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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934

Julian W. Connolly’s study of Vladimir Nabokov’s early Russian-language fiction successfully bridges the gap between the trend in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, in which critics focused on Nabokov’s metafictional literary puzzles, and the trend in the 1980’s, in which they emphasized the interpersonal and ethical thematic dimensions of his work. Connolly’s thesis is that during the first phase of Nabokov’s literary career, one of the central concerns of his art was the relationship between the self and the other, a concern that developed through four stages from his first short stories in the 1920’s to the publication of the novel Dar (1937-1938; The Gift, 1963).

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In the first phase (1924-1926), in such stories as “The Return of Chorb” and “The Potato Elf” and in the novel Mashenka (1926; Mary, 1970), Nabokov concentrates on a protagonist who has suffered the loss of a spouse or a child and consequently becomes so obsessed with the absent other that he or she loses touch with reality in a world of fantasy. In the second phase (1928-1929), in such novels as Korol’, dama, valet (1928; King, Queen, Knave, 1968) and Zashchita Luzhina (1929; The Defense, 1964), this detachment from reality becomes more extreme as characters lose themselves completely in a world of illusion.

In Soglyadatay (1930; The Eye, 1965) and Otchayanie (1934; Despair, 1937), the major works of Nabokov’s third phase in the early 1930’s, Connolly says that the central characters become less obsessed with an absent other and more concerned with how other characters view them; however, even as these characters attempt to define themselves in ways that the world views favorably, ironically there is always a gap between the way they see themselves and the way others see them. In the fourth and final phase of Nabokov’s Russian-language fiction, in the mid-1930’s, illustrated by Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959) and The Gift, his characters manifest a split between their “authorial self,” which represents creative consciousness, and their “character” self, which can be manipulated by an external other such as an authorial self or the actual author. It is this basic dichotomy, says Connolly, that dominates Nabokov’s later and better-known English-language fiction such as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974).

Connolly supports his thesis about the relationship between self and other in Nabokov’s fiction in a straightforward chronological fashion, discussing in some detail the character configuration and its thematic and aesthetic implications as it evolves in more than a dozen short stories and seven Russian-language novels. Because the bulk of Connolly’s study is made up of these detailed plot summary/ character configuration analyses, it may seem somewhat plodding and repetitious, as he dutifully describes the self/other pattern and supports his thesis in each of Nabo- kov’s works under consideration. The discussion is so detailed that the reader can easily understand the basic structure of Nabokov’s fiction without having read the works themselves. Moreover, Connolly is meticulous in the organization of the book. Each separate discussion follows much the same pattern: Connolly clearly introduces the basic pattern of each work, outlines how it develops in some detail, and then summarizes what makes each particular work characteristic yet distinctive for Na- bokov’s development of the self/other theme. The balance between the discussions of the short stories and the novels is carefully planned; each story is given approximately five pages and each novel is given approximately twenty pages. This somewhat pedestrian approach makes for easy comprehension but for few striking critical or theoretical fireworks.

The developmental pattern that Connolly argues exists in Nabokov’s fiction is that the great Russian writer increasingly focuses on characters who try to assert an authorial position and escape being manipulated as mere characters. As these characters concentrate more and more on their own creative efforts, the narratives in which they exist become inevitably more and more self-referential. Connolly argues that his examination of the self/other dichotomy in Nabokov’s early Russian-language fiction highlights the tension between the basic human desire to retreat into a hermetically sealed creative world and the need to enter into human relationships in the external world that distinguishes his more mature English-language novels.

Although the tension that Connolly describes is a further development of the Romantic/Symbolist aesthetic of the nineteenth century from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Baudelaire, Connolly is not interested in situating Nabokov’s exploration of the self/other theme in a historical theoretical context. He is interested only in laying bare the configuration and its implications in Nabokov’s early works. Connolly’s book is an interesting study of the means by which one of the great writers of the twentieth century begins with the assumption that he is creating “as-if-real” characters caught in ethical/moral situations and then moves closer to a focus on admittedly fictional characters caught in aesthetic/philosophic situations. By implication, this progression in Nabokov’s work reflects the general literary and critical movement from nineteenth century bourgeois realism to turn-of-the-century modernism and finally to late twentieth century postmodernism.

The overall thesis and structure of Connolly’s study can be seen easily by surveying his analyses of a few representative Nabokov works. In an early story, “The Return of the Chorb,” a character is so distressed about the death of his bride that he withdraws into a narcissistic, solipsistic world of his own making. The gesture marks the first phase in Nabokov’s fictional realm of cutting oneself off from real people in the real world and living instead in a fictional world of one’s own obsessive making. This tendency is carried out further in the early novel Mary, in which a character opts for the world of his own desires rather than the world of phenomenal reality. In the story “An Affair of Honor,” Nabokov introduces the related theme that will dominate his later work, a fictional character’s desire to play the role of “author” in relation to the other characters.

Nabokov makes this author/character theme the central one in his second novel, King, Queen, Knave, in which characters either try to make other characters mere automatons for their own authorial desires or else they feel resentment toward characters who play the role of author and try to control them. A pattern emerging here that is closer to Nabokov’s later self-reflective focus is shown by a character in King, Queen, Knave who tries to give life to artificial dummies; at the same time, Nabokov lays bare the fictionality of figures who might seem real by the old nineteenth century conventions of realism.

The next significant mutation of the self/other pattern in Nabokov’s early fiction, says Connolly, can be seen in Nabokov’s novel The Defense, in which the split between the inner subjective world of a character and the external objective world is manifested in terms of the nineteenth century theme of the double. The character Luzhin manifests the authorial desire to create a world similar to the game of chess, which is characterized by order and control, and thus escape the ragged and contingent world of ordinary reality. Luzhin’s increasing dissociation and sense that there is an unknown other that manipulates him introduces what is later to become a predominant Nabokov theme, a character’s suspicion that there is some transcendental being that controls him—that is, the author himself. The realization for the character, as it often is for the characters in the stories of Nabokov’s Russian predecessor, Nikolai Gogol, is that the world is not made up of dead meaningless matter, but rather that all things are symbols of some transcendent reality.

Once Nabokov’s characters seem bent on this transformation of the world according to their own inner vision, they cannot turn back. In such works as The Eye and Despair, they become even more narcissistic. Although they are so insecure that they need to be defined by others, at the same time they fear being made into helpless objects because of their dependence on the opinions of others. In this next phase, Nabokov makes a significant shift to a narrator who is self-consciously aware that he is indeed an author and thus shifts the reader’s attention from the story as an “as-if” reality to the narrator’s role as the creator of the story, thus moving even more emphatically away from ethical to aesthetic issues. Connolly uses the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin here to clarify the tactic used by author figures in Nabokov’s work of creating an alter ego for themselves in a character embedded within the fiction. According to Bakhtin, authors must first step outside the self to identify with the characters of their creation and then return to their own identity and see the characters as external creations that they complete by giving them aesthetic form. In this way, Nabokov uses fictional characters to explore the authorial danger of retreating from the difficulty of coping with the complexity of real human relationships by escaping into self-made aesthetic constructs.

Nabokov’s novel Despair marks the apex of his early experimentation with creating characters who defend themselves from being manipulated by others by taking on the role of the creative artist themselves. Hermann Karlovich, the first-person intrinsic narrator of this novel, self-consciously aspires to authorial status. His desire to be a writer, however, is also manifested in his desire to control others in everyday life. Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift are the epitome of Nabokov’s first decade of development, argues Connolly, for the two novels metafictionally depict the quest of two figures to transcend their status as literary characters and become authors of their own fictional worlds. In Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus is the first Nabokov character to escape successfully from the limitations of his role as mere character and to actualize the creative role of author. In The Gift, Nabokov’s most metafictional Russian-language novel, the main character Fyodor’s increasing understanding and control of his creativity is reflected in the complexity of the narrative modes of the work itself.

Connolly’s meticulous analysis of the gradual movement from Nabokov’s focus on as-if-real characters caught in interpersonal relationships to characters struggling with their fictional status provides helpful groundwork for understanding Nabokov’s mature English-language novels. Connolly emphasizes this argument in a brief “Afterword,” in which he suggests how the patterns he has delineated inform this later work. He argues that the English-language novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight can best be understood if one reads it in light of the pattern developed in The Gift and that the relationship between the narrator Kinbote and the character Shade in Pale Fireextends the pattern created earlier. Connolly also suggests patterns of doubling and efforts to achieve the power of author in other English-language works such as Look at the Harlequins! andLolita.

Connolly admirably fulfills the relatively simple task he sets for himself here, that of describing a character configuration with thematic implications in the first phase of Nabokov’s career. Along the way, he helps mediate the seeming contradiction between Nabokov’s expressed view on one occasion that artists should not bother with their audience and on another that writers need reverberations from multiplications of themselves. The more complex implications of the relationship between the interpersonal ethical concerns of “as-if-real”characters and the philosophic aesthetic concerns of admittedly fictional characters in Nabokov’s fiction, and indeed in all fiction, Connolly leaves for a later book.

Source for Further Study

Choice. XXX, March, 1993, p. 1157.

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