Writers Nabokov (Dis)Likes

A badly-referenced collation of Nabokov’s literary likes and dislikes:

Listed by author: – “I go by books, not by authors” – VN

Likes

  • Samuel Beckett – (but not his plays) “Beckett is the author of lovely novellas and wretched plays in the Maeterlinck tradition. The trilogy is my favourite, especially Molloy.”
  • Andrei Bely – “Petersburg is a splendid fantasy”
  • Bergson
  • Alexander Blok
  • Robert Browning
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Anton Chekhov
  • Norman Douglas
  • Emerson
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Franz Kafka
  • Nikolai Gogol (non-Ukrainian stories)- “at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable”
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Franz Hellens – “Speaking of precursors of the New Novel, there is F H, a Belgian, who is very important … I tried to get someone in the States to publish him … but nothing came of it.”
  • Housman
  • Ilf and Petrov
  • James Joyce (Ulysses, at least – not Finnegans Wake)
  • John Keats
  • Jorge Luis Borges – “Borges is … a man of infinite talent”
  • Hermann Melville
  • Osip Mendalstam
  • John Milton
  • Yuri Olesha
  • Edgar Allen Poe (but only as a youth)
  • Proust
  • Pushkin
  • Raymond Queneau – “Q’s Exercises in Style is a thrilling masterpiece and, in fact, one of the greatest stories in French Literature. I am also very fond of Q’s Zazie.”
  • Rimbaud
  • Alain Robbe-Grillet – “His fiction is magnificently poetical and original”
  • J D Salinger
  • William Shakespeare
  • Laurence Sterne – “I love Sterne”
  • Leo Tolstoy (some) – “I consider Anna Karenin the supreme masterpiece of c19th literature. It is closely followed by The Death of Ivan Ilyich … “
  • Ivan Turgenev
  • John Updike
  • Verlaine
  • H G Wells – “his romances and fantasias are superb”, “a writer for whom I have the deepest admiration is HGW … I could talk endlessly about Wells”
  • Mikhail Zoshchenko

Dislikes

  • Bertolt Brecht
  • Bryusov
  • Michel Butor – “I do not care for Butor.”
  • Albert Camus – “It is a shame he [Franz Hellens] is read less than that awful Monsieur Camus.”
  • Cervantes (“a cruel and crude book”)
  • Joseph Conrad – “I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style” – “I differ from Joseph Conradically.”
  • Theodore Dreiser
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky (his best work is The Double, “a shameful imitation of Gogol’s The Nose“) – “I dislike intensely The Karamazov Brothers and the ghastly Crime and Punishment
  • Ilya Ehrenberg
  • T S Eliot – “the not quite first-rate”
  • William Faulkner – “Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles”
  • John Galsworthy
  • Nikolai Gogol (Ukrainian stories only) – “at his worst … he is a worthless writer”
  • Maxim Gorky
  • Ernest Hemingway (except for “The Killers” and “the wonderful fish story”)
  • Henry James – “I really dislike him intensely”, apart from the odd turn of phrase
  • James Joyce (Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but not Ulysses) – “I detest Punningans Wake” – “the unfortunate Finnegans Wake is nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac” – “Actually, I never liked A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I find it a feeble and garrulous book.”
  • Nikos Kazantzakis
  • D H Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover certainly)
  • Lorca
  • Thomas Mann (the “asinine” Death in Venice certainly)
  • Odoevski
  • Boris Pasternak – “Pasternak’s melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago”
  • Plato
  • Luigi Pirandello – “I never cared for Pirandello”
  • Ezra Pound – “the pretentious nonsense of Mr.Pound, that total fake”
  • Romain Rolland
  • Jean-Paul Sartre – “and even more awful [than Camus] Monsieur Sartre.”
  • Rabindranath Tagore
  • Leo Tolstoy (others) – “I detest Resurrection, I detest The Kreutzer Sonata … War and Peace, though a little too long, is a rollicking historical novel”, though basically written for children
  • Thomas Wolfe
  • Yevgeny Yevtushenko -“I’ve seen his work. Quite second-rate. He’s a good Communist.”
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin

Writers for children

  • G K Chesterton
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Joseph Conrad
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Tolstoy (War and Peace only)
  • Oscar Wilde

Not familiar with

  • John Barth
  • Thomas Pynchon

References:
17 June 1962 NYHT Books Interview

Paris Review interview


BBC Audio Interview – 4th Oct 1969

Wisconsin Studies, 1968

Playboy, 1964

TV-13 NY, 1965

Conversations with Nabokov, Novel: A Forum on Fiction (Spring, 1971)

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21 thoughts on “Writers Nabokov (Dis)Likes

  1. Hi Nana. – On the basis that Nabokov likes brilliantly written, carefully wrought novels which have no political slant whatsoever, I’m guessing he wouldn’t like very much at all.

  2. Hi Miguel

    Hopefully the links still work; I really must test them again.

    The book he wrote, “Strong Opinions”, has a lot more quotes (I have it somewhere, but didn’t use it to compile this – not sure if it includes any of these interviews), as well as a lot of other infuriating opinions about literature.

    My opinion on Nabokov is in fact very similar to my opinion on Borges: he could be very, very good; and he could be very, very bad (or, at least average – a few less stories about Argentinian knife-fighters perhaps).

  3. Great list by Nabokov. Interesting that I like some of Nabokov’s works when I also enjoy many on his dislike list from Brecht, Gogol, Kazantzakis, Pirandello, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, to Gorky. 🙂

  4. It just goes to show that none of us like entirely the same things when it comes to literature. I’ve been enjoying quite a lot of Conrad recently. I find it difficult to understand why Nabokov wouldn’t like him: he writes interesting prose; he isn’t political. Perhaps it’s just not classically artistic enough for him.

  5. Let us with alacrity add to the list of dislikes Saul Bellow, that “miserable mediocrity,” whose stupendously insipid third-rate prose, and utterly annoying pseudo-philosophizing not good enough for the post-lecture bar-discussion amongst sophomore drunks, make him surely the most overrated writer of the twentieth century. Just try reading his Henderson the Lame King, and see if it comes close to the spritely writings of King Charles Kinbote the Second of my Zembla.

  6. Yes, there’s a lot of good Nabokov quotes I don’t have here. Your comment led me to this marvellous article about his opinions, where he describes Borges’ “flimsy little fables”, which makes me laugh a bit – because there’s no novel, not even Moby Dick, which has disappointed me so much this year as Pale Fire, a novel which strikes me as remarkably like one of Borges’ little fables (how far is it frankly from Bustos Domecq’s interpretations of works of art?) but stretched out tediously to 300 pages.

  7. I’m fairly certain that the article mentioned has confused Borges, whom Nabokov thought brilliant, with Gabriel Garcia Marques, who he thought second-rate. I can’t find the exact reference to Marques. However, given that N. describes Borges as a ‘genius’ elsewhere (Strong Opinions + Wisconsin Studies interview- 1967), it seems unlikely that he would have, in addition, characterised him as a spawner of ‘flimsy, little fables’. Excluding the possibility, therefore, that the dismissive quote is directed at Borges, it seems a reasonably apt, albeit slightly severe, description of Marquez’s literary output, which is soaked through with magical elements etc. Considering, in addition, that Marquez and Borges are syllabically similar names and that both hail from South America, it is plausible that the writer of the article has replaced one with the other.

  8. (I omitted the link in my last post – it is here).

    I’d be inclined to agree about Borges, but looking around the internet, I’m not so sure:

    “At first, Vera and I were delighted by reading him. We felt we were on a portico, but we have learned that there was no house.”

    TIME magazine article of May 23, 1969, p. 83.

    The quote above comes from, Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940 – 1977, pp.532-533:

    “I appreciated your kindly sending me your elegant piece on PALE FIRE – I confess, however, to be puzzled by the connection you find between my work and Borges’ flimsy little fables.”

    It appears his opinion on Borges changed around 1969.

  9. Interesting. I’m not sure I agree with him then. I’ve only read labyrinths, but it struck me that Borges had deliberately removed ‘the house’ in order to underscore the vanity of our pursuits after ‘truth’, ‘the self’ or ‘substance’. As I took it, B’s aim was less to impart meaning than to evoke a sense of disquiet.

  10. I think you might be right about Borges’ removal of the house. At least, if he intends the apparent meaning of his works, I’d be inclined to think the less of him for it. Perhaps though there is also a sameness to Borges’ works, which might incline you to think similarly.

    I don’t find I agree with too many of Nabokov’s opinions – in fact, I remember the prime emotion I felt reading his book Strong Opinions was anger. Dostoevsky, Conrad, Faulkner? – Though I find his novels tedious, I’ve just reread Mann’s Mario and the Magician, which is a wonderful novella.

  11. Surely you’re jesting your readers when you declare Moby Dick and Pale Fire to be disappointments. These works for different reasons are sufficient to send one into an ecstasy of artistic appreciation; the one for telling by implication a perfectly coherent tragedy with nothing but a confused jumble of delusional annotations on a very touching poem, the other for its electrifying prose and profundity. May the following two quotations work like pawn and queen on a sleepy neophyte:

    From Pale Fire: (‘demesne’ is pronounced duh-MEYN)

    “[A]s we were crossing from his demesne to mine and had begun working up between the junipers and ornamental shrubs, a Red Admirable came dizzily whirling around us like a coloured flame. Once or twice before we had already noticed the same individual, at that same time, on that same spot, where the low sun finding an aperture in the foliage splashed the brown sand with a last radiance while the evening’s shade covered the rest of the path. One’s eyes could not follow the rapid butterfly in the sunbeams as it flashed and vanished, and flashed again, with an almost frightening imitation of conscious play which now culminated in its settling upon my delighted friend’s sleeve. It took off, and we saw it next moment sporting in an ecstasy of frivolous haste around a laurel shrub, every now and then perching on a lacquered leaf and sliding down its grooved middle like a boy down the banisters on his birthday. Then the tide of the shade reached the laurels, and the magnificent, velvet-and-flame creature dissolved in it.”

    From Moby Dick: (“where’er” is pronounced wair-ERR)

    Chapter 37. Sunset, The Cabin, By the stern windows; Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out.

    “I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.
    Yonder, by ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun—slow dived from noon—goes down; my soul mounts up! She wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear?”

    Checkmate, my friend. Enhoneyed sentences like these will always trump the rumblings of a captious critic.

    Those who took delight in the above two specimens most certainly will wallow in the liquid prose of Melville’s Encantadas, and the sparkling blue ocean of Nabokov’s short stories.

  12. Your proof is wasted on me, I’m afraid, since I’ve never denied that these two authors aren’t fine stylists. (I even quoted that exact passage from Moby Dick in my review of it). But as Nabokov says himself at the top of this page, “I go by books, not by authors”; and who can fail to be bored by the anatomy of whales; or find the conceit of Pale Fire in truth rather silly?

  13. Perhaps this goes to show how unnatural it is to admire the entirity of any given writer’s oeuvre. Everyone has a particular profile of response that runs essentially counter to any generalised enthusiam or its opposite – and Nabokov’s was a more idiosyncratic and opinionated nature than most. For myself, I find Borges mannered to the point of sententiousness – and yet ‘Tlon, Uqbar…’ is one of the thought-provoking and multi-faceted stories I’ve ever read

  14. Perhaps this goes to show how unnatural it is to admire the entirity of any given writer’s oeuvre. Everyone has a particular profile of response that runs essentially counter to any generalised enthusiam or its opposite – and Nabokov’s was a more idiosyncratic and opinionated nature than most. For myself, I find Borges mannered to the point of sententiousness – and yet ‘Tlon, Uqbar…’ is one of the most thought-provoking and multi-faceted stories I’ve ever read.

  15. Hi Alastair, sorry your comment was stuck in the spam filter for so long.

    I agree. Nabokov and Borges in particular are for me very divisive writers: I love for instance Nabokov’s The Gift, but I couldn’t bear Pnin or Pale Fire; and Tlon, Uqbar etc is my favourite Borges, but others of his stories I find remarkably bad; and it’s certainly true he is mannered: I find Borges a very unnatural writer. It’s almost as if he had so much reverence for tellers of tales because it was a skill he himself didn’t possess.

  16. Obooki you are so wrong about Borges. Borges was as natural a writer as they come, provided you understand what it was he was doing. He sought to challenge the stability of reality in fiction – looking instead to dreams, maps, libraries, encyclopedias, etc which shaped and determined our perception of it. This underwrites all of his stories in different ways and makes him stand out as one of the most innovative writers of the past century. So know what you’re talking about.

  17. As for Nabokov’s list, first off, let me say that I’m sorry for coming to this discussion so late.
    Needless to say the list says more about Nabokov than about the quality of these works. Granted he was a passionate literary critic and commentator which I feel excuses him having the opinions he did but they don’t sully the quality of the works themselves. His hatred for books like Tolstoy’s political writings, Boris Pasternak, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Paul Sartre and Maxim Gorky all demonstrate his dislike for political fiction of any kind whatsoever, preferring that which went “beyond politics” so to speak (for him). His own outlook was fairly conservative and staunchly anti-communist, which wasn’t surprising given his background as a semi-aristocratic Russian emigre. His hatred for Tagore isn’t surprising – he couldn’t appreciate non-Western writing, but then again to be fair, Tagore was only available in selected translation, and that too his mystical writing, at the expense of brilliant realist and materialist fiction that hadn’t been translated from Bengali at the time. Some of his other literary criticisms are just idiosyncratic and a matter of taste, as with Conrad, Thomas Mann, TS Eliot etc. I think his criticisms of Finnegan’s Wake and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man demonstrate a profound weakness in his appreciation of Joyce. This may be just me but you cannot say you love Ulysses without appreciating Joyce’s larger goal. Ulysses is but one part of Joyce’s experiment with fiction, which began with Dubliners, continued with Portrait, built up to Ulysses and finally culminated in Finnegans Wake. One may not like it personally, but to objectively denigrate it while celebrating other aspects of Joyce is to fundamentally misunderstand him.
    I’m all down for Nabokov’s likes.
    I disagree with Obooki’s view that Nabokov is something of a hit-miss. That may be his opinion but taking in his writings as a whole, you have to appreciate and marvel at his larger experiments with style and narrative as a late modernist. Taking inspiration from the best modernists, Nabokov wrote books in both Russian and English that took questions of alienation and impressionistic writing as found in Proust one step further to give us beautiful artworks of descriptive writing that challenged how we looked at reality, both in the story and in general. Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift are some of his best in this regard. And while he was no lover of political fiction, he also gave what may be the best sociological analysis of postwar American consumerism in Lolita – a meditation on the changing landscape of a booming nation overtaking Europe as the new world power in the aftermath of a brutal war, with the Old World only able to struggle to catch up and lust after it pathetically (hence Lo and Humbert’s relationship). And name me one example of someone who outdid Nabokov’s use of the unreliable narrator in Pale Fire (hint: there is none). That and Pnin’s disappearance from his own novel anticipate some of the best moments in postmodern fiction. Indeed, they are among his best works and while you may not like them personally, to say they show how divisive they are as writers is very misinformed.

  18. I agree that I am wrong and misinformed about many literary matters; I have often thought so; though it is a comfort I am no worse in this respect than Nabokov.

    Perhaps, through your expertise on Borges, and this discovery of the ludic key of the questioning of the stability of reality in interpreting his works, you could answer me a question about Borges which has long puzzled me.

    Borges recommended two lists of great books of literature for people to read, which you can see here. The second of these lists in fact formed a series of books which were published under Borges’ supervision, and for which he wrote the prologues (which I’ve discovered here, in Spanish).

    But why did Borges choose these books? Why so many second-rate writers like Chesterton, HG Wells, Arthur Machen, Villiers de L’Isle Adam, Kipling, Saki, Lord Dunsany, David Garnett, Hugh Walpole? Why so few modernists and post-modernists – and why those ones? Did they have anything in common with the other writers? And what does this say about Borges’ literary interests? – Because I don’t think Borges was joking in his choices.

    It would be fun actually to compile another list of likes and dislikes for Borges – I have no doubt it would be far more heterodox than Nabokov’s – but I imagine his opinions are less readily compiled and accessible already.

    I note in those prologues, Borges actually criticises Nabokov’s criticism of Dostoevsky, “En el prefacio de una antologĂ­a de la literatura rusa Vladimir Nabokov declarĂł que no habĂ­a encontrado una sola página de Dostoievski digna de ser incluida. Esto quiere decir que Dostoievski no debe ser juzgado por cada página sino por la suma de páginas que componen el libro.” – Or what does “quiere decir” means (“wants to say”); is he just wilfully misinterpreting it?

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