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For one, his analyses are full of very detailed plot descriptions, so must be read afterward.For another, while I honor his literary artistry, I dislike Nabokov’s haughty aesthete persona. Yet I find my distaste for Nabokov’s persona frees me from awe and leaves room for disagreement with the master.
Le Guin’s essay performs a devastating read on Tolstoy, showing how his zingy opener is really merely an apothegmatic capitulation to the commonplace yet beguiling notion that unhappiness is more interesting, more worthy of inquiry, than happiness.
It’s not that Le Guin doesn’t understand the reflex: “Some critics are keenly on the watch for happiness in novels,” she notes, “in order to dismiss it as banal, sentimental, or (in other words) for women.” Still, Le Guin rightly demands better of her beloved novelist, ridiculing the implication that Tolstoy personally knew “numerous happy families among the Russian nobility, or middle class, or peasantry, all of them alike.” She is also, by the way, adamant that “a family can be happy.” Yes, families be happy, she maintains, poker-faced and only possibly joking, “for quite a long time—a week, a month, even longer.” Happiness is not a myth.
Daddy was fatter, and cuddly, when we were young; his bewildering childishness, competitiveness, and spite almost amusing. I remember with affection our sofa, on which we would fart, quip, and sass one another while watching a family-favorite VHS cassette (); the breakfast table, where in-jokes, wit, camp, improv, and hilarity would flourish.
There were even some moments of joy, heartbreakingly, during the hell-years.
But of course I’m reading him in translation, in the new edition edited by the hottest Russian-literature translating team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
If you poke around on the web and read Amazon reviews, you’ll see even these lauded midwives dissed—someone swearing an older translation is better.
They nestle latently in the present, in nooks and crannies where, against all odds, people are successfully manifesting the queer care commune.
And, as such, they aren’t exactly “families.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For instance, he disliked and dismissed Fyodor Dostoevsky, and while that Russian joins Nikolay Gogol in defeating me as a reader so far, Nabokov’s estimation of one of the world’s acknowledged great novelists seems petty and willfully obtuse.
This winter I’m trying to channel my inner 14-year-old and lose myself in Anna Karenina.