HISTORICAL MODERNISM, ARTISTIC INNOVATION AND MYTH-MAKING IN VLADIMIR NABOKOV’S SYSTEM OF VALUE JUDGEMENTS
In a retrospective glance at the past century, the poetry of Russian modernism appears to be the highest achievement of verbal art in any European language, and Nabokov’s bilingual prose, the most remarkable phenomenon in world literature. Nabokov’s art as part of Russian and Western modernism has been studied in some detail by a number of scholars. However, numerous aspects of this theme deserve closer scrutiny.
Nabokov’s attitude toward modernism can be reconstructed on the basis of his own critical statements, the tastes of some of his characters, and his choice of specimens for critical study and translation, and models for creative emulation. His axiological criteria comprised novelty in the approach to a theme and originality of artistic device, as well as such normative virtues as purity and wealth of language. He considered innovation, by definition, an individual and not a team achievement. Time alone was his ultimate touchstone of innovation; his other touchstone was the relation of the innovation to the “long, life-giving ray of Pushkin”.
Nabokov’s ultimate opinion on the individual representatives and currents of new Russian literature is expressed in the metaliterary passages of Ada and Look at the Harlequins!, rather than in The Gift. In Look at the Harlequins!, this is facilitated by blending or “ligaturing” of Russian and Anglo-American writers: Bunin and Thornton Wilder, or Merezhkovskij and Faulkner. In the estimate of Demon Veen in Ada, Tolstoj and Chexov were decadent modernists, just as they had been in the opinion of some European critics of decadence. Out of Nabokov’s original selection in The Gift of “the five B’s”, Blok, Belyj, Bal’mont, Briusov and Bunin, only the poetry of Bunin and Blok’s, and Belyj’s Petersburg survived a more rigorous scrutiny.
Nabokov’s complex attitude toward Russian futurism, which he never confused with “some noisy Italians”, is best expressed in the character of Alexis Pan in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a ligature of several prototypes, among them Kruchenyx and Xlebnikov. Maiakovskij, “endowed with a certain brilliance and bite, but fatally corrupted by the regime he faithfully served”, was parodied in several of Nabokov’s poems, short stories and novels. Maiakovskij’s sadism, especially in regard to children, was branded most poignantly in Glory.
A qualified approval of Pasternak’s early lyric, and of a few masterpieces by Sel’vinskij, Bagrickij and Zabolockij is on record in Nabokov’s correspondence, but has not been studied in detail. His attitude toward acmeism included an early admiration of Gumilev, a cautious acceptance of some poems by Axmatova (along with a total dismissal of her epigones), and a growing appreciation of Mandel’shtam, whom at first he considered merely a lateral branch of Russian poetry, which is a beautiful ornament, but leads nowhere (a judgement that he never published probably because it closely resembled Mirskij’s description of Komarovskij).
It is an established fact that among modern writers of the West Nabokov most preferred Kafka, Joyce and Proust (in that order). Of the heritage of modernism, he rejected and consistently parodied and compromised in his own art not merely some of its specific artistic errors, but above all the general and typical fault of its approach to certain types of subject matter, most significantly, the forced mythological attitude toward poetic imagery, narrative motifs, and thematic inventory. In Joyce, Nabokov rejected the early, consistently mythologized versions of Ulysses and the final result of Work in Progress/Finnegans Wake. He expressed his rejection of its pointless paronomasia, a contagious disease in the world of words, in his introduction to Bend Sinister in the same terms as Max Müller had applied to mythology, “an illness of language”.
Nabokov’s contempt for the myth of the 20th century was both artistic and moral. He found tasteless Thomas Mann’s image of Hetaera esmeralda in Doctor Faustus as part of Mann’s myth of the diabolic nature of modernism, based on false racial and aesthetic presuppositions (cf. Lines Written in Oregon and the title of Vadim Vadimovich’s novel in Look at the Harlequins!: Esmeralda and her Parandrus). The fallacy of the Jungian psychology as applied to literary criticism by Maud Bodkin in her once popular book appears to be spoofed in Pale Fire, especially in the “white fountain/white mountain” episode, as well as in the names of characters (aunt Maud, Dr. Botkin).
Most consistently Nabokov de-mythologized the most universal of mythological themes, the theme of death, as he detached the problem of immortality from the problem of the existence of gods, “including the big G”.