Sunday reading for you: A thunderous stet!

Paris Review

When I used to read literary fiction, Vladimir Nabokov was up there in my pantheon. Martin Amis said it best of Nabokov:

The variety, force and richness of Nabokov’s perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction. To read him in full flight is to experience stimulation that is at once intellectual, imaginative and aesthetic, the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.

The following blog post is from 2010 and concerns Nabokov being the nightmare interview subject for The Paris Review. It still makes me laugh. I hope it makes you smile this Sunday …

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There’s a Korean saying about life: “Life is ten thousand joys, and ten thousand sorrows”.  If there were a saying about the internet it would be similar.  The internet is a squillion marvels and a squillion horrors.

One marvel is The Paris Review’s interviews of famous writers going back to the 1950s.

There’s great material here.  What the subjects give away and what they withhold, the competence and incompetence of the interviewers – see the cringe-making introduction written by Graham Greene’s interviewers; Greene, eternally sardonic, the man with a “chip of ice in his heart”, must have been laughing up his sleeve – and the sport there is to be had in comparing subjects.

One such sportive event is to read side by side the interviews of my naughty Vladimir Nabokov, and Georges Simenon, two authors on opposite ends of the spectrum of baroqueness; Nabokov with his tropical phantasmagorias, Simenon, who, for every day spent writing spent two days cutting “adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect.”

The Nabokov interview in The Paris Review is famous for his diatribe on the concept of poshlost which Wikipedia translates as “self-satisfied inferiority”.  The diatribe is amusing and characteristic of the chief Nabokov traits: rapture, drollery, elaboration upon elaboration, cattiness.

Nabokov acquits himself poorly, which is exactly as he would have wanted.  “As an interview subject, Mr Gold, you’ll see I make a very good writer”, he seems to be saying to the unfortunate Herbert Gold, dead meat surely from the moment he asks about Nabokov’s “sense of the immorality of the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita”.

I can hear Nabokov’s “Dunderhead!” from here, 43 years in the future. “What an idiot is this Gold!”

Nabokov doesn’t care a fig about morality and I know this not because Lolita is the story of a paedophile, but because morality is always a matter of bad taste and Nabokov is the connoisseur of taste, a “tutor in exquisiteness”, as James Wood calls him. And what is poshlost if not the ceding of taste?

In the event, Nabokov’s response to Gold’s inane question is remarkably mild, the only time he’s mild in the entire interview. For the rest, he seems intent on making Gold another galley slave:

Interviewer: E M Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels.  Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it is not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although … one sympathises with his people if they try to wiggle out of that trip to India … My characters are galley slaves.

He is just as caustic, naturally, on the subjects of critics and editors.

The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read.  Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.

On the subject of editors, the reader can hear him winding up a notch as if he’s become bored with pedestrian insults:

Among these [“proofreaders”] I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honour … But I have come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

On the whole, despite his hamfistedness, I pity Mr Gold.  From the very first click of the heels – “Interviewer: Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions. Nabokov: Good morning. I am ready” – Nabokov is the nightmare subject, petulant, phony, and like his chess player protagonists, calculating and defensive.

Only once does Gold come close to penetrating the veneer:

Interviewer: Do you feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a writer?

It’s a good question finally – that “secret flaw” hooks – and Nabokov knows it because it’s the only time he approaches seriousness:

Nabokov: The absence of a natural vocabulary … Of the two instruments in my possession, one – my native tongue – I can no longer use … My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop …

The shortest road?  And all the time I thought he was aiming for the scenic route!

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Image: Scott Hansen at ISO50

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6 thoughts on “Sunday reading for you: A thunderous stet!

    • Really? I think you’d be more than a match for Nabokov. He’s like many people, like I’ve been too, unfree and fearful of expressing his tenderness and thereby his vulnerability. And then one reads his books and discovers where and how the tenderness gets expressed.

      When I read your comment i remembered a story I used to tell myself for years about men. I used to tell myself (and anyone else who was passing) that “men are emotional retards”. How horrid, how arrogant, this was and yet to me it was “the truth”. And then one day after years of telling myself this story I suddenly realised that many of my favourite writers were men and were exquisitely sensitive. And I got how ridiculous was my story.

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