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NBooth

Vladimir Nabokov (was: "The Original of Laura")

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I'm not at all familiar with the work of Vladimir Nabokov, but I'm familiar with his reputation as a master stylist, one of the greatest novelists of the century, et cetera. And--I'm very interested in the last works of authors, especially in an unfinished state--not sure why, but that's how it is. So I was intrigued when I came across this article in Slate:

QUOTE

Dmitri [Nabokov] has been torn for years between his father's unequivocal request and the demands of the literary world to view the final fragment of his father's genius, a manuscript known as The Original of Laura. Should Dmitri defy his father's wishes for the sake of "posterity"?

Everyone who has seen the manuscript seems to agree that it is a kind of culmination of Nabokov's life-work--his final, all-comprehensive statement. So the question: burn or publish? I'm not too sympathetic with the dying wishes of authors, especially novelists who were apparently as perfectionist as Nabokov. However, I can see where the struggle lies. Dmitri himself has long threatened to destroy the manuscript, but lately he seems to have had a change of heart:

QUOTE

"I have decided," Koval quoted Dmitri, "that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, "Well, why don't you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?' "

Now, the author of the article seems to think the manuscript will wind up in the hands of a foundation and never be seen again, except perhaps by scholars--but it's an interesting change of mind, all the same. And--who knows?--it may wind up getting published, after all.

In which case, I had better brush up on my Nabokov.

Edited by NBooth

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Joseph Bottum:

[snip]

Would I be happier if Virgil’s dying request that his friends destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid had not been overridden by the emperor? No. But in this case, we are not talking about the artist’s masterwork. I think filial piety ought to reach at least far enough to say that a great and intensely self-conscious artist such as Nabokov probably had a better understanding of the shape of his work and career than his heirs do.

Two thoughts on that:

(a) since no-one outside of a small group has seen the manuscript, can we really say this? It may be extremely doubtful, but until the greater part of the literary world is permitted a glimpse of it, we'll never be able to verify it one way or another. Dmitri has apparently spoken of the work as a kind of culmination of his father's work, FWIW.

(b ) the "masterwork" argument seems to say that there is a kind of "higher law" for works of pure genius than for merely good or even very bad works. But who decides what constitutes a "masterwork"? And how is this to be decided if the work isn't seen by anyone? Which brings us back to (a).

And, FWIW, making the manuscript available would be quite another matter than "finishing" the work (as the Frank Herbert estate, for instance, has done).

Edited by NBooth

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This has been making the rounds, so I might as well put it here. Christopher Plummer as Nabokov:

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Brain Pickings posts a 1969 BBC interview with Nabokov:

JM: Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?

VN: Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind; harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and viscera — the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the correction of my major mistakes and her minor ones, transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages, trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking the radiant, beautiful, plump advance copy, opening it — and discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me to survive. After a month or so, I get used to the book’s final stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son, but the young wife of his son.

Also included (though not in the transcript): Nabokov on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It's not a secret that Nabokov despised "idea" novels like Crime and Punishment; now you can hear him eviscerating it in his own voice.

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LARB: Alisa Sniderman on The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov and The Tragedy of Mr. Morn:

Vladimir Nabokov had a specific term for the kind of reader who obsessively searches for political and social clues in fiction: “the solemn reader.” This “solemn reader” falls into the trap of reading his novel Bend Sinister, widely recognized as his most political work, for “human interest.” Lecturing about Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” Nabokov would remark that the “solemn reader” takes for granted that Gogol’s prime intention was to “denounce the horrors of Russian bureaucracy.” Such reading is not necessarily wrong. It’s just that, according to Nabokov, his and Gogol’s art deals with “something much more than that.” Vera Nabokov once mentioned that “every book by VN is a blow against tyranny, every form of tyranny.” When Nabokov reminds us in Lectures on Literature that “the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world … having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know,” he is not advocating that writers employ their stylistic gifts for the sake of showing off. For Nabokov, there exists no greater blow against tyranny than art that refuses to be a vehicle in the service of society.

On The Tragedy of Mr. Morn:

Although Pitzer doesn’t discuss Morn, all the elements that interest her in Nabokov are already present in this early drama: violence, dictatorships, and mentions of forced labor camps. Indeed, as Thomas Karshan notes in his illuminating introduction, Nabokov would never write so explicitly about revolution and its ideology. Yet already in Morn, Nabokov is working on how to artistically transfigure historical material to create a new universe of fiction. He finds one source of inspiration in Shakespeare’s history plays, where the political state figures as a kind of theater and where the power of make-believe can topple or rebuild a kingdom as if it were a deck of cards. In Pale Fire, this theatrical motif will be picked up again when the last king of Zembla escapes through a secret passage connecting his palace to the Royal Theatre.

EDIT: I've changed the thread title to more accurately reflect its contents.

Edited by NBooth

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Old but interesting talk by Martin Amis.

 

EDIT: Here's our thread on the two film versions of Lolita.

 

EDIT EDIT: And while I'm on a linking-kick, here's Ada Online--an online annotated version of Nabokov's Ada; Or, Ardor, spearheaded by Brian Boyd.

Edited by NBooth

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Criminal Element: "Vladimir Nabokov's Hidden Noir"

 

Mention the name Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita springs immediately to mind, and rightfully so. The 1955 novel is a flashpoint in 20th century literature, notable for its controversial subject matter: a professor and his obsession with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. From the Russian born author, there are additional legendary milestones like Pale Fire andSpeak, Memory. What may not be as well known is that Mr. Nabokov was weaving that rich, vigorous prose many years earlier with 1937’s Despair. A first-rate crime novel with strong noir elements.

 

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LARB: "Speaking of Memory: Nabokov's Folded Fabric"

 

For Nabokov, time exists only in personal, reflective consciousness, and is forever being blown around by the unpredictable weather of the mind. For his purposes — the navigation of the “intangible property” of memory — a polite device like linear foreshadowing is as useful as a tape measure in outer space.
Edited by NBooth

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The New Yorker has an interesting piece on Nabokov's retranslations/revisions of Camera Obscura (which became Laughter in the Dark):

 

I flipped immediately to the first page. Far from the elegant and mischievous “Once upon a time” opening, I was confronted with a mystifying, clumsy passage about a cartoonist named Robert Horn (in “Laughter,” he becomes the much more felicitously named villain Axel Rex) and his cartoon creation, a Mickey Mouse-style guinea pig named Cheepy, who was (wisely) excised completely from “Laughter.” The following four pages detailed a copyright lawsuit levelled by Horn against a company that used an unauthorized version of Cheepy for an ad. The book’s hero, the hapless Albinus, is introduced into the story as a picture expert called in to consult on the case.
 
A thin blue vertical fountain-pen stroke ran down through this endless opening, and I fleetingly wondered who could have dared to deface such a rare book. Then, when I turned the page and saw a few scribbled words in that same blue pen in the margin, I realized with slow amazement that this copy of “Camera Obscura” was not simply a rare edition procured by the Berg to round out Nabokov’s archive; it was Nabokov’s personal copy—the very copy in which he had revised virtually every page of Roy’s version in a storm of handwritten additions, crabbed interlineations, carat-sprinkled paragraphs, and bursts of inspiration.
 
[snip]
 
Nabokov had an unsurpassed sense of a story’s structure, and the “Camera Obscura” revisions reveal his growing mastery, in the nineteen-thirties, of form, proportion, and pace. Clearly aware that the cancelled Robert Horn and Cheepy opening was too slow, too flabby, too far off the novel’s central themes, Nabokov seized on a single phrase on page fifteen of the Roy version—an aside about Albinus’s idle musings about financing a film “of a picture by Rembrant or Goya.” Nabokov moves this to the beginning and expands it into a long, strikingly visual paragraph about an animated Bruegel that sweeps the reader into the story. He brings in the villainous Axel Rex not as a victim of copyright infringement but as a celebrated New York-based satirical cartoonist who might be able to execute Albinus’s dreamed-of animated film. Rex is interested, but instead of celebrating this coup, Albinus, when the book opens, is in a state of “irritation, confusion and misery” over a certain young usher he had glimpsed in a movie theatre. (Only later do we learn that Rex and Margot had had a romance years before—a romance that they soon resume on the sly, deceiving Albinus.) This revised first chapter is a model of narrative ingenuity—a sleekly moving seven pages that introduces us, with seeming effortlessness, to the story’s main characters, and to the central plot of marital infidelity.

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NYRB kicks off its 60th-Anniversary round of interviews on Lolita:

 

AFTER NEARLY 60 YEARS, the character of Lolita, nee Dolores Haze, continues to hold court as the most notorious tween in American letters. Nabokov’s third English-language novel, provisionally titled The Kingdom by the Sea, Lolita was first published in 1955 by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press after numerous New York publishers rejected it for its explicit portrayal of narrator Humbert Humbert’s pedophilia. Although the Paris-based Olympia had the distinct honor of publishing semi-legal texts by Jean Genet, Henry Miller and William Burroughs, Girodias’s “blue” press (whose covers were in a nondescript green) was organized as and perceived by most as a porn publisher — lending Lolita its less than literary tenor. The book was subsequently banned in France, England, Australia and parts of the US. It was only published in the United States three years later when writers and critics like Graham Greene and Lionel Trilling publically offered their endorsements. (Trilling, perhaps incautiously, extolled it as a book “not about sex but about love […] It put the lovers, as lovers in literature must be put, beyond the pale of society”). In part because of its blacklisted status, by 1958 popular scuttlebutt had elevated the G.P Putnam’s Sons English edition to a bestseller and invented a new cultural archetype in post-War American literature: the nymphet.

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Criminal Element reads Pale Fire as a mystery story:

 

Part of the enjoyment—in an analogy a mystery buff can relate to—is that it’s like finding Jack the Ripper’s identity. You can feel you’re get close to the murderer, but the ultimate revelation is always slightly out of reach. For the record, Nabokov himself presented one answer, going so far to say that Kinbote eventually commits suicide. However, according to Wikipedia, critic Michael Wood claimed, "This is authorial trespassing, and we don't have to pay attention to it."

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Just read Transparent Things (since I'll be teaching it this Fall, I figured I should read it. Indeed, I put it on the syllabus so I would read it). Holy cow, that's a good little book.

 

EDIT: And, because these never get old, here's the Paris Review Art of Fiction interview:

 

I am as American as April in Arizona. The flora, the fauna, the air of the western states, are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics I am strongly antisegregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on the government’s side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.
Edited by NBooth

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The New Yorker reviews Nabokov in America:

 

Nabokov always refused the label of satirist, and it would be an oversimplification to say that “Lolita” merely skewers the materialism of fifties America; throughout the book, there is a sense of hypnotized wonder and delight at the happy consumerism of the country and its inhabitants, and Nabokov took overt joy at clipping and cataloguing examples of that consumerism, which he carefully worked into the very texture of “Lolita.”

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Criminal Element: "Vladimir Nabokov's Hidden Noir"

 

Mention the name Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita springs immediately to mind, and rightfully so. The 1955 novel is a flashpoint in 20th century literature, notable for its controversial subject matter: a professor and his obsession with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. From the Russian born author, there are additional legendary milestones like Pale Fire andSpeak, Memory. What may not be as well known is that Mr. Nabokov was weaving that rich, vigorous prose many years earlier with 1937’s Despair. A first-rate crime novel with strong noir elements.

 

 

Despair is the only Russian-phase Nabokov I've read, and even then, I'm not sure it should count, since I read his updated-as-well-as-translated 1967 version. Nevertheless, it's very good. (Also, as the biggest Fassbinder fan on the forum, I am contractually obligated to mention his 1978 adaptation. Stoppard wrote the screenplay, FWIW.)

Also, NBooth, do you have any interest in tackling Ada? It's soooo worth it.

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I own it and will probably tackle it eventually.It's there, on my shelf, watching me.

Edited by NBooth

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LitHub: Lolita: From Transgressive Lit to Pop Iconography

 

[H]ow, exactly, did Lolita go from a contested subject to a cultural touchstone? And when did it get reduced to a prototype for relationships between older men and young girls? In commemoration of the anniversary of its U.S. publication, Literary Hub traces the world’s fascination with one of the most challenged books of all time.

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On the Trail of Nabokov in the American West

Today we revere “Lolita” for Nabokov’s bold, multilayered subject matter and his dazzling and allusive prose. But Nabokov’s most enduring contribution may be his portrait of the brash, kitschy, postwar America he observed on his cross-country journeys. Nabokov never learned to drive, and so he estimated that between 1949 and 1959 Véra drove him 150,000 miles — almost all of them on the two-lane blue highways that preceded the interstates.

Measured by the sheer number of miles covered, Nabokov is the most American of authors. He saw more of the United States than did Fitzgerald, Kerouac or Steinbeck, and what he saw was back-roads America: personal, intimate, ticky-tack and yet undeniably authentic. It took a Russian-born writer to awaken us to what Mark Twain knew: America is not a place; it is a road.

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Why Nabokov’s Speak, Memory Still Speaks to Us

Quote

“To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available,” literary critic Joseph Epstein once observed. “Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful autobiography requires. Vladimir Nabokov was among them.” After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away. “Nabokov has never written English better than in these reminiscences; never has he written so sweetly,” he declared. “With tender precision and copious wit . . . inspired by an atheist’s faith in the magic of simile and the sacredness of lost time, Nabokov makes of his past a brilliant icon—bejewelled, perspectiveless, untouchable.”

 

Edited by NBooth

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Edmund White: Nabokov’s ‘great gay comic novel’

Quote

Nabokov’s masterpiece, of course, is Lolita, which finds a way of renewing the exhausted nineteenth-century tradition of the novel that analyses the passions (Adolphe, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) by re-creating it through the eyes of a criminal paedophile, in accordance with Nabokov’s doctrine that a novel should explore, not the genus or the species but an aberrant variety. Lolita is romantic and funny and perverted. But I have recently re-read Pale Fire (1962) which is, I realize only now, the great gay comic novel, an equally funny and sometimes tender portrait of a homosexual madman, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote (or Botkin) claims to have been the king of the “distant northern land” of Zembla who, deposed by revolutionary forces, has made another life teaching in an American college. The whole prose component of the book is his “scholarly” commentary on a 999-line poem by his neighbour, the venerable John Shade. The poem is actually an elegy to the poet’s dead daughter, but Kinbote is convinced it is about him and his flight from his captors.

Edited by NBooth

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Jennifer Wilson at LARB asks: "Was Lolita About Race?"

Quote

A forgotten target of Nabokov’s satirical eye, the United States’s obsession with racial purity and the policing sex almost exclusively toward that end, is arguably a subplot of Lolita.

Edited by NBooth

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