I’ve noted before that “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,” and this is no less the case when the subject is Flaubert rather than Gogol. His essay on Madame Bovary collected in the Lectures on Literature is excellent; any reader of Flaubert’s novel should read it as well.
Nabokov is very hard on Emma—as he is on nearly everyone, of course. (Readers who find Homais one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel may not be pleased with what VN has to say about that vulgar man.) Sometimes I feel like he is a meaner Nicole. Emma is a bad reader because she identifies herself with characters. I don’t think this is good reading, but I would hardly be so impolitic. Of course, in the world of litblogs such a statement is almost sacrilege; reading is good, and anything that helps anyone enjoy reading is good, and sympathetic characters are very important to the enjoyment of most people, and women especially are always in need of the right kind of characters to identify with, and such. I don’t believe most of this to begin with—I don’t know if I would go around saying reading is “good” in some free-floating, universalized way, I don’t think there’s much reason to encourage anyone and everyone to read no matter how unexceptional the reading material, I’ve never cared much about sympathetic characters, and I’ve hated on the ladyfiction issue before.
And yet despite my general agreement, not to mention my unconditional love for the author of Ada and Pale Fire, I remain needled by the relentless anti-philistinism. If Flaubert is cold and heartless toward philistines, Nabokov is positively icy. “Books are not written for those who are fond of poems that make one weep or those who like noble characters in prose as Léon and Emma think. Only children can be excused for identifying themselves with the characters in a book, or enjoying badly written adventure stories; but this is what Emma and Léon do.” No, again, I don’t disagree, but it seems downright cruel to pour on so much disdain, and entirely unnecessary to characterize scientific and cultural philistinism, multiple times, as “evil” (though I suspect VN’s personal history and the notable references to Marxist cultural philistinism may be at work here too, which makes it more understandable). I am not a nice person, but I am nicer than this—or, once again, less confident, not being a very fortunate genius myself.
One place where Nabokov is not cruel, though, is with Charles. This made me very happy, as I had a lot of sympathy for Charles, and felt that despite all his mediocrity it was his genuineness that redeemed him—whether Flaubert thought so or not, of which I wasn’t sure. Nabokov singles Charles out as “the pleasing paradox of Flaubert’s fairy tale: the dullest and most inept person in the book is the only one who is redeemed by a divine something in the all-powerful, forgiving, and unswerving love that he bears Emma, alive or dead.” I can’t forgive Charles the botched operation on poor Hyppolite, but how much do I really care that he doesn’t appreciate the opera—how much does that matter?
And that’s the question both Flaubert and Nabokov leave me with, to some extent. It should go without saying that the (hopefully deeper than Emma’s) appreciate of art and literature is important to me and to my happiness. But these are consumption goods for me, along with dozens of others. Some are more or less transcendent, others more or less conventional. And I dispute that happiness and enjoyment of the authentic variety come exclusively from the transcendent. I may crave it as Emma does, but I reject such a rejection of material goods as a vehicle of comfort and happiness and I have zero desire to be so judgmental regarding those who seem to prefer comforts of the material variety. This anti-philistinism itself seems like an aesthetic choice to me and not some kind of high moral virtue.
Ah, but I suspect we are taking things too personally here, and that all my problems must come from bad reading—too-close identification with Emma leading to insecurity and defensiveness!