Here’s a formerly unpublished interview with John Updike which circles around through various topics, some not so interesting anymore, but mainly keeps coming back to Nabokov.
John Updike: I first encountered his prose, and I think the stories as they appeared in The New Yorker. Not all of them appeared. But I’d never seen writing quite like this before, writing so precise and witty, and full of little surprises. And it was those surprises that gave me a kind of ecstatic feeling. I think there is a rapture in Nabokov, which you can take to be a love of life, and also a love of consciousness; a love of the motions of the mind as it deals with whatever—chess is an example. He was a contriver of chess puzzles. And that kind of joy and manipulation is there in a lot of the prose. I don’t really feel the darkness, much—it’s true there’s a lot of dying, a lot of death in Nabokov. The end of Lolita, almost every character in it is either dead or going to die. But I take dying to be for a lepidopterist like him a kind of entry into immortality, just the way a butterfly on its pin, becomes deathless, in a sense, and is preserved. There’s a novel I reckon called The Eye, in which he describes the transition from life to death. And it’s a kind of metamorphosis rather than a termination.
Updike used the word “reckon?” Seems so ungenteel of him …
“…the particular sheen of Nabokov’s brilliance.”
is how I have always felt reading him, too. This sheen that you could never attain, never imitate. But this is also true, not only in reference to Ada, but his work in general, I think:
“I thought it was too much of a good thing in that his, what you might call his narcissistic side, the self-reveling side, the preening, you know that word “preening”: the hero of Ada is Van Veen, which is also like Van Vain, and there was a kind of vanity and a preening and a dandyish cruelty. There is a cruelty in Nabokov, which—you know, life is cruel, so why can’t a writer be cruel? But in that case, it seemed to me to be too much, and in some ways the book was very aristocratic.”
I love Ada, but I think Updike is right here. It was when I recognized just how much cruelty was at the heart of Nabokov’s writing that the spell he had cast on me was broken.
Reading Nabokov is like wandering through a magnificent ice palace, filled with cold aristocratic sculptures of scenes of beautiful cruelty, that you can’t touch.
are indubitably true, in my view.
Goodness, someone kill those last two stray lines, please. Thanks.