Tuesday, March 9, 2010

High Quality Writer-On-Writer Action

I'm way behind on this, but I just discovered a great Martin Amis piece in the Guardian on Nabokov and The Original of Laura from last November.  I've never read anyone better on VN than Amis.  Though he's returned to the topic again and again, each time he's able to cast light on some additional aspect of the great man's genius.

In the Guardian piece, he dismisses TOOL (apparently, Nabokov was fond of this acronym for his final, unfinished novel) as the work of a mighty talent in inevitable, sad decline, while still acknowledging the value in its publication.  As many others have done, Amis notes the obvious efforts by the publishers to make a barely formed work, "somewhere between larva and pupa", into something resembling a full-length book by boldly probing the limits of the white-space-to-black-text ratio.  Amis uses Laura as a jumping-off point to consider two (largely overlapping) subsets of Nabokov's work into which it falls, the "late work" and the "nymphet" novels.

Amis loves and respects Nabokov enough to confront his shortcomings and moral ambiguities directly.  His consideration of the moral dimensions of Nabokov's (literary) obsession with young girls and his diagnosis of the late decline as a loss of love for the reader, though not indisputable in their conclusions, are examples of Amis' ability to interrogate his hero under harsh lighting rather than presenting him in gauzy, soft focus.  Amis knows that the work can stand up to the scrutiny; no need to smear Vaseline on the lens.  This is literary criticism practiced on a level that is too rarely seen.  It's a pleasure to read and makes me sorry I missed Amis' Nabokov-celebrating appearance at the 92nd St Y around the time the article was published.

[Update: Over at TNR.com, William Deresiewicz has a considerably longer takedown of Laura, a surprising amount of which is devoted to attacking Dimitri Nabokov.  Say what you will about his handling of the Laura affair, Dimitri's work as his father's translator, not as his editor, is the work for which he will be remembered, a 24K literary legacy.]

[Update #2: Just found a long and fascinating piece by Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd on Laura and other still-unpublished VN writings.  Boyd methodically weighs the pros and cons, and ultimately comes down on the "pro" side, providing a useful counterweight to all the negative responses to Laura.]

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