Nabokov can’t help but devote airtime to certain low-level obsessions—butterflies, chess, Proust—that the rest of us might find crustily nose-up unrelatable.
“1. Vladimir Nabokov gets a bum rap. To what other high-volume American—yes—novelist do we fail to accord the dignity of collectively imagining their best works, their better tendencies? Roth gets off the hook: We remember the generous, funny, forgivably horny Philip of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint ahead of the hoarily horny, menstrual-blood-obsessed Dying Animal. Updike, similar story. Bellow—but quiet now, we could do this all day. The point is, we’re nice to our prose prolificists. Maybe it’s that Nabokov’s big bad best-seller is, in some really key ways, not a book to be recalled fondly. Lolita does, and should, make you feel icky, its superstructural concern being to beguile you with the refined language of a cretinous narrator. (That Humbert succeeds in pulling this off, recruiting his readers, effectively conscripting them into complicity, is kind of Lolita’s Big Joke—one can’t help but imagine the guffawing a Vanity Fair blurb claiming it to be ‘the only convincing love story of our century’ must have occasioned from Vlad—and I once had a friend confess to me that certain of its scenes had very guiltily turned them on.) But I think this goes beyond that. For one thing, too many teachers and TAs, too many professors, too many graduate writing workshops assign not Nabokov’s singularly singing, sumptuous, naughtiest works (Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada) but his knottiest outings: Transparent Things, ‘The Vane Sisters,’ that piece whose name escapes me but where you spend 18 pages absolutely confounded as to what he’s describing before the ‘treat’ of having it revealed that the narrator has been looking out the window of a train at utility poles supporting telegraph wire. Wowsers. … Vlad is frosty, he is detached, he is composing 16th-century sonnets in the ’60s, a world aflame, and being duly ignored, just outside his castle walls. It is true that even in his heartiest, hardiest fiction Nabokov can’t help but devote airtime to certain low-level obsessions—butterflies, chess, Proust—that the rest of us might find crustily nose-up unrelatable. …”
W – Pale Fire