Saturday, February 21, 2015
THE BATTLE OF THE TITANS: GOD AND TOLSTOY, GOD AND NABOKOV
In his reminiscences of Tolstoy Maxim Gorky makes much of Tolstoy as a kind on man-god on this earth, superior to mere human beings and often condescending in his attitude toward them. Tolstoy, says Gorky, was obsessed with God throughout most of his life.
"The thought that, obviously, more than any other gnaws at his soul is the thought of God. Sometimes it appears that it is not a thought, but an intense resistance to something that he feels up above him. He speaks of this less than he would wish, but he thinks about it constantly. This is hardly a sign of old age, a premonition of death. No, I believe that it originates in a splendid sense of human pride. And to some degree in a feeling of pique, because if you are Lev Tolstoy it is offensive to have to subordinate your will to some streptococcus."
"With God he has an extremely nebulous relationship, but sometimes it reminds me of the way two bears in the same den relate to each other."
Gorky emphasizes Tolstoy's lifelong obsession with death in the same terms--the idea of a titan on earth, the kind of man who looks at death and spits.
"All of his life he feared and hated it [death], all of his life the 'Arzamas terror' was fluttering about near his soul. Did he, Tolstoy, have to die? All of the world, everyone on earth was looking at him. From China, India, America, from everywhere living, trembling threads were stretching out to reach him. His soul is for all men, and for all time! Why should nature not make an exception for him; why not grant one of its human creatures physical immortality? Why?"
Much of the above reminds you of another literary colossus of the twentieth century, Vladimir Nabokov. By the time Nabokov was living out his final years in Switzerland he was, perhaps, the most renowned writer of literary fiction in the whole world. His reputation, of course, unlike Tolstoy's, was based on sheer literary talent, not on any attempt to foster moral and social reform.
Beginning largely after the publication of Lolita, Nabokov and his family indulged in an insane effort at image building, what was, in effect, at attempt to elevate Nabokov to a lofty literary position occupied only by Shakespeare and Pushkin. After Nabokov died his wife and son continued playing the same game, and they played it to the hilt until they themselves passed on.
Like Tolstoy, Nabokov was possessed of a super-sized ego. Once, when asked in an interview if he believed in God, he replied as follows:
"To be quite candid--and what I am going to say now is something I never have said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill--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" (Strong Opinions, p.45).
This sort of arch gobbledygook was taken seriously not only by Nabokov's wife and son, but by some Nabokov disciples, who made much of the "otherworldly" theme in Nabokov's fiction. Here is his son Dmitry, beating the same drum in the preface to The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov:
"The ingenious rapture of 'The Word' surfaces in my father's later works, but only fleetingly, in an otherworld Nabokov could only hint at. He explained however, that he would be unable to say as much as he did, had he not known more than he said."
For a man with an ego big enough to make such claims it must have been a horrible thing to face when that streptococcus finally came for him in the mid-seventies. As readers we do, however, have one consolation to rely on after the deaths of the titans Tolstoy and Nabokov--we are left with their wonderful creative works to read.