Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bedside or Wastebasket



As Edmund Wilson found out, it is best not to try to predict Nabokov's literary tastes when he lent him a review copy of Faulkner's Light of August thinking Vladimir would appreciate it as much as he did.  Nabokov dismissed this work like he did all of Faulkner's work as trite and tedious romances.

Nabokov was infamous for dismissing canonical authors such as Dostoevsky and Henry James and Albert Camus.  He had no soft spot for the much revered Cervantes either, calling Don Quizote "a cruel and crude book," although he doesn't deny the influence it had on Russian writers of the 19th century.  He just felt that his dear Pushkin and Lermontov greatly rose above it in their poems and stories.

I was a bit surprised to see he so disliked Henry James.  Portrait of a Lady struck me as the type of novel that might appeal to him, as James rises above the social milieu of the time to create a very striking portrait of Isabel Archer, and James has a wonderful sense of time and space, which Nabokov liked so much about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Of course, there were many novelists he did like.  John Updike and J.D. Salinger both received high marks.  He liked Melville and had a soft spot for H.G. Wells.  He also singled out great works of authors while he panned others.  Such was the case with James Joyce, praising Ulysses but blasting Finnegan's Wake.  Likewise with Gogol, whenever he displayed his strong nationalist bent in stories like Taras Bulba, while regarding Dead Souls as one of the great Russian novels, and even speaking highly of Guerney's English translation, which was exceedingly rare.

For Nabokov it was a love/hate relationship with novels.  It was either by his bedside or in the wastebasket, as far as he was concerned.  There was no in between.

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