[Site manager's note: In honor of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Nabokov, PEN American Center, The New Yorker, Vintage Books and Manhattan's Town Hall brought together a group of authors on 15 April 1999 to read from and reflect on Nabokov's work. Martin Amis's remarks follow].
Nabokov and Literary Greatness
It's a great honor to be here on VN's 100th birthday.
The great critic Northrop Frye wittily warned us against value judgments and league tables, against the notion of a literary stock exchange where reputations boom and crash. Milton is a greater poet than say Shakerley Marmion. We know this to be so, yet it is not demonstrable. We can't establish the point; we can only labor it. For instance, if you take a dud line from the senilia of Wordsworth, "'Tis he whose yester evenings hide a stain," for example, and compare it with a great line from his maturity, "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," the judging critic would have to say that the second line is inferior because it contains the expletive "do" which is put in just to make up the numbers of the pentameter.
Critics then cannot judge and must look forward to lulling themselves into a stupor of satisfaction with everything ever written, but the reader is making literary judgments all the time. And if you want to know what your judgments are, go and look at the disposition of your bookshelves. The other day I had cause to replace the collective verse of the Australian poet Peter Porter, and in he went between Pope and Pushkin, which told me what I thought of Ezra Pound, because, he wasn't there.
Vladimir Nabokov, and I languidly English the name, takes up a good five feet of my library -- a fiefdom exceeded only by Shakespeare. But the Nabokov section is dilapidated like a wall with missing bricks because the books are in constant use and they're all over the house. The great man was famously scathing about the writers of his own century those "frauds, brutes, clowns, quacks and dunces" such was his declamatory style. And only once, I think, did he bow to a superior talent. Of James Joyce he said, "My stuff is patball to his champion game."
Now, how sincere was Nabokov being? In my view the bidding starts at 50% and then drops sharply. Anyway it's a judgment he whittled away at elsewhere. That 600-page crossword clue Finnegans Wake Nabokov considered a tragic failure: "a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room." And A Portrait of the Artist he found "feeble and garrulous." As far as I know he never pronounced on Dubliners as a whole, but Brian Boyd tells me that he did mark up a short story anthology he was sent, often giving zed or z-minuses to writers with hemispherical reputations like Lawrence, and he did give Joyce an A+ for "The Dead." But on the whole I imagine he would have found those early stories slightly jejune. "Jejune," a much misused word, it has nothing to do with youth or naïveté. It means fast-like, scanty, Lenten. Vow-of-poverty prose, inimical to Nabokov's spirit of stupendous largesse. For him then, and pretty much for me, that then leaves Ulysses, which is clearly the century's key text. Is it impossible to cite or imagine any other novel, apart from Don Quixote, capable of giving the form of fiction such such a violent evolutionary jolt.
Now let us return to the Nabokov section of the library and the metaphor of the "champion game." And we see that while Joyce was blest with exquisite touch, with sumptuous feel, the drop shot that that drops dead on the clay, what he lacked was any interest in his opponent. Nabokov, on the other hand, got the job done. Just look at the Russian great thicket of grand slams and here I mention only those books that mean most to this writer/reader Lolita, very closely followed by Despair, King Queen Knave, Pnin, Laughter in the Dark, Pale Fire, Transparent Things, The Eye, Nabokov's Dozen, Speak Memory.
What inhibited Joyce was perhaps introversion. A failure of love for the reader. John Updike is surely right when he says that Nabokov's is essentially an amorous style it longs to hold diaphanous reality in its hairy arms. But Nabokov wants to embrace his readers too. He comes across as this snorting wizard of hauteur, but he is the dream host, always giving us on our visits his best chair and his best wine. What would Joyce do? Let's think, he would call out vaguely from the kitchen, asking you to wait a couple of hours for the final fermentation of a home-brewed punch made out of grenadine, conger eels and sheep dip.
This is from Pnin, after our endearing hero has had a desolate tryst with his vile and beloved ex-wife:
And this is a little bit more of Mademoiselle Earl from Speak Memory:
Nabokov, my novelist of the century is possible, indeed, inevitable in eternity. This is from an essay called "The Art of Literature and Common Sense" in which common sense in the villain of the piece.
True, yet common sense also rules immortality in. Writers live on in the love and gratitude of their readers and Vladamir Nabokov is here tonight because our hearts are brimming with him.
Thank you very much.
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