Reading Nabokov’s Strong Opinions

Everyone admires the combination of disdain and wit. “Bracing,” we call it, in the person of Simon Cowell and his imitators. But Nabokov is so much more deserving of that word, so much more reminiscent of a high clean wind whipping against the face. I’m thinking about what makes him different, and have decided it’s his core of integrity and uprightness – the one that allows him, without sentimentality or irony, to answer the question “what is the best life?” with the words “to be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.” When he criticizes, it’s not because he’s grouchy or embittered or trying to be funny; his judgments are the expression of an earned aristocratic impatience. I am both braced and moved by him, and called to be better than I am.

Here’s the short list. Dostoevski is “a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar.” Hemingway and Conrad are “writers of books for boys.” Eliot is “not quite first-rate.” Pound is “definitely second-rate,” and at another point “pretentious nonsense.” Camus, Lorca, Kazantzakis, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Thomas Wolfe are all “puffed-up.” Conan Doyle, Kipling, Chesterton, and Oscar Wilde are “essentially writers for very young people.” Galsworthy, Dreiser, Tagore, and Gorky are “mediocrities.” Faulkner is “corncobby.” Dr. Zhivago is “melodramatic and vilely written.” Death in Venice is “asinine.” Don Quixote is “a cruel and crude old book.” Finnegan’s Wake is “a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room.” Of Freud he says: “Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care.” Of Plato we get little more than: “Down, Plato, down, good dog.”

After a while I begin to find it wearing. But I feel better when he admits: “I irritate some of my best friends by the relish with which I list the things I hate,” qualifying it in this case with the words, “nightclubs, yachts, circuses, pornographic shows, the soulful eyes of naked men with lots of Guevara hair in lots of places.” His usual list of dislikes is certainly less objectionable: “stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.” He names many writers and books he admires. And he is also full of joy. When an interviewer tells him that Tolstoy called life a “tartine de merde,” he responds, “my own life is fresh bread with country butter and alpine honey.”

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