NABOKV-L post 0025944, Sun, 18 Jan 2015 17:22:00 -0200

Critics of critics
Vladimir Nabokov Names the Greatest (and Most Overrated) Novels of the 20th

[…] That Lolita regularly tops such “great books” lists, such as the Modern
Library’s “100 Best Novels,” would hardly have impressed its author.
Nonetheless, after his takedown of such venerated names as Thomas Mann,
Boris Pasternak, and the “corncobby” William Faulkner, Nabokov doesn’t
hesitate to name his “greatest masterpieces of 20th century prose.”

JM: The edited clips offered by this address, offer various very divulged
interviews, strolls, VN readings but it also blends these familiar clips
with a few novelties to me.

After trying to check the reference to “making love to a chair” (found in
the recorded snippet) I came to an old review of “The Original of Laura” by
John Simon. During the deluge of critical reviews I missed that, “Gratuitous
excogitations The article was distributed in February 2010.

Excerpt: “So now we have Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumous opus, The Original of
Laura, with two subtitles, “(Dying Is Fun)” and “A novel in fragments,”
neither chosen by the author… It is the book Nabokov was working on, some of
it in the hospital, during his last time on earth. As was his habit, he
wrote on 3 x 5 inch index cards, reaching 138, and corresponding to, as has
been estimated, forty-five pages of print. Otherwise put, nowhere near a
finished novel./ Nabokov had asked his wife, Vera, to burn the cards if he
did not get to finish the novel, but, we read, “her failure to perform was
rooted in procrastination—procrastination due to age, weakness, and
immeasurable love.” In his introduction, Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, invokes
comparisons to Coleridge and Kafka that do not hold. Even in its unfinished
state, what “the person from Porlock” interrupted—“Kubla Khan” —is still a
major poem. And the works that Max Brod, despite Kafka’s instructions, chose
not to destroy but publish are most of Kafka’s greatest masterpieces.
[…]These cards are merely an interesting mess […] Whatever Laura may be,
it is certainly a receptacle for Nabokov’s contempt for most human beings,
his jealousy of most other writers, and his indulging in favorite erotic
fantasies […] For a sample of fancy footwork in Laura, consider the
Mr. Hubert … constantly ‘prowled’ (rodait) around her, humming a monotonous
tune and sort of mesmerising her, envelopping [sic] her, so to speak, in
some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what
way she turned. For instance she did not dare to let her arms hang aimlessly
lest her knuckles came into contact with some horrible part of that kindly
but smelly and “pushing” old male.
To be noted here (as will presently become clearer) is how, with age,
Nabokov became self-indulgently smuttier as well as nastier. Thus the
smelliness of his Fat Men (Philip is fat too) recurs with obsessive
frequency, whether of the entire person or of some body part, certainly
Philip’s tiny feet, which the Fat Man wishes even tinier, dreaming of
cutting off his toes. In the introduction, Dmitri points to the painful
inflammation under Vladimir’s toenails and other biographical parallels.//
Aspects of Nabokov’s fiction are often very loose, disguised autobiography,
making one wonder about the several prurient passages even in these few
fragments […] We get a reference to Flora’s reading at a northern college
(such as, by the way, Nabokov taught at), extracts “in a St Leger d’Exuperse
[sic] series of Les great representant [sic] de notre epoque though why
great represent[atives] wrote so badly remained a mystery[.]” Nabokov does
not bother with accent marks or careful punctuation; what interests him is
his little game of compacting Saint-John Perse (real name Alexis Saint Léger
Léger) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry into a portmanteau sneer./ A bit later
we read:/ As to the lady who taught French Literature [ , ] all she needed
were the names of modern French writers and their listing on Flora’s palm
caused a much denser tickle [.] Especially memorable was the cluster of
interlocked names on the ball of Flora’s thumb: Malraux, Mauriac, Maurois,
Michaux, Michima [sic], Montherland [sic] and Morand. What amazes one is not
the alliteration (a joke on the part of a mannered alphabet); nor the
inclusion of a foreign performer (a joke on the part of that fun loving
little Japanese [girl] who would twist her limbs into a pretzel when
entertaining Flora’s lesbian friends); and not even the fact that virtually
all those writers were stunning mediocrities as writers go (the first in the
list being the worst); what amazes one is that they were supposed to ‘repre-
sent an era’ and that such representants could get away with the most
execrable writing, provided they represent their times./ Typically, Nabokov
strikes out in all directions. What is a “denser tickle” when Flora, as a
trot, writes those names on her palm? How many names can be listed on the
ball of a girl’s thumb? Why would all these names begin with M? A joke by a
mannered alphabet, whatever that is, or the whim of a mannered writer?
Mishima, even in a Gallic spelling, does not belong, but Nabokov makes fun
of the fun-loving teacher supposedly of Japanese origin, although we have
been told previously that only her stepfather was part, not even wholly,
Japanese. Why is Montherlant misspelled “Montherland”? Out of sloppiness,
patronizing indifference, or the sake of a jeering parallel with Morand?/
Then again, why are “virtually” all these M writers “stunning mediocrities”?
And why the “virtually”? Who is exempt and why? Note also that representing
an era is only a strategy for getting away with execrable writing. Finally
that “supposed”—these poor scribblers were not even true representants,
lowly as that is, only supposititious ones.
Granted that this novel is in jottings, and Nabokov might have, given
time, clarified and improved everything. But if that everything is so
tentative, so imperfect, does it justify such posh publication? And when are
we going to get Nabokov’s laundry lists? / I am not interested in the
guessing game about how this novel would have shaped up. Anyone interested
may read the reviews of Gates and Lanchester and whatever other ones. My
interest is in what is, not in what might have been. And, sure enough, what
I find most interesting about the book is covered by its posthumous subtitle
“(Dying is Fun).” It is the subplot about Philip Wild’s gamesmanship with
death, clearly important to the protractedly ill author who, vain as he is,
finds comfort in pretending that death is somehow self-imposed./ Here it is
useful to quote Gates. Philip Wild is writing “‘a mad neurologist’s
testament’ of which we get extracts in his own voice. He tells of having
somehow ‘hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, my mind
itself.’ He achieves this self-deletion by putting himself in a trance
state, projecting ‘a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard,’
then mentally erasing it.’ To break the trance all you do is to restore in
every chalkbright details [sic] the simple picture of yourself.”/. Fine,
but Gates does not include the passage on the locus of this inner
blackboard, permitting a “process of dying by auto-dissolution … the
greatest ecstasy known to man.” This “incredible delight,” Nabokov writes,
has a “surface which at its virgin best has a dark-plum, rather than black,
depth of opacity is none other than the underside of one’s closed eyelids.”
So there is the source of the “miraculous dissolution” that Philip
rhapsodizes over. You daydream your death in a lidded trance that isn’t
forced upon you but from which you can rally at will, even though it is “an
enrichissement [sic] of delicious dissolution (what a miraculous appropriate
noun!)” Let all of us be granted this fun method of demise.[…]
Ever since the days when such formidable mediocrities as Galsworthy,
Dreiser, a person called Tagore, another called Maxim Gorky, a third called
Romain Rolland used to be accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and
amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for
instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak’s melodramatic and
vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered
“masterpieces,” or at least what journalists call “great books,” is to me an
absurd delusion, as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.

I was examining information online about the hypnotist’s chair and wondering
if, as I always do, instead of jabbing at Freud, VN wasn’t indicating Thomas
Mann and his short-story figuring Nazism and personal liberty: “Mario, the
Magician.” Again, no confirmation in the horizon… but J.Simon’s conclusion
about the source of the “miraculous dissolution” cultivated by Philip, under
closed lids and day-dreams, helped me to consider the “metaphor” from a very
different angle than the one I originally envisaged.


Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Nabokv-L policies:
Nabokov Online Journal:"
AdaOnline: "
The Nabokov Society of Japan's Annotations to Ada:
The VN Bibliography Blog:
Search the archive with L-Soft:

Manage subscription options :