NABOKOV AND THE REAL WORLD Between Appreciation and Defense

Robert Alter

ISBN 978-0-691-21193-0  Princeton


The title suggests that Nabokov, or at least his fiction, is something other than the “real world” and that he is need of defence. The first proposition stems from what Alter sees as the dismissal of Nabokov as a mere artificer, a weaver of intricate patterns, a kind of latter-day Binet producing on his lathe his curious assemblage of shapes which mean nothing and serve no end; the second from his need to erect a protective barrier between the master and such detractors.  

Literature is part of the real world, however fantastical. Reality as we conceive it is, of course, limited by our cognitive, and even physical, abilities. There are frequencies which register no sound for us; but that the universe (as we conceive it) existed long before we did is uncontroversial. Nabokov’s fiction is most definitely part of the real world and what he writes about is indefeasibly part of commonplace human experience. Take Lolita. What could be more real than sexuality, what Joyce called “the motive power of all things”. Humbert Humbert’s sexual impulses are demented and vile, but the entire novel rests on the exploration of arguably the most fundamental human motivation.  

Early on, Alter refers to Nabokov’s rejection of the “herd instinct” and later to his aversion to “group-think”. Nabokov came from quasi aristocratic roots, though his family were staunch liberals. We need to think about what liberalism meant at the time. Take Mill, one of the salient liberal intellectuals. He took the view that England was a morally superior nation. As such, it had the right and duty to intervene in other (lesser) nations, to show them how to behave. That was his view of India. He supported the terrible violence of the British in response to the so-called “Indian Mutiny”. Liberalism embraced a long and erroneous intellectual tradition which saw those with power as engaged in a moral adventure. It was their duty to control those over who they had power, even slaughter them, for their own good. The mistake was the failure to recognise the universality of human nature (still a widespread error). There’s a glib cultural relativism which says: “Well, look at us. We’re advanced. We have AI and democracy. They aren’t like us. We need to make the decisions.” This is presented as a moral position: it’s our moral duty to control them because we’re superior. In fact, they are like us. Just the same. Our biological endowment is universal and cultural differences, like linguistic ones, are possible only because of the rigidity of the inherited limits which produce them.  

Nabokov was a great writer, but how good a thinker he was we have only hints about. Without being definitive, it’s worth questioning whether he was a little too ready to identify with aristocratic entitlement and to evoke “herd instinct” and “group-think” as a means of implying the superiority of the class he came from. In discussing Nabokov’s rejection of totalitarianism Alter says: “In the crucial instance of the exceptional individual, the mind itself refuses to be caged.” The exceptional individual? Totalitarianism has been resisted by the common folk, by bricklayers, plumbers, bus drivers, nurses, shop assistants and by illiterate peasants (look at the people who established the Spanish Republic in 1936) and some of them paid with their lives. Does Alter include them as “exceptional individuals”? 

Nabokov, Alter argues, is irrevocably associated with the moment when the “cultural splendour”of Czarist Russia disappeared. It was a splendour known by a small minority. The condition of the greater part of the Russian population was dismal. If Nabokov’s writing is, as he claims, a monument to that culture, does that imply, in spite of anti-Czarist liberalism, a defence of cultural apartheid? 

Poshlust is defined by Alter as “the fake sublime”, a close relative of kitsch. He also quotes Norman Mailer: “Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.” Nabokov, the conscientious artist, is the enemy of poshlust and its entrenched sentimentality. He is also, in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, the anatomist and dismisser of totalitarianism. In 1969 Alter wondered how a writer could “indulge” in aesthetics in a novel dealing with the horror of totalitarianism but here he understands: the honesty of true art, its refusal of poshlust and sentimentality, is the world’s best defence against the deceits and self-deceptions which are the stuff of dictatorship.  

Nabokov called Lolita a “timebomb”. In a sense, all real literature is: it seldom produces its full explosion in its own time. Alter makes the obvious point that, despite its marvellous parody, its excellent style and its subtle allusions, what makes the novel the source of discussion is its morally dubious subject. The first edition was from the Olympia Press which published much trash. No doubt, in the early days, that didn’t help. It requires a pornographic imagination, however, to respond to the book as anything but the exploration of the mind of a monster. The intriguing question is why this extreme material provided Nabokov with what he needed artistically. Alter sees the value in Humbert’s condition of a man “hopelessly imprisoned in his obsession”. Perhaps it could be argued that it’s the denaturing of Humbert which is so appalling and which provides, if you like, a vivid metaphor for the alienation of modern humanity. Maybe Nabokov required the extreme of dehumanisation in order to explore its more commonplace form. 

Nabokov disliked Freudianism. Humbert’s reliving his disappointed adolescent love in his obsession with Dolores is interpreted as a “parody of Freud”. In this view, Humbert is a conscious manipulator, investing his despicable exploitation of a child with the innocence of calf love. It’s a risky parody, however. Freud aside, there is little doubt deeply negative experiences influence subsequent behaviour. The episode with Annabel took place when they were both twelve, somewhat young for what Alter calls “fooling around” – a typically American example of rendering the most profound experiences superficial. The narrator’s description of his tryst is adult and knowing. It has nothing of the wonder and hesitancy of youthful exploration. How far can we rely on what he says? Perhaps the entire business in nothing but an elaborate excuse. 

Alter sees Nabokov as a practitioner of what the Russian Formalists called “laying bare the device”. Art which advertises itself as art tends to spavin the effect: “A few words more about Mrs Humbert while the going is good (a bad accident is to happen quite soon).” The narratorial intrusion (Flaubert would have winced, his disappearing narrator being in cahoots with the author who must be “present partout, visible nulle part”), disturbs the flow of the narrative, challenges suspension of disbelief and partakes of that knowing refusal of art which Daniel Bell, among others, has suggested may be a sign of immaturity. Art, like games, requires rules. Refusing the rules of tennis scuppers the game. The point about the rules is they set boundaries which make the game work. Nabokov, Alter argues, take two things very seriously in Lolita: the sexual exploitation of a child and the artistic means of writing about it. In spite of all the literary fun and games “moving emotions are expressed”. That seems a fairly flimsy justification. 

Nabokov identifies, in his most famous novel, not with his narrator’s sexual perversion but, Alter argues, with “the celebration of art as a fixative of beauty and feeling”. Is such a celebration beyond Humbert? Alter thinks the novel is a “great love story”. It’s a great lust story, but love is surely about nurturing another’s potential and is incompatible with exploitation. The relation between Humbert and Lolita is not one of love but power. If Aragon is right and “l’amour, c’est d’abord partir de soi même”, isn’t Humbert’s problem his pathological incapacity to escape himself? Does he, for a moment, set Lolita’s needs before his own?  

The novel bears this peculiarity:  it expresses in exquisite prose the most debased motivation. Evil literary characters usually betray themselves: no one can doubt that Iago and Lady MacBeth are wicked. The unnerving aspect of Lolita is the subtlety by which the narrator’s evil is conveyed: the prose is a little too exquisite; it incorporates a persistent but barely signified self-excusing; the reader has to be minutely attentive to spot the expressions of emotional cloying; behind the refined filigree of the writing is an undifferentiated clump of seething, tormenting, regressed needs. 

Alter speaks of the “arbitrariness of narrative conventions” and the “linear structure of the usual traditional narrative”. What’s the difference between “usual” and “traditional”? He’s discussing what he calls the “self-conscious” novel, ie one that refers to the means of novel- making as it makes. Are narrative conventions really arbitrary? There’s a very simple fact about human cognition: we are endowed with a sense of biography: one event follows another and they influence one another. This isn’t a response to external stimuli. If it was it would be weak and hit-and-miss. It’s endowed. It’s part of our biological inheritance. Narrative conventions aren’t arbitrary, they flow from our nature. Just like the rules of tennis make use of our hand-eye co-ordination and anticipation. The mise en abîme ( typically the novel within the novel, play within the play or painting within the painting) is a favourite of the self-conscious novelist. Nabokov makes much of it, as did Laurence Sterne. Of course, this technique is possible only if the conventions of the “traditional narrative”, as Alter calls it, are established. You can’t strip off the cover to show the workings of the pistons if the engine has no pistons. 

Alter insists on the “problematic relationship between literature and reality”, but, as suggested earlier, the problem exists only if literature is seen as distinct from reality. If literature is part of reality, which it obviously is, isn’t Alter saying that the problem lies in the fact that the characters and events of fiction are invented? Why is that a problem? Ibsen said: “The illusion I seek is the illusion of reality.” We are endowed with abstract thought, not just the capacity for it, but the necessity of it. We think in abstractions whether we like it or not. Literature is made from language and all language is creative. If I say “I got out of bed this morning” that is not the act itself but an abstract recording of the event. In a sense, it’s fiction. Even if it’s true, the abstract re-creation of the act is other than the act itself. This is simply built into language. If I say, “I leapt out of bed this morning”, I’ve entered the realms of the fantastical, even if I did.  

In discussing the character of Charles Xavier from Pale Fire, Alter refers to the narcissism of homosexuality, or at least of this iteration. What makes people homosexual? You can read in the popular press of the gene for homosexuality, but as has been wisely observed, no one speaks of a gene for heterosexuality. Mothers have been blamed, but likewise, no one suggests their mother made them heterosexual. Single sex schools similarly. The truth is we have very little idea. Narcissism is ill-defined. At best, it’s a weak sense of self which requires control and entails an inability to respond to the needs of others. To attribute that to homosexuals is somewhat dangerous. Maybe homosexuals simply have some quirk in their brains, some minor difference, like that which makes some people colour blind. Why associate that with pathology? Maybe it’s nothing but a minor difference. 

Pale Fire, Alter sees as a philosophic novel concerned with “how each individual mind filters reality.” Every mind is individual, but their individuality is a function of their likeness. If you speak English, you won’t produce sentences like: “The truly is gone the table.” The rules of English don’t permit it, but they are shared rules. They are collective. If each individual mind filtered language in its own way, there would be no language. Of course, every individual uses language in a unique way, but the uniqueness lies in minor modifications of the given regularities. Even Shakespeare is operating within the narrow and rigid limits imposed by language. He’s aware of them and good at playing with them. Perhaps Nabokov, given his background, harboured a nervousness about the masses which made him retreat into a use of language which would be beyond them. The fact remains, language is our common human inheritance and even the very best writers are no more than millimetres from the everyday language of the street.  

Nabokov described his characters as “galley slaves” and Alter describes him as a “control freak”. He builds new worlds in his fiction, rather than “reflecting the conventionally presupposed one”. Once again, we run up against the facts. The world is what it is. The new worlds Nabokov is supposed to have invented can’t break free of language. Every time he uses a noun he’s recognising that “conventionally presupposed one” which Alter seems to suggest is an illusion. By constantly setting up the straw man of a questionable conventional “reality” in contradistinction to Nabokov’s fiction, Alter is able to knock it down in favour of his beloved author’s “new worlds”. Why does Nabokov need this special pleading? He writes well, but he isn’t without faults. Ce serait trop beau.  

Nabokov was, it seems, a great admirer of that stultifying, antiseptic novelist and theorist, Robbe-Grillet. Alter finds him not guilty of Robbe-Grillet’s crimes against literature ie his wrenching of fiction from moral context, as if the writing of War and Peace were no greater a moral undertaking than solving a popular publication crossword. All the same, he judges Pale Fire the “cleverest piece of fictional cryptography in the English language”. If cryptography adds to the readers’ interest and pleasure, what can be said against it? If, however, it’s a defence against the reader, a barrier erected to prove the author’s superior intelligence, there’s good reason to have doubts. Alter argues that Pale Fire bears “the weight of its author’s personal experience”. Perhaps, in the most fundamental sense, novels always do, even when their subject matter seems remote. Did Nabokov fear giving himself away? Was he wary of the heart on his sleeve? Writers are often private people. They spend a lot of time alone. Yet, if they are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to become famous, they find themselves dissected like frogs in a laboratory. Shakespeare knew what he was doing: he wanted his plays to be famous and his life to be private, which is why we know so little about him.  

Pale Fire’s Kinbote expresses a view of art which Alter believes is also Nabokov’s : “reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art, which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average “reality” perceived by the communal eye.” There appear to be three realities here. At best, the formulation is confused, at worst unhinged. What is the reality which is neither the subject nor object of true art? Does it include the rotation of the planets, gravity, natural selection, birth, procreation and death? Does the special reality of art float free of all these? The formulation has all the hallmarks of a feeble, defensive position. Perhaps Alter isn’t quite right: is Nabokov at some distance from Kinbote’s exorbitant theory? As for the communal eye, this appears to be a prejudice in Nabokov: the idea that a handful of artists see the world in their own way, while the rest of humanity is sunk in collective stupidity. That’s a hard doctrine to uphold when you consider the political leanings of Wagner, Ezra Pound or Celine.  

Alter advances the intriguing thesis that Nabokov chooses sexual experience as the ground of some of his fiction because of its isolating power. He’s right that sexual desire is an extreme of experience and in the extremes we are alone, but sexual desire is also the basis of intimacy, of the shared subjectivity which permits us escape from our isolation. Sex without intimacy, the essence of pornimagery, is very isolating; but porn is clearly a perversion of the instinct. Just as junk food exploits the instinct to nutrition and leads to a crisis of obesity, so porn exploits the instinct for intimacy and generates intense loneliness. Perhaps this is what Nabokov had perceived: it’s not the sexual drive itself, but its diversion into unhealthy pathways that has created a culture of isolates. In passing, it’s worth mentioning that V.S. Pritchett in his lovely little study, The Living Novel, observes that the fault with Dickens’s characters is not, as often claimed, that they are caricatures, but that they are inveterate isolates. As Steven Marcus has shown us, Victorian England was drowning in pornography.  

Kinbote states that Mind must have been involved in the creation of the universe. Alter sees this as Nabokov’s view too, and he appears to endorse it. Perhaps this goes some way to account for Nabokov’s practice as a novelist: everything is over-ordered by the controlling Mind, the characters are “galley slaves”, the author is the god of his universe. Order must be imposed from above. This view is almost certainly wrong. Order is a function of magnitude. There is order in the Milky Way, but not among sub-atomic particles. The smaller you get, the more chaotic. Order grows from randomness. It is not imposed from above but rises from below. Far from it being true that the way the universe is points to the intervention of Mind, it points to the opposite. What kind of rationality would make chaos the fundamental physical principle or randomness the driver of species variation? Mind, as intended here, is exclusively human. Other animals can think, but only we have language and abstract thought. Why? Almost certainly because of a random mutation in a single individual some seventy thousand years ago. Mind could not have created the universe: it took it thousands of years to grasp the earth is flat and the sun the centre of our system. It still has no idea what dark matter is. Mind is the very limited capacity of human cognition. The universe is the product of the cumulative effect of impossibly slow processes working over unconscionable amounts of time. Mind is its highest achievement, but it the universe which made mind not vice versa.  

Ada, according to Alter, is Nabokov’s attempt to regain the paradise of youthful love. His chosen means in incest. Alter sees in the brother and sister relationship “ an image of prelapsarian, unfragmented humanity”. Incest avoidance is more or less universal in human culture. There are good genetic reasons for not mating with close relatives but maybe the Westermarck theory has some purchase and growing up in close proximity creates a particular emotional bond which renders sexual attraction unappealing. No one is sure about the origin of incest avoidance but that it prevails in some form in every human culture seems beyond doubt. The “unfragmented humanity” Alter evokes is a myth. He recognises that Nabokov has combined Greek and Hebrew myths in his pursuit of the Garden of Eden. It appears that just as Nabokov clung to the impossible notion of Mind helping to create the universe, so he was wedded to a conception of a once innocent and unified humanity, whose bliss seems to have been subverted by the arrival of sex, or at least exogamy. No such humanity ever existed, of course. Alter points out the correspondences between the novel and Marvell’s The Garden. The poem evokes the fantasy of solitary bliss in the original garden; male bliss, of course. Kafka is reputed to have remarked that the point about life is that it ends. It could equally be remarked that it reproduces. Sexual reproduction is the most effective form. Whatever innocence or bliss we can attain has to be in keeping with that.  

“Who is speaking here?” asks Alter with regard to a passage in which Pnin reflects negatively on the American orthodoxy in teaching modern languages. Qui parle, is, of course, the famous question raised by Flaubert’s practice; his frequent use of style indirect libre – the incorporation of the thoughts and feelings of characters into the narration. Nabokov is the inheritor of this technique (Jane Austen liked it) and Alter is right, he makes frequent and skilled use of it. Yet there is no great originality in unreliable narration in which the reader discovers simultaneously the character’s sensibility and mentality and the narrator’s and the implied author’s organising, and by implication, superior consciousness.  

“Authentic thinking is the product of individual consciousness” asserts Alter, discussing Nabokov’s dislike of “group-think”. The idea sets up a conflict between the individual and the group, once again suggesting there are a few individuals who think and the mass who engage in something else which gets called “group-think”. Thinking can take place only in individual minds, but individuals don’t live alone and they influence one another’s thinking. “Group-think” is a loose term, applied to opinion in order to disdain it. The collective opinions we like are said the be those of thinking individuals, those we don’t  are “group-think”. When everyone thought the earth was the centre of the universe, that idea was held in millions of individual minds; but all those subjectivities were aligned because of the state of shared understanding. Copernicus and Galileo worked out the facts and everybody’s thinking changed, though not without some distress. That two and two make four is subjective, in that it exists in our individual minds, but it becomes objective by being confirmed by all subjectivities. Some people are better at thinking than others, like some are better at running, but all thinking takes place in individual minds. The moral responsibility of the good thinkers is to put their thinking before the rest of us in the most comprehensible manner; but there is no such think as “group-think” in the sense of thinking taking place somewhere other than in individual minds. The notion of a few individuals who think and the mass who don’t or can’t or won’t is mistaken. Everyone thinks all the time. Try to stop yourself thinking. You can do so only by thinking about not thinking. Thinking is our biological inheritance. Shared ideas are not “group-think”, but what is inevitable. Everyone thinks energy and mass are different forms of the same thing, but they didn’t before Einstein. It isn’t that Einstein had an “individual consciousness” and everyone else didn’t; it’s simply that he was better at thinking about physics. He wasn’t too good at thinking about music though, as his fellow players knew.  

Nabokov saw himself, Alter argues, as the “exquisite Flaubertian artificer”. Flaubert, of course, failed when tried to be too exquisite an artificer. La Tentation de Saint-Antoine deserves little attention and Flaubert’s continual work couldn’t make it anything but misconceived. It was only when his friends forced him from his revulsion with the contemporary and drove him to deal with newspaper events that he produced his enduring masterpiece. Madame Bovary remains modern because Emma is destroyed by money and consumerism; it was by getting down and dirty with the facts of life in mid-nineteenth century France that Flaubert saved himself from literary disaster. In and of itself, exquisite artifice is impotent. As Alter argues, the imaginative sympathy in Nabokov’s work is with the vulnerable and the victimised, just as Flaubert’s is with the characters who are damaged or destroyed by arrogance, ignorance and cynicism.  

Simon Karlinksy, quoted by Alter, believes the creative imagination renders its possessor “solitary” and “freak-like” and that this is Nabokov’s abiding theme. It may well be true that exceptionally creative people don’t fit easily into most social settings, but does their fate deserve to be the prominent theme of art? Shakespeare, Beethoven and Newton may have been misfits, but there were compensations. Creative people sometimes struggle to get their work accepted, of course, and it usually requires some time for their achievement to be fully appreciated. The struggles of the neglected genius are always an interesting theme, but perhaps Nabokov’s focus has a tinge of egotism and self-pity. The idea that the creative genius should receive tribute is dubious: special endowment brings special moral responsibility. Surely artists and scientists should be more concerned with how their work can help common folk to make sense of the world than with the matter of their own rewards.  

Invitation to a Beheading is replete, Alter contends, with poshlust. Totalitarianism loves kitsch. Phoney art is produced in excessive quantities and by mechanical means. Nabokov, of course, isn’t spiking dictatorship simply for its aesthetic idiocy, but the moral vacuity of totalitarianism is reflected in its production of sentimental and cheap sub-art. Totalitarianism is an easy target. More subtle is the way putatively democratic societies use propaganda to control thought and feeling and the way popular culture becomes incorporated in that effort. There’s an interesting example in the way the authorities in nineteenth century Britain (which wasn’t a democracy for the mass of people) closed down the thriving, radical people’s press. They tried the cudgel: legislation, imposition of taxes, but it didn’t work. Then they hit on the idea of the market: if newspapers could be funded by advertising, and if the advertisers were businesses, the radical press could be squeezed out because businesses don’t want to advertise to folk who have little money, or in publications which put the employer-employee relationship in question. Advertising as a way of funding the press made the radical journals less price-competitive and together with rising costs of establishing a paper or magazine, effectively bore down on the radical publications and permitted the marketing-funded, conservative press to gain ascendancy. The totalitarianism of the market. Ostensibly, people can choose. In fact the system is set up to make choice operate within very narrow limits. In the twentieth century, post 1945, the Daily Herald had 8.1% of the national UK readership but only 3.5% of advertising revenue. It was read and liked by the common folk, but it went out of business because the advertising model strangled it. That wasn’t accidental.  

Poshlust is characteristic of the culture of all so-called democracies, particularly America. Trashy, popular culture dominates and assists propaganda in the spread of stupefaction. Adulation of super-rich but modestly talented celebrities transmogrifies into adoration of Trump, the poshlust politician.  

Nabokov is right that poshlust is characteristic of dictatorships, but its prevalence in so-called democracies is perhaps more insidious: in a totalitarian system everyone knows the cudgel, the three a.m. knock, the prison cell, the gulag, the re-education centre await all dissidents; in democracies, people are fooled into thinking they are free and know what’s going on.  

Alter quotes Mailer to good effect in this regard: “Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.” That is just as true of the sensibility of apparently democratic cultures as of the obviously totalitarian.  

Writing of Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory, Alter says it conveys the vividness of his past while recognising that every human past is “swallowed up by oblivion”. Ultimately the universe will attain the oblivion of heat-death, but in human time-scales, do all lives fall into oblivion? The meaning of a life never ends with that life. We live in the memories of others. In fact, the meaning of our life is never what it means for us, but what it has meant for others, which is why loneliness is so painful. We influence others in ways we never know and our influence endures for centuries, in small ways. The notion that every life disappears into oblivion is a function of the egotism of modern culture, where people are encouraged to posit their own view of themselves as the authentic one; but the old adage that we can never see ourselves as others see is potent: it’s what we don’t know about ourselves that others do and it’s what we mean to them that gives our lives significance.  

Alter evokes Nabokov’s “affirmed rejection of a real world outside of literature and the mind” yet claims Nabokov had an “underlying commitment to it”. It’s puzzling: a commitment to something you reject? Clearly there is a real world beyond literature and the mind. They have been possible for a mere seventy thousand years or so, at most, and of course, literature had to wait for alphabetisation, which is no more than a few thousand years old. The real world of the universe is some three and three-quarter billion years old. How can than not be real, unless reality is defined as purely what goes on in human minds? Such an utterly anthropocentric definition of reality robs the term of any sense. The earth as it existed a million years ago was real enough, though we weren’t part of it. Humanity needs to learn a little humility. We are a tiny part of reality and will disappear long before the rest of it does.  

Nabokov apparently saw art as a defence against chaos, which he took to be the nature of things. Alter speaks of the form of chaos represented, among other things,  by “the imbecilities of mass culture” . Are they chaotic? As suggested above, they are deliberate. Mass culture is part of the propaganda system and its purpose is to control thought and feeling so that it tallies with the needs of the prevailing economic and social regime. Nabokov is too serious to be part of it. It’s a fair bet if you asked people at Trump rally who Nabokov was, you’d find every few who know. That’s how it’s supposed to be. If the common folk start reading Nabokov, Kafka, Carson McCullers and Fred Voss, they might get some dangerous ideas in their heads.  

One of Nabokov’s published lectures in on Dickens. He admired his capacity for “figurative invention” as Alter puts it. Perhaps, however, Nabokov ought to have reflected on Kafka’s comment in a diary entry: 

“Dickens’s opulence and great careless prodigality, but in consequence, passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects his has already achieved, leaves one with a barbaric impression, because the whole does not make sense. There is a heartlessness behind his sentimentally overflowing style, these rude characterizations are stamped on everyone and without them, Dickens cannot get on with his story, even for a minute.” 

Nabokov is right about Dickens’s inventiveness, but Kafka has the better of the argument. The whole is meaningless because of the sentimental heartlessness, the characteristic attitude of the nineteenth century British middle-classes. And Mailer is right about sentimentality. 

Nabokov was an excellent translator. He took the view that the translator’s job was to get across the meaning. Alter, in discussing the matter, refers to Adam Thirlwell’s intriguing The Delighted States and picks up on the question of Flaubert, the great stylist. He sees L’Education Setimentale as his greatest novel, a view Flaubert himself rejected, criticising it for lacking “la fausseté de la perspective”.  Alter thinks Madame Bovary more successful in translation because carried along by the determinism of the story of self-deception and demise, while in the later novel, nothing happens. In fact, a great deal happens. The depictions of the June and February days of 1848 are among the best in French literature. That everything is filtered through the narrator’s defeated sensibility isn’t the same as nothing happening.  

Alter is right, that the sound of words carries significance which is hard to translate. The neuroscientist Ramachandran has suggested that phonology isn’t arbitrary but emerges from a pre-existing cross-translation between areas of the brain. Thus, small, tiny, petit, malinki, pequeno are produced by small movements of the lips and tongue; big, huge, grand, gros, bolshoi, by bigger movements. Fudge, sticks the tongue to the roof of the mouth.  The theory may have something to it, but for certain, translators have to sacrifice something.  

Alter does a competent job in defending his man. There is no doubt Nabokov is a great writer. Like all writers he makes a virtue of his shortcomings; but they are few. His contribution to world literature is at the highest level. Alter is right: his detractors usually get him wrong.