Monday, 29 January 2018

Nabokov’s ideas and the chapter about Chernyshevsky

Readers familiar with Nabokov can find in The Gift everything about Nabokov, all the subjects important to him: 
- Literature, especially Russian literature, prose and verse 
Pushkin and Gogol 
- Flaubert—a few references to Madame Bovary and Bouvard and Pécuchet, as Flaubert also detests and mocks philistinism 
- The Russian debate and the revolution 
- Russia, homeland, remembrance, nostalgia
- Time
- Exile and the émigré community 
- His teaching job 
- Writing 
- Nature, butterflies, birds and trees 
- Lepidopterology 
- Chess, another passion of Nabokov’s
- Love of life 
- Consciousness, sensations and the senses 
- Shades of colours (the main colour of The Gift, I think, could be blue: blue sky, blue sea, bluish black, dark blue, bluish, turquoise, azure, indigo, sapphires, blue eyes, violets, irises…) 
- Synaesthesia, which Fyodor shares with his creator 
- His wife Véra, who is in the novel as Zina 
The novel also encapsulates all of his aesthetic ideals, especially through his attack on his polar opposite Chernyshevsky in chapter 4: 
- Aesthetic bliss 
- Prose and style 
- Love of details 
- Literary merit > ideas and ideologies 
- Against utilitarian art 
- Against didactic literature 
- Against sociological criticism in literary criticism 
- Against philistinism 
- Against ignorance and mediocrity 
- Details and nuances, against generalisations 
- Against materialism 
- Against utopianism 
- Against communism 
- Against the suppression of freedom and creativity 
Here are some of Nabokov’s most biting remarks about Chernyshevsky in The Gift
“The drolly circumstantial style, the meticulously inserted adverbs, the passion for semicolons, the clogging down of thought in mid-sentence and the clumsy attempts to extricate it (whereupon it got stuck at once elsewhere, and the author had to start worrying it out all over again), the drubbing-in, rubbing-in tone of each word, the knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest actions, the viscid ineptitude of these actions (as if some workshop had got onto the man’s hands, and both were left), the seriousness, the limpness, the honesty, the poverty—all this pleased Fyodor so much, he was so amazed and tickled by the fact that an author with such a mental and verbal style was considered to have influenced the literary destiny of Russia…” 
“He preached soundness and common sense in everything—and as if in response to someone’s mocking summons, his destiny was cluttered with blockheads, crack-brains and madmen.” 
“… this sensible young man, who—let us not forget—is only concerned with the good of all mankind, has eyes like a mole, while his blind, white hands move on a different plane from his faulty but obstinate and muscular mind. Everything that he touches falls to pieces.” 
“… dreamed to the end of his life of composing ‘a critical dictionary of ideas and facts’ (which recalls Flaubert’s caricature, that Dictionnaire des idées reçues whose ironic epigraph—‘the majority is always right’—Chernyshevski would have adopted in all seriousness).” 
“Steklov calls Chernyshevski’s article ‘The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy’, the ‘1st philosophical manifesto of Russian communism’; it is significant that this 1st manifesto was a schoolboy’s rendering, an infantile assessment of the most difficult moral questions.” 
“He most definitely did not give a hoot for the opinions of specialists, and he saw no harm in not knowing the details of the subject under examination: details were for him merely the aristocratic element in the nation of our general ideas.” 
Chapter 4 is so satisfying.

On a side note, I’m from Vietnam, a communist country, and I don’t think anybody really cares about Chernyshevsky or even knows who he was. The book that was an inspiration to lots of people in Vietnam was How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky (who’s mentioned in The Gift).

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