O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

appendix F: Parody and Poshlust


Few writers make such exuberant use of the literary clichés of others as does Nabokov, and in so doing he detaches his work from those he parodies. Poshlust is a very general Russian term for all that is cheap, shabby, vulgar, and shopworn, and Nabokov’s favorite form of poshlust to debunk is the literary cliché. Below are just a few samples of Nabokov’s use of conventions.

from King, Queen, Knave:

“This pair of slippers (his modest but considerate gift) our lovers kept in the lower drawer of the corner chest, for life not unfrequently imitates the French novelists.”

“They would take a Tauchnitz novel and find a suitable sentence in it, such as ‘I could not have acted otherwise’ or ‘I am shooting myself because I am tired of life.’ The rest was clear.”

from The Defense:

“She made his acquaintance on the third day after his arrivals made it the way they do in old novels or in motion pictures: she drops a handkerchief and he picks it up — with the sole difference that they interchanged roles.”

from Laughter in the Dark:

“Margot had so fallen in love with the life that Albinus could offer her — a life full of the glamour of a first-class film, with rocking palm trees and shuddering roses (for it is always windy in filmland). . . .”

“As she sat between these two man who were sharing her life, she felt as though she were the chief actress in a mysterious and passionate film-drama — so she tried to behave accordingly: smiling absently, drooping her eyelashes. . . .”

from Glory:

“He had the fine, elongated hands with which popular novelists endow artistic individuals, yet he was neither poet nor painter. . . .”

from Despair:

Re. the reading habits of Hermann’s rather stupid wife, Lydia: “She is a great gobbler of books, but reads only trash, memorizing nothing and leaving out the longer descriptions.”

“He produced a sound, which indiscriminate novel-writers render thus: ‘H’m.’”

“To begin with, let us take the following motto (not especially for this chapter, but generally): Literature is Love. Now we can continue. . . .”

from The Gift:

Re. advertising: “Thus a world of handsome demons developed side by side with us, in a cheerfully sinister relationship to our everyday existence; but in the handsome demon there is always some secret flaw, a shameful wart on the behind of semblance of perfection. . . . Someday I shall come back to a discussion of this nemesis.”

“Winter, like most memorable winters and like all winters introduced for the sake of a narrational phrase, turned out (they always ‘turn out’ in such cases) to be cold.”

“Fyodor, who during this tirade (as Turgenev, Goncharov, Count Salias, Grigorovich and Boborykin used to write).”

from Speak, Memory:

“Deeply beloved of blurbists is the list of more or less earthly professions that a young author (writing about Life and Ideas — which are so much more important, of course, than mere ‘art’) has followed: newspaper boy, soda jerk, monk, wrestler, foreman in a steel mill, bus driver and so on. Alas, none of these callings has been mine.”

from Nikolai Gogol:

Re. the way Pushkin, in 1831, was thought of: “. . . as a dusty relic of a past generation or as a representative of the literary ‘aristocracy’ — whatever that is. Earnest readers were yearning for ‘facts’ and ‘true romance’ and ‘human interest’ just as they do now, poor souls.”

“. . . it will be I hope clear that poshlust is not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. A list of characters personifying poshlust . . . will include Polonius and the royal pair in Hamlet. Flaubert’s Rodolphe and Homais, Laevsky in Chekhov’s Duel, Joyce’s Marion Bloom, young Bloch in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Maupassant’s ‘Bel Ami,’ Anna Karenina’s husband, Berg in War and Peace and numerous other figures in universal fiction.”

“Couleur locale has been responsible for many hasty appreciations, and local color is not a fast color. I have never been able to see eye to eye with people who enjoyed books merely because they were in dialect, or moved in the exotic atmosphere of remote places. . . . There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions.”


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