I'm going to do something here that I very rarely do: I'm going to publish a piece of writing on my blog that I have not previously published elsewhere. This particular essay is a stand-alone version of the final chapter of The Vagabond's Bookshelf, my languishing-in-publisher-limbo collection of of memoir-essays about books I've obsessively reread over the course of my life. Nearly every other chapter has already been published or contracted for publication in major literary journals such as the Sewanee Review, the Threepenny Review, and the Southern Review.
I'm mentioning this history not for the pleasure of braggadocio but because I think there is a peculiar disconnect among the various tentacles of the publishing industry. Why is it so difficult to convince press editors to consider a nonfiction project that has already garnered a readership? Meanwhile, poetry journals reject poems that a publisher has already accepted as part of a book manuscript. I just think this is so strange. Something is going on, and it's not strictly an economic mystery.
Please don't think I'm complaining. I am immensely grateful for the good luck I've had, especially considering my invisibility in the academic writing network. Merely I'm puzzled.
Anyway, here's that essay--more of a conclusion than a full-length chapter. If you're interested in seeing anything else from the book, let me know.
"Quarreling with Nabokov" from The Vagabond's Bookshelf
For two or three years, I was working on a memoir about obsessively rereading a handful of novels, most of them nineteenth-century classics that I’ve revisited dozens of times over the course of my life without any intention of ever teaching a class about them. The project was going well: I was publishing chapters in journals, and I had high hopes for the final product. But just as I was finishing up the book, I learned—or thought I learned—that someone else had already written it.
Unfortunately for me, that someone else was Vladimir Nabokov. The book in question was his Lectures on Literature, a collection of posthumously published university lectures about famous novels. And to my dismay, one of those icons was Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, whose modest, somewhat ambiguous heroine, Fanny Price, is a major topic of my memoir.
As soon as I began to imagine what Nabokov might have to say about Fanny, I was seized with a fear that was also well salted with embarrassment. I doubt I would have dared to write about Mansfield Park myself if I’d known beforehand that he was a specialist on it, for Nabokov is one of those writers who intimidates me even at the level of his adjectives. Whatever he might have to say about Fanny would surely render my observations moot.
Oddly, at the moment I stumbled into Lectures, I was already enmeshed in Nabokov’s toils; for I’d just finished my tenth or so rereading of Lolita. I’d first encountered this book as a young teenager, when my mother, who was working on her master's degree, was assigned it in a course. The novel appalled her, for reasons she declined to explicate. I gathered, however, that sex had something to do with her creased brow, so I promptly read the book as soon as she wasn't looking. But the tale was less prurient than I’d hoped it would be, even for a girl with such modest expectations of prurience, mostly because . . . I mean, really, come on: when the chief seducer’s name is Humbert Humbert, the X-rated factor instantly assumes an entirely new algebraic significance.
Over the years, as I’ve returned to Lolita, my sympathies have shifted back and forth among the central comedic tragedies: poor stupid awkward romantic H.H.; poor grubby rude shallow Lo; poor boring infatuated Charlotte. Clare Quilty is really the only character I can wholeheartedly dislike at every reading. If anyone deserves to be murdered by a gun named Chum, it’s him.
But during this season’s pass through the book, I found myself, for the first time, almost entirely distracted by Nabokov’s idiosyncratic control of the English language, especially as he superimposes it onto the 1940s American landscape of movie magazines, midwestern motels, suburban home decor, and educational philistinism. He writes in English, certainly, and beautifully grammatical English to boot, but it’s a strange, comic, terrible version of the language. When Humbert says, “I stopped [my car] in the shelter of the trees and abolished my lights to ponder the next move quietly,” the verb abolished is both absolutely accurate and absolutely wrong. This is why I find it so difficult to come to any settled conclusion about right and wrong, love and lust in Lolita: because the sentences themselves reinforce their ambiguities with such exactness.
Thus, with the rhythms of Lolita pounding in my grammatical synapses, I opened Lectures on Literature, burdened by my overcharged awe, pop-eyed and prepared for illumination. And what happened (at first) was more gratifying than I’d expected: I was flattered. “Curiously enough,” declared Nabokov, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”
But despite this delightful opening gambit, my star turned out to be a meteor, and fell. “This is the worst thing a reader can do,” announced N: “he identifies himself with a character in the book.”
Well. What can I say? What can anyone possibly say? Either I decide to agree with him, or I don’t. There is nothing, at this stage of my life, that I can do. For far too long, I’ve identified myself with Fanny Price and David Copperfield, with Natasha Rostov and Pierre Bezukhov. I can’t read like Nabokov: unlike him, I don’t have the slightest interest in drawing maps of the settings in Mansfield Park, nor do I revel in his plot-summary descriptions of the novel’s structural elements. Possibly such approaches would be invaluable for a fiction writer . . . but I am merely a fiction rereader, and I don’t want to change my ways.
My friend Thomas Rayfiel, who is himself a novelist, reminds me that Nabokov’s lectures were never meant for publication and that his teaching gigs were mostly a way to pay the bills. As soon as Lolita hit the big time, he quit his job. It’s also true that these lectures can be very funny, often inadvertently. As Tom remarks, Nabokov talks about Mansfield Park “as if he’d never heard of Jane Austen before.” Consider, for instance, comments such as this one:
We had to find an approach to Jane Austen and her Mansfield Park. I think we did find it and did have some degree of fun with her delicate patterns, with her collection of eggshells in cotton wool. But the fun was forced. We had to slip into a certain mood; we had to focus our eyes in a certain way. Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts. . . . However, I have tried to be very objective.
The dingbat jocularity of this passage is so funny and touching that I suppose I can forgive the writer for lambasting my brain. Really, the very idea that I have just used the word dingbat to describe a writer as skilled as Vladimir Nabokov is enough to make me forgive him almost anything.
And this is the essence of my point. When Nabokov claims, “It is clear that [Austen] disapproves of” the family’s play-acting venture in Mansfield Park, I can shout, “No, no! It’s only clear that Fanny disapproves.” And when he blunders on to aver that “there is no reason to suppose that Jane Austen’s sentiments do not parallel Fanny’s,” I can snap his book shut in disgust and go outside to hang laundry. But I can’t deny my lurking pleasure in his humanity. Yes, he was a real reader, and though he was tone-deaf to Austen, he considered her earnestly and with a cogitating joy in his own discoveries.
So what if he’s wrong? So what, for that matter, if I’m wrong? As writer and editor Wendy Lesser remarks, “nothing demonstrates how personal reading is more clearly than rereading does.” We rereaders go back, and back again, to the books we love because they challenge us—not as students, but as human beings splashing boisterously in the shallows of our own brilliance . . . and our own blinkered ignorance.