Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita” (1955)


Madison Beer, a singer and TikTok star who boasts 11 million followers on the platform, is facing backlash after admitting to ‘romanticizing’ the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, a story of a middle-aged professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl.”

Insider, June 2020

(Continued from part 1.)

Let’s not waste time talking about the beauties of Nabokov’s prose, as do many uncomfortable readers in desperate need of some angle from which Lolita might be safely appreciated. As you can see, there isn’t one. Continue reading

Vladimir Nabokov, “Pale Fire” (1962)


Nabokov was an aristocrat who enjoyed American motels and looked down on the literary fashions of his era.”

“infographic” from a website that helps college students cheat on homework

John Shade, a professor of English literature at a very thinly disguised Cornell University, and a poet in his spare time, composed a poem in Popean iambic pentameter titled “Pale Fire.” Unfortunately, he died before it could appear in print, but his colleague, Prof. Charles Kinbote, has eagerly volunteered to curate its publication. Pale Fire, the novel, is the published edition (or at least the corrected proofs) of “Pale Fire,” the poem — Kinbote’s foreword, followed by Shade’s poem itself, then Kinbote’s commentary, and finally an index. Continue reading

Natsume Soseki, “Kokoro” (1914)


(Conclusion. Continued from part 2.)

Kokoro was finished two years before Soseki’s death, and is representative of his late work. It has become his signature, certainly in the English-speaking world, and to some extent in Japan as well (although in schools they prefer to teach his early novels). The style and atmosphere of the novel elicit bewilderment and fascination, which parallel the feelings of the protagonist. Continue reading

Natsume Soseki, “Sanshiro” (1908)

Sanshiro’s old stomping grounds.

(Continued from part 1.)

But so far, it is only 1908, and Soseki has just completed Sanshiro. Quite unlike the solitary, introspective atmosphere of The Three-Cornered World, the new novel takes place in the midst of Tokyo university life. Its world is much bigger and wider, full of dialogue and social situations whose participants have diverse points of view and frequently appear to be deeper and more fully realized than the protagonist, rather than serving as vessels for his aesthetic appreciation. Regardless of how much actually happens on its pages, it certainly feels like it takes place in an active, energetic world where things are happening all around. Continue reading

Johan Huizinga, “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” (1919)


This is an effort to see the 14th and 15th centuries, not as a prelude to the Renaissance, but as the conclusion of the Middle Ages; an effort to see medieval culture in the last stage of its life, as a tree whose fruit is overripe — fully revealed, having reached the peak of its development. The overgrowth of a vital core by stiffened, cerebral forms; a rich culture drying up and hardening — that is the subject of these pages. When I wrote this book, it was as if I gazed into the depth of the evening sky; but it was blood-red, heavy, deserted, covered in ominous leaden holes and shining with a false, copper glint.”

preface to the first edition of Autumn (18)

(Conclusion. Continued from part 2.)

But now, we leave behind the silly troubles of our age, the clouds gathered over our nonexistent future, the self-parodic incompleteness and defectiveness of our lives. We follow Huizinga into the stern, majestic world of medieval Europe. Continue reading

Johan Huizinga, “In the Shadows of Tomorrow” (1935)


(Continued from part 1.)

Huizinga was famous in European academic circles long before Homo Ludens. He became a chair professor, at the University of Groningen, at the age of 32; his inaugural lecture was titled, “The aesthetic component of historical perception,” which in retrospect sounds like a statement of intent for his entire body of work. From the 1910s onward, and especially after The Autumn of the Middle Ages, he went from one success to another, finally becoming rector of Leiden University (where Descartes had once studied) in 1933. Around that same time, his work began to take on a more polemical aspect, as a reaction to the rise of fascism. Continue reading

Johan Huizinga, “Homo Ludens” (1938)


Divinity, by its nature, is worthy of the most blessed care; but man, as we have said before, is a kind of invented plaything of the gods, and this has essentially become his best possible purpose. This is what we should follow: let every man and every woman spend their life playing the most beautiful games, even though this may contradict all of our existing customs… Everyone should live as long and as well as possible in this world. So, at long last, what is proper? Life should be lived as play.”

Plato, “Laws”

In a way, Homo Ludens is nothing more than a book-length reiteration of Plato’s offhand remark. But then, the latter is the most stirring and profound thought in the entirety of the “Laws.” The scientific and historical foundation for this philosophy only emerged centuries after it was first expressed. Continue reading

Vladimir Sergeyev, “The History of Ancient Greece” (1939)


After spending as much time with Plato as we have, it is hard not to lose oneself in the world of ancient Greece. To develop a better understanding of that world, it helps to see a wide view of its entire history. The simplest way to do that is to read a good old-fashioned textbook, but hopefully one with a minimum of ideology — a straightforward factual account that clearly identifies the most important points, rather than a thinly-veiled tract on contemporary political issues retroactively inserted into ancient times.

Finding such a book is not an easy task, because many of the most world-famous treatments are actually just that, thinly-veiled political tracts. For example, Edward Gibbon’s grandly titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is basically a long, poorly-written pamphlet attacking Christianity from the viewpoint of 18th-century masonic “rationalism.” The actual Roman Empire has very little to do with the book’s real subject and purpose; he may as well have set it in an allegorical fantasy land with elves instead of Romans. And that’s not even the worst example — Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome, one of the most acclaimed historical treatises of the 19th century, contains just as much virulent German nationalism as it does genuine Roman scholarship. Continue reading