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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

    

Think, Write, Speak

by
Vladimir Nabokov


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Think, Write, Speak



Title: Think, Write, Speak
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2019)
Length: 501 pages
Availability: Think, Write, Speak - US
Think, Write, Speak - UK
Think, Write, Speak - Canada
  • Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor
  • Edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy
  • With an Introduction by Brian Boyd
  • Some of these pieces were originally written/published in other languages (written: Russian and French; published: various)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odds and ends, but lots of fascinating bits

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 29/11/2019 Christian Lorentzen
Literary Review . 12/2019 Donald Rayfield
The NY Times . 8/11/2019 Dwight Garner
The Spectator . 9/11/2019 Philip Hensher


  From the Reviews:
  • " The book we have is not like any other Iíve read. Not quite diaristic, at times resembling an untrimmed book of aphorisms, hammering on pet themes (...), Think, Write, Speak is a twisting and bumpy road for the reader who attempts to read it front to back. Sinuosity, the quality Nabokov prized in his own sentences, isnít the word for this journey. " - Christian Lorentzen, Financial Times

  • "(T)his collection includes some of his sharpest prose, as well as his most cursory. It spans Nabokovís career, from juvenilia to senilia. (...) A quarter of this collection shows Nabokov at his wittiest, most profound or most original. The rest is more ephemeral." - Donald Rayfield, Literary Review

  • "The Nabokov book, Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, is mostly for completists. (...) (T)wo-thirds of Think, Write, Speak is made up of interviews, more than 80 of them, most conducted after the publication of Lolita. One suspects that Nabokov, spying this talky book from the Great Beyond, must feel as if someone has dug up his bones, hanged him, and buried him again." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Think, Write, Speak is something of a mopping-up exercise, with uncollected and unpublished essays and reviews as well as a very large number of press interviews. (...) Itís true that even when talking to posturing dullards, Nabokov manages to sound interesting. Nonetheless, the main substance of the book lies in some remarkable essays, reviews and lectures. (...) Some of the bravest and most inspiring writing here comes in violently funny reviews of Soviet Ďliteratureí." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Think, Write, Speak collects 155 essays, reviews, interviews, and letters to the editor published between 1921 and 1977, presented chronologically. Nabokov already collected a variety of hs non-fiction for the volume Strong Opinions, and this is, in essence the balance -- though, as editor Brian Boyd notes in his Introduction, does not include, for example, some of his: "critiques of young and mostly forgotten Russian poets"; the editors have also cut from the interviews the (many): "repeated answers to repeated questions". Not all the material is previously uncollected, either: some of the interviews previously appeared in Robert Golla's collection of Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov, for example, while 'The Art of Literature and Commonsense', published in Lectures on Literature, appears here (in slightly longer form) as 'The Creative Writer'.
       The volume is interview-heavy, with about two-thirds of the pieces Q & As of one form or another; these range, however, from full-length to some with only a handful of brief or even single-answer responses (in some cases pared down because, as noted, the editors have removed previously asked/answered questions). Among them, for example, is one ('Interview for New York Times (1972)') that reads in its entirety:

Quite right ... He [Bobby Fischer] can't be subject to the clicks and flashes of those machines above him. It's like a tennis player having tennis balls flung at him.
       The interviews dominate the latter two-thirds of the collection; obviously, early in his career, Nabokov was not as sought-out as an interview subject, and so the first few dozen pieces are mainly essays, lectures, and book reviews. (Stray letters to the editor also appear throughout -- generally making specific points or corrections; it's a shame there aren't more of these.)
       Quite a few pieces are on Russian literature, including reviews of then-contemporary Russian works, and among the most interesting are some survey-pieces on Soviet literature. Nabokov was, to say the least, not very receptive to what was produced in the Soviet Union, easily dismissing it as programmatic -- a kind of writing he loathed -- though presumably his visceral hatred of the Bolshevik regime left him unlikely to be open to even the more interesting examples of writing of those times; typically, one 1926 lecture he wrote is titled: 'A Few Words on the Wretchedness of Soviet Fiction and an Attempt to Determine its Cause'. He has a point, of course, about the official line -- leading to what he inspiredly describes as: "a new type of novel is emerging, which I would call the village dreadful' -- but he also focuses very much on that, as if other writing could not exist under those circumstances (which wasn't quite the case -- though admittedly Soviet experimentalism clearly wasn't going to be his cup of tea either). An unpublished essay follows up on 'Soviet Literature, 1940' -- but while here he can: "not force myself to plod through a serial novel by Alexis Tolstoy", by the time of a 1961 interview he grants (with qualification) that: "Tolstoy is without a doubt a major talent", and has perhaps gotten enough distance to speak approvingly of a few Soviet prose-writers (Olesha, Zoshchenko, Ilf and Petrov).
       Many of Nabokov's likes and dislikes are known, and found reïterated here: among the Russians, the passion for Pushkin, for example, or the dismissal of Dostoevsky. He admires Pasternak's poetry but bashes Dr.Zhivago where and when he can ("it is really a bad book") -- his complaints of a different nature than those directed against the usual Soviet output, but no less harsh for that. Some of his judgments are perhaps more unexpected -- abroad, Ivan Bunin is surely best-known for his prose, but Nabokov begins a review of his Selected Poems with the strong claim that: "Bunin's poems are the best the Russian muse has created for several decades". Elsewhere, there are clever observations -- of Khodasevich, he remarks on the: "optical-pharmaceutical-chemical-anatomical tinge that many of his poems have".
       The interviews -- questions and responses -- do make up most of this collection, and some of the best are the succinct, staccato exchanges, right to the point:
Personal dislikes

Books with a Message. Studs. Dictators. East Wind. Oysters. Wireless sets; voluble conversation about same.
       The editors have trimmed many of these interviews, to avoid duplication of the same sets of questions-and-answers -- presumably helpful in avoiding repetition, but occasionally making for a too-trimmed-back feel. Among the most amusing interviews is one with Helga Chudacoff for Die Welt (1974); from a time when Nabokov could allow himself to demand the questions in advance and prepare his answers; there was apparently considerable back and forth with Ms.Chudacoff in preparation for this one, complete with Nabokov pointing out that many of his responses were already available elsewhere: "I am directing you back to Strong Opinions, and listing the pages therein which you might consult for the German translation of my answers".
       It's interesting to hear of Nabokov's likes and dislikes -- though a shame he does He is enthusiastic about the fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet (while pointing out that Robbe-Grillet's theories: "leave me completely indifferent") -- going so far ast call Jealousy: "the finest love novel since Proust" -- and does praise a few others (Salinger, and even Updike). Of course, his put-downs tend to be more fun -- with few better than that of Faulkner, not long dead yet when he wrote:
I am completely deaf to Faulkner. I do not understand what people see in him. He has been invented. Surely, he was not a real person.
       Some of his general aperçus are also pleasing, such as the nice twist on the oft-asked question about being an émigré:
The term "émigré writer" has an air of tautology about it. Any true author emigrates into his art and exists within it.
       Or his description of an 'exemplary' short story as: "physically a slim book and biologically a diminutive novel".
       Nabokov's dis-engaged attitude -- "I think I am the least 'engagé' man in 'our time.' I'm not even sure that 'our time' means something" -- also has appeal, as does his refusal to lump together in any group or class:
I don't like labels, clubs. I don't like groups !
     It just doesn't mean anything to me if you say symbolists or classicists. It doesn't mean anything and that's what I teach my classes. I teach them books, not authors. Not groups or labels.
       Some personal detail also emerges, from his daily routine (a surprisingly frequently-asked question) to his and wife Véra's unusual not settling down in a house of their own, always renting and then living in a hotel room in Montreux. In the later years, Nabokov repeatedly professes his love for America -- yet oddly stays away, somehow barely ever managing to visit. Some of the personal color added by the interviewers -- much cut here (as presumably Nabokov appreciated, not much of a fan of journalistic embellishment) -- might also have been of interest; details such as him: "Sipping brandy from a champagne glass" are nice little touches that are mostly missing here.
       It's nice to have this material collected here, much of it otherwise inaccessible or difficult to find (i.e. only published abroad, etc.). Pieces like his acceptance speech for the 1975 National Book Award -- never publicly given, since he didn't win ... -- are, in particular, nice little finds.
       Much in Think, Write, Speak feels familiar, Nabokov's strong but familiar opinions -- about specific authors, books, and, of course, the Soviet Union -- and not too many new details, personal or literary are revealed here, but it's still a fascinating career- and life over-view. There are some valuable new pieces here, particularly the essays on facets of Soviet literature, while the interviews provide consistently good entertainment value.
       The volume is obviously of considerable interest and value to any Nabokov-fan, but there's certainly enough here to make it worthwhile also for the more casual reader.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 November 2019

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Links:

Think, Write, Speak: Reviews: Vladimir Nabokov: Books by Vladimir Nabokov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was among the leading authors of the 20th century, writing significant works in both Russian and English. He is the author of novels such as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada.

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© 2019 the complete review

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