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368 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1973
Ever since the days when such formidable mediocrities as Galsworthy, Dreiser, Tagore, Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland and Thomas Mann were being accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called "great books." That, for instance, Mann's asinine "Death in Venice," or Pasternak's melodramatic, vilely written "Dr. Zhivago," or Faulkner's corn-cobby chronicles can be considered "masterpieces" or at least what journalists term "great books," is to me the sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair. My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce's "Ulysses"; Kafka's "Transformation"; Bely's "St. Petersburg," and the first half of Proust's fairy tale, "In Search of Lost Time.Other authors that don’t make the cut are Joseph Conrad (much time is spent on disecting Conrad as a ‘juvenile’ writer only worthwhile to budding adolescents) and, shock and gasp for me too, Dostoevsky. However, when considering Nabokov’s opinions on what makes a good book it is evident why Nabokov dislikes Dostoevsky². Nabokov often expresses distaste for any novel with a moral or social ideology as it’s beating heart, and Dostoevsky often falls under criticism for having characters that are stand-ins for morals or ideas than being flesh-and-blood characters.
My advice to a budding literary critic would be as follows. Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that mediocrity thrives on "ideas." Beware of the modish message. Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own
footprint. Ignore allegories. By all means place the "how" above the "what" but do not let it be confused with the "so what." Rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs. Do not drag in Freud at this point. All the rest depends on personal talent
Q: Is it right for a writer to give interviews?This, as one member of his audience, I affirm--Nabokov's personality as related through these interviews is indeed plausible and not displeasing.
A: Why not? Of course, in a strict sense a poet, a novelist, is not a public figure, not an exotic potentate, not an international lover, not a person one would be proud to call Jim. I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings, but I cannot sympathize with anybody wanting to know me. As a human specimen, I present no particular fascination. My habits are simple, my tastes banal. ... I irritate some of my best friends by the relish with which I list the things I hate... What I really like about the better kind of public colloquy is the opportunity it affords me to construct in the presence of my audience the semblance of what I hope is a plausible and not altogether displeasing personality.
Q: How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?While I share only the smallest fraction of his opinions, I enjoyed reading and contrasting them. I think that at least a few of his strong opinions are in reaction to overly popularized trends of the time.
A: I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile--some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.