Zadie Smith on Nabokov on the author’s walls

In her collections of essays Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (), Zadie Smith deals brilliantly with the collision of the liberation that comes from the death of the Author (as represented by Roland Barthes) and the demands of craft and control from the author (as represented by Vladimir Nabokov). Or as she puts it: “In my own reading life, I’ve been pulled first in one direction, then in the other. Reading has always been my passion, my pleasure, and I am constitutionally drawn to any thesis that gives power to readers, increasing their freedom of movement. But when I became a writer, writing became my discipline, my practice, and I felt the need to believe in it as an intentional, directional act, an expression of an individual consciousness.” (44)

What is great about this essay (which is titled simply “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”) is that Smith is very insistent on wanting to be a reader and an author. Moreover she doesn’t dismiss the appeal of Barthes’ postmodern theories on authorial intention while at the same time she keenly illustrates why she can’t read Nabokov in the way that Barthes seems to want her to. But I’m not here to summarize the entire essay — you should read it for yourself (and the other essays as well, particularly the ones on Middlemarch and Kafka and Their Eyes Were Watching God). What I want to highlight is her summary of Nabokov’s theory of the two stages of “Inspiration”:

Nabokov split this old-fashioned word into two Russian parts. The first half of inspiration, for him, is vorstog (initial rapture). Vorstog describe that moment in which the book as a whole is conceived:

A combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away and the non-ego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner — who is already dancing in the open.

Here the author dies, momentarily; here meaning is indeterminate and free flowing. Vorstog “has no conscious purpose in view”; in vorstog “the entire circle of time is conceived, which is another way of saying time ceases to exist.” But after this comes the second stage: vdoknovenie (recapture). And it’s here that the actual writing gets done. In Nabokov’s experience, the two had quite different natures. Vorstog was “hot and brief.” Vdoknovenie “cool and sustained.” In the first you lose yourself. In the second, you are doing the conscious work of construction. And while making the choices good writing requires, the Author exists, he circumscribes, he controls, he puts walls on either side of the playground. The reader, to read him properly, would do well to recognize the existence of these walls. The Author limits the possibility of the reader’s play. (49, italics original)

What I like about this description is this idea of a two-stage inspiration. That’s a word that gets tossed around quite a bit in Mormon culture. Nabokov suggests that for the author, there needs to be the hot and brief rapture, the striking of lightning, the crumbling of barriers, but that is not all there is to it. Then is the “cool and sustained” work of recapturing that feeling and moment. But both need to be their. Art can neither be some hot mess nor some cool construct. The two elements of inspiration should work together. And when crafted, the resulting work should be something that the reader respects. Not that there is no play, no reader response, no multiple interpretations — but that there are set boundaries within which one plays.

Now, the utility of this next part is marginal at best, but: this notion puts me in mind of how revelation works, both personal and prophetic and especially that which can be found in scripture. I think this pattern — of the breaking down of ego (and the work that goes in to that), the flash of insight, and then the (re)construction of how that best applies and can best be conveyed, and then the turning loose of the result to the people for their consumption and reaction — is intentional on God’s part. He wants us to experience insights in to his will and then to turn them in to something useful, something beautiful, something that inspires and instructs others. That doesn’t mean that anything we create is necessarily sanctioned by him. Nor does it mean that everything a prophet says or writes is aesthetically amazing (so much can happen in the construction). Nor does it mean that this process can’t be described solely in secular terms (and validly so). I’m just saying that perhaps this process, if one does buy in to a Father in Heaven, esp. the Mormon one, and the human capacity for it is a big part of the point of this mortal life. The idea given form and shape — given walls — and then turned loose in the world and coming to know and play within those walls.

One thought on “Zadie Smith on Nabokov on the author’s walls”

  1. One more thing on Zadie Smith: her tribute to David Foster Wallace and defense of his work is a fine, fine piece of criticism and should be read by anyone who has dismissed him as a fussy, soulless post-modernist.

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