Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000167, Wed, 5 Jan 1994 10:25:04 -0800

gatsby (fwd)
NABOKOVIANS! The following is the text of Professor Galya Diment paper which
was delivered at the AAASS Convention in November. Comments are invited.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 2 Jan 1994 21:11:11 -0800 (PST)
From: Galya Diment <galya@u.washington.edu>
To: Don johnson <chtodel@humanitas.ucsb.edu>
Subject: gatsby (fwd)


G. Diment/U of Washington/AAASS, November 1993

"Anyone can create the future but only a wise man can create the past."
Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

"Can't repeat the past? he cried incredulously.
"Why of course you can!"
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

According to Arthur Mizener, Nabokov's colleague at Cornell and Scott
Fitzgerald's biographer, Nabokov considered Tender Is the Night
"magnificent" and The Great Gatsby "terrible" (Mizener, 56). Nabokov
apparently did not elaborate on his evaluations of the two novels any
further but his judgment of The Great Gatsby is quite curious since in
this particular novel Fitzgerald treats the theme that was so prominent
in Nabokov's own writing: the power of one's longing to return to the
Both The Great Gatsby and Mary or Mashen'ka, in which this theme found
its clearest expression in Nabokov, were written in 1925. Both were based
on largely autobiographical experiences. In his 1970 introduction to the
English translation of the novel, Nabokov admits that, in Mary, the
fictional description of his real-life love affair with Valentina
Shulgina contains, in fact, "a headier extract of personal reality" than
the non-fictional account of the same relationship given in his
autobiography (M, xiv). Fitzgerald likewise confessed to a friend soon
after the publication of The Great Gatsby that his personal autobiography
shone through the fictional narrative: "[Gatsby] started out as one man I
knew and then changed into myself" (quoted by Cowley, Stories, xix).
People close to Fitzgerald also immediately recognized his wife Zelda, to
whom the book is dedicated, in the character of Daisy Buchanan. Zelda's
breaking of their earlier engagement in favor of another, wealthier and
socially more successful man provided rich material in the novel for both
Daisy's marriage and Jay Gatsby's feeling of betrayal which intensified
his desire to become even wealthier and more successful than the man to
whom he lost his one-time fiancee.
Given the similarities between the two novels, NabokovUs attitude
to The Great Gatsby may appear somewhat puzzling. After all, The Great
Gatsby is arguably the best novel Fitzgerald ever produced, and even
though it had not been acknowledged as such immediately after its
publication, by the early 1950s, when Nabokov and Mizener's conversation
took place, the work was already considered by many as one of the true
masterpieces of American literature. Mizener himself was so stunned by
Nabokov's pronouncement that he wrote it off as yet another example of how
his colleague "delighted in his own... violent opinions of other writers
and liked to express them where they would be most likely to shock"
(Mizener, 56).
Nabokov's harsh judgment of The Great Gatsby will appear even more
surprising when we realize that Nabokov generally exhibited an
uncharacteristically benign attitude towards Fitzgerald as a
fellow-writer. In addition to Tender Is the Night, Nabokov also liked The
Crack Up, a volume of Fitzgerald's essays, letters and notebooks, which he
described to Wilson in 1945 as "first rate healthy literature.... Rich
stuff, sane real stuff" (NWL, 157). Simon Karlinsky suspects that this
attitude was due to Nabokov's "personal fondness for Wilson, whose
classmate and close personal friend" Fitzgerald was (in NWL, 17). Yet,
there were obviously other writers (Faulkner, among them) whom Wilson
championed or was friends with but whom Nabokov absolutely refused to
admire (on the Nabokov-Wilson exchange on Faulkner, see NWL, 208-213).
Furthermore, being swayed in his literary opinions by his personal
feelings for anyone is quite out of character in Nabokov's case.
Nabokov's father, whom Nabokov both adored and respected, had a life-long
admiration for Stendhal, Balzac and Zola, yet the son stayed firm in
considering them "three detestable mediocrities" (SM, 177). No, "personal
fondness" for Wilson, even at the peak of their brief honeymoon as
friends, had nothing to do with Nabokov's general respect for Fitzgerald's
work. Why, then, was he so critical of The Great Gatsby?

Nabokov's Mary may almost read like a response to The Great Gatsby
(an effect which is, of course, purely accidental since the novels were
written virtually simultaneously). In both novels the protagonists try to
re-capture their pasts and win back the women they loved, who are now
married to other men. But while Jay Gatsby does it all "actively," by
re-inventing himself as a successful, privileged and cultured individual
and painstakingly re-creating the details of the earlier relationship
through the physical objects he surrounds himself with, Ganin re-lives and
re-creates the sumptuous details of his relationship with Mary by purely
non-physical means: his memory and his imagination. Not being able to
foresee that his attempts to re-create the past within a physical world
are doomed to fail, Gatsby ends up tragically; Ganin, on the other hand,
is smart enough to comprehend, albeit at the last moment, the futility of
such attempts and walks away from a possible disaster when he decides not
to wait for the "physical" Mary to disembark from the train. Ganin's
choice is to retain "the beautiful" and forego "the doomed," and instead
of tragedy, he is rewarded with a feeling of rejuvenation and
reinvigoration as well as a desire for new adventures. He thus proves to
be Nabokov's "wise man," the one who can successfully "create the past"
and then move on to the future, which is much easier to create. Having
said that, I have to note here that this is not a universally accepted
interpretation of the end of Mary. In two recent books, Julian Connolly's
Nabokov's Early Fiction and John Foster's Nabokov's Art of Memory and
European Modernism, the end of the novel is seen in different terms. Thus
Connolly interprets the last scene of the novel, where Ganin dozes off on
a train which is taking him away from the "physical" Mary, as Nabokov's
hint that the protagonist will, perhaps, return once again "to a state in
which dreams and fantasies hold more charm than the external world"
(Connolly, 43). Foster, on the other hand, believes that the "calculated
anticlimax" of the novel "suggests a denial of the past" on Ganin's part
(Foster, 33).
All these different interpretations of the end of the novel are
probably testimonies to how effective Nabokov's last-minute surprise is.
And yet, it seems to me, in Nabokov's mind, the end is not at all
surprising. Ganin is neither denying his past nor returning to a state of
dreams and fantasies; he simply grows wise enough to distinguish between
the past and the present, between internal and external realities. He also
makes a conscious decision to live in both, but never to mix them in a
physical world. Thus Mary, in my opinion, has a clear-cut resolution: that
of a happy balance. As David Rampton writes in yet another very recent
book on Nabokov, "Mary celebrates Ganin's independent maturity, and its
ending constitutes his recognition that such passion is specific to a time
and place, that there will be other passions, equally intense and perhaps
more durable, and that if he is to be true to the impulse that made him
`create' Mary in the first place, he must not attempt to re-create her"
(Rampton, 9). This is the kind of "independent maturity" and wisdom that
Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby obviously does not possess, and neither does
Chorb, the protagonist of Nabokov's other work written the same year. I
suspect (and I am not alone in that--see, for example, Boyd, 250) that
"The Return of Chorb" was conceived by Nabokov, at least partially, for
the purposes of contrasting the protagonists' different choices in their
attempts to re-create the past. Chorb's fatal flaw is that, like Gatsby,
he is too weak to resist the temptation to try and physically re-create
the past. For the first part of the story he, like Ganin, re-creates,
rather artistically, the events of his past relationship in his mind;
then he makes an unwise and totally inartistic turn (or "return" when he
picks up a prostitute to serve as a stand-in for his late wife and brings
her to the same motel room and bed where he and his wife had stayed prior
to her accident. But despite Chorb's failure to clearly separate between
the internal and external worlds, Nabokov obviously did not consider "The
Return of Chorb" a "terrible" story. Nabokov's authorial role vis-vis
Chorb is, in fact, very similar to Fitzgerald's role vis-vis Gatsby. It
is, after all, Jay Gatsby, not Scott Fitzgerald, who believes that one can
re-visit his past. Gatsby's creator (like the creator of Chorb)
deliberately emphasizes the futility of such attempts even though he
appears sympathetic to his character's impulse ("So we beat on," he wrote
once in a letter to a friend, "boats against the current, borne back
ceaselessly into the past" [in Mellow, 224]). Thus Gatsby's failure to
foresee the doom, alone, cannot possibly account for Nabokov's "violent"
reaction to the novel. Nabokov's main objection to The Great Gatsby can
only be understood, it seems to me, when we consider the ways in which Jay
Gatsby is different not only from "wise" Ganin, but also from "unwise"
Chorb. Gatsby is a truly American hero: his beginnings are humble, his
ambition boundless, and his belief that one can re-make oneself by making
money unshakable. In that, he is drastically different from the two
European protagonists of Nabokov's earliest fiction. Both Ganin and Chorb
come from more established and cultured backgrounds. Having lost most of
their material possessions when they fled Russia, the two emigre s do not,
nevertheless, view wealth as a necessary accompaniment for success. They
seem to believe, in fact, that true riches lie elsewhere. While they are
not yet fully-blown artists of Fedor Godunov Cherdyntsev's type, their
sensibilities are definitely "artistic". They both appear to possess "the
gift" that, in Nabokov's mind, clearly distinguishes them from the mere
mortals around them. Ganin is even directly described as a "god of
creation" ("He was a god, re-creating a world that had perishedS (M, 33))
which for Nabokov, as for Joyce, was a perfect metaphor for a true artist.
By keeping physically detached from his creation, and thus remaining "a
god", Ganin triumphs at the end not only as a "wise" man but also as a
genuine artist. The story of Chorb, on the other hand, is the reverse of
Ganin's: it is the tragedy of a forming artist losing his detachment and
thus failing his god-given gift. This "gift," it seems to me, is the clue
to Nabokov's reaction to Fitzgerald's novel. As far as Nabokov goes,
without the "gift," Ganin's and Chorb's stories would have been neither
triumphant not tragic but merely trivial and thus unnecessary. And that
is, it seems to me, how he felt about the story of Jay Gatsby. While Ganin
and Chorb are capable of "creating the past," Jay Gatsby can only attempt
to "repeat" it. Whereas in re-capturing their past loves Ganin and, for
most part, Chorb simultaneously "captures" art, Gatsby can be seen as
doing the opposite (producing "anti-art," or "poshlost," as Nabokov would
probably call it). If that was indeed Nabokov's main objection to the
novel, he was not alone. Thus H. L. Mencken thought that even though
"Evidences of careful workmanship are on every page...." of The Great
Gatsby, "the basic story is somewhat trivial ...it reduces itself, in the
end, to a sort of anecdote" (in Mellow, 232). So, when Nabokov, ever so
competitive with other authors, announced to Mizener that The Great Gatsby
was a "terrible" novel, what he probably left unsaid was his conviction
that in Mary he had tackled a similar theme but had resolved it much more
satisfactorily that did Fitzgerald. Not everybody's longing for the past
is worthy of being the stuff of the novel. One person's art is another
person's sentimentality, and only an extraodinary character can
distinguish "the beautiful" from both "the doomed" and "the trivial." The
assumption that Gatsby may not deserve a novel because he is an "everyman"
rather than, as is largely the case with Ganin, a "superman," seems to me
to be typically Nabokovian. He did not care much for "everymen" as
literary heroes, not even for one of the most famous of them -- Leopold
Bloom. Unlike Joyce, Nabokov saw Bloom as little more than a pervert: "in
the sexual department Bloom is, if not on the verge of insanity, at least
a good clinical example of extreme sexual preoccupation and perversity
with all kinds of curious complications" (Lectures, 287). Neither did he
care for Don Quixote, another famous "ordinary man" in literature.
Nabokov's own fictional "everyman" -- Timofey Pnin -- became a literary
hero largely despite Nabokov's original intentions and, I suspect, much to
Nabokov's surprise.
But if Nabokov, indeed, assumed that his treatment of the theme of
return to one's past in MARY was, for the reasons stated above, superior
to Fitzgerald's treatment of a similar theme in THE GREAT GATSBY, was he
actually right? I, for one, do not believe so. Ironically, it is probably
one of the major strengths of the GG that its protagonist is shown to be
all too human, and one of the major weaknesses of MARY that Ganin is so
"ubermannish." Ganin is a variation of that supreme, larger-than-life,
all-that-matters consciousness that we find in most of Nabokov's earlier
novels. Next to Ganin, Fedor, Cincinnatus or Krug, other characters obtain
life and meaning only if they manage to become important enough to the
central character of the book to enter his orbit, or his field of vision.
In the novels where the protagonist is strong enough to sustain all that
limelight -- in the GIFT, for example, and, definitely, in THE INVITATION
TO A BEHEADING -- Nabokov's strategy works, but Ganin is not as
interesting or as developed as either Fedor or Cincinnatus. Ganin's
well-balanced striving to re-capture and re-construct his past love, while
important for loyal Nabokov readers, who know how much of this
preoccupation with the past as well as the past itself were Nabokov's own,
never attains, in my opinion, the same universal note and magic poignancy
as the naive, misguided and doomed-from-the-start attempts of Jay Gatsby,
aka James Gatz, neither a wise man nor an artist but simply an "everyman."