Vladimir Nabokov Names the Greatest (and Most Overrated) Novels of the 20th Century

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Vladimir Nabokov Mar­vels Over Dif­fer­ent “Loli­ta” Book Cov­ers

The Note­cards on Which Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Loli­ta: A Look Inside the Author’s Cre­ative Process

Vladimir Nabokov Cre­ates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • John k. Lindgren says:

    thanks for the Nabokov arti­cle and the links.

  • Antonios says:

    ”.…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.”

    Exact­ly Mr. Nabokov. So I will con­tin­ue to read Faulkn­er’s books as mas­ter­pieces.…

  • kleitia vaso says:

    Thanks open cul­ture for the free wealth offered. As a read­er and writer from Alba­nia, which still has scarce cul­tur­al resources, find­ing this site was one of the most plea­sur­able expe­ri­ences.
    My writ­ing is avail­able at: http://mindtriggers.org/

  • Sofia says:

    Respectu­ful­ly, Mr. Nabokov, I think Loli­ta is high­ly over­rat­ed. Cer­tain­ly not a mas­ter­piece. This is just my opin­ion.

  • Tom Lines says:

    I stud­ied Russ­ian at Oxford in the 1970s, and only knew of Andrei Bely as a sec­ond-rate Sym­bol­ist poet, infe­ri­or to Alexan­der Blok. A few years lat­er I found a trans­la­tion of Peters­burg remain­dered in a book­shop. I picked it up and found Nabokov’s rec­om­men­da­tion on the back. What­ev­er one may think of Loli­ta (and I’ve nev­er read it), I knew Nabokov was a man of dis­cern­ment and remem­bered his won­der­ful free-verse trans­la­tion of Pushk­in’s Evge­ny One­gin. So I bought Peters­burg; it did­n’t dis­ap­point me. I don’t know if it’s a “great” nov­els, but it is a remark­able work.
    Inci­den­tal­ly, it occurs to me that all four nov­els select­ed by Nabokov were writ­ten ear­ly in the 20th cen­tu­ry. So he was a man of his time, I sup­pose.

  • Joe Wichman says:

    And what does Nabokov think of Nabokov?

  • Paul Ottaviano says:

    I would like to add that I have had my reser­va­tions about Nabokov. I have known about his dis­cern­ing taste; he dis­likes a ver­i­ta­ble library of 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry nov­el. The list includes: Faulkn­er (men­tioned above), Hen­ry James, George Eliot, Thomas Mann, and of course the one that gets every­one — he did not like Dos­to­evsky!! And one won­ders when will they get around to read­ing Nabokov??

    More­over, I do not have much to say for his pro­tégé and dis­ci­ple — Christo­pher Hitchens!!

  • Stephen says:

    Point­less argu­ments about taste.

  • Richard Terrill says:

    Hav­ing “lit­er­al­ly” — ha! — just fin­ished re-re-read­ing ” Loli­ta,” my hum­ble adju­di­ca­tion can nev­er nev­er nev­er ever find it to be a love story,let alone as has been pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed by ” kill the Philistines” crit­ics , THE love sto­ry — Ah mala­posa!

  • Berit Branch says:

    Corn­cob­by as adjec­tive alone is worth the price of admis­sion.

  • Gregory Gustafson says:

    Nabokov clear­ly stat­ed that he wrote Loli­ta as a “love affair with the Eng­lish Lan­guage.” There is this belief that Nabokov was refer­ring to Loli­ta and Hum­bert as his “love sto­ry.” The truth is exact­ly the oppo­site. Nabokov sent Hum­bert to the Hell where he belonged for his total obses­sion, for destroy­ing that young girl’s life. In many of his books he used as the nar­ra­tor of the sto­ry char­ac­ters who he saw as obsessed mad-men, prey­ing on our sym­pa­thies.

    This was his tech­nique of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al art as a dis­tort­ed mir­ror. We see these flawed nar­ra­tors most promi­nent­ly in Despair, Laugh­ter in the Dark, Pale Fire, and Loli­ta.

    Nabokov’s deep­est pain was relat­ed to the loss of his Coun­try to the Rev­o­lu­tion, the loss of his Russ­ian con­text and native lan­guage as his art form, and the loss of his beloved Father shot to death by an obsessed mad-man (also echoed in Pale Fire).

    His work was root­ed in that pain and loss, but dis­guised, re-pre­sent­ed. His hero­ine of that nov­el, Loli­ta (Dolores Haze) was a young girl, who sur­vived ter­ri­ble abuse only to die trag­i­cal­ly in child birth. That final irony of her life, dropped in almost as an aside, was chill­ing. The emo­tion and pain in that nov­el was com­mu­ni­cat­ed by indi­rec­tion, because he despised “cant, rant, gib­ber­ish and jar­gon.”


  • Adler says:

    There would­n’t have been Loli­ta with­out Dos­toyevsky’s Stavrogin’s Con­fes­sion (the expur­gat­ed por­tion of The Pos­sessed).
    Also, there would­n’t have been Pale Fire with­out Hen­ry James’ The Ambas­sadors, The Aspern Papers, Beast in the Jun­gle, Death of a Lion.

    So much for his hatred of these mas­ters!

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