Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Throughout his lectures at Cornell, Professor Vladimir Nabokov drilled in one point over and over: "Ideas are hogwash." You shouldn't read classic works of art for ideas, or for how well you "relate" to them. You read them for style and structure -- and that's it. Novels are not things of practical value that will teach you the secrets of a young man's heart or a young woman's heart. getting to the essence of a work of art means approaching it with perfect objectivity, and (before the word came into vogue) deconstructing it:

"Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed; then, and only then, its rare flavor 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."

One has to wonder, then, what the Grandmaster -- who as I seem to recall actually had something of a distaste for Eastern ideas and culture; I think he says something on this point in Speak, Memory -- would make of Michiko Kakutani's review of Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

Repressed Iranian women living in that wretched country found quite a lot to relate to in Nabokov, and for good reason.

They soon formed a special bond, Ms. Nafisi recounts, with the works of Nabokov, most notably "Invitation to a Beheading," with its lonely, imaginative hero whose originality sets him apart in a society "where uniformity is not only the norm but also the law," and "Lolita," which Ms. Nafisi reads as a chilling story about "the confiscation of one individual's life by another." Her students' identification with this Russian émigré's works, she notes, went deeper than their identification with his themes, to a shared sense of the precariousness of life. "His novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader's feet," she writes. "They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality's fickleness and frailty."

Ironically, in a country like Iran, what is most structural and stylistic about Nabokov -- this playful re-ordering of reality -- is also what is most true to life, most "relatable." People in that country, as in many totalitarian regimes, live in a world where "reality" is what the government tells you it is, where people not only disappear in the middle of the night but also from the pages of history. It was true to Nabokov's life, too; although he forever denied that his books were in any way political, it is all but impossible to read Invitation to a Beheading without being aware of his own precarious life as an emigre in Berlin, with the spctre of Hitler breathing down his neck.

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