Study Guide

Nabokov's Otherworld

by Vladimir E. Alexandrov

Nabokov's Otherworld Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Vladimir Nabokov’s popular reputation is based on the sensational reception his nymphet novel Lolita (1955) received when it was published squarely in the middle of the conservative 1950’s, his critical recognition rests on a substantial body of fiction both in Russian and in English in which he delights in playing games with the nature of narrative and in examining reality as a fictional construct. In most of Nabokov’s work, reality is, by definition, an artificial, rule-bound game, much as chess is a patterned game or a work of fiction is a created construct. Consequently, Nabokov has been seen as in the forefront of such postmodernist writers as Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover, writers who are often called “metafictional” or “self- reflexive”—writers who reject reality as something awaiting discovery and who instead focus on reality as something that is constantly made. Such a view springs from a radical skepticism toward any Platonic or religious concept of a solid ground of being.

In this new critical study of Nabokov, however, Vladimir Alexandrov challenges the prevailing view of Nabokov as a precursor of postmodern self-reflexivity and reflects an alternate Nabokov critical trend by claiming that Nabokov’s worldview is indeed based on a transcendent ground of being. By drawing on Nabokov’s discursive writing and closely analyzing six of his major Russian and English novels, Alexandrov argues that instead of assuming a skeptical and ironic view of reality, Nabokov actually believes in an “otherworldly” realm in the Platonic or Gnostic sense. Although Nabokov himself never directly claimed such a concept as a tenet of his own belief system, this “otherworld,” insists Alexandrov, is Nabokov’s central theme.

Alexandrov’s primary source for this concept is Nabokov’s widow, Vera, in her foreword to his posthumous collection of Russian poems published in 1979. Although she provides no authority for her assertion that the “otherworld” (Alexandrov’s translation of the Russian word potustoronnost) is her husband’s central theme, she claims that it saturates everything he wrote and is what gave him his love of life; so central is the concept, she insists, that she wonders that no one else ever noticed it. Although the potustoronnost perspective on Nabokov has been discussed by other critics, Alexandrov also says he is surprised at its neglect; he is so strongly convinced of the truth of Vera Nabokov’s statement that he bases his book on arguing the case.

Alexandrov admits at the beginning that Nabokov himself never claimed the existence of a transcendent realm. Instead, he grounds his argument on an examination of the two nonfictional pieces in which he says Nabokov “hints” at such a realm—Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966) and his essay “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” published posthumously in 1980. Alexandrov also argues that Nabokov’s faith in this transcendent realm constitutes the basis of not only his metaphysics but also his aesthetic and ethical views. Alexandrov is cautious to use such words as “apparent” and “seems to” when referring to Nabokov’s belief in the otherworld, because he says a central tenet of that faith is Nabokov’s notion that although the otherworld is timeless, beneficent, and provides for human immortality, it cannot be known except intuitively.

Alexandrov’s introduction lays the groundwork for the analyses of the novels that constitute the bulk of the book by clarifying terminology and arguing, although in a quite general way, against the prevailing critical approach to Nabokov’s work. Alexandrov makes passing references to reader-response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, but his analysis is not based on any unified theoretical approach. Moreover, although he takes issue with self-reflexivity as the central Nabokov tactic, he does not engage in any significant theoretical argument about the metaphysical or aesthetic bases of self-reflexivity.

However, he does concede that there are two significant points at which a metaliterary and an “otherworldly” interpretation of Nabokov’s fiction confront each other directly: textual patterning and romantic irony. For example, coincidence in a novel can, from the point of view of an otherworldly reading, indicate the metaphysical concept of fate; however, from the metaliterary point of view, it may emphasize the artificiality of the novel as discourse or text. The other point at which the two interpretations intersect involves what has been called Nabokov’s romantic irony, in which he as author intrudes into his texts. Alexandrov, of course, argues for the otherworldly reading of both these elements in Nabokov’s work, suggesting that his patterning of his texts and his intrusion into them are imitations of the otherworld’s formative role. Alexandrov argues that for Nabokov the so-called natural world...

(The entire section is 2034 words.)