Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

"The Quill and the Scalpel" by Stephen H. Blackwell (Ohio State University Press, 2009)

This is about "Nabokov's Art and the Worlds of Science". Science and scientists suffuse his works more than I'd thought. He was a scientist of sorts but had severe limitations, it seems to me. The author says that "throughout this book, I have been encouraging the notion that Nabokov rejected determinism and even causality as fundamental principles of worldly development" (p.184). He didn't like systems and distrusted statistics as a source of illumination.

  • "Nabokov was a naturalist, not an experimentalist ... Nabokov chose simply to observe and study nature at ever increasing levels of detail", p.48
  • "Nabokov was aware that generalizations and abstractions are uncertain and transitory, but a detailed, specific observation has enduring validity", p.172
  • "Nabokov seeks out the insufficiencies at the farthest ends of possible knowledge: biological science, he thought fails to explain some examples of mimicry and of beauty; psychology raises more questions than it answers; and physics seems to arrive at impossible conceptions of 'time' and overemphasizes the power of mathematics", p.168

His attempts to cast doubt on special relativity seem clueless to me. And yet, he was prepared to see literature come under the knife

  • "Nabokov's interest in formalist writing has been clearly demonstrated by others, as has the fact that he made use of their texts and ideas for his own purposes - (illustrating a principle that perhaps eluded the formalists' view: the exploitation by art of criticism and theory itself)", p.50
  • "The artifice ... of literature ... is a constant theme for Nabokov, and it is in order to underscore these gaps and discontinuities, rather than to claim that 'all is language', that Nabokov repeatedly inserts traces of authorial craft throughout his fiction", p.51

He much preferred emergent shape to imposed order, and even then was hesistant to come to conclusions, though he liked some kind of traditional structure in his pieces

  • "Even while exploring some of the anxieties of modern existence, Nabokov's novels and stories follow coherent trajectories of development", p.86
  • "Nabokov's primary focus, in nature, lived life, and art, was pattern", p.87

His writing and science seem pretty closely fused, united by his enthusiasm.

  • "In [the artist-scientist] the scientific work will be colored by the holistic, aesthetic sensitivities of the artist, and the artwork will include traces of the scientist's urge to collect, analyze, experiment, and synthesize", p.55
  • "For Nabokov, art and science both point toward what lies hidden at - or beyond - the limits of reason and consciousness. Art seeks these limits by probing the inner forms of consciousness as the condition of knowledge and experience; science by measuring all the things consciousness can or might know empirically", p.201

Nabokov's detractors fault him for being an aesthete and for his over-attention to language and detail rather than character development. Others don't find his science very deep. Perhaps, for the purists, one side of Nabokov diluted (and distracted from) the other. Yet his short stories (many in the New Yorker) show that he wasn't just a trickster.

His interest in literature as well as science (and his liking of chess problems and word-play, as well as his difficulties with music) interest me. In Portrait of the Autist, Richard Lamb suggests that Nabokov's "extreme verbal facility, childhood obsession with an arcane subject (Lepidoptera), anxiety (four-pack-a-day man into his 40s), a certain sensory neurasthenia" combined with the opinion that "He was a master - the master - of a technique in Russian fiction called ostranenie: making strange. He cultivated the habit of seeing the world anew" all point to him being a high-functioning autist.

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