4 July 2012

Peter Quennell on Vladimir Nabokov

I decided to re-read Lolita and found this:

“Every distinguished novelist creates a separate world; and, having crossed the frontier, we find that the world we know has undergone a subtle change, that new arresting features have mysteriously begun to emerge, and that we now regard our fellow men and women, and the social background against which they play their parts, from a somewhat different point of view. Such is the test, I think, we should at once apply to all imaginative writers. Can we honestly pretend that, as the result of reading their books, we have enlarged our vision of existence, and see Man and Nature through freshly appreciative eyes? Were these questions applied to Vladimir Nabokov’s oeuvre, I have no doubt how I myself would answer.

“… a common feature of all Nabokov’s books [is] a tone of poetic sympathy and ironic detachment blended, that gives his prose-style its peculiarly effective edge. The author stood alone; as creator and literary critic alike he was a stubborn individualist; and, to counterbalance the list of writers he admired, he drew up a lengthy catalogue of the fakes and bores whom he refused to countenance – Dostoevski, Stendhal, Balzac, Saint-Beuve (‘that arch-vulgarian’), Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser and, of course, ‘the Viennese quack’ Sigmund Freud. Nor would he subscribe to the currently popular doctrine that a work of art should have a social message … A book is not ‘about something’ but itself invents the subject.

“He would have revolted against any suggestion, however, that writing a book is a mere aesthetic exercise; into his works he put his whole experience of life, and paid tribute, albeit an indirect tribute, to the moral qualities he most valued. ‘I believe’, he announced in Strong Opinions, ‘that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.’”

From the Introduction to the Collins Collectors’ Choice edition, Vladimir Nabokov: Five Novels, London 1979.

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