Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023628, Sun, 3 Feb 2013 18:52:17 -0200

{NABOKV-L] [THOUGHTS} Nabokov, Wilson and Detective Fiction
In a note to "The Nabokovian" (Spring 2010, vol 64), I approached Shade's lines in Pale Fire to the riddle about "Who Killed Cock Robin," referred to in RLSK, after I'd been intrigued by Nabokov's fascination with conjuring tricks and Kenneth Fearing's poem, "Sherlock Spends a Day in the Country," published in "The New Yorker." in March 11, 1944. The novel RLSK (1941) dedicates several chapters to debunk and parody detective stories (something VN took up again two decades later in Lolita) and we find that Nabokov praises Wilson's controversial article on Sherlock Holmes, published in The New Yorker on Feb. 17,1945, in his correspondence with Edmund Wilson (Cf. Karlinski's notes, p.165) reaffirming his dismissive appraisal of writers, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy l.Sayers He states: "First class - the Sherlock Holmes article."*

There are subliminar clues about crimes, caught murderers, and unnamed killers in most of Nabokov's novels but they (obviously) could never be included in a list of "detective novels," or precisely fitted as modernist or postmodernist, although I've sometimes found him included among the SciFi writers**.Perhaps Nabokov's unavowed enjoyment of crime novels focuses on mysteries, conjuring tricks and, most of all, careful plots and exact puzzles, spiced by his bent towards the kind of puns and wordgames that perform literary tricks.

Two interesting observations about it can be found in ADA: "Van on the stage was performing organically what his figures of speech were to perform later in life - acrobatic wonders that had never been expected from them and which frightened children" [ ] "... she suggested to Van that verbal circuses, 'performing words,' 'poodle-doodles,' and so forth, might be redeemable by the quality of the brain work required for the creation of a great logogriph or inspired pun and should not preclude the help of a dictionary, gruff or complacent."

Crime novelist P.D. James closing words in "Talking About Detective Fiction" (2009) are: "We may honor and celebrate the genius that produced Middlemarch, War and Peace and Ulysses, without diminishing the value of Treasure Island, Moonstone and The Inimitable Jeeves.Detective stories, at their best, may remain ins such company. Its popularity suggests that in the XXIth Century, as well as in the past, a great many of us readers will continue to find solace, diversion and a mild intelectual chalenge in these unpretentious celebrations of reason and ordem, in our ever more complex and disordered world." ( from "Segredos do romance policial. História das histórias de detetives", in an attempt at retranslation into English). She praises these stories for presenting disguised, but honest, clues for the solution of a mystery, and for bringing about the reassuring feeling of closure, when order is finally restored to the (artificial but convincing) world. These elements (James's qualities) are not to be found in Nabokov's constantly evolving, expansive and open writings.


* There are two earlier articles, by Wilson, railing against detective stories.

In "Why do people read deterctive stories"(October 14, 1944), he notes that he'd been "sampling the various types of popular merchandise, I have de­cided that I ought to take a look at some specimens of this kind of fiction, which has grown so tremendously popular [ ] I began to nurse a rankling con­viction that detective stories in general are able to profit by an unfair advantage in the code which forbids the reviewer to give away the secret to the public-a cus­tom which results in the concealment of the pointless-ness of a good deal of this fiction and affords a protection to the authors which no other department of writing enjoys. It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while. [ ]There has been also the puzzle mystery, and this, I was assured, had been brought to a high pitch of ingenuity in the stories of Agatha Christie. So I have read also the new Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and I con­fess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised. Yet I did not care for Agatha Christie and I hope never to read another of her books [ ] her writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read [ ].What, then, is the spell of the detective story that has been felt by T. S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More but which I seem incapable of feeling? As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead. The spy story may perhaps only now be realizing its poetic possibilities [ ] But the detec­tive story proper had borne all its finest fruits by the end of the nineteenth century, having only declined from the point where Edgar Allan Poe had been able to com­municate to M. Dupin something of his own ratiocinative intensity and where Dickens had invested his plots with a social and moral significance that made the final solution of the mystery a revelatory symbol of something that the author wanted seriously to say..."

In his next article, "Who cares who killed Roger Acroyd?," from January 20, 1945, he comments about his readers's response to his initial article and concludes that "Detective-story readers feel guilty, they are habitually on the defensive, and all their talk about "well-written" mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can always pro­duce for a drink."

Although I could gain access to the two articles mentioned above, the one that was praised by VN has been, up to now, unavailable to me. Through the usual search engines, I got to G.J. Demko's article about Wilson and detective fiction, where he states that Wilson, in "Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound" (Feb.17th. 1945) continues the vitriol and contradictions. He claims he had received even more letters and that most agreed with him. The negative letters, he notes, contained furious reactions that 'confirm me in my conclusions that detective stories are actually a habit-forming drug for which its addicts will fight like tigers' [ ] One can only conclude that he wrote this column in his cups because he does confess, 'in my turn, that since first looking into this subject last fall I have myself become addicted, by spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes.' This final contradiction is followed by a loving recounting of the great Doyle stories literature on a humble but not ignoble level and the admirable settings.[ ]What is to be made of this cockamamie trio of pieces that appear to be stimulated by Wilson's contrary nature and characterized by confessions, condemnations and contradictions? Surely not much, Detective Fiction and Edmund Wilson: A Rejoinder www.dartmouth.edu/~gjdemko/praise.htm

Simon Karlinsky informs that Wilson's article has been included in "Classics and Commercials."It also may be possible to find it here: www.newyorker.com/.../1944_10_14_078_TNY...

** Cf. "Nabokov's statements of preference in authors, however, often reflected a taste for pre-modernist writers of the decidedly romanticist variety. Indeed, he parodied the beginnings of his own writing career in terms that knowingly played with romantic assumptions: "I was a boy of fifteen, the lilacs were in full bloom; I had read Pushkin and Keats" ("The Last Interview," 121). His early reading was devoted to Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Blok. He even admitted a formative (but not enduring) enthusiasm for the Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes (Strong Opinions, 42-43). But if we acknowledge that Nabokov was shaped by the writers of the nineteenth century, are we somehow manipulated into denying his future relevance?" by Geoffrey Green in "Beyond Modernism and Posmodernism: Vladimir Nabokov's Fiction of Transcendent Perspective" (Cycnus, vol. 12, "At the Crossroads of Modernism and Postmodernism"

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