Dec 4th 2018

What made Vladimir Nabokov tick?

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him.

Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him? I only scratched the surface.

So the arrival of a new book, Vladimir Nabokov in Context (Cambridge University Press), is most welcome and will appeal to anyone wondering what made this man tick. The title is apt; Nabokov
was very much a product of his times, of his context. 

The editors are leading voices in international Slavic studies, David M. Bethea of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Siggy Frank of Nottingham University in England. They seek to anchor Nabokov in the real world, and show how it related to his novels (ten in Russian and nine in English). They invited 30 hand-picked Nabokov authorities in the U.S. and Europe to contribute digestible essays of about 3000 words each. Academese is held to a minimum.

Bethea and Frank explain in their introduction that they aim to describe “forces pressing in from the world in which Nabokov lived and thought that elicited the remarkable work he produced”.

Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd contributed a cogent overview, noting that Nabokov “insisted on his independence, and on his right not to be dragged into others’ battles”. He criticized the world from the sidelines, however, and relished a good scrap. Boyd quotes Nabokov as having written that “next to the right to create, the right to criticize is the richest gift that liberty of thought and speech can offer”.

Nabokov thought politics best when citizens have the freedom to ignore it. During his years in U.S., “he could afford to pay national politics little heed. His confined his active interest to his resolute anti-Sovietism,” Boyd writes. Thus he was “outraged” at New Yorker magazine’s censoring some of his critiques of Soviet repression.

Of special interest to old Moscow hands will be the essay on samizdat by University of Toronto professor Ann Komaromi. She reports that Nabokov received fan letters from Soviet readers of his writings eager to let him know how highly they regarded his forbidden works. Their support represented a “first attempt to reinstate Nabokov as part of the Russian literary tradition and claim him as their very own Russian writer”. Nabokov rejoiced “in the passion readers brought to his works, even as those Soviet readers strove to read them into their context”. Today, Nabokov’s works are freely available in Russia.

Many of his writings circulated in samizdat typescript or in photographed pages from books smuggled in by Western academics, tourists and diplomats. Lolita was in special demand. Komaromi contributes the best line in the book, quoting an anecdote according to which “the “price for one night with Lolita was five rubles – if the reader promised not to take pictures”.

Among other essays that resonated with me were “Friends and Foes” by Julian W. Connolly of the University of Virginia, “Academia” by Susan Elizabeth Sweeney of College of the Holy Cross, and “Psychoanalysis” by Michal Oklot of Brown University and Matthew Walker of Middlebury College. Nabokov always enjoyed mocking the “Vienna quack”. 

And of special interest is “The Cold War” by Will Norman of the University of Kent in England. Norman recommends Nabokov’s essay “The Creative Writer” (available for download at here produced during his three years as professor at Wellesley College, near Boston. Norman calls it “an extraordinary defense of the power of the irrational imagination in the face of tyrannical demands for conformity”.

Norman remarks that Nabokov liked to deny that he was ever subjected to “the intrusions of history” in his writings. But, says Norman, it is “now clear enough from the vantage point of the twenty-first century that such declarations of autonomy were themselves deeply historical, and that Nabokov’s Cold War had always been hiding in plain sight”.

Besides bringing clarity to Nabokov’s intellectual independence, the discussion of his oeuvre whets the appetite for going back to the best of his books – The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, Pnin, Pale Fire and, of course, Lolita. By almost any standard, Vladimir Nabokov left a towering literary legacy.

 

Vladimir Nabokov by the author Michael Johnson: 

Nabokov

 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"