The tyranny of the radical critics, part 2
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.