Nabokov and Camus

It is no secret that Vladimir Nabokov was a controversial figure. Nabokov famously said inflammatory things about many authors who are in high regard in the literary cannon. For instance, on Gogol, Nabokov said “I was careful not to learn anything from him. As a teacher, he is dubious and dangerous. At his worst, as in his Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable.” On Hemingway, Nabokov proclaimed, “[He is] a writer of books for boys. Certainly better than Conrad. Has at least a voice of his own. Nothing I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, hopelessly juvenile.”

One possible explanation for this is that unlike many authors, Nabokov writes for the art of writing. Nabokov’s vision of a good writer as presented in his essay on good readers and good writers is a person who does not take the world that exists and morph it to convey their own message but instead embraces a new world for it’s own inherent artistic value. Nabokov is dissatisfied with authors, including many literary giants, who he perceives as trying to push some sort of agenda or philosophy through their works. This is something of which Camus is undeniably guilty, as Camus’s work serves largely as a vehicle to demonstrate Absurdist and Existentialist principals in practice. It’s no surprise then that when asked his thoughts on Camus, Nabokov responded “Dislike him. Second-rate, ephemeral, puffed-up. A nonentity, means absolutely nothing to me. Awful.”

Perhaps all is not lost, however, for the Nabokovian reading Camus. Some have pointed out the similarities the writers have in their contemplation of the absurd, despite their vast differences in style. Further, it is definitely possible to employ the technique of “reading with the spine” when reading Camus’s masterpiece The Stranger as the novel is neither cerebral nor submerged in emotion but rather a curious in-between (something that can also be said of Absurdity as a philosophy). In the end, it’s important to remember that while comparing these author’s philosophies may be a fun exercise, they are still just that — philosophies. And philosophies are only useful in as far as they can help us make sense of the world, as opposed to make it more convoluted.

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