Monday, March 06, 2006

Revisiting Nabokov

I randomly pulled Despair off the shelf last night and began re-reading it. I first read it more than a decade ago (it was my second Nabokov, just after Invitation to a Beheading and before Lolita), and I seem to have virtually no memory of the book (I have some vague recall of a man sitting on a bench).

Two brief observations: First, now that I'm more familiar with Nabokov's critical biases, the bits on the different ways to narrate a story are quite amusing. Chapter three opens with "How shall we begin this chapter? I offer several variations to choose from" (reminding me of the opening of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds), after which the narrator presents the variations along with some literary criticism of the forms....

Second, I also re-read Nabokov's forward and am reminded of how droll his introductions and forwards were. I remember, too, that he always seemed to be at pains to, for example, attack Freud in passing and the novels of ideas, and attempts to find ideas or messages in his novels, among other common themes. When I was much younger and just starting out reading serious fiction, I gobbled up Nabokov's pronouncements as gospel, fairly uncritically. Over time, I'd like to think my critical faculties have improved, and there has been some divergence (for example, I once thought his view of translation was self-evidently correct, but now I find it strident and unhelpfully inflexible--I anticipate a future post about this, involving some intriguing stuff from Harry Mathews' essays on translation...) Nonetheless, I enjoy reading his Lectures on Literature, finding it helpfully illuminating.

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