Saturday, July 22, 2017

NABOKOV | His One-Off Response to Criticism

Vladimir Nabokov famously refused to respond to criticism. Lolita was subjected to a flurry of critical comments, starting with his American publishers who refused to touch it in 1954.

He published it in Paris in 1955 and sailed on, as the book gained acceptance and broke all records for one-week sales when it finally appeared in the USA in 1958, despite being called "repulsive" by a reviewer for The New York Times.  It was made into movies in 1962 (and again in 1997), and Nabokov was seemingly oblivious to critiques.

In a January 1964 Playboy interview, Alvin Toffler asked Nabokov whether he regretted writing Lolita: "With the American publication of Lolita in 1958, your fame and fortune mushroomed...  to both acclaim and abuse."

Nabokov responded in the negative: "There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet."

Toffler then reminded Nabokov of two different kinds of critiques:
The Book that Smoked Out
Though many readers and reviewers would disagree that her charm is tender, few would deny that it is queer—so much so that when director Stanley Kubrick proposed his plan to make a movie of Lolita, you were quoted as saying, “Of course they’ll have to change the plot. Perhaps they will make Lolita a dwarfess. Or they will make her 16 and Humbert 26.” Though you finally wrote the screenplay yourself, several reviewers took the film to task for watering down the central relationship.
Nabokov as a matter of principle brushed aside criticism, with the one exception of a screed he wrote in 1971.

What smoked Nabokov out of his non-responsive cave was a 193-page book published earlier that year by New York University Press and written by a Russian Literature Professor at George Washington University, Dr. William Woodin Rowe. The book was called Nabokov's Deceptive World.

Nabokov's commentary on Rowe's book appears in the October 7 issue of The New York Review of Books. He doesn't take issue with the first two parts of Rowe's book, but objects to the third, where Rowe identifies sexual allusions in Nabokov's work. Nabokov readily admits to such references:
One may wonder if it was worth Mr. Rowe’s time to exhibit erotic bits picked out of Lolita and Ada—a process rather like looking for allusions to aquatic mammals in Moby Dick.
But he strenuously objects when Rowe goes too far. Nabokov compares Rowe to a student (Wellesley? Cornell?) whom he failed in his course, he says,
for writing that Jane Austen describes leaves as “green” because Fanny is hopeful, and “green” is the color of hope.
It is not my place or interest to add to or settle the argument. My wish is to make a record of Rowe's responses and three judgments of independent commentators, since I delved into the  kerfuffle and discussed it with Professor Rowe as part of my research on his illustrious grandfather, FDR's first Treasury Secretary, William H. Woodin, after whom Woody Rowe (as he calls himself) is named.

Woody Rowe, 1934-.
Courtesy of Dr. Rowe.
Rowe responded swiftly to Nabokov's comments in a November letter to The New York Review of Books entitled "Arbors and Mists." He acknowledged that Nabokov's that his October 7 article was "entertaining." Rowe also wrote an article for a British journal, “W. W. Rowe on Nabokov,” published in Encounter, No. 234, March 1973

Three reviewers familiar with the dispute give more credit to Rowe’s book than Nabokov did:
  • Eric Naiman, in Nabokov, Perversely (Cornell University Press),
  • Andrew Field in “Review of William Woodin Rowe's critical study of Vladimir Nabokov's world, Nabokov’s Deceptive World.” Contemporary Literature Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), 132-135 (University of Wisconsin Press, JSTOR preview at
  • Duncan White, in Nabokov and His Books, argues that Nabokov did himself a disservice by overreacting to Rowe's book.
Nabokov died in 1977. The coast was clear for Rowe to write two more critical studies of Nabokov, in 1979 (Nabokov and Others: Patterns in Russian Literature) and 1981 (Nabokov's Spectral Dimension). Forty years on, Woody Rowe is thriving in Arizona in his 80s, the youngest of three surviving grandchildren of Will Woodin (the other two are in their 90s).

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