Taking Sides in the Great Literary Divide Between Nabokov and Roth

Author Joshua Ferris used to believe in 'art for art's sake.' Then he read The Human Stain.

Doug McLean

There’s perhaps no more ardent proponent of “art for art’s sake” than the Vladimir Nabokov of Strong Opinions. In that book of self-interviews, Nabokov repeatedly skewers the notion that art should have social orientation. For him, fiction presents its own new reality, glimpsed through the looking glass of an author’s aesthetic and linguistic obsessions. Nabokov’s ideal novel owes nothing to what we might collectively call “real life.”

Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, began as a devotee of Nabokov’s aesthetic purism. But another writer knocked him from that stance. As he explains in his essay for this series, the politically charged works of Philip Roth taught Ferris about the literary implications of his own privilege, and the value of looking outward at our world.

Ferris’s work suffuses Roth’s engagement with contemporary social and ethical problems with Nabokov’s taste for fantasy and the surreal. His latest features a narrator with Portnoy-like neuroses: Dr. Paul O’Rourke is a world-weary dentist, sex-obsessed and chronically flossing, a Facebook-reviling Luddite who feels more isolated than ever in our tech-enabled world of “friends” and “followers.” When an online doppelganger creates a website for Paul’s practice, and social media accounts in his name, he starts to uncover the existence of a shadowy cult that unsettles his sense of who he is, and might be.

Joshua Ferris’s first book, Then We Came to the End, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. One of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers to watch, he lives in New York City.

Joshua Ferris: From Philip Roth’s acceptance speech, in 2006, for the PEN/Nabokov award, given to a living author whose body of work “is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship”:

First, opening remarks from February 1988, when I received the National Book Critics Circle award for The Counterlife. Quote: “Since it’s the experience of most writers that prizes invariably go to the wrong people, I take it that this year I am the wrong person.” Eighteen years later, that still holds. And I’m sure that Vladimir Nabokov would agree, by the way.

He’s probably right. Nabokov believed fiction should provide only “aesthetic bliss.” Nabokov’s books are playful, allusive, referential; they’re hostile to the earnest autobiographical investigation; they’re loyal only to structure and style. He is an Olympian conjuror, a metaphysical metafictionalist. His narratives pull the rug on reality and slip the noose of death. Roth’s work—historically informed, politically conscious, biographically interrogating, socially indicting, and existentially preoccupied—would likely not have gained Nabokov’s narrow approval. Roth’s metafiction is ontological in nature and depends on death’s brutal facticity. In book after book, Nabokov creates idiosyncratic, heightened, elaborately constructed worlds; Roth’s one book investigates and exhausts his world, the given world.

When I was younger, I preferred Nabokov. Which meant that I wanted to write books of a Nabokovian texture, weaving together imagination, artifice, gamesmanship, cruelty, and passion. By contrast Roth, preoccupied by Newark and revolts against tribalism and sexual preoccupations and death, might have seemed minor, provincial. But you can’t choose what kind of writer you become; aesthetics is handmaiden to temperament. By dint of nativity, or culture, or epoch, or perspective, I was more temperamentally aligned with Roth.

But I could not have been more biographically different. I was born a cracker in a cracker town. Tradition was a corn festival in summer. The man in cut-off jeans watering the lawn with a dangling cigarette—that was my dad. A man with schemes and a poker habit. The woman in a halter sunbathing on the lawn chair with her feet in a buggy baby pool—that was my mom, ever in search of a dead daddy’s love. Both of them mutts lost in the interior. The once-wide trail leading to some meaningful ancestral rootedness or family heritage had resolved by then to a black dot. If we had a Sabbath meal, it was the price of Christmas presents; if we had a High Holiday, it centered around beer. Then divorce plowed through my childhood like a John Deere backhoe. There were stepmothers; one was a Mormon. There were stepfathers; one held 13 different jobs in 12 months, including vacuum salesman.

All I had going for me was no small thing: I was a white man in a white man’s world. I didn’t ask for the privileges that no doubt came my way; I didn’t need to. I was taught—by parents, by teachers, by TV, by a thousand million subliminal messages, and by who knows how many more indomitable forces—that I was a singular individual, limitless, unshackled, infinitely deserving of investment. I was defined by nothing; circumscribed by nothing; held back by no gender bias or skin color or religious affiliation, by no conspicuous feature. I was America’s son.

And so when I began to read seriously, I could take freely to Nabokov’s dictum of aesthetic bliss above all else. I wasn’t a political being. I was, of course, a political actor; everyone is. It’s just that the white man in a white man’s world is often blind to all the ways in which he acts.

I would have liked to remain above the fray, on purely aesthetic grounds, on account of my attachment to Nabokov. But as I got older I found myself riled up by injustice, by systemic bias, by the world’s chronic ills. I had the aesthetician’s refinement but the reformer’s spirit.

I was 27 when I read The Human Stain. It tells the story of Coleman Silk, the classics professor and former dean of students at the fictional Athena college in New England who, as a young man, discards his African American heritage and passes as a white Jew. Like Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman—the narrator of the book, and no stranger to the claustrophobic confinements of the accidents of birth—Silk rails against the strictures and pieties of conformity. Here’s the passage that moves me the most:

At Howard he’d discovered that he wasn’t just a nigger to Washington, D.C.—as if that shock weren’t strong enough, he discovered at Howard that he was a Negro as well. A Howard Negro at that. Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either. You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that? Growing up in East Orange, he was of course a Negro, very much of their small community of five thousand or so, but boxing, running, studying, at everything he did concentrating and succeeding, roaming around on his own all over the Oranges and, with or without Doc Chinzer, down across the Newark line, he was, without thinking about it, everything else as well. He was Coleman, the greatest of the great pioneers of the I.

Then he went off to Washington and, in the first month, he was a nigger and nothing else and he was a Negro and nothing else. No. No. He saw the fate awaiting him, and he wasn’t having it. Grasped it intuitively and recoiled spontaneously. You can’t let the big they impose its bigotry on you any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you. Not the tyranny of the we and its we— talk and everything that the we wants to pile on your head. Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum. Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard. Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery—that was the punch to the labonz. Singularity. The passionate struggle for singularity. The singular animal. The sliding relationship with everything. Not static but sliding. Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?

As the white man in the white man’s world, I’ve suffered none of this. No coercion, cooptation, oppression, insularity, or suffocation. I have rather the opposite problem of Silk (and Zuckerman, and Roth himself): I lack a relation to any defining we. No ancestral we, no religious we, no racial we, no baseline birthright against which to rebel and better resolve the individual self. A man who knows nothing but the sliding relationship with everything. For whom it’s all self-discovery.

It doesn’t matter. I love Coleman’s audacity, his determination, his rebellion, his ardency, and the supple, vigorous prose and most un-Nabokovian argument with which they’re delivered. I want Coleman to slough off the we and with it any obligation to some grand scheme of the collective will. A representative of the ruling class, I root for him. It’s the same as rooting for the American dream.

You can hear another great American thinker in the rhythms and repetitions of Roth’s prose: Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I appeal from your customs,” Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I must be myself.” With uncommon felicity and characteristic lucidity, Roth demonstrates the complex, often fatal consequences of living according to Emerson’s individualist creed. That creed was given legal shelter by the founding fathers, and two and a quarter centuries later, it’s major dramaturge wrote The Human Stain. Roth dramatizes better than anyone, more so even than Whitman, how Emerson’s elliptical and oracular essays might play out in real life, the consummations and ravages of its single-minded pursuit.

It’s this that I turn to Roth for, which I do now more than Nabokov: for his urgency and relevance, for his argumentation and applicability. He is not as high-minded, nor as metaphysical, nor as sensuous or poetical. But he’s furthering a native tradition of thought that extends through time to this country’s deepest political impulse, namely, the imperial inviolability of the person. There is no higher art than that.