Saturday, October 30, 2010

Vidal on Vladimir

I'd normally throw this up on the sidebar, but since posts have been scant lately...

Yesterday evening, with a coupon for a free used book in hand, I acquired a huge (1200+ page) fortress-like book soldiered with Gore Vidal's essays. Vidal's reputation as a first rate essayist, along with the wide-ranging selection of topics, made the book an easy choice. I look forward to his characteristic wit, humor, and insight, but also his smugness (which can be delightful and off-putting at the same time).

The book is broken into three parts: literature, or the state of the art; politics, or the state of the union; and personal responses to people, events, old movies, children's books, or the state of being. Here is a selection of the essays I am most eager and curious to read:

Who Makes the Movies?; Remembering Orson Welles; The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin (which opens: "Last year, Anaïs Nin cabled me in Rome: Volume Four of her diaries (1944-47) was to be published. She needed my permission to print what she had written about me."); Tennessee Williams: Someone to Laugh at the Squares With; Why I am Eight Years Younger than Anthony Burgess; The Hacks of Academe; The Day the American Empire Ran out of Gas; Pornography; Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy; Oscar Wilde: On the Skids Again; The Sexus of Henry Miller; Sex is Politics; Novelists and Critics of the 1940s; Satire in the 1950s; Norman Mailer's Self Advertisements (especially in light of their contentious relationship (click to see Mailer in very bad form being jostled from all sides)); The Death of Mishima; American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction; On Prettiness; Literary Gangsters; French Letters: Theories of the New Novel; H.L. Mencken the Journalist; The Novel of Ideas; Pen Pals: Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell; F. Scott Fitzgerald's Case; Edmund Wilson: This Critic and This Gin and These Shoes; and How to Find God and Make Money. (The reason for such a long list: if any of the above essays are of interest to anyone -- and cannot be found online -- let me know. I'm not opposed to typing up some of the better ones by request.)

Below is Vidal's short review of Nabokov's Strong Opinions. I wasn't able to find the entire piece anywhere online (only a few small selections), so I've typed it up in full. (Throwing something new into The Bottomless Pit -- or cementing over some cracks in the incomplete, forever under construction Library of Babel (depending on your take) -- is probably one of the better reasons to blog, no?)

Originally published in The Observer (1974).
* * *

"Professor Nabokov's beautiful Speak Memory has now been succeeded by Strong Opinions -- a collection of press clippings in which he has preserved for future classes what looks to be every interview granted during the last decade. Plainly he has not taken to heart Turgenev's "Never try to justify yourselves (whatever libelous stories they may tell about you). Don't try to explain a misunderstanding, don't be anxious, yourselves, either to say or hear 'the last word.'"

Alas, the Black Swan of Swiss-American letters has a lot of explaining to do (no singing, however: we need the swan for many a future summer). In addition to the bubbling interviews, Professor Nabokov recounts the many misunderstandings between him and the French publisher of Lolita, between him and the critics of his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, between him and various adversaries in the form of Letters to the Editor (by slyly omitting the pretext for each letter, he creates a loony Kafka-like mood). Included, too, are examples of his own bookchat: Sartre's La Nausee "belongs to that tense-looking but really very loose type of writing, which has been popularized by many second-raters -- Barbusse, Céline, and so forth." Finally, he gives us several meticulous portraits of those butterflies he murdered ("with an expert nip of its thorax") during his celebrated tours of America's motels.

Professor Nabokov's answers to the questions posed him by a dozen or so interviewers are often amusing, sometimes illuminating, and always -- after the third of fourth performance -- unbearable in their repetitiveness. Never again do I want to read that he writes in longhand with a hard pencil while standing at a lectern until he tires and sits or lies down, that he writes on Bristol cards which are lined on only one side so that he will not mistake a used card for a fresh card. Reading and rereading these descriptions, one understands why he thinks Robbe-Grillet is a great writer.

Admittedly, interviewers are always eager to know how a writer writes (what he writes holds less magic for them). But the Swan of Lac Léman in the course of what he admits has been a good deal of editing might have spared us so many repetitions. "I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry." Superb -- but only the first time. ("Aphoristicism is a symptom of arteriosclerosis.") And of course the synoptic interviews tell and retell the sacred story of all that was lost by the noble family of "squires and soldiers" (perhaps descended from Genghis Khan) in the Russian revolution, and of their heir's hegira (Germany, England, America) and metamorphosis at Cornell from "lean lecturer into full professor," from obscure Russian emigré novelist into the creator of Lolita, considered by Isherwood to be the best travel book ever written about America.

Professor Nabokov's public appearances and occasional commentaries are always looked forward to because he likes to attack celebrated writers. Hemingway and Conrad are, essentially, "writers of books for boys." "I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés." Nor can he abide Mann's "asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner's corn-cobby chronicles" ... while at Cornell, "I remember the delight of tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel and crude old book..." or "that awful Monsieur Camus," or "the so-called 'realism' of old novels, the easy platitudes of Balzac or Somerset Maugham, or D.H. Lawrence..." The Professor does admit to admiring Borges, Salinger (J.D., not Pierre), Updike, and at one point he pays a nice tribute to several other New Yorker writers while "My greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order, Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's Transformations, Biely's Petersburg, and the first half of Proust's fairy tale in search of lost time." Class dismissed.

Strong Opinions reminds one to what extent the author is still very much a part of the American academic machine. Certainly the best bit of material in this ragbag of a book is a description of giving an examination to a large class at Cornell on a winter's day. Although sensibly stern about "the symbolism racket in schools [which] attracts computerised minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense," Nabokov himself has become just the sort of writer the racketeers most like to teach. Not only is his prose full of trilingual puns and word-play but "as I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions," there are bound to be symbols galore and much, much more beneath those Tartar arbors, amongst those Scythian mists.

The best of the interviews are the ones with Alfred Appel, Jr. -- plainly a Nabokovian invention -- the "Jr." is one giveaway. Another is that Mr. Appel's questions are often longer and wittier than the Professor's answers. Can this mean that an intellectual comedy team is being discreetly tried out in these pages? A brand-new Stravinsky and Craft? Certainly, the teacher provides pupil with the most elegant cache-cache as well as cache-sexe. Periodically, the Professor is obliged to note that he himself is not repeat not attracted to those very young girls who keep cropping up in his work. ("Lewis Carroll like little girls. I don't.") At these moments, our proud Black Swan becomes an uneasy goose, fearful of being cooked by Cornell's board of regents.

Despite occasional pleasures, this is not a book for those who admire Nabokov's novels. But for students who will write about him in American universities, it is probably useful to have all this twaddle in one volume. For myself, I am rereading Transparent Things, that perfect radiogram of found objects, precisely set in the artists own Time. If only for this lovely work, Nabokov will never be forced to echo an earlier American culture hero who wrote, sadly:
Yet do I find it perceptible -- here to riot in understatement -- that I, who was once a leading personage in and about those scanty playgrounds of human interest which we nickname literature seem now to have become, for all practical results, unheard-of thereabouts.
Readers who can correctly identify the author of the above passage will be given a letter of introduction to Professor V. Nabokov, Palace Hotel, Montreux, Vaud, Switzerland."



Hectocotylus said...

Few are as good at wryly cutting someone down ("Finally, he gives us several meticulous portraits of those butterflies he murdered"), applying patronizing, repetitious nomenclature ("The Professor"), and deftly combining wit, humor, and insult ("Reading and rereading these descriptions, one understands why he thinks Robbe-Grillet is a great writer"). Of course Nabokov could knock out just about anyone or anything with one swift, alliterative punch.

John said...

I guess I'm too late for Vidal to introduce me to Nabokov, but the answer is that the paragraph Vidal quoted is by James Branch Cabell, in his book Quiet, Please (

There do seem to be some interesting connections and parallels, even perhaps borrowings (, between Cabell and Nabokov.