Nabokov also involves his reader through literary and historical allusions. It is no accident that Oscar Wilde appears at one of Cynthia’s séances: In Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891) “Sybil Vane” is a character who commits suicide for the love of a man named “D.” In classical mythology, a sibyl is a prophetess who intercedes with the gods on behalf of human supplicants, just as Sybil intercedes in the professor’s narrative.
The essence of Nabokov’s playfulness can be seen in his allusions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (1816), which the poet labeled a fragment that he dreamed until interrupted by a neighbor from Porlock. Cynthia is friends with “an eccentric librarian called Porlock” who examines old books looking for misprints—the quintessential close reader. Three days after Porlock’s death, Cynthia comes across Coleridge’s poem and interprets it as a message from Porlock himself. “The Vane Sisters,” like Kubla Khan, is incomplete until the imaginative reader recognizes the sisters’ part in an elaborate trick. The intermingling of life, death, love, art, and the imagination is too airy a conceit for Nabokov’s literal-minded narrator.