Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest literary artists of this century, but his exact place in literary history has been disputed. None of his works has reached a large audience, except the once controversial Lolita (1955). He is often dismissed as an elitist because his fiction, which has so little overt social and political content, is, so it is charged, merely art for art’s sake. Few will disagree, however, that he is a brilliant stylist, a verbal genius in two languages: his native Russian and the English of his adopted America. As one of the commentators in Nabokov’s Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life’s Work says, he “might well be considered in another realm of language from the common sphere of English prose.” The contributors to this collection of essays and notes attempt to define Nabokov’s genius as a stylist and also make a strong case for his being much more than a stylist.
Nabokov’s Fifth Arc is the second such collection to appear since the writer’s death. J. E. Rivers and Charles Nicol write in their introduction that they intend it to supplement and complement Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute (1980), edited by Peter Quennell. The latter volume, they say, is primarily concerned with the spirit of Nabokov’s fiction rather than its development over his entire career. According to Rivers and Nicol, the contributions in their collection focus attention on the human qualities of Nabokov, illustrate the various genres and traditions in his work, view him within the context of his time, and assess his contributions to modern literature.
The title and design of Nabokov’s Fifth Arc are based on Nabokov’s own division of his life into three arcs or stages in his autobiography, Speak, Memory (1966): his first twenty years in Russia (1899-1919), his years of voluntary exile in England, Germany, and France (1919-1940), and his American period (1940-1960). To these three arcs, Rivers and Nicol add Nabokov’s final years in Montreux, Switzerland (1960-1977) as the fourth arc and literary history as the fifth.
In the section covering the first two arcs, Beverly Lyon Clark examines Nabokov’s 1923 Russian translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865, Anya v strane chudes), seeing it as the beginning of his experimentation with fantasy, which culminated in Humbert Humbert’s fantasy-filled view of Lolita, the Zembla of Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire (1962), and the Antiterra of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). Clark explains how Nabokov’s changes in Carroll’s book, slight except for shifting the setting to Russia, make the translation “a vehicle for his own style and vision.” Walter Evans shows how in the 1929 story “The Potato Elf,” Nabokov begins developing his examination of the nature of the artist and the power of illusion. William C. Carroll analyzes Otchayanie (1936; Despair, 1937) as an important stage in Nabokov’s “long exploration of paranoia and the more extreme forms of lunacy,” explaining how he makes paranoia an “emblem for the imagination.” Margaret Byrd Boegeman argues that though Nabokov strongly denied the influence of Franz Kafka on Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959), there are “superficial” borrowings from Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), but Nabokov’s theme, that belonging to any society diminishes the individual’s independence and the integrity of his standards, is the opposite of Kafka’s view.
The section devoted to Nabokov’s American period opens with Beverly Gray Bienstock’s examination of the motion-picture imagery in Bend Sinister (1947), in which the novelist tests the boundaries of his art form, discovering that “language cannot quite approximate the purely cinematic image.” Larry R. Andrews looks at the 1948 story “Signs and Symbols,” in which Nabokov tricks the reader into drawing wrong conclusions as a means of affirming Nabokov’s view of art as “sacred play” and his view of the artist as having a “superior vision.” Of the two essays about Lolita, Gladys M. Clifton’s is the weaker, for the most part pointing out the obvious, explaining how Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, charming and intelligent but self-indulgent and insane. Thomas R. Frosch delves beneath the surface of Lolita to show how it both follows and parodies the tradition of Romantic literature. Earl D. Sampson translates Nabokov’s postscript to his 1967 Russian translation of Lolita, in which...
(The entire section is 1922 words.)