Fourth part of a series of posts on University Diaries about an essay by Martin Amis on Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, has just appeared.

Left to themselves, The Enchanter, Lolita, and Transparent Things might have formed a lustrous and utterly unnerving trilogy. But they are not left to themselves; by sheer weight of numbers, by sheer iteration, the nympholepsy novels begin to infect one another – they cross-contaminate. We gratefully take all we can from them; and yet . . . Where else in the canon do we find such wayward fixity? In the awful itch of Lawrence, maybe, or in the murky sexual transpositions of Proust? No: you would need to venture to the very fringes of literature – Lewis Carroll, William Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade – to find an equivalent emphasis: an emphasis on activities we rightly and eternally hold to be unforgivable. [Amis seems to express his thoughts spontaneously here, as he asks himself questions, pauses, produces an ellipsis or two — it feels as though we are following, in real time, the movement of his mind as he attempts to clarify for himself the nature of Nabokov’s obsession, and the degree of condemnation — aesthetic, moral — he ought to bring to it.]

In fiction, of course, nobody ever gets hurt; the flaw, as I said, is not moral but aesthetic. [Something a little too quick and dismissive here, no? No fictional character gets hurt, true. But literature has profound effects upon us, and it’s no good insisting there’s a bright clear line between weightless pretend little stories and the big hefty actual world of moral and immoral human beings.] And I intend no innnuendo by pointing out that Nabokov’s obsession with nymphets has a parallel: the ponderous intrusiveness of his obsession with Freud – “the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world” of “the Viennese quack”, with “its bitter little embryos, spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents”. Nabokov cherished the anarchy of the inner life, and Freud is excoriated because he sought to systematise it. Is there something rivalrous in this hatred? Well, in the end it is Nabokov, and not Freud, who emerges as our supreme poet of dreams (with Kafka), and our supreme poet of madness. [Part of the attraction of this essay lies in its both confident and tentative feel. Amis, from the outset, is a deeply informed lover of the best literature, the sort of practitioner who knows exactly where to go for the most inspiring writing – the most lucid, controlled prose. Yet he also understands, and cherishes as much as Nabokov did, the anarchy of the inner life, and the right of each anarchist to a bit of privacy as he lives that life. And he understands that great literature often emerges, in some alchemical way, from a special sort of mucking about in that inner life — the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, Yeats called it. So Amis in this essay shows you his struggle between a desire to grant the artist’s inner life as much freedom as it likes, and a recognition that what Nabokov, as he got older, did with that freedom — aesthetically — produced both bad art and bad morality. The Freud point is particularly intriguing — that perhaps the root of Nabokov’s way over the top detestation of Freud was his sense that psychoanalytical thought is about bringing to the artist’s conscious awareness internal patterns of which the artist wishes to remain unaware.]

One commonsensical caveat persists, for all our literary-critical impartiality: writers like to write about the things they like to think about. And, to put it at its sternest, Nabokov’s mind, during his last period, insufficiently honoured the innocence – insufficiently honoured the honour – of 12-year-old girls. In the three novels mentioned above he prepotently defends the emphasis; in Ada (that incontinent splurge), in Look at the Harlequins!, and now in The Original of Laura, he does not defend it. This leaves a faint but visible scar on the leviathan of his corpus.

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One Response to “Amis on Nabokov: Part Four”

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    ".. a little too quick and dismissive" — I doubt it. I suspect that Amis has given a good deal of thought, over a considerable span of time, to the moral responsibilities of the writer. And if he’s concluded, for example, that "the male gaze" is not equivalent to rape, but doesn’t want to rehash the argument, I can’t blame him.

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