Dmitri Nabokov, RIP

Via a facebook friend and the New York Times comes news that Dmitri Nabokov died last week at age 77. He lived, of course, under the shadow of his remarkable father Vladimir — and also in some ways equally formidable mother Vera but there was very little, if any, resentment. the Nabokovs adored their only son and he in turn conscientiously looked after them while they were alive and thoughtfully managed his father’s literary legacy.  As some Nabokov scholars have learned, Dmitri could be a bit cantankerous at times, but he did yeoman’s work in helping to translate the Russian works into English, in bringing collections of the letters to print, and in taking care of the many little devotional editorial tasks that a great writer needs and deserves. Dmitri decision to allow the publication of The Original of Laura was controversial but I think he made the right call in a difficult case.

Aside from his care for his father, Dmitri lived a very active and colorful life (although also a seemingly lonely one). He was an opera singer and a race car driver, a high liver and a world traveler. One interesting biographical tidbit is that during his car racing days someone tried to kill him by sabotaging his vehicle. I believe that the mystery of this attempted murder was never solved. Dmitri Nabokov talked about this and about his father in this 1986 interview with Don Swaim.

Van Gogh and Weimar Democracy


Over at the National Post, I have a review of Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, which makes a provocative but not wholly convincing case linking the Van Gogh cult with the failure of Weimar democrcacy. You can read the review here.

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The Strange Allure of Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore (via Creative Commons).

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a column I wrote trying to explain the popularity of Newt Gingrich among GOP voters. Despite its obvious newsworthiness, the column hasn’t been posted online. So I decided to offer a slightly expanded version of the article for Sans Everything readers:

Bewitched by the Eye of Newt by Jeet Heer

For Republican voters, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is like an ex-spouse who provokes a complex mix of longing and remorse. Even after the bitterest divorce, people often hook up with their exes, in ill-advised attempts to relive fonder days.

For many Republicans, as his last-minute surge in South Carolina shows, Mr. Gingrich is an old flame who still has that bad-boy charm. Voters remember all his faults, with the intimate knowledge of a former lover, but he has a way of melting their hearts: No other candidate is so adept at caressing GOP hot spots, such as fears of Mitt Romney being a “Massachusetts moderate” or of Barack Obama’s “socialist-secular machine.” Continue reading

Santorum Surge or Santorum Sputter?

Rick Santorum, via Gage Skidmore and Creative Commons.

Rick Santorum was riding high in Iowa earlier this month but his presidential campaign now seems to be faltering. I wrote about Santorum as a lightning rod in the cultural wars for the Globe and Mail in an article that can be read here. Below is a slightly amended and expanded version of the same piece:

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The Strange Career of Bruce Bawer

Bruce Bawer in happier days.

I’ve been enjoyed Bruce Bawer’s essays on politics and culture for nearly 30 years, so I’ve been troubled over the last few weeks by the way his name has become entangled with that of the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.

Bawer has had a fascinating career: he’s a gay writer who made his name in some extremely homophobic magazines, an avowed Christian has sought to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, a literary essayist who is also a formidable political polemist, and an American expatriate who has become a central figure in Europe’s burgeoning anti-immigration movement.

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Guy Davenport: Learning How to Die

Guy Davenport, 1964, as recorded by Jonathan Williams.


In his last letter to his sister Gloria Williamson, written shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Guy Davenport wrote, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”

In an essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins, Davenport quoted the poet’s last words: “I am so happy.” Another Davenport essay about Ludwig Wittgenstein gives the philosopher’s last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Elsewhere Davenport quoted the ancient Egyptian adage “A man’s paradise is his own good nature.”

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Captain America Through the Decades

Jack Kirby's cover for Captain America #1

Over at the Globe and Mail last week I published an article about the evolution of Captain America. A few errors crept into the article, so I’ve tidied it up. The preferred version is below:

It was the punch that sold a million comics, the sock in the jaw that amazed newsstand readers in 1941 and still carries resonance to this day. Right on the cover of Captain America #1, the star-spangled superhero gives a knuckle-sandwich to none other than Adolf Hitler while a group of Nazi storm troopers stare on in amazement.

To understand why Captain America was an instant sensation when he was first created and remains enough of an iconic figure to headline a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it’s necessary to remember the historical circumstances that gave birth to him. Captain America was co-created by two young Jewish cartoonists, named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). As historian Gerard Jones argues in his 2004 book Men of Tomorrow, Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby were the children of immigrant Jews and both strongly identified with American nationalism.

“What Simon and Kirby together brought to the superhero was the passion of the immigrant, of the Jew,” Jones noted. “Captain America brought … metaphors of masking to a new poignancy. Steve Rogers shuffles into a secret lab scrawny and slump shouldered, then is given an injection of a super-solider serum and is transformed into an Adonis. … The underfed ghetto kid transformed into a roof-rattling power by seizing American opportunities, the weary old-country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew through the crucible of American freedom and violence. And through that immigrant passion Simon and Kirby captured an entire national awakening: America the provincial stirring itself to become a world power.”

The cover of Captain America #1 made a spectacular impression because it came out in March of 1941, 10 months before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered the war. At the time, much of the country was still isolationist and many in the media were afraid of featuring Nazis as explicit villains for fear of offending those who wanted America to stay out of the war. While there had been patriotic superheroes before Captain America, notably an also-ran called The Shield, no previous character was so forthrightly advocating that America become a global dynamo.

“It was a provocation for intervention as well as an anti-Nazi commentary,” notes Matthew J. Costello, a professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and author of the book Secret Identity Crisis, in an e-mail interview. Since his birth as a Nazi-fighter, Captain America has remained the most topical of superheroes, with adventures that have reflected the vicissitudes of American foreign policy from the early Cold War to Vietnam to the current war on terror. Yet despite the changing political tenor of the times, Captain America has persisted as a symbol of American exceptionalism, the belief in America’s invincibility, its inherent goodness and its world-historical destiny.

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