What made the great writer? “By the age of 14 or 15 I had read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French”.

A scholar, lecturer, butterfly scientist, novelist, poet, short story writer, trilingual translator of French, Russian, English, chess problem solver, Cambridge goalie, that went from his aristocratic St Petersburg in 1917 to Berlin, Cambridge, Cornell and Montreux Switzerland. An awe-striking man of letters.

The perfectly polished prose of Vladimir Nabakov. His name, by the way, is pronounced Na-bo-kov with stress on the middle syllable per his poem: “The querulous gawk of/A heron at night/Prompts Nabokov/To write.” Na-bo-kov then, is wonderful because his spoken word is so awful, and his humour arrogant; his work as he would hate it called – an outlet.

His English exists in the patterns of writing that are separable from the inevitably messy business of speaking. His worldview is dated, as is his indifference to people or peoples, and to the primary ‘social problems’. For privileged him, pretty images and lilting sounds are all that mattered. An honest ivory tower.

Strong Opinions is an edited collection of interviews with Vladimir Nabokov across the years. An expert on writing if ever there was one, and strong opinions he does provide–in abundance: God, art, science, fiction and truth, film, the worth of writers, and spacetime are all subject to scrutiny. Needless to say, it is a very good read. Nabokov’s opinions are sometimes blatant and at other times subtle. Some are discernible from his no nonsense Lectures on Literature, tender Letters To Vera and his little known (because, intimidatingly brilliant) Notes On Prosody

Here is an archaeology of his reading:

Who He Calls Genius

  1. William Shakespeare: “the finest verbal texture ever”
  2. Alexander Pushkin: an absolute genius
  3. John Milton: an absolute genius
  4. Leo Tolstoy: Anna Kerenin supreme masterpiece of 19th-century prose
  5. James Joyce: Ulysses first place masterpiece of 20th-century prose
  6. Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis 2nd place
  7. Andrei Bely: St Petersburg, 3rd
  8. Marcel Proust: First half of ‘fairy tale’ In Search of Lost Time Vol 1, 4th

Who He Thinks Great

Charles Dickens: great

Jane Austen: great

Anton Chekhov: talent, but not genius–‘talant’ in Russian is more precise.

Nikolai Gogal: both dire and brilliant in his writings

Who He Thinks First-rate

  • Herman Melville: adore him, though quite a strange fellow, would have loved to see him
  • H.G. Wells: undervalued and by far the better Victorian writer than his contemporaries
  • Gustave Flaubert: a favourite since young
  • John Updike: one of the best talents of recent years by far
  • J.D Salinger: one of the best talents of recent years by far
  • Jorge Luis Borges: spacious labyrinths and infinite talent
  • Alain Robbe-Grillet
  • Samuel Beckett: writer of lovely novellas and wretched plays
  • John Barth: a skilled and talented writer, and friend
  • Henri Bergson: a favourite since young
  • Lewis Carroll: intriguing and talented weirdo
  • Norman Douglas: great love of boyhood and still
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: for the poetry
  • Osip Mandelshtam: a better Soviet writer
  • Alexander Blok: the best Soviet writer

 

Good but Immature

  • Edgar Allen Poe: enchanted but disillusioned by, would enjoy watching his bizarre wedding
  • Ernest Hemingway: writer for books for boys but has his moments
  • Joseph Conrad: a worse writer for books for boys, utterly lost charm now
  • G.K Chesterton
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Oscar Wilde: a rank moralist
  • Rupert Brooke

Second Rate to Plain Awful

  • T.S Eliot: not quite first rate, certainly overvalued
  • Louis-Ferdinand Celine: appears good but is untamed
  • Sigmund Freud: ridiculous
  • Ezra Pound: ridiculous
  • Brecht, Bertolt: nonentity
  • Somerset Maugham: overdone sensational travel stories
  • William Faulkner: ridiculous
  • Albert Camus: his writing is nothing
  • John Galsworthy: mediocrity
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky: messy sensationalist
  • Thomas Mann: silly and mad about perineums
  • Henry James: not observant enough and a tad arcane
  • Jean Paul Sartre: a good trier but tired failure, of “cafe philosophy”
  • E.M. Forster: read one book and hated it
  • D.H Lawrence; silly, immature, cliché
  • Cervantes: Don Quixote, a bad old book
  • Saul Bellow “a laughable mediocrity”  
  • Boris Pasternak
  • Thedore Dreiser
  • Maxim Gorky
  • Romain Holland

Some Classic Poet remarks

  • An adolescent fondness for the French symbolists: Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire
  • Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey is good
  • Samuel Butler is bad
  • Andrew Marvell a true artist
  • Charles Cotton brilliant
  • Matthew Prior, pedestrian
  • Jonathan Swift a tedious doggerel
  • Samuel Johnson a plain line poet
  • Coleridge and Wordsworth brilliant
  • Byron: Good but lacking
  • Keats unjudged–probably taken for ‘a given’
  • Browning and Tennyson brilliant
  • Matthew Arnold a fake “poetaster”
  • William Morris a minor poet
  • William Cowper a poor soul, rarely good

Curiously, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh and many others go unmentioned–not curiously, so much as Nabokov chose not to read or mention them. He came upon Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot long after the fashion; was unmoved. Had lunch with Graham Greene and once lectured to James Joyce, but he does not say what words were spoken to either (other than Joyce had a fondness, apparently, for sauerkraut), nor give an opinion on Greene’s stiff upper lip realism.

Vladimir Nabokov’s taste is formed by incomparably skilled knowledge of poetics and by personal egotism. He adores technicality, what he calls “the excitement of science and the patience of poetry” but he also enjoys works that are more similar to his own–Dostoevsky is the opposite so he detests, Karl Marx is the opposite with his social intent so he detests, Sigmund Freud is charlatan that invades the freedom of mind so detests.

The secrets of his success? Be enormously privileged, gifted, read an awful lot, have servants do all menial work (say, live in a hotel), and embrace poetry in this world, with an eyeful obsession for words and edits.

“Why do I write? Why, for something great to read, that is all.” Could be a quote from Nabokov.