Naiman, Eric. When Nabokov Writes Badly: Aesthetics and Morality in Laughter in the Dark. 2014

Bibliographic title
When Nabokov Writes Badly: Aesthetics and Morality in Laughter in the Dark
Collection editor
Periodical or collection
The Russian Review
Publication year

This article explores the role of bad writing in Nabokov's work, examining in particular the tension between morality and aesthetics in Laughter in the Dark, a novel that Nabokov made more aesthetically spare in his rendition of its Russian forerunner (Kamera obscura ) into English. The novel should be read as a polemic with Tolstoy's manifesto on “good,” “bad,” “fake” and “perverted” art, Chto takoe iskusstvo? Although several scholars have already discussed the place of Anna Karenina in Nabokov's novel, this article investigates that dynamic in far greater depth and suggests that Nabokov used Tolstoy's masterpiece as part of an attempt to undermine his predecessor's prescriptions for art. In drawing on Anna Karenina as a touchstone for his novel, Nabokov essentially took Tolstoy's criteria for identifying fake art and used them as the basis for his own flirtation with bad writing. This article shows that in Laughter in the Dark , Nabokov had already embarked on his mission to “kick the glorified soapbox from under [Tolstoy's] sandaled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper–far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna's white neck.” The result is a cross‐examination of Tolstoy by the use of his own novel, an interrogation that celebrates Tolstoy's mature artistry while mocking his overripe aesthetics.