I was assigned the folkloristic “Federigo,” about a gambler who tricks his way into heaven, worked hard on my English version — and then saw all my hopes dashed. It turned out that our McGraw-Hill editor had paid a vast sum for Nabokov’s “Ada,” believing that this overlong, overwrought novel would repeat the success of “Lolita.” Instead, it bombed and all the editor’s other contracts — including the Merimée — were canceled.
Oddly enough, my publishing misfortune spurred a fascination with Nabokov that continues to this day. While reading “Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor,” edited by Nabokov scholars Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, I mentally totted up the occasions I’d written about this Russian American master since his 1977 death at age 78. I’d reviewed Nabokov’s selected letters, all three volumes of his lectures on literature, his correspondence with critic Edmund Wilson, his last incomplete novel, “The Original of Laura” and both volumes of Brian Boyd’s magisterial biography, as well as “Nabokov in America” by Robert Roper. What’s more, I’d been invited to introduce a New Directions reprint of “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” and, more recently, the Folio Society’s “Lolita.”
You’d think this would be enough Nabokoviana for one lifetime, given that I’d even reviewed the dreadful “Lo’s Diary,” by Pia Pera. Surely, I told myself, “Think, Write, Speak” would consist mainly of archival leftovers — and yet I couldn’t resist devouring its 500 pages. Like Oscar Wilde or W.H. Auden, Nabokov fearlessly professes such “strong opinions” — the title of the previous collection of his nonfiction — that he’s always immense fun to read. Here, for instance, are just a few characteristic observations from this new book:
●“All my novels are inventions pure and simple. I am never interested in my characters. It is just a game and the playthings are put back into the box when I have finished.”
●“It [‘Lolita’] has a very moral moral: don’t harm children. Now, Humbert does. We might defend his feelings for Lolita, but not his perversity.”
●“To be a real reader, you have to reread a book. The first time, a book is new. It may be strange. Actually, it is only the second reading that matters.”
●“When I teach I always advise my students never to identify with characters. I tell them to stand aloof, so that they may feel the intrinsic merit of the artist. If they must identify, let them do so not with characters but with art.”
●“I have never been interested in commercial success; in other words, I’ve never sought to push my books. I’ve never written except for a single reader, Mr. Nabokov, for him alone.”
In “Think, Write, Speak” Nabokov regularly dismisses Dostoevsky, Zola, Dreiser, Faulkner, almost all Soviet writers (including Pasternak), Camus and Roth as artless and mediocre journalists, even as he praises the mastery of Shakespeare, Pushkin, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce, Proust and Updike. Interviewers are told, over and over, that he hates clubs, unions, causes, demonstrations, processions and recreational drugs, but most of all cruelty or brutality of any sort. “Lolita,” he repeatedly declares, is his favorite book and “Laughter in the Dark” his weakest.
Overall, there’s no doubt that “Think, Write, Speak” will chiefly appeal to the Nabokov completist. Still, any sensitive reader will linger over the beautiful sentences with which Nabokov enriches even his most casual prose. Consider this passage translated from a 1928 obituary for the critic Yuli Aykhenvald:
“I can see him as he modestly and shortsightedly makes his way through a crowded room, his head slightly tucked into his shoulders, his elbows pressed on his sides, and, having reached the person he has been looking for, suddenly stretches out his narrow hand and touches him by the sleeve with the most fleeting and lightest of gestures.”
Might Aykhenvald have partly inspired the hapless and lovable emigre professor of “Pnin”?
Rejecting all attempts to find messages or social commentary in his work, Nabokov insists that his carefully constructed fiction simply aims to elicit aesthetic bliss. Still, it can also be very funny, notably in his two finest novels, “Lolita” and the tricky, trapdoor laden “Pale Fire.” Not surprisingly, then, Nabokov periodically teases his interviewers. When an Italian journalist asks him to account for the extraordinary success of “Lolita,” the straight-faced author replies:
“I don’t know if you have noticed, but there are in ‘Lolita’ several passages that suggest — how shall I put it?— a love affair between an adult and a child. Well, sometimes I wonder if those passages do not lure a certain type of reader, who is morbidly attracted by what he thinks are erotic images, into reading at least half of the novel. I realize the idea is rather extravagant; yet maybe something of the kind happened to my poor innocent little book.”
As Nabokov elsewhere declares in “Think, Write, Speak”: “All writers that are worth anything are humorists.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THINK, WRITE, SPEAK
Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy
Knopf. 527 pp. $30