In 1937, Vladeslav Khodasevich, an émigré poet and champion of “V. Sirin’s” work, wrote, “Sirin [Nabokov] proves for the most part to be an artist of form, of the writer’s device, and not only in thatsense of whichhis writing is distinguished by exceptional diversity, complexity, brilliance, and novelty.” Khodasevich went on to say that the key to all Sirin’s work was his ability to put all his literary devices on display, with little or no attempt to conceal them, thus entertaining his readers more with the revelation of how the magician performs his tricks, than with the trick itself. “The life of the artist and the life of a device in the consciousness of an artist—this is Sirin’s theme.” Khodasevich, although he had not yet read The Gift—purported to be Vladimir Nabokov’s greatest Russian novel—had discovered the most important element of Nabokov’s fiction.
Throughout his entire life, although Nabokov underwent great changes in his circumstances, he was consistent, whether writing in Russian or English, in his unflagging delight in literary devices of all sorts, art for its own sake, and a contempt for mimetic conventions, simplistic psychological motivation, ordinary plot structure, and anything that inhibits the literary imagination. He can, in many respects, be called an aesthete, but his rejection of most schools of thought makes him difficult to classify. He strove for and achieved a uniqueness that runs as a thread throughout his oeuvre. Clarence Brown once commented in a critical essay that “for well over a quarter of a century now[Nabokov] has been writing in book after book about the same thing,” and Nabokov is said to have admitted that Brown was probably correct.
Mary and King, Queen, Knave
Nabokov’s first novel, Mary, is rather sentimental and probably based on Nabokov’s regret for a lost love, but it already contains two elements he would use repeatedly—the love triangle and uncertain identity. King, Queen, Knave, however, is an even more obvious reflection of the Nabokovcanon. In it, a character named Franz Bubendorf, a country bumpkin on his way to the city, apparently to be corrupted by the bourgeois life, is, in fact, already corrupted by his distaste for his own class, which distorts his perception. As if to emphasize this distortion of perception, Franz steps on his glasses and Berlin becomes a blur. Again, there is a love triangle, and each of the participants is, in his or her own way, unable to perceive reality. The melodrama of a love triangle and a planned murder is handled with the authorial detachment that is one of Nabokov’s hallmarks. The novel becomes a parody of traditional forms, and the characters become obvious contrivances of the author. Derived from a Hans Christian Andersen work of the same title, the novel consists of thirteen chapters, as there are thirteen cards in each suit in a deck of cards. The card metaphor is carried throughout the work, even in the description of clothes.
Laughter in the Dark
Laughter in the Dark opens with a parody of the fairy tale revealing the entire plot, here a relatively conventional bourgeois love story that Nabokov typically manipulates. The main character, blinded by love, becomes literally blinded and trapped in a love triangle, which results in his murder (accomplished in a scene that is a parody of motion-picture melodrama). This type of parody, which partially represents Nabokov’s delight in mocking inferior art, can also be seen as a parody of the reader’s expectations. Nabokov constantly thwarts the reader who wants a nice, comfortable, conventional novel. The writer is always in control, always tugging the reader this way and that, never allowing a moment of certainty. Perceptions are distorted on all levels. The characters have distorted perceptions of one another. The reader’s perception of events is teasingly distorted by the author. Nabokov operates a house of mirrors. If a reader expects realism, there will be no pleasure in the warped mirrors Nabokov presents. One must delight instead in the odd shapes and obvious deformities in the mirrors he has shaped.
Character types in the Russian novels also recur throughout Nabokov’s career, so much so that some critics have attempted to pair earlier Russian novels with later English ones. Usually, the central figure is an outsider, an unusual person in his milieu. Bubendorf of King, Queen, Knave is a country boy in the city. In The Defense, the chess master Luzhin does not fit in with his family or his school, and is sent into exile after the Revolution. Martin Edelweiss of Glory is in exile in London.
What is more important, however, is that these and many more of Nabokov’s characters are isolated as much by their mental states as by their physical surroundings. Their fantasies, dreams, ambitions, and obsessions set them utterly apart from the ordinary world. Luzhin, for example, is so obsessed with chess that he cannot deal with the disorder of life. Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading is thought peculiar by his fellow workers in the doll factory. In later English novels, immigrant Timofey Pnin is thought mad by his academic colleagues, Humbert Humbert and Adam Krug are seen as dangers to society, and Charles Kinbote intrudes and imposes on people. Generally, the main characters of Nabokov’s novels are perceived as talented men, in some sense more valuable than the soulless people and society that persecute them. They are outsiders because they are extraordinary. They are free, imaginative, and capable of a kind of heroism that ordinary people lack: the ability to remake the world according to their own obsessions.
The Gift is generally thought of as Nabokov’s best Russian novel. It was originally published serially in Sovremennye Zapiski, an émigré periodical, and the fourth section was not included (for political reasons) in a complete edition until 1952. In The Gift, the central figure is Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a brilliant émigré poet. As the book opens, he has just published a collection of poems, and much of the early part concerns his literary career. Later, his obsession with the memory of his father begins to dominate his everyday life, and he becomes caught in the typical confusions of the biographer: What is the truth and how can one see it? He feels an...
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