Vladimir Nabokov World Literature Analysis
Nabokov was often praised as a master of language and style but criticized for a perceived absence of general ideas, social relevance, and even morality in his novels. Russian literature has always had a strong moral, social, and political orientation. At times, this didactic tendency has overshadowed and even displaced the artistic element. First in his novel The Gift and later in a collection of interviews, Strong Opinions (1973), Nabokov argued for the independence of art. This is not to say that Nabokov did not incorporate serious ideas and moral considerations in his art, but rather that they are secondary to artistic considerations. Such themes are deeply woven into the texture of his works so that only the careful reader will recognize their presence.
It was only after Nabokov’s death that his widow pointed to the presence of a master theme throughout her husband’s work, a theme that she called “the hereafter.” Is death really the end of everything? If not, does personal consciousness survive? Nabokov’s novels rarely address these questions directly. Close examination shows that Nabokov’s novels contain not one but two (or more) worlds. One of these is, within the framework of the novel, regarded by the characters as the one and only world. A chosen few of Nabokov’s heroes, however, notice inexplicable coincidences and patterns, which lead them to suspect the presence of a controlling mind that has created them and their universe. This creator lives on another world. When these favored characters face death, either their own or that of a loved one, they become obsessed with the possibility of the hereafter, another world, that of their creator, with its promise of immortality and reunion with their loved ones. Intimations of a higher world are strongest in dreams and madness, but the real answer can come only at the moment of death. In some of the novels, such as Bend Sinister, the controlling presence of the author reaches into his created world and rescues his hero. The character dies and returns to the mind of his author-creator and in doing so acquires the wider consciousness of his author. All the secret coincidences of the previous “fictional” universe are now explained. Implicit in this scheme is the idea of the artist as god. It is an art-centered view of the meaning of life, an extension of the relationship between the creator and his character to the realm of a personal philosophy.
Readers of Speak, Memory cannot help being struck by Nabokov’s incredibly detailed recall of the minutiae of the past and his ability to bring it to life by the verbal precision of his writing. The theme of memory gains its greatest importance in connection with Nabokov’s master theme of another, parallel world. The ability of Nabokov’s heroes to detect signs and symbols hinting at the existence of another world depends upon the power and precision of their memories. Without memory, everything happens as if for the first time and is meaningless. Most of Nabokov’s fictional characters fail to recognize these signs of a master hand. In a sense, readers of Nabokov’s novels are in the same position as his characters. They must recall the scattered details that constitute the patterns and coincidences signaling the other world.
Nabokov has remarked that the real history of a writer is the story of his style. Nabokov is indisputably one of the greatest masters of both Russian and English. Yet style is also what makes him a difficult writer for many readers. His novels are filled with word games and hidden allusions that sometimes hint at the presence of the other world or that add new dimensions of meaning. In the ghost story “The Vane Sisters ” (1959), the doubting narrator’s skepticism about the hereafter is undermined in his last sentence by an acrostic that he himself fails to notice. The acrostic is a message from the dead sisters of the story. More often, hints of the other world come in the form of allusions....
(The entire section is 5,318 words.)