Editors’ note: John Simon, who died on November 24, 2019, was working on this review at the time of his death.
There appeared in 1973 Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov’s selection of 335 pages from the much larger trove of his so-called public prose—interviews, letters to editors, and articles. This left unpublished a considerable archive, much more extensive, not necessarily less interesting. Now comes the 527-page Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy. This is a generous selection that barely touches on the former selection of, as it were, obiter—or arbiter—dicta, and is paired with various contributions by the editors, preponderantly Boyd.
Now, these are not to be compared to fingernail parings of saints or laundry lists of celebrated authors. The new collection is nothing like that, given that it is selected by a Nabokov authority as the cream of a much larger crop that will, I hope, obviate the need for a third installment. This one should certainly delight both Nabokov scholars and fans, and even anyone the least bit interested in Nabokoviana of both public and private pronouncements.
Now, these are not to be compared to fingernail parings of saints or laundry lists of celebrated authors.
Brian Boyd is the author of two opulent Nabokov critical biographies, The Russian Years and The American Years, some 1,400 pages taken together, and quite possibly definitive. A professor in the English Department at the University of Auckland and a prolific editor and translator of Nabokov, he clearly knows Russian. Even so, he sought the collaboration of Anastasia Tolstoy, a descendant of one of Vladimir’s favorite writers, herself the author of an Oxford doctoral dissertation entitled “Vladimir Nabokov and the Aesthetics of Disgust,” and some other Nabokovian forays.
Their new book features not only the constituents that its subtitle proposes, and, at the beginning of each selection, biographical and bibliographical notes (with further endnotes), but also a copious introduction by Boyd and some illustrations of various texts that in total may or may not exceed a thousand words. Taken together, this may constitute a somewhat bumpy autobiography and biography.
Think, Write, Speak derives its starting point from the well-known opening sentence of Strong Opinions: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child,” of which Boyd makes quite a meal. But is it true? No matter, a writer is allowed a clever formula, even if it is a mite oversimplified, a trifle far-fetched.
The greatest part of the book comes from interviews, which derive from the widest imaginable sources, at least two-thirds of them featuring questions about Lolita, suggesting that those were the real cause of the interview. Which in turn suggests that Nabokov might not have made it into the big leagues, no matter all his other fine books, were it not for Lolita, forever his most read and talked about one.
Especially interesting are his views on the nature and effect of the writer.
The human mind is so built that the acquisition of precise knowledge seems to be facilitated by the fact of the limitless past being limited (always in the present) by its documentary remains; but the nearest approach to the truth at the likeliest point within these limits may really prove to be a distance of many dim miles if we apply to the past the complex aspect of our sensorial and spatial present.
I doubt not that Nabokov could have explained what he means here more fully, but these lines exhibit the playing with words so characteristic of him. Let us cite a few examples.
“Two and two no longer make four, because it is no longer necessary for them to make four.” Again: “The twinkle in the author’s eye as he notes the imbecile drooping of a murderer’s underlip, or watches the stumpy forefinger of a professional tyrant exploring a profitable nostril in the solitude of his sumptuous bedroom, this twinkle is what punishes your man more surely than the rope on the local chestnut tree or the pistol of a tiptoeing conspirator.” Here the play is duly with details of an image.
Or this: “The real writer, the fellow who sends planes spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with his rib, that kind of writer has no given values at his disposal; he must create them himself. The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction.” Again the emphasis is on creating one’s images full of inventiveness, thus the writerly detail based on the sleeping man characterized by his tamperable rib. So too: “the plight of a child, a very ordinary little girl caught up by a disgusting and cruel man.” Again the details, here “disgusting and cruel,” even if Humbert was perhaps more, or less, than that. But the words make for powerful epithets.
What makes Thomas Mann so “bad”? That he is “a small writer who did big stories badly,” when the idea is to tell details well.
What are these writers’ values to which Nabokov refers so frequently? The wedding of the real to the visionary, the very real world married to the imaginative, the fictional. What makes Thomas Mann so “bad”? That he is “a small writer who did big stories badly,” when the idea is to tell details well. This is what for Nabokov was done by the writers he most admires: Flaubert, the Pushkin of Eugene Onegin (an eternal Nabokov concern, giving rise to his awful, commentary-heavy two-volume version of the novel, and threats of additional volumes, I would say happily unrealized), even such unlikely figures as Chateaubriand and Chénier (whom Pushkin knew by heart), but not Balzac and Stendhal and Faulkner, who are, in his chief condemnatory term, journalists. Above all of them, he remarks, towers Shakespeare.
Interestingly, without referring to Whitman, Nabokov does not shy away from contradiction and Think, Write, Speak is most valuable during these moments. Take, for example, the girl Lolita (her name a diminutive of Dolores, “a very beautiful name . . . . with a long veil, a name with liquid eyes”). First, in Strong Opinions, she is “a little Spanish gypsy” who loses her virginity at twelve, like Nabokov’s other leading lady Ada. In Think, Write, Speak, she “isn’t a perverse young girl” but “a poor child” exposed to “the imagination of the sad satyr that makes a magic creature of this little American schoolgirl, as banal and normal in her own way as the poet manqué Humbert is in his.” Now: “I pity her: an orphan, alone in life with a demanding forty-year-old”; that poor child “debauched” by a monster, but whose own senses “never stir under the caresses of the foul Humbert Humbert.” There is no nymphet. Lolita the nymphet exists only through the maniacal gaze of Humbert. (On another occasion Nabokov remarked that, contra Freud—“the Viennese charlatan” who peddled “elixirs”—“sexual charm is just a tiny detail in the beauty of the world.”) As for the novel Lolita, it is “a unique book that has been betrayed by a factitious popularity.” Very well, if you like, but can you really blame readers or even critics for adding to its factitious popularity?
Much of Think, Write, Speak deals with writers like Nabokov himself, and what his writing achieves in his own estimation. Most startling is the recurrent assertion that he thinks not in any language, but in images only. In his luxurious childhood, from appropriate governesses, he learned French and English, his two other languages. Much as he loves Russian and uses it en famille, English is the richer language. Despite years in Berlin, he never really learned German—too bad, I say, for someone who wrote and loved lyric poetry. He composes generally in bed or in his morning bath, or even on what seems to be the toilet, looking down at the floor. He is never happy with a bare head, and wears a nightcap even to bed. As a lepidopterist, Nabokov rates capturing a rare butterfly a greater thrill perhaps than any literary achievement. Always he writes on index cards whose order can be reshuffled, and always in pencil, which can be erased; he says he uses up the rubber end more than the graphite one. He only wishes that the point could stay continually sharp. The pencil, as over the pen, is like a whisper.
The writer must create his own values. Writers are either for perceptive readers, or for boys, like Hemingway and many others, not poets but journalists. He stresses the need for a certain detachment for the artist, who must never be socially, let alone politically, embroiled. The main thrust, other than the autobiographical, is concern for what the true writer is and does differently from his loathed journalist.
Writers are either for perceptive readers, or for boys, like Hemingway and many others, not poets but journalists.
He is bored by Sade, dazzled by Diderot, and loves most of Proust as well as Pasternak’s poetry, yet despises his novel Doctor Zhivago. He similarly despises Marivaux (“only a journalist”) and Malraux (“execrable”), but likes Mauriac’s Nœud de vipères. He has contempt for Portnoy’s Complaint but huge praise for Salinger, as good a writer as his beloved Robbe-Grillet and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Updike and Capote for parts of In Cold Blood (but not the sentimental ending). And speaking of endings, he cried at the last of Lolita, as his adored Flaubert did about the death of his famous heroine. Among his most revered authors are Homer, Horace, those of the New Testament, Dante, Shakespeare, the aforementioned Chateaubriand (a curious choice), Pushkin, Flaubert, Joyce, “and a few others.” These, I presume, would include Tolstoy, Gogol, the poet Khodasevich, and the Griboedov of Woe from Wit. He admires, but does not seem to love, Nikolay Gumilev and Mandelstam, victims of the hated Communists.
Another favorite is Ulysses, with which he tacitly competed with Ada, in my opinion a dismal failure (see the review in my book The Sheep from the Goats). The best prose has “the woof” of poetry, he proclaims. Thanks to Joyce, he knows the streets of Dublin as well as those of Moscow, in neither of which he has ever set foot. America is the only country where he has ever been perfectly happy (good butterflies, it would seem). He is a slow writer, about two hundred pages a year. He finds similarities between the writer and the spy: both evince the all-important love of detail. His method is letting the words play with one another. His characters have fun catching a phrase in flagrante. But to him, Conrad’s words, for instance, mean nothing, and he compares him and bad writers to Pierre Loti (whom as a boy I read and admired). The art of the novelist should include humor, but it is infinitely more complex than that of the famous professional comics like Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy.
“Art is exile,” he claims. So is being the goalkeeper in his beloved football, a position he played professionally for a while on a Russian émigré team in Berlin. He liked boxing, in which he even gave lessons, and he always fancied tennis, which he thought of taking up again at age sixty. His scientific practice of lepidoptery, abundantly represented in Think, Write, Speak, may leave some readers cold. Perversely, the nuance of a wave interests him as much as the girl drowning in it. A curious fellow altogether.
In fiction, he states, “I like not only to see the main theme radiate through the whole novel,” but also those characters lurking in the corners, as it were. “One must draw everything one can from words . . . the one real treasure a true writer has. I like to take a word and turn it over to see its underside, shiny or dull, or adorned with motley hues absent on the upperside. . . . One finds all sorts of curious shadows of other words, harmonies between them, hidden beauties that suddenly reveal something beyond the word.” It is “serious wordplay . . . a new verbal species that the marveling author offers to the poor reader who doesn’t want to look; to the good reader, who suddenly sees a completely new facet of an iridescent sentence.”
He also offers that it took him ten years to realize that his true calling was prose not poetry, a special, poetic prose that depends on comparisons and metaphors to say what it wanted to say.
Speaking of harmonies, Nabokov admits that he has “no ear for music,” and what he says, for example, of Stravinsky, is shameful, albeit later amended. He is quite willing to speak about plans for the future, which include—despite the comforts of Switzerland and the Montreux Palace, about which he has a good deal of amusing stuff to say—a return to America “with tenderness” at the first opportunity, although he is “indolent” and “sluggish,” and the acquisition of three new suits from England. Meanwhile he is “rereading Rimbaud, his marvelous verse and his pathetic correspondence . . . . I am also dipping into a collection of unbelievably stupid Soviet jokes.” Which brings us to a closer look at Think, Write, Speak.
Speaking of harmonies, Nabokov admits that he has “no ear for music,” and what he says, for example, of Stravinsky, is shameful, albeit later amended.
The book, after Boyd’s introduction, begins with two charming 1921 essays, the first about Cambridge, at whose university Nabokov spent three years, the second about Rupert Brooke, written in an easefully fluid style rather than an unconvincing one. There are also countless reviews, chiefly from The New Republic, where his friend Edmund Wilson, then its editor, favored him. About now forgotten writers, these reviews can, though much smarter than the Soviet jokes, be lightly dipped into.
But things pick up considerably with letters to the editor, and even more so with this book’s primary concern, the numerous interviews, as well as some longer essays on Pushkin and an essay on “The Creative Writer.” We read mostly interviews submitted on demand in writing, and answered by and by in the same manner, but there were also some conducted by personal contacts. Some of the best are by writers in their own right, such as Penelope Gilliatt, Andrew Field (a Nabokov biographer), Harvey Breit, John Coleman, Jacob Bronowski, Jeanine Delpech, and the greatest of television interviewers, the admirable Bernard Pivot, on his program Apostrophes. They end in 1977 with an interview for the bbc by Robert Robinson.
Among the most interesting are the ones with Dieter E. Zimmer for North German Radio and Helga Chudacoff for Die Welt. Among the most disappointing are those with John Wain, James Salter, and the one co-conducted by Lionel Trilling. Probably the most arresting response is to Miss Chudacoff’s comment about being an enthusiastic American: “I don’t even know who Mr. Watergate is.” Was he serious, or, more likely, joking?
Good as Think, Write, Speak is, it is not for everyone. But lesser or non-Nabokovians may prize some of the book’s strong opinions on life and literature. The book is likely to find favor with lepidopterists and some chess enthusiasts (Nabokov composed chess puzzles). Those fascinated by a grown man with a net chasing butterflies on three continents (he never made it to the mountains of Iran) may also find it amusing. And some of Vladimir’s comments on his ever so helpful wife may even be genuinely endearing. All those willing to spend thirty U.S. dollars or forty Canadian ones may well find it a worthy investment.
1Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy; Knopf, 527 pages, $30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 5, on page 44
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