Just above, hear émigré Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita read the opening sentences of that novel in both English and Russian, after offering some brief comments on his relationship to his former native country. Then, after a few minutes of discussion of a work that became incorporated into his Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, we get Nabokov the cantankerous critic. Or rather, Nabokov, the critic of critics. The author had little regard for critics themselves. In a Paris Review interview, he opines that the only purpose of literary criticism was that it “gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.” In the filmed interview above (at the 3:24 mark), Nabokov points his lance at the inflated popular notion of “great books”:
I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.
That Lolita regularly tops such “great books” lists, such as the Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels,” would hardly have impressed its author.
Nonetheless, after his takedown of such venerated names as Thomas Mann, Boris Pasternak, and the “corncobby” William Faulkner, Nabokov doesn’t hesitate to name his “greatest masterpieces of 20th century prose.” They are, in this order:
1) James Joyce’s Ulysses
2) Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
3) Andrei Bely’s St. Petersburg
4) The first half of Proust’s fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time
So there you have it, from the mouth of the master himself. Should you hang in there for the next clip, you will hear Nabokov read from his notebook titled “Things I Detest.” How seriously we are to take any of this is hard to say—one never really knows with Nabokov.