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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov

In another online venue, someone quoted Nabokov writing to his friend Edmund Wilson,

"I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE,"

and then advising his students to

"form a habit of searching with unflinching patience for the right word, the only right word which will convey with the utmost precision the exact shade and intensity of thought. In such matters, there are worse teachers than Jane Austen."

...as evidence that Nabokov was not a Janeite and was not extending high praise to Jane Austen's writing.

To which I replied as follows:

I take Nabokov's comment to Wilson about Austen as a very sophisticated joke, meaning precisely the opposite of what you claim, and here is why.

First, listen for the irony in "I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced [ha, ha!], in fact against all women writers. They are in another class." Do you imagine that Nabokov was actually prejudiced against all women writers, and would, if so, acknowledge such an absurd opinion to his friend, whom he knew to be a great admirer of Jane Austen? It is highly unlikely! Which alerts us to dig a little deeper, and to investigate whether this is a put-on.

And it happens that such an investigation by a knowledgeable Janeite shows that Nabokov was not (to paraphrase John McEnroe) serious! This was an inside joke by a sophisticated literary scholar, as Nabokov was, I claim, echoing Mark Twain's very famous very negative comment about (not coincidentally) Pride and Prejudice:

"Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone"

Of course Twain's ironic twist was that you don't reread a novel you don't like often enough to refer to "every time" you read it! And there are other examples of Twain's faux hostility toward Austen's writing as well, which I am convinced that Nabokov, the careful scholar and himself master of the literary put-on, also recognized.

And, by the way, Twain was not just making a joke in isolation, he himself was simultaneously implicitly revealing his own Austenian erudition in his little joke. How? As a reader well versed in Pride and Prejudice would recognize, Twain was actually paying an additional sly homage to the following very famous line in Pride and Prejudice itself, when Elizabeth Bennet betrays her own attraction to Darcy during her rejection of his first marriage proposal:

"From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the
last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

The "tell" is that within a month after meeting Darcy, and long before he proposed to her, Elizabeth was actually weighing the pros and cons of marrying him! (and isn't that just plain spectacular dialog-writing anyway?)

So we have Nabokov creating a very elegant little Chinese Box of nested veiled allusions, all based on the theme of overtly stated dislike betrayed by unconscious revelation of unconscious attraction.

But as far as I can tell, Wilson did not get the joke. Nabokov was playfully responding to Wilson's earnest exhortation to Nabokov: "Jane Austen is worth reading all through--even her fragments are remarkable". And here is Wilson's reply to Nabokov's (mock) dissing of Jane Austen and all female writers: "You are mistaken about Jane Austen. I think you ought to read Mansfield Park..." That's when Nabokov _pretended_ to capitulate and read Mansfield Park, when I would bet the house that he
had read all of Austen long before.

And anyway, that latter quote you found, which I was not previously aware of--for which I thank you---about finding the right word--is totally in synch with the argument I just made. Coming from a pedantically precise writer like Nabokov, the "only" right word, the "utmost" precision, the "exact" shade, these are genuine accolades.

This is not damning with faint praise, this is high praise burlesquing as faint praise by the ironic reference to there being "worse teachers than Jane Austen". Nabokov was clearly a writer who, even in his nonfiction, was very concerned with achieving subtle ironic effects--and that is most of all why I believed he was a passionate Janeite, because I believe his deep study of Austen's writing only enhanced that quality in his own, and Austen was indeed a _great_ teacher for him....

Cheers, ARNIE

2 comments:

Sonya said...

I disagree that Nabokov was a Jane Austen-ite, nor do I think you proved that his first comment was anything but sincere. I confess I don't see what the Mark Twain quote has to do with it.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Sonya, thank you for taking the time to comment---I am sure you will not be surprised that I hold 100% firm in my opinion about Nabokov's covert (actually not so covert) admiration for, and frequent emulation of, Jane Austen's writing, in particular for her infinitely subtle and often savage irony, and her addiction to punning and wordplay.

As for Twain, what I did not mention in the above post is that Twain is famous in Austenian circles as being harshly critical of her writing, mostly based on comments he made in letters to his good friend Wiliam Dean Howells, who was a rabid Janeite.

So I see Nabokov, who surely knew Twain's writing and critical opinions very well indeed, as emulating Twain in writing a mock-critique of Jane Austen, which is actually, when viewed through the proper ironic lens, a veiled homage.

And Nabokov decided the best way to show his covert admiration for Austen, and also for Twain's covert admiration for Austen, was to pull the leg of a good friend in private correspondence, something Jane Ausgten also did a lot in her own letters.

So there....

Cheers, ARNIE PERLSTEIN
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter