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Sunday, 21 January 2018

Nabokov’s The Gift: chapter 3, the émigré, the writer, and the critic

1/ Time and space: 
In chapter 1, our character/writer Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov- Cherdyntsev moves into a new flat, with a landlady named Klara Stoboy. 
At the end of chapter 2, after 2 years, he moves to another place, owned by Ivan Borisovich Shchyogolev (an unpronounceable name), who lives with his wife Marianna Nikolavna and her daughter from the previous marriage. 
The story takes place in Berlin, but there’s nothing German about it: it’s written in Russian, about Russia and Russian literature; its world is populated by Russian characters; Fyodor hangs out with Russian émigrés, goes to a Russian bookshop, reads Russian books and reviews of Russian books, gets published in a Russian newspaper in Berlin, etc. 

2/ Chapter 3 can be called the Gogol chapter. 

3/ The sneering tone is back:  
“Once a week that janitor’s wife, fat, heavily breathing, reeking of stale sweat, came with a vacuum cleaner, and then all hell broke loose, the world was shattered to bits, a hellish grinding pervaded one’s very soul, destroying it, and drove Fyodor out of his bed, out of his room and out of the house.” 
Mean? The description’s so vivid. 
“… usually, around 10 o’clock, Marianna Nikolavna took her turn in the bathroom and after her came, hawking up phlegm as he went, Ivan Borisovich. He flushed the toilet as many as 5 times but did not use the bath, contenting himself with the murmur of the little washbasin.” 
Jane Austen and Nabokov are probably the best at writing about characters they don’t like. Look at this line about a student of Fyodor’s, “the son of an émigré dentist”: 
“Firmly believing that the humorous side of things had long since been worked out in the proper place for it (the back page of Berlin illustrated weekly), he never laughed, or limited himself to a condescending snicker.” 

4/ The Gift concerns with the development and maturation of a writer. 
In chapter 1, Fyodor publishes a poem collection. 
In chapter 2, he turns to Pushkin and his own father’s writings, trying to get something “[o]ut of swarms of drafts, long manuscript extracts from books, indecipherable jottings on miscellaneous sheets of paper, pencilled remarks straggling over the margins of other writings of mine”. It comes to nothing. 
“I myself am a mere seeker of verbal adventures, and forgive me if I refuse to hunt down my fancies on my father’s own collecting ground. I have realized, you see, the impossibility of having the imagery of his travels germinate without contaminating them with a kind of secondary poetization, which keeps departing farther and farther from that real poetry with which the live experience of these reception, knowledgeable and chaste naturalists endowed their research.” 
In chapter 3, he starts to turn away from poetry.  
“I do not doubt that even then, at the time of that ugly, crippling school (which I would hardly have bothered with at all were I a typical poet who never fell for the blandishments of harmonious prose) I nevertheless knew true inspiration. The agitation which seized me, swiftly covered me with an icy sheet, squeezed my joints and jerked at my fingers. The lunatic wandering of my thought which by unknown means found the door in a thousand leading into the noisy night of the garden, the expansion and contraction of the heart, now as vast as the starry sky and then as small as a droplet of mercury, the opening arms of a kind of inner embracement, classicism’s sacred thrill, mutterings, tears—all this was genuine. But at that moment, in a hasty and clumsy attempt to resolve the agitation, I clutched at the 1st hackneyed words available, at their ready-made linkages, so that as soon as I had embarked on what I thought to be creation, on what should have been the expression, the living connection between my divine excitement and my human world, everything expired in a fatal gusts of words, whereas I continued to rotate epithets and adjust rhymes without noticing the split, the debasement and the betrayal—like a man relating his dream (like any dream infinitely free and complex, but clotting like blood upon waking up), who unnoticed by himself and his listeners rounds it out, cleans it up and dresses it in the fashion of hackneyed reality, and if he begins thus ‘I dreamt that I was sitting in my room’, monstrously vulgarizes the dream’s devices by taking for granted that the room had been furnished exactly the same as his room in real life.” 
The Gift is not only about the struggles and doubts of an aspiring writer, it also deals with the anguish of an émigré writer: 
 “… there he is, a special, rare and as yet undescribed and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied with 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 likes—a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds.” 

5/ The Gift and Pnin are both about the émigré experience. 
The difference is that Pnin struggles to survive and express himself in a language not his own, thus misunderstood and seen as a comic figure, whereas Fyodor has the comfort of the Russian community and can live in his own environment, associate with other Russians, and speak his own tongue. 
When surrounded by other émigrés, Pnin is interesting and erudite. 
Speaking of which, what word do we use for Humbert Humbert? He’s a European, born in Paris to a family of mixed parentage, who later moves to the US, but he’s not an émigré, not in the sense that Nabokov was—Humbert Humbert’s circumstances don’t have the sense of exile or self-exile. What is he then? Not an immigrant. An expatriate? A migrant? 

6/ As chapter 3 is the Gogol chapter (with a direct Dead Souls reference) and the chapter that concerns more with the writing, and a turn in Fyodor’s career, Nabokov mocks the philistinism of a certain kind of literary critic: 
“… citing this unauthentic quotation and then some thought expressed by somebody in a Paris café after someone’s lecture, he began to narrow these artificial circles around Koncheyev’s Communications; but even so to the very end he never touched the centre, but only directed now and then a mesmeric gesture toward it from the circumference—and again revolved. The result was something in the nature of those black spirals on cardboard circles which are everlastingly spinning in the windows of Berlin ice-cream parlours in a crazy effort to turn into bull’s eyes. 
It was a venomously disdainful ‘dressing down’ without a single remark to the point, without a single example—and not so much the critic’s words as his whole manner made a pitiful and dubious phantom out of a book which Mortus could not fail to have read with delight and from which he avoided quoting in order not to damage himself with the disparity between what he wrote and what he was writing about; the whole review seemed to be a séance for the summoning of a spirit which is announced in advance to be, if not a fraud, at least a delusion of the senses. ‘These poems’, ended Mortus, ‘induce in the reader an indefinite but insuperable repulsion. People friendly to Koncheyev’s talent will probably think them enchanting. We shall not quarrel—perhaps this is really so. But in our difficult times with their new responsibilities, when the very air is imbued with a subtle moral angoisse (an awareness of which is the infallible mark of “genuineness” in a contemporary poet), abstract and melodious little pieces about dreamy visions are incapable of seducing anyone. And in truth it is with a kind of joyous relief that one passes from them to any kind of “human document”, to what one can read “between the words” in certain Soviet writers (granted even without talent), to an artless and sorrowful confession, to a private letter dictated by emotion and despair’.” 
This is a mockery of the social critic, of the utilitarian ideas about art and its so-called purposes—a preparation for the attack on Chernyshevsky’s ideas in the next chapter. 
It reminds me of Nabokov’s writings about the suffocating atmosphere for Soviet writers, quoted here: http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-trial-of-joseph-brodsky.html

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