Vladimir Nabokov’s book on Nikolai Gogol is my favorite sort of thing: one writer I love writing about another writer we both love. And I loved it. Nabokov is a joy to read, period, and his insights about Gogol were helpful in articulating the swirling mess of thoughts I had about him. But if Nabokov is an intimidating writer of fiction (which is a stronger word than I would use), he is much more so writing about fiction.
He has tastes, he knows what they are, and he has no problem putting them up as simply correct. He is harsh, he pulls no punches, and his disdain for any number of things is right there on the surface, totally unhidden and unvarnished. E.g.:
There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions. It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod…leave me completely indifferent.
Also unhidden is the scorn for the wrong kind of reader:
It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a “true story.” Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself? Or is something added to the poor strength of our imagination when we know that a tangible fact is at the base of the “fiction” we mysteriously despise? Or taken all in all, have we here that adoration of the truth which makes little children ask the story-teller “Did it really happen?” and prevented old Tolstoy in his hyperethical stage from trespassing upon the rights of the deity and creating, as God creates, perfectly imaginary people? …
I have a lasting grudge against those who like their fiction to be educational or uplifting, or national, or as healthy as maple syrup and olive oil, so that is why I keep harping on this rather futile side of The Government Inspector question.
This sort of thing gives me a lot of discomfort. First, I abase myself before true genius. And I also note that Nabokov has an enormous amount of that self-confidence that comes seemingly so easily to men (whom I’m not intimidated by, but cannot mimic) and the upper classes (whom I am intimidated by, despite my best efforts). And so much of Nabokov’s particular critique in this case revolves around a concept tied very closely to class issues: the idea of poshlost’ (or, here, poshlust).
Poshlust is one of these untranslatable concepts and important to Gogol’s work. Some English words in the nearby semantic space include “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high falutin’, in bad taste…inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack.” In the realm of literature, poshlust does not apply to actual trash, but to “the best sellers, the ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’ novels; it is these ‘elevated and powerful’ books.” In other words, any amount of your average, garden-variety “literary fiction.” And the real damnation of it all:
The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention ‘on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day’ is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.*
So what is poshlust but tawdry, bourgeois taste, and who can be the arbiter of real taste other than someone very much like a Vladimir Nabokov? How is it possible, even for those not infected with appreciationism, to trust oneself?
Because as much as you might want to write this all off as the exercise of an ego beyond all reasonable bounds, there is a small problem with that: he is right, about pretty much everything. And that’s after I’ve stripped out (most of) the class shame and resentment and general self-abasement of the student. So many of these were already my ideas, both about Gogol and about literature, and despite certain matters of taste (I still like folklore and rollicking yarns; sorry, I am hopelessly tawdry). I don’t disagree with Nabokov about, say, the purpose of fiction, as many would. I am completely with him here:
Gogol’s play is poetry in action, and by poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words. True poetry of that kind provokes—not laughter and not tears—but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude—and a writer may well be proud of himself if he can make his readers, or more exactly some of his readers, smile and purr that way.
I know that smile and purr. Here I am rewarded for being “the right kind of reader,” and reminded that I do know what does it for me. And rewarded further when he describes the course of a Gogol story in terms even I could articulate:
So to sum up: the story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.
I suppose I could simply say that reading Nabokov on fiction is as rewarding and humbling as reading his novels; the experiences are not dissimilar. But I was much more unsettled after this. There are so many obstacles. I cannot understand Russian literature without speaking Russian—or, let’s be real, being Russian—I cannot understand any of it without understanding my own feelings about fiction more deeply, and being able to justify them; and even after all that I cannot trust myself or my own judgment. This is the periodic problem that stalls my blogging. I will continue to fend it off and write the muddled mediocrities of a poor poshlyáchki.
*Another, and an amazing, example of his real damn-you’re-so-rightness is the takedown in this section of a (made-up?) review of such a book, through a devastating close reading. An editing as well as a writing superhero.