Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 15)
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.)
Donald E. Morton
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...
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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. Even if we allow for the transforming effects of his mature English style, with its precise verbs (stridulate) and its vibrant clarity of color and line (details penciled and gilt-edged), these tales still seem uncannily recent. When "paradisal lozenges" of stained glass appear here, in stories of 1924 and 1931, it is as if they were calculated anticipations of the same motif in Ada (1969) and Look at the Harlequins (1974). The truth is much simpler: Nabokov recognized his special themes early and remained obsessed by them. The dislocations of exile, memory's graceful powers, the solipsist's prison, death as metamorphosis, the artifice of Fate—all of Nabokov's familiar concerns are here, in a series of...
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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 almost relentless internal allusiveness … the system of "recurrences, correspondences, and coincidences" that runs throughout the typical Nabokov novel…. Instead of the smooth and seemingly natural one-directional flow from sentence to sentence in the well-made novel, we must constantly move back and forth within the text. (pp. 222-23)
At the end of Transparent Things everything vanishes, leaving … the essential grin of the Design, the tracings of the relationships within the "tangle of random destinies." But in order to do the untangling the reader cannot submit himself passively to the flow of a dreamlike narrative: he must be wide awake, an active finder and maker of patterns. He must see how almost any set of...
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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 perspective in which Cincinnatus is the neophyte, the uninitiated man-child who does not "know," who has not come to grips with the terms of existence—life, time, and death—and who, during the period of his imprisonment, undergoes an elaborate and humorously absurd initiation ritual expressly designed and stage-managed by author Nabokov to enlighten Cincinnatus…. Nabokov creates this initiatory effect by periodically shifting from the predominant third person omniscient narration to a type of "participating" narrator who acts as though he were an invisible figure in the prison cell, observing everything and speaking directly to Cincinnatus, who cannot hear him…. At times the narrator adopts a mock-serious tone regarding Cincinnatus'...
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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 conventional view of Nabokov's art is misleading in two crucial respects. The first is that it offers a monolithic theory so far as Nabokov's novels are concerned, implying as it does that all of the novels are best characterized as metafictions, parafictions, fabulations, etc. Indeed, this theory implies that a late work such as Pale Fire (1962) or Ada (1969) is an adequate model for all of Nabokov's seventeen novels, that Nabokov's long career as a novelist was devoted to a single fictional form or mode—fabulation, let us say—and that his later (English) novels differ from his earlier (Russian) works only in terms of relative development or maturity. I believe that at least seven of Nabokov's Russian and two of...
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