(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The clue to Nabokov’s autobiographical method is contained in the first chapter. General Aleksey Nikolaevich Kuropatkin, a friend of the family, amuses the five-year-old Nabokov with match sticks arranged to represent the sea in calm and then in stormy weather. Fifteen years later the general, now aged and impoverished, asks Nabokov’s father for a light. Nabokov calls this twofold incidence of the use of matches “the match theme” and observes that the “following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.”

Of the many themes woven into the design of this autobiography two have particularly sinuous threads, the light-and-darkness theme and the death theme; furthermore, the two themes are frequently intertwined so as to become one. In the first sentence of chapter 1 human existence is defined in metaphor as “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” and the two eternities are “identical twins.” The movement from the darkness before birth to the darkness after death is variegated by shadows, which are constant intimations of the two eternities, across the crack of light. The image of the variegation is the chiaroscuro, as in “a mesh of sunshine on the parquet under the canework of a Viennese chair,” “the shadow . . . undulated in the warm candlelight,” “the morning twilight of the nursery,” “the changeable twinkle of remote village lights,” “the room would be cleft into light and shade,” “sun-flecked trails,” and many similar phrases in which the image may be as patent as these examples or subtle, as in “an albino physician.” Chiaroscuro flourishes in Nabokov’s fiction and serves along with other constants of his style to preclude any partition between his fiction and his autobiography, both of which, he claims, are products of the imagination; memory is for him a subsumption of the imagination. The best study of Nabokov’s chiaroscuro, indeed the best study of Nabokov’s art, is Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (1974), by Alfred Appel, Jr., in which Nabokov’s theme of light and darkness is studied in conjunction with and as culturally coextensive with the film technique that came to be called film noir.

In the crack of light between his two eternities Nabokov’s birthday coincides with those of William Shakespeare, Vladimir Sikorski, Shirley Temple, and Hazel Brown; Sikorski is his nephew, and “Hazel Brown” is the color of the author’s eyes. Sharing a natal day amounts to sharing the two eternities and, in corollary, the crack of light, thereby negating differences in time. “I confess I do not believe in time,” Nabokov writes; “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another.” He holds to the same superimposition in the matter of a coincidence of decease: His uncle Dmitri and his father died in, respectively, 1904 and 1922 on the same day, March 28, and the identicalness of the day eliminates the distance of the years, just as a sameness of circumstances nullifies temporality in the case of Nabokov’s brother Sergei and a family friend, I.I. Fondaminski, both of whom died in Nazi death camps. Such examples of coincidence as design are detailed by Carol Shloss, who concludes:Though it may seem that the autobiographer is exploiting random coincidence for the purposes of composition, artificially grouping events in the same plane of vision, Nabokov would argue that this technique is not only the prerogative of art—which constructs artifices—but also the procedure of nature. . . .

For example, as Shloss points out, camouflage...

(The entire section is 1496 words.)