Vladimir Nabokov Names the Greatest (and Most Overrated) Novels of the 20th Century http://www.openculture.com/2015/01/vladimir-nabokov-names-the-greatest-novels-of-the-20th-century.html

JANUARY 16, 2015  VLADIMIR NABOKOV  https://steelnglass.wordpress.com/tag/vladimir-nabokov/

[…] 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 following:

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.



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