In sentimental retrospect, the Russian reader of the past seems to me to be as much of a model for readers as Russian writers were models for writers in other tongues. He would start on his charmed career at a most tender age and lose his heart to Tolstoy or Chekhov when still in the nursery and nurse would try to take away Anna Karenin and would say: Oh, come, let me tell it to you in my own words (Day-ka, ya tebe rasskazhu svoimi slovami [slovo-word]). That is how the good reader learned to beware of translators of condensed masterpieces, of idiotic movies about the brothers Karenins, and of all other ways of toadying to the lazy and of quartering the great.

And to sum up, I would like to stress once more, Let us not look for the soul of Russia in the Russian novel: let us look for the individual genius. Look at the masterpiece, and not at the frame–and not at the faces of other people looking at the frame.

“Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers,” Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov

I find more to disagree with in Nabokov’s critical work than to agree with, and his tone is often petulant verging on offensive. I like him only as a novelist, almost never as a critic or translator. But when he’s right, he’s right.

Feeling something familiar in the situation and trying to get to the bottom of it, he remembered, completely inappropriately but with stunning clarity, the face of a young prostitute in black stockings, her shoulders bare, standing illuminated in a doorway off a dark alleyway in a nameless city. And ridiculous as it seemed, he imagined that this woman was her, that she had shown up now, wearing a decent dress, having lost her looks a little, as if she had washed off her rouge, but having become more approachable in the process. This was his first impression when he saw her, when he realized with surprise that he was talking to her. And he felt a little sad that she was not as pretty as she could have been, not as pretty as the strange signs scattered in his past suggested she could be.

The Luzhin Defense, Vladimir Nabokov

For context, this is a description of Luzhin meeting his future wife for the first time–and his first thought is of a prostitute!

Original text:

Стараясь уяснить себе это впечатление чего-то очень знакомого, он совершенно некстати, но с потрясающей ясностью вспомнил лицо молоденькой проститутки с голыми плечами, в черных чулках, стоявшей в освещенной пройме двери, в темном переулке, в безымянном городе. И нелепым образом ему показалось, что вот это – она, что вот, она явилась теперь, надев приличное платье, слегка подурнев, словно она смыла какие-то обольстительные румяна, но через это стала более доступной. Таково было первое впечатление, когда он увидел ее, когда заметил с удивлением, что с ней говорит. И ему было немного досадно, что она не совсем так хороша, как могла быть, как мерещилась по странным признакам, рассеянным в его прошлом.

«Защита Лужина», Владимир Набоков