Vladimir Nabokov, the exceptional, vivacious, singular American-transplanted-Russian novelist, was always quick to put down a contemporary writer (or a past writer, too). Recently I read an interview with Nabokov where he calls Saul Bellow “mediocre.” An astonishing insult. Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, to take one example, bristles with life embodied in many dozens of original lively phrasings and perceptions. In a vibrant American English. Or those first beautiful pages of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet where he sketches the main character’s personality while hinting at the book’s themes to come. I want to ask Nabokov, “If you call Bellow mediocre then what are your terms for judging talent?” What are Nabokov’s terms of comparison? The Nabokovian aristocrat comes out, perhaps. Just call everything “vulgar” and keep moving; seems to be VN’s M.O. But wait. There’s more: don’t comment about anything related to current events; to highlight social or historical context is vulgar. In one interview (or other) Nabokov states that courage is one of the highest human qualities. But if you disallow social context you void a huge arena of life wherein courage might be tested and displayed. No? Yes? Perhaps the aristocratic view maintains that human life is 90% waste and silliness? Not worth bothering about; a strange, jarring way of looking at life, that. Nabokov would deny his contemporaries any creative scope–much as V.S. Naipaul would deny them scope from the opposite end: contemporary writers–according to Naipaul–are not sufficiently socially engaged. (Naipaul has written that modern novelists are too self-involved, too inwardly glamorous for necessary social observation. As a result, the modern novel is used up, nearly dead, etc.)
Politically, we understand that Nabokov despises dictatorships and loves freedom. OK. Do we then bury our natural human curiosity about how dictatorships–or freedom, for that matter–come about? The history and the why? How to reconcile a perceptive original writer with a man who seems to live behind closed doors—figuratively speaking. In America the social vibe is strong along with the family squall. Must we oppose history, society, family, school, with the hillsides of mountains in which to chase butterflies? Nabokov is famous for his batch deletions of contemporary writers. What rankles in VN’s dismissiveness (“vulgar mediocrities”) is his lack of recognition that literature is built from the group up; its nature and development rises from a necessary social swell: language is its raison d’etre. Or does literature fall off trees? Individual writers, of course, make all the difference but Nabokov’s refusal to acknowledge the social packing of literature and influence across generations, gnaws. Are writers not a family of sorts? Whatever; they can, nabokovly, be dealt with by the wave of the hand. Vulgar. Mediocre. Nabokov presents a very cool character that you suspect couldn’t stand to share the spotlight with anyone famous. Whence come the sniffy attacks upon other writers, so ungenerous and spiteful; it must be fun to mumble, “topical trash,” from on high at everything that comes along? But for better or worse human beings are topical. Well VN’s aristocratic disdain only goes so far. I respect his writerly illumination enough to think of a dozen human occupations I would like to have had him investigate; or scenarios wherein his genius would illuminate. How about a main character as butcher or surgeon or racing jockey or farmer? Instead, we get Mr. Middle-aged obsesseser over 12-year old girls, Mr. Pervert–over and over again. VN too high to bend into the trashy topical quotidian? Or maybe I am one of Nabokov’s dull, plodding, philistine readers…I hope not.