Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2034
Although Vladimir Nabokov’s popular reputation is based on the sensational reception his nymphet novel Lolita (1955) received when it was published squarely in the middle of the conservative 1950’s, his critical recognition rests on a substantial body of fiction both in Russian and in English in which he delights in playing games with the nature of narrative and in examining reality as a fictional construct. In most of Nabokov’s work, reality is, by definition, an artificial, rule-bound game, much as chess is a patterned game or a work of fiction is a created construct. Consequently, Nabokov has been seen as in the forefront of such postmodernist writers as Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover, writers who are often called “metafictional” or “self- reflexive”—writers who reject reality as something awaiting discovery and who instead focus on reality as something that is constantly made. Such a view springs from a radical skepticism toward any Platonic or religious concept of a solid ground of being.
In this new critical study of Nabokov, however, Vladimir Alexandrov challenges the prevailing view of Nabokov as a precursor of postmodern self-reflexivity and reflects an alternate Nabokov critical trend by claiming that Nabokov’s worldview is indeed based on a transcendent ground of being. By drawing on Nabokov’s discursive writing and closely analyzing six of his major Russian and English novels, Alexandrov argues that instead of assuming a skeptical and ironic view of reality, Nabokov actually believes in an “otherworldly” realm in the Platonic or Gnostic sense. Although Nabokov himself never directly claimed such a concept as a tenet of his own belief system, this “otherworld,” insists Alexandrov, is Nabokov’s central theme.
Alexandrov’s primary source for this concept is Nabokov’s widow, Vera, in her foreword to his posthumous collection of Russian poems published in 1979. Although she provides no authority for her assertion that the “otherworld” (Alexandrov’s translation of the Russian word potustoronnost) is her husband’s central theme, she claims that it saturates everything he wrote and is what gave him his love of life; so central is the concept, she insists, that she wonders that no one else ever noticed it. Although the potustoronnost perspective on Nabokov has been discussed by other critics, Alexandrov also says he is surprised at its neglect; he is so strongly convinced of the truth of Vera Nabokov’s statement that he bases his book on arguing the case.
Alexandrov admits at the beginning that Nabokov himself never claimed the existence of a transcendent realm. Instead, he grounds his argument on an examination of the two nonfictional pieces in which he says Nabokov “hints” at such a realm—Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966) and his essay “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” published posthumously in 1980. Alexandrov also argues that Nabokov’s faith in this transcendent realm constitutes the basis of not only his metaphysics but also his aesthetic and ethical views. Alexandrov is cautious to use such words as “apparent” and “seems to” when referring to Nabokov’s belief in the otherworld, because he says a central tenet of that faith is Nabokov’s notion that although the otherworld is timeless, beneficent, and provides for human immortality, it cannot be known except intuitively.
Alexandrov’s introduction lays the groundwork for the analyses of the novels that constitute the bulk of the book by clarifying terminology and arguing, although in a quite general way, against the prevailing critical approach to Nabokov’s work. Alexandrov makes passing references to reader-response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, but his analysis is not based on any unified theoretical approach. Moreover, although he takes issue with self-reflexivity as the central Nabokov tactic, he does not engage in any significant theoretical argument about the metaphysical or aesthetic bases of self-reflexivity.
However, he does concede that there are two significant points at which a metaliterary and an “otherworldly” interpretation of Nabokov’s fiction confront each other directly: textual patterning and romantic irony. For example, coincidence in a novel can, from the point of view of an otherworldly reading, indicate the metaphysical concept of fate; however, from the metaliterary point of view, it may emphasize the artificiality of the novel as discourse or text. The other point at which the two interpretations intersect involves what has been called Nabokov’s romantic irony, in which he as author intrudes into his texts. Alexandrov, of course, argues for the otherworldly reading of both these elements in Nabokov’s work, suggesting that his patterning of his texts and his intrusion into them are imitations of the otherworld’s formative role. Alexandrov argues that for Nabokov the so-called natural world appears to have been contrived by some higher intelligence, much as the author contrives the world of his fiction.
In the chapter on Speak, Memory and Nabokov’s other discursive writing, Alexandrov establishes and explains the basic means by which the otherworld is manifested in Nabokov’s fiction; the most central have to do with the nature of time and the nature of pattern. Alexandrov uses both the terms “epiphany” and “cosmic synchronization” to refer to those sections of Nabokov’s discursive writing where he describes poetic inspiration as a moment in which disparate events coalesce to form an instantaneous organism with the poet at the center. At these points of time, Nabokov is liberated from the prison of time, Alexandrov argues, and delivered into an experience of timelessness.
Alexandrov claims, however, that the most important manifestation of the otherworld for Nabokov is patterning in life, nature, and art. Focusing on those sections of Speak, Memory in which Nabokov deals with the fateful repetition of events in his own life, Alexandrov argues that the world of nature for Nabokov is “made.” Nabokov’s description of natural phenomena in terms of artifice implies that they were fashioned by an occult agent or higher force. However, the twin issues underlying Alexandrov’s arguments about both time and pattern for Nabokov—issues he never explores in any depth—are whether timelessness is an intimation of immortality or a result of an act of imagination and whether pattern is preexistent or whether it is created by the human mind. Whereas the latter positions have traditionally been claimed by Nabokov critics, Alexandrov claims the former.
The six central chapters of the book focus on three Russian novels—Zashchita Luzhina (1929; The Defense, 1964), Priglashenie na kazn (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959), and Dar (1937-1938; The Gift, 1963)—and three English novels—The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Lolita, and Pale Fire (1962). In each of these works, chosen because Alexandrov says they are his favorites as well as those usually claimed to be Nabokov’s best, Alexandrov focuses on the manifestations of the otherworld that he has established in the theoretical introduction and the discussion of Speak, Memory.
In The Defense, Nabokov’s Russian novel about a chess master who confuses the game of chess with life, Alexandrov argues that chess is a manifestation of the experience of timelessness and thus provides a link with the other world. He goes to great lengths to point out how the protagonist’s life in the novel is dominated by patterns—evidence enough, he argues, that these patterns created by the artist are reflections of the patterns created by the great artist God.
The chapter on Invitation to a Beheading focuses on what Alexandrov calls a high density of Gnostic details, especially motifs that focus on the split between body and spirit and the notion of spiritual redemption. More than in any other novel, claims Alexandrov, Nabokov here asserts that human life is like a book written by a transcendent occult entity; the artist merely mimics this ultimate creative act.
In The Gift, the young author-protagonist espouses views of a transcendent dimension of existence that Nabokov’s widow has claimed is Nabokov’s own view of the otherworld. Taking his cue from this claim, Alexandrov says this is Nabokov’s most explicit treatment of his basic view that the so-called real world is unreal and that the only reality is the sacred realm of the otherworld.
In his discussion of Nabokov’s first American novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Alexandrov bases most of his case on his claim that the mysterious author Sebastian Knight reflects Nabokov’s aesthetic, metaphysical, and ethical views and that his half brother “V,” in attempting to write his biography, uses intuition and hunches to discover hitherto hidden patterns of his life. Thus, V is seen by Alexandrov as an agent of the otherworld through which the spirit of his dead brother speaks. Instead of perceiving this as an elaborate literary game, as most other critics have, Alexandrov takes it quite seriously as a reflection of Nabokov’s belief in the transcendent realm.
Although Alexandrov could hardly have made his case convincingly without considering Nabokov’s most famous novel, his chapter on the concept of the otherworld in Lolita is in fact his least convincing. Few Nabokov novels seem more worldly and less otherworldly than this one about an older man’s sexual obsession with a female child. Alexandrov’s solution to this problem is to argue that Humbert Humbert’s insistence that nymphets occupy a special realm of frozen time different from that of their female children is a self-conscious parody of Nabokov’s own quest for epiphanic moments.
Finally, Alexandrov discusses one of Nabokov’s most praised novels, Pale Fire, in which he argues that the fictional poet John Shade holds the same views about poetic inspiration, timelessness, and patterns as Nabokov himself. He also draws parallels between Nabokov and the fictional critic Kinbote in the novel, for, he insists, all three have a faith in the existence of an otherworld that is involved in human affairs.
Alexandrov’s study is certainly not in the mainstream of the critical literature about Valdimir Nabokov or, more generally, of modern literary criticism. To make such an insistent case for a preexistent realm of reality in a postmodern age in which the main paradigm is that of the dynamic creation of reality as a function of perception is to go against the general theoretical trend. To posit a preexistent Platonic realm for a writer such as Vladimir Nabokov, who is often held up as one of the first postmodernists to create fictions that are models of the fictional nature of reality itself, is to beat even more quixotically against contemporary critical currents.
Yet with great confidence and conviction (although many readers may say with a great deal of argumentative sophistry), Alexandrov investigates six of Nabokov’s best-known novels in extensive detail, hammering on his one theme over and over again. To base such a thesis on the brief comments of Nabokov’s best-known novels in extensive detail, hammering on his one theme over and over again. To base such a thesis on the brief comments of Nabokov’s widow, whose authority and motivation are neither examined nor questioned, may strike many Nabokov admirers as unconvincing. Even those who are willing to give Alexandrov’s thesis the benefit of the doubt and indeed even agree with him that Nabokov had an intuition of some sense of order outside the mind of man may not be willing to take Alexandrov’s extra step and agree that Nabokov had a faith in some “directed” or “beneficent” transcendent force.
The most significant weakness in Alexandrov’s study is his failure to examine the relationship between the self- reflexive view of Nabokov and his own view of the “otherworld.” Primarily, he merely dismisses the one and asserts the other without investigating the complex interaction between structure and pattern as something that inheres in the human imagination and derives from an inhuman transcendent source. Thus, although the book is a significant study of Nabokov’s metaphysics, it insufficiently relates metaphysics to Nabokov’s aesthetics. As a result, its readers will be split between those who continue to see Nabokov as the primary precursor of postmodernism and those who are tired of sophisticated discussions of aesthetic game-playing and long, like Alexandrov, for a transcendent realm of absolute reality.
Sources for Further Study
Choice. XXVIII, July, 1991, p. 1787.
University Press Book News. III, March, 1991, p. 34.
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