Nabokov's Fifth Arc

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1922

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.

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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 Nabokov gives the publishing history of the book, credits the attack on Graham Greene for praising the book for its commercial success, apologizes for losing his skill in Russian, and says that the translation is merely “the whim of a bibliophile,” since Lolita cannot be published in the Soviet Union: “I want my best English book—or, let us say more modestly, one of my best English books—to be translated correctly into my native language.” In the final essay on Nabokov’s American arc, Julian W. Connolly explains how Pnin (1957) is not simply a series of sketches but a carefully organized novel, with patterns of repetition and transformation.

The section devoted to the final period of Nabokov’s career begins with Marilyn Edelstein’s explanation of how Pale Fire is concerned with the way the mind filters reality to create its own version of that reality: “Nabokov constantly tricks the reader into believing in one possible interpretation of the facts, only to throw all ’facts’ into doubt, showing thereby that only individually created realities are possible.” Carol Shloss shows how Speak, Memory is more than autobiography; it is an important statement about the nature of art and its “ability to recoup the losses of the ’real’ world.” Similar to Edelstein’s analysis of Pale Fire is Charles Nicol’s examination of Ada or Ardor. He argues that the disorder of Van Veen’s memoir forces the reader to become a participant in order to reorganize Van’s confused narrative. According to Nicol, the reader must understand that Van is an unreliable narrator, that the games and playfulness in the novel are essential parts of his character, not his creator’s. Nicol is also the only critic who admits that he does not have all the answers necessary to explain Nabokov’s text fully.

Seventeen pages of Nabokov’s notes to Ada for the 1970 Penguin edition, never before available in the United States, are presented and followed by thirty-four pages of notes by J. E. Rivers and William Walker explaining Nabokov’s version. The problem is that Ada notes are attributed to Vivian Darkbloom, the collaborator and biographer of Clare Quilty in Lolita, whose name is an anagram of Nabokov’s. It turns out that Vivian Darkbloom resembles Pale Fire’s ironic explicator Charles Kinbote, since many of her notes are inadequate or inaccurate, a mild joke on the part of an author who enjoys playing games with his readers, especially those who dare to “explain” him. The final essay in this section is Paul S. Bruss’s consideration of Nabokov’s last two novels, Transparent Things (1972) and Look at the Harlequins! (1974). Bruss looks at the “narrative strategies” of these works to show how they serve as an appropriate “summation for his art,” illustrating that the complexity of Nabokov’s fiction, the “contest between author and reader,” reflects the “textual difficulties that confront all people.”

There are four essays in the fifth arc dealing with Nabokov’s place in literary history. These include a profile of the writer by Alfred Appel, Jr., which first appeared in the The Atlantic Monthly in 1971, and some more-than-slightly annoyed comments by Nabokov’s son Dmitri about “a few posthumous slurs” against his father’s artistry. Phyllis A. Roth attempts to correct the “reluctance to deal with Nabokov as a human” which “has led to frequent questioning of the value of his fictions.” She does so by examining several parallels between his life and his work, showing how he used his art to impose order on the chaos of his life. Too often, however, her conclusions are rather simplistic: “Nabokov’s constant need for control . . . is demonstrated throughout his work.” Is this need for control not one of the major motivations of any artist? James M. Rambeau explains the difficulties of being a Nabokov scholar, how the novelist’s work is almost “critic-proof” because he so often parodies criticism. Rambeau shows how numerous scholars, such as Appel with his The Annotated Lolita (1970), fall into the trap the master has set for them: can any criticism of a man who has already written tongue-in-cheek commentaries on himself be taken seriously?

The best essays in the collection are those by Carroll, Frosch, and Appel. In looking at the allusions to Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevski, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Conan Doyle in Despair, Carroll presents a convincing case that Nabokov’s use of allusions is not merely ornamental, that they help define and explain the ironic world of Hermann Hermann. According to Carroll, Nabokov makes his readers “co-conspirators, not opponents, by making them complete the allusions . . . and become unseen accomplices in ’crime as an art.’” Likewise, Frosch illustrates how the allusions in Lolita are essential thematically, how the novel is about the Romantic sensibility from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Marcel Proust. Humbert Humbert is a nineteenth century romantic caught out of time; his problem is “to defend his romanticism in a de-idealizing, debunking, demythologizing time.” Humbert not only fails to achieve more than a parody of love with his Lolita, but he also fails to fail on the same high romantic scale as literary figures of the past such as Frankenstein, Ahab, and Raskolnikov. Nabokov’s problem in Lolita is the same as Humbert’s: getting away with being a romantic. Carroll makes a convincing case of Nabokov’s romantic success.

Appel’s portrait of Nabokov is valuable for displaying the real man behind the fiction. Many would consider him to have suffered a great deal for his art, giving English and tennis lessons for years to support his family, being denied the recognition and respect an artist of his stature deserved, finding financial security finally at sixty. Yet he seemed unresentful about his past. Appel deflates Nabokov’s image as a forbidding aesthete, presenting him as a charming old gentleman who read Buzz Sawyer and Rex Morgan, M.D. in the Paris Herald-Tribune and said “I’m as American as apple pie.”

Indeed, many of the contributors to this volume are intent on dispelling the image of Nabokov as an aloof magician who sneered at those inferior to him intellectually and artistically—that is, at almost everyone—and who wrote books only professors can understand. “Nabokov appears,” writes Boegeman, “to enjoy working against the expectations of his readers that they will be instructed as well as delighted,” yet he is trying to do something for the reader beyond delighting him with ironic playfulness and style. According to Edelstein, “a writer who points out the deceptive potential of the world is doing the reader a service. If one adheres to a single version of reality, one runs the risk of being gravely misled.” Critic after critic emphasize how unique in twentieth century literature is Nabokov’s fertile imagination, how he makes clear to the reader time and again that the individual can be liberated through the power of his imagination. A final important virtue of his fiction is an old-fashioned one: the vividness and humanity of his characters. As Rambeau says, “Beyond all the games, the ultimately sterile parodies, the splendid verbal jokes and puns, Nabokov creates for us characters who touch us.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9

Choice. XX, October, 1982, p. 268.

Library Journal. CVII, September 1, 1982, p. 1661.

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