What did Nabokov think of Humbert? A new collection of his essays shares unvarnished opinions

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – Vladimir Nabokov wrecked what might have been my youthful debut on the literary scene.

Many years ago, I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College when I met the freelance writer, Colette expert and all-around Francophile Robert Phelps.

A man of immense charm, Phelps had persuaded an editor at McGraw-Hill to bring out a new collection of the best short stories of Prosper Merimée.

The project’s hook lay in its contributors: Each story – Carmen, The Venus of Ille and a dozen others – would be translated by a different, and notable, literary figure of the time, all friends of Phelps’. If I recall correctly, these included Susan Sontag, Ned Rorem, Richard Howard, Louise Bogan and James Salter. With typical generosity, Phelps then asked me to join this distinguished company.

I was assigned the folkloristic Federigo, about a man who tricks his way into heaven, worked hard on my English version – and then saw all my hopes dashed. It turned out that our McGraw-Hill editor had paid a vast sum for Nabokov’s Ada, believing that this overlong, overwrought novel would repeat the success of Lolita. Instead, it bombed and all the editor’s other contracts – including the Merimée – were cancelled.

Oddly enough, my publishing misfortune spurred a fascination with Nabokov that continues to this day. While reading Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, edited by Nabokov scholars Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, I mentally totted up the occasions I’d written about this Russian American master since his 1977 death at age 78. I’d reviewed Nabokov’s selected letters, all three volumes of his lectures on literature, his correspondence with critic Edmund Wilson, his last incomplete novel, The Original of Laura and both volumes of Brian Boyd’s magisterial biography, as well as Nabokov in America by Robert Roper. What’s more, I’d been invited to introduce a New Directions reprint of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and, more recently, the Folio Society’s Lolita.

You’d think this would be enough Nabokoviana for one lifetime, given that I’d even reviewed the dreadful Lo’s Diary by Pia Pera. Surely, I told myself, Think, Write, Speak would consist mainly of archival leftovers – and yet I couldn’t resist devouring its 500 pages. Like Oscar Wilde or WH Auden, Nabokov fearlessly professes such “strong opinions” – the title of the previous collection of his nonfiction – that he’s always immense fun to read.

In Think, Write, Speak Nabokov regularly dismisses Dostoevsky, Zola, Dreiser, Faulkner, almost all Soviet writers (including Pasternak), Camus and Roth as artless and mediocre journalists, even as he praises the mastery of Shakespeare, Pushkin, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce, Proust and Updike. Interviewers are told, over and over, that he hates clubs, unions, causes, demonstrations and processions, but most of all cruelty or brutality of any sort. Lolita, he repeatedly declares, is his favourite book and Laughter in the Dark his weakest.

Overall, there’s no doubt that Think, Write, Speak will chiefly appeal to the Nabokov completist.

Still, any sensitive reader will linger over the beautiful sentences with which Nabokov enriches even his most casual prose.

Rejecting all attempts to find messages or social commentary in his work, Nabokov insisted that his carefully constructed fiction simply aims to elicit aesthetic bliss. Still, it can also be very funny, notably in his two finest novels, Lolita and the tricky, trapdoor laden Pale Fire.

Not surprisingly, then, Nabokov periodically teases his interviewers.

As Nabokov elsewhere declared in Think, Write, Speak, “All writers that are worth anything are humourists.”