Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  Nabokov, having fled the Communist revolution, was not sympathetic to ideologies that made light of Western freedoms and individual privilege, up to and including the individuality of the author. But in a deeper sense, the disjunction between Nabokov and la nouvelle critique is philosophical. It has to do with how Nabokov thought about reality:Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information, and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless.

  But this is a different kind of interpretive hopelessness. For Barthes, hermeneutics and epistemology have been subjected to a twin crisis: there is no there there. With the Author dead, no longer the past of his own text, nor its source of nourishment or final meaning, the scriptor merely “traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.” And this crisis in authorship, for Barthes, has consequences far beyond the little world of novels and their readers:In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing ), by refusing to assign a “secret,” an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.

  Just as we must give up the urge to know the reality of the text, we must also give up the hope of knowing the world in its ultimate reality. There can be no more “deciphering,” we must settle for “disentangling.” Power is relinquished. Not so in Nabokov’s world. In Nabokov’s portrait of subjectivity you can still decipher by degrees. The lily can be more or less real, and there exists an ultimate reality even if we can never know it. Still, we can come close. To approach the reality of a novel, as readers, Nabokov asked that we bring biographical,24 historical, cultural, entomological, and linguistic knowledge to the task, not to mention attentive care, empathy, synesthetic acuity, and a keen visual sense. There can be ever more accurate readings of the lily. And there can be, consequently, philistine misreadings, a fact Barthes’s portrait of the prepotent reader (blissed out, picking her way through a riot of potential meanings, constructing a text playfully, without limits) refuses to acknowledge.

  But Nabokov was no cold-blooded empiricist and he was not blind to the indeterminacy of writing. For him, too, there existed a blissful, unfettered, nonhierarchical experience of meaning—but it came earlier in the process. Not while the reader reads, but before the writer writes, in a moment that precedes composition: “Inspiration.” Nabokov split this old-fashioned word into two Russian parts. The first half of inspiration, for him, is vorstog (initial rapture). Vorstog describes that moment in which the book as a whole is conceived:A combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away and the non-ego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.

  Here the author dies, momentarily; here meaning is indeterminate and free flowing. Vorstorg “has no conscious purpose in view”; in vorstog “the entire circle of time is conceived, which is another way of saying time ceases to exist.” But after this comes the second stage: vdokhnovenie (recapture). And it’s here that the actual writing gets done. In Nabokov’s experience, the two had quite different natures. Vorstog was “hot and brief.” Vdokhnovenie “cool and sustained.” In the first you lose yourself. In the second, you are doing the conscious work of construction. And while making the choices good writing requires, the Author exists, he circumscribes, he controls, he puts walls on either side of the playground. The reader, to read him properly, would do well to recognize the existence of these walls. The Author limits the possibility of the reader’s play.

  In The Pleasure of the Text and “S/Z,” meanwhile, we find Barthes assigning this work of construction to readers themselves. Here a rather wonderful Barthesian distinction is made between the “readerly” and the “writerly” text. Readerly texts ask little or nothing of their readers; they are smooth and fixed in meaning and can be read passively (most magazine copy and bad genre writing is of this kind). By contrast, the writerly text openly displays its written-ness, demanding a great effort from its reader, a creative engagement. In a writerly text the reader, through reading, is actually reconstructing the act of writing, a thrilling idea with which Nabokov would sympathize, for that was the kind of active reader his own work required.25 But then Barthes imagines a further step: that by reading across the various “codes” he believed were inscribed in the writerly text (the linguistic, symbolic, social, historical, et cetera), a reader, in an active sense, constructs the text entirely anew with each reading. In this way Barthes reverses the hierarchy of the writer-reader dynamic. The reader becomes “no longer the consumer but the producer of text.”

  Hard to know for sure what Nabokov would have made of that. My guess is he would have found it unhinged. He disliked literary theory in general. (“Every good reader has enjoyed a few good books in his life so why analyse the pleasures that both sides know?”) It’s probably for the best that he didn’t live to see the kind of post-Barthes (and post-Foucault) campus criticism that flowered on both sides of the pond during the eighties and nineties. Wild analogy; aggressive reading against the grain and across codes and discourses; a fondness for cultural codes over textual particulars. You remember the sort of thing:The Trans-gendered Suitor: Refractions of Darcy as Elizabeth’s True Sister in Pride and Prejudice:

  Daisy, the Dollar, and Foucault’s Repressive Hypothesis: Portraits of Sexualised Capital in The Great Gatsby.

  Please Sir Can I Have Some More: Bulimic Rejections of Self in Oliver Twist.

  I’ve written a lot of essays like this. And found it a wonderful thing, to feel so free. The novel was mine to do with as I wished with, to read upside down, back to front or in entirely anachronistic terms. That kind of freedom makes writers of readers, liberating us from the passive and authoritarian reading styles we are taught in school (Hard Times = British education system in Victorian England). When we read instead in an active way we get to reinscribe dusty old novels into our own interests and concerns. There is a joy in getting someone to hand us their butterfly so we can spend twenty pages making the case for its being our giraffe.

  But Nabokov believed in the butterfly qua butterfly. For this reason, when I first read his Lectures on Literature I was disappointed.26 Was this really Nabokov? The apparent analytic simplicity, the lengthy quoting without commentary. The obsession with (what seemed to me) utterly banal details: the shape of Gregor Samsa’s shell, a map of Dublin, the exact geographical location of Mansfield Park. And the questions he set his students! What color are Emma Bovary’s eyes? What kind of house was Bleak House? How many rooms are in there? You have to reset your brain, away from the overheated hustle of English departments, before you can see how beautiful those lectures are. How attentive. How particular. When it comes to rereading, Nabokov felt, “one should notice and fondle details.” These lectures are a marvelous, concrete example of that principle.

  For Barthes, ideologically tied to a post-Marxist analysis, a bad reader was a consumer and an ideal one, a producer. For Nabokov, the reader is neither. Nabokov’s ideal reader is something resembling a butterfly collector, with an interest both empirical and aesthetic. For his ideal reader, the text is a highly particular thing, and the job is to appreciat
e and note its particularities. If nothing else, in these lectures we find a mirror image of how Nabokov himself hoped to be read. For he felt his own work to be multiplex but not truly multivalent—the buck stopped at Nabokov, the man who had placed the details there in the first place. His texts had their unity (their truest reality) in him.

  Consequently, seriously variant interpretations of his novels were only so much poshlust27 to him, to be filed next to “Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over concern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.” This makes him a hard author to write about. He seems to admit no ideal reader except himself. I think of him as one of the last, great twentieth-century believers in the autonomy of the Author, as Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the last believers in the Architect. They both specialized in theatrical interviews, struck self-regarding and self-mythologizing poses, all of which would mean nothing (the Author being dead, you don’t have to listen to his self-descriptions) if it weren’t for the fact that they wove the restrictions and privileges of authorship into the very fabric of the things they built. For it’s true that each time I enter Pnin I feel its author controlling (via an obsessive specificity) all my reactions, just as, in Wright’s Unity Temple, one enters through a small, low side door, forced to approach the magnificence of the interior by way of a series of awkward right-angled turns. There is extraordinary, almost overwhelming beauty in Nabokov—there is also an oppressive rigidity. You will live in his house his way. Nabokov’s way means giving up the reader’s traditional linear right-of-way through a novel (starting at the first page and ending at the last) and confronting instead a network of connected leitmotifs, quotations, clues, and puzzles that are not so much to be read as deciphered. Faced with a Nabokov novel it’s impossible to rid yourself of the feeling that you’ve been set a problem, as a chess master sets a problem in a newspaper. I am always tormented by the sense I have missed something—and Nabokov makes me feel my failure. The Author, he claimed, “clashes with readerdom because he is his own ideal reader and those other readers are so very often mere lip-moving ghosts and amnesiacs.” He claimed to be writing, instead, “mainly for artists, fellow-artist and follow artists,” whose job it was to “share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author—the joys and difficulties of creation.” Follow artists! In practice this means subsuming your existence in his, until you become, in effect, Nabokov’s double, knowing what he knows, loving as he loves and hating his way, too,28 following each nuance, pursuing each reference, in what amounts to a reader’s mimeograph of the Author’s creative act. (And there exist many people who hate Nabokov for precisely this reason.) It is a reversal of the Barthes formulation: here it is the reader who must die so that the Author may live. There is a sensible school of thought that argues all writing makes us do this29—but few writers make you feel your subjection as Nabokov does. The only perfect tenant of the house that Nabokov built is Nabokov.30


  When you teach Nabokov to students, along with the usual complaint that his vocabulary is unnecessarily baroque, they want to know whether all this game playing, all this punning complexity is, in the end, truly for the reader at all. They scrunch up their noses and direct you to a particular passage: “Now, isn’t this just Nabokov basically getting himself off?” The question is a fair one. The elusive, allusive, pleasures of the Nabokovian text—whose pleasures are these, really? When asked about “the pleasures of writing” in his Playboy interview, Nabokov answered: “They correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading, the bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader: by the satisfied writer and the grateful reader.”

  But isn’t the aside vital? Doesn’t satisfaction trump gratitude? With our twenty-first-century passion for equality, gratitude seems a slavish sort of attitude to take to an author. Is that truly our reward for being Nabokovians, for reading and rereading, pursuing every butterfly, every long-vanished Russian émigré poet? Nabokov thought so; he felt that what he offered his reader, and especially his rereader, was not the antic pleasure of their own interpretations, but the serious satisfaction of twinning the emotion of creation: I would say that the main favour I ask of the serious critic is sufficient perceptiveness to understand that whatever term or trope I use, my purpose is not to be facetiously flashy or grotesquely obscure but to express what I feel and think with the utmost truthfulness and perception.

  By following all his threads, you are doing more than reading, you are given the opportunity to precisely reconstruct the bliss of vdokhnovenie, of Nabokov’s own writerly act. (And maybe even a trace of vorstorg. Nabokov thought that the “force and originality involved in the primary spasm of inspiration is directly proportional to the worth of the book the author will write.” We might hope, then, for a trace of the propellant to be left after the explosion.) The difference is that Nabokov asks that we admit it is the author’s gift in the design, rather than our gift at connecting the dots, that is truly meaningful, and meaning producing. No matter how I try to slot them together, Nabokov goes a certain way along with Barthes and no further. Reading is creative! insists Barthes. Yes, but writing creates, replies Nabokov, smoothly, and turns back to his note cards.

  Maybe we can say that Nabokov makes his readers so very creative that we are liable to feel that we ourselves have made something. Pnin rereaders can follow the Lermontov hints (to a poem called “The Triple Dream”) and the Tolstoy hints (to “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”) and find in those texts miniature versions of Pnin’s Russian doll structure, mise-en-abymes placed by Nabokov into his novel with the care of Van Eyck.31, 32 They are so hard to see, such particular details, that you feel you placed them there yourself. And the experience of rereading Pnin is never perfect or finished—there’s always some new detail to fondle. A newcomer to Nabokov will notice only the actual butterflies fluttering around; as you get further in, you’ll start to notice the entomology sunk deep into the weft and weave. Those Nabokovian words, pressed into service for quite other purposes, which, upon closer inspection, reveal their hidden wings and abdomens (bole, crepitation, Punchinello33). And it’s only on this most recent rereading that I think to kneel in front of my desk, place a glass of water at eye level and position a comb, on end, behind it. Zebra cocktail!34 Nabokov saw it—now I do. And it’s beautiful. Gratitude does not seem out of place.

  Whether one quite approves of it or not, it’s a Nabokovian assumption that if you work to give him back what he has given to you, this should be reward enough (for you). His students learned this soon enough.35 And of course Vera lived it. (The character most closely modeled on Vera—Zina, from The Gift—is praised by the narrator for having a “perfect understanding . . . for everything that he himself loved.”) Here Barthes comes up against a wall of pure Nabokov. Barthes scorned that “image of literature, to be found in ordinary culture, [which] is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his hates, his passions.” And then Foucault, in the essay that answered Barthes’s own, and deepened it, identified the Author (or “Author-function”) as “the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.”36 In Nabokov’s case, the arrow hits its bull’s-eye: this author’s high-handed rules about reading, his various strictures concerning interpretation, and his defensive humiliations of his own potential readers (especially on the topic of Freudian critics and Lolita37)—these all work to “impede[s] the free circulation, the free manipulation, the composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.”38 But a question I never asked as a college rereader, now bothers me as a writer: and what of it?

  It was meant to be obvious, to the college rereaders we once were, that any restriction on the multivalent free flow of literary meaning was not to be stood for. But to speak for myself, I’ve changed my mind. The assumption that what a reader wants most is unfettered freedom, rather than limited, directed, play,39 or that one should automatically feel nostalgia
for a bygone age of collective, anonymous authorship40—none of this feels at all obvious to me anymore. The house rules of a novel, the laying down of the author’s peculiar terms—all of this is what interests me. This is where my pleasure is. Yet it must also be true that part of the change in my attitude represents a vocational need to believe in Nabokov’s vision of total control. Nabokov’s profound hostility to Freud was no random whim—it was the theory of the unconscious itself that horrified him. He couldn’t stand to admit the existence of a secondary power directing and diverting his own. Few writers can. I think of that lovely idea of Kundera’s: “Great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.” This, in part, is what Barthes had to tell us and what Nabokov wanted to dispute. Maybe every author needs to keep faith with Nabokov, and every reader with Barthes. For how can you write, believing in Barthes? Still, I’m glad I’m not the reader I was in college anymore, and I’ll tell you why: it made me feel lonely. Back then I wanted to tear down the icon of the author and abolish, too, the idea of a privileged reader—the text was to be a free, wild thing, open to everyone, belonging to no one, refusing an ultimate meaning. Which was a powerful feeling, but also rather isolating, because it jettisons the very idea of communication, of any possible genuine link between the person who writes and the person who reads. Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. To this end I find myself placing a cautious faith in the difficult partnership between reader and writer, that discrete struggle to reveal an individual’s experience of the world through the unstable medium of language. Not a refusal of meaning, then, but a quest for it. Whether it is “ultimate” or “secret” meaning, seems to me besides the point and rather a sleight of hand on the part of Barthes; by using such terms he forces a monumental, essentialist, and theological discourse on a relationship that is in fact far more hesitant and delicate than he allows. Nabokov is not God, and I am not his creation. He is an Author and I am his reader, and we are stumbling toward meaning simultaneously, together. Zebra cocktail!

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