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Chekhov for the 21st Century. Carol Apollonio and Angela Brintlinger, eds. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2012, 109–24.       Nabokov’s Debt to Chekhov’s Art of Memory Jerome Katsell …so  we’ll  live,   And  pray,  and  sing,  and  tell  old  tales,  and  laugh   At  gilded  butterflies…   And  take  upon  the  mystery  of  things   As  if  we  were  God’s  spies….     —  King  Lear,  Act  V,  Scene  3   In  Strong  Opinions,  Nabokov  (referring  en  passant  to  Tolstoy’s  genius)  stated   apropos  of  Chekhov:  “I  do  love  Chekhov  dearly.  I  fail,  however,  to  rationalize   my  feeling  for  him:  I  can  easily  do  so  in  regard  to  the  greater  artist,  Tolstoy;   […]  yet  it  is  his  works  which  I  would  take  on  a  trip  to  another  planet.”1  Not   Tolstoy,  not  Plato,  not  Shakespeare,  not  Gogol,  not  Flaubert,  not  Proust,  not   Austen,   not   Dickens,   not   Joyce,   not   Pushkin,   not   Bely,   not   Kafka,   but   Chekhov.     Obviously,  given  Nabokov’s  omnivorous  reading  in  three  languages  and   in  many  fields  beyond  literature,  chess,  and  lepidoptery,  this  list  could  go  on   and  on.  One  can  only  wonder  whether  Nabokov  felt  a  deep  connection  be-­‐‑ tween  himself  and  Chekhov,  and  if  so,  of  what  it  consisted.  The  range  of  po-­‐‑ tential  affinities  is  broad,  encompassing  creative,  literary,  philosophical,  spiri-­‐‑ tual,   and   scientific   explorations.   With   regard   to   the   latter,   Nabokov   once   stated  in  an  interview:  “[T]he  greater  one’s  science,  the  deeper  the  sense  of   mystery.”2   In   that   same   interview   Nabokov   continued   famously:   “We   shall   never  know  the  origin  of  life,  or  the  meaning  of  life,  or  the  nature  of  space  and   time,  or  the  nature  of  nature,  or  the  nature  of  thought.”3   An  appropriate  starting  point  to  an  exploration  of  the  affinity  Nabokov   felt  with  Chekhov  may  well  be  Simon  Karlinsky’s  work  on  the  two  authors.4                                                                                                                             1  Vladimir   Nabokov,   Strong   Opinions   (New   York:   Vintage   International,   1973),   286.   Here  Nabokov  was  referring  to  Simon  Karlinsky’s  tribute  to  his  seventieth  birthday,   “Nabokov  and  Chekhov:  The  Lesser  Russian  Tradition,”  published  in  TriQuarterly  17   (Winter  1970):  7–16.   2  Nabokov,  Strong  Opinions,  44.   3  Ibid.,  45.   4  See   Simon   Karlinsky,   “Nabokov   and   Chekhov:   Affinities,   Parallels,   Structures,”   in   “NABOKOV:  Autobiography,  Biography,  and  Fiction,”  ed.  Maurice  Couturier,  special   issue,   Cycnos   10:   1   (January   1993):   33–37.   An   expanded   version   appears   in   Simon   110 JEROME KATSELL Karlinsky   focuses   on   the   similar   receptions   received   by   Chekhov   and   Na-­‐‑ bokov—in   the   1880s   and   1890s   and   the   1920s   and   1930s   respectively—as   writers   antipathetic   to   the   mainstream   of   Russian   literature,   with   its   great   commitment  to  civic  and  public  ethical  concerns.  One  factor  binding  Nabokov   and  Chekhov  as  artists  is,  of  course,  their  shared  interest  and  deep  attachment   to  biological  science  and  its  methodologies,  including  close  analysis  and  keen   attention  to  detail.  Karlinsky  writes:     This   very   precision   of   observation,   and   restraint   in   evaluation,   is   what  makes  Chekhov’s  picture  of  turn-­‐‑of-­‐‑the-­‐‑century  Russian  village   life  in  “The  Peasants”  or  in  “In  the  Ravine”  and  Nabokov’s  depiction   of   the   American   motel   civilization   in   Lolita   so   overwhelmingly   and   irresistibly  believable.5     In  a  letter  written  to  Edmond  Wilson  on  29  February  1956,  Nabokov,  ful-­‐‑ minating   in   a   friendly   though   firm   manner   over   Wilson’s   sociological   ap-­‐‑ proach  to  Chekhov’s  fiction,  refers  to  Chekhov,  as  Karlinsky  noted,  as  “my   predecessor.”   The   letter,   which   mentions   the   abiding   fact   of   these   authors’   shared  attention  to  the  all-­‐‑important  detail,  also  points  by  way  of  Shakespeare   to   things   that   Nabokov   considered   he   had   in   common   with   Chekhov   more   than   with   all   other   writers.   The   letter   deserves   to   be   quoted   in   substantial   part:     Dear  Bunny,     Thanks  for  my  predecessor’s  book.  I  am  sure  his  ghost  is  appalled  by   the   boners   in   the   dreadful   translations   you   have   graced   with   your   preface.   You   can   well   imagine   how   strongly   I   disapprove   of   your   preface.  Do  you  really  think  that  Chehov  is  Chehov  because  he  wrote   about  “social  phenomena,”  “readjustments  of  a  new  industrial  mid-­‐‑ dle  class,”  “kulaks”  and  “rising  serfs”  (which  sounds  like  the  seas)?  I   thought   he   wrote   of   the   kinds   of   things   that   gentle   King   Lear   pro-­‐‑ posed   to   discuss   in   prison   with   his   daughter.   I   also   think   that   at   a   time  when  American  readers  are  taught  from  high  school  on  to  seek   in  books  “general  ideas”  a  critic’s  duty  should  be  to  draw  their  atten-­‐‑ tion   to   the   specific   detail,   to   the   unique   image,   without   which—as   you  know  as  well  as  I  do—there  can  be  no  art,  no  genius,  no  Chehov,   no  terror...


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