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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

on a passage in Nabokov 1

I was licked into shape by the Cold War. It was my mother and my father, and I am still a piece of it as I advance towards my death in a world that is no longer moored to it. Vast upheavels have the effecct of making their survivors posthumous people, carrying about obsolete maps and concerned with dead issues – themselves a sort of dead issue. For this reason I follow lines of thought or seize on details that that seem pointless or defunct to those who are under a certain age, and have grown up with a certain set of post Berlin Wall references, and who have never dreamed, as children, of atom bombs dropping from the sky. Similarly, I find it difficult to understand the events and idees recues of the present, I have difficulty being “contemporary” – I have to translate them, clumsily, into their historic “place”, dissolving them so utterly into their causes that I entirely lose their effects – I understand them to death, and don’t understand them at all.
I think of  Nabokov as a supremely cold war writer, or rather, as a writer whose reputation is inseperable from the cold war, just as Orwell’s was. When Bend Sinister was published by Time Life in 1964, with a special forward by Nabokov, the connection was made explicit – here was a more another allegorical attack on totalitarianism, ie the Soviet Union – although, as the “editors of Time Life” note in the preface, there is a lot of word play in the book that even they hadn’t noticed at first.
The cold war atmosphere comes comes across particularly when you read the non-fiction – which is studded with opinions delivered in Nabokov’s best Des Esseintes style, something that at first seems striking – like someone insisting that artificial flowers are better than real ones – and that eventually become an instance of how the manic pursuit of good taste eventually destroys the very foundation of taste, substituting a game of more sophisticated than thou – a game for feebs. This aestheticism was something that seemed very familiar in the fifties, when Nabokov first started becoming known in America. Michael Wood once wrote of how, in Speak Memory, Nabokov’s elegy to “Sirin” – a Russian émigré writer who happened to be Nabokov’s pseudonym – has a certain beauty in its place: “Remember that Nabokov wrote this passage in English, in America, in 1950, having left Europe ten years before. So, it is an elegy for a lost self, a Nabokov who was once called Sirin and who once wrote in Russian, and who did truly vanish "as strangely as he had come." But there is a further delicacy. When Nabokov wrote these words, he was an obscure American writer, still making his way in American letters. 

Nabokov, in 1950, was actually a rather coddled émigré, teaching at Harvard and friends with the American mandarin of mandarins, Edmund Wilson. His opinions were reliably anti-communist, a stance that he wrapped up in aesthetics – he basically considered anything to the left of his father’s classical liberalism to be posh’lust, which he expressed in a Paris Review interview by saying that mentioning Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam in the same breath is “seditious posh’lust” – thus perhaps reinflating the czarist notion of  sedition for the last time. In the introduction to the lectures on Russian writers, he claims that no writers of any note flourished under the Soviets, and quotes Gladkov as a typical Soviet writer – thus throwing Isaac Babel and Yuri Olesha, among others, under the truck. 


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