This past quarter, I took a literature class on Vladimir Nabokov, author of the ultra-famous Lolita. We read other of his novels as well, including The Eye, Despair, Laughter in the Dark, and Pale Fire.
Nabokov is widely respected as a master of language, and there is really little to debate about that. His puns rival Shakespeare’s; his descriptions are both beautiful and intensely necessary to the plot. His use of first person is always practical in the traditional, don’t-use-first-person-unless-it’s-for-a-good-reason way. So yes, he’s a good writer.
But the study of his writing made me uncomfortable, and, perhaps for unrelated reasons, I’m not sure I personally consider him one of the Greats. I’ll think about the former point first. Nabokov started writing in the twenties and only stopped when he died in the late seventies. During his career, American literature was alive and thriving both publicly and academically; he gave lectures, was interviewed by Playboy, and even had televised conversations about writing. This means that his opus of writing is accompanied by his own opus of commentary on it, and boy, do Nabokovians rely on that commentary. What Nabokov as a writer said about the work or what he said about a style of writing or even what he said about a general type of person is fair play when analyzing his work.
Call me a New Critic, but the intrusion of the author’s opinion into the reader’s interpretation just doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, Nabokov might have intended for his work to mean one thing, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t mean other things. Further, just because he wanted it to mean that doesn’t mean it was successful. I do get the feeling that Nabokov didn’t want readers to take him as seriously as they did, so he played games with what he said in his interviews versus what his writing was doing, but this still doesn’t remove the fact that Nabokov scholars rely on him as much as on their own skills to understand his work.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why I am dubious about crowning Nabokov as Great. At times, it feels there is more brilliance in what he claims his work is doing than in what it is actually doing. Because he said his book was good, people agreed with him, and suddenly he became Great.
Nabokov was famously (it seems everything he did was famous) an avid chess fan; the story goes that as his family fled Russia in the 1917 revolution, he and his father played chess on the deck of the boat as shots were fired, and he used to write chess problems for newspapers. His writing, too, feels like a chess problem: he pushes his characters around until checkmate or stalemate. In some ways, this truly is brilliant. He always knows which turn will be more ingenious, will surprise the reader, inform the theme, and push the character into an even darker corner. Yet it also removes the reader from the narrative. Nabokov once referred to his stories as filled with stuffed dummies rather than characters. Yes, they are well-developed and nuanced–the horror of Humbert Humbert is how personable he is in narration, and Kinbote is certainly a complex, if insane, protagonist–but somehow, in the end, they always remain artificial. Reading Nabokov’s books is like solving a puzzle; you’re along for the ride, but at the end, you’re not sure what the point was. Of all the novels we read of his, there weren’t any that I put down and thought, “That was emotionally moving.”
Do I dispute that Nabokov is a good writer? No. Do I admire him for his writing skills? Definitely. His language, story, plotting, pacing are all excellent. Yet there is always something lacking, and it is what I value most in fiction: the part that latches onto your heart so that when you finish the novel, you hold it close and shut your eyes and wish you didn’t have to say goodbye to that world.