Nabokov’s work has received considerable critical acclaim, and a consensus has been reached that he was at least a distinguished and arguably a great writer. He has exerted a major influence on contemporary authors such as Anthony Burgess, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Milan Kundera. Nabokov wrote at least three masterful novels: The Gift, Lolita, and Pale Fire. Several of his stories, including “Vesna Fialte” (“Spring in Fialta”) and “Signs and Symbols,” are among the century’s finest; his autobiography rivals Marcel Proust’s in the intensity and lyricism of its nostalgia.
Nabokov’s work is never intentionally didactic, sociological, ideological, or psychologically oriented; he detested moralistic, message-ridden writing. While his fictive world is filled with aberrant and bizarre characters—pederasts, buffoons, cripples, and obsessives of one sort or another—they are described not as psychological types but as representatives of the overwhelming vulgarity, freakishness, and pathos that corrupt human nature imposes on the sublimity of the natural and aesthetic world. Aestheticism is Nabokov’s secular religion, and his grotesques, such Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote, and The Defense’s Luzhin, are offenses against the sensitivity of the artistic imagination.
Nabokov’s antirealism brings him firmly into the fold of impressionism, which was inspired by the Impressionist painters Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet. Impressionistic writers employ highly selective details to stress the subjectivity of the moment’s fleeting effect upon their consciousness. Neglecting accumulation of verisimilar details, they prefer to focus on memories and moods, seeking to evoke moments of ardent emotion. Nabokov’s literary company includes Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and, particularly, Proust. Nabokov’s art privileges images and impressions as they flash through the limited consciousness of the observer/narrator. The protagonist may be mad or morally eccentric, however; thus, the reader must beware of empathizing too closely with the central character, who may be schizophrenic, manipulative, confused, or otherwise unreliable.
Nabokov was a difficult, enigmatic, and complex writer. He delighted in playing self-consciously with the reader’s credibility, considering himself a magician in command of innumerable artifices. He loved to devise absorbing, convoluted games that often baffle the unwary reader. Many of his texts are composed like daunting chess problems, with many levels of perception, structural false bottoms, and illusory plot patterns.
For example, Pale Fire, which is apparently an exegesis of a long poem, has a chimerical confusion of identities and realities. Dream fantasies constitute the fictive worlds of Bend Sinister and Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959). The Clare Quilty episode of Lolita parodies the conventions of melodrama. Several novels, including Kamera obskura (1932; Camera Obscura, 1936; Laughter in the Dark, 1938) and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, mock the mannerisms of the mystery story. Nabokov’s love of playing games with the reader has caused some critics to accuse him of preferring brilliantly designed surfaces to serious explorations of significant human experiences.
Nabokov’s puzzle-making fun and games, however, often concerns an underlying sadness. Many of the protagonists in his novels and stories face the grim horrors of an uncaring, senseless, sorrowful world. His persistent themes are the anguish of being unloved, the fragility of memory, and the brutishness of willfully inflicted pain. Though Nabokov practiced art for the sake of art, he scorned the sadism of such artists in his fiction as Laughter in the Dark’s Axel Rex, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty, and Ada or Ardor’s Van Veen.
Nabokov’s art not only affirms a supremely talented author’s precision of language, parodistic wit, and sharpness of observation but also celebrates the sanctity of life and the necessity of creative freedom. For example, Lolita is selfish, vulgar, shallow, and materialistic, but Humbert is nevertheless guilty of having deprived her of much of her childhood. While portraying Humbert with dazzling brilliance, Nabokov denies him the moral sympathy he extends to the victim.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
First published: 1941
Type of work: Novel
A man loses his own identity while trying to write the fictional biography of his lost brother.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first novel in English, anticipates Pale Fire and Look at the Harlequins! (1974) in being a fictional biography of a brilliant writer who has died recently. As the reader accompanies the narrator, V., on his search for knowledge about the novelist Sebastian Knight, both reader and protagonist learn less and less about their subject, until it becomes apparent that Knight’s “real life” is undiscoverable.
Nabokov parodies the formula and apparatus of the detective story. V. rushes about, interviewing people who knew Sebastian, only to amass contradictory and confusing knowledge that is highly colored by his informants’ self-interest. V.’s poise disintegrates as he spends many days learning less and less about his subject and following the obscure trails of Knight’s correspondence. The women he interviews dupe him, and he quarrels with people whose regard for Knight is less favorable than his.
Many of the novel’s stratagems resemble those of a chess game. The aptly named Knight had a mistress named Clare Bishop and a mother named Virginia—a common term for the chess queen is “virgin.” V. often believes that he has become the pawn of ambiguous circumstances. Moreover, Knight’s given name, Sebastian, alludes to the third century Christian martyr who was killed by arrows.
The novel also alludes to Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (1601-1602), which is crowded with mistaken identities and features twin brothers named Sebastian. Knight had a half brother, and the novel strongly implies that V. may be he. Knight’s father was Russian, and his mother was English. Thus, V. and Knight may well be divided halves of a single identity: Nabokov.
With its involuted development and inconclusive ending, the novel contrasts the duplicity of reality with the permanence of art. Real life is an infinite maze, whose center is unreachable. The one real life is that of the writer’s work. V. is on sure ground only when he analyzes Knight’s writings; everything else is quicksand.
First published: 1955
Type of work: Novel
A pedophilic European intellectual falls in tormented love with a teenager.
Lolita, generally considered Nabokov’s greatest novel, unites wildly grotesque parody, farce, and pathos with two powerful, shocking subjects: the passionate feelings of a grown man toward a pubescent girl and the complex nature of romantic love, which is not only tender and generous but also ruthless and even totalitarian.
The novel’s middle-aged, middle-European narrator “writes” this book as his confession while in a prison cell awaiting trial for murder. His double-talk name, Humbert Humbert, sets the tone of punning parody that pervades the text, as various people address him as Humberg, Herbert, Humbird, Humberger, and Humbug. Humbert Humbert traces his sexual obsession for “nymphets”—girls between the ages of nine and fourteen—to a case of interrupted coitus when he was thirteen years old; he and a certain Annabel Leigh had the beginnings of their first affair, forever aborted by her premature death of typhus. (The allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and life number at least twenty; Nabokov refers to many other writers, including Shakespeare, John Keats, Flaubert, James Joyce, Proust, and T. S. Eliot.) After his marriage to a “life-sized” woman in Paris ends ridiculously, Humbert emigrates to the United States.
Here Humbert discovers Lolita Haze, a twelve-year-old, gum-chewing, Coke-gurgling, comic-book-addicted, blatantly bratty schoolgirl. Humbert agrees to marry Charlotte, her vapid, pretentious, widowed mother, in order to be near the irresistible daughter. When Charlotte learns of his pedophilia through reading his diary, she runs distractedly out of the house and conveniently is killed by a passing car before she can publicize his perversion.
Having laid his wife to rest, the widower undertakes the clumsy comedy of seducing his stepdaughter, who, by no means sexually innocent, volunteers to show her would-be ravisher what intercourse is all about. He registers his shock:Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved. . . . My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected with me.
“Hum” and “La” engage in a parody of incest—he stands legally in loco parentis—as they traverse the continent. They encounter a neon-lit landscape of highways, gas stations, billboards, coffee shops, jukeboxes, and motels. Humbert finds Lolita coolly acquiescent to his caresses at times, peevishly self-centered at others, and capable of quickly shifting from dreamy childishness to trashy vulgarity to whining waywardness.
The couple is shadowed by a playwright, Clare Quilty (“Clearly Guilty”?), who is a peekaboo parody of the psychological double that was made famous by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Dostoevski. Both Humbert and Quilty are authors, love word puzzles, dress similarly, and are addicted to deviant sex. Quilty spirits Lolita away from Humbert, has a brief liaison with her, then discards her when she refuses to serve the boys whom he prefers to her.
Several years later, Humbert is contacted by Lolita, who desperately needs money. She is seventeen, married, plain, pale, and pregnant. In a moving episode, he discovers that he is ardently in love with her, despite her worn looks and sagging flesh. She will not return to him, but she does give him Quilty’s address. Humbert then kills Quilty in a farcically protracted scene. The “editor’s” preface tells the reader that Lolita died in childbirth, and Humbert succumbed to cardiac arrest.
The novel works on many levels: It is a remorseless satire of middle-class, immature America and a seriocomic commentary on Continental-American cultural relations. More profoundly, it is a moving romance in the medieval tradition of courtly love, with the afflicted Humbert Humbert displaying his derangement by obsessional devotion and self-pitying masochism. He submits himself to his emotionally unattainable mistress as her slavish servant, glorying in her cruelly capricious power over him.
On a deeper level, Lolita is a study in the pathology of Romantic yearning for unattainable, immortal bliss. Humbert hungers for an ideal condition of supernatural, bewitching enchantment which nymphets represent—a state beyond finite space and time. His search cannot be satisfied by a flesh-and-blood adolescent: He seeks an immortal being in a never-never land, a divine faunlet. His immortal Lolita can be realized only through Nabokov’s marvelous art, which manages to transform perversion into literature.
First published: 1957
Type of work: Novel
A Russian émigré professor tries to adapt to the alien planet of the United States.
The title character of Pnin is a bald, myopic, middle-aged, spindly-legged professor of Russian at Waindell College, which is somewhere in New England. Timofey Pnin is a meticulous scholar who massages a multitude of details as he researches a long-standing project: A commentary on his native Russia’s folklore and literature that will reflect in miniature the major events of Russian history up to the Bolshevik Revolution. In his classes, Pnin wages Pyrrhic warfare against the English language, often digressing from his academic text to undertake mirthful excursions into his past.
Simple existence usually confounds Pnin. He manages to lose the soles of his canvas shoes in a washing machine; he fails his automobile driving test; he takes the wrong train after having carefully consulted an outdated timetable. It is not surprising that a cruel colleague, Jack Cockerell, makes a social career out of mimicking Pnin’s words and gestures. Pnin is a comically inept character, whose Chaplinesque, Quixotic qualities render him essentially harmless, gentle, generous, and pathetically vulnerable.
Life has punished him. In 1925, in Paris, Pnin married the melodramatic and severely neurotic Liza Bogolepov, to save her from threatened suicide after an affair with another man. In 1938, Liza deserted him for a German psychiatrist, Eric Wind. When she returned a year later, Pnin forgave her, and they reunited and took the boat together for America—only to have Wind show up on the same ship and depart...
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