Did you know that for the penurious price of $3,093.97 you too can become the owner of a first edition copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair!
In the “Foreword” to the revised 1965 edition, Nabokov in fact blustered that he possessed the sole surviving copy, since the book bombed in a very particular way, the whole stock up in smoke when from the sky a German bomber issued a blistering review.
For a long time, it was lost in another way, for Nabokov’s extensive revision of the 1937 edition, itself a translation from Russian into English, has supplanted it and sentenced it to living as a shadow to its spawn, a susurrus circulating amongst scholars. This unavailability displeases me since when it comes to my dabbling as an amateur historian of the novel I realize with every passing day that I’m at heart a Tainist. Hippolyte Taine developed the theory that the individual writer’s work can be understood by the study of race, milieu, and moment; a sum analysis of these factors explained the work, as if its birth were sociologically foretold or inevitable. For him, art was a straightjacket society imposed on the self, leaving no room for individual talent; man was but a molecule going through societal motions. Such view reduces any book to a simulacrum of the society it sprung from. Although what matters to me in a book is its language, the Tainist in me likes to understand time and place precisely to isolate what’s individual, because the Romantic in me prefers even more to revere rebels who rowed against the rocks the sirens of selling out called them to. Without the earlier text, we risk missing out Nabokov’s singularity in relation to his contemporaries.
Ideally, one day we’ll be blessed with a critical edition with both texts side by side like butterfly wings, but until then I can only get some pointers from a 1968 essay by Carl R. Proffer, “From Otchaianie to Despair”. Sadly, it muddles as much as it clarifies, since this comparatist analysis pits the original Russian text against the definitive version. Summing up Proffer’s finds, the revision entailed more wordplay, fresher metaphors, more Dostoyevsky mockery, and more sex. Post-Lolita scandal Nabokov was gleefully riding on his notoriety as a peddler of naughty content. But I found the following passage intriguing: “The erotic additions are related to the theme of madness. Nabokov makes other changes in his text which intensify the impression that the narrator is insane and suggest, before the revelation of the murder plan, that he has criminal intentions.” From this I can’t glean how steadfastly these themes were stitched onto the silk of the earlier version. For Proffer, “Despair is fundamentally the same novel as Otchaianie, even though a few new yellow signposts have been placed along the paths of Nabokov's dark wood.” One thing is clear: the plot follows Hermann Karlovich, a Russian émigré, as he hatches a scheme to collect an insurance claim that hinges on murdering a vagrant called Felix whom Hermann is sure is his lookalike.
Although Hermann’s nutty narrator status is the naos of the novel, I’d also like to know how far back Nabokov built him up as a botched writer. For me, Despair is a masterful example of what I call the “amateur novelist novel”, a novel whose narrator broadcasts with brio the bungling brisance with which he blows up the novel he thinks he’s brilliantly writing; but this ruse is part of a sophisticated game the author is playing with the reader, for this amateur novelist’s amateurship stems from his refusal to surrender a specimen of a typical novel.
The amateur novelist’s incipit is a declaration of ineptness: “It may look as though I do not know how to start. Funny sight, the elderly gentleman who comes lumbering by, jowl flesh flopping, in a valiant dash for the last bus, which he eventually overtakes but is afraid to board in motion and so, with a sheepish smile, drops back, still going at a trot. Is it that I dare not make the leap?” He smirks superiorly at the base business of writing: “Dull work recounting all this. Bores me to death.” Being a narcissist, he lacks also the impersonal pose that persuades us to perceive text as a phenomenon that sprung intact instead of being a patchwork of discrete scribblings: “I think I ought to inform the reader that there has just been a long interval.” Ignorant of the rules, or in Hermann’s case too arrogant to care about them, the amateur novelist doesn’t acknowledge that references to the real-life process of literary production should stay outside, since they spoil the spell of make-believe. Of course, somewhere in the real world an author left his desk to go to the toilet, answer the door, close a window, check his mail box, pet his obligatory cat, have meals, sleep, but in the typical, well-made novel that fact is as secret as Hermann’s machinations. If such unusual sentences belong to 1937, Nabokov was way ahead of his peers.
The amateur novelist novel does have a long history, but not a long acceptance. It goes back at least to Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, a book so badly narrated amidst a debris of digressions that Shandy sabotages his entrance in his own book. Almeida Garrett, a Portuguese novelist infatuated with Sterne, brought chattering intensity to the narrator of Travels in my Homeland, a plotless thematic shandygaff. I’ll quote the opening lines of Chapter III:
“I am assuredly about to disappoint the benevolent reader, my inescapable sincerity is about to lose me whatever good opinion I had earned in the first two chapters of this interesting journey.
What, after all, did he expect of me now, after I had dared to declare myself a writer in these times of romanticism, this century of powerful feelings, of descriptions made in broad, incisive strokes, engraved upon the soul and throbbing with blood in the heart?
At the end of the preceding chapter we stopped at the door of an inn. What inn should it be, now, in the year 1843, under the very nose of Victor Hugo, with Doctor Faust running round in our heads and the Mystères de Paris in everyone's hands?
Can today's taste stand Cervantes's classical posada, with its fat, ponderous mesonero, its muleteers with their jokes and the blanket-tossing of some poor simpleton of a Sancho - Sancho, the invisible king of our century, on whose behalf kings reign and law givers decree and deice what is just?! Sancho tossed in a blanket by low muleteers?! Not in our day.”
There converge here many features of Despair: direct appeal to the “reader”; awareness of book construction (“preceding chapter”); allusions to popular fiction (Mystères de Paris is father to the detective novels Nabokov parodies); and reusing clichés by pointing them out ironically. Machado de Assis, a reader of both Sterne and Garett, bestowed many of these features upon The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, the closest the 19c novel got to being Nabokovian.
The amateur novelist novel is rare and reproved because it ridicules the novel form from within, because it exposes the fiction of novels having a fixed form, and because it undermines the philosophical underpinning of the novel, its pretension to realism. We know since Descartes that only detachment will do if we want to arrive at clear and distinct ideas. But Hermann complains: “My hands tremble, I want to shriek or to smash something with a bang… This mood is hardly suitable for the bland unfolding of a leisurely tale. My heart is itching, a horrible sensation. Must be calm, must keep my head.” To work himself up means also to write the world up, to stray from the golden mean. Laymen like me thank science popularizers for the bland unfolding of their didacticism; it has its place, although not in an artistic, comic tale of madness and murder: I expect panache, purple prose, coloratura, lyricism. Hermann wants to abide by the style good taste imposes upon writers; only by keeping his head can he enter a state of detachment, I daresay objectivity, which means seeing the world from outside it, on an impossible perch of abstraction, like a philosopher or scientist, instead of being passionately held to its juicy pith. The scientist-like serene writer subsumes himself from the work; he effaces himself whereas the funny faces the amateur makes at the reader stain the page with smudges of subjectivity. That is not conducive to the novel’s real goal: “Don’t quite see why I write in this vein”, groans Hermann, implying that they, like bodies, have veins with proper functions. When Nabokov was starting, that meant enforcing “realism”, a no less artificial vein to write in, but with better rep. But the amateur novelist’s ineptness is a smokescreen for his holy fool wisdom, and he knows that typical novels are a mirific mirage.
We can also feel out the contours of the contents of the 1937 edition thanks to Jean-Paul Sartre, described in the “Foreword” as the “Communist reviewer” who “devoted in 1939 a remarkably silly article to the French translation of Despair.” Although Sartre has been massively translated into English, this infamous put-down had to wait until 2010. (Last year, it was reprinted in an affordable volume titled On American Fiction.) Sartre detested Despair for the reasons I dote upon it. Here’s one sentence we can be sure was in the older version: “From the end of 1914 to the middle of 1919 I read exactly one thousand and eighteen books … kept count of them.” Sartre remarked: “I’m afraid Mr. Nabokov, like his hero, has read too much.” The attributes that make Despair a landmark, the amateur novelist novel tropes, are the same that led Sartre to later disparagingly call it an “anti-novel”. Here’s a no-no the typical novel must abide by: no books about books. The paradox of the amateur novelist novel or anti-novel is that it knows too much about the novel; a traveler can’t walk into an inn without alluding to Cervantes’ posada; Hermann can’t double-cross his double without mentioning Dusty’s The Double. For Sartre, this encyclopedic self-awareness had no place in a novel; Hermann, out of a slanted subjectivity that turned an unsimilar stranger into his mirror image, made his perfect crime destroy itself, “like the novel.”
Sartre, a Dusty fanboy, also took umbrage at Nabokov singling out the dour Russian for derision. It even struck him as a sort of parricide, since Hermann belongs to the stirp of Dusty’s characters, “those intelligent and rigid maniacs, always proud and always humiliated, who wrestle with themselves in the hell of reasoning, who mock everything and constantly struggle to justify themselves, and whose proud and false confessions let there shine between the two wide gaps an insoluble disorder. But Dostoyevsky believed in his characters.” This is the crux. “Nabokov doesn’t believe in his, nor, in fact, in the art of the novel.” Sartre also believes in characters, especially in the fact that novels show us characters in action, and narrators should remain invisible and let characters reveal themselves unburdened by extraneous commentary. Whoever brings attention to the puppeteer pulling the strings, like Hermann, is clearly misusing the novel, that extraordinary technology for putting us in touch with authentic life. Worse, as a bookworm, Mr. Nabokov is a bookish boor, lost in the pit of literary sterility, aka pastiche and parody: “He doesn’t hide that he uses Dostoyevsky’s processes, but, at the same time, he ridicules them, presenting them, in the course of narration itself, as old-fashioned and indispensable ‘stockphrases’”. Like the poor taste in pointing out the posada’s prehistory. “He mocks the artifices of the classic novel, but ends up not using other ones.” Cackling in the void, as a novelist he’s deemed himself “superior” to the novels he wrote, and so why did he write them in the first place? If anything, this was an exemplum of lifeless “wise literature”, as Sartre derisively called it.
Nabokov was wrong in pegging Sartre as a Communist reviewer, although I understand the temptation to since by 1965 Sartre was the darling of the international Left. But in 1939 he was still a philosopher concerned with disseminating the doctrine of Existentialism in France, after having learned it from Heidegger. At the time, espousing Existentialism exposed one as a fascist, even a Nazi, because Heidegger’s ties to Germany’s Nazi Party were a matter of public record already. Politically, Existentialism belonged to the Right since it was branded as an irrationalist philosophy, like Bergsonism or Husserlian phenomenology a subset of idealism, the regressive redoubt of mysticism and metaphysics, whose rationalist rival was materialism, monopoly of left-wing progressive thinkers. Bergson was one of the few thinkers the tight-lipped Nabokov talked about, in passing, and in my view Michael Glynn in his study Vladimir Nabokov: Bergsonian and Russian Formalist Influences in His Novels has very persuasively and successfully proven how a Bergsonist tinge permeates his fiction. Political perception at the time would have put reviewer and reviewee on the same team; as far as I can tell, their feud was aesthetic and hinged on divergent ideas of what the novel should do.
Sartre effectively asked his reader to choose between two types of novels. Being a philosopher who used shabby pamphlets like Nausea as philosophical propaganda, he construed novels as didactically dutybound to disseminate ideas, preferably Existentialist ideas. It was out of the question to endorse novels that did not put the reader on the path of authentic existence, a long walk to which Existentialism provides a map, a staff, a canteen; anything else merely launched him into chaos and darkness, which is redundant since we’ve already been thrust at birth into a meaningless world without our consent.
Since authenticity is art’s main artery, Sartre was especially naggy about a novel that vaunted as much artifice as a teen’s Instagram account. During the early days of the boisterous crisis of the novel, authenticity versus artifice was one of its sidebar debates, like materialism versus idealism, objectivity versus subjectivity, and reporting versus knowing, although the lines were sometimes unclear. Back then many thinkers were asking readers to make those choices. For instance, they were invited to make a choice in Walter Benjamin’s infaust essay, “The Crisis of the Novel” (1930). Despite its click-baiting title, Benjamin didn’t actually mean the novel was in crisis; not that pessimists weren’t agonizing over the death of the novel already, but his point was different. A more honest title would have been “The Crossroads of the Novel”, for Benjamin merely posited a choice between two available options, although not unlike Sartre he made it clear only one side was serious. The previous year there had come out Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, an exemplum of a recently-started literary tendency known as populisme. The French didn’t invent it, they just baptized it. As an idea, it started gaining traction when André Thérive published the article “Plaidoyer pour le naturalism” (Comoedia, May 3, 1927); next his associate Léon Lemonnier gave the press “Un manifeste littéraire” (L'Oeuvre, August 27, 1929) and “Le roman populiste” (Mercure de France, November 15, 1929). Finally, his ideas debuted in book form as Le Manifeste du roman populiste (La Centaine, 1930) and Le populisme (Renaissance du livre, 1931). The French being French, Thérive and Lemonnier then took the next French step: together they created a literary prize, the Prix Eugène-Dabit du roman populiste, to award novels that “prefer common people as characters and popular environments as backdrops so long as they provide an authentic humanity”. They were big on authenticity too, keep that in mind for now. (Most ideas about what the novel should do and be ultimately revolve around constantly changing definitions of what’s “authentic”, “sincere” and “realistic”; weirdly, even people who’ve defended the novel’s “right” to be “irrealist” have often mounted the defense by twisting and straining and distorting and spraining “realism” or even “reality” into so vague and useless a definition they can allow any mirabolant content without the stigma of being called “unrealistic”: basically how French Marxists reconciled themselves with Kafka in the 1960s. Historically few people have simply defended that the novel should do and be whatever the fuck the novelist wants because it doesn’t matter anyway, without seeking validation from the sacrosanct concept of realism.)
Comrade Jdanov was still two years away from prescribing socialist realism as the official aesthetic of revolutionary writers, but populisme was one of the many post-1929 Crash signs that writers were growing restless with modernism. Although modernism had posed a setback to leashing literature to political ends, its inherent elitism and contempt for the masses aged quickly and badly when the Great Depression spurred many writers into speaking on behalf of growing slum-dwellers. Populisme wasn’t yet Marxist, in fact it would later be decried by Marxists socialist realists, for whom populisme was abusively mining the proletariat theme for its picturesque potential now that bourgeois protagonists had run out of piquancy; the proletariat provided a fresh stock of scenarios, situations, characters, but the populistes were accused of not being truly committed to improving the workers’ lot, nor of reporting their daily struggles to mobilize the masses into class warfare. For the Marxists, what was missing was Marxism, the one true doctrine of how to construct a classless society.
The populistes were sympathetic to the proletariat, but they cast a colder eye over class, an ethnographer’s look, describing dispassionately without larding the report with doctrine. Berlin Alexanderplatz exemplifies how to objectively render a working man: we follow Franz Biberkopf in his slow descent into a criminal life amidst the fraying of an environment beset by unemployment, hyperinflation and Nazism. Biberkopf, however, remains apolitical and even seems reconciled with his bourgeois status in the end, unlike protagonists of later socialist realist novels. For instance, in Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado’s Jubiabá (1935), Antônio Balduíno journeys from pauper to political agitator who organizes a worker’s strike at the end of the novel, symbolizing the social awakening of the alienated working class. Whereas Biberkopf enters the path to petit-bourgeoisie, Balduíno’s life-changing epiphany incites him to commit his life to the proletarian cause., On the propaganda scale, Jubiabá ranks above Berlin Alexanderplatz. Whereas as far as I know Döblin had no ties with communist parties, by 1932 Amado was already affiliated in the youth wing of the Brazilian Communist Party, and throughout the years he took up several jobs within the BCP, having even undergone the rite of passage of visiting the USSR, an experience which ironically but not uncommonly subtracted his faith in the saintliness of the Soviets.
Although Benjamin was a Marxist, he didn’t have to wait for Jdanov’s parameters to evince the political usefulness of Berlin Alexanderplatz. For starters, it allowed him to demonstrate what he meant by “the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art”, as he wrote in his 1936 panegyric to the politization of cinema, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. If we get past a lot of verbiage about “authenticity” (that word again), the loss of the “aura” and other irrelevancies, we learn that Benjamin was stridently committed to art as handmaiden to sociopolitical change. No wonder then that he fretted over “the doctrine of l’art pour l’art”, which “gave rise to a negative theology, in the form of an idea of ‘pure’ art, which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of a representational content.” Jumping from shoddy propositions to silly inferences through shambolic leaps of logic, Benjamin concludes that since technology has made all graphic art easily reproducible, the “authenticity” at the heart of classical criteria of aesthetic judgement has all but died, allegedly. In one of his many awesome sweeping conclusions, Benjamin decides that, since technological reproduction has hidden the original inside a ragout of replicas, “to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.” That’s quite a shaky sequitur, to go from “authenticity is not a valid judicative criterion” to “in that case the politization of art is inevitable”. If it’s dubious why it should be so at all with the visual arts, it makes even less sense when he tries to apply it to literature, because although the technology for reproducing books had by then been available since the 15th century, no one before Benjamin had argued that Gutenberg’s printing press had stolen the authenticity of texts originally inscribed on papyri, scrolls or vellum, or that inherent to movable type was the politization of literature. Actually, the fact that between 1930 and 1936 Benjamin was strenuously arguing for the politicization of novels attests to how slow writers in the previous 500 years were to accept they were fated to be political; those poor unenlightened souls that had not given due consideration to the obvious correlation between reproducibility, loss of “authenticity” (whatever that even means in the realm of print where unlike painting or sculpture no such thing as an original exists) and political action. And yet, Benjamin ludicrously foisted this determinism onto every art form, as if music, photography and film had to behave like Zola characters according to pseudoscientific physiological “laws”. But Marxists do love human behavior according to inexorable laws.
Film was the art form he really extolled; its mass appeal cemented its destiny as grand political motivator of mobs. “The Greeks had only two ways of technologically reproducing works of art: casting and stamping”, stated Benjamin. “Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only artworks they could produce in large numbers. All others were unique and could not be technologically reproduced. That is why they had to be made for all eternity. The state of their technology compelled the Greeks to produce eternal values in their art.” Politically, belief in “eternal” aesthetic values leaned to the Right; but since society is historically circumstantial, according to Marxist aesthetics the mutable social conditions art is made in means that the typical modernist artist, insulated in his Ivory Tower, living for his art like a detached monk, is a historical falsity, a reactionary fable to keep him from serving his fellow man. The artist aware of his post-1929 circumstances has an obligation to abandon the pursuit of beauty and perfection, troubling eternal values that had been enshrined since the Greeks, and let the new times flow through him. No other art form was more in compliance with its time than cinema, since “finished film is the exact antithesis of a work created at a single stroke. It is assembled from a very large number of images and image sequences that offer an array of choices to the editor; these images, moreover, can be im- proved in any desired way in the process leading from the initial take to the final cut”. Unlike Flaubert sweating over perfection, film, trashy and disposable, is like a society that can be molded and improved into Marxist utopia, it’s “the artwork most capable of improvement. And this capability is linked to its radical renunciation of eternal value.” Once you denied art the old-fashioned humbug of beauty, that mystifying twaddle bordering on metaphysics, it was swindled of its purpose like a farmer whose life savings were gone with the stock market. But since Marxism was all about promising full employment to the great unwashed, it found art a new gig, replacing eternal beauty with topical soundbite: denounce the exploitation of workers, demonize the bourgeoisie, criticize capitalism. This isn’t intrinsically problematic, except that socialist realism made it look mandatory for political novels to be badly written in order to fulfil their new purpose. They also had to be backward-looking; it’s telling that Benjamin chose Berlin Alexanderplatz, beckoning to 19c realism, as if the innovations of Joyce, Woolf, Proust, Kafka had simply not occurred.
Toward the end of “Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin turned his gaze upon the novel. Aura and authors had parted ways too. Because of the spread of literacy and with the press letting anyone express his opinion, “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character.” If you ever wanted to find the ground zero of Barthes’ “death of the author”, look no further. Everything kept within the Marxist think-tank. “Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized higher education but on polytechnic training, and thus is common property.” This, alas, explains absolutely nothing why I think Nabokov was, is and will ever be better than Döblin. Now Benjamin wasn’t totally wrong, henceforth anyone could be a writer, that’s true, especially a bad writer, albeit that seldom worried socialist realism sutlers; after all, they didn’t believe in preparing for posterity with lasting works; a book’s usefulness was provisional, tied to immediate and local effects. Books needed not be good, only to goad the reader into adopting the correct revolutionary attitude; only thus could the novel duplicate “the original and justified interest of the masses in film – an interest in understanding themselves and therefore their class.” Populisme tried that, as did Döblin’s slum melodrama filled with murdered hookers, criminal gangs and traffic accidents. Benjamin loved film because it seems realist by default, its immersive experience purports to show the world back without distortion, and its audiovisual innateness got around illiteracy by getting rid of the pesky words that not even the most simpliste of revolutionary novels could bypass, and o boy did they try! Now, cinema did not have an in-built interest in realism and reporting, and even Benjamin griped about the need to rescue this expensive-to-produce medium from the clutches of capitalists who sold pipedreams and moonshine to the masses. For all Benjamin's talk about the loss of aura and authenticity, he believed that art retained its power only if it remained authentic, that is, if it showed real life. He lavished praise on film because it seemed to have the best means of showing life unfiltered. That's why he wanted film taken away from Hollywood capitalists, whose investments could be repaid only by turning cinema into another narcotic. It’s hard to pinpoint just what kind of cinema Benjamin envisioned; I suppose at its best it would a deeply immersive communal experience like Yo soy Cuba, brilliant Soviet propaganda with ingenious long takes, or the great postwar Italian neorealists.
Reading him call “l’art pour l'art” a flunkey of Fascism-Nazism, one can’t help wonder if he wasn’t a bit out of his mind. “Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.” By then Hitler was Germany’s chancellor, Italy was invading Ethiopia, Portugal was authoritarian. In Hungary Miklos Horthy was hoisting the fascist banner too. Benjamin probably started “Mechanical Reproduction” before Franco started the civil war in Spain, but further evidence wouldn’t have changed his generally bleak outlook; powerless and desperate, he thought art should do something, anything, starting with becoming inclusive, a collective chorus for the downtrodden.
As such, Benjamin wasn’t either on Sartre’s or Nabokov’s side. In his essays he often returned to art’s crossroads, but it had nothing to do with pitting an “anti-novel” against Dusty. In his review of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the choice was between a Dusty surrogate and the social realist, or “epic” novel, borrowing from the theory Georg Lukacs, yet another Marxist, much admired by Benjamin. As far as he was concerned, it was time for Dusty to gather dust in the distance, for he was implicitly to blame for the politically ineffective subjective novel, a modernist specialty Marxists at the time called “decadent”, “individualistic”, “egocentric”; to think that a century ago “introspective” was a slur in some quarters. The first lines of the review spell out the conflict:
“From the point of view of epic, existence is an ocean. Nothing is more epic than the sea. One can of course react to the sea in different ways-for example, lie on the beach, listen to the surf, and collect the shells that it washes up on the shore. This is what the epic writer does. You can also sail on the sea. For many purposes, or none at all. You can embark on a voyage and then, when you are far out, you can cruise with no land in sight, nothing but sea and sky. This is what the novelist does. He is the truly solitary, silent person. Epic man is simply resting. In epics, people rest after their day's work; they listen, dream, and collect. The novelist has secluded himself from people and their activities.”
The purpose of the epic novelist, the reporter, whether he be Döblin or John dos Passos, whose heyday was around this time, his being basically the American brand of populisme, was to catch concrete stuff like dandruff on shoulders. On the other side, tucked in atop the Ivory Tower, solipsists sick of society I suppose committed the solitary sin of introspection. Benjamin personified this type in André Gide, who had recently published Journal of The Counterfeiters, described by Benjamin as an “autobiographical commentary to his latest novel”. As if in sync, Gide is favorably mentioned by Sartre when destroying Despair. For Benjamin, Gide was devoted to “the roman pur”, the pure novel:
“With the greatest subtlety imaginable, he has set out to eliminate every straightforward, linear, paratactic narrative (every mainline epic characteristic) in favor of ingenious, purely novelistic (and in this context that also means Romantic) devices. The attitude of the characters to what is being narrated, the attitude of the author toward them and to his technique-all this must become a component of the novel itself. In short, this roman pur is actually pure interiority; it acknowledges no exterior, and is therefore the extreme opposite of the purely epic approach which is narration.
Bedazzled by cinema, Benjamin was especially thrilled at the way Döblin made a novel as montage. Montage had the benefit of equalizing popular detritus, of negating modernist elitism by imploding the demarcation between kitsch and Kant: “Petty-bourgeois printed matter, scandalmongering, stories of accidents, the sensational incidents of 1928, folk songs, and advertisements rain down in this text.” I get the impression that Benjamin too would have frowned at the inordinate books read by Mr. Nabokov. He admired the novel for the reasons educated people had been educated to admire them for the past one hundred years; although he maligned “authenticity”, for him the novel drew force from the same ability the camera’s lens had to report authentic life: “Biblical verses, statistics, and texts from hit songs are what Doblin uses to confer authenticity on the narrative. They correspond to the formulaic verse forms of the traditional epic.” In other words, documentation, the same pursuit of a higher realism that had been the driving force behind Zola’s naturalism. What else? “The texture of this montage is so dense that we have difficulty hearing the author's voice. He has reserved for himself the street-ball ad-like epigraphs to each chapter; otherwise, he is in no great hurry to make his voice heard. (Even though he is determined to have his say in the end.) It is astounding how long he trails behind his characters before risking any challenge to them.” Yet again the language of realism: the narrator who trails behind the characters, just watching them go about their ways, without the contrivance of plot, is something novelists aspired to since Flaubert at least; ditto for the narrator whose voice effaces itself. The choice Benjamin proposed was really between going back to Zola or staying stuck in the pretty uninteresting French modernism of Gide. It’s like being given two poisons to kill oneself with.
Sartre didn’t just have respect for Gide, he was in fact a product of the literary environment created by him. Gide was a tireless promoter of the novel as a confessional art that drew its content from autobiography. In Dusty’s books he learned that the sociological drift of the naturalists was wrongheaded; you didn’t get at “authenticity” by painstakingly describing the texture of the wallpaper in front of which the bourgeoisie committed adultery; authenticity meant plumbing into the recesses of the human soul and revealing its contradictions, irrationalities, obsessions. From here it’s but a short step to concluding that the best material to start this probing is yourself. In 1923, Gide was popularizing Dusty in France with the study Dostoïevsky, which in tandem with the Nouvelle Revue Française, of which he was founder and mentor, spread the Russian’s fame throughout Europe. In 1927, a Portuguese literary movement called presencismo worshipped Dusty by Gidean mediation. Everywhere he was being called the future of the novel. Woolf loved him so much she spent her 1912 honeymoon with Leonard reading Crime and Punishment (I kid you not); tellingly, she read the French translation, Le crime et le châtiment. E. M. Forster dedicated chapters to him in Aspects of the Novel; and for José Ortega y Gasset, Dusty and Proust were the two pillars of the modern novel that had superseded the naturalist/social realist novel. But Dusty was also a lynchpin of Existentialism, whose thinkers conferred upon his novels the honor of predating the theoretical work of Heidegger. From Sartre to Camus, Dustylatry reigned supreme amongst French novelists embroiled in Existentialism.
Despair arrives in the middle of several choices and debates about what the novel should be and do, but they can be reduced to this: reporting the world versus knowing it. Reporting it meant taking the Stendhal mirror for another stroll along the Zola avenue. Speaking of whom, the choice was also between naturalism and modernism, as the title of one of Lemonnier’s articles made clear: “Du naturalisme au populisme” (La Revue mondiale, October 1, 1929): yep, the novel had gone from naturalism to populism without that monstrosity called modernism in between, a mistake to be eradicated. This means the choice was also activism versus indifference, and subjectivity versus objectivity. Knowing it meant making use of new techniques to show it from an inner, subjective perspective. Stylistically speaking, the shift was slight. Modernists in general didn’t doubt the existence of the real world any more than the old realists, they just recentered the discussion on which reality was the purview of the writer. The realists believed that the reality worth knowing and sensorially knowable was perceived by the eyes. The modernists scoffed at their pinched empiricism and wanted to apprehend life at dimensions science lacked the instruments to perceive. Instead it developed new techniques like inner speech, stream of consciousness, tunneling, etc. Some modernist aficionados think this was seismic. Last year Ben Libman asked, “Was 1925 Literary Modernism’s Most Important Year?” because of bagatelles like:
“This narrative technique, known as free-indirect speech, was part of Woolf’s quiet revolution. Though she did not invent it — arguably Austen, Flaubert and Edith Wharton got there first — Woolf perfected this mode, coloring it with the anxiety of modern subjectivity. Open any novel of the past 50 years, and you will find the narrator reporting thoughts that, for reasons of diction and tense, can only be those of a character. With varying degrees of indebtedness, each of these is an heir to Woolf and her narrators, who enter the world of their fictions as Clarissa Dalloway enters the world of her relations, “being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best.” That a narrator need not fiddle with chess pieces from on high but might linger like a cloud among foggy minds is a feature of modernism that has, as it were, contaminated literature ever since.”
This is delusional; Clarissa Dalloway sounds exclusively like the imaginary being to whom Woolf bestowed finespun words unlike anyone else’s:
“How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen”.
I wish my thoughts came to me this musically, shaped as balanced lyrical sentences full of alliteration. Because we know this isn’t how people think, we can appreciate its purely artificial style of sonic similarities (“chill and sharp”); we pay attention to the syntactic symmetry of “the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave”, reminded that in ancient rhetoric they called it isocolon. Pedants with the name of every figure of speech on their tongues’ tips would add it’s also an epistrophe. It’s an honor to find that the unobstructed, natural reporting of my disorderly mind caught unawares resembles a lot speeches professional orators were giving 2500 years ago. O would that my thoughts lazily and effortlessly organized themselves in Gorgianic sentences! Woolf believed that her techniques first pierced and then pieced together a higher truth that had eluded the clumsy, unsophisticated rubes of naturalism, but Mrs. Dalloway is exquisite writing because Woolf, even when she was deludedly pursuing “authenticity” as fiction’s ultimate purpose, was a stylist very bad at penning bad sentences. She was incapable of writing the way people speak, which is what free-indirect speech aspires to, being verisimilitude taken to its final and tackiest consequences. Most “literary novels” by “celebrated authors” are from a stylistic perspective as prone to inducing aesthetic tyremesis as anything by James Patterson or Dan Brown, without the attenuating qualities of their storytelling chops. This happens by default because the hegemony of realism dictates that characters be built to be everymen; that’s not too terrible an idea, but now mix it with free-indirect speech, a technology designed to be a verbal mirror image of a character’s consciousness; it can only perform its job well by generating everyman banalities. James Wood, one of the current custodians of free-indirect speech, has often chastised Nabokov for being a demonic “stylish novelist” who “uses words that his more hapless fictional character could never have come up with”. Complaining about fiction being as verbally intricate as its verbal medium allows it to be is just the logical outcome of believing, as Wood does, that “Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible”. It’s a phrasal fetter, it mutes the character beyond his ordinariness. Nabokov, being a stylist by soul, appears to have been one of the first to realize the malefices of free-indirect speech and stream of consciousness to wordplay; that’s one possible explanation why so many of his trickster narrators cultivate erudite, slightly mad, hyper-observant personalities: only by being extraordinary wordsmiths can their lexiphanic styles be “verisimilar” in the Wooden way; only thus can we believe that Humbert Humbert’s lexis is inimitable. If HH is genial enough to know all the words in English, French and Russian, Nabokov can’t slip him a few of his own.
In 1939, the already heavily contaminated by Existentialism Sartre was on Dusty’s side, which put him on the subjective novel team alongside Gide and Woolf. Since the demarcation line was also political, you’d think Nabokov would be on their side too; after all he’s famous for his staunch apolitical stance, for his refusal to remove the novel from the narrow niche of aesthetics, for warning readers not to seek messages or ideas. Furthermore, he clearly reveled in bizarre states of consciousness like madness, narcissism and paranoia, tropes of the subjective novel; he liked to discuss the creative process inside the work in progress itself, exactly like in Gide’s novel-inside-the-novel The Counterfeiters. But Libman’s essay helps us understand why the subjective novel was merely a different way of realism: “As if by revelation, it became clear that the solution to the problem of representing a collective trauma like World War I was not blabbering effusion, but its opposite.” Here it is, the belief that art somehow is conditioned, destined to be a mere mirror of the world. Naturalists and so-called modernists were on the same side after all, they just differed on the tools of how to render “their time”, how to define the “reality” worthy of literary circumscription.
By the way, the idea that World War I was a “collective trauma” that, literarily speaking, required the opposite of “blabbering effusion” – dare we say “silence” is an apt word for the remedy in mind? – is taken straight from Benjamin too. In yet another saturnine essay, “The Storyteller”, he noticed that shell-shocked soldiers came from the slime mute and unable to relate their war experiences. Many decades and another World War later, one of Benjamin’s pals, Theodor W. Adorno, also implicitly recommended silence to writers when he claimed that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Comically, one of Nabokov’s most garrulous groupies, Martin Amis, has in recent years reproved him tremendously for having failed to tackle the Holocaust in his fiction, a lacuna compounded by the fact that he lost relatives in it. Personally, I think people have a moral obligation not to unleash the John Boyne from their chests. And yet Amis himself is a stranger to what Libman praises as the “power of economy in writing”, a stylist who shies away from the “colloquial” that fascinates him. Had Amis taken anything from modernism, he would have been another illiterate minimalist who thought that the only way of dealing with a literarily irrelevant event like the Holocaust required one to become a stylistic deafmute. This is pertinent to Nabokov’s third way, since for him the writer is under no obligation to modulate language according to man-made arbitrary diktats that try to puff themselves up as the Voice of History. There is absolutely no reason for “economy in writing” to be the fittest way of “representing” “collective traumas” of war or genocide. There is no reason at all for fiction to even represent them. There is no reason for a writer not to write as bombastically and as bookishly as he wants in whatever circumstance; there’s no poor taste or good taste, there’s only what and how the writer wants to write. Everything else is cheap sociology and grandiose but asinine statements like when Woolf claimed that “On or about December 1910 human character changed”. For stylists, it didn’t.
Benjamin had no doubt that Gide’s way was on the way out: “In strict contrast to Doblin's notions, Gide's ideal is the novel as pure writing. He is perhaps the last to uphold Flaubert's views.” Writing right after the Crash, modernism on the wane and the buttressing of movements like populisme, soon to morph into socialist realism, he was cautiously betting on the right horse. But Nabokov exemplifies the third way for the novel: neither old-fashioned reporting nor the modernist novel of knowing. Instead, formalism, style, deception and rhetoric. The more I refine my personal pantheon, the more I realize how spurious is the textbook conflict between realists and modernists, two groups I feel growingly disconnected from. The writers I admire above all others are the ones who put language above life, deeply indifferent whether or not social and political upheavals mandated new art forms. They worked against the grain of their time’s tendencies since they cared less about “authenticity”, whatever that means as far as fiction goes, than about pursuing an ideal of language; it was in their nature to stray from the herd, even if the herd was composed of Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Broch, Faulkner, Proust et al. I speak of Nabokov as I could speak of the Italian Carlo Emilio Gadda, or the Portuguese Tomaz de Figueiredo, or the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa, of the English Anthony Burgess or of North Americans like William H. Gass and Alexander Theroux. Nabokov’s third way for the novel is that it should be precisely pure writing, a generator of rhetorical forms, a producer of puns, alliterations and palindromes, wholly indifferent to whether it reports the visible or the invisible. In so far as Nabokov was obsessed with the sentence sounding great, he can’t be placed alongside realists and modernists, both of whom were deeply suspicious of rhetoric. When they remonstrated against rhetoric, they meant verbiage and chicanery; but Nabokov still believed in the ancient meaning of rhetoric as the science of how to produce euphony, eloquence, and persuasion. The glory of his many charlatans is that they conflate both meanings of rhetoric, never fully stating it but insinuating that it’s impossible to know anything or reach truth; at best we can ensnare others in our errors, biases, lies, delusions and worldviews with pretty words. Oh well, so much for authenticity.
To be continued