Saturday, December 01, 2007

Nabokov On Dostoevsky: Biased?

I would like to quote this passage from Nabokov's Lectures on Russian literature first before I present the main points in this post.

"Let me refer to one more method of dealing with literature- and this is the simplest and perhaps most important one. If you hate a book, you may still derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things, or, what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does.The mediocre, the false, the poshlust-remember that word-can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize. But the books you like must be read with shudders and gasps.Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain-the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed-then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, only then, its rare flavour will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood".

How well written and as he always did, how stylish! This extract is from Nabokov's essay on Dostoevsky, which I have always found strange reading. Nabokov begins by saying that Dostoevsky "is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one, with wastelands of literary platitudes". This opinion is based on the point of view of "enduring art and individual genius". And then, Nabokov claims that his views on Dostoevsky can "only be understood by experienced readers".

As is the practice in these essays, Nabokov paints a short biography of Dostoevsky, including his political and social world view. It is widely known that Dostoevsky was a Russian nationalist, who also believed in absolute monarchy, resentful of western domination. I think Dostoevsky is not alone in this. Perhaps that assertion is quite common in Eastern European writers, and I find the theme of Slavic superiority almost as a given in Eastern European and some Russian writers. This is in contradistinction to their general attitudes towards the events of the major wars, and this paranoia and attitude of permanent victim hood is manifest in modern slavophiles like Handke though not in a similar way in Gombrowicz.

Nabokov clarifies further the distinction between a sentimental and a sensitive writer, and banishes Dostoevsky to the legion of sentimental writers, saying that by this is meant "the non-artistic exaggeration of emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion" in the reader. Again, "Dostoevsky lacks taste", with his characters tricking, "sinning their way to Jesus". Nabokov laments Dostoevsky's lack of natural backgrounds, with the novels focusing mainly on a landscape of ideas, a moral landscape. Perhaps, Nabokov misses the almost painting like sketches which Turgenev has achieved in Sketches From A Hunter's Album, which Nabokov and everybody else loves.

Nabokov's main criticism comes later, when against three characteristics that he believes an artist must set out, he finds Dostoevsky lacking in one way or the other. The first is the logical and natural development of events in the plot. Now Nabokov finds it easy to believe that Hamlet could have heard his father's ghost, but finds the plots of Dostoevsky lacking in the "combination and interaction of the forces the artist has set into play".

Secondly, art he tells us "is a divine game and it is only art if we remember it is make believe", that in a Shakespeare play, people are not actually murdered while he finds the reality of the same occurrences in Dostoevsky as too hard to shrug off as just art! Nabokov says that "there is less balance between the aesthetic achievement and the element of criminal reportage in Dostoevsky's other novels". Thirdly, the reactions of some of Dostoevsky's characters are not valid because they were "raving lunatics, or characters from a madhouse, poor, deformed, warped souls, often no longer human"! Then he goes on to list certain clinical conditions with which some characters suffer from, namely epilepsy, senile dementia, hysteria and psychopathy.

I find the above three assertions slightly absurd. Firstly, The ghost theme in hamlet, otherwise nearly perfect, is so contrived, so mean to the reader that even if one believes in ghosts, that particular ghost seems to ready to talk. And how can art remain art if it is make believe?. Do we only visit literature for diversion? Is poetry only an escape from reality? I think that literature, real literature is just the opposite, it is the affirmation of our hidden lives, the bringing to lips of songs that we dare not sing usually, or melodies that we yearn to hear, for these are to us truer than life for they are life, for this literature is not an escape from reality into make believe but an escape from make believe, into the reality of so many worlds, through words, through which, to a certain extent, we are able sometimes to make sense of a melancholic, cruel and sordid world.

And even though the clinical conditions mentioned can lead to altered mental states, they are by no means insane states, even with our present knowledge notwithstanding. Yes, post epileptic confusional states are common and altered consciousness in dementia's, but Dostoevsky , in my opinion, uses these diseases to absolve his characters of flaws, mistakes and sins and attributes those to these states, so that his firm belief in the general nobility and moral superiority of his hero or heroes remains intact. It is intriguing how Nabokov unhinges all the absurdities of Dostoevsky plots on psychopathic characters is hard to understand, for forensic criminology is not an exact science and any psychoanalytic explanation w'd seem superfluous. Nabokov also asserts that Dostoevsky's characters do not develop as the stories progress. This is not the case as Ivan Karamazov and Alyosha, if we only think of The Brothers developing, through not a natural background but through discussion, through ideas that are circulated freely. Dostoevsky's novels are novels of ideas and to call him "a mystery writer", as Nabokov does, seems an injustice.

But Nabokov's essays are brilliant, and only he can write the way he writes for he is the stylist par excellence. I intended above to reflect on a few pages from his Dostoevsky essay, and considering that I wrote the above, I find myself in the category of inexperienced readers, those who claim to know the difference between true and pseudo-literature! But, fabulous though Nabokov is as a writer and as a literary critic, maybe he too might have been wrong once in a while!


Antonia said...

yes it's always been strange with Nabokov. I agree, some of these criticisms seem so absurd, but i feel he is onto somehting....maybe that's because i read shortly ago some Dostoyevsky which i had been done for the last time ten years ago or so which is of course a huge shift in perception. The second time reading Dostoyevsky (and i did not read a book that i had already read) i found him also having much less an impact on me than earlier...but then again this may have its reason in lack of juvenile impressionableness and there is still so much in Dostoyevsky, so much valuable observations on human nature in its extremes (and this is what Nabokov lacks in some sense) and i fear in the end it is just apples and oranges, Nabokov's and Dostoyevsky's temperaments are just too different.

KUBLA KHAN said...

I agree with you, Dostoevsky's observations and descriptions are invaluable and it might be a question of temperament as you say.
however, historically, these great Russian writers never got along with each other, with Turgenev and Dostoevsky never being on good terms.
similar situation between Goncharov and turgenev.
But yes, Nabokov is always upto something and this type of critique opens new vistas of thinking.

Alok said...

Check out this review. It takes him to task very well.

KUBLA KHAN said...

Alok....thanks....nice article.

KUBLA KHAN said...

Carl Jung called this article so soon after i had....posted.....

bookcrazy said...

Well, I am sure Nabokov is a great writer. I have not read him and do not have an opinion.

But I have read Dostoevsky extensively. I totally agree with him when he says that Dostoevsky lacks coherence, plot building, character development. Though, I am not surprised since I have known this to be a literary consensus. But dismissing Dostoevsky's work or most amusingly labelling him as a 'mystery' writer is either pure jealous outrage or blank stupidity.

It is almost obvious to any reader of Dostoevsky that he wrote almost in trance. In the Brothers Karamazov, there are very long sequences about Dmitry which is inessential and inconsequential to both the plot and the soul of that novel. But, Brothers Karamazov is unparalleled. Dostoevsky definitely did not have any command over the language like Tolstoy but he is ranked with him not because of that but despite that. It is a testimony to Dostoevsky that despite he being a failure in all "departments" of 'novel writing', his books have deeper impact on their readers than probable any other.

Dostoevsky was a sensitive person and intelligent too. He was not a linguistic or a grammarian. His books speak for him.

One must remember that language not only provides a means but also limits possibilities of expression.

W H said...

I haven't read much of Nabokov, but I'm a great fan of Dostoyevsky.
I don't agree that Dostoyevsky lacks style or character development.
I loved Poor People. I loved Brothers Karamazov.
Loved Crime and Punishment. Guess I can relate to what the guy must have felt (relate to, not understand). Dostoyevsky himself faced the firing squad, only to be rescued at the last moment by a horse rider carrying the Tsar's command.
Idiot, I felt, although good, is not his best work.
I wouldn't know if Dosoyevesky didn't know the language well enough, because I read Dostoyevsky in English.
But he is just amazing.

As far as Tolstoy goes, I prefer the early Tolstoy. Before he grew too religions. The Tolstoy of the Raid, and Tales from Sevastopol. Not so much of the later Tolstoy, the Tolstoy who spoke of angels descending on Earth. But a transition from an anti-war to that of a religious humanist is understandable.

Mr_Hart said...

Of course, stylistically not having read any novels in Russian, I cannot comment how good Dostoevsky truly is. In the English translations I have read, I would claim that he appears as a mediocre stylist, yet makes up for this due to his intellectual depth. Yet, I must admit that although I don't agree with Nabokov's reasons, which to me are just trying to make a subjective judgment (and all judgments on art are subjective) appear to have an objective base.

Yet, I still believe that the diatribes of Nabokov (and the ones on Dostoevsky are almost mild compared to others) are always entertaining, as he is a good stylist. This is however part of the problem with his fiction. With the exception of Lolita, I would not consider any of his books 'great' - because too often he gets caught up in empty word-plays that sound great, but add little to the story.

- However, I must say that your blog is really good. I just hit upon it today - for this the rather tardy reply. One of the few blogs where all sections actually interest me!

ivorybird said...

I have my theory about Nabokov's bias toward Dostoevsky, but it might not sound "politically correct"... I can only say that my fav. writer was Dostoevsky. I was 13 when I read Crime and Punishment as part of our school program. Then I read everything else. He has a very distinguished style of writing. He is a prophet and this is why his books are so magnetic and fascinating. His choice of heavy sentence structures does not feel awkward, it feels appropriate. You are taken by substance not looks, in the case with Dostoevsky. He writes from his core, it is like a soul-to-soul dialogue. Nabokov is completely different character; he likes to play with a reader, to amuse and to delight. He is stylish and irresistible. They both experiment with impossible themes. When I read Nabokov, I hope these moments will last another life-time : ) Nabokov has lots of self-irony (part of defensive mechanism), while Dostoevsky has no time for that; self-image does not concern him. He is like an open wound, and thus extremely vulnerable. People who say they are mediocre writers are mediocre readers.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, Nabokov was an aesthete. I like his writing, but it always seems so academic, like I'm just reading the splendid prose of a master, whose style is but reference. I do not feel that my whole soul, my whole view of the world is being transformed. Dostoevsky certainly wasn't as good a prose writer, as he often admits in his own novels (a lot of the time, by the way he's using this voice as a device; and I personally think this non-literary style works for him; and sometimes in its own grotesque or gothic way it is quite beautiful) but more importantly he what he has to say is far more profound, far more touching, he taps upon something so primordial, that quite frankly Nabakov pales in comparison. Nabakov maybe a truer artist, Dostoevsky is a truer human.

And even for an aesthete Nabakov isn't that great, Joyce, Proust or Virginia woolfe make him look like a joke. He is so far behind the people he quotes as being his heroes, like Tolstoy, that it's not even worth mentioning. Don't get me wrong I like Nabakov, but I wish he would just have just stuck to writing, rather than using his own subjective disposition to influence the reading habits of others. I've read bits of his criticism and its just quite frankly nauseating. John Paul

Anonymous said...

Nabokov is right, Dostoevsky is a very mediocre writer with terrible plot structure and character clichés. I read Dostoevsky in Russian and he's novels are very l mediocre, especially “Crime and Punishment“. One of the reasons why he's novels seem flat, is his myopic singlemindness, when a Jewish reader wrote to him and asked him to limit his inciting anti-Semitic comments of Jews, he wrote back stating that it is the Jews who hate Russian and not the other way around, that was at the time of Pogroms, when Jews were attacked and killed at random, and he's speech about preservation of Aryan blood before his death, was absolutely embarrassing. Nabokov sees that childish single-mindedness and realizes it's mediocrity.

There is a very thin grey line in Art between Childlike and Childish and Dostoevsky obviously belongs to the latter.

Nabokov is a far better writer than Proust, Flaubert,or Woolf, and may be equal only by James Joyce.

Anonymous said...


Hampus said...

I also agree with Nabokov, tough I think he is a bit unfair to old Fyodor. I often find the influence of Dostoevsky much more interesting than Dostoevsky himself. I definitely admire Fyodor's unhindered description of darkness and psychosis, but in terms of fiction writing, he is in fact pretty clumsy. Crime And Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov's length are absolutely unwarranted, the whole thematic idea and Dostoevsky's psychological insights, great as they are, becomes undermined in so many dead and meandering passages. And it's not that I have a problem with length, I've read Moby Dick three times, I love Tolstoy and Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy (could easily be thought of as a complete unit). They warrant the length, no part of Anna Karenina is unnecessary or lacking. But unfortunately I feel that that's the case with Fyodor D.

pietu said...

The question of Dostoevsky and Nabokov:
I fell in love with Nabokov after reading from his short story--- A Bad Day—the description of a horse taking a shit; I was astounded, morally horrified, yet shocked and appreciative I had been catapulted into a new realm of literatures soul, and then without notice treacherously led into a devil’s pathological abyss when reading the homicide scene from Dostoevsky’s crime and punishment.
I felt squeamish yet aroused when I read some of the sex scenes from Nabokov’s Lolita; when i read from Dostoevsky’s the brothers Karamazov ,I felt authorized to take on the pretentious Christian God; when the ninety year old cardinal confronts Jesus Christ with the words: "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!"

pietu said...

Being and absence
Nothing ---as an idea; is empty of content, bereft of the empirical status as having being. As a construct (nothing) points to ‘absences’---this in turn presupposes the diminishing properties of an ‘existent’ reaching the final exhaustion of its being, i.e. the complete fading of its essence, or the condition of an entity not yet having expired its being as a form beyond human recognition. If the apprehending consciousness makes contact with a being formerly in existence; then finding this very being missing, the most likely construct to rely on for comprehension will be: it has become “no-thing”, but this is not to say “no-thing” has the status of being. As a matter of logic, it points to the absence, the complete exhaustion of a beings disclosure of its essence. Without active disclosure of its being, an entity that has exhausted its being is no longer conducive for comprehensions; no-thing cannot project the property ‘being’. In every case of using nothing as a referent, it will be noted the being in question has merely expired its being, and is missing, absent, no longer an object of consciousness; no longer in the field of one’s perceptions. Perhaps we should rethink, or at least retool the idea of something becoming ‘no-thing’. Thing-ness can be thought of as having ‘active-being’, no-thing is pure absence; nothingness is a ghostly construct posing as a ‘something’. Nothingness is a convenient philosophical-prop, a misleading notion coaxing ones imagination that absence…not-there-ness, cannot have a reality poured into the vessel of its imaginary space as a ‘nothing’ Being and Nothingness should be regarded as being and absence; the indeterminate deficiency of the human mind coming to grips with something diminished beyond sensory contact, then calling this state a ‘nothingness’, rather than recognizing every perception is an entailment of the limited consciousness humankind is endowed with. The question is…whence comes the idea that ‘nothing’ as an idea, is logically viable?

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keefe bergmann said...

Nabokov, for my part, can stick his views on Dostoevsky where the sun doesn't shine, because, although Dostoevsky may not be a linguist extraordinaire, his novels actually MEANT something. I have yet to read a Nabokov novel that changed me for the better. Sure, Nabokov's novels are extremely well-written and entertaining, but at the same time shallow and lacking significance. This is all that needs to be said on the matter: Nabokov will NEVER, and I mean NEVER, understand human nature as deeply, as empathetically, as sincerely as Dostoevsky has, and that's a fact. Nabokov is just jealous that he cannot effect his readers as profoundly as Dostoevsky has, and that is why he can go to hell. Amen.