Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

Down the helical stairs of the bus that drew up came a pair of charming silk legs: we know of course that this has been worn threadbare  by the efforts of a thousand male writers, but nevertheless down they came, these legs – and deceived: the face was revolting. Fyodor climbed aboard, and the conductor, on the open top deck, smote its plated side with his palm to tell the driver he could move on. Along this side and along the toothpaste advertisement upon it swished the tips of soft maple twigs – and it would have been pleasant to look down from above on the gliding street ennobled by perspective, if it were not for the everlasting, chilly thought: there he is, a special, rare and as yet un-described and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied by God knows what, rushing from lesson to lesson, wasting his youth on a boring and empty task, on the mediocre teaching of foreign languages – when he has his own language, out of which he can make anything he wants – a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds. What he should be really teaching was that mysterious and refined thing  which he alone – out of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, perhaps even a million men –knew how to teach: for example – multilevel thinking: you look at a person and you see him as clearly as if he were fashioned of glass and you were a glass blower, while at the same time without in the  least impinging upon that clarity you notice some trifle on the side – such as the similarity of the telephone receiver’s shadow to a huge, slightly crushed ant, and (all this simultaneously) the convergence is joined by a third thought – the memory of a sunny evening at a Russian small railway station; i.e., images having no rational connection with the conversation you are carrying on while your mind runs around the outside of your own words and along the inside of those of your interlocutor. Or: a piercing pity – for the tin box in a waste spot, for the cigarette card for the series National Costumes trampled in the mud, for the poor, stray word repeated by the kind-hearted, weak, loving creature who has just been scolded for nothing – for all the trash of life which by means of a momentary alchemic distillation -  the “royal experiment” is turned into something valuable and eternal. Or else: the constant feeling that our days here are only pocket money, farthings clinking in the dark, and that somewhere is stocked the real wealth, from which life should know how to get dividends in the shape of dreams, tears of happiness, distant mountains. All this and much more (beginning with the very rare  and painful so-called “sense of the starry sky,” mentioned it seems in only one treatise (Parker’s Travels of the Spirit), and ending with professional subtleties in the sphere of serious literature), he would have been able to teach, and teach well, to anyone who wanted it, but no one wanted it – and no one could, but it was a pity, he would have charged a hundred marks an hour, the same as certain professors of music. And at the same time he found it amusing to refute himself : all this was nonsense, the shadows of nonsense, presumptuous dreams. I am simply a poor young Russian selling the surplus from a gentleman’s upbringing, while scribbling verses in my spare time, that’s the total of my little immortality. But even this shade of multifaceted thought, this play of the mind with its own self, had no prospective pupils. 

[ .  .  .  .]

.  .  . reviews poured. Professor Anuchin of Prague University (a well-know public figure, a man of shining moral purity and of great personal courage – the same Professor Anuchin who in 1922, not long before his deportation from Russia, when some leatherjackets had come to arrest him but became interested in his collection of ancient coins and were slow in taking him away, had calmly said, pointing to his watch: “Gentlemen, history does not wait.”) printed a detailed analysis of [my] Life of Chernyshevski in an émigré magazine appearing in Paris.

“Last year [he wrote], a remarkable book came out by Professor Otto Lederer of Bonn University, Three Despots  (Alexander the Misty, Nicholas the Chill, and Nicholas the Dull.) Motivated by a passionate love for the freedom of the human spirit and a burning hatred for its suppressors, Dr. Lederer  in certain of his appraisals was unjust – taking no account at all, for instance, of that national Russian fervor which so powerfully gave body to the symbol of the throne; but excessive zeal, and even blindness, in a process of exposing evil is always more understandable and forgivable than the least mockery – no matter how witty it may be -  of that which public opinion feels to be objectively good. However, it is precisely this second road, the road of eclectic mordancy, that has been chose by Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev in his interpretation of the life and works of N.G. Chernyshevski.”

“The author has undoubtedly acquainted himself thoroughly and in his own way conscientiously with his subject; undoubtedly, also, he has a talented pen – certain ideas he puts forward, and juxtapositions of ideas, are undoubtedly shrewd; but with all this his book is repellant. Let us try to examine calmly this impression.

“A certain epoch has been taken and one of its representatives chosen. But has the author assimilated the concept of “epoch’? No. First of all one senses in him absolutely no consciousness of that classification of time, without which history turns into an arbitrary gyration of multicolored spots, into some kind of impressionistic picture with a walking figure upside down against a green sky that does not exist in nature. But this device (which destroys, by the way, any scholarly value of the work in question, in spite of its swaggering erudition) does not, nevertheless, constitute the author’s chief fault. His chief fault is in the manner in which he portrays Chernyshevki.

“It is completely unimportant that Chernyshevski understood less about poetry than a young esthete today. It is completely unimportant that in his philosophical conceptions Chernyshevski kept aloof from those transcendental subtleties which please Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev. What is important is that, whatever Chernyshevski’s views may have been on art and science, they represented the Weltanschauug of the most progressive men of his era, and were moreover indissolubly linked to the development of social ideas, with their ardent, beneficial, activating force. It is in this aspect, in this sole true light, that Chernyshevski’s system of thought acquires a significance which far transcends the sense of those groundless arguments – unconnected in any way with the epochs of the sixties – which Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsv uses venomously ridiculing his hero.

“But he makes fun, not only of his hero: he also makes fun of his reader. How else can one qualify the fact that among the well-known authorities of Chernyshevski a nonexistent authority is cited, to whom the author pretends to appeal? In a certain sense it would be possible if not to forgive then at least to understand scientifically scoffing at Chernyshevski, if Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev were a heated supporter of those whom Chernyshevski attacked. It would at least be a point of view, and reading the book the reader would make a constant adjustment for the author’s partisan approach, in that way arriving at the truth. But the pity is that with Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev there is nothing to adjust to and the point of view is ‘everywhere and nowhere’; not only that, but as soon as the reader, as he descends the course of a sentence, thinks he has at last sailed into a quiet backwater, into the realm of ideas which may be contrary to those of Chernyshevski but are apparently shared by the author – and therefore can serve as a basis for the reader’s judgment and guidance – the author gives him an unexpected fillip and knocks the imaginary prop from under him, so that he is once more unaware as to  whose side Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev is on in  his campaign against Chernyshevski – whether he is on the side of the advocates of art for art’s sake, or of the government,  of some other of Chernyshevski’s enemies who the reader does not know. As far as jeering at the hero himself is concerned, here the author passes all bounds. There is no detail too repulsive for him to distain. He will probably reply that all these details are to be found In the ‘Diary’  of the young Chernyshevski; but there they are in their place, in their proper environment, in the correct order and perspective, among many other thoughts and feelings which are much more valuable. But the author has fished out and put together precisely these, as if someone had tried to restore the image of the person by making an elaborate collection of his combings, fingernail pairings, and bodily excretions.

“In other words the author is sneering throughout the whole of his book at the personality of one of the purest and most valorous sons of liberal Russia – not to speak of the passing kicks with which he rewards other progressive Russian thinkers, a respect for whom is in our consciousness an immanent part of their historical essence. In his book, which lies absolutely outside the humanitarian tradition of Russian literature and therefore outside literature in general, there are no actual untruths (if one does not count the fictitious ‘Stannolyubski’ already mentioned, two or three doubtful details, and a few slips of the pen), but  that ‘truth’ which it contains is worse than the most prejudiced lie, for such truth goes indirect contradiction to that noble and chaste truth (the absence of which deprives history of what the great Greeks called ‘tropotos’) which is one of the inalienable treasures of Russian social thought. In our day, thank God, books are not burned by bonfire, but I must confess that if such a custom were still in existence, Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s book could justifiably be considered the first candidate for fueling the public square.”

After that Koncheyev had his say in the literary annual The Tower.  .  . 


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