Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 8)
Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–1977
Nabokov was born in Russia, educated in England, became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and lived the last years of his life in Switzerland. His eclectic nature is evident in his mastery of many genres, having written, in both Russian and English, novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and plays, as well as biography, autobiography, criticism, and translations. The wit, ingenuity, and genius of his work have earned Nabokov a permanent place in world literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
[In Poems and Problems Nabokov] not only translates but brings in the theory of translation. He has collected thirty-nine poems written by himself in Russian and translated by himself into English; fourteen poems written in English; and eighteen chess problems. The book is presented in the manner of a "classic," with line numbers for the Russian poems, introduction, some notes, and a "bibliography," which is not really that but a full record of previous publication. Nabokov refuses to apologize for including the chess problems. I welcome them, but refuse to apologize for not reviewing them.
The Russian poems are, we are told, only a small selection from a much larger body. The earliest is dated 1917, the latest 1967, overlapping those composed in English. Nabokov testily deplores émigré poetry and tries not to be wistful, even pleads insincerity, but many of these pieces fail to escape a feeling of lost Russia and lost childhood, the difficulty a Russian poet forever outside Russia finds in writing poetry…. What of the self-translation? Here, as elsewhere, Nabokov insists on strict fidelity. With and for this, we have to put up with oddities. There are many, many inverted phrases. For instance: "To my alarm clock its lesson I set." Whatever excuses may be offered, that is a pretty awful line…. Foreign idioms and constructions can come into English and generate new dimensions and new English, as in the King James Bible, but these versions by Nabokov seem unassimilated and uncomfortable. Further, anapests, Nabokov's "beloved anapests" have a way (despite the example of Swinburne) of coming out bumpy in English …, like driving on a flat. Also, as Nabokov describes the metre, "tra-tá-ta tra-tá-ta tra-tá," the lines are not really anapests, they're amphibrachs.
In most of the English-composed poems (but not in the unaccountable "Ballad of Longwood Glen"), the awkwardness vanishes. Nabokov's virtuosity in English is manifest from his prose, tiresome as that can sometimes be. "Ode to a Model" has charmed me long since, but Nabokov seems really at his best in "An Evening of Russian Poetry" as he lectures to an imaginary girls' school on the qualities of that poetry…. Always the one-upman, Nabokov patronizes his imaginary audience and his reader; this poem is, nevertheless, mellow, beautiful, and wise. (pp. 506-08)
Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1971.
Of Nabokov's works, Lolita …, Pale Fire …, and Ada … belong to the Literature of Exhaustion. [Elsewhere in his book, The Literature of Exhaustion, Stark defines the Literature of Exhaustion, using a label supplied by John Barth. The identifying characteristic of the Literature, according to Barth, is that writers of it pretend that it is next to impossible to write original—perhaps any—literature. In other words, some writers use as a theme for new works of literature the hypothesis that literature is finished.]
Nabokov constructs Chinese boxes … to undermine the conventional distinctions between the real and imaginary domains. (p. 63)
Nabokov uses Chinese boxes most subtly in Pale Fire, and in that book he makes them crucial to the meaning. In this novel, Nabokov is the outermost layer, followed by Pale Fire, which … contains the dividing line between the real and the imaginary. Botkin, the fairly well hidden teller of the tale, is the third layer, and the pseudonym he uses, Kinbote, is the fourth layer. Next come the commentary and the index, which tell the story of Zembla and its king…. Most critics have followed one of Nabokov's false trails, deducing from the many references to Pope in Pale Fire that the Zembla mentioned in Essay on Man is the relevant one. That reference, however, either does not apply or, if a relation is forced, the subject matter of the quotation from Pope puts Pale Fire in a moral light, in which it will not be able to live for long. In Swift's Battle of the Books, however, "a malignant Deity, call'd Criticism" lives on a mountain in Nova Zembla. This malignant deity and its priest, Kinbote, obfuscate the next layer, John Shade's poem "Pale Fire." The last layer is Shade, who belongs inside his poem rather than outside it because he has written an autobiographical work that reveals, and in a sense controls, him. (p. 64)
Actually, the author and his book (the latter in one sense only) are real; any layer inside them—actually in the novel—is imaginary, and none of these inside layers has more reality than any other…. [Nabokov] claims that the imagination is the supreme, if not the only, reality. Out of these ideas arise the central paradoxes of the Literature of Exhaustion: this kind of literature creates, by using the premise that the imaginary realm of fiction is exhausted, works of fiction that assert the primacy of the imagination and add to the total number of fictional works. (p. 65)
Nabokov's opinion about the reality of [the] everyday world to a large extent determines the kind of literature that he writes. He shares with [Jorge Luis] Borges one of his main premises, that realism is misguided, though he does not hold to this premise quite as rigorously as the other writer. His bluntest statement about the status of reality appears in his Paris Review interview, when he says simply that "everyday reality" does not exist. The most important word in this phrase of course is "everyday," for he does not subscribe to nihilism; he merely believes that other kinds of reality have more claim to men's allegiance. Sometimes he uses more clever and more indirect methods to convince readers of this. Readers of Pale Fire who can step back and see what kind of responses they have been limited to by the book can understand that they have been tricked into taking their eyes off the everyday world. A reader of Pale Fire must choose from among three entities that claim to be real. One is the poem, away from which Kinbote, the second entity, turns almost completely. Once a reader sees the discrepancy between the poem and Kinbote's criticism, he seeks a third entity to serve as a touchstone, and he can find one in the fictive realm that the novel creates. However, this novel has two settings: Zembla and New Wye, and two different actions. This complicated interaction among rival realities demands the reader's attention, so he turns his back on the everyday world from which he emerged to read the novel. At least while he reads Pale Fire, if he does not resist the author's pressure, he sets aside everyday reality, and perhaps this will become habit forming. (pp. 67-8)
Among Nabokov's books, Pale Fire makes the most persuasive case that genuine reality must be found in unexpected places and can be discovered only by unusual means. (p. 69)
In Ada Nabokov less vigorously opposes everyday reality than he does in his two previous books. At least, he hesitates to attack the part of reality that contains nature. His more mellow attitude includes respect for another way of knowing besides literature: science. This new position should hardly seem surprising in light of his fascination, since childhood, with nature. He is a lepidopterist of professional competence and the author of a number of scientific articles. Before his most recent novel, however, he had used his scientific knowledge mainly as a source of metaphors, but in Ada the title character is a scientist. Also, she and her lover/brother, Van, a philosopher and writer, represent, for one thing, the two sides of their creator's personality. The incest theme in this novel functions partly to show that scientific and literary interests can exist harmoniously in the same person. It follows from this compatibility that the imagination can also connect with reality, because "reality and natural science are synonymous in the terms of this, and only this, dream"…. The dream is the imaginative world of Ada.
Nabokov still does not believe that everyday reality and science, and the common domain of both—nature—can replace the imagination as the dominant reality. A writer, however, can make metaphors from them. Ada, because of her scientific training, has a higher opinion than Van of the world of nature, but Nabokov points out her mistake…. [Later] in the book Ada herself loses much of her fascination with science. Science commits sins of omission, not commission; within its limits science and its object of study, nature, are wondrous. In this novel Nabokov does not maintain his earlier interest in nature as a freak show, a conception that also denigrates science…. Rather, in Ada Nabokov draws exquisite, nearly paradisiacal nature scenes, and he uses the full splendor of his prose style to describe a nature that is anything but hostile to man's imagination.
Even in Ada, however, nature by itself cannot nourish man. Its beauty serves only as material for the imagination to turn into art. Clearly, Nabokov himself has done this, both in his set-piece descriptions of nature and in the natural metaphors and images that he sprinkles so thickly throughout the novel. (pp. 71-2)
Nabokov's work … continually cries out that it is art or artifice. In his recent work he gradually develops from creating quite conventional types of artifice in Lolita and Pale Fire to creating more original and subtle types in Ada. All three novels, however, clearly belong to the Literature of Exhaustion. Lolita contains notes purportedly written by proofreaders and included by mistake, and the hand of the master always pokes through holes in his puppets' costumes. He continually suggests that another person is using the narrator as a ventriloquist's dummy; for example, he reveals information that Humbert cannot know. He also has Quilty, too, supply information that this character has no plausible way of knowing. The peculiar form of Pale Fire—poem and critical commentary—calls attention to this novel's artificiality, too.
He does not abandon this technique in Ada. Ada's marginal notes and interpolated passages of narrative, editor's notes and even study questions and a blurb at the very end of the novel perform the same function that the artificial devices in the other books do. Nabokov also underscores the fact that Ada is a novel by frequently referring to other novels and commenting on narrative technique. (p. 77)
Nabokov uses an enormous number of allusions, but unlike Borges, he sometimes misleads with his allusions. Often he plants them in order to lead down wrong paths critics who think they can match learning with him. One must be particularly wary of the allusions in Lolita, which can cause many frustrated expectations. Most of the references to Poe's works and to Merimée's Carmen create false scents, the latter because they indicate that Humbett will kill Lolita. (p. 79)
Ada, despite its recent publication, has been quite thoroughly searched for allusions. John Updike, Robert Alter, and Alfred Appel have found and explained the references to Chateaubriand, Tolstoy, Marvell's "The Garden," and some less important sources, Carl Proffer has identified many allusions to Russian literature, and other critics have also made useful contributions. (p. 81)
Nabokov does not merely play games with all these allusions. True, because of them and other features, reading him is sometimes exasperating…. He needs these allusions, however, to demonstrate that authors make literature, above all, from other literature, not from life. This belief is, by itself, one of the precursors of the Literature of Exhaustion and, combined with other attitudes, part of that kind of literature. (p. 82)
Nabokov prefers to play games rather than make myths. His work, besides its allusions, contains many puns—sometimes multilingual—anagrams and other puzzles. Most of these produce one of two fleeting effects, depending on whether or not the reader understands them: a feeling of satisfaction and perhaps a chuckle or an annoyed grunt. Many of his puns make fun of Freud: Lajoyeux, Froid, Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu. Once in a while Nabokov plays for higher stakes, as he does when he composes an anagram in Ada. The three main characters form three anagrams from "insect": "scient," "incest" and "nicest." It would be possible to organize around these four words a fairly perceptive analysis of this novel, since they introduce the love, nature, and philosophy themes, evaluate them and hint at the tone of the book.
Characteristically, Nabokov plays these games to discredit realism. For one thing, they distract the reader from character conflicts, social background and other elements that would lead him to a realistic interpretation of this novel. To put it another way, Nabokov's novels are to realistic novels as solving chess problems is to playing chess. In Speak, Memory Nabokov compares writing novels to composing chess problems, for in both the battle is not between the pieces on the board but between the person who placed them in position and the solver, who tries to see the pattern…. For another thing, these games provide the reader with a glimpse of a plane of existence more fascinatingly intricate than the mundane world. In the world of magic, the most appropriate metaphor for this plane, exotic, law-defying things happen and the magician has total control. Kinbote compares Shade to a conjurer, "perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, recombining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse"…. Nabokov makes the same comparison between art and magic in Speak, Memory, and compares nature to both…. (pp. 84-5)
Depending on his intent, he parodies or imitates a great number of genres: in Lolita, the case study, the novel of the double, detective stories and pornography; in Pale Fire, the critical edition; and in Ada, letters, essays and the drama. He uses other genres most impressively in Pale Fire, because his use is probably original and because he keeps it up for the entire book. In it, mere parody soon gives way to creative imitation, and he invents a new hybrid form for future novelists. (p. 85)
Nabokov manipulates genres to attack realism, thereby again exemplifying the Literature of Exhaustion. His most daring imitation of forms—imitating a critical edition in Pale Fire and turning philosophy into a novel in Ada—imply that the form of the novel has indeed been exhausted and that novels, if they are to be written at all, must now be written in other guises.
Nabokov most frequently develops the theme of time, and of course he does not accept the conventional notions of chronological and chronometric time that form the underpinnings of realistic fiction. Rather, he redefines time; in Ada, which contains his most significant development of this theme, he yearns to organize time for nonrealistic writers. To understand more fully the theme of time in Ada, it probably would be best to double back quickly to its appearance in Lolita and Pale Fire. The opening of Lolita seems to imply that Humbert desperately pursues his nymphet in order to recreate the timeless past of his childhood by recreating Annabel in Lolita…. He tries to achieve timelessness first through his imaginative transformation of Lolita from a rather barbarous little girl into an icon, from pupa to butterfly. Thus, he accomplishes a watered-down version of an artistic transformation; but he also achieves the latter by narrating the book. In other words, he accomplishes two metamorphoses: changing Lolita from pupa to butterfly and changing the story of his first transformation from raw subject matter into art.
John Shade in Pale Fire also seeks timelessness, but his motives need to be examined; in fact, he insists on having them examined. Afraid that his fragile heart will give out, he tries in two ways to escape time. First, he strives to attain an eternal afterlife, a task at which he will probably fail, as indicated by his pathetic attempt to check his conception of eternity with someone else who seems to have the same conception. A long trip and a meeting with this other person end in disappointment when he learns that their apparent agreement resulted from a typographical error. His other method, creating poetry, has more promise, but, it, too, probably will not work for him. His kind of art, autobiographical poetry, does not lift him out of the stream of time; it thrusts him back into it. Furthermore, his motive taints his creative work because it turns that work to a nonaesthetic purpose. (pp. 87-8)
Nabokov describes a lost timeless realm more fully in Ada than he does in Lolita. Ardis Hall exists outside of time, which the comparisons of it with Eden indicate. In the biblical version of an atemporal realm the onset of sexual awareness begins the time sequence, forcing Adam and Eve, following a burning brand, to leave their paradise of timelessness. The opposite happens in Ada, because the first sex act brings on a kind of timelessness for Van and Ada by making them invincible to mundane ravages like those of time. And the fire, a burning barn, conveniently removes possible spectators so that the two children can enjoy each other. They even in a sense escape God, because in Ada he is Log, the record of time….
One can defeat time also by turning away from the future to the past. If he can recapture the past and link it with the present, he can perceive time with perfect clarity and give the present moment the richest possible texture. Van accomplishes this, or has it accomplished for him, when Ada calls him after they had lost contact with each other for many years…. She is the past he has sought, not, as Humbert sought Annabel, in the guise of another or represented by someone whose reality he denies, but for herself and as she really is. He loves Ada in a way both aesthetically more sophisticated and emotionally more meaningful than Humbert loves Lolita. (p. 89)
Nabokov presents his theory of time in bits and pieces throughout his work, mainly in Ada, but when he reassembles it, it proves to be logical and of great use to a novelist. First, he assumes that the proper goal of an artist is to create timelessness; the realists err in thinking that they should recreate time by imitating real, or at least plausible, actions. He, but not the realists, can accomplish his goal because, although the intervals between events exist in time, events are timeless, if they have texture. If an artist adds texture to events, he will add vitality and meaning to them by shaping them aesthetically, putting them into patterns and describing them in all their complexity. Before he can add texture to a present event, it slips into the past, so he must call it up by means of memory, which connects past and present. Memory enables the imagination to work on the event and give it texture. An artist can easily make this retrieval, for the available past consists of images, the perfect raw material for the creative imagination. (p. 90)
Nabokov works much less with the theme of space than he does with the theme of time. He brings it into his books occasionally, however, to show that commonsense ideas are mistaken. He creates a purely imaginative country, Zembla, in Pale Fire to attack space, but only mildly. Kinbote, Zembla's creator, uses an old strategy, merely adding facts so that Zembla resembles Slavic countries closely enough to make this invention seem almost realistic like, say, Hardy's Wessex. Nabokov sets Lolita in a painfully familiar America and conventionally uses the spatial setting in this novel. Only in Ada does he make a determined effort to disrupt his readers' ideas about space. On Terra countries of our world combine and mix in what appears to be an émigrée's view of geography. For example, Kaluga's waters are near Ladore, which from other references like Bryant's Castle (Chillon) can be recognized as equivalent to Lake Geneva, on which Nabokov now lives. But its sound associates it with two other places in the author's life, Lake Cayuga—the waters of which are mentioned in the song of Cornell University, where he taught—and Luga, a town south of the Nabokov estate in Russia. This shuffling of space contributes less to the novel than does the transformation of ordinary space into artistic space by means of dozens of references to painters and descriptions of scenes as if they were paintings. These last two techniques are analogous to his transformation of ordinary time into artistic time. (pp. 93-4)
Nabokov does not propose that life is a dream. He has some trouble developing this theme, because he has to fend off the Freudians with one hand so he has only one hand left to delineate his own theory of dreams. In Transparent Things he makes fun of Freudian psychology in a long section about dreams. He handles this subject most cogently in a brief passage in Ada…. There he answers Freud by claiming that the improbabilities in dreams have little significance; they merely indicate that a person's mind works less rationally when he dreams than it does when he is awake. Nabokov also, in the person of Van, denies dream symbolism as well as other kinds of symbolism and will admit the validity only of metaphors. On the positive side, Van says that the two most interesting kinds of dreams are the erotic and the professional. Again contra Freud, he sees nothing remarkable in dreaming about the sexual aspects of women who interest him. His professional dreams mix his roles of writer and dreamer; for example, phrases he has recently composed influence his dreams. This last notion is the closest Nabokov gets to Borges's position, but this analogy between art and dream differs a good deal from the other writer's extensive claims. (p. 100)
Because of its pervasiveness in Nabokov's work, another theme of the Literature of Exhaustion is difficult to isolate and describe. Nabokov argues again and again that reality is purely linguistic. His hundreds of puns and other bits of verbal magic call attention to language as language instead of letting it be a transparent medium through which a reader sees action. Baroque passages—most notably the beginning of Ada—have the same effect…. In Pale Fire he clearly transposes the names of two proponents of the heroic couplet, making Wordsmith and Goldsworth, but this trick is more complicated. Nabokov hides a moral there, too: the worker with words is worth gold. Humbert's cry "I have only words to play with" makes a fine summary of Nabokov's attitude on this subject—if one removes the "only," for, just perhaps, words are everything.
Critics have almost sufficiently analyzed the crucial theme of metamorphosis. It appears most prominently in Lolita. The butterfly imagery in this novel and elsewhere is the most interesting example…. If anyone has written a modern version of Ovid's Metamorphoses it is Nabokov, and he has done it for an involuted purpose: to argue against the world view of the realists. If the world continually changes guises, or can be made to do so by a writer of the Literature of Exhaustion, a realist cannot describe it, much less explain it. It will take an equally Protean art to explain it, an art that, with puns and other verbal and technical tricks, transforms itself constantly before the eyes of the reader. The brightly colored kaleidoscopic world of Nabokov's fiction does exactly that.
This theme of transformation pervades his work and subsumes two other themes…. One is process; a world full of transforming objects always changes. The theme of opposites appears somewhat more independently in Nabokov's works, but often these opposites merge, like the artistic Van and the scientific Ada, in incest, or one of the opposites changes into the other, and this theme fades away. In either case the pairs of opposites in his work do not remain stable, which chips away at another cornerstone of realism because it contradicts one of realism's most important modes of thought: dialectics.
Besides artist-layman and realist-nonrealist, Nabokov also contrasts adult and childlike modes of thought. The splendor of the child's dreamlike world more closely resembles the artist's world and is thus superior to adult thought. The most idyllic scenes in Ada appear early in the book and describe Van and Ada's childhood at Ardis Hall. Despite their precocity, they see things then through the eyes of children. They try to prolong this existence, and after they, inevitably, lose it, they try to recapture it. Humbert, too, wants to return to his childhood. (pp. 101-03)
Nabokov, however, does not yearn for childhood in itself. Rather, he wants the opportunity to remember a past time, indeed a past that he did not completely understand when he experienced it. Such malleable material attracts an artist. Even Humbert recognizes this. He admits that during his childhood Annabel was not a nymphet; she became one only after twenty-nine years of remembering have shaped his recollection of her…. Remembrance of things past is also one of the central experiences in Nabokov's own life. Neither the financial nor political implications of the Russian Revolution make that event disastrous for him. He mourns the premature ending of his childhood. However, he has learned to turn this misfortune into an advantage. In Speak, Memory he says, "the nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes"…. His phrasing is significant, for he says that he cherishes his sense of childhood. "Cherishing" is of course positive, and his sense of his childhood, not that childhood itself, attracts him….
Sex, like childhood, provides an attractive escape from the everyday existence in which realists immerse themselves. To prove this Nabokov must refute the man who has preempted the topic and enraged him: Freud. Nabokov detests Freud mainly for arguing that not an artist but something else, such as sex, causes art. In Lolita he bluntly counters Freud: "sex is but the ancilla of art"…. He presents as evidence this book itself, proof, first, that art can subordinate sex to its own purposes, using it for instance to develop themes like memory and metamorphosis. Lolita also demonstrates that an artist, if he has enough skill, can describe sexual eccentricities or any other seemingly taboo subject so as to make them at least acceptable to a reader, and perhaps even make the reader see beauty in the descriptions of them. He also uses other methods to make sexual peculiarities acceptable in a novel. For example, he makes them symbolic in order to deflect attention from the sex itself to its meaning in the book…. He uses this method with both Kinbote's homosexuality and Humbert's nymphetomania. Both characters are aliens, Europeans in America, and their sexual anomalies, among other things, symbolize the alien's loneliness. They desire sexual objects that they have trouble attaining, thus isolating themselves, just as the alien inevitably lives to some extent in isolation. (pp. 103-04)
In Ada sex, as the combination of art and science and the attainment of timelessness, is truly real, and therefore unlike the false reality of the realists. Van believes that "in his love-making with Ada he discovered the pang,… the agony of supreme 'reality.' Reality, better say, lost the quotes it wore like claws"…. Nabokov treats sex more frankly in Ada than he does in Lolita, but he still uses it as a metaphor. He thus develops this staple theme of realistic fiction in a way consistent with his other themes and techniques. (p. 105)
Nabokov has repeatedly scoffed at symbolic interpretations of his work, claiming that he merely describes. He of course is not as rigorous about this as he claims; at least one can convincingly attach symbolic meanings to some of his images. In the three novels that belong to the Literature of Exhaustion he shares one recurrent image, the mirror, with Borges, but he rarely uses circles and labyrinths. Instead of the latter two, his other dominant image is the butterfly.
The meanings of his mirror imagery change from book to book. Although some of the many mirrors in Lolita have no symbolic meaning, they appear in crucial passages to add an air of strangeness and thereby to make the action seem even more important. Quilty's house is full of mirrors, the most eerie ones being in one room that contains little else except a polar bear rug…. The hotel room in which Humbert and Lolita first sleep together has an incredible number of mirrors: "there was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet door with mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror"…. Thus, in Lolita Nabokov uses a typical symbol of the Literature of Exhaustion but does not attach to it meanings characteristic of that literature; in fact he attaches almost no meaning at all to it.
By the time he wrote Pale Fire he had concluded that mirrors copy reality either accurately or falsely and, as a non-realist, he had begun to prefer inaccurate copying. (p. 106)
The accurate mirror of realism appears also in Ada. In one instance a character uses it not to confuse but to cheat at cards. However, Van wins the game because his sleight of hand tricks are the work of an illusionist and thus superior to any realistic tricks with mirrors. (p. 107)
In Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada Nabokov develops the butterfly image even more extensively than the mirror image. In Lolita this image is completely positive, appearing in the tennis scene as a sign of Humbert's transformation of Lolita into an exquisite creature of his imagination. It also appears throughout this book in scattered allusions to the species of butterfly the female of which Nabokov discovered…. (p. 108)
In Pale Fire Nabokov attacks as too naive complete faith in the power of the imagination. Shade early in the novel can, like Humbert, create a figurative butterfly. The Vanessa he mentions is both a butterfly (the Red Admirable) and a beloved woman and subject of literature (Swift's Vanessa), and he equates her with his wife Sybil. But butterflies have an important quality, their patterns, in addition to their metamorphoses and their beauty. These patterns are negative because Shade finds, rather than creates, them. The completed pattern of his death is signalled by the appearance of a butterfly, appropriately another Vanessa. Kinbote's real name, Botkin, is once compared to "botfly," which sounds like "butterfly" but is a parasite, not a beautiful transformed creature. Kinbote could be like a butterfly, because in his fantasy of Zembla he has achieved a metamorphosis, but in order to tell his story he has to be parasitic on Shade's poem. In Pale Fire Nabokov suggests that butterflies are good insofar as they suggest metamorphosis, bad insofar as they suggest a pattern found in the real world instead of an invented pattern.
In Ada Nabokov even doubts the value of metamorphosis, as he shows by the way he uses the butterfly image. Ada likes larvae, insects that have not undergone metamorphosis, and she once goes so far as to kill a butterfly that has just metamorphosed…. She apparently feels that any change will be for the worse. She is twelve when she meets Van, the same age that Lolita was when Humbert met her, but Ada has already matured and she attracts Van; she needs no change…. The butterfly images in Ada suggest that one cannot depend on being happy with the changes he can make, even artistic ones, if he uses the real world as raw material. It follows from this idea that it may be better for the artist to turn his back on reality and create self-enclosed work.
Nabokov's characterization creates just such a self-enclosed artistic domain. All his major characters in these three books are readers or writers or both. Humbert writes his memoirs, which comprise Lolita; Lolita fits less neatly into these categories than the other characters, but Humbert does occasionally mention what she reads, and he lists the books he buys for her. Kinbote writes the notes and Shade the poem in Pale Fire, and the poem contains many allusions to Shade's reading. Van and Ada collaborate to write Ada, with the former doing most of the work, and a reader learns about many of the prodigious number of books they read. (pp. 108-09)
The increasing importance of the love theme in Nabokov's recent work, culminating in its manifestation in Ada, indicates that he may be moving away from the more purely artistic themes of the Literature of Exhaustion. Even if he does return to more conventional themes—such as love—however, he will not develop them realistically, for that would be to renounce both his own past work and his connection with the literary movement described here…. [Nabokov] does not use the artistically dangerous strategy of repetition to refute time and has shown some signs in Ada and Transparent Things of moving beyond the Literature of Exhaustion. (p. 116)
After dealing with these general matters one can consider his contributions to various genres. It would take a critic fluent in Russian to evaluate his poetry in that language. The English poem he creates for Shade is better than competent; its quality has usually been rated too low. But he does not qualify as a major poet. Speak, Memory belongs in the forefront of twentieth century autobiography, partly for his original use of imagery in it and partly for its haunting evocation of a fascinating life. Judging from his obiter dicta on other writers and reports of his Cornell lectures, the book that will be made from these lectures could very well establish him as an important critic. His sharp eye and acid wit will certainly make him at least an interesting critic. His translation of Eugene Onegin is controversial but fascinating. Despite his theory that translations should be crabbed, much of his verse translation has real grace, and its notes are intriguing.
His novels represent his major work. Among the ones I have covered Lolita and Pale Fire are great, both for the daring originality of their conceptions—which advance the genre of the novel, especially in the case of the latter—and for the meticulous way Nabokov realizes these conceptions. Ada is also impressively conceived, but it falls short of the other two because of the high price paid for the point that its early thick style makes. According to information current about his projects there will be much, much more from him, for which readers can be hopeful.
If one considers all these works together, Nabokov belongs among the major living writers. His ability to use some of the techniques and themes of the Literature of Exhaustion without weakening the other aspects of his work demonstrates his literary ability. (pp. 116-17)
John Stark, "Vladimir Nabokov," in his The Literature of Exhaustion (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1974, pp. 62-117.
Nabokov has changed the adage about old age being a time for reflection into a private bad joke—he's as narcissistic as any adolescent studying the arrangement of mirrors for a portrait of the artist. He's also the greatest living expert on how to weave the webs that join books together, making a gossamer safety net of allusion. All he has to do is pull a string, and the whole structure shivers enticingly, while the author reclines, plump and possibly venomous, in his silken hammock at the centre. In short, the tensile strength of his oeuvre is there in each thing he does (however unfair that may seem, a lot of things about him are unfair) and imparts to even his gestures of languor a grand feel of having energy to spare. (p. 61)
One of Nabokov's most spectacular skills (why he makes re-readers of readers) is the way he manages to inveigle you into complicity with his heroes' struggles to design the world according to their own grandiose, eccentric specifications. And Vadim [in Look at the Harlequins!] is no exception: his creative frenzy may produce lousy novels, but the inside story of its working is altogether fascinating….
Death is the theme,… as it has been in Ada and Transparent Things—death's humiliations, and conversely its seductive closeness to certain recherché authorial tricks involving levitation and making yourself seem to disappear. Nabokov's tone about the great leveller is one of bold romantic irony, insidious, agile and elevated like, say, Shelley in 'The Sensitive Plant'—'It is a modest creed, and yet / Pleasant if one considers it. / To own that death itself must be / Like all the rest, a mockery.' There's no substantial solace to be had, only the bitter pleasure of a defiant, snobbish gesture: '"Let us not anticipate," as the condemned man said when rejecting the filthy old blindfold.'
What he's 'up to' nowadays (one always has the rare confidence with Nabokov that he's bound to be up to something) is plugging the leaks, building around his fiction an ever more dense and elaborate maze designed to baffle would-be annotators—to wear them out and keep them busy. Look at the Harlequins! is a preemptive strike, a preemptive parody of scavenging biographers and bibliographers, a portrait of the artist he is not. It stands halfway between his memoir, Speak, Memory (which deliberately invoked the Muse), and his invented fictions. There is a snug gap in one's bookshelf ready and waiting. (p. 62)
Lorna Sage in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd. 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), April, 1975.
There are, very broadly, three types of Nabokov novel: the satires, which are tours de force of ingenious (Pale Fire, Bend Sinister, Invitation to a Beheading); the black farces, which are gloating treatments of murder, obsession and perverse love (Despair, Lolita, Laughter in the Dark); and the histories, which are oblique recreations of individual lives (Pnin, Ada, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight). The new novel is fundamentally a history—it calls itself the 'memoir' of one Vadim Vadimovich—but it serves also as a kind of Nabokov anthology, a recapitulation of his standard situations and themes, a scrapbook of his habitual voices and moods. Nabokov being Nabokov, the formula would seem to be unimprovable; and yet Look at the Harlequin's is a forlorn and ragged book.
A shrewdly observed life, Nabokov suggested in his Eugene Onegin Commentary, can often disclose an artistically satisfying pattern. Well, Vadim's life, as here described, has about as much shape as most lives have—i.e., not much…. This is … the third novel running that Nabokov has attempted to weld together with a time-space conundrum: it is an image of whatever you want it to be an image of; it is also very boring to have to read about.
Just as Ada (1969) contained a portrait of the larval Vladimir and Transparent Things (1972) contained a cameo of the old Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! is an appreciative review of the novelist's middle years. Typically, Nabokov both invites and dares the reader to see the book as tricksy autobiography: his own life and works are pseudonymously saluted throughout (Vadim's brother-in-law calls him 'MacNab'; his The Red Top Hat is Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading), and you're evidently meant to have a good time assembling these clues—always bearing in mind, of course, Nabokov's stylish warning in Speak, Memory:
I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.
Thus we have the twin delights of consenting to Nabokov's self-indulgence and hearing him chuckle about what dunces he has made of us for doing so.
And this is all right. You don't read Nabokov for reassurance—or for any of the 'human interest' perks he derided so expertly in Strong Opinions. There is only one incentive to turn his pages: to get more of his sentences. The really unnerving deficiency of Look at the Harlequins! is the crudity of much of its prose. One expects some convolution and strain in Nabokov, but one doesn't reckon on coarse reiteration ('what shall never be ferreted out by a matter-of-fact, father-of-muck, mucking biograffitist'), charmless familiarity ('something to do with a roll of coins, capitalistic metaphor, eh, Marxy?') and the dud Georgianisms he himself chastised in Speak, Memory ('I must have hung for a little while longer … before ending supine on the intangible soil'). In the book's 250-odd pages I found only four passages that were genuinely haunting and beautiful; in an earlier Nabokov it would be hard to find as many that were not.
Such a falling-off has a peculiar pathos in a writer whom we have come to think of as our greatest stylist—and by 'style' I mean more than mere surface fizz: after all, you can write only as well as you can think. The variety, force and richness of Nabokov's perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction. To read him in full flight is to experience stimulation that is at once intellectual, imaginative and aesthetic, the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer. Confronted with such gifts of expression, it's in some way a relief that Nabokov can neither characterise, pace nor construct. The lesson of Look at the Harlequins! is one we have been getting ready to learn all along: if the prose isn't alive, nothing else is. (pp. 555-56)
Martin Amis, "Out of Style," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 25, 1975, pp. 555-56.
Look at the Harlequins! is not a capstone novel, though it provides a summing up, a recapitulation in rearranged echoes and guises, of all the wonders that have preceded it. Our word-magus is still at his worldly best, but he is more than ever writing in this book for himself and for his proven followers. As he has said more than once in interviews, Nabokov writes for himself "in multiplicate." If one is willing to become a Little Nabokov, to enter the author's Fabergé world as a ready acolyte, a holder of mirrors, the benefits are considerable. I know of few more entertaining productions than Lolita or Pale Fire, both masterpieces in anyone's gathering of major twentieth-century novels. Those two novels are the apogee of the master's craft, the best, clearest presentations of his magical construct. With the mammoth Ada (= art, artifice, ardis, ardor, and whatever other reflective facets might be brought to bear to expand the possibilities of language beyond its common limitations) that constructed world became more convoluted, more dependent on what was shown before, less concerned with the responses or imaginings of the unwashed. So it is with high art turned inward. Ada might in fact serve as the apotheosis of self-concerned art, for even while Nabokov's Van Veen exhibits all the guilt of vanity, so finally does our magician reveal in himself the flaws of the solipsism that he has so assiduously parodied.
It would be easy—as is demonstrated by Nabokov's numerous admiring critics, some of them painfully awestruck—to back off from recognizing the ultimate diminution of solipsism. It is easy, too easy, to make that other turn in the lane, to imagine roundabout that through minute self-examination the final leap to recognition can be made. These novels from beginning to end are involved with the solipsist artist and his work, to a fine degree; and in this manner of presentation Nabokov is perhaps exceeded only by Joyce. (p. 714)
Nabokov has little use for foolish Freudians (as well he might not) or for the bureaucratic mind in any coloration, and he loves the fritillaries, the hovercraft, only when they feed as critics or sycophants on delectables that he has deliberately laid before them. Thus examination except by the initiate is unwelcome though obviously necessary. Look at the Harlequins! is not a very good novel, though it is remarkable enough; it represents too clearly the decline first recognized with the publication of Ada. American critics, except for those bent on building an academic career with the bones of Nabokov, have been too generous, just as they have been with literary politicos like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Politics has, or ought to have, as Nabokov would be only too ready to say, nothing to do with real art, but surely politics has had much to do with Nabokov's own gentle reception in this country and in other western clubs. No matter, that will all sift out.
Look at the Harlequins! is laden with all the quirks and keys we have come to identify with Nabokov, the word-play, the parodic narrator, the vast allusion, the dancing doubles, the mirrors, the godlike intrusive Creator. Ever since we were willingly seduced by Lolita to wander with Humbert in his blue Melmoth the dreamy roads of America, enchanted searchers all, ever since we (some of us) recognized the real beauty of Shade's poem of the shadow of the waxwing, of its fluff, we have been beset by romance. Love's generosity led us to let the old man off with triple alliterations as dull and pointless as the one in this sentence, obfuscations that ruin the texture that is all important if Nabokov's art is indeed to fly on. Nabokov demands a careful reader, a poetic reader, but the chase that was such fun in Lolita and Pale Fire, the enchanted hunt turned ever more inward in Ada, becomes even more involuted in LATH (Nabokov's acronymic punning on his own latest title).
In this novel within a novel we are treated to recollections of "the life or at least fame" of the "three or four" marriages (or perhaps these unions are merely emblematic of stages of the artist's development) of Vadim Vadimovich, Nabokov's "author," in his mellow, perhaps overmellow, age. We see this author not far from death, from his final transition, surrounded by his mirror creatures, his "three or four successive wives," his many novels, each title reflecting one of Nabokov's own (A Kingdom by the Sea doubles for, you guessed it, Lolita, Ardis for Ada, and so forth). Thus we have books within a book, titles within titles, words and sounds within words. As Vadim's invented great-aunt puts it, "Words are harlequins." "Look at the harlequins." (pp. 714-15)
Small links, jokes, remembrances, but most of the fun is gone. The quick humor, the kaleidoscopic wordplay, the punctured pomposities of Humbert and Kinbote, the verbal delights that made the American novels Lolita and Pale Fire such a reward are only shadows here. (pp. 715-16)
Hardly a shy violet, Nabokov has placed vanity and the ultimate terrors of solipsism among his major literary subjects, whether showing them in Krug's pride of superiority in Bend Sinister, weaving their involved strands completely through Ada, or presenting them in the partial or baiting self-parody of Look at the Harlequins!. In his own criticism, as with his own public self-laudation, Nabokov will never play second lead, will never allow himself to become a shadow to another or to his own art; the magus is inevitably o'erweening in his presence though in his public pronouncements he usually maintains a disarming playfulness. His self-assumed, and genuine, superiority is seldom so apparent as in his interviews and his own critical essays, many of them collected in Strong Opinions. For his interviews Nabokov, pleading inability to improvise, requires that a list of questions be submitted to him in advance; if the interviewer insists on the "bogus informality" of a visit, Nabokov then reads the responses from cards. No real shyness is involved in this procedure, only the unflagging insistence that all of the artist's words, even fragmentary interviews, be honed to a fineness. In the decade of interviews assembled here Nabokov is thus again able to play Prospero, even with the spoken word, to the Calibans of communication. With verbal virtuosity, he invariably shows their questions to be duller than mud, or makes them seem so. And the same questions are put forward repeatedly, most amusingly when the interviewers, particularly the British, try time and again to extract some display of dislike and disdain for his adopted America. Nabokov is doggedly protective of his golden goose.
Two-thirds of Strong Opinions consists of these highly aphoristic simulated interviews, as carefully prepared as any manuscript to present the author's thought-out responses to the tumult that rages beyond his tightly ordered world. The other third of the book is made up of letters to editors, all fragments of political or literary fracases, and several essays classified as "articles" that are really major battles in the expansion (I suppose it is that) of Nabokov's sizable literary empire. The pounding of the opposition is at times as heavy as a Russian winter, and as unrelenting. (pp. 718-19)
Kenneth Cherry, "Nabokov's Kingdom by the Sea," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Fall, 1975, pp. 712-20.
[A] novel written in a manifestly antirealist mode can still put us in touch with the nature of real forces at work in history. The book I have in mind is Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962), a novel that could well be the finest that has appeared in English since the beginning of the 60's. The celebrated intricacy of artifice in Pale Fire has been the subject of much solemn explication (including some of my own), but what saves the evident "brilliance" of the book from mere cleverness is that it illuminates the deeper perplexities of art operating in history….
At first thought, any serious connection with real history would seem quite implausible in this novel where all political events are the fantasies of a madman recessed within the structure of a poem by a fictitious poet…. All this delusional material is presented in one of the most elaborately patterned novels of recent decades, the narrative being a complex interweave of recurring images, colors, anagrammatic clues, and literary allusions. The political "reality" …, moreover, is ostentatiously of a comicopera variety….
Nevertheless, Pale Fire succeeds in creating an evocative sense of history as a scary but compelling arena in which different options for human enhancement or disfigurement, different levels of consciousness, are generated by shifting events and political systems, by the varying circumstances of individual and national culture. Nabokov keenly understands that there are, after all, qualitative differences between living in a totalitarian state,… and living under political systems where there is enough freedom of consciousness for the poet, the lover, the madman … to enjoy immense riches of inner experience even in the painful comedy and the bizarre contradictions of their wayward mental life. The fact that all the central events of the novel are patent inventions has the paradoxical effect of sharpening this ultimately political theme. (p. 50)
Pale Fire's absorbing fantasy of assassination … is devised to articulate a desperately serious political concern that has haunted the writer for most of his adult life: what validity beyond mere escapism does art possess, seemingly so fragile, futile, and finally impotent in the face of murderous history; and, conversely, what is the inner nature of the politics that systematically subverts and destroys every important value enhanced or fulfilled by art? The self-conscious fictional prism of Pale Fire manages to focus a vivid sense of history in which man is not universally vile but both abysmally vile and mysteriously splendid (Kinbote, the mad poet-commentator, is in his own odd way both), and so the fiction finally leads us … to ponder what it is about the varieties of historical experience that makes possible such contradictory extremes of destructiveness and creation. (pp. 50-1)
Robert Alter (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1975.
To my taste [Nabokov's] American novels are his best, with a fiercer frivolity and a cruelty more humane than in the fiction of his European decades. In America his almost impossible style encountered, after twenty years of hermetic exile, a subject as impossible as itself, ungainly with the same affluence. He rediscovered our monstrosity. His fascinatingly astigmatic stereopticon projected not only the landscape—the eerie arboreal suburbs, the grand emptinesses, the exotic and touchingly temporary junk of roadside America—but the wistful citizens of a violent society desperately oversold, in the absence of other connectives, on love. If the perceiver of John Shade and Charlotte Haze and Clare Quilty and the Waindell College that impinged on poor Pnin devotes the rest of his days to fond rummaging in the Russian attic of his mind, the loss is national, and sadder than Sputnik.
The latest memento confided to the care of Nabokov's American public is a revision of Speak, Memory, whose chapters were published one by one in (mostly) The New Yorker from 1948 to 1950 and assembled as Conclusive Evidence in 1951. As readers then already know, twelve of the fifteen chapters portray an aspect of the writer's happy boyhood as the eldest son of a St. Petersburg aristocrat, and the last three, more briefly but as enchantingly, sketch his rootless years in Cambridge, Berlin, and Paris. Nabokov has never written English better than in these reminiscences; never since has he written so sweetly. With tender precision and copious wit, exploiting a vocabulary and a sensibility enriched by the methodical pursuit of lepidoptera, inspired by an atheist's faith in the magic of simile and the sacredness of lost time, Nabokov makes of his past a brilliant icon—bejewelled, perspectiveless, untouchable. While there are frequent passages of Joycean trickiness, Proust presides in the metaphorical arabesques, the floral rhythms, and the immobilized surrender to memory. Proust, however, by fictionalizing Illiers into Combray, threw his childhood open to everyone; whereas the Nabokov memoir is narrowed by its implication that only an expatriate Russian, a well-born and intellectual Russian at that, can know nostalgia so exquisite.
The revisions, which a laborious collation with the 1951 edition has bared to my scrutiny, tend to narrow the memoir further. The author, back in Europe, has consulted with his sisters and cousins, who have chastened his imperfect recollections. Much new information about the Nabokov tribe, bristling with parenthetic dates and hyphenated alliances with the Prussian nobility, has been foisted off on Chapter Three; a tidy dry biography of his father now inaugurates Chapter Nine. (Compare, invidiously, the fabulous epic of filial admiration worked into his novel The Gift.) Elsewhere gardeners and dachshunds have been named, tutors sorted out, and apologies delivered to his previously suppressed brother Sergey. Some of the interpolations are welcome (the family tennis game in Chapter Two, the wooing of Tamara in Chapter Twelve, the differentiated drawing masters in Chapter Four); but sentences at times limp under their new load of accuracy and the ending of one vignette, "Mademoiselle O" (Chapter Five), is quite dulled by the gratuitous postscript of some recent personal history. The additions, and the addition of pleasant but imagination-cramping photographs, make the book more of a family album and slightly less of a miracle of impressionistic recall. (pp. 191-93)
John Updike, "Nabokov: Mnemosyne Chastened," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 191-93.
When a book fails to agree with a reader, it is either because the author has failed to realize his intentions or because his intentions are disagreeable. Since Vladimir Nabokov is, all in all, the best-equipped writer in the English-speaking world (of which he inhabits a personal promontory by the side of Lake Geneva), the opening chapters of his giant new novel, Ada, must be taken as intentionally repellent. His prose has never—not even in his haughty prefaces to works resurrected from the Russian, not even in Humbert Humbert's maddest flights—menaced a cowering reader with more bristling erudition, garlicky puns, bearish parentheses, and ogreish winks…. Ada is subtitled "Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle," and the central family matter, not easily grasped, concerns the marriage of the two Durmanov sisters, Marina and Aqua, to two men each called Walter D. Veen, first cousins differentiated by the nicknames Red (or Dan) and Demon. (p. 199)
The confusion of America (Estotiland) and Russia (Tartary) into one idyllic nation where everyone speaks French is, more than a joke upon Canada, a metaphor of personal history. Vain, venereal Van Veen verges on V.N.; Nabokov = Van + book. Ada (rhymes with Nevada) is ardor and art—but not, I think, the Americans for Democratic Action. She is also, in a dimension or two, Nabokov's wife Véra, his constant collaboratrice and the invariable dedicatee of his works. Ada's marginal comments on Van's manuscript, reproduced in print, are among the liveliest bits in the book, and offer an occasional check upon the author's rampaging genius. I suspect that many of the details in this novel double as personal communication between husband and wife; some of the bothersomely exact dates, for instance, must be, to use a favorite word of our author, "fatadic." I am certain that trilingual puns crowd and crawl … beneath the surface of this novel like wood lice under the bark of an old stump. Their patient explication, and the formal arrangement of the parallels and contraries that geometricize "our rambling romance," the hurried reviewer may confidently leave to the graduate student who … can spend many a pleasant and blameless hour unstitching the sequinned embroidery of Nabokov's five years' labor of love. He might begin with the prominently displayed anagram of "insect" ("incest," "nicest," "scient"), move on to the orchid-imitating butterflies and butterfly-imitating orchids, get his feet wet in the water imagery (Aqua, Marina, "A l'eau!" yourself), and then do something with "cruciform," which crops up in several surprising connections, such as mounted moths, the hero's feces, and the arrangement of a mature woman's four patches of hair. Indeed, this book is Nabokov's most religious—his Testament as well as his Tempest—and manages several oblique squints at the Christian religion, a previous sketch of a structured supernature. Ada is the feminine form of the Russian "Ad," for Hades or Hell, and there is a Van in Nirvana and Heaven, for instance. (pp. 200-01)
In a landscape of "Ladore, Ladoga, Laguna, Lugano, and Luga," everything melts into foolery. I confess to a prejudice: fiction is earthbound, and while in decency the names of small towns and middling cities must be faked, metropolises and nations are unique and should be given their own names or none. I did not even like it when Nabokov, in Pale Fire, gave New York State the preëmpted appellation of Appalachia. He is, among other titles to our love, the foremost poet of Earth's geography…. His vision and flair are themselves so supermundane that to apply them to a fairyland is to put icing on icing. There is nothing in the landscapes of Ada to rank with the Russian scenery of Speak, Memory or the trans-American hegira of Lolita and Humbert Humbert.
As with place names, so with face names; we never get over the playful twinning of Aqua and Marina, Demon and Dan, and though Aqua's madness spins a few beautiful pages and Demon makes some noises approximating those of a flesh-and-blood father, the four remain animated anagrams, symmetrical appendages that want to be characters. To be sure, we are in a world of chrysalis and metamorphosis; as in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, the cardboard flats and gauze trappings collapse, and the author/hero, heavy with death, lumbers toward the lip of the stage. This does happen, and the last pages of Ada are the best, and rank with Nabokov's best, but to get to them we traverse too wide a waste of facetious, airy, side-slipped semi-reality. (p. 202)
Is art a game? Nabokov stakes his career on it, and there exist enterprising young critics who, in replacing Proust, Joyce, and Mann with the alliterative new trinity of Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov, imply that these wonderful old fellows make fine airtight boxes, like five-foot plastic cubes in a Minimal Art show, all inner reflection and shimmer, perfectly self-contained, detached from even the language of their composition. I think not. Art is part game, part grim erotic tussle with Things As They Are; the boxes must have holes where reality can look out and readers can look in. Beckett shows us the depraved rudiments of our mortal existence; Borges opens a window on the desolation of history's maze and the tang of heroism that blows off the Argentine plain. And Ada, though aspiring to "an art now become pure and abstract, and therefore genuine," is full of holes, stretches and pages and phrases whose life derives from life. (p. 208)
Well, a man's religious life is the last province of privacy these days, but it is clear from Ada and other evidences that Nabokov is a mystic…. Nabokov has made a church for himself out of fanatic pedantry; the thousand pages of his Onegin footnotes are a cathedralic structure where even the capitals that face the wall are painstakingly carved…. His fiction, from its punning prose and its twinning of characters to the elegance of each tale's deceptive design, represents his boyhood's revelation of art-for-art's-sake within Nature. If Nature is an artifact, however, there must be, if not an Artist, at least a kind of raw reality beneath or behind it, and the most daring and distressing quality of his novels is their attempt to rub themselves bare, to display their own vestments of artifice and then to remove them. Hence the recurrent device of the uncompleted, imperfect manuscript; this text embodies not only Ada's marginal notes but various false paragraph starts and editor's bracketed notes of the type frequent in proof sheets…. In Pale Fire, John Shade showed a surprisingly literal interest in the afterlife; in Ada, Nabokov has sought to construct, with his Hades and Nirvana, an Otherlife. Art begins with magic. Though Nabokov operates, it seems to me, without the sanctions, the charity and humility, that make a priest, he lays claim to the more ancient title of magician. (pp. 209-11)
John Updike, "Van Loves Ada, Ada Loves Van," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 199-211.
Confessions: I have never understood how they saw the woman in half. Any willful child can dumbfound me with card tricks learned from the back of a comic book. Mystery novelists find in me their ideal gull, obligingly misled by the fishiest red herring. In calculus, I never grasped the infinitesimal but utile distinction between dt and Δt. And I do not understand Vladimir Nabokov's new novel, Transparent Things. This is a confession, not a complaint; the world abounds in excellent apparatuses, from automobile engines to digestive tracts, resistant to my understanding. So be it. I am grateful. I am grateful that Nabokov, at an age when most writers are content to rearrange their medals and bank their anthology royalties, rides his old hobbyhorses with such tenacious mount and such jubilant tallyhos. A new book by him, any new book by him, serves as reminder that art is a holiday, however grim workdays grow in the sweatshops of reality. His exuberance is catching, as readers of this hyperbole-pocked paragraph can at a glance diagnose. Well, to work. (p. 211)
Transparent Things's hero, Hugh Person, is an editor of, among other authors, one "R." (a mirroring of the Russian R, ya, meaning "I"), who, though more corpulent and less uxorious than Nabokov himself, does live in Switzerland, composes "surrealistic novels of the poetic sort," and regards the rest of the world as a grotesquely clumsy siege upon his artistic integrity…. Nabokov's is really an amorous style—foreplay in the guise of horseplay. It yearns to clasp diaphanous exactitude into its hairy arms. To convey a child's nocturnal unease, it can toss off the looming metaphor "Night is always a giant"; or with tender euphonic trippings it can limn a woman's facial expression during intercourse as "the never deceived expectancy of the dazed ecstasy that gradually idiotized her dear features." Such a yen to evoke, to use the full spectrum latent in the dictionary, would teach us how to read again. If not always a comfortable, it is surely a commendable impulse.
Less so, perhaps, the murderous impulse visible through the workings of Transparent Things. Since the book is something of a thriller, its plot should be left its secrets; but, needless to say, almost no character, major or minor, survives its last turn. Strangulation, conflagration, embolism, cancer—these are some of the methods employed. Characters who barely appear onstage have their offstage demises dutifully reported…. (p. 212)
[Another] impulse is to formulate, at the highest level of intelligence and subtlety, some statement about space/time, death, and being. (p. 213)
The central impulse behind the novel remains obscure. At first, it seems that the "transparency" of things refers to their dimension in time—an ordinary pencil found in a drawer is taken back to its birth as a rod of agglutinated graphite and a splinter buried in the heart of a pine tree. Then it seems that the transparency has to do with an artful overlapping of beds, bureaus, carpets catching a slant of sunshine, shuttlecocks, dogs, and so on, as Hugh Person returns several times, between the ages of eight and forty, to the Swiss village of Trux. Other things are transparent, such as book titles "that shone through the book like a watermark," and a loved one "whose image was stamped on the eye of his mind and shone through the show at various levels." But the culminating image of transparency ("the incandescence of a book or a box grown completely transparent and hollow"), though the author presents it as if it were the crown of his life's thought and passion, arrives as the answer to a conundrum that has not been posed. Alas, what we remember of Transparent Things are its agreeable opacities: the busy clots of choice adjectives ("frail, lax, merry America"), the erotic peculiarities of Person's charming and difficult wife, Armande (she likes to make love as fully dressed as possible, while maintaining a flow of cocktail chatter), the delicious, glacial scene of a ski resort…. We close the book guiltily, having licked the sugar coating but avoided, somehow, swallowing the pill.
If an artistic life so variously productive, so self-assured, so hermetically satisfactory to its perpetrator could be said to have a failing, Nabokov has failed to get himself taken seriously enough. A sad shadow of modesty touches this narrative…. [The] book abounds, indeed, in wry self-portraits…. Nabokov's own tricky legerity discourages solemn praise; he makes his acolytes and exegetes seem ridiculous as they compile their check lists of puns and chase his butterfly allusions. His aesthetic of gravity-fooling confronts us with a fiction that purposely undervalues its own humanistic content, that openly scorns the psychology and sociology that might bring with them an unfoolable gravity. Joyce also loved puns, and Proust was as lopsided an emotional monster as Humbert Humbert. But these older writers did submit their logomachy and their maimed private lives to a kind of historical commonalty; the Europe of the epics and the cathedrals spoke through them. The impression created by Nabokov's works in Russian, I am told, differs from that given by his spectacular works in English; he can be compared to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in a way in which he cannot be compared with Thoreau and Twain. In his post-Lolita novels, especially, he seems more illusionist than seer. Though he offers us sensations never before verbally induced, and performs stunts that lift him right off the page, we are more amused than convinced. The failing may be ours; we are not ready, we are too dull of ear, too slow of eye, too much in love with the stubborn muteness of the earth to read the meaning behind his magic. He mutters from his sky, this comical comet, and hints, through his masks, of "a new bible." His measure is that we hope for nothing less from him. (pp. 214-15)
John Updike, "The Translucing of Hugh Person," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 211-15.
Your invitation to Vladimir Nabokov's birthday party reaches me in England, and it was in England, nearly fifteen years ago, in Oxford, that I first read this great man…. [It] has been one of the steadier pleasures of the fifteen years since to catch up on the considerable amount of Nabokov then in English and to keep up with the ample installments of reincarnated Russian and newly spawned American…. Though I may have nodded here and there among the two volumes of notes to Onegin, I have not knowingly missed any of the rest; for Nabokov is never lazy, never ungenerous with his jewels and flourishes, and his oeuvre is of sufficient majesty to afford interesting perspectives even from the closets and back hallways. I have expressed in print my opinion that he is now an American writer and the best living; I have also expressed my doubt that his aesthetic models—chess puzzles and protective colorations in lepidoptera—can be very helpful ideals for the rest of us. His importance for me as a writer has been his holding high, in an age when the phrase "artistic integrity" has a somewhat paradoxical if not reactionary ring, the stony image of his self-sufficiency: perverse he can be, but not abject; prankish but not hasty; sterile but not impotent. Even the least warming aspects of his image—the implacable hatreds, the reflexive contempt—testify, like fortress walls, to the reality of the siege this strange century lays against our privacy and pride.
As a reader, I want to register my impression that Nabokov does not (as Philip Toynbee, and other critics, have claimed) lack heart. Speak, Memory and Lolita fairly bulge with heart, and even the less ingratiating works, such as King, Queen, Knave, show, in the interstices of their rigorous designs, a plenitude of human understanding. The ability to animate into memorability minor, disagreeable characters bespeaks a kind of love. The little prostitute that Humbert Humbert recalls undressing herself so quickly, the fatally homely daughter of John Shade, the intolerably pretentious and sloppy-minded woman whom Pnin undyingly loves, the German street figures in The Gift, the extras momentarily on-screen in the American novels—all make a nick in the mind. Even characters Nabokov himself was plainly prejudiced against, like the toadlike heroine of King, Queen, Knave, linger vividly, with the outlines of the case they must plead on Judgment Day etched in the air; how fully we feel, for example, her descent into fever at the end. And only an artist full of emotion could make us hate the way we hate Axel Rex in Laughter in the Dark. If we feel that Nabokov is keeping, for all his expenditure of verbal small coin, some treasure in reserve, it is because of the riches he has revealed. Far from cold, he has access to European vaults of sentiment sealed to Americans; if he feasts the mind like a prodigal son, it is because the heart's patrimony is assured. (pp. 220-22)
John Updike, "A Tribute," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 220-22.
Vladimir Nabokov's new collection of his old stories, "Details of a Sunset" (1924–1935), is much concerned with different kinds of loss—exile, failure of romantic love and family love, the death of a wife, the death of a son, the death of one's self—and yet the effects of these stories are mainly exhilarating, even affirmative. In the last story, as if to comment on this paradox, Nabokov says, "human consciousness is an ominous and ludicrous luxury." In other words, if our world were a simple, rational place, then sad stories couldn't be exhilarating, "ominous" wouldn't rhyme with "ludicrous," and there would be no such thing as humor (certainly not black humor) and also no such thing as art. There might even be no consciousness, but only the sort of mental life as exists, for example, in Marxian utopias. (These considerations are more subtle and more elegant in Nabokov's stories.)…
Nabokov, a writer whose awesome wit can bludgeon his critics into silence, can demonstrate exquisite good manners in dealing with his fictional characters and his readers….
Throughout the book Nabokov's descriptive genius makes the world—hooves, boards, Atticus moths, etc.—render itself up to us in delicious peculiarities. Sometimes he humanizes things. Sometimes he thingifies humans….
Nabokov seems to have discovered something—ominous, ludicrous, luxurious—operating in the objective world and in our minds, as if it flowed between the two and might as soon find residency in one as in the other….
Even if we don't consider the subjects or the events in Nabokov's stories, it must seem that his imagination—simply in what it sees and in the way it speaks—has demonic powers. Therein lies much of its pleasure for readers, a literary experience reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland," another playfully verbal world where the perversities of plot, wittily qualified by lots of pain and apprehensions of death, full of exotic and subterranean perceptions, leave one thrilled and pleased.
Leonard Michaels, "Early Stories, Full of Human Grief and Literary Pleasure," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1976, p. 5.
Vladimir Nabokov is, of course, the prince of Amoralists. In these early short stories, translated from their original Russian in White émigré magazines, we have no view from Calvary but merely Details of a Sunset. Is that 'merely' just a hangover from the criteria of the moralist convention—and is moral fiction, in fact, simply a technical form? In some ways, yes. But the moralist convention does at least encourage writers to recall that language is a mode of communication between people—a form of human solidarity—rather than a range of stylistic gestures with which to load one's palette.
Mr Nabokov was already, in the 'twenties and 'thirties, a most consummate artist. But one must ask whether he has ever been anything more; and whether this is enough. One of these stories, 'A Letter that Never Reached Russia', ends with the evocation of happiness: 'in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters, in the smiles of dancing couples, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.' Like God, Mr Nabokov is content to 'surround' human loneliness; a procedure which, like surrounding a crying child with exquisite objects, only intensifies the centre. (p. 23)
Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 21, 1976.
Although the shaping power of our greatest formalist, Nabokov, is light-years ahead of [anyone else's], there is in much of his work a self-aggrandizing hostility toward both his characters and his readers that is not unlike Bellow's. Nabokov's best books are "Lolita," "Pale Fire" and "Speak, Memory"; his attempted grand summation, "Ada," and his more recent novels, "Transparent Things" and "Look at the Harlequins!," seem the works of a paranoid magician—megalomaniacal in their effort to fix the world into an artifact and assert the absolute perfection, the unqualified power, of the autonomous imagination. In this effort Nabokov becomes an all-American imperial self (to use … Quentin Anderson's term), engulfing the world, rejecting society. Nabokov often creates ruthless mechanical forms, "like those Renaissance designs of flying machines," as William H. Gass has written, "dreams enclosed in finely drawn lines—which are intended to intrigue, to dazzle, but not to fly." In Nabokov artistic omnipotence seems to compensate for political impotence; the imaginary kingdom comforts the exiled soul; the danger is always nostalgia, and only comedy and control can ward off the tears. The balance is finest in "Lolita" and "Pale Fire." (p. 37)
Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1977.
[The] moral legacy and confidence [of the Nabokov family], like the famous devotion of the Nabokovs to one another, seem to be at variance with the novelist's reputation as a wilfully eccentric, perverse and obscure writer with a vaguely shady intent. His most famous and at one time "scandalous" book, Lolita, indeed was first published by the sex-obsessed Olympia Press in Paris. The novels Nabokov wrote in Russian and later translated into English (with his son Dmitri)—Mary; King, Queen, Knave; The Gift; The Defense; Invitation To A Beheading—the novels beginning with The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight he wrote in English—Bend Sinister; Lolita; Pnin; Pale Fire; Ada—still are bewildering to many readers, seemingly perverse in content and impish in style.
But Nabokov, the last of the great 20th century modernists, was at heart as deeply traditionalist as Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot. As we seem to know only now that the returns are in, modernism was experimental in technique and style, provocative in intent, as a protest against mass society and conformism. It was a revolt of individual genius against life without moral definition. There were Russian writers before 1917 whose experimentalism and impudence were their warning against mass standards and the intellectual dishonesty that followed from political authoritarianism in every sphere of Russian life.
Modernism flourished in exile and expatriation. But no other "modern master" underwent such painful uprooting as Nabokov….
Nabokov's ruling faith as an artist was his hatred of the expected, of "mediocrity" (another favorite swear word), of that self-satisfaction in shoddy goods that more and more passes in American education and culture. His hero and hilarious superman Van in Ada says, "For him the written word existed only in its abstract purity, in its unrepeatable appeal to an equally ideal mind. It belonged solely to its creator and could not be spoken of or enacted by a mime without letting the deadly stab of another's mind destroy the artist in the very lair of his art." (p. 13)
Nabokov knew with every instinct of his excellent mind and strict conscience that the "advanced" artist has to fight not only for recognition of his originality but against political superstition. A man of relentless mental energy, Nabokov always was outraged by minds that do not fight against the dominant "cliches." He thought that "cliches" stopped the world dead. He had an old Russian belief that the function of art is to open minds, to clear the air, to strip ourselves of all intellectual weakness.
How far Nabokov succeeded in realizing this in all his novels is not certain. Working against the grain, against the century, in pursuit of a beautiful private ideal that he hauntingly associated with a homesickness beyond repair, he wrote with the highest possible ambition for himself at a time when his love of surprising effects, of parody and intellectual "leaps," stunned the reader into more admiration of Nabokov's abilities than of his novels. His most obvious fault was an intellectual showiness and self-consciousness, especially in English, that bound the reader to Nabokov's own mind and personality. He was magnetic, irresistible, irreplaceable, endlessly fascinating; the technical wizardry so important to modernism became such a point of pride with Nabokov that it makes a book like Ada a brilliant bore. He wanted above all to be "an enchanter." He wrote some wonderful books, but much of his work is more that of a virtuoso than of an enchanter.
The talent, the sense of things, the power of imagination, were prodigious. You have only to see what Soviet writers in exile still gasp for to realize what Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed as his natural right. His long exile certainly helped. The emigration, he once said, was the only freedom that Russian writers ever have known. (p. 14)
Alfred Kazin, "Wisdom in Exile," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 23, 1977, pp. 12-14.