Just as a critic once referred to Milan Kundera as a writer of reckless brevity, can we level the phrase 'reckless triviality' at Vladimir Nabokov? This is either to damn the Russian migr with the faintest of praise or offer the highest of compliments. Where the Czech migr who settled in Paris produced novels of ideas; the Russian who spent much of his later life in the US despised their espousal in fiction form. Thus he could say of Dickens in his Lectures on Literature that he was a great writer not at all because the sociological side was interesting or important, but because of the writing. "It is in his imagery that he is great." It is here that Nabokov would see what he so admired in literature: the "supremacy for the detail over the general."
In Nabokov's short story collection Nabokov's Dozen, we see the writer's brilliance on every page, but do we find the texture of the memorable: the capacity to capture not so much the reader's attention as their focus? There are other great stylists in literature that can open their story with a robustness of purpose that the prose becomes sublimated into that sense of purpose. In Fitzgerald's work, for example, or in Flaubert's, the story is grounded before the literary flights of prose fancy. In Fitzgerald's 'The Last of the Belles', say, he gives a sense of place that locates us physiologically in the story. "It was a little hotter than anywhere we'd been - a dozen rookies collapsed the first day in that Georgia sun - and when you saw herds of cows drifting through the business streets, hi-yaed by coloured drovers, a trance stole down over you out of the hot light..." In 'Crazy Sunday': "It was Sunday - not a day, but rather a gap between two other days. Behind, for all of them, lay sets and sequences, the long wait under the crane that swung the microphone, the hundred miles a day by automobiles to and fro across a county, the ceaseless compromise, the clash and strain of many personalities fighting for their lives."
Here are a couple of openings from Nabokov. "Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. Everything is damp; the piebald trunks of the plane trees, the juniper shrubs, the railings, the gravel. Far away, in a watery vista between jade edges of pale blush houses, which tottered up from their knees to climb the slope (a cypress indicating the way), the blurred Mount St George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture postcards which since 1910, say (those straw hats, those youthful cabmen), have been courting the tourist from the sorry-go-round of their prop, among amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the mantelpiece dream of seashells." From 'First Love': "In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevski Avenue displayed a three foot long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car. In delicate verisimilitude it completely outranked the painted tin of my clockwork trains." In each instance, Nabokov doesn't so much set the scene as paint a picture in fine words, but does the story find its focus, or is it doing little more than drawing our attention to the brilliance of the language? This is Mannerism as Arnold Hauser describes it in a book of that name: "A mannerist work of art is always a piece of bravura, a triumphant conjuring trick, a firework display with flying sparks and colours...Beauty too beautiful becomes unreal, strength too strong becomes acrobatics, too much content loses all meaning, form independent of content becomes an empty shell." Hauser adds, however, that such art is a "spontaneous, often wild and desperate, and sometimes a barely articulate cry, the expression of an ungovernable urge to master reality, or of the feeling of being hopelessly and helplessly at its mercy."
Hauser is quoted by John Calder in Calder's introduction to a Samuel Beckett Reader, but if there is a basic difference between Beckett and Nabokov it resides in one sensing that while Beckett's relationship with reality is to be "hopelessly and helplessly at its mercy", Nabokov would be more inclined to claim that he is its master. "For me 'style' is matter", he says in Selected Letters: 1940-1977. One might suppose that Fitzgerald, meanwhile, would reverse this; that matter is style, and style comes out of matter - out of the story's particular concern, as though the purpose was to excavate rather than explicate. Fitzgerald has the need to find the story; Nabokov seems chiefly to want to tell it. The validity of the story resides for Nabokov not in subject matter but in prose style, as if there is no story so trivial, bleak or decadent that prose style cannot redeem it. In a lecture on Madame Bovary, published in Lectures on Literature, Nabokov says: "The subject may be crude and repulsive. Its expression is artistically modulated and balanced. This is style. This is art. This is the only thing that really matters in books." It might be the devil that lies in the detail, but it produces the angel of prose. One of his great admirers, Martin Amis, quoting from the Letters in The War Against Clich, mentions that Edmund Wilson believed Nabokov had a weakness for "malicious humour". But this nastiness is "part of a unifying intensity and extravagance," Amis insists: "an absolute trust in style".
Over and over again we notice style as an absolute: this is literature's own metaphysics, but it is also a modern concern, hiding an anxiety of potential meaninglessness that writers surely more significant than Nabokov cannot quite deny: for example, Proust, Kafka, Broch and Musil, writers who never quite trusted meaning just as Nabokov never quite trusted ideas. In the opening essay in Geist and Zeitgeist, 'Evil in the Value-System of Art', written in 1933, Broch, says that "if in the course of civilization it was always art and its respective styles that gave most visible expression to the lifestyles of different epochs, and if this applies as well to the present time, then art would make particularly manifest the extreme nature of the current period; our time places the highest ethical demands on humanity and its capacity for self-sacrifice; despite such clearly ethical striving, it is a time filled with horror, bloodlust, and injustice, and, moreover, it can dismiss all this so lightly - all this would be made manifest in art." Kafka says in his Diaries, "I can't write any more. I have come up against the last boundary..." and says elsewhere, "...the story [The Judgement] came out of me like a real birth, covered with filth and slime, and only I have the hand that can reach to the body itself and the strength of desire to do so." We can compare the latter statement with Nabokov's comment on writing Gogol. "I would like to see an Englishman who could write a book on Shakespeare in Russian. I am very weak, smiling a weak smile, as I lie in my private maternity ward and expect roses." What Kafka sees is the disgust of the birth, Nabokov observes is the egoistic achievement, a job not only well done but one that few others could have mastered and mustered. For Kafka and Broch literature seems a product not of egoistic creativity, but if anything the ego's absence or fragility. For Nabokov, however, the conceptions are immaculate.
If one often senses in reading Nabokov a feeling of futility alleviated by the surprising prose, this still feels like a constant sense of diversion; not quite an active engagement. This is prose that is never muscular but always delicately sinuous. It's as if the story must come out of the graceful precision of the writing rather than a thematic underpinning it; and this can lead to a curious sense of exhaustion in reading Nabokov's work. It's as though he offers a variation on Milan Kundera's claim in the Art of the Novel that "whenever a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story, it goes flat." But in Nabokov, theme and story are abandoned for the specifics of the writing style. In 'Spring in Fialta', the story 'focuses' on one man's continuing fascination with a woman whom he first met back in 1917 and whom he would intermittently see until the early thirties. Though he is married with children, though she is married also, he cannot ever forget her, nor be impervious to her effect on him when they meet. "And regardless of what happened to me or to her, in between, we never discussed anything, as we never thought of each other during the intervals in our destiny, so that when we met the pace of life altered at once, all its atoms were re-combined, and we lived in another, lighter time-medium, which was measured not by the lengthy separations, but by those few meetings of which a short, supposedly frivolous life was thus artificially formed." This is brilliantly descriptive writing, offering up a desire caught in time. This is desire as duration outside of the tick-tocking of the clock that dictates the rest of his life, as the narrator can lose himself in Nina and in a time abstracted from duty and obligation. But can we really believe he and Nina "never thought of each other in the intervals in our destiny," or does the phrase suit the stylistics? Would a more plausible comment somehow dilute the prose and also the weld between intoxication of feeling and intoxication of style?
Perhaps more than any writer except Joyce, Nabokov wants intoxication of feeling out of an intoxication of style, as if he were looking for an ever expanding sense of onomatopoeia; of using language not only as a sign system conveying feelings indirectly, but trying to create with language a sensuous surface as words don't only imitate sounds, but also convey emotion through the use of language as a system of sounds. Typical examples of onomatopoeia are splat, pop or clip-clop, as the gap between the sign and signifier is not entirely arbitrary. Indeed, when the key linguistic philosopher Ferdinand De Saussure, in a 'Course in General Linguistics', talked about the arbitrary nature of the word and what it signified, about the gap between the words we use and what the words mean, he accepted that while many of the words we use could be replaced by others - cat, dog, tree, horse could all be given different names because the name is not fundamentally linked to its meaning - in onomatopoeia the relationship is no longer arbitrary. But he also insisted that onomatopoeia is the exception and not the rule. Now it is as though certain writers want to find a way in which the arbitrary gap between the word and what it signifies can be closed by the sensuality of the language, by trying to make language more onomatopoeiaic, just as there are writers who want the language to be more symbolic and make meaning more abstract. Isn't Joyce regarded as such a master because he wanted to do both simultaneously: that in Ulysses he wished to capture the vividness of situation in language that captured the immediate sense of Dublin, while also abstractly drawing parallels with Homer's classic text?
Joyce was both a sensualist and symbolist of language, but Nabokov seems chiefly interested in the former, as if suspicious of 'referential mania', a term he uses in a story that contains the symbolic in its very title, 'Signs and Symbols' - a story where a young man "imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence." Frank O'Connor in an essay on Joyce in The Mirror in the Roadway actually uses the term "associational mania" to describe Joyce's obsessive play on words, a phrase unlikely to be levelled at Nabokov, who focuses much more on the rhythm of language over its connotative possibilities; much more on sibilance and alliteration. The opening of Lolita is a famous example: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
This seems the raison d'etre of Nabokov's work: to make language sensual. 'Time and Ebb' opens with the sentence; "In the first floriferous days of convalescence after a severe illness, which nobody, least of all the patient himself, expected a ninety year old organism to survive." 'A Forgotten Poet' begins, "In 1899, in the ponderous, comfortable padded St Petersburg of those days, a prominent cultural organization, the society for the Advancement of Russian Literature, decided to honour in a grand way the memory of the poet Konstantin Perov..." "I have often noticed", Mademoiselle says, "that after I have bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I so abruptly placed it." In each instance Nabokov offers the pleasure of prose over any other pleasure, as though trying to create a synaesthetic weld between meaning and sound to create language as smooth caress. It is so much Nabokov's ambition that few writers talk about him without mentioning his prose style, from Amis to Updike, but is style enough? Should fiction be underpinned by something more than beauty, or would Nabokov claim style is meaning? One thinks perhaps not, in answer to the latter, taking into account some comments Broch makes on Joyce in the essay 'Joyce and the Present Age'. "With him there is concurrent recognition that it is not permissible simply to place the object under observation and do nothing other than describe it; but that representation of the subject, in other words "the narrator as idea", and not the least the language with which he describes the representational object, belong to it in the role of representational media. What he seeks is to create a unity of representational object and representational means."
For Broch, Joyce is involved in a very complex web of interrelations, as though trying to achieve literature's highest aim: "literature's obligation to the absoluteness of cognition in general." Such an approach requires language as sensual and abstract, as philosophical and psychological. But Nabokov, with his insistence that ideas have no place in the novel, with his comment that Freud was the Viennese charlatan, has little room for the latter pairing, and only really an interest in the sensual and the narratively concrete. The purpose of literature is to turn out fine phrases and well-crafted stories; whereas for Broch it is to find a form that contains myriad realities and reflects the era in which it is created: "and since this is the case [literature's capacity to realise a "transformation through new dispositions, the germ of a new religious organization of humanity"], literature may not relinquish its task of contemplating and symbolizing the forces of the age". If one accepts and respects Broch's position, it leaves Nabokov not as one of the masters of the century, but as one of its minor figures. Nabokov can turn a phrase like a brilliant dancer can pirouette, but what happens if the pirouette seems almost all the dancer can do, and that dance is no longer concerned with brilliant choreography, but authentic movement, new ways of moving through space? Is this what masters of 20th century fiction were doing, leaving Nabokov somehow anachronistic?
There appears to sit in Nabokov's prose a surface precision masking hidden mysteries that Nabokov did not quite possess the depth of feeling to discover. Perhaps this helps explain Nabokov's obsessions with detail: "caress the detail, the divine detail" - as if a positivist of prose, a person who could not trust or quite understand anything that was not put in front of his eyes. There are some astonishing observations in Nabokov's stories, but very few revelations. It was as though he wanted the opposite of Broch's transformation of values through art; he instead wanted the surface of the world to be observed brilliantly by art. Describing a jukebox, the narrator in 'Time and Ebb' notes that they were "...gaudy automatic machines upon the musical constipation of which the insertion of a small coin used to act as a miraculous laxative". In 'Mademoiselle O', we have a character, "there she sat, distilling her reading voice from the still prison of her person. Apart from the lips, one of her chins, the smallest but true one, was the only mobile detail of her."
These are brilliantly small insights, but the larger ones seem almost clichs of thought if not quite of language. In 'Mademoiselle O', "one is always at home in one's past, which partly explains those pathetic ladies' posthumous love for another country, which they never had really known and in which none of them had been very content." In 'Spring in Fialta': "the fame of his like circulates briskly but soon grows heavy and stale; and as for history it will limit his life story to the dash between two dates." This is the prose style of nineteenth century certitude and not twentieth century doubt. It is close to the assertions of an Austen or a Balzac, where a statement gets to stand because of the polish of the prose and the need to get on with the storytelling. "Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations", Austen says in Emma, "that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of." "Like all narrow natures, Mme Vauquer was wont to confine her attention to events," Balzac says in Old Goriot, "and did not go very deeply into the causes that brought them about." This might work for the 19thcentury writer, but in the middle of the 20th does it show a certain limitation of perspective, as if Nabokov himself resembled Mmme Vauquer?
In another essay in Broch's Geist and Zeitgeist, called 'The Style of the Mythical Age', the writer says "the artist thus graced and cursed with the "style of old age" is not content with the conventional vocabulary provided him by his epoch." "The artist who has reached such a point is beyond art. He still produces art, but all the minor and specific problems, with which art in its worldly phase usually deals, have lost interest for him; he is interested neither in the "beauty" of art, nor in the effect which it produces on the public." This is Broch questioning the importance of the style and the importance of the storyteller's obligation to the reader. The artist is searching out something else; and never more so than when society seems in need of a system of values. If this search is what is most important in an artist; then from such a perspective Nabokov remains a horribly minor figure, whether this happens to be in the short fiction to which we've attended, or in books like Despair, The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading and even, perhaps, in the one many readers cannot but help identify him with: Lolita.
© Tony McKibbin