Sunday, January 8, 2012

A good formula to test the quality of a novel

Nabokov's penchant for Robert Louis Stevenson reminds me of Borges's for G. K. Chesterton. In his preparation for a series of lectures on European Fiction for Cornell University in the United States, Nabokov had written to Edmund Wilson seeking his advice on which English works to include. Wilson had responded by suggesting Austen and Dickens, to which Nabokov replied, 'I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers.' He then declared: 'I shall take Stevenson instead of Jane A.' Although Nabokov later revised his opinion of her and included Wilson's recommendation of Austen's Mansfield Park along with Dickens's Bleak House in his lecture series, he retained Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" notwithstanding Wilson's dismissal of this writer as 'second-rate'.

There it is, then, this lecture on Stevenson, as published in the edited versions of Nabokov's lectures, Lectures on Literature: a curious inclusion among Austen, Dickens and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Proust's The Walk by Swann's Place (Nabokov's translation of the title), Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Joyce's Ulysses. Despite his admission in the lecture on Kafka, that in "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" there is 'none of that unity and none of that contrast' that is found in the 'fantasies', as he puts it, of Kafka and Gogol -- and that Stevenson's characters 'are characters derived from Dickens, and thus they constitute phantasms that do not quite belong to Stevenson's own artistic reality, just as Stevenson's fog comes from a Dickensian studio to envelop a conventional London' -- despite this admission of the story's derivative qualities, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" remains right in the physical centre of his series of lectures: between Flaubert and Proust.

A clue to the story's hold on him, perhaps, is given in the introductory remarks, "Good Readers and Good Writers":

It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading.
Near the beginning of his lecture on "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Nabokov states: 'There is a delightful winey taste about this book; in fact, a good deal of old mellow wine is drunk in the story: one recalls the wine that Utterson so comfortably sips.' Such delicious sensations are not to be analysed. During the series of lectures, Freud is dismissed variously as a 'medieval quack' and 'the Viennese witch doctor'.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar associations for Borges in his fondness for G. K. Chesterton. Once, in an effort to understand Borges's preference for this writer whose photographs and even penned self-portraits show him to be something like a large, softened leather, tobacco-smelling couch,  I bought an over-priced, oil-fouled, cloth-covered edition of his collected Father Brown stories (once red) from Gould's Book Arcade, whose rotting spine came off as soon as I tried to turn its pages. I read several stories before giving it away (probably, after all, just back to Gould's), and remember now only something about an arrangement of corridors only slightly less brown than the corridors in Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes, and as crowded and musty as the furthest, most inaccessible and slightly urine-smelling aisles at the back of the Arcade where I found it, very likely, on the floor.