Friday, February 19, 2010

Stevenson is second-rate. I don't know why you admire him so much.

Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov had been discussing, by letter, which English novels to include in VN's Cornell literature courses, with the results found in Nabokov's Lectures on Literature (1980).

Edmund Wilson:  Stevenson is second-rate.  I don't know why you admire him so much - though he has done some rather fine short stories.  I tried reading to Henry and Reuel a couple of summers ago one of the only books of Stevenson I had ever liked, The New Arabian Nights, but completely failed to interest them in it.  It surprised me to find that these stories were the thinnest kind of verbalizing and that the characters had not even a fairy-tale existence.  Sherlock Holmes, which we had just been reading and which was partly derived from The New Arabian Nights, seems a solid creation beside them.  I didn't like Treasure Island even as a child.

Vladimir Nabokov:  You approach Stevenson from the wrong side.  Of course Treasure Island is poor stuff.  The one masterpiece he wrote is the first-rate and permanent Jekyll and Hyde.*

I had read these letters long ago, and remembered VN's reply more clearly than EW's side.  Prof. Myers spurred me to revisit the exchange, and I find that I am vindicated, yes, vindicated.  "[S]ome rather fine short stories" - exactly, exactly.  With emphasis on rather and some.

And look, my judgment of the characters in "The Suicide Club" and "The Rajah Diamond" is just like Wilson's, although I find the "verbalizing" less thin, and, in fact, the point of the exercise.  Characterization is a lifelong struggle for Stevenson.

I'll defer on Treasure Island, at least for now.  I enjoyed it well enough, but I approach Stevenson from the wrong side.  Nabokov is searching for the best of the best, drawing a line that excludes all but the greatest masterpieces.  That is not where he really spent all of his reading time, nor do any of us.  By Nabokov's standards, I don't think I've read a first-rate piece of fiction for six weeks.**  Readers of Nabokov-the-critic should be careful with his (brilliant, infectious) rhetoric.  Wilson, to extend the metaphor, draws many lines, but thinner ones.

In the little Nikolai Gogol, Nabokov diagrams "The Overcoat" as "mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived" (borrowed from the anxious bibliographing nicole).  To be clear, to Nabokov this is literary art at its highest level.  The crucial calculation, then, in judging a story, or book, or paragraph, is the precise ratio of lyrical waves to mumbling, weighted perhaps by exactly how fantastic the climax is.

Glancing at my Currently Reading pile, I note that every book in it - by George MacDonald, Adalbert Stifter, Charles Chesnutt, and a young Leo Tolstoy - is second rate, at best.  These books mumble plenty.  I've read enough of each one to know that they are worth reading, and probably re-reading, although I can't speak to the climaxes yet.

I am not at all sure that I have done justice to Stevenson's short fiction this week.  Yeah, most of what he wrote is second-rate, some worse, some better.  I should be so lucky as to be second-rate.  And I'm not tired of Stevenson, yet, not hardly.

*  These are from letters 209 and 210 of Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, ed. Simon Karlinsky, 2001. 

**  That piece of fiction was The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson.


  1. I confess that I among those readers who do not care much for Stevenson's work. The important exception, however, as Nabokov astutely noted, is the J&H novella, which is first-rate story-telling (and, by the way, quite a hit among students when I have included it in British Lit courses).

  2. 'The crucial calculation, then, in judging a story, or book, or paragraph, is the precise ratio of lyrical waves to mumbling, weighted perhaps by exactly how fantastic the climax is.'

    Great, very amusing, very intriguing post! I think I'll have to add some of Nabokov-as-critic to my reading pile, and J&H too since I'm behind in my Stevenson (meaning I've only read...Treasure Island I believe). :)

  3. R.T. - no confession necessary! It's good to hear that students still respond well to Jekyll and Hyde. One never knows.

    tuulenhaiven - Nabokov's critical stance has profoundly influenced me. Try the Cornell lecture on whichever book is your favorite and see what you think. Although VN's single greatest piece of critical writing is Chapter 4 of The Gift.

  4. Nabakov is aloud to call things second rate. I don't mind. I've only read his short stories, but WOW. He's a good writer.

  5. I recall some time ago a blog discussion on Tolstoy's last novel, The Resurrection. Some were trying to say it was not worth reading as every body said it was a 3rd rate novel compared to his other two novels-ignoring the fact that this could be true and still leave it open as possibly the 3rd best novel in the world-

  6. Hey, who wouldn't be anxious?

    I'm glad you wrote about this following on D.G. Myers' mention of it; I was wondering what it was all about and now I don't have to find out for myself. Not having ever read any Stevenson and always having assumed even Jekyll & Hyde was second rate (in Nabokovian terms only, of course), I was not in a rush. But now...

  7. I read Treasure Island when I was in 7th grade and enjoyed it. Long John Silver both exhilarated and terrified me. Jekyll and Hyde is bizarrely wonderful. Have never tried any of the short stories so it's been fun reading your posts about them.

  8. mel - Absolutely. I'm now reading a "minor" Tolstoy novel. I've been startled at how good parts of it are.

    Rebecca - Along a certain dimension, Nabokov is the best. You're right, he has some authority.

    nicole - yeah, yeah, Jekyll and Hyde. I'm not done lookng yet, but so far it's the one time for Stevenson when everything comes together - the conceit (or allegory, as his wife called it), the level of writing, the structure of the story - while still functioning as a horror or adventure tale.

    Treasure Island is an altogether lesser book - except in some specific scenes and in the character of Long John Silver, who is, as Stefanie remembers, more interesting than he needed to be.

  9. Regarding J&H, I recommend everyone read Vladimir Nabokov's famous essay on the Stevenson novel. His analysis is first-rate and will enrich your reading of the exquisite novella.

  10. My concern about writing about Jekyll and Hyde is that I will do little more than summarize Nabokov.