Wednesday, October 14, 2009


There are of course better and worse examples of the kind of Russian intellectual fluff to which I’ve referred in the previous post. I think Imagining Nabokov: Russia between Art and Politics is one of the better sorts of intellectual fluff pieces. Notwithstanding the author’s heavy-handed biographical presence in the book, she does have a real thesis: that Nabokov’s books are especially relevant to contemporary, crisis-laden, post-Soviet Russia. As the author notes, Nabokov, once banned from publication in Russia, is now enjoying a major resurgence in popularity among Russia’s younger reading audiences.

The author believes that this popularity stems from Nabokov’s radical break from Russian literary tradition. For Nabokov was a post-modern author rather than a modern one, and, more importantly, Nabokov believed in the priority of the personal over the collective, as well as the possibility of achieving happiness, a very un-traditional Russian literary theme. (Incidentally, the book recalls Lesley Chamberlain’s intellectual history of the Russian Diaspora, which includes Nabokov and his father. Here, Chamberlain points out that many exiled Russian intellectuals were religious thinkers who were crafting a highly individualistic response to modernity called personalism.)

In one section of Imagining Nabokov, the author discusses the traditional Russian concept of the banal, or poshlost, which was odious to most major Russian authors. Better to suffer or do evil than to wallow in the un-dramatic or ordinary. She says Nabokov recognized the pitfalls of such contempt for poshlost. Lolita’s tragedy is not that she lived an ordinary life before she met Humbert. Her tragedy is that Humbert robbed her of this bland but worthwhile life. The interesting thing about this book is that its blend of literary criticism and diary resulted from the rich imagination of Nikita Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Nina Khruschcheva.

Nikita Khrushchev

The granddaughter of a man accused of mass murder in the Ukraine has surely thought deeply about the superiority of ordinary life when weighed against the heroic but bloody acts of state socialism. If only Ukrainian peasants had been left to enjoy their boring lives rather than starved to death or transported in the pursuit of a Bolshevik Utopia. Incidentally, Boym’s Common Places , which approaches Khruschcheva’s theme about the role of banality in Russian culture from another angle, is also worth reading.

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