Vladimir Nabokov American Literature Analysis
Nabokov’s work has received considerable critical acclaim, and a consensus has been reached that he was at least a distinguished and arguably a great writer. He has exerted a major influence on contemporary authors such as Anthony Burgess, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Milan Kundera. Nabokov wrote at least three masterful novels: The Gift, Lolita, and Pale Fire. Several of his stories, including “Vesna Fialte” (“Spring in Fialta”) and “Signs and Symbols,” are among the century’s finest; his autobiography rivals Marcel Proust’s in the intensity and lyricism of its nostalgia.
Nabokov’s work is never intentionally didactic, sociological, ideological, or psychologically oriented; he detested moralistic, message-ridden writing. While his fictive world is filled with aberrant and bizarre characters—pederasts, buffoons, cripples, and obsessives of one sort or another—they are described not as psychological types but as representatives of the overwhelming vulgarity, freakishness, and pathos that corrupt human nature imposes on the sublimity of the natural and aesthetic world. Aestheticism is Nabokov’s secular religion, and his grotesques, such Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote, and The Defense’s Luzhin, are offenses against the sensitivity of the artistic imagination.
Nabokov’s antirealism brings him firmly into the fold of impressionism, which was inspired by the Impressionist painters Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet. Impressionistic writers employ highly selective details to stress the subjectivity of the moment’s fleeting effect upon their consciousness. Neglecting accumulation of verisimilar details, they prefer to focus on memories and moods, seeking to evoke moments of ardent emotion. Nabokov’s literary company includes Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and, particularly, Proust. Nabokov’s art privileges images and impressions as they flash through the limited consciousness of the observer/narrator. The protagonist may be mad or morally eccentric, however; thus, the reader must beware of empathizing too closely with the central character, who may be schizophrenic, manipulative, confused, or otherwise unreliable.
Nabokov was a difficult, enigmatic, and complex writer. He delighted in playing self-consciously with the reader’s credibility, considering himself a magician in command of innumerable artifices. He loved to devise absorbing, convoluted games that often baffle the unwary reader. Many of his texts are composed like daunting chess problems, with many levels of perception, structural false bottoms, and illusory plot patterns.
For example, Pale Fire, which is apparently an exegesis of a long poem, has a chimerical confusion of identities and realities. Dream fantasies constitute the fictive worlds of Bend Sinister and Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959). The Clare Quilty episode of Lolita parodies the conventions of melodrama. Several novels, including Kamera obskura (1932; Camera Obscura, 1936; Laughter in the Dark, 1938) and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, mock the mannerisms of the mystery story. Nabokov’s love of playing games with the reader has caused some critics to accuse him of preferring brilliantly designed surfaces to serious explorations of significant human experiences.
Nabokov’s puzzle-making fun and games, however, often concerns an underlying sadness. Many of the protagonists in his novels and stories face the grim horrors of an uncaring, senseless, sorrowful world. His persistent themes are the anguish of being unloved, the fragility of memory, and the brutishness of willfully inflicted pain. Though Nabokov practiced art for the sake of art, he scorned the sadism of such artists in his fiction as Laughter in the Dark’s Axel Rex, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty, and Ada or Ardor’s Van Veen.
Nabokov’s art not only...
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