I posted my thoughts on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature the other day, and now I thought would share some interesting bits from the book. It begins with an introductory lecture called “Good Readers and Good Writers” in which he lays out his argument that “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” This quotation is the simplest way to describe Nabokov’s method, really, as it sums up what he does in each of the main lectures — he looks closely at the details in order to examine the novel’s structure. Isn’t the word “fondle” an interesting one to use here? It captures his very involved, careful, intimate, and emotional style of reading:
So what is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader? It is impersonal imagination and artistic delight. What should be established, I think, is an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind. We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy — passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers — the inner weave of a given masterpiece.
There is a lot to like here, especially the mix of the personal and the impersonal in reading: he calls for an attempt to enjoy passionately while at the same time keeping enough distance to notice what’s going on. I’m not entirely sure how that works, exactly, as passion seems to imply the loss of critical distance, but I know subjectively what he means, or at least I think I do. I also like the idea that there should be a balance between the author’s mind and the reader’s mind — that the reader and author are working together in good faith and with good will to try to create something meaningful.
I’m also amused at the way Nabokov sounds a little like an eighteenth-century woman of sensibility, one who prides herself on her exquisite emotional sensitivity and her ability to cry at affecting scenes in novels, when he talks about “tears and shivers.” But he only sounds like that for a moment, before he moves on to discuss what else besides emotion and imagination are required. Here’s how strong emotion connects to a novel’s detail:
What I mean is that the reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people. The color of Fanny Price’s eyes in Mansfield Park and the furnishing of her cold little room are important.
So detail is a check on emotion, as it keeps us grounded in the specifics of the world the author creates. In fact, Nabokov has already outlined several wrong kinds of imagination and emotion to be found in readers — including the kind that is solely personal because we relate the book only to our own experiences, and the kind that leads us to identify with a character. In an odd kind of way, our imagination and emotions are supposed to lead us beyond ourselves:
We all have different temperaments, and I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience — of an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience — he will hardly enjoy great literature.
I like all these ideas a lot, even if they are abstract. Nabokov ends this chapter with a metaphor, which I also like, although it doesn’t clear up the abstractness:
In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.
I like very much the idea of reading with one’s spine, even if I’m not entirely sure I know what it means. I also like the way a castle of cards can turn into a castle of steel and glass. We know the entire time we are reading that it’s a castle of cards — we know the work is a fiction — but through the magic of a writer and a reader working together that fiction somehow becomes real.