Vladimir Nabokov: Nikolai Gogol
(With The Time of the Assassins by Henry Miller)
By way of illustration:
Morally Chichikov was hardly guilty of any special crime in attempting to buy up dead men in a country where live men were lawfully purchased and pawned. If I paint my face with home made Prussian Blue instead of applying the Prussian Blue which is sold by the state and cannot be manufactured by private persons, my crime will be hardly worth a passing smile and no writer will make of it a Prussian Tragedy. But if I have surrounded the whole business with a good deal of mystery and flaunted a cleverness that presupposed most intricate difficulties in perpetrating a crime of that kind, and if owing to my letting a garrulous neighbor peep at my pots of home-brewn paint I get arrested and am roughly handled by men with authentic blue faces, then the laugh for what it is worth is on me.
By way of explanation:
Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader’s notions on life. Great literature skirts the irrational.
Found myself in the odd scenario of reading at the same time two “studies” of nineteenth century eccentric literary geniuses written by two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century – both printed by the same publishing house, both revealing more about the writers than their subjects, and both very strange. In both cases there is no attempt whatsoever, as there is in most nonfictions, most studies, to mask the “I” of the writer. Henry Millers’ and Vladimir Nabokovs’ fingerprints are all over these things. And there is never, ever, any posturing of “objectivity” – no, no, no, none of that tediousness. Here we have two writers, as different as could be, dancing with the peculiar unknowability of artistic creation; and the two books glide above the banal realm of literary “studies” with its deep and sprawling graveyard of justifiably forgotten academic tomes like birds of paradise in flight.
Vladimir the Intolerant – and if we were to give him a Tsar’s appendage the Intolerant would do quite well – rubbishes most of Gogol’s work as “juvenilia,” including such classics as Taras Bulba (“When I want a good nightmare I imagine Gogol penning in Little Russian dialect volume after volume of Dikanka and Mirgorod stuff about ghosts haunting the banks of the Dniepr, burlesque Jews and dashing Cossacks”) that “teachers in Russian schools crammed down a fellow’s throat.” For Vladimir there are only The Government Inspector, The Overcoat and Dead Souls. Something about Nabokov’s cruel dismissals tickles me. I suppose it’s that I come from a society in which it’s frowned upon to be truly disdainful of anything – all should be “considered from another angle,” everything has “importance,” and the only scale is that of shades of gray. To come out and say This is awful is considered to be something indulged in only by “philistines” (to use one of Nabokov’s pet words), as in: That last Batman movie really sucked! Civilized people should never pass such a judgment however. Better to say that the last Batman movie might benefit from improvement (which we’re naturally loath to specify – out of politeness, not cowardice, mind). Nabokov’s kind of withering dismissals seem weird artifacts in our so wonderfully, laughably, evolved and equal societies, and should be viewed with the sort of kindly condescension with which everything else from an earlier era is. Nor should the tolerant tolerate the following view of Gogol’s religious beliefs, as everyone is entitled to his or hers:
Gogol became a preacher because he needed a pulpit to explain the ethics of his books and because a direct contact with readers seemed to him to be the natural development of his own magnetic force. Religion gave him the necessary intonation and method. It is doubtful whether it gave him anything else.
Under the aristocratic disdain Nikolai Gogol is in fact a work of deep, even humble, admiration. Those who dismiss Nabokov as cold don’t really bother to see beneath the veneer. The man was indeed an awful human being in some ways (aren’t we all?), and even declares in this book (published 1944) that he would like to see Germany, where he sheltered for years in exile in the 1920s, “destroyed to the last beer mug and the last forget-me-not.” But behind the shield of pride and behind the haughtiness is the poet. He was a writer who could craft passages of such startling lyric beauty as could make your eyes water. Reading his short stories, as I am now, you come across passages that grip you and slightly lift you out of your chair, as in the woman writing “A Letter That Never Reached Russia”:
As I wander along some silent, dark street, I like to hear a man coming home. The man himself is not visible in the darkness, and you never know beforehand which front door will come alive to accept a key with grinding condescension, swing open, pause, retained by the counterweight, slam shut; the key will grind again from the inside, and, in the depths beyond the glass pane of the door, a soft radiance will linger for one marvelous minute.
The front door that will “come alive to accept a key with grinding condescension” has the sweet touch of genius to it, the imagery this short passage is breathlessly evocative. I say that no one who could write with as much poetry as Nabokov can be heartless. Here is not some frivolous wordsmith whose sole purpose in writing is as exercise in style; and despite constantly asserting that didactic intent should be stricken from literature the Nabokov style is antithetical to post-modernist nonsense and its facile displays of cleverness. Anyone familiar with the details of the man’s biography can speculate where the defensive armor comes from and besides who says a genius need be timid and self-deprecating? Nabokov also expressed disgust at being thought of as Humbert Humbert, because his creation, superb as it was, was a deeply sick puppy. Any close reading of Lolita – though few people bother – reveals that the author’s sympathies lie with the twelve year-old girl who’s being molested by a maniac. Which brings me in my winding way to the crux of what the man harped on time and again: good reading takes attention and work. If your reading of Lolita or Dead Souls provokes a response along the lines of That was pretty cool I dug it, then you’re better off just sticking with the latest Danielle Steele: your flirtation with “serious literature” has been a dead failure. Untold hours of television marvels await you.
Nabokov’s praise could be as generous as his scorn, and in his admirations of what he deems Gogol’s finest works (particularly Dead Souls, which he spent a great deal of effort to translate large passages of) there is real reverence. It is an homage from one genius to another, very much worth reading even for those who are completely unfamiliar with Gogol (and here I admit to only having read… Taras Bulba!). It is sharp as a tack, and who could guess that it was one of his earliest attempts at writing in English – the voice that would make Lolita is already firmly there. And it has a hilarious postscript in which the horrorstruck author is told by his publisher that the book must have “some kind of bibliography or chronology at the end” because students must know the plots of the books discussed, “otherwise he would be puzzled and would not bother to read any further” while the dejected author stutters feeble objections. So there it is:
That is how the following pages got appended. This chronology is meant for the indolent reader who wants to take in Gogol’s life and labors at a glance instead of wallowing through my book in search of this or that relevant passage.
Naturally Nabokov’s chronology of Gogol’s life is strictly factual and dry, as the following demonstrates:
1831. Flitted out of the cob-webbed gloom of Civil Service and began teaching history at a young ladies’ institute. The girls found him dull.
I would probably be befuddled if asked to explain how I could love Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller (who claimed not to like Nabokov) equally. These are the sides – I almost said dueling but restrained myself in time – of my personality. I wonder if it would be too much of a wild stretch to make a case for how I see them as similar in so many ways: Nikolai Gogol and Miller’s Rimbaud book is a place to start. Nabokov concocts the scene of Gogol’s deathbed to begin his book, as if he were about to spin a tale in flashback. Miller starts by talking about how he first heard the name Rimbaud in 1927 in Brooklyn, well before he was famous, then goes on for awhile about the miserable circumstances of his (Miller’s) existence at the time. Rimbaud very much feels like the secondary consideration in the early passages of The Time of the Assassins; those who are familiar with Miller’s novels are familiar with the story of how down-in-the-dumps he was in 1927 in Brooklyn, and those who aren’t get a handy recap. Immediately there’s the feeling that this is not going to be the slightest bit academic, we are not going to get in-depth analysis of the meaning of Rimbaud’s metaphors. Those pups interested in a deep and scholarly study of the burning teenage French genius are woefully yapping up the wrong tree here. Nikolai Gogol is more detailed and disciplined but by no means less nutty than Assassins. However, Miller’s book contains somewhat more of the language commonly called “colorful”:
He wanted to live, he wanted more room, more freedom: he wanted to express himself, no matter how. And so he said, “Fuck you, Jack! Fuck you one and all!” Whereupon he opened his fly and pissed on the works – and from a considerable height, as Celine once put it.
“As Celine once put it” is such a bizarre afterthought that it can only stem from the same sort of wild nocturnal reaches that caused Nabokov to pen that unnervingly calm and crazed Prussian Blue analogy.
Nabokov objected to the use of “four-letter words” and I’m inclined to agree with him, not on moral or artistic grounds, only because the repetitious use of those words has assured that they have no meaning or effect whatsoever in this day. Miller, who wrote one of the most famously banned books in history, is from an era that believed that the bursting of linguistic taboos could bring the walls down around their ears – time has shown that “they” are more resilient and resourceful than expected. Even the nastiest of words, like “nigger,” have become so patented and common that no one even puts up the pretense of eyebrow-raising anymore. Those who bristle at Miller’s (or Rimbaud’s) use of it are rather disingenuously offended by a word that has long ago become nothing more than one of the meager and meaningless affectations of young, tough-guy morons. Certainly few days pass in multicultural, open-armed, brotherhood-of-(wo)man America where the word is unheard, whether on the streets, in the movies, or in song lyrics. Said skirt-raising folk are also, surprise of surprises, not paying too terribly much attention to how the word is used: how Rimbaud wears his “nigger tongue” as a badge of honor, how Miller admires him for it. At the risk of belaboring the obvious: those who would condescend to call people nigger are the targets of Rimbaud’s scorn, not those to whom they apply the word.
I am more impressed by Nabokov’s book, but that doesn’t mean that I love it more. Miller doesn’t have the Russian maestro’s exquisite turn-of-phrase, but he has an observational punch that hits true in a swifter and blunter way than the exquisite turn-of-phrase is capable of or desires. Miller is obsessed with the idea of Rimbaud’s giving up poetry when he was eighteen to become a vagabond, a nobody, to live miserably and to die a miserable death in his mid-thirties:
Rimbaud experienced his great crisis when he was eighteen, at which moment in his life he had reached the edge of madness; from this point on his life is an unending desert. I reached mine at the age of thirty-six or thirty-seven, which is the age at which Rimbaud dies. From this point on my life begins to blossom. Rimbaud turned from literature to life; I did the reverse. Rimbaud fled from the chimeras he had created; I embraced them. Sobered by the folly and waste of mere experience of life, I halted and converted my energies to creation. I plunged into writing with the same fervor and zest that I had plunged into life. Instead of losing life, I gained life: miracle after miracle occurred, every misfortune being transformed to good account. Rimbaud, though plunging into a realm of incredible climates and landscapes, into a world of phantasy as strange and marvelous as his poems, became more and more bitter, taciturn, empty and sorrowful.
To Miller “man’s greatest dread is the expansion of consciousness;” Rimbaud fled poetry in hostility towards its inability to create the real and lasting change of a Christmas on Earth where “in the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.” Rimbaud, who saw too clearly too young, was likely doomed to a rotten fate. Miller compares Rimbaud to Van Gogh, which may elicit cries of Too easy! which would be none too quickly silenced by the following:
The greatest bond between them is the purity of their art. The measure of this purity is given in terms of suffering. With the turn of the century this sort of anguish seems no longer possible. We enter a new climate, not a better one necessarily, but one in which the artist becomes more callous, more indifferent. Whoever now experiences anything approaching that sort of agony, and registers it, is branded as “an incurable romantic.” One is not expected to feel that way any longer.
I have a friend, an artist, who is bored of the idea of the “tortured artist.” It doesn’t seem realistic. Certainly the idea is quaint – a little funny, no? The idea that someone like Rimbaud or Van Gogh could make himself sick, whittle himself to the nub, for poetry or painting is quite absurd. No, more practical that stock traders put in double-digit hours daily and work themselves ulcers in order to make more money or, hell, why relegate ourselves to stock traders? The large percentage of people on Earth toil inhuman hours to make that extra dime; we should all let out a sigh of tremendous relief that no one bothers to work so feverishly for a goal as pointless as artistic excellence anymore.
Miller’s asks: where are the great souls of our time? He felt there was a dearth in 1946, but looking around now produces far less in the way of answer. In 1946 I may have been able to jingle a few names in the pocket; but if asked the question today I’d be stumped for an answer. If such beatific beasts exist these days they are generally in prison somewhere in the so-called developing world – Aung Sang Suu Kyi, say. The arts are in a dismal state, there are no great leaders or humanitarians, capitalist pick-your-brother’s-pocket is the order of the day. Which is why Miller is necessary – and I do say that with a straight face. Miller says Fuck you, Jack and Jack is everyone and everything that recoils at the idea of incurable romanticism, of deep feeling, of freedom on the wing, of purity in art. Here the paths of Nabokov and Miller meet – although their ideas of great art and who the great artists are quite far apart (Nabokov dismissed Dostoevsky; Miller thought of Dostoevsky as one of his greatest teachers) there is a dead seriousness of intent, a belief in art’s higher calling, a call for artistic “purity.” As silly and as antique as these ideas may seem, one has to brave the possibility of being silly and antique in order to see the bitterness and spite from which schoolyard taunts stem and the worthlessness of those who fling them; or as Miller calls those stone-chuckers in his grand and bitter book on America, the “monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress.” The Time of the Assassins is only one slim volume in the entire work of Miller’s call to revolt.
Last edited by liehtzu; 28-Aug-2009 at 08:58.
The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather, he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil. - Hermann Broch