NABOKV-L post 0025976, Wed, 28 Jan 2015 16:58:51 -0200

James Joyce, Ada, Kafka and VN's LL

Dear List,

During one of my exercises in rereading VN's LL (here, the Lecture on Kafka)
there were various surprises lying in wait for me.

The first one is related to the theme of mysteries in "art and life" (
following the postings on VN's ADA and James Joyce), with VN's comments
while quoting from Shakespeare's King Lear ( " 'to take upon us the mystery
of things' [ ]my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously.there is
no rational answer to 'so what'.").*

The second relates to a verse I "heard" in his comment "Where there is
beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die." (John
Keats's Ode on melancholy)**. But there are another verses competing in my
mind with Keats's and they were written by fictional John Shade. This
hypothesis relates to another affirmation presented a little further in this
same LL Kafka lecture, when VN starts "part one" by stating: "I am now going
to speak of structure." (LL,p.260) ***

Mine are, certainly, very idiosyncratic associations that I wanted to
share it with the VN-L. I could also link the intimation that "beauty must
die" to S.Freud's lecture "On Transience" in which he chides the poet
R.M.Rilke - since Freud found in him a particular intolerance to loss and
mourning - but then I'd be exploiting this avenue only by its link to an
artist's "saintliness." #

The third surprise related to VN's choice of a botanical example (the "solid
tourist.who cannot distinguish an oak from an elm" LL,p.252), because oaks
and elms shall reappear in ADA many years later, related to "paternity" and
other issues, also recently discussed at the VN-L.**** In the context of the
lecture, oaks/elms suggest the creation of another "reality", the subjective
world that inspires an author's personal fantasies.

The fourth is simply an insight about my former blindness (or deafness) to
VN's wonderful and profound presentation of Gogol's and Kafka's fantasies
about an absurd world from which the pathetic trembling living character
tries to escape in order to ascess "the world of humans." I cannot explain
in my own words what's in this characterization that touched me so deeply,
but my dorsal spine responded to it.It is as if I could finally realize that
we inhabit several parallel worlds (are all of them subjective?) and that
our humanity is still a miracle to be conquered, that it is not a given.

"In Gogol and Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world
around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it
into the world of humans-and dies in despair. In Stevenson the unreal
central character belongs to a brand of unreality different from that of the
world around him. He is a Gothic character in a Dickensian setting, and when
he struggles and then dies, his fate possesses only conventional pathos. I
do not at all mean that Stevenson's story is a failure. No, it is a minor
masterpiece in its own conventional terms, but it has only two dimensions,
whereas the Gogol-Kafka stories have five or six." (LL,p.254)


*Lecture on "The Metamorphosis" by Vladimir NabokovOf course, no matter how
keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and
analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain
unkindled. "To take upon us the mystery of things"-what King Lear so
wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia-this is also my suggestion for
everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat
(Gogol's "The Greatcoat," or more correctly "The Carrick"); another poor
fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka's "The Metamorphosis)-so what? There
is no rational answer to "so what." We can take the story apart, we can find
out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but
you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in
answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus
pity-that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is
beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty
always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the
individual. If Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" strikes anyone as something more
than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the
ranks of good and great readers. Franz Kafka, "The Metamorphosis" (1915) in
Vladimir Nabokov "Lectures on Literature" ed.Fredson Bowers,1980, p.251
(hard cover).

** She dwells with Beauty-Beauty that must die; And Joy, whose hand is ever
at his lipsBidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, Turning to poison while
the bee-mouth sips:

John Keats, Ode on Melancholy

*** John Shade: Now I shall spy on beauty as none has

Spied on it yet. Now I
shall cry out as

None has cried out.[ ]
And speaking of this wonderful machine:

840 I'm puzzled by the
difference between

Two methods of composing.

(no need to add that one of the 12 uses of the word "beauty" in PF indicates
another lines by Keats : "Taxation had become a thing of beauty" (cf.
"Endymion") in PF, C.Kinbote's commentary to line 12.

**** "The botanist looks around and sees his environment in the very exact
terms of plant life, precise biological and classified units such as
specific trees and grasses, flowers and ferns, and for him, this is reality;
to him the world of the stolid tourist (who cannot distinguish an oak from
an elm) seems a fantastic, vague, dreamy, never-never world." (LL, op cit.

# "Before starting to talk of "The Metamorphosis," I want to dismiss two
points of view. I want to dismiss completely Max Brod's opinion that the
category of sainthood, not that of literature, is the only one that can be
applied to the understanding of Kafka's writings. Kafka was first of all an
artist, and although it may be maintained that every artist is a manner of
saint (I feel that very clearly myself), I do not think that any religious
implications can be read into Kafka's genius. The other matter that I want
to dismiss is the Freudian point of view." (LL op cit.p.255)

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 :