Thursday, December 04, 2014

Nabokov, At Least

Has anyone ever drafted a "Nabokov: From Best to Worst" list?

If so, Laughter in the Dark would likely have a fairly secure spot among the lower rungs,  along with bad plays like The Tragedy of Mister Morn and certain early (Glory) and late (Look at the  Harlequins!) novels.

Which, of course, is not to say it's all that bad -- quite a fun read, actually -- just not VN at the height of his intricate powers. (Maybe it would better to call that list: "Nabokov: From Most to Least.") 

Part of the problem, as Brian Boyd pointed out in Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, is that this cruel tale of fate, which has echoes of The Blue Angel -- old man, young woman, naivete, lust, betrayal, et al -- is that it's just a little too obviously commercial. Like all writers, VN wanted a crack at the movie market, and he wrote a story that he hoped would be snapped up by the studios.

"Geared to the clack of the clapboard," Boyd wrote, "it cannot like the other novels open all the shutters and doors and lids of the mind."

Originally written in Russian, it was translated into English as the work of "Vladimir Nabokoff," but Nabokov disliked the translation so much that he extensively re-did the job himself.

As John Colapinto discovers in the latest New Yorker, the fault wasn't just the translation. It was the original book, which an older, wiser VN rewrote, lifting it from awful to (by his standards) mediocre.

It has been said of the Beatles that there is not a clunker of a song in their oeuvre because they simply never let the bad stuff get released. The same might be said of Nabokov—for “Camera Obscura” shows that he was indeed capable of writing a second-rate novel. (He knew it, and rewrote it.)

1 comment:

Lodewijk Karel said...

Hi Rodney.
Not very original but my personal favorite is "Lolita".

The richness of this novel goes well beyond what is offered at first sight.
As Nabokov admitted in two interviews in the 60s, there is a subjacent level of reading in several of his books, among them he named "Lolita" explicitly.

For instance in one of these interviews he said: “(Lolita) was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle – its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look”.

And indeed, we can see phenomenons of reflexion in the novel (e.g. Pratt / Trapp, Blanche Schwarzman / Melanie Weiss, the widow Haze / the widow Hays, etc…).

Here’s a link about the subject if you’re interested: