The Top Four 20th Century Masterpieces According to Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov had strong opinions on just about everything - including, especially, literature. Whatever anyone mentioned, it seems, he either loved it or was indifferent to it. Here are the four works Nabokov considered the top masterpieces of the twentieth century, ranked in the order he specified:

1. James Joyce's Ulysses

Nabokov famously had mixed feelings about Joyce, but in Strong Opinions he wrote of him, "Great. A favorite between the ages of 20 and 40, and thereafter. Let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is patball to Joyce's champion game. A genius."


Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis

In his lecture on Kafka's masterpiece, Nabokov wrote, "Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis' strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers."



Bely's Petersburg



Nabokov called Bely's Petersburg the "third-greatest masterpiece of 20th century prose. A splendid fantasy." A Symbolist work, it arguably foreshadows Joyce. It follows a young revolutionary, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, who has been ordered to assassinate his own father.

4. Marcel Proust'sIn Search of Lost Time



In his Lectures on Literature Nabokov highlights three key aspects of Proust's style: his "wealth of metaphorical imagery", his "tendency to fill in and stretch out a sentence to its utmost breadth and length", and the way his "conversations and his descriptions merge into one another, creating a new unity". If you needed one more reason to pick up this little-read masterpiece, here's three.

I'm sure they were already on your TBR list, but here's one more reason to float them to the top: because Vladimir Nabokov said so.