I find myself in the unusual position this morning of writing a post on a non-fiction work by a celebrated author of fiction – none of whose fictional works I have read. Nonetheless, I believe I’ll be better prepared to appreciate the author’s novels having read Strong Opinions, a collection of interviews, letters and essays by Vladimir Nabakov.
Nabakov was born in Russia in 1899 and fled with his family to Berlin after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1939, he moved with his wife, Vera, to France, and in 1940 left for the U.S., where they settled in Manhattan. Nabakov was bilingual in Russian and English from his youth, and wrote novels in both languages. In addition to being a novelist, he had perhaps the unique distinction among artists of also being a serious lepidopterist, writing numerous scientific papers on the subject of butterflies.
Strong Opinions provides extremely valuable insights into the process of artistic creation, as well as fascinating views on the works of other authors, some well known (Shakespeare, Pushkin, Borges, Poe, Melville, Hemingway), others (to me) fairly obscure (Ilf and Petrov). And while Nabakov eludes easy ideological categorization - “My loathings,” he writes, “are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music” – he always proudly considered himself an American writer, and genuinely loved his adopted country:
I am as American as April in Arizona. The flora, the fauna, the air of the Western states are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia…I do feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics I am strongly anti-segregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on the government’s side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing a line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.Another thing that strongly appeals to me about Nabakov is his wit and occasional playfulness. In response to an interviewer’s question, “What scenes one would like to have filmed”, the author gives several examples, my favorites being the following:
Herman Melville at breakfast, feeding a sardine to his cat.This is a delightful browser for anyone interested in literature and the mysteries of its creation, and in the mind of a truly original and independent thinker.
The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted wih the deal. Shot of a seal applauding.