My Inspiration: Vladimir Nabokov

Sorcerer of cruelty

Published November 12, 1995 8:00PM (EST)

n an interview, Vladimir Nabokov was once asked to comment on the popular authorial truism that one's fictional characters can sometimes "take over" and dictate to the author the course of a story. In his supercilious dismissal of this whimsical idea, Nabokov described his characters as "galley slaves" -- a comment exuding the playful, haughty spirit that drove (and still drives) some critics nuts. Such critics condemn Nabokov's authorial voice as elitist, inhuman and finally cruel. And that is an assessment his "slaves" might well agree with, subjected as they were to excruciating and ridiculous fates delineated in exquisite language and sparkling, albeit twisted, comic narratives.

To a reader with a defensive turn of mind who is waiting to be told how to live or to be shown the Truth in a piece of fiction, the ruthless and rigorous complexity of Nabokov's work may seem cruel simply because it does not offer either of these services. Some readers apparently interpret the very beauty of his prose as cruel -- and there is a hyper-refinement, an airy, curiously high-pitched quality to its beauty that can feel cruel simply because it throws the whole beastly, mundane, plodding corporeality of human beings into such grotesque relief. Through this Apollonian oeuvre there frolic countless tiny nymphets -- most famously, Lolita Haze, with her dim eyes and big, bright mouth, her narrow-shouldered, hipless, insouciant grace. And therein also stump Mrs. Haze and her 30-ish sisters, with their gross emotional needs, their dumpy legs, their ghastly hips and boobs, the unbeautiful human personified with a fastidious shudder.

What such critics forget is that a certain kind of detachment permits the most intense feeling, and that intense feeling is not always moral. It is this detached, aerial view that allows a wide range of feeling in all its unpredictable, oscillating movement. A sad person who is so involved with his sadness that he mistakes it for reality will have a hard time seeing himself as anything but sad. For him, the sadness is not a feeling that he experiences, it is him. Similarly a writer who is completely engaged with the emotionality of her characters -- or even her own point of view -- is in danger of writing from a very small, static and even self-righteous position.

Sometimes I write from the point of view of characters whom I would dislike as people, not as a perverse exercise, but because this cracks the story open and makes me see it in a way I would not see it naturally. Not being locked into one set of feelings which you run the risk of mistaking for the Truth, you have greater and more intense access to all feeling states, including those you would never choose to act out. Such an accepting and at times dispassionate approach to feeling allows for an understanding of both tenderness and cruelty. Alongside the refinement and the cruelty, an unspeakable tenderness permeates Nabokov's work -- even, in the end, for Mrs. Haze, who cannot, after all, help being who she is. Nabokov once remarked that art is "beauty plus pity," and in his fiction, beauty and pity rub together mightily.

The recently-published Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf, $35.00) contains 65 samples of Nabokovia. All of them are interesting and many of them are small masterpieces, particularly those that evoke, with an exquisite interplay of flickering shadows, objects and corporeal beings, the frailty and absurdity of love and want.

From a student writer's point of view, the most fascinating story is perhaps the early "Sounds," less for its literary strength than for the pleasure of seeing, still gently breathing, the organic development of Nabokov's unique hybrid of aesthetics and feeling. Or rather, for how his sense of aesthetics and emotionality breathe through each other.

With its narrator's youthful rhapsodizing about Life, "Sounds" is about as close to the voice of a teenage Carlos Castaneda fan as Nabokov ever got (and perhaps closer than he wanted to get). But it is intelligent, finely-tuned rhapsodizing, describing an early experience of passion with a profound and glorious ambivalence. A young man enjoying a quiet love affair with a married woman suddenly realizes that "[she] alone is not my lover but the entire earth," and experiences an intense and subtly erotic understanding of his metaphysical connection with everything that lives -- all the while retaining his piquant sense of self. In such a state, even a friend's grief becomes a source of delight -- "I was radiant with his tears" -- because it is "happy as any moment or radiance is happy." Oblivious to this, his mistress tells him that she wants to run away with him. He responds with trivial talk about her cigarette case, and she realizes that he has said no. He rides off on his bike, still enrapt in his new vision, imagining that she will write to him and that he will not answer.

"Sounds" is about as close to the voice of a teenage Carlos Castaneda fan as Nabokov ever got (and perhaps closer than he wanted to get).

Superficially, this is about a blithe young man, selfishly obsessed with beauty and his own perceptions. But in a deeper way, the story is about a budding apprehension of life in all its layers, any of which can be experienced as beautiful and vital. On one hand, his desertion of the woman seems callow. But even in his detachment, he cherishes her: "It was delicious losing you. You went off, jerking angularity at the glass door. But a different you departed otherwise, opening your pale eyes under my joyous kisses." In these lines, the story bears the seed of a parallel universe in which the woman, realizing that the entire earth is also her lover, rises out of her sorrow to meet the narrator in his place of detached perception, if only to wave goodbye.

The frisson between a large, ecstatic vision and human-scale events, and his ability to inhabit both, characterizes all of Nabokov's work and is part of what gives it such an unusual, muscular poignancy. Far from being cold or inhuman, Nabokov's writing is suffused with a great joy that is supremely human, and that can take in all facets of being at once -- although many humans may never allow themselves to experience this. In his own words: "It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the nonego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner -- who is already dancing in the open."

By Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent collection is "Because They Wanted To."

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