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Vladimir Nabokov wades into the Brexit debate from the grave

So far in the Brexit debate, a range of figures — from David Cameron to David Icke — have chipped in to offer their two cents’ worth. However, no-one was expecting the latest literary figure to enter the discussion.

In this week’s TLS, a talk by the late Vladimir Nabokov — given in 1926 — has been translated into English for the first time. In the talk — titled ‘On Generalities — the Lolita novelist discusses Europe. Nabokov appears to struggle with the concept of Europe — concluding that when people utter the word ‘Europe’ with ‘metaphorical, generalizing intonation’, he sees ‘precisely nothing’:

‘That is how history is treated. But I repeat, it is a hundred times more terrifying when the demon of generalities worms his way into our judgments about our own era. And what exactly is our era? When did it begin, in which year, which month?

When people use the word “Europe”, what exactly do they have in mind, which countries; only those at the “centre”, or are Portugal, Sweden, and Iceland also central? When newspapers with their particular love for shoddy metaphors head an article “Locarno”4, I see only mountains, sun shining on the water, and an avenue of plane trees.

When people pronounce the word “Europe” with the same metaphorical, generalizing intonation, I see precisely nothing, since I cannot imagine simutaneously the landscape and history of Sweden, Romania and, say, Spain. And when in connection with this non-existent Europe people talk about some era, then I am at a loss to understand when this era even began – and how exactly it could have the same bearing on me, and Ivanov, and Mr.

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Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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