20 February 2007

Lolita is Famous, Not I

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

Good morning. I am ready.

– Vladimir Nabokov, Paris Review, 1967

Many of the Paris Review’s interviews with famous writers are online — like this one with Vladimir Nabokov. Asked to comment on one critic’s complaint that his fictional worlds were static and obsessive, that they did not “break apart like the worlds of ordinary reality,” Nabokov replied:

Let me suggest that the very term “everyday reality” is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.

Asked whether his characters ever take over and dictate the course of his novels:

My characters are galley slaves.

Asked to comment on a critic who thought Nabokov was repetitive:

Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.

Asked if he considered himself part of any particular community:

Not really. I can mentally collect quite a large number of individuals whom I am fond of, but they would form a very disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life, on a real island. Otherwise, I would say that I am fairly comfortable in the company of American intellectuals who have read my books.

Asked if he follows a preplanned outline or if he writes from beginning to end:

The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any point I happen to chose.

Asked whether he considers himself a “nostalgist”:

As to the past, I would not mind retrieving from various corners of space-time certain lost comforts, such as baggy trousers and long, deep bathtubs.

Asked to describe nuances of the Russian word “poshlost”:

Corny trash, vulgar cliches, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature — these are obvious examples. Now if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race… The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue,”… One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objets trouves in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls… all of it is as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago… And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

Asked about critics’ ranking of contemporary writers:

All very amusing. I am a little sorry to be left out. Nobody can decide if I am a middle-aged American writer, or an old Russian writer — or an ageless international freak… Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure novelist with an unpronounceable name.

This interview was conducted forty years ago. In dismissing so much of “modern” art as poshlost, was Nabokov revealing himself as an old-fashioned curmudgeon or an “ageless freak”? He is generally regarded as a modernist, yet his description of “everyday reality” sounds a lot like postmodernism’s disdainful characterization of modernity. I wonder what Nabokov would have pointed to as poshlost in today’s culture? Would he dismiss both “modernism” and “postmodernism” as poshlost?


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