Friday, June 11, 2010

Did Nabokov like soccer?

What would Vladimir Nabokov have thought of the World Cup? This is the niggling question at the back of my mind on the opening day of Fifa 2010 in South Africa.

I recently read Pale Fire, see, in which he wrote:
'I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores...'
And the list goes on.

Does this sound like someone who'd get excited about a soccer game? No, I'm afraid this makes the great writer sound like an elitist and opinionated old fart. And just in case you think I'm making the tyical reader's mistake 'of dotting all the i's with the author's head', as Nabokov himself so succintly put it, let me remind you that he admitted, in a famous BBC TV interview in 1962, that John Shade, the fictional poet composing this list of loathing in Pale Fire, 'does borrow some of my opinions'. And to prove his point, he quoted and endorsed the above passage.

I can understand a Russian-American intellectual detesting bull-fighting or swimming pools - but jazz? How could the author who produced some of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, loath jazz? Enough to break my jazz-loving little heart.

But apparently the wise man didn't detest all popular past-times. He was actually good enough in tennis and boxing to earn money teaching both these sports during his perambulatory young adulthood. Lolita's eponymous heroine happens to be an excellent tennis player, and a passage in the novel has been called 'the best description of tennis anywhere' in The New Yorker magazine. It starts like this: 'She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounce the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score...'

Don't you just love that 'white-lined time'?

Remember, also, that Nabokov's only child, Dmitri, became a professional racing car driver. True, these are all individual sports, not a universally popular team sport like soccer - so the jury is still out on Nabokov vs Fifa 2010. If anyone reading this could enlighten me, I'd be really grateful.

Because I adore this opinionated old fart's writing. Every time I read one of his novels, I'm overawed by what he managed to do with the English language - which was not even his mother tongue, for crying out loud! Indeed, what he called his 'private tragedy' - 'that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English' - could probably be regarded as one of the best things that ever happened to American literature.

Yes, he was ruthlessly opinionated, not hesitating to demolish his fellow-American literary contemporaries. He tried to read Saul Bellow's Herzog, he claimed, but it was so boring that he had to give up. And among his Russian predecessors, he confidently declared that Tolstoy was the greatest novelist and Pushkin the greatest poet - adding that this made him feel like a school master marking papers and that Dostoyevsky would probably be waiting at his office door, wanting to know why he got such poor results.

This is a fine example of Nabokov's irrepressible humour - the other important reason why his writing is so irresistible. Yes, he loved showing off and using complicated words, even inventing his own words, but his irony, wit and humour always saved him from pretentiousness. Anyway, how can any fanatic reader resist a book like Pale Fire, a marvellous mixture of poetry and prose, a campus novel hiding a detective story, a series of Russian dolls each revealing another literary genre? Pale Fire has been called 'a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem', and many other adjectives.

It can also be called, quite simply, a masterpiece. The second canto of the 999-line poem written by the fictional poet John Shade, around which the whole novel is constructed, begins with 10 unforgettable lines about the mystery of life and death:
'There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.

There was the day when I began to doubt
Man's sanity: How could he live without
Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom
Awaited conciousness beyond the tomb?'

Every time I read this, I can forgive Vladimir Nabokov absolutely anything - including his loathing of jazz - and I actually don't give a damn whether he liked soccer or not. Viva Vladimir viva!


  1. Like soccer? Did Knob-o-Cough LIKE soccer? Somewhere (STRONG OPINIONS?) he recounts proudly that he guarded the goal so ferociously, that he was knocked unconscious & awoke in a/the* hospital.

    *British readers: please ignore.

  2. Thanks, Michael! Of course the question of whether he would have liked it AFTER it had landed him in hospital is still open...

  3. While studying at cambridge, Nabokov used to come out for the university-team. His position? indeed, goalkeeper.

  4. Dear Madam,

    Thanks for calling my father an opinionated old fart. However, whatever kind of fart you are, you are not very well informed. It is fairly common knowledge among those who do read that Vladimir Nabokov was not only a lifelong soccer fan but also a goalkeeper (and a good one) for Trinity College, Cambridge and, subsequently, for an émigré team in Berlin. As for the World Cup, I think I can safey venture that he would have found much of what has happened there -- particularly the behavior of the French contigent -- as revolting as I did.

    Dmitri Nabokov

    Dmitri Nabokov
    "Le Rossillon"
    Chemin de la Caudraz 19
    CH-1820 Montreux

  5. Dear Mr Nabokov

    I am honoured to receive this message from the son of a writer I greatly admire - even if you call me a fart. (I suppose I was asking for it.) I know nothing about soccer, except that I absolutely agree with you about the French team's behaviour.