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The tyranny of the radical critics, part 2

October 31, 2013

Languagehat also sees the power of the nineteenth-century radical critics in the 1937 decision by an émigré journal to leave out a chapter of a Nabokov novel because it made fun of Chernyshevskii: “…the editors, though from the radical tradition, saw themselves as publishing literature of quality without regard for politics, and in general did so — but mockery of the sainted Chernyshevsky was too much for them.”

I understand this view, but I think it asks the editors in 1937 to have a 2013 perspective. I’m probably not the only person for whom politics overwhelms aesthetics when it comes to the recent past (I have stronger feelings about the Iraq War, the ACA, and the financial crisis of 2007-08 than I do about any recent Nobel Prize–winning writer), but aesthetics overwhelms politics once you go back enough years (when I only know about the government ministers and financial crises if I read up on them to better understand some immortal cultural figure).

It’s easy for us not to care about Chernyshevskii. Who today has an emotional connection to him as a martyr? If we second-guess the journal, on the pro side of the ledger, we have the great Nabokov. Opposite we have some obsolete idol worship we don’t care about. Simple! How could they have been so blind?

But we should rewind our image of both Nabokov and Chernyshevskii. Instead of a frequently quoted, universally read, dead literary genius, imagine some fought-over current author that you have mixed feelings about. Someone who’s been publishing novels less than half as long as Jonathan Franzen.

Then, instead of some ancient controversy about Chernyshevskii, think of a political position that would make you angry if you read it in a novel.

Here’s one way to imagine the position of Nabokov’s editors. It’s 2040. A violent revolution and civil war brought down Putin’s government in 2020. You’re an ex-Muscovite who voted for Aleksei Naval’nyi back in the day and considered yourself part of the anti-Putin opposition, but you can’t approve of the people who’ve taken over. You started a journal in France publishing good literature of all sorts. One of your reliable 30-something writers sends in a novel that you start publishing chapter by chapter. After chapter 1 is published* you discover that chapter 4 is devoted to dancing on the grave of Anna Politkovskaya, and you’ve always considered her a martyr for the free press and the political opposition. Not only that, but if you publish that chapter, your readers are sure to doubt your opposition credentials and see you as a pro-Putin revanchist. What do you do?

With this far-fetched scenario I want to make two points.  First, in such a case concerns about the integrity of the novel and the writer’s artistic freedom should carry the same weight, but you’re not balancing them against air. Second, if you look at what’s pressuring this imaginary editor, it’s not what Politkovskaya and her allies were writing in the 1990s, it’s the sharpening of political loyalties brought on by the revolution, civil war, and emigration of the editor, writer, and readers. That would be true even if Politkovskaya and others had been more influential.

* I’m drawing on interesting comments by between4walls here, not any knowledge of my own about the details of the publication of Nabokov’s novel.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2013 8:49 am

    What do I do? Is the chapter as good as Chapter 4 of The Gift? I publish the dang thing. Is it a tenth as good? I still publish it. That is the imaginary “I”. I will publish the now-ancient Michel Houellebecq, too, if he wants to submit something.

    What does the I who is not an editor do? I condemn the spiking editor as incompetent.

    To my knowledge – I have not kept up – the editors of The Nation still insist that Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were in no way Soviet agents. They would spike the chapter that claimed otherwise. In this regard, they are idiots. If the chapter is written at the level of Chapter 4 of The Gift, they are something worse than idiots.

  2. October 31, 2013 8:50 am

    Two points that I think are fairly important here:

    1) Nabokov was not, of course, world-famous as he would be a couple of decades later (entirely haphazardly, on a basis having nothing to do with his actual literary merit; as I’ve said before, if he hadn’t written Lolita he’d be remembered about as well as Bunin), but in the exile community he was not just one of the “reliable 30-something writers” but the acknowledged literary genius of the emigration, and had been for years. As Brian Boyd puts it:

    In a literary conversation in Paris in the autumn of 1929 one of Sovremennye Zapiski‘s editors, Mark Vishnyak, announced that in the next issue something wonderful would be published. Nina Berberova, one of the two most promising prose writers of the younger generation, felt a rush of excitement. “Who?” “Nabokov,” answered Vishnyak. Berberova’s excitement faded: Vishnyak was no critic, and Sirin’s work did not deserve that kind of response.

    But when the fortieth issue of Sovremennye Zapiski appeared, in its invariable sober, scholarly format and drab cream cover, Berberova sat down to those first chapters of The Defense and read through them twice. “A tremendous, mature, sophisticated modern writer was before me; a great Russian writer. like a phoenix. was born from the fire and ashes of revolution and exile. Our existence from now on acquired a meaning. All my generation were justified. We were saved.”

    Boyd goes on to quote a whole raft of exiles who felt the same way, including Bunin (“This kid has snatched a gun and done away with the whole older generation, myself included”). The journal’s action was much more comparable to the New Yorker refusing to publish an Alice Munro story or Houghton Mifflin censoring a Philip Roth novel for ideological reasons.

    2) Chernyshevsky was not a martyr of Communism; on the contrary, he was as sacred to the Soviets as he was to the exiles — it was about the only thing on which they were in complete agreement. That’s what makes the episode so bizarre, and why I find it such a useful epitome of the whole generations-long worship of social realism: Nabokov would have found the chapter unpublishable in the Soviet Union for the same reason.

  3. October 31, 2013 8:51 am

    Bah, the blockquote stripped out the formatting. Besides the obvious (journal and book names in ital), the word “that” in “did not deserve that kind of response” should be emphasized.

  4. October 31, 2013 8:53 am

    “We were saved” – I had forgotten about that. And this is based on a couple of chapters of The Defense!

  5. October 31, 2013 9:20 am

    Yes, exactly. Nabokov’s unique genius was recognized very early.

  6. October 31, 2013 12:21 pm

    Tom and Hat, I can’t say I’m surprised that both of you would find the editor’s decision an easy one, and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But I know that for me, given the right ideological controversy, the decision could be made extremely difficult, even if I decided to publish.

    If you’d be happy helping someone make fun of Politkovskaya, how about a brilliantly written book that spent a chapter mocking people who were waterboarded and urging the US to torture all immigrants and any citizens suspected of a crime? An impassioned call for the revival of the Klan? I don’t know – I don’t want to spend my morning thinking of even more distasteful political positions, but isn’t there something that would make you wait five minutes before penning the glowing acceptance letter or sending the chapter off to the real or virtual typesetters?

    The point that Nabokov was already huge in the émigré community is a good one, and I concede it makes my example a poor parallel.

    If Chernyshevskii had been a victim of the Bolsheviks, I wonder if Nabokov would have been so eager to take him down a peg. Maybe. I don’t know Nabokov that well. But he was certainly a victim of political repression. Some Russian émigrés in the early Soviet period did not want to be considered monarchists or Bolsheviks, including, I think, the editors of Sovremennye zapiski (“the journal was run by people with right-SR views”). Showing that you’re not indifferent to those who suffered at the hands of the old regime is a good way not to drive away the part of the audience who’s on the fence about the new regime.

  7. October 31, 2013 12:52 pm

    Nabokov and the fictional Fyodor, the co-authors of the chapter, are far from indifferent to Chernyskevsky’s suffering. The Gift‘s Chernyshevsky is, by the usual novelistic standard, a sympathetic character. C’s art and C’s ideas, now those come in for a drubbing. Not his suffering. The fictional Chernyshevsky is sympathetic, and also a fool.

  8. October 31, 2013 1:02 pm

    isn’t there something that would make you wait five minutes before penning the glowing acceptance letter or sending the chapter off to the real or virtual typesetters?

    Not me, but then I’m not only a free-speech absolutist, I’m a fan of Ezra Pound, who said and wrote things about as repugnant as you could think up, so I’ve long since learned to separate art from artist. And, as AR (Tom) says, Nabokov admired Chernyskevsky as a person; he just thought he was a terrible writer.

  9. October 31, 2013 1:45 pm

    I’ve been trying to separate the question “could an editor reasonably turn down a well-written book because of a perceived insult to a political martyr?” from “how is Chernyshevskii actually treated in Nabokov’s novel?” but maybe that’s artificial.

    I’m with the free-speech absolutists in that I think the Soviet and French and American and all other governments shouldn’t persecute Nabokov or any of his publishers for anything he wrote. Nor should they issue rules in advance that prevent him from publishing certain things. But it’s another kind of absolutism to say that editors must accept anything a Talented Writer sends them or reject it on strictly aesthetic grounds. If there’s a sufficient set of contributors, editors, and readers, let them run a journal on any principles they want. Let them reject Anna Karenina because they disapprove of its take on beekeeping, or The Bronze Horseman because it’s insulting to Finnish nationalists, or The Gift because they will deviate only so far from a right-SR political line.

    I guess I’m with between4walls in that I’d prefer it if they accepted or rejected a whole work instead of leaving out a key part, the practical problems of serialization notwithstanding.

  10. between4walls permalink
    October 31, 2013 4:16 pm

    As a reader, aesthetics uber alles, certainly. I don’t read Ezra Pound but that’s because I know I can’t judge him fairly, and even he has a right to have his work judged on its own merits rather than on my opinion of his views.

    But an editor has other responsibilities- like it or not, readers will judge your journal for the views it lends its imprimatur to. Free speech absolutism includes the right of publishers not to publish views they can’t countenance. The author is free to find another publisher (generally- this is a bit of a weird case due to serialization).

    As a reader, I love, for example, Gerontion. I’m glad Eliot got published and it’s out there for me to read. But if I’m an editor in 1920, I might well say I don’t want my journal propagating that poem for moral and political reasons. Obviously Nabokov wasn’t trying to publish anything that morally dubious. The point is there’s nothing morally wrong about having limits to what you will publish.

    Chapter 4 is sympathetic to Chernyshevsky’s sufferings, well-written, heavily researched, and frankly snide and nasty. I get why the editors refused to touch it. They don’t have to help spread a work they find so distasteful. That said, they ended up mutilating the book rather than giving another journal a chance at it (though again, serialization).

    Also, separating the art and the artist doesn’t necessarily mean separating the art and the politics- Chapter 4 is a polemic in its own right.

    I also think the rejection had less to do with the worship of social-realism and more to do with the fact that people are touchy about their famous political martyrs, whether said martyrs are literary critics or not.

  11. between4walls permalink
    October 31, 2013 4:36 pm

    Part, but not all, of Chapter 4 was published in late 1939 in the journal Bodrost’ according to “How It Was Done in Paris” by Leonid Livak.

    The thing about it being sent between Chapters 1 and 2 from Andrea Pitzer’s “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.” Chapter 2 ended up turned in at the last minute after wrangling over whether or not a) the editors would take Chapter 4 and b) whether or not Nabokov would let them publish the book without it.

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