Self-described as “an American author, born in Russia, educated in England, [who] studied French texts”, Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most remarkable figures of 20th century literature. Perhaps most famous for his novel, Lolita, Nabokov was also a world-renowned expert on butterflies, so much so that in the 1940s he became curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology’s butterfly collection. His niche in this quadrant of zoology? An in-depth understanding and life-long research into butterfly genitalia.
Nabokov was also a man of controversy. Many will know of the backlash provoked by Lolita, but fewer perhaps will be aware of how his stubbornly held, often controversial views on literature, writers, famous books and literary critics provoked consternation and shock during his life – and after his death.
A glimpse of this is held in this short film (below) in which the author features. What starts out as a simple reading of Lolita in both English and Russian quickly turns to an airing of Nabokov’s opinions – on the most overrated books in literature.
In the filmed interview (around the 3:24 mark), Nabokov points his lance at the inflated popular notion of “great books”:
“I’ve 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 Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.”
The fact that Lolita now tops (or at least features in) many ‘top books of all time’ lists variously assembled across the digital realm of the internet perhaps would not impress Nabokov in the slightest.
Nor, it seems, would much else (besides butterflies, of course).
Indeed, in a celebrated collection of essays and musings, Strong Opinions, Nabokov lays out some of his most controversial ideas and thoughts. Featuring interviews with the author from the Paris Review to Playboy, the work is a fantastic read for anyone interested (or in need of a refreshing and alternative take on the way we think about writing and literature).
Below, we’ve selected a few of our favourite quotes, and listed a few of the literary titans Nabokov attempts to cut down to size – from E.M Forster through T.S Eliot and D.H. Lawrence.
Nabokov’s strong opinions in quotes
Firstly, to the idea of artistic groups or movements:
“I am not interested in groups, movements, schools of writing and so forth. I am interested only in the individual artist. There are only a few great writers and their work is grotesquely imitated by a number of banal scribblers whom a phony label assists commercially.”
(Note to ourselves: Nabokov would probably not have been a fan of collectives of creatives like Nothing in the Rulebook…)
Secondly – to the readers of his books (SPOILER ALERT: he’s not a fan):
“I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”
(What can we takeaway from this? Vladimir’s house parties were probably not the greatest fun. We imagine the topic of conversation at such events might be ever so slightly self-centred).
Thirdly – literary critics have no purpose
“Literary criticism is not at all purposeful. The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.”
(Vlad probably wouldn’t be a fan of our book reviews, either, then)
Fourth – Editors; beware!
“Among the editors I have known they have been limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honour – which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!””
And fifth – sex!
“Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.”
Nabokov vs the literary establishment
- Balzac, Honoré de. “Mediocre. Fakes realism with easy platitudes.”
- Brecht, Bertolt: “A nonentity, means absolutely nothing to me.”
- Camus, Albert: “I Dislike him. He is second-rate, ephemeral, puffed-up. Awful.”
- Dostoevsky Fyodor: “He is a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. He is less a prophet than a puffed up journalist and a slapdash comedian. Nobod takes his reactionary journalism seriously. Crime and punishment was a ghastly rigmarole.”
- Eliot, T. S: “not quite first rate.”
- Faulkner, William: “A writer of corncobby chronicles. To consider them masterpieces is an absurd delusion.”
- Forster, E. M: “My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, A Passage to India, which I dislike.”
- Gogol, Nikolai: “Nobody takes his mystical didacticism seriously. At his worst, as in his Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable. I loathe his moralistic slant, am depressed and puzzled by his inability to describe young women, and deplore his obsession with religion.”
- Hemingway, Ernest: “He is merely a writer of books for boys. He is better than Conrad and has at least a style of his own. But it is nothing I would care to have written myself. In terms of mentality and emotion, he is hopelessly juvenile. I loathe his works about bels, balls and bulls.”
- Lawrence, D. H: “Execrable.”
- Pound, Ezra: “Definitely second rate. A total fake; a venerable fraud.”
- Sartre, Jean-Paul: “Even more awful than Camus.”