Vladimir (Vladimirovich) Nabokov 1899–1977
(Also wrote under pseudonym of V. Sirin) Russian-American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, translator, biographer, and autobiographer.
Nabokov was fascinated with all aspects of the creative life; in his works he explored the origins of creativity, the relationships of artists to their work, and the nature of invented reality. A brilliant prose stylist, Nabokov entertained and sometimes exasperated his readers with his love of intellectual and verbal games. His technical genius as well as the exuberance of his creative imagination mark him as a major twentieth-century author.
Lolita and Pale Fire are Nabokov's best-known novels. His recently-published The Nabokov-Wilson Letters provides insight into his literary relationship with Edmund Wilson. In another recent publication, Lectures on Literature, Nabokov demonstrates not only his literary theory but his profound feeling for the creative process.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 69-72 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
[A] work of art is inevitably a rendering of emotion, observation, and philosophical speculation in aesthetic terms, or at least in an aesthetic realm. In Nabokov's case it is not that the action or characters of a novel "stand for" or "represent" the writing of a novel or the figure of the artist, but that certain descriptions of experience, character, or emotion illuminate and approximate artistic creation. Though depicted through the medium of creative prose, and frequently compared to the process of creation, Nabokovian characters, plots, and emotions are not mere dramatizations of "ideas" about art; rather they are self-contained worlds which incorporate and reshape the reader's conception of art. (pp. 3-4)
Within this overall theme of artistic creation Nabokov explores the self-creating identity, defining itself through its obsession with an object of passion, or an imagined double, or a compulsively self-regarding prose style. It is not that Nabokov's heroes are all allegorical artist figures, but that each character and plot is a study in the permutations of perception, sensibility, and imagination brought into contact with love, insanity, perversion, and death. (pp. 4-5)The theme of creativity touches the mystery of consciousness at one extreme, and deliberate patterning at the other extreme. Nabokov's characters are usually self-creating within their story, and they are also constantly in the act of being created by the author. This dual process of creation fuses the subject of imaginative self-expression with that of creative structuring. The main characters, in more or less explicit ways, are defining themselves through a narrative they are composing and acting out. Nabokov's...
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Professor Vladimir Nabokov's beautiful memoir Speak Memory has now been succeeded by Strong Opinions—a collection of press clippings in which he has preserved for future classes what looks to be every interview granted during the last decade. (p. 61)
Alas, the Black Swan of Swiss-American letters has a lot of explaining to do (no singing, however: we need the swan for many a future summer). In addition to the bubbling interviews, Professor Nabokov recounts the many misunderstandings between him and the French publisher of Lolita, between him and the critics of his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, between him and various adversaries in the form of Letters to the Editor (by slyly omitting the pretext for each letter, he creates a loony Kafka-like mood). Included, too, are examples of his own book-chat…. Finally, he gives us several meticulous portraits of those butterflies he murdered ("with an expert nip of its thorax") during his celebrated tours of America's motels.
Professor Nabokov's answers to the questions posed him by a dozen or so interviewers are often amusing, sometimes illuminating, and always—after the third or fourth performance—unbearable in their repetitiveness. Never again do I want to read that he writes in longhand with a hard pencil while standing at a lectern until he tires and sits or lies down, that he writes on Bristol cards which are lined on only one side so that he will not mistake a used card for a fresh card. Reading and rereading these descriptions, one understands why he thinks Robbe-Grillet a great writer.
Admittedly, interviewers are always eager to know how a writer writes (what he writes holds less magic for them). But the Swan of Lac Léman...
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Two basic questions … confront us in Lolita. First, is Humbert Humbert "really" a lover and an artist or a pervert and a fool, or is he some curious combination of opposites? Second, what is the thematic focus of the novel as a whole? Critics who attempt to answer such questions, of course, risk provoking Nabokov's wrath. In his afterword to the novel, Nabokov sarcastically dismisses "Teachers of Literature [who] are apt to think up such problems as 'What is the author's purpose?' or still worse 'What is the guy trying to say?'" Nabokov insists that his only purpose in writing a novel is "to get rid of" it…. Nevertheless, the risk seems worth taking, since disagreement about Humbert and the novel's theme has resulted in critical confusion. (p. 67)
[The] best generic description of the novel is, perhaps, a parody of comic form. In parodying the form of both Shakespearean romantic comedy and Meredithian satiric comedy, Nabokov complicates the character of Humbert Humbert and defines the thematic focus of the book. A description of the "parodicomic" intrinsic genre of the novel should help clarify some of the perplexing critical questions.
Nabokov's parody of romantic comedy is most obvious, and critics have generally acknowledged it…. [In] typical romantic comedy two lovers are opposed by a blocking figure, usually societal or paternal, who disrupts the lovers' union. Usually, the lovers manage to escape or convert the blocking figure and celebrate the integration of society through their own symbolic marriage. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert and Lolita are one such pair of lovers opposed by a humorous society. In some ways, Humbert resembles the typical hero of romance, "an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor."… Lolita, with the gray eyes and blond hair typical of romance heroines, is his paramour. In the course of the action, the lovers manage to overcome one blocking figure, Charlotte, through her death, and another blocking figure, the reader, by converting him to their cause. Although the humorous society continues to oppose their union, the lovers manage to escape it, at least temporarily, by leaving on a continental tour.
Like a good romantic comedy hero, Humbert Humbert idealizes his love, anxiously protecting her "purity" and defending her "chastity." (pp. 67-8)
Humbert's "protection" of Lolita's "chastity" is absurd, however, since it usually takes the form of an attack on her chastity. Humbert characteristically protects Lolita from everyone but himself, though he is the worst threat of all. While his language is always delicate and pure, his actions are ugly, and the discrepancy between his description of his acts and the acts themselves is ludicrously comic. One of the best examples of Humbert's comic protection of his lover is the masturbation scene early in the novel. Alone with Lolita in the living room of the Haze house, Humbert perceives a chance for bliss. Tussling with his nymphet over an Eden-red apple, Humbert manages to use the friction generated by Lolita's legs across his lap to accomplish a private climax…. Comically exaggerating masturbation into "the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known,"… Humbert continues to insist that since Lolita was "safely solipsized,"… he has not in any way compromised her tender purity. The ludicrous scene undercuts Humbert's claims of idealism and his concern over Lolita's innocence. (pp. 68-9)
Humbert, then, is an ugly parody of the typical romance hero. His "protection" of Lolita is really just a method of imprisoning her in his lust, and his "love" quickly degenerates into "a quick connection before dinner."… The discrepancy between the two Humberts—the romance hero and the ugly pervert—provides the incongruity necessary for comedy.
Similarly, the discrepancy between the two Lolitas in the book is comic. Humbert's romantic vision of her constantly clashes with the gum-chewing, obnoxious little girl she prefers to be. Nabokov often exposes this discrepancy through linguistic incongruity. In the very first paragraph, for example, Humbert's lovely lyrical description of his paramour is undercut by a single vernacular phrase. "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta … standing four feet ten in one sock."… Lolita's vernacular, juxtaposed with Humbert's sophisticated vocabulary, constantly exposes the distance between the vision and the actuality. Further, Nabokov keeps us constantly aware that the sensuous female form described by Humbert is actually that of a "seventh-grader."… Throughout the novel, then, the discrepancy between Humbert's vision of Lolita's charms and her actual childishness is comic.
By the end of the novel it becomes clear that Humbert … is less the hero of romance than he is the traditional blocking figure, the paternal force preventing his daughter from forming any kind of personal relationship. When Humbert does finally allow Lolita to see other males, he comically lurks in the car, looking on protectively. Lolita, however, like the typical romance-comedy heroine, does escape Humbert with her lover, Quilty…. Although she doesn't marry him, she does marry Richard Schiller. Thus the novel could be viewed as a parodic romantic comedy, told not from the point of view of the lovers, as is usual, but from the point of view of the blocking figure, Humbert Humbert. At the end, as in traditional romantic comedy, the blocking figure is expelled, and the lovers escape his influence.
But Lolita is more than a parody of romantic comedy. If that were an adequate description, the novel would be fairly simple and straightforward. It is, however, more complicated because Humbert himself perceives that he is a fool, that he has been his own deceiver. It is Humbert who writes this parody of romantic comedy, consciously exposing himself. The fact that Humbert is the self-conscious author of his own exposure complicates the form.
Aware of his own foolishness, Humbert knows that he is in danger of losing reader sympathy and support. In order to regain that support, Humbert adopts a rather sophisticated narrative strategy, a strategy that has fooled a number of critics. His strategy is to write a Meredithian comic novel in which he is both an alazon (a boastful impostor and fool) and an eiron (a witty self-deprecator and artist). By satirically exposing himself as well as his society and by posing as a poet, Humbert hopes to persuade the reader-juror that he is really a good fellow underneath. In his role as artist and comic spirit, he ridicules his former self in hopes that this ridicule will reflect the reformation that is the function of the comic spirit, according to Meredith.
To understand Humbert's strategy more clearly, we might compare his narrative technique with Pip's in Great Expectations. Both Great Expectations and Lolita are narrated by a character looking back on the foolishness of his earlier life. Pip exposes his foolish love for his dream girl, Estella, and Humbert exposes his foolish love for his dream girl, Lolita. Surveying their past experience, both characters have attained a detachment that enables them to see themselves in a comic perspective. In Great Expectations, the reader laughs at the young Pip while admiring the older Pip for his ability to criticize his own folly. By adopting a similar narrative strategy, Humbert hopes to persuade the reader that, like Pip, he has gained a mature perspective on his folly and has been reformed through love. If he can convince the reader that he is really two characters, Humbert the wise narrator and Humbert the foolish actor in a comedy, he can perhaps claim the kind of sympathy we give to Pip. By consciously casting himself in the role of alazon, boastful impostor and pervert, Humbert hopes to elevate himself to the role of eiron, witty self-deprecator and artist.
Like Pip, Humbert starts by giving himself a comic name…. In the course of the novel Humbert distorts his name comically into Humbug, Humbird, Homburg, and Hamburger, among others, suggesting his comic perception of himself. (pp. 69-71)
But Humbert isn't content merely to expose himself in this droll way. He also mercilessly berates himself throughout the book. He calls himself "pathetic,"… a "brute,"… a "humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark."… Humbert seems prepared to criticize himself more viciously than any reader possibly could. He criticizes not only his actions, but the very style in which he articulates his criticism. After evoking a lyrical picture of Lolita in the first paragraph, he consciously undercuts himself: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."… (pp. 71-2)
All of these comic devices of self-deprecation are evident in Humbert's most masterfully realized comic scene, the "climax" of the book, "le grand moment."… From the outset Humbert seems to take a comic view of his first night with Lolita in the Enchanted Hunters Hotel….
When Humbert finally approaches his sleeping beauty …, the scene remains comically mundane and trivial. The noisy toilets seem to conspire against him, he has heartburn, and to top it all, Lolita has cruelly appropriated both pillows, forcing him to sneak one back when she asks for a drink of water. As Humbert leans over the half-awake Lolita, she confuses him with Barbara, the girl with whom she had shared Charlie's manhood at camp. Humbert comically sees himself in the third person as Barbara, adding a further element of farce to the already farcical situation…. (p. 72)
Then, for the biggest joke on himself of all, Humbert turns to the jury and confesses, "it was she who seduced me."… "Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover."… By laughing at himself, undercutting his own earlier foolishness, Humbert seeks to gain reader sympathy. By making his lust risible, he hopes to neutralize any moral objections that might be raised. (pp. 72-3)
If Humbert marshals reader sympathy by exposing his own foolishness, he increases that sympathy by showing how much worse is his humorous society. Although Nabokov claims that he himself has "neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist," his character Humbert has a keen satirical eye for American manners and morals. In the course of the novel he satirizes American songs, ads, movies, magazines, products, tourist attractions, small towns, camps, schools, hotels, and motels, among other things. By satirically exposing the society around him, Humbert … reveals his perceptive wit, thus effectively qualifying his own absurdity.
Humbert's first satiric target is Charlotte Haze, the representative middle-class American clubwoman and moralist. From the first, Charlotte is a neurotic woman who rarely deviates into sense and never fails to miss her own comicality…. Charlotte has no ideas of her own but relies instead on "the wisdom of her church and book club," the comic juxtaposition of the two organizations suggesting their equal importance in her mind…. Humbert observes that Charlotte "did not notice the falsity of all the everyday conventions and rules of behavior, and foods, and books, and people she doted upon."… Humbert, of course, is one of the people she dotes upon, and she manages to remain oblivious of his true feelings toward her for some time. Charlotte's banality and self-deception thus make her a proper victim of Humbert's satiric exposure. We cannot feel too critical of Humbert for duping her, since she...
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Always rather a hazardous business bringing two prime donne together….
Actually Edmund Wilson and Nabokov come out of the test rather well [in The Nabokov-Wilson Letters], especially when one considers how grumpy one was and how intolerably conceited the other. Wilson comes out rather better, for he wears characteristic American generosity as a halo. What Nabokov would have done without him is hard to see: arriving unknown as an exile, Nabokov was hard put to it, until the financial success of Lolita. One sees Wilson opening all possible doors to him, getting him to review books, making contacts with publishers, pushing and promoting his work.
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One of the most fascinating characteristics of The Gift, the last novel Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Russian, is the slippage which takes place in the narrative point of view. Though the novel begins in the third person, and continues essentially in this mode throughout, quite often the "I" of the protagonist Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev breaks in with no warning to the reader. If this were not confusing enough, an additional parade of narrative acrobatics dances across the first chapter. (p. 138)
The novel does not have what could be called a coherent, logical narrative, which begins at a decisive point and develops to an inevitable conclusion. Its five chapters, including the biography in the...
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As part of his demolition of the then fashionable politico-socio-Marxist readings of Flaubert's Madame Bovary …, Nabokov would tell his students, "let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody's wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature."
No practical value whatsoever: ah yes, Nabokov's cherished fin-de-siécle esthetic of Art-for-Art's-Sake runs, like a string through pearls, right through [his Lectures on Literature]…. "I have tried to make of you good readers," he would say at the conclusion of the course, and to this end he would discourage his students from identifying with the novels'...
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In Lectures on Literature Vladimir Nabokov … not only fingers every thread in some half-dozen novels, but also appraises the weave of the narrative and the pattern of the imagery, and with the eye of one who knows, points out the fine buttonholing in the first sentence and the satisfying zippering of the last.
Given annually at Cornell University from 1948–1958, these lectures were designed to introduce undergraduates to "Masters of European Fiction."… [They] are now presented … in two volumes, this one devoted to English, French and German writers, with a second due out next spring on the great Russians. (p. 3)
Oddly enough, the exuberant expertise of the Lectures...
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There are, as one would expect, many dazzling moments in [Lectures on Literature], but the most striking point about them is the industry that went into their making. It would be painful to think of this erudite, debonair man carefully transcribing the lyrics of "The Croppy Boy," an 18th-century Irish ballad, into his teaching copy of Ulysses merely to quote a few lines in class if his enjoyment of such tasks were not evident on every page. Nabokov addressed his students with utmost dignity, skimping on none of his insight or passion, or even the dubious jokes inspired by a mind that delighted in play….
Nabokov has decided prejudices in favor of the notion of art as flagrant creation...
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The difficulty of assessing Nabokov's achievement as a novelist writing about people obviously derives from the flagrantly artificial quality of his fiction…. The Nabokovian universe, we all know, is a construct of words, taking life from the page and pen of its author. Self-conscious artifice intrudes on the reader's awareness, signaling the discontinuities between Nabokov's fabricated worlds and the one we call our own…. The continuous word-play, allusions, self-conscious references, and authorial intrusions all serve to interrupt the reader's sympathetic participation in the author's illusory world. In this way, Nabokov alerts us to the fictional status of his literary landscape; he impels us to recognize that...
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As novelist, Nabokov fits his own description of the role as a combination of teacher, story-teller and enchanter, and [Lectures on Literature] proves that he was all of these as lecturer too. But the feeling persists that the altered sentences of Mansfield Park, the sketches of Gregor Samsa's flat, the notes on precisely what kind of insect he was … belong not in a book but in the archives. Nabokov's wit and insight are often dazzling but despite his exhaustive—and exhausting—search for details to caress, he has little inclination to animadvert except where the chance of a game-within-the-game is sighted. Beneath the glitter he is an old-fashioned critic: 'Beauty plus pity—that is the...
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Vladimir Nabokov, who appreciated artfully layered constructions and perceived all art as a fusion of layers in the time-and-space-defying eyes of the great writer and good reader, would have applauded the publishing of his college lectures in Lectures on Literature—indeed, he planned to publish them himself. Here, if ever, is a book to be experienced on several levels. To begin with, it is a reading of Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Swann's Way, Metamorphosis, and Ulysses … by an important novelist who was also an ingenious, albeit highly idiosyncratic critic. It is, next, an evaluation of great—and, in one case, decently minor—novelists by one who was...
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