Monday, July 20, 2015

I suppose I do have an alias: Poseur!

I did something which is not that much unusual for me: I started reading Lolita by first reading Vladimir Nabokov's afterword.  And am all the wiser as a result.

In writing about the American publishers who turned down the book--this was in 1954, more than sixty years ago!--Nabokov notes:
Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned.  The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.
It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court invalidated laws that prohibited interracial marriage.   As far as atheists, Nabokov was not exaggerating by any means; this country might even be ready to elect as president a bisexual Black woman who is a Muslim before the electorate ever warms up to an atheist!

Nabokov wraps up the afterword with autobiographic notes related to the country from where his parents fled--Russia--and the language--Russian:
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses--the baffling mirror, the velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
If not for the revolution in 1917, Nabokov's parents might not have left Russia in 1919, when the author was young man of twenty.  An undergraduate program--with honors, of course--at Trinity College came next.  Then back to Berlin and then on to Paris.  And then to the US as a forty-year old man where he lived as a writer and as a faculty at the best institutions: Stanford, Harvard, Wellesley,and Cornell.  And then to move back to Europe--to Switzerland--in 1961 where he lived until his death in 1977.  I wonder if he would have ever imagined that the Soviet Union would disintegrate a mere decade later.

The copy that I am reading includes extensive notes by an acclaimed scholar, Alfred Appel, who--and I know this only because I did a Google search--died six years ago.  The intellectual accomplishments of Nabokov and Appel immediately expose me for who I am--an academic fraud.  My job title ought not to have a word like "professor"--a word that the world used in addressing the likes of Appel and Feynman and so many others.

Appel writes about Nabokov's intellect:
[A] scientist, linguist, and author of fifteen novels, who has written and published in three languages, and whose vast erudition is most clearly evidenced by the four-volume translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, with its two volumes of annotations and one-hundred page "Note on Prosody"
Those were some giants!

And then there were the butterflies.  Nabokov's expertise on butterflies is not any secret, of course.  I remembered reading an essay about that in the New Yorker not too long ago.  Again, thanks to Google, I tracked it down.  That essay's beginning says it all about Nabokov the intellectual:
Vladimir Nabokov once said, “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” The famed author exhibited both equally in his writing and in his non-literary pursuits, which included lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths. Although he is of course best known for his intricate novels and essays, the past decade has seen a rediscovery of Nabokov’s entomological ventures. On Tuesday, the Times revealed that a team a scientists had vindicated a nearly seventy-year-old theory of his about the development of the Polyommatus blue butterflies
That New Yorker essay quotes the following from an interview that Nabokov gave in 1967:
The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.
The unexpected twists and turns in life!

All these thoughts even before I have gotten to the first page of chapter 1 of Lolita.  It doesn't surprise me though.  And I look forward to more. A lot more.

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