Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 6)

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Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–

Nabokov, born in Russia and educated in England, lived in Europe and, from 1940 until about 1970, in the United States. Still an American citizen, he now lives in Switzerland. Nabokov is a novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, playwright, autobiographer, and translator. Before 1940, he wrote in Russian; since then he has employed only English for his creative work. Nabokov's ineffable prose is joyful, intelligent, and sly, "too clever by half." Regarded as a whole, his books compose one of the most unique and distinguished oeuvres of our time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Nabokov … regards the world we live in as possessing a reality, or unreality, of quite different order and value from that of the world in which, and out of which, he creates. The reality of the one and that of the other are as non-transferable currencies; the former is "unattainable," the latter always in process of being attained. The world of his art, distinct and discrete, may well be more real to him than the other one is, but by the same token it would also be the more mercurial, more protean, as mortal as he, profoundly and reliably unsure. The fictions of his art are less usefully thought of as competitive with the fictions of his life than as transformative of them, and less subject to the ravage of vicissitude—what [Quentin] Anderson may have had in mind when he spoke of Nabokov's art as "actually parasitic on the memory of an ordered community" [see CLC-3]. That community was not exactly a fiction—not, that is, if we are to insist on the value of distinctions, on the vitality and viability of language itself. If the "premise" of Nabokov's humanism, itself premised in that "ordered community," requires at times to be regarded as a fiction, it should be done so without ignoring the actuality behind it, or behind, as Mr. Anderson says, the "memory" of it. For I suppose it will have to be stated, dreary as it sounds, that the idea of fiction, like the idea of esthetic form, presupposes an idea of reality—and not just a reality qualified out of existence by the sophistical assumption that it consists of a bunch of moving shadows on the wall of a rather dim cave…. [Pnin delineates] a difference between what is outside and what is inside, between the existent reality and the reality we fabricate for ourselves to keep it from hurting too much. What Pnin enacts is the importance of such distinctions, and what it elicits is a sense of the respect due them, and due every level and order of the effort to make the kind of distinctions that ensure and enrich personal life, that serve to protect it from the damaging incursions of a disruptive and discontinuous world, and at the same time impart to it the fullest possible sense of the realities and imperatives of that world and the other humans who inhabit it. The story of Mira Belochkin is not simply an interpolation out of the mysterious source of a superabundant inventiveness, but central to the discriminations the novel makes in its perception of different levels of reality, different orders of fiction. (pp. 35-6)

But Pnin is one kind of discreteness, Pale Fire another. What in Pnin sustains the sensibility responsive to that "film of flesh" has in Pale Fire encased itself in the hardened plasticities of the "space traveler's helmet"—the adventurous reader is not allowed beyond the protective shield of its elaborate, often tedious, burlesque…. [The] reader doesn't count, he must fend for himself and chart his own excursions…. Nabokov's pastoral [is] enormously gay, especially for those who enjoy a suitably broad and properly elegant parody of the quasi-poetical compositions, pseudo-critical analyses and so-called scholar-critics whom (genuine critics aver) the novel makes particular fun of. And the bulk of that fun is the nit-witty chatter of the man who sits in his "wretched motor lodge" and tells tall tales about the lives of kings who are queens, jacks who...

(The entire section is 10,258 words.)