Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024539, Mon, 2 Sep 2013 16:15:34 -0300

[NABOKV´L] Nabokov Russian Lectures:Dostoevsky
Dear List,

The collected preparatory notes and writings for Nabokov's Russian lectures contrasts with the edition of his Lectures on Literature. Just as it happened with the ones on Turgenev, also Dostoevski's end with a sequence of quotations from "Brothers Karamazov" with no added summary of ideas or conclusions. It seems to me that Nabokov didn't achieve a special critical distance, as he maintained with Dickens, Stevenson, Austen and almost every uttering of his was filled with passion.

For him, Gogol's madness was an expression of his genius but, later on, it became rather difficult to extricate them as its toll came over the quality of Gogol's wrtings and attitudes (in the separate edition of his "Gogol" however VN did manage to control his perplexities). Doestoevski's writing before his his captivity and exile and those he wrote after his release were examined under a rather different light.

It amused me to fell his pleasure when quoting Dostoevki's disparagement of Turgenev ( who, btw., "dubbed:him a new pimple on the nose of Russian literature", as VN doesn't forget to mention)
Here it is:
. "In The Possessed there is the delightful skit on Turgenev: Karmazinov, the author a la mode, "an old man with a rather red face, thick grey locks of hair clustering under his chimney-pot hat and curling round his clean little pink ears. Tortoise-shell lorgnette, on a narrow black ribbon, studs, buttons, signet ring, all in the best form. A sugary but rather shrill voice. Writes solely in self-display, as for instance in the description of the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear the sight of the dead child in the dead woman's arms etc' "A very sly dig, for Turgenev has an autobiographical description of a fire on a ship - incidentally associated with a nasty episode in his youth which his enemies delighted in repeating during all his life."

VN writes, on Dostoevski:

" If you examine closely any of his works, say The Brothers Karamazov, you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to
the perception of the senses hardly exist. What landscape there is is a landscape of ideas, a moral landscape [ ] Dostoevski characterizes his people through situation, through ethical matters, their psychological reactions, their inside ripples.The novel The Brothers Karamazov has always seemed to me a straggling play, with just that
amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors: a round table with the wet, round trace of a glass, a window painted yellow to make it look as if there were sunlight outside, or a shrub hastily brought in and plumped down by a stagehand. "

According to him

"The world the artist creates for this purpose may be entirely unreal - as for instance the world of Kafka, or that of Gogol - but there is one absolute demand we are entitled to make: this world in itself and as long as it lasts, must be plausible to the reader or to the spectator. It is quite inessential, for instance, that Shakespeare introduces in Hamlet the ghost of Hamlet's father. Whether we agree [that] Shakespeare was justified to introduce these phantoms into his plays as realities, or whether we assume that these ghosts are something in the nature of stage properties, it does not matter: from the moment the murdered king's ghost enters the play, we accept him[ ] In fact, the true measure of genius is in what measure the world he has created is his own, one that has not been here before him (at least, here, in literature) and, even more important, how plausible he has succeeded in making it. I would like you to consider Dostoevski's world from this point of view..."

And, from now on, his acute adverse criticism shines openly while he explains that "when dealing with a work of art we must always bear in mind that art is a divine game. These two elements - the elements of the divine and that of the game - are equally important. It is divine because this is the element in which man comes nearest to God through becoming a true creator in his own right. And it is a game, because it remains art only as long as we are allowed to remember that, after all, it is all make-believe, that the people on the stage, for instance, are not actually murdered, in other words, only as long as our feelings of horror or of disgust do not obscure our realization that we are, as readers or as spectators, participating in an elaborate and enchanting game: the moment this balance is upset we get, on the stage, ridiculous melodrama, and in a book just a lurid description of, say, a case of murder which should belong in a newspaper instead. And we cease to derive that feeling of pleasure and satisfaction and spiritual vibration, that combined feeling which is our reaction to true art. For example, we are not disgusted or horrified by the bloody ending of the three greatest plays ever written: the hanging of Cordelia, the death of Hamlet, the suicide of Othello give us a shudder, but a shudder with a strong element of delight in it. This delight does not derive from the fact that we are glad to see those people perish, but merely our enjoyment of Shakespeare's overwhelming genius." He ends his sentence once again inviting his students to "ponder Crime and Punishment and Memoirs from a Mousehole also known as the Notes from Underground (1864)" and concludes: "from this point of view: is the artistic pleasure you derive from accompanying Dostoevski on his excursions into the sick souls of his characters, is it consistently greater than any other emotions, thrills of disgust, morbid interest in a crime thriller? There is even less balance between the aesthetic achievement and the element of criminal reportage in Dostoevski's other novels. "

I tried to envisage "Lolita," "Despair" or "Ada" as a "divine game." (a beautiful puzzle, a clever problem.), but I failed the test. Granted, these novels are "divine" and there's in them an element of "game" (in the sense of having the reader admire the writer's genius and skill to cope with the problems he has set for himself). However, the shiver in my spine was provoked by something else. When I try to describe it, lamely, I can only confess that my private aesthetic delight with Nabokov depends on his ingenious use of words in every possible dimension, not only as "performing dogs" (because, differently from HH, VN hasn't "only words to play with").

Nabokov's third parameter to judge Art, as offered in this lecture, came as a surprise to me (for so many of his characters are criminals and lunatics): "..when an artist sets out to explore the motions and reactions of a human soul under the unendurable stresses of life, our interest is more readily aroused and we can more readily follow the artist as our guide through the dark corridors of that human soul if that soul's reactions are of a more or less all-human variety. By this I certainly do not wish to say that we are, or should be, interested solely in the spiritual life of the so-called average man. Certainly not. What I wish to convey is that though man and his reactions are infinitely varied, we can hardly accept as human reactions those of a raving lunatic or a character just come out of a madhouse and just about to return there. The reactions of such poor, deformed, warped souls are often no longer human, in the accepted sense of the word, or they are so freakish that the problem the author set himself remains unsolved regardless of how it is supposed to be solved by the reactions of such unusual individuals.

Certainly, what Nabokov had in mind was unrelated to the problems that he set for himself when creating lunatic criminals, such as Herman, Humbert or Van Veen and his parameters must be valid for the perspective .under which Doestoevi's novels were examined: "It is questionable whether one can really discuss the aspects of "realism" or of "human experience" when considering an author whose gallery of characters consists almost exclusively of neurotics and lunatics. Besides all this, Dostoevski's characters have yet another remarkable feature: throughout the book they do not develop as personalities. We get them all complete at the beginning of the tale, and so they remain without any considerable changes although their surroundings may alter and the most extraordinary things may happen to them."
As he explain further: "The next pet idea of our author happens to be that a crime brings the man who commits it that inner hell which is the inevitable lot of the wicked. This inner solitary suffering, however, for some reason does not lead to redemption. What does bring redemption is actual suffering openly accepted, suffering in public, the deliberate self-abasement and humiliation before his fellow-humans - this can bring the sufferer the absolution of his crime, redemption, new life, and so on. Such actually is to be the road which Raskolnikov will follow, but whether he will kill again is impossible to say [ ] Did Dostoevski succeed in making it all plausible? I doubt it. "

VN did succeed with Humbert Humbert in just such a task, as I see it. His confessions, though, bear a resemblance to what VN proposes in connection to the "mouseman": "The first part is a soliloquy but a soliloquy that presupposes the presence of a phantom audience. Throughout this part the mouseman, the narrator, keeps turning to an audience of persons who seem to be amateur philosophers, newspaper readers, and what he calls normal people. These ghostly gentlemen are supposed to be jeering at him, while he is supposed to thwart their mockery and denunciations by the shifts, the doubling back, and various other tricks of his supposedly remarkable intellect. This imaginary audience helps to keep the ball of his hysterical inquiry rolling, an inquiry into the state of his own crumbling soul."

Queries: Was the novel where he discussed Dostoevski King Queen Knave? Does anyone know in what pages?

The time VN reread "Crime and Punishment" to speak in American universities seems to be distinct from the time he is delivering the lecture we find published ("And only quite recently..."). How come?

"I must have been twelve when forty-five years ago I read Crime and Punishment for the first time and thought it a wonderfully powerful and exciting book. I read it again at nineteen, during the awful years of civil war in Russia, and thought it long-winded, terribly sentimental, and badly written. I read it at twenty-eight when discussing Dostoevski in one of my own books. I read the thing again when preparing to speak about him in American universities. And only quite recently did I realize what is so wrong about the book (....)"


Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,nabokv-l@holycross.edu
Visit Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
View Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com

Manage subscription options: http://listserv.ucsb.edu/