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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