27
Aug
13

The Opinionated Lepidopterist: Vladimir Nabokov – Strong Opinions

Strong OpinionsAn interesting collection of interviews, essays and letters, Strong Opinions presents the late novelist Vladimir Nabokov doing just that: having strong, occasionally grumpy and usually clever opinions on nearly everything.

Maybe you’ve read his autobiography, Speak, Memory. That covers the early years of Nabokov’s life. But it stops short of the years many people know him best for: his American years, teaching at Cornell, chasing butterflies across the continent and writing Lolita, Pnin and Pale Fire. And forget his years in Montreux, where he wrote Ada Or Ardor, Look at the Harlequins and others.

Although Nabokov occasionally spoke of writing a second memoir (perhaps titled Speak On, Memory), he never did. It makes a book like Strong Opinions all the more interesting: it shows him speaking about the later period of his life in several ways, collecting a little bit of everything: interviews, book reviews, letters to editors, even lepidoptera papers.

The interviews are the most fascinating and make for better reading than you’d think, mostly because of an unusual caveat Nabokov imposed on journalists: they had to submit their questions in advance and he’d write up responses to them, which they had to run verbatim. Reporters could (and did) talk to him, but he’d only permit direct quotations from these written responses. Even now, this runs against journalistic basic training (day two of J-School: don’t do email interviews), but for Nabokov, many bent the rules a little.

So instead of reading a conversation or a Q-and-A session, each interview comes across like little essays, allowing Nabokov the freedom to pontificate on everything from the correct way to pronounce character’s names, how he meant his novels to be interpreted to his complaints about music. They’re a unique look at the man, his working habits and sense of humor. He trashes writers he doesn’t like: Faulkner is dismissed as “Corncobby” and Ezra Pound is called a fraud. He praises Joyce (but only for Ulysses) and relates the time they had dinner together. He fails to remember a student of his who went on to write one of my favourite novels (although his wife remembers him). And he trashes Sigmund Freud all the damn time.

But he’s also evenhanded: his criticism of Sartre is succinct and doesn’t go out of it’s way to bash the author. And in case you thought VN was a cranky hater, he included an essay on stories he liked: John Updike, John Barth and JD Salinger, among others. Book junkies will get a lot to chew on here, seeing what VN looked for in good literature and how some of the more famous Great Authors failed in his eyes.

The rest of the book is a little more uneven: the letters are interesting once you have some context and the essays are a little more academic than literary, but they’re still enjoyable reading: you get to read him going back and forth with editors and writing a blistering broadside against Edmund Wilson, where he goes out of his way to destroy a former friend over a nasty review of his translation of Eugene Pushkin (here’s a great piece at The Paris Review about this war of wits). But even as VN blows Wilson away, he does it with a sly sense of humour:

“If told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary.”

On the whole, Strong Opinions is great for Nabokov fans who want to know the author a little better (from all sides, including his work as a lepidopterist. But if you’re not already a fan, this won’t win you over. Start with Speak, Memory or one of his novels.

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