Nabokov

was to find occasional employment in the German film industry.) She

also began writing in English. For a time, she had been in the studio

script department, and her first successful effort was a mystery play

called _The Night of January 16th_. The 1935 play which ends in a

trial with the jury played by members of the audience has left its

trace in literary history due to a single improbable fact. A strug-

gling young attorney named Richard Nixon played the role of the D.A.

in a Whittier local, little theater production.

Ayn Rand was never expansive about her Russian (or Jewish)

origins. Russia does not, so far as I recall, figure in any of her

blockbusters. It is directly present only in one of her early works.

Rand's first, and least known novel, _We the Living_ (1936) depicts

young Russian individualists being destroyed by the Bolshevik regime.

Although the novel did not do well in the U.S., it was made into a

war-time film extravaganza in Italy before being withdrawn when it was

realized that its theme might be taken as anti-Fascist, as well as

anti-Soviet. Two years later, her short novel _Anthem_ appeared in

England. This tale of a lone dissenter in a monolithic future

totalitarian state has marked, if unacknowledged, similarities to

Evgeny Zamyatin's brilliant novel _We_. Zamyatin's manuscript, writ-

ten in Petrograd in 1921, circulated among students at Petrograd

University where Rand was studying. (It was published only in the

West some years later, and it is known that Nabokov read it not long

before begining his own dystopia, _Invitation to a Beheading_.) In

the forties, Rand turned away from her Russian background and began

writing the novels that made her name--_The Fountainhead_ (1943), and

_Atlas Shrugged_, a bestseller the year before Nabokov's _Lolita_ hit

the list in 1958.

Nabokov and Rand shared more than just the happenstance of time

and place of birth. They both attended Russian secondary schools in

which Chernyshevsky was a figure in the pantheon of the anti-

establishment intelligentsia. Doubtless, neither found much to fancy

in Chernyshevsky's socialism. Yet in a sense, both writers-to-be

responded to the Chernyshevsky tradition in ways that fundamentally

shaped their future work. Rand took her utilitarian view of literature

(and literary style) from Chernyshevsky--although substituting a very

different ideological content. Chernyshevsky became the progenitor of

both Socialist Realism and Rand's Capitalist Realism--although in both

cases the "realism" was anything but "real".

Nabokov much more explicitly took Chernyshevsky as the starting

point of his evaluation of the Russian literary tradition and his own

place in it. In his novel _The Gift_, Nabokov incorporates a biography

of the martyred Chernyshevsky which intimates that he was "the bad

seed" in XIXth and XXth century Russian cultural (and political) his-

tory. It was, according to Nabokov, Chernyshevsky's example that dis-

placed the aesthetically-based Pushkin tradition and supplanted it

with the utilitarian anti-aesthetic tradition that enshrined Gorky's

_Mother_ and ended in Socialist Realism. Nabokov, reacting against

the Chernyshevsky tradition, saw his own work as an attempt to reas-

sert and advance the aesthetically based view. Chernyshevsky was thus

a touchstone for both Nabokov and Rand.

Nabokov's and Rand's Russian background led to a very strange

situation in American literature in the late 1950s. Rand's _Atlas

Shrugged_ (1957) and Nabokov's _Lolita_(1958). were both highly con-

troversial, albeit for very different reasons. One was a stylistic

masterpiece that was widely condemned for its affair between 12-year-

old Lolita and Humbert Humbert; the other--the clumsy mega-epic of

tycoon Dagny Taggart and John Galt, the neo-Nietzschean superman who

proclaims "I will never live for the sake of another man or ask any

other man to live for me." Both Humbert and Galt became cult figures.

Lo was everywhere, as was the graffito "Who is John Galt?" Actually,

Humbert Humbert and John Galt are not totally incongrous figures. Both

are moral solipsists, although Rand presents her hero as a positive

force, while Nabokov's Humbert is a villain. In most respects,

however, the two novels are antithetical in both style and substance.

What very few American readers were aware of was that the two

authors were Russians, born in the same city only six years apart.

More importantly, Rand and Nabokov were, respectively, continuing

and/or reacting against aspects of their native Russian literary

traditions: Rand--the realist utilitarian la Chernyshevsky, and

Nabokov--the modernist aesthetic inherited from the Symbolists, who

arose in revolt against the Chernyshevskian tradition.

We know what Ayn Rand thought of Nabokov and _Lolita_. In a 1964

interview in _Playboy_, she was asked for her evaluation of the cur-

rent literary scene. Her favorite was Mickey Spillane. When asked

about Nabokov, she replied: "I have read only one book of his and a

half -- the half was _Lolita_, which I couldn't finish. He is a bril-

liant stylist, he writes beautifully, but his subjects, his sense of

life, his view of man, are so evil that no amount of artistic skill

can justify them." (One wonders which book she finished.) We can onlyimagine
what Nabokov might have said about _Atlas Shrugged_.


POSTSCRIPT: Nabokov has now been published in Russia and his world

stature is generally recognized (if often not condoned) there. Ayn

Rand, so far as I can discover, has not been published in Russia. I

would suggest that her time there has now come. She writes from the

dominant Russian cultural tradition--the social utilitarian. Her

novels, unlike Nabokov's, are comprehensible to a mass audience. Most

of all, Russia is in backlash from the collectivist ideal. Who could

be a better spokesperson for individualism and a market economy?