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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, December 31, 2010

Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov ...and RL Stevenson!

My earlier post about Austen, Nabokov and Twain....

...was picked up by an alert member of the Nabokov listserv and I have received a couple of very interesting responses, including the following, from Stan Kelly-Bootle, to which I responded as follows:

"Arnie Perlstein’s interesting comments reveal some of the paradoxes inherent in language, and especially those that bedevil our honest assessment of particular quotations from Nabokov’s diverse writings."

Stan, thank you very much for _your_ interesting reply to my comments. ;)

"Arnie seems to be aware of the inherent, inescapable ambiguity of all natural language. IF we feel that Nabokov is teasing and burlesquing (irony, humour, sarcasm, hyperbole, ...) we naturally praise the very lack of precision expressed so precisely. VN’s real ‘thoughts’ (we are pre-convinced that he’s no misogynist foe of Jane) are beautifully conveyed by statements to the contrary. In humourless Boolean terms, expressing P as NOT-P is the epitome of NON-precision!"

I concur.

"However, since we are equally convinced of VN’s dislike of Freud, Lenin. Stalin (more ...), we interpret his denigrations as precisely worded and Irony-Free."

The key point that you have not mentioned is that I am not relying solely on what Nabokov said about Jane Austen in isolation, but on the Mark Twain/Pride and Prejudice "Chinese Box" subtext beneath those remarks. I would not have claimed Nabokov was being ironic if not for that subtext, it is what "seals the deal".

And I have one additional "Chinese Box" to add to Nabokov's very elaborate joke--Note that Nabokov, in replying to Edmund Wilson, says that instead of Jane Austen, he will read Robert Louis Stevenson instead. While it might have been possible that Nabokov mentioned Stevenson of all writers because he was a fan of Stevenson's writing, what shows that this is part of the same elaborate joke is that Stevenson wrote the following in a short piece entitled "A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas":

"Elizabeth Bennet has but to speak, and I am at her knees. Ah! these are the creators of desirable women. "

So are we to believe that it is _also_ a coincidence that the writer whom Nabokov names as an alternative study subject just happens to be a writer who, like Twain, has made a forceful statement in print about Pride and Prejudice, and that it is Lizzy Bennet who is specifically mentioned, being the speaker of the lines in Pride and Prejudice which spawned (I claim) Twain's _and_ Nabokov's comments about Pride and Prejudice?

The odds of such a 5-part coincidence are microscopically, vanishingly small!

So, again, this is not just about a few lines that Nabokov wrote which might or might not be ironic--it's about a series of nested Chinese Boxes of the literary mind of Nabokov, exactly what one would expect from the author of an elaborate literary game like _Pale Fire_!

Cheers, ARNIE

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