Fondling Detail

Like gratin dauphinoise or silky foie gras Don Quixote has left me stuffed, unable to do more than graze. It is rare I start a second book while committed to a first, but I have begun the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, David Crystal’s The Stories of English and am still rereading Borge’s Ficciones. Each captures my attention for an hour or two but I soon am distracted by another voice.

To add anchovies to the dauphinoise (as you really must), I started leafing through Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Nabby is just the professor to call attention to one’s inadequacies as a reader. His minute examination of Madame Bovary accentuate texture and detail I am barely aware of after rereading twice. I must surely reread again soon with the help of Nabokov’s gimlet eyes. “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” Here, he elucidates the difference between master artists and minor authors:

Time and space, the colours of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the interpretation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognise their own ideas in a pleasing disguise.

Detect that wonderfully icy disdain, rolling down from that ivory tower? When reading, Nabokov let no detail pass unquestioned. In works of genius, every detail had a purpose and was worthy of minute examination. “Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy’s art the good reader must wish to visualise, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago.”

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other brands of knowledge.

4 thoughts on “Fondling Detail

  1. >Vladimir is just the professor to call attentions to one's inadequacies as a reader.Oh my, yes. It's almost terrifying, isn't it? This description of minor writers and readers is almost—almost—enough to make me want to crawl in a hole and never pick up a book again. The inadequacy!

  2. >Nicole – Those fortunate Cornell students that were taught by Professor Nabokov were, I imagine, either broken or set up for a lifetime's devotion to literature.I have read Madame Bovary twice but fail to recall the colour of Emma's eyes. I would have incurred Nabokov's disdain.

  3. >I had a prof (now a Russian scholar and Nabokv specialist!) who took this class. He told us about an extra-credit question on the final, about what some of the characters in Mansfield Park had for breakfast.Onw quibble, though – there's no ivory tower here, Cornell aside. This is Nabokov telling us how to read Nabokov novels. This is the view from the trenches.

  4. >Amateur Reader – I love that story about Mansfield Park; I read something similar about the wallpaper in Anna Karenina.Quibble accepted; all Nabokov novels come alive on rereading.

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