Ecstasy on 3 x 5 Cards: Lila Azam Zanganeh’s Nabokov

Lila Azam Zanganeh is lifting us from the effete to the exhilarating to the ecstatic in the beloved Vladimir Nabokov. But wait, I wonder. Wasn’t he teasing us with those tri-lingual puns? … disdaining us from his lonely leisure, butterfly net in hand, in the Alps or in Arizona? …. keeping his distance in the memory of boyhood tennis on a great Russian estate, circa 1910? Teasing us, for sure, Lila says. “He is always teasing… always ironic, but the thrills he is describing become contagious.”

She is the first to spell out a notion that I was eager to hear: that the ecstatic (beside oneself, out of one’s head) frisson associated with Nabokov and all his evocations of erotic and other kinds of bliss fit also a religious context that Nabokov was perhaps too bashful to fill in explicitly. Ecstasy, we’re told, is the state of saints and mystics in prayer, and of martyrs in agony. It is the consciousness not of this world, but another. Nabokov, in his own style, is endlessly referring to that other plane of his awareness, hinting at a gleaming opposite face of the tapestry : “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more,” for example.

Lila Azam Zanganeh is giving us more than fan’s notes. She writes and talks with an unguarded blush of excitement, but it’s about something more than surpassing style. There’s conviction here, and years of close reading. Most of a decade ago, when we worked on a radio show together, Lila used to quote with passion Nabokov’s own afterword on Lolita: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

She wrote this elegant small book, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, to reassure us that the thrill we feel reading Nabokov’s manifesto is substantial and real. She is telling us a little more earnestly what Nabokov wanted us to believe about the seat of artistic delight, “…between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”

Happiness is about memory. Through the magic of memory, the past is ever-present. He says at one point in Speak Memory, “time does not exist.” And that’s really what Nabokov is about. It’s about observing, it’s about recapturing and reminiscing. And he talks again and again in Ada about the “radiant now.” Everything is there. That’s why observation is so important, that moment of capturing is about turning time on its head, and that’s where the magic begins. When one understands that by reading the book, that’s enchantment. If there’s one thing to be learned it’s not anything social or historical or political or of documentary value. It’s really to learn how to observe and parse the detail of the world.

Lila Azam Zanganeh with Chris Lydon, May 2011.

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  • In his 1944 book on Gogol (“Nikolai Gogol”), Nabokov introduces the word poshlust by which he means meretricious pseudo-profoundity.
    Certain famous writers like Thomas Mann are seen by Nabokov as blowhards or bloviatorial. He calls them “formidable mediocrities.”
    Their “poshlust” is related to their skill as basically in tendentious argufying and not enchantment.

    In Nabokov, spelling and casting a spell are related as deep cognates.
    Poshlost (Russian) is a word that has been defined as “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity” (Alexandrov 1991, p. 106); there is no single English translation. At more length Boym (1994, p. 41) explains:
    Poshlost’ is the Russian version of banality, with a characteristic national flavoring of metaphysics and high morality, and a peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual. This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality. The war against poshlost’ was a cultural obsession of the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia from the 1860s to 1960s.
    Early examinations of poshlost in literature are in the work of Nikolai Gogol. Gogol wrote (of Pushkin), “He used to say of me that no other writer before me possessed the gift to expose so brightly life’s poshlust, to depict so powerfully the poshlust of a poshlusty man [poshlost’ poshlogo cheloveka] in such a way that everybody’s eyes would be opened wide to all the petty trivia that often escape our attention.” (“The Third Letter à Propos Dead Souls”, 1843, quoted and translated by Davydov, 1995. Brackets in original. See below for his transliteration “poshlust”.)
    In his novels, Turgenev “tried to develop a heroic figure who could, with the verve and abandon of a Don Quixote, grapple with the problems of Russian society, who could once and for all overcome ‘poshlost,’ the complacent mediocrity and moral degeneration of his environment” (Lindstrom 1966, p. 149). Dostoyevsky applied the word to the Devil; Solzhenitsyn, to Western-influenced young people (Boym 1994, p. 41).
    D. S. Mirsky was an early user of the word in English in writing about Gogol; he defined it as “‘self-satisfied inferiority,’ moral and spiritual” (Mirsky 1927, p. 158). Vladimir Nabokov made it more widely known in his book on Gogol, where he romanized it as “poshlust” (punningly: “posh” + “lust”). Poshlust, Nabokov explained, “is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive” (Nabokov 1944, p. 70). Nabokov (1973) also listed
    “Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.”
    Nabokov often targeted poshlost in his own work; the Alexandrov definition above refers to the character of M’sieur Pierre in Invitation to a Beheading.
    Another notable literary treatment is Fyodor Sologub’s novel The Petty Demon. It tells the story of a provincial schoolteacher, Peredonov, notable for his complete lack of redeeming human qualities. James H. Billington (1966, p. 494) said of it:
    The book puts on display a Freudian treasure chest of perversions with subtlety and credibility. The name of the novel’s hero, Peredonov, became a symbol of calculating concupiscence for an entire generation… [Peredonov] seeks not the ideal world but the world of petty venality and sensualism, poshlost’. He torments his students, derives erotic satisfaction from watching them kneel to pray, and systematically befouls his apartment before leaving it as part of his generalized spite against the universe.
    • Alexandrov, Vladimir (1991). Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691068666.
    • Billington, James H. (1966). The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. Alfred A. Knopf.
    • Boym, Svetlana (1994). Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-14625-5. Retrieved 2007-12-27.
    • Davydov, Sergej (1995). “Poshlost'”. In V. Alexandrov (ed.). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Routledge. pp. 628–632. ISBN 0-8153-0354-8.
    • Lindstrom, T. (1966). A Concise History of Russian Literature. Volume I: From the Beginnings to Chekhov. New York: New York University Press.
    • Mirsky, D. S. (1927). A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (1999 edition ed.). Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-1679-0. Retrieved 2007-12-27.
    • Nabokov, Vladimir (1944). Nikolai Gogol. New Directions. Quoted by Boym (1994), p. 301 n. 37.
    • Nabokov, Vladimir (1973). Strong Opinions. McGraw-Hill. p. 100. The original interview, with Herbert Gold in the October 1967 issue of the Paris Review, is available on line , and an extract is available in a Time article (Dec. 1, 1967) about the interview.

    The late Professor Kristina Pomorska (the seminal MIT linguist Roman Jacobson’s wife) used to introduce Nabokov-ism via “poshlust”-watching.

    Finally: that other Slavic language genius Joseph Conrad says
    in his preface to “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ “(1897):
    “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

    Nabokov too, like Conrad a bit, uses words and sentences to create a kind of “metaphysical mood-flare.” This has something to do with exilic loneliness with “no direction home” unrecoverability syndrome.

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