Study Guide

Nabokov's Early Fiction

by Julian W. Connolly

Nabokov's Early Fiction Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Julian W. Connolly’s study of Vladimir Nabokov’s early Russian-language fiction successfully bridges the gap between the trend in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, in which critics focused on Nabokov’s metafictional literary puzzles, and the trend in the 1980’s, in which they emphasized the interpersonal and ethical thematic dimensions of his work. Connolly’s thesis is that during the first phase of Nabokov’s literary career, one of the central concerns of his art was the relationship between the self and the other, a concern that developed through four stages from his first short stories in the 1920’s to the publication of the novel Dar (1937-1938; The Gift, 1963).

In the first phase (1924-1926), in such stories as “The Return of Chorb” and “The Potato Elf” and in the novel Mashenka (1926; Mary, 1970), Nabokov concentrates on a protagonist who has suffered the loss of a spouse or a child and consequently becomes so obsessed with the absent other that he or she loses touch with reality in a world of fantasy. In the second phase (1928-1929), in such novels as Korol’, dama, valet (1928; King, Queen, Knave, 1968) and Zashchita Luzhina (1929; The Defense, 1964), this detachment from reality becomes more extreme as characters lose themselves completely in a world of illusion.

In Soglyadatay (1930; The Eye, 1965) and Otchayanie (1934; Despair, 1937), the major works of Nabokov’s third phase in the early 1930’s, Connolly says that the central characters become less obsessed with an absent other and more concerned with how other characters view them; however, even as these characters attempt to define themselves in ways that the world views favorably, ironically there is always a gap between the way they see themselves and the way others see them. In the fourth and final phase of Nabokov’s Russian-language fiction, in the mid-1930’s, illustrated by Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959) and The Gift, his characters manifest a split between their “authorial self,” which represents creative consciousness, and their “character” self, which can be manipulated by an external other such as an authorial self or the actual author. It is this basic dichotomy, says Connolly, that dominates Nabokov’s later and better-known English-language fiction such as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974).

Connolly supports his thesis about the relationship between self and other in Nabokov’s fiction in a straightforward chronological fashion, discussing in some detail the character configuration and its thematic and aesthetic implications as it evolves in more than a dozen short stories and seven Russian-language novels. Because the bulk of Connolly’s study is made up of these detailed plot summary/ character configuration analyses, it may seem somewhat plodding and repetitious, as he dutifully describes the self/other pattern and supports his thesis in each of Nabo- kov’s works under consideration. The discussion is so detailed that the reader can easily understand the basic structure of Nabokov’s fiction without having read the works themselves. Moreover, Connolly is meticulous in the organization of the book. Each separate discussion follows much the same pattern: Connolly clearly introduces the basic pattern of each work, outlines how it develops in some detail, and then summarizes what makes each particular work characteristic yet distinctive for Na- bokov’s development of the self/other theme. The balance between the discussions of the short stories and the novels is carefully planned; each story is given approximately five pages and each novel is given approximately twenty pages. This somewhat pedestrian approach makes for easy comprehension but for few striking critical or theoretical fireworks.

The developmental pattern that Connolly argues exists in Nabokov’s fiction is that the great Russian writer increasingly focuses on characters who try to assert an authorial position and escape being manipulated as mere characters. As these characters concentrate more and more on their own creative efforts, the narratives in which they exist become inevitably more and more self-referential. Connolly argues that his examination of the self/other dichotomy in Nabokov’s early Russian-language fiction highlights the tension between the basic human desire to retreat into a hermetically sealed creative world and the need to enter into human relationships in the external world that distinguishes his...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)