Chess Problems

by | Jun 14, 2007 | Literature, Writers

In some ways, I wish I hadn’t read Strong Opinions, the volume of Nabokov interviews. Mostly, I guess, because he used to seem a lot more likable. The Nabokov of Speak, Memory, for instance, is a very engaging and clever intellectual with a hint of the raconteur. Not so the persona of the interviews. As I mentioned yesterday, he spends an awful lot of time talking about his dislikes. Sartre, Thomas Mann, and D. H. Lawrence, for instance, are sacred cattle he would like to see knocked off their pedestals. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing that myself. But then he dismisses Faulkner as ‘corncobby.’ Well, Faulkner is corncobby, but he also created any number of convincing and very human characters.

I think he’s jealous: a suggestion at which he would scoff were he alive to do so. But here’s the deal; although he is a master when it comes to using language, his characters don’t breathe. There are some exceptions. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is very nicely drawn. In Pnin, Pnin is priceless but everyone else is a caricature. Both books, as much as I admire them, remind me of Robin Williams movies, in which you are never allowed to forget that Williams is the star. Other characters are just straight men, there to feed him lines. What strikes me about Humbert Humbert and Pnin is that both, like Nabokov himself, are Old World gentlemen displaced to America. Tellingly, one way to get Nabokov’s goat is to suggest that his protagonists are autobiographical in any way. He’ll admit to giving them details out of his past, but not to giving them anything of his self.

Parenthetically, Nabokov frequently goes out of his way to cast every sort of aspersion on psychoanalysis, particularly the Freudian variety. Brings it up constantly.

But to get back to the Faulkner thing, in one interview Nabokov takes up the idea that characters sometimes take on lives of their own and even affect the course of the story in which they live. Our Russian finds this idea laughable, and has any number of unkind things to say about writers who claim this has happened to them. His own characters, he boasts, have always taken precisely the steps that he has plotted out for them. I’m not surprised. Because the more I read him, the more I notice that his characters don’t seem to have any life beyond whatever role they have in the plot. They are chess pieces, unable to deviate in any way from rules laid down in advance.

When Nabokov taught Ulysses he was famous for using a map of Dublin to show the trajectories of Bloom and Stephen over the course of the day. He automatically downgraded students if they referred to the chapters of the book by the episodes of The Odyssey to which they corresponded. He also thought that it was a waste of time, when it came to understanding the book, to learn anything about Irish history. At the same time, he is generally acknowledged to have been a popular and amusing lecturer. It certainly would have been interesting to have taken a class with him, but it’s just as well we missed each other by a few decades. I certainly would have flunked out.