Brian Boyd


On his book Stalking Nabokov

Cover Interview of November 08, 2011


Lately literary critics and scholars have tended to avoid a single-author focus, partly because authors have been downgraded as the causes of literary works.

That’s a mistake, I think. Nothing like “The Library of Babel,” Lolita, or Waiting for Godot would have been written in the mid-twentieth century or at any other time had Borges, Nabokov, and Beckett not lived—even had history otherwise run the same course. All three were saturated in literature past and present but sought it out and responded to it in unique ways.

The best criticism, too, is highly individual but also part of highly social processes, and that’s another thread that runs through these pieces. Criticism is cooperative: we want to understand the same works, and we learn from others both specific information and ways to understand and appreciate. And it is competitive: we want to challenge others whose claims we find wrong, and we want our efforts and results to be recognized.

In my work on evolution and literature, the one line of research after Nabokov that I have so far had time to pursue to something near satisfaction, I have explored the interplay of the individual and the social, the collaborative and the competitive, the original insight or the independent effort and the traditions and institutions that make the insight and effort possible and worthwhile.

Another thread running through Stalking Nabokov is the range that specialization can entail. Specialists may become too narrow, but Nabokov himself wonderfully evoked for his literature students the magic of discovery that specialization could allow. A research specialization like mine on Nabokov has required language learning, interpretation, annotation, bibliography, translation, forays into many literatures and into history, geography, philosophy, science, and psychology. It has meant the continued excitement of discovery; travels to five continents; meetings with the Nabokov family and writers, publishers, scientists, scholars, and librarians who worked with or after him; dialogues with readers famous and obscure; documentary filming; naming new butterflies; and even a law trial.

The best antidote to the confines of one kind specialization can be to follow orthogonal lines of specialization. In Nabokov’s case, literature and Lepidoptera, poetry and prose, versification and boxing. In my case, partly as a comparison and contrast to Nabokov within literature, and, as an alternative delight, Shakespeare; as a contrast to Nabokov’s high-culture status, Dr. Seuss and Art Spiegelman; as a contrast and comparison to Nabokov within twentieth-century thought, the philosopher Karl Popper, with his specializations in the philosophy of science, physics, music, and social philosophy, and his preference for ideas over words; narrative, from Homer and Genesis to the present, across all modes, from epics to comics; and literature and evolution, which has meant exploring across arts and eras and into biology, anthropology, and many fields of psychology. Readers of Stalking Nabokov will see these other specializations from time to time crossing my Nabokov trail and offering glimpses of other vistas.