206. (Vladimir Nabokov)

Coming to grips with Dostoevsky at all means coming to grips with the other half of the burden of art, philosophy, the study of history. I’ve always found his novels extraordinarily painful to read, and been inclined to think Nabokov’s assessment must be in part right, even while recognizing that Nabokov was being insolent and disingenuous in not going further than he does in examining his dislike. Perhaps Nabokov was too Russian (and even more aware of his Russianness when exiled) to work out his own feelings about Dostoevsky. Nothing Nabokov says about what Dostoevsky does or doesn’t do seems “wrong”; Dostoevsky does seem to write closet dramas in novel form, rather than present the solidity of the furniture and setting for the dramas as Tolstoy, for instance does. But Nabokov doesn’t want novels to do what Dostoevsky’s novels do, and do as much as anyone’s.


Nabokov praised the lie-making of art, and the storyteller’s art especially. The human conditional, Nabokov would perhaps agree, is fictional. And that in both senses. The great fiction of art, Nabokov’s readings of novels sometimes suggest, is the fiction of love: the fiction that reconciliation is possible between self and other (hence Nabokov arguing with excitement and exasperation against Lionel Trilling that Anna Karenina could have, maybe should have, been called Kitty and Levin).


Nabokov is less comfortable with thought that there is another fiction upon which the fiction of reconciliation depends, and which must, in point of fact, precede it.


The prime fiction is not that reconciliation of self and other, self and world, is possible, but that it is needed. Once that story is told, the other story follows. Not conceiving of the need for it, life would be barren even of the thought of barrenness, and that is as intolerable as any, for those who accept the possibility that the fiction might be true. Hence there is despair and hope on both sides: despair and hope that the fiction is a lie and unnecessary, and despair and hope that the fiction is true and somehow necessary. It might be that the urge to know what this world is, what we are, and what others are might find expression and satisfaction independently of the fiction itself; the pure desire to understand what, how, and why being something like the dream of science. But the terms of desire, understanding, knowledge, and self and other give rise to the fiction itself very quickly. Living within the fiction is to live within the vale of ethics: the possibility of an ethical life, a life of flourishing and happiness and fulfillment, whether attainable by human means alone or not, would be inconceivable without the thought that something needs to be set right, and that humans have it within themselves to set it thus (or at least to recognize the need and pray for it). The fiction, perhaps, arises with the first self-conscious utterance, or else with the second-person utterance that is contained within it; at any rate, it seems to happen very early, to be forgotten by some, and to possess others to an unbearable degree, so that they fail even to see that it is a fiction.


Dostoevsky, Margeurite Yourcenar, Thomas Mann: they are called novelists of ideas, but they are really authors whose great subject is the fiction that reconciliation is required. They present the need at work, taking lives hostage, playing out the lives of individuals rather than just playing out in their lives. They are unbearable to read because when they present fictions of reconciliation, they are relentless at overturning them or else at placing them beyond the reach of the reader; they belong to another sort, one who has sacrificed more than we, the readers of the novel, ever could, simply by virtue of reading the novel. But they persuade us that the need is real, and so offer solace for those who might wonder whether they ought to care as much as they do.


Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Cather: they offer the promise that the reconciliation is real, and reading them we can feel it. They are unbearable because they do not pretend to be other than authors of fiction, because the belief in the possibility reconciliation does not, for any of them, entail the belief that reconciliation is within our powers.


(There is a host of authors for whom the fiction might be buried deep, but it is not absent even from the great novelists of manners or history, like Austen or Scott. For Austen, the hope of reconciliation is found in civility and the hierarchy of a tribe, which might itself be a fiction, but which saves the bare isolation of a Miss Bates or the profound stupidity of Miss Elton from inspiring the angst that it otherwise would; for Scott, reconciliation to the world is reconciliation to history, but the drama of the novels, their containing tragedy as well as comedy, harrowing pathos as well as bourgeois consolation, lies in the possibility that a person’s interpretation of history, and participation in battles over the course of how history ought to be interpreted, might leave that person exiled.)


Nabokov, at any rate, had objections to any of that first class of writers, which includes Mann and Dostoevsky. “Novels of ideas” he would scoff. But that label misses what they do, and it misses it conveniently for Nabokov since his own works are not at all comfortably among authors of the second group. In fact, without being a novelist much interested in presenting philosophical, theological, or historical debates, he is very much of the first group, original in how he presents both the fictional necessity of reconciliation and the precarious nature of the fictions that claim to achieve it.


In Nabokov’s most enthralling novels, Lolita, Pale Fire, the fictions that permit reconciliation are both Nabokov’s achievement by proxy (by proxy of his narrators and characters), but also the target of satire, indictment, and judgment; the real revelation is how the need for such fictions can spring from cruelty, isolation, and loss of orientation in the ethical vale that, I’ve suggested, the fictional of reconciliation makes possible. Does Nabokov, then, offer an indictment of the fictions of reconciliation that he elsewhere profoundly admires? I think not. I think instead that the novels suggest that the fiction for that such a reconciliation is needed may itself be told in the wrong way; Dostoevsky tells us the same. We may be possessed not only by inadequate or damaging fictions of what constitutes reconciliation with the world and another in it, but we may be possessed by damaging, deranged fictions that make us believe reconciliation is possible at all. That is not to say that the fiction of reconciliation is itself proof of derangement; it is to say that a person’s belief that reconciliation is necessary, and their powers at creating a fiction that it has been achieved, are potentially worthy only of fictions that remind us that we should not always need or want to reconcile, and that should make us wary that such a need is a guarantor of human decency. It may be that ethics could not get off the ground that fiction that reconciliation is necessary; but that is hardly a sufficient condition for ethics, which demand instead something that fiction cannot provide, but only attest to having happened elsewhere.


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