JM: “… Mine are, certainly, very idiosyncratic associations…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)
The pathetic urge to find some protection from betrayal, cruelty, and filth is the factor that went to form his carapace, his beetle shell, which at first seems hard and secure but eventually is seen to be as vulnerable as his sick human flesh and spirit had been. Who of the three parasites—father, mother, sister—is the most cruel? (262)] and this implies a particular metamorphosis into a particular sort of “humaneness,” when innate goodness (unselfishness, empathy, sweetness) gets a chance to flourish to constitute a new species of humanity (that will “transcend the cloak or the carapace”) **.
A quote from Goethe’s “Faust” (part I, Night), often cited by S.Freud, came to my mind: „Was du ererbt von Deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.“ But I don’t think VN had neither Goethe nor Freud in mind when he included his “evolutionary” views in the Kafka lecture or in his afterword to “Lolita”: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” In his Kafka lecture V.Nabokov is remonstrating against R.L.Stevenson’s “conventional” artistic views of good and evil. It seems to me that he is confirming his vision of Art as a means of reaching a novel kind of goodness, a newborn “humanity”…
John Updike’s conclusions in his introduction to LL refer to what he named “Nabokov’s credo.” This designation suggests to me that JU has isolated VN’s artistic credo as shown in his lectures from VN’s achievements as an artist. I cannot agree with him in that aspect: for me, VN’s artistic “credo” is a subtle thread that crosses most of his works. However, I appreciate his point about VN’s failure to deal with Gregor’s needs and love of his family, or his reactions to his role in “objective” society (an indispensable complication).
Cf. John Updike (V.N Lectures on Literature, xxvi, Fredson Bowers,HBJ,1980):
“In his passionate reading of ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Nabokov deprecates as ‘mediocrity surrounding genius’ Gregor Samsa’s philistine and bourgeois family without acknowledging, at the very heart of Kafka’s poignance, how much Gregor needs and adores these possibly crass, but also vital and definite, inhabitants of the mundane. The ambivalence omnipresent in Kafka’s rich tragi-comedy has no place in Nabokov’s credo, though in artistic practice a work like Lolita brims with it, and with a formidable density of observed detail - …”
*From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. But when people call these three stories fantasies, they merely imply that the stories depart in their subject matter from what is commonly called reality (252) …So when we say reality, we are really thinking of all this—in one drop—an average sample of a mixture of a million individual realities. And it is in this sense (of human reality) that I use the term reality when placing it against a backdrop, such as the worlds of "The Carrick," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "The Metamorphosis," which are specific fantasies. (253)
**The beauty of Kafka's and Gogol's private nightmares is that their central human characters belong to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around them, but the central one tries to get out of that world, to cast off the mask, to transcend the cloak or the carapace. (254) The pathetic urge to find some protection from betrayal, cruelty, and filth is the factor that went to form his carapace, his beetle shell, which at first seems hard and secure but eventually is seen to be as vulnerable as his sick human flesh and spirit had been. Who of the three parasites—father, mother, sister—is the most cruel? (262) His sister does not understand that Gregor has retained a human heart, human sensitivity, a human sense of decorum, of shame, of humility and pathetic pride. (269) It should be noted how kind, how good our poor little monster is. His beetlehood, while distorting and degrading his body, seems to bring out in him all his human sweetness. His utter unselfishness, his constant preoccupation with the needs of others—this, against the backdrop of his hideous plight comes out in strong relief. Kafka's art consists in accumulating on the one hand, Gregor's insect features, all the sad detail of his insect disguise, and on the other hand, in keeping vivid and limpid before the reader's eyes Gregor's sweet and subtle human nature.(270)