"Imagining Nabokov" by Nina Khrushcheva : A review


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"Imagining Nabokov" by Nina Khrushcheva : A review

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Editat: feb. 10, 2008, 3:54pm

Imagining Nabokov - Russia Between Art and Politics by Nina Khrushcheva

(Biographical note: Nina Khrushcheva is the great-grand-daughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, now living and teaching in the United States.)

I find this book difficult to describe in any but the broadest terms, namely, as a cross-cultural study. It is not a literary study of Nabokov's individual works; nor is it specifically about Nabokov the person himself; nor is it either too specifically about the literary author or his life, although that comes closest.

One can read on the jacket that "Nina Khrushcheva successfully creates a bridge between the Western 'privacy' and the Russian 'cosmology.' But, to understand what that means, one has to read the book and come to terms with Khrushcheva's, and Russia's, rather different points of view and terminology.

In my own words I would say the book is a dense and frequently confusing study of the phenomenon of Nabokov compared with, and contrasted to, the cultural phenomenon of Russian messianism and the social phenomenon of Russian communalism. Or, in simpler terms, it is a comparison of Russian and Western cultural values. The three foci are: Nabokov's Westernism, Russian Messianism and Russian Communalism, with Nabokov's life and writings providing the fulcrum for the general discussion.

The clearest statement of literary contrast that Khrushcheva sees occurs right at the outset. (p1)

"(Nabokov) created characters of a kind dramatically different from those readers had come to expect in Russian Literature: sufferers, revolutionaries, and madmen; men and women subservient to fate and in search of escape and salvation; people who readily excuse weakness (particularly their own) and see destruction and death as desirable ends.
A unique quality of Nabokov's characters is that, instead of exulting in the spirit of compassion and sympathy, rebellion and submission, that Russian literary characters -- certainly those in Gogol and Dostoevsky -- are supposed to indulge in, they take responsibility for their own lives. They are often strong and positive in their outlook, in a manner almost unknown to Russian literary sensibility. They make individual decisions, not only at the risk of seeming self-centered and arrogant like their predecessors Onegin and Pechorin, but also with no qualms about doing so."

Nabokov has established a different direction that Russian writing might take if it so chose. However Khrushcheva is disappointed that Russian writers do not yet seem so to choose. The communal and messianic urges cause them to reject the westernized approach of Nabokov, in effect asking, "Who is he to criticize our Pushkin?"

By way of introducing her discussion of Western vs Russian viewpoints, Khrushcheva comments that (p11)
' . . .both societies see each other through a looking glass of mythologies that represent (and sometimes substitute for) the living reality.

Sharpening her focus, she more carefully defines her views of Western and Russian cultural differences in terms of Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" as typical of Western outlook. while she points to a quote from Dostoevsky as quintessentially Russian.

Weber's definition of an ethic of everyday behavior conducive to economic and social success is as valid for analyzing the transition of post-colonialist societies as it was a hundred years ago for understanding their Western counterparts. His thesis that Protestantism (more accurately it Calvinist branches) by affirming the doctrine of predestination for each believer individually, created a new kind of man -- rational, orderly, diligent, productive -- thus remains useful in the context of my study. . . . People of all faiths and no faith can grow up to be rational diligent, orderly, productive, clean and humorless. . . .

Russia in its turn will be looked at from the point of view of the favorite Russian maxim, usually attributed to Dostoevsky: "We are probably backward but we have a soul," which in conjunction with Abram Tertz's observations on Russia's national philosophy and psychology provide for a reasonably accurate picture of our cultural mentality --inefficiency, patience, passionate emotionality, belief in miracles and material sacrifice, support for a 'strong' (and often Utopian) state, devotion to an (awesome) ruler, as well as affinity with rebels and revolutionaries."

Khrushvheva describes her first-hand reaction to Western attitudes and contrasts them to Russian communalism (p4)

"Nabokov and his works taught me "Westernization" first hand., i.e. how to be a single ' I' instead of a member of the many 'we' in that vast, undifferentiated, traditional Russian collective of the peasant commune, the proletarian mass, the Soviet people, the post-communist Russian nationals. It is the eternal We that Yevgeny Zamyatin depicted (1921) as a One State dystopian society, in which everyone is open to the gaze of everyone else in order to assure collective unity, a 'we' in which individuals are of no value and free will is the cause of unhappiness. From Zamyatin's notion of a nation of 'we's -- of sweeping revolutions and generalizations, which look with disdain at small deeds and bleed to save humanity but won't lift a finger to save a lone human being -- Nabokov sought to liberate the thinking 'I,' with its requirement that each person achieve independence, particularly of conscience and reason. . . .
On the other hand, to the centuries-old Russian way of thinking, the individual is inferior to the community because the communal way of life -- of brotherly equalizing love -- forms the essence of Orthodox Christianity which occupies the core, and is at the origins of, Russia's national self-definition.
In Russian understanding, Christianity is not just a faith the nation was baptized into. The Russian land itself, Russian nature was baptized and therefore assumed a God-favored and comforting aspect. In the people's belief, Christianity is not just a human but also a cosmic harmony."

Later she provides an exposition of how this 'cosmic harmony' segues into what I believe has been referred to as Russian 'messianism.' (p27)

"The nation has repeatedly boasted of its various special forms of greatness. First it was the holy Russian soul, so superior to Western practicality. In the fifteenth century, after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Moscow was declared a 'Third Rome,' the savior of spiritual Christianity. The seventeenth century united this spiritual mission with imperial expansion, which eventually encompassed a landmass spanning eleven time zones. In the early twentieth century, the imperial and spiritual missions became one, as Russia became the bastion of world communism. In the twenty-first century high oil and gas prices have helped Russia's president to rebuild and maintain the image of a 'strong state,' . . . So mankind would once again tremble with respect and fear, this time not at the prospect of a Red Army invasion but of a Gazprom cutoff of gas.
Russian cultural instincts, in which communal ideas and a 'great state' agenda remain more valued than individualist principles, helped determine the success of Putin's policies."

The clearest specific example of the difference between the 'Russian way' and the 'Western way' occurs in a comparison between business negotiating techniques. (p21)

"It was a matter of fierce pride for any Bolshevik: Russians read more than any other people on earth. In the post-modern era, this fact bewildered countless Western economists and management consultants, who could not help but note that hypothetical and literary concepts have a far greater hold on Russia's people than practical ones.
These Westerners often dubbed Russian culture as "high context," meaning that the way Russians communicate is loaded with hidden content -- background information shared only by the 'insiders' versus the 'others.' In negotiating a business contract, as a high-context culture Russia favors a 'circular way of thinking,' they complained. For example,'circular Russian thinkers' tend to approach the deal as a whole -- panoramically, artistically -- and want to solve all the problems all at once. On the contrary 'low context' cultures, such as Anglo-Saxon American ones, do not rely on hidden knowledge, provide factual explanation understandable to all, and use 'linear thinking' in order to try to resolve problems one at a time -- evolutionarily."

It is against these cultural and social backgrounds that Khrushcheva was challenged when she lectured. She was pointedly asked, for example, (p35)

"Who are you to teach us about Russia while living in America?"

while her own view simply stated is (p20)

"How to survive and succeed in this Western world, which Russia has always deemed linear, cold and calculating: this is what the art of Nabokov teaches us."

This parallels exactly Nabokov's own Western view quite closely(p17)

"He proved to be the first to foresee his country's transformation into one that should find its place in an open, individualistic, yet global world: 'I cannot predict anything though I certainly hope that under the influence of the West, and especially under that of America, the Soviet police state will gradually wither away.' "

Khrushcheva's views Nabokov as a Westernized writer who has escaped from the Russian grasp -- been thrust from it actually -- in contrast to other writers who rushed home as soon as they could, like Solzhenitsyn.

Later in the book, Khrushcheva does actually undertake an evaluation of Nabokov's literary style and stature. In the chapter "Poet, Genius and Hero" we find her stacking him up against Pushkin, Avram Tertz, Osip Mandelshtam, Chekhov, even the great Dostoevsky, in addition to the acerbic criticisms of Khodasevich and Edmund Wilson (after their break in friendship). In brief summary, it seems to me that her evaluation is that "He is great, but he is not that great." In fact I don't think one can find the simple statement "Nabokov is a great author" any place in the book, without its also being modified or trimmed down in some way. One finds for example:

" 'Nabokov, the prose writer, is a great conjurer, although he may not be a true wizard. His magic is stage magic: consider Khodasevich's observation that "Sirin doesn't mask his devices at all, . . .on the contrary: Sirin displays them himself, immediately showing the laboratory of his magic. The top hat with the rabbit inside, the coloring powders -- it's all sleight of hand, a simulation of true sorcery.' Poetic Pushkin on the other hand is a true sorcerer"

But if there are ways in which Nabokov doesn't quite measure up, there are in addition definitely negative ways that he must also be taken to task for.

"My usual trouble with Nabokov is not that he is vain and peremptory. After all, Pushkin knew his own worth too. The difference is that Nabokov didn't pay for the privilege of comprehending his gift, for insight that altered the balance between humanity and nature. Pushkin paid . . . when d'Anthes shot him dead in a duel . . . Old Tolstoy ran away from home and died a miserable death in some obscure train station. Gogol was buried alive, in a trance, . . . .
But Nabokov got away with it. . .He had a stellar career in American letters. He published in prestigious journals. . . .Lolita is now an American classic. . . . He's been translated the world over. Emigration was good to the author. . . .
Real emigrants (especially Russian communal emigrants) are supposed to suffer from their expatriation solitude. Good emigrants run back home at their first opportunity . . as did Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. . . ."

"Not fair" she later says, that Nabokov can "get away" with his outrageous attitudes -- even arrogance -- without having to suffer in compensation, as the Russian communal morality would require.

How unfair!
How unfair that he has escaped from the Russian communal grasp?
How unfair that he has lived in the West and not come back?
How unfair that he has prospered in the West, outside the messianic Russian world?
How unfair that he had become famous apart from the Russian community?
How unfair that he has become famous without having to suffer for his success?
And above all, how unfair that he can have independent and strong -- even arrogant -- opinions without having to bend his neck to Russian communal norms?
Yes! How unfair the free West is to the insular Russian outlook!
And it is in exactly these attitudes, which one can see throughout the book, that the Westernized Khrushcheva's Russianness still shows.

For me, a Nabokovian and a linear Westerner, this has been an alternately interesting, frustrating and irritating book to read, what with its repetitions, its contradictions, and its occasionally gratuitous sharp personal opinions. But perhaps that is its 'circularity' and its 'Russianness,' like a large snowball with many ideas aggregated together, any of which can be taken up at any time and re-examined again from a different angle.

As I have thought about the book, and penetrated a little further into it each time that I have picked it up, I finally have to say that it is a fascinating examination by a woman with a foot in each of two cultures, looking at an author who stands similarly, with roots in each of two cultures.

I think I'll be going back to it from time to time for quite a while with pencil in hand, because it seems like it is an onion that has to be peeled in two directions at once, if I am to finally dis-aggregate and understand the author's themes in my linear Western perspectives. (That is a mixed metaphor, but it is perhaps also 'Russian,' in mixing disparate ideas together all at once, and it is possibly also appropriate to the confusing style is which Khrushcheva writes.)

feb. 10, 2008, 4:22pm

I've only read part of Imagining Nabokov, but from what I have read, your review is very accurate, I would only add that NK doesn't seem to be able to make up her mind how she really feels about VN, she admires him greatly on one hand, but resents his success on the other. Resents on the level that he didn't stay, or come back to Russia, and remain totally "Russian".

I find her an irritating author I have to say.

feb. 10, 2008, 4:28pm

I appreciate your views very much. It is indeed difficult to follow her thinking, and there are still two chapters in the middle of the book that I find very opaque. I think I am not circular enough, or she is not linear enough, but she loses me.

4ALK Primer missatge
feb. 19, 2008, 8:30am

I've read the whole book, and must say, found it very entertaining. Surprised by the comment though, of course she has made up her mind--Nabokov is the Pushkin of the 21st century, a roadmap for the Russians and so on... Khrushcheva's irony about the general Russian resentment of the West could hardly be read as her own resentment of Nabokov's success... If her contemplating commentary on Russia and Nabokov is read as her wish that he should have stayed (and died) under communism, she may well be right--we are indeed way too linear to understand the complexities of exile, history, politics, fiction, etc.

Editat: feb. 19, 2008, 9:44pm

ALK, I'm interested to see you refer to a part of her expressed attitudes as irony. I found it equally easy to imagine that she had different intellectual and visceral emotions about Nabokov and couldn't keep them sorted out. Her head told here he was roadmap etc; her heart told her other things. Perhaps that's the hazard of using irony, if she did.