“Some Unsuspected Author”
Just as I finished writing this book, I learned—or thought I learned—that someone else had already written it. For, while reading novelist Martin Amis’s collection of essays (which I’d bought without knowing a thing about them, except that the volume was light enough to carry on a long train trip), I came across his review of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, a collection of the writer’s posthumously published university lectures on works by Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Stevenson. According to Amis, Nabokov’s goal in these lectures was “to instil a love of literature by the simple means of revealing his own love.” He devised these talks because “he wanted to teach people how to read.”
One of the novels under discussion was Austen’s Mansfield Park; and as soon as I began to imagine what Nabokov might have to say about Fanny Price, I was seized with both fear and delight, in near equal proportions—a confused reaction 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 Nabokov was a specialist on it, for he 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 own words moot.
Oddly, at the moment I stumbled into Amis’s review, I was already enmeshed in Nabokov’s toils; for I’d just finished my tenth or so rereading of Lolita, a book I’d first encountered as a young teenager, when my mother, who was working on her master's degree in English, 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. I was disappointed: it 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, be realistic: 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:
We climbed long grades and rolled downhill again, and heeded speed limits, and spared slow children, and reproduced in sweeping terms the black wiggles of curves on their yellow shields, and no matter how and where we drove, the enchanted interspace slid on intact, mathematical, mirage-like, the viatic counterpart of a magic carpet.
This is English, certainly, and beautifully grammatical 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; and this, I think, is why I find it so difficult, when reading the novel, to come to any settled conclusion about right and wrong, love and perversion: because the sentences themselves reinforce the conundrum of ambiguity 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. “There are . . . at least two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case,” announced N. “So let us see which one of the two is the right one to use in reading a book.”
First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature. . . . A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book.
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 Natasha Rostov and Pierre Bezukhov, with Fanny Price and David Copperfield. I can’t read like Nabokov: 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 an approach 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 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, but I have often forced myself to see some bit of precious translucent china through the eyes of an expert and have discovered a vicarious bliss in the process. Let us not forget that there are people who have devoted to Jane all their lives, their ivy-clad lives. I am sure that some readers have a better ear for Miss Austen than I have. 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? We rereaders go back, and back again, to these books 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.
I sit at my desk now and wonder how to end this book. Who, of all the writers on my shelves, requires the last word? I lean back in my chair and look up, and there stands Walt Whitman, leaning against his doorway, waiting for me . . . dear striding, loud-mouthed Walt, who soaks up the world like ink—its stories and music halls, its farms and harbors, its sermons and whispers and shouts: who fearlessly turns the world into the palette of himself. And Walt does have something to say to me, and to you, as I should have known he would:
I doubt it not—then more, far more;
In each old song bequeath’d—in every noble page or text,
(Different—something unreck’d before—some unsuspected author,)
In every object, mountain, tree, and star—in every birth and life,
As part of each—evolv’d from each—meaning, behind the ostent,
A mystic cipher waits infolded.