Clashes Of The Literary Titans

Disputes between the literary gods would seem to be fairly rare, as these most talented personages are often gracious enough to overlook, at least in print, the perceived shortcomings of their fellow divinities. Literature is not a contest, Borges asserts; prizes, Werner Herzog adds, are for pigs and horses.

But there are two great disputes stretching across time which I wish to root out and address. The first concerns Vladimir Nabokov, who despised—or, according to one of my professors, affected to despise—Fyodor Dostoevsky. “[He] is not a great writer,” lectures Nabokov, “but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.” In other words, as Witold Gombrowicz wrote of a contemporary winner of the Mann Booker prize, he is an excellent mediocrity. Tolstoy himself added (several decades before) that he could not stick it out to finish The Brothers Karamazov, a book that functions as a doorstop and a chopping block as often as it does as a novel. At the same time there are numerous intelligent people of all stripes who claim the Big D. as their favorite novelist. How are we, then, to judge him?

While I believe such judgment is impossible, I do suspect that we can trace the origin of Nabokov’s negative feelings. He mentions in Lectures on Russian Literature that one of his own noble ancestors had a hand in imprisoning and then nearly executing Dostoevsky, and then adds, quite venomously, that his least-favorite Latin tutor, a certain German immigrant named Scheisseman, would slap young Vladimir across the face with a worn copy of The Brothers Karamazov, which is an exceedingly large and heavy book, every time Nabokov failed to properly decline a Latin noun. This could perhaps be the real explanation for Nabokov’s inveterate dislike of Dostoevsky and his point-blank refusal to even discuss one of Freud’s favorite novels.

The second dispute I wish to explore is that between V.S. Naipaul and Edward Said. Edward Said claimed that V.S. Naipaul was a colonialist stooge, while V.S. Naipaul claimed (in response) that his rival was “a strikingly successful dumbass”. This fight seems to have begun after the publishing of Among The Believers and India: A Wounded Civilization, two texts which (Said says) place the blame for all the malfeasance in Iran and India squarely on the shoulders of the natives, rather than the colonials. But a single secret event in the life of Edward Said, recently uncovered from among the private papers of one of his servants, would seem to shed some additional light on this clash.

After a long day lecturing on his love-hate relationship with Joseph Conrad at Harvard University, Edward Said returned home to his country mansion, tired and looking forward to his favorite dinner, which was tomato soup. Sitting down to table, his wife asked him how his day was, to which Said replied: “Not as good as this tomato soup’s going to be!” at which point one his many servants, a woman named Precious, began to ladle out the esteemed professor’s soup, but just as she was bending over, a book slipped out from her pocket and splashed in Edward Said’s bowl, soaking his face with the hot red liquid. He was furious, screaming and gesticulating as though in a silent movie—“Not because of the soup!” he wailed to his wife, while the servant apologized and wiped his face, “But because of the book!”

Precious had been reading A House For Mr. Biswas. She was fired on the spot by Said’s outstretched pointer finger (still dripping with soup), and henceforth all job applicants to the Said Mansion had to sign a contract with a single clause in large bold capitalized letters reading: I SWEAR I DO NOT LIKE V.S. NAIPAUL.

(nearly all of this is obviously untrue, and half of it is actually a rehash)

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2 thoughts on “Clashes Of The Literary Titans

  1. Love Nabokov, admire Naipul and Said. Wonderful to have stumbled on your post. Keep reading the good stuff

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