Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–1977
Born in Russia, Nabokov emigrated to England in 1919, became an American citizen in 1945, and resided in Switzerland during the last years of his life. He was a prolific contributor to many literary fields, producing work in both Russian and English and distinguishing himself as a 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. Nabokov also wrote under the pseudonym of V. Sirin. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
If one can generalize as far as to say that fiction falls into the two broad categories of realism and romance, Nabokov's work belongs in the latter category. The reader of today is likely to find the romance of Nabokov's art strangely archaic and old-fashioned. In some ways he seems to have stronger affinities with the nineteenth century than with the twentieth. This affinity is not simply an accident of age and environment … but a matter of temperament and conscious choice. (p. 5)
[Nabokov shows an] affinity with the romantic writers of Russian literature…. Nabokov has claimed that there is nothing unusual in his interest in Pushkin, since—as he has said—Pushkin is to Russian literature what Shakespeare is to English. Nevertheless, the connection is closer and more significant than Nabokov's demur suggests. After surveying the evidence for the influence of the older writer on Nabokov, [Clarence Brown] gave the question this pointed summation: "Pushkin is Nabokov's fate" [see CLC, Vol. 1]. Though extreme, the remark illuminates the center of Nabokov's art. What he achieves in his fiction is a compelling fusion of past and present, fancy and fact, poetry and prose, romance and his own special brand of realism.
Not only does Nabokov's work seem to have closer affinities with the literary traditions of the nineteenth century than with those of the twentieth, but his fiction often seems to have greater affinities with poetry, especially romantic poetry, than with the novel, as it is usually thought of. W. H. Auden's discussion of romanticism is helpful in understanding Nabokov's ties to that movement. (pp. 5-6)
Auden's description of the romantic poet [who held that man's most important faculty is consciousness itself] fits Nabokov with surprising exactness. First, the opening pages of Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory, are nothing less than a hymn of praise to the powers of human consciousness. Life, he says there, is a series of "extraordinary visions" between "the two black voids" of those mysterious periods before one's birth and after one's death. (pp. 6-7)
Second, since in Nabokov's view the creative process is a cycle of charging consciousness with highly particularized and personal impressions and then of discharging those impressions into words, he can be only tangentially interested in questions of morality and social realism. On many occasions, Nabokov has affirmed his total lack of interest in literature that aims at teaching a moral lesson. Probably the best-known such occasion is the passage in the postscript to Lolita in which he asserts that he is "neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction." In this connection, one should keep in mind the moral controversy surrounding the publication of Lolita. (p. 7)
As for the question of the need for realism in the novel, Nabokov has dismissed the idea of "everyday reality" as itself a fiction. Since for Nabokov individual perception constitutes reality, there are as many realities as individuals. Therefore art cannot be a reflection of a common reality. [Though his works are remarkably varied], the voice speaking in these many genres is recognizably the same. Nabokov's audacious style, which calls attention as much to itself as to what it is meant to convey, leaves its mark on all he writes. In other words, like Auden's romantic poet, Nabokov is always his own most important subject. (p. 8)
Uninterested in didacticism or in realism, Nabokov is committed only to the purity of aesthetic experience, to the joys of what he has called, again in the postscript to Lolita, "aesthetic bliss." His talent is to conjure up for his readers the kind of bliss he has experienced in his own life…. The pleasure in these moments of aesthetic bliss arises from the conscious savoring of details, of colors, textures, patterns, designs. (p. 9)
Nabokov's work is marked by two … strong propensities: the reluctance to judge and the passion to describe. In a man of his talent, the former makes him a great ironist; the latter makes him a great stylist. For the reader, these virtues also constitute his limitations. Because his works are formed of layers upon layers of irony …, they do not make for easy reading. The quantity of irony means that the reader's willingness to suspend his judgment of characters and their actions is taxed to the limit. As soon as the reader thinks he has found the basis for judging a character or an action, that basis suddenly disappears in a typical Nabokovian flourish of ironic magic.
Nabokov has a decided preference for protagonists who are either geniuses or madmen, and sometimes both. His favorite characters are socially marginal types, and it is their very eccentricity … that makes them to his mind appropriate artistic subjects. (pp. 9-10)
[His characters are not happy in the conventional sense] because they possess a purely Nabokovian worthiness and happiness: their worthiness consists, as one might expect, in their powers of consciousness, and their happiness, in their moments of aesthetic bliss. This bliss is a state of ecstasy, which means in its original sense, ex-stasis, or standing outside of oneself….
The stress of subjectivity makes Nabokov and his characters (who, as a number of critics have pointed out, are all "little Nabokovs") sound like solipsists, like individuals completely wrapped up in their own mental worlds. It is as if they have no sense whatever of the objective existence of an outer reality. While this is true in part, it would be misleading to leave the matter there, for even they are aware that consciousness receives its impressions from an outer world. Though Auden's romantic poet may prefer the dream world to the world of waking reality, Nabokov does not; the perceptions he receives in the state of wakeful consciousness are what he prizes most. (p. 11)
The suffering of Nabokov's characters comes both from within and from without. Agnostics like their creator, sure of nothing but the steady flow of sensations, his characters are, in fact, desperately dependent on the external world. Through their passion for intensity they victimize themselves; and hence their suffering is in part self-created. Yet, at the same time, their suffering has a corresponding source in the external world. Not only is the world devilishly seductive and tantalizing, but also the impressions one receives from it seem at times to form themselves into significative patterns and designs…. As these patterns form and dissolve, so the hope quickens and dwindles, leaving the perceiver with nothing but memories. The humanity of Nabokov's characters is based on no philosophical, political, or religious system, on no creed or ideology, but simply on the dignity with which they confront this mirage of hope. (p. 12)
Nabokov's fiction is peopled by characters whose spiritual hungers make them highly vulnerable to illusions. This one quality unites his various protagonists, and the probing of their illusions constitutes his greatest theme. This preoccupation has important consequences for Nabokov's art. First, by means of such probing, he forces his fiction beyond the in some ways simpler modes of tragedy and comedy toward the more complex mode of irony. To be sure, the probing of illusions is also an integral part of both comedy and tragedy; but those modes move typically toward quite recognizable and solid resolutions. In each case illusion is exorcised by reality, the exorcism leading in one to a happy ending and in the other to a sad one.
There is a wealth of comic and tragic touches in Nabokov's fiction; but the controlling mode is irony, and irony has its own special requirements. For the ironist there is no ultimate and solid reality that is not itself subject to attack as an illusion. Hence, any work controlled by irony is necessarily robbed of that sense of finality that makes up a large share of the pleasure of comedy and tragedy. Nabokov's commitment to irony not only produces his famous inconclusive conclusions, but also constantly reminds us of the uncertainty of fate.
The desire to probe illusions has a notable effect on characterization, especially for Nabokov. To a writer of his sophisticated tastes, the testing of illusions can be genuinely interesting only if the major characters are strong. Nabokov usually measures the strength of his characters either by their ability to resist the illusions of others (even poor Lolita is strong in this sense) or by their ability to create illusions of their own (most of Nabokov's madmen have this power). Nabokov's favorite characters possess both kinds of strength. Though this does not make them proof against the antics of fate, it makes their struggle slightly more even and far more interesting....
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Vladimir Nabokov's recent novels in English have not won him many converts nor have they discouraged the view that his art is mere artificial gamesmanship of a wholly self-congratulating type. Yet that view is at best deficient, as any reader of Lolita knows at once, and therefore it's good to have another example now to prove it. Details of a Sunset and Other Stories is Nabokov's last volume to be translated from the Russian, a process he began fourteen books ago with Invitation to a Beheading (1959). Eight of these thirteen stories were first published in Germany between 1924 and 1927 and only one is as recent as 1935, but the remarkable thing about them all is their closeness to his later work....
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Nabokov's writing is sophisticated in the way that good music is sophisticated: we have not only to remember the theme, but to be able to recognize it when it reappears in another key, rhythmically altered, inverted, or combined with other themes…. [Reading] Nabokov is an active process of making connections between different parts of the text: we become not mere readers, but finders of the narrative. (pp. 220-21)
Transparent Things is not the most difficult of Nabokov's works, but its concentrated brevity makes it the most exemplary: what we have to do in order to read the other novels we must do in an exaggerated fashion in order to read Transparent Things. It is notable for its...
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[Invitation to a Beheading is,] like many great works of fiction, richly suggestive, and to attempt to discredit the meanings that others have found within its pages would be pointless. Most recent studies stress the dichotomy of two modes of humanity suggested in the contrast between an innocent, cognizant, opaque Cincinnatus and his bumptious, transparent keepers…. [Most] readings tend to render Cincinnatus as being, from the beginning, a kind of innocent, perceptive, visionary soul—a man who "knows"—imprisoned and surrounded by fools and tyrants. Such a reading is rather two-dimensional, like the stage-prop trees which topple at the novel's end.
The novel may be read from another...
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[There are two virtual commonplaces] about the art of Vladimir Nabokov: that it is anti-realistic or anti-mimetic, and therefore a deliberate reproach to the Great Tradition of the nineteenth-century novel; that its major subject is art itself, which makes it a supreme example of what we now call metafiction. (p. 439)
Surely his own books reject the conventions of realism for a deliberate and even exaggerated artifice, an art about different conceptions of art. Such, at least, is the conventional wisdom apparently sanctioned by Nabokov himself.
It will not be my intention to recast Nabokov as a Realist, one of George Eliot's more unlikely descendants, but I do wish to argue that the...
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