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On Dostoevsky’s 199th birthday, here’s Nabokov insulting him. A lot.

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November 11, 2020, 1:12pm

We’re celebrating Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 199th birthday by looking at him through the lens of Vladimir Nabokov, who insulted Dostoevsky every chance he could. Nabokov was a famously harsh critic, calling Hemingway “hopelessly juvenile” and Ezra Pound’s work “pretentious nonsense”—but some of his harshest words were saved for Dostoevsky, whose writing he found sentimental and unrealistic. Here are Nabokov’s most legendary pans of Dostoevsky’s work:

“Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevsky as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his tremendous farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway.”

–from Nabokov’s 1964 interview in Playboy, as reprinted in Strong Opinions

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“[Crime and Punishment’s plot] did not seem as incredibly banal in 1866 when the book was written as it does now when noble prostitutes are apt to be received a little cynically by experienced readers.”

–from Lectures on Russian Literature, reprinted in The New York Times

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“Dostoyevsky never really got over the influence which the European mystery novel and the sentimental novel made upon him. The sentimental influence implied that kind of conflict he liked—placing virtuous people in pathetic situations and then extracting from these situations the last ounce of pathos.”

–from Lectures on Russian Literature, reprinted in The New York Times

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“Heart-to-heart talks, confessions in the Dostoevskian manner, are also not in my line.”

–from Speak, Memory

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“I dislike intensely The Brothers Karamazov and the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigmarole.”

–from a 1969 interview with James Mossman, as reprinted in Strong Opinions

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“Dostoyevsky’s lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human English words expressing several, although by no means all, aspects of poshlost are, for instance, ”cheap,” ”sham,” ”smutty,” ”highfalutin,” ”in bad taste.” dignity – all this is difficult to admire. I do not like this trick his characters have of ”sinning their way to Jesus” or, as a Russian author, Ivan Bunin, put it more bluntly, ”spilling Jesus all over the place.””

–from Lectures on Russian Literature, reprinted in The New York Times

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“He seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.”

–from Lectures on Russian Literature, reprinted in The New York Times

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Happy birthday, Dostoevsky!

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