Nabokov’s Critique of Dostoevsky: Some Thoughts

fyodor-dostoevsky_2-tI am not sure of the nature of the enduring attraction Dostoevsky holds over me. Nabokov, who esteemed him poorly, but whose offhanded tone often conceals real depth of thought, particularly as regards matters artistic, made a number of acute observations about Dostoevsky, chief among them that he was a playwright of brilliance burdened by a novelist’s ambition. This dramatic disposition leads to a negligent attitude with regards to the sensory textures that form the bedrock of poetic truth (incidentally, this is what is magical, though it tends sadly to be passed over in favor of more obviously lurid sexual and political aspects, in the better novels of Mishima, the fact that nothing exists outside of time: the white faces of the Kabuki actors, “powdered even more meticulously than usual,” a golden fan giving off scarlet reflections as it oscillates, a “late-flowering gentian.” Nabokov rightly notes such details are absent in Dostoevsky):

If you examine closely any of his works, say The Brothers Karamazov, you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist.

Nabokov goes on to describe the novel as:

a straggling play, with just that amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors: a round table with the wet, round trace of a glass, a window painted yellow to make it look as if there were sunlight outside, or a shrub hastily brought in and plumped down by a stagehand.

All this is true, and yet I cannot contemn Dostoevsky as an artist, and in his most heart-wrenching moments –– Ivan’s rejection of theodicy, which he cannot reconcile with the suffering of children, the shimmering suppressed chapter of the otherwise mediocre Demons, or the episode of Ilyusha and the toy cannon, which even Nabokov acknowledges the excellence of (I cannot help but mention, because Nabokov himself was so merciless with readers who got such things wrong, that the cannon in question is brass or bronze and not silver, as Nabokov has it) –– in these moments, he reaches a degree of pathetic sublimity to me far more moving than the bombast of Tolstoy when one of his personages has some grand realization or other, though I understand why Tolstoy is thought the better artist.

Perhaps the gravamen here is what passes for a novel, and how much this has changed in recent years. While the roman à clef and its analogues have existed for centuries, they bore a basic similarity to the novel proper, which could be described in terms of a number of generic criteria; this is true even for many of the apparently quite radical books gathered under the rubric “modernist.” Since the late 1960’s, however, the novel has come to be defined apophatically: for me the book that marks a turning point is Peter Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance, though there must be many precedents I am unaware of. From that time forward, the novel becomes a refuge, however nominal, for a kind of prose that, while eschewing conventions of character and plot, longs for a kind of poetic freedom that established non-fiction genres abjure.

Nabokov describes Dostoevsky as a genius of spiritual morbidity. It is representative of the kinds of radical divergences of symbolic longings upon which so much of artistic taste is founded that Dostoevsky’s expression of this genius, which strikes me as sublime, should not even enter, for Nabokov, into the domain of art as such. One is used to disagreements of taste arising from disagreements over principles, but I find very little inapposite in Nabokov’s ideas about Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky is a sentimentalist, a blowhard, his plots are creaky, he writes potboilers, he has little feeling for the sensual, and yet for me, none of this matters, I can find all that is missing from him in the writings of others and these others do not quell my desire for what he offers. Nabokov claims to be an advocate of disinterested appreciation, I myself have always considered this idea to be a chimera, the aesthetic transposition of court etiquette into the domain of the spirit. It is clear, in any case, that Nabokov’s objection to Dostoevsky is as much personal as aesthetic, that he finds him a distasteful character, and his remarks on the subject are illuminating:

We must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive.” A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at the Traviata. A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on. Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoevski, we mean the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.

This last comment is most important, marking as it does what is precisely so despicable in tearjerker books and films (for a witty send-up of a particularly awful subset of this genre, which one might dub that of the sagacious retard, see the Dewey Awards skit from Mr. Show here). Sketching out an innocent being, pulling the usual heartstrings, and then subjecting that creature to some florid disaster is a cheap technique, and one Dostoevsky employs promiscuously; yet whereas Nabokov seems to think it is for effect, I liken it to what traumatology refers to as intrusive memory. Zinaida Trubetskaya reports that Dostoevsky confessed to her that when he was a child, a drunken soldier had raped one of his playmates. He ran to fetch his father, a doctor, but it was too late; the child bled to death. Dostoevsky was famously affected, like Nietzsche as he fell into madness, by the brutality of a coachman beating a horse in the street. The recurrence of situations in which children, but also countless other avatars of innocence, are abused and degraded, fits neatly with the concept of repetition compulsion, according to which, by means of symbolic re-enactment, one tries to gain control of a traumatic situation that has entirely overwhelmed one’s capacities.

In his attempts to approximate the psychology of the wicked, Dostoevsky comes sufficiently close to the bone that the presentiment of a degree of contamination is not unwarranted. This seems to me the origin, not only of a part of Nabokov’s comments on his sentimentality, but also of the calumny spread about him by the writer Nikolay Strakhov to the effect that Dostoevsky had, with the aid of a governess, raped a child in a bathhouse. (He appears to have purposely twisted an anecdote Dostoevsky recounted from his newspaper reading, which he was considering placing in a novel, and the accusation has never been taken seriously, to my knowledge). In fact, as Nabokov notes, the profiles Dostoevsky comes up with, to use the contemporary cliché, are highly dubious, and tell us more about Dostoevsky’s hysterico-religious tendencies than about the depths of the criminal mind:

He liked to torture, and because of this, he raped a child (Notes to The Demons)

His plots are risible, his only plausible psychological types are ramifications of his own shortcomings (zealous enthusiast, drunken sentimentalist, desperate profligate, brooding habitué of that moral masochism Jankélévitch so brilliantly describes as pseudo-austerity), and yet there is something about him that is indispensable to me: an unwillingness or incapacity to look away from deviance and a sense that to do so it is to vitiate, in some fundamental way, the entirety of the human experiment.