Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 1)
Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–
Nabokov, a Russian-born American citizen now living in Switzerland, gained worldwide fame with his novel, Lolita. His unique style and artifice contribute to his reputation as one of the world's finest living writers. In addition to many novels, Nabokov has also written stories, poems, criticism, autobiography, and plays, and has translated from Russian into English. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Vladimir Nabokov … writes in three languages with an antic and subversive disposition, pressing language to create illusions and subvert realities, and pressing it again to strike at the cunning core of reality. Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and Laughter in the Dark are not as widely known as the notorious Lolita. Yet all writhe into life under the touch of grim or ironic comedy, and they show that in our time language may parody itself into some form of metaphysical play, leaving the mirror of art unblemished by any image.
Ihab Hassan, "The Character of Post-War Fiction in America," in English Journal, January, 1962, pp. 1-8.
[The subject of Nabokov's Lolita] is the seduction of a middle-aged man by a twelve-year-old girl; and [the novel] has already achieved the two supreme successes possible to heretical works: an initial banning and a subsequent life as a best-seller, despite its endorsement by eminently respectable professors.
Nabokov's theme involves multiple ironies; for in his novel, it is the naïve child, the female, the American who corrupts the sophisticated adult, the male, the European. In a single work, Richardson, Mrs. Stowe, and Henry James are all controverted, all customary symbols for the encounter of innocence and experience stood on their heads. Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male is the international novel moved to America along with the émigré who is its male protagonist…. Nowhere in our recent literature is there so detailed and acute a picture of our landscape, topographical and moral, as in Lolita. But more profoundly than the scenery and the setting, Lolita herself is America….
Into Lolita and her mummy, the bitch-girl and the semi-preserved suburban predator, the pure American female has been split and degraded; but the European confronts her in both her latter-day avatars as helplessly as when she was still whole and dazzling in her purity. Like Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl, Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is still engaged in the discovery of America through Poe and the American woman; but unlike the Prince he is not redeemed, merely fascinated, raped, driven to murder, and left to die of a heart attack in jail. At every turn of its complications, the perverse theme of Lolita parodies some myth of the Sentimental Love Religion and the cult of the child. And it is surely for this reason that the book was banned and then blessed with a popular success; for it is the final blasphemy against the mythical innocence of the woman and the child, more than sufficient unto a day haunted by the fear that there may, after all, have been such an innocence—that somewhere underground it may still persist.
Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Love and Death in the American Novel, Stein & Day, revised edition, 1966, pp. 335-36.
Nabokov's works (his "unfinished poem") are commentaries on abstruse life, and his novels generally reflect the experience of the wandering exile whose only real roots are in art. (p. 13)
[The] theme [of] … escape from the cruel jokes of reality into aesthetics, into the mirror land of the imagination, and the resulting problems created by an obsession with beauty and design, is central to Nabokov's fiction. (p. 14)
[Those] who consider [Nabokov] immoral and disgusting are referring to one out of thirteen novels, and are not commenting on his artistic capabilities. Those who find only seriousness miss the essential entertainment in the novels, for wit and the incredibly skillful mixture of the ludicrous with the serious are among Nabokov's major artistic achievements. (pp. 14-15)
[Nabokov is] an extreme anti-Freudian, and, though less specifically, an anti-Jungian as well. A mordant skeptic of myths and archetypes, he is continually poking fun at the "Viennese witch doctor" and the stereotyped thinking of his disciples…. [The] clear connections Freud makes between the artist and the neurotic are totally alien to Nabokov, whose blending of appearance and reality is a deliberate strategy that bears no relationship to the neurotic's inability to distinguish the real and the imaginary. (pp. 16-17)
The effect that Nabokov's belief in the infinite spirality of all things has on his fiction is two-fold. On the one hand it allows him complete freedom of imagination. His imagery is not limited … by the customary associations of like objects; his metaphors serve often to link the most disparate objects…. On the other hand, the "spiral unwinding of things" seems to suggest to Nabokov a structural norm that becomes the basic design of much of his fiction. (pp. 18-19)
The illusion of reality is a recurrent "idea" in Nabokov's fiction…. The subjective concept of reality is, of course, not original, and Nabokov does not claim it to be. (p. 20)
[All] of the novels exhibit extreme verbal felicity and wit, and the persistence of this quality demonstrates Nabokov's abiding conviction that a serious theme does not necessitate a solemn style. To cross farce with anguish … and not vitiate the suffering by the farcical treatment is an extremely difficult accomplishment. It is a technique in which Nabokov is perhaps the most consistently successful master among contemporary writers, and it is the triumph of his art. (p. 21)
Of the novels published in English, Laughter in the Dark, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire are in part parodies of traditional literary forms or formulas. Parody, in fact, is so prevalent in Nabokov's fiction that it becomes almost a convention of his composition. (p. 29)
[Stock] characters and stock themes are used by Nabokov largely to suggest the mindlessness of a passive acceptance of traditions, to demonstrate that real art does not consist of the reiteration of habits of mind. When a writer adopts a convention, he takes along with it certain implicit perceptions; in short, he accepts with stock methods a stock view of reality. But reality is largely subjective for Nabokov, and perceptions of experience are extremely different, so that an "adopted method" limits the ability to confront reality in any original way, petrifies the imagination, and, in this sense, is artistically immoral. Unlike the naturalist who is controlled by the reality he attempts to factually reproduce, Nabokov controls reality by parody to impress his own vision on his subjects, to suggest that man is capable of manipulating reality through art. (p. 35)
It should be obvious that while Nabokov's novels are filled with aberrant curiosities—perverts, pederasts, cripples, the deformed of one kind and another—they appear not as psychological types, but as reflections of the irony of existence, as expressions of the finite vulgarity and pathos that are superimposed on the beauty and sublimity of the natural world. Perhaps it is overstating the case, but the frequency with which they appear in the novels suggests a kind of puritanism in their creator. Aesthetics has become a virtual religion for Nabokov, and he seems to overcome the oppressiveness of vulgar, freakish, and distorted humanity only by repetitive recreation of the causes of that oppression—as if he can bear grotesquerie only in a comic context. (p. 41)
His greatest achievements are rhetorical, and he will continue to be read, I think, for the brilliance of his language and sharpness of his observation, for his impressionistic rendering of reality…. His great achievement, to my mind, is a mastery of the English language which perhaps no other writer in this century except Joyce has matched. (p. 44)
[In] Nabokov's fiction it is seldom the narrator who learns anything (except perhaps Humbert Humbert and V.); it is rather the reader, and what he learns is generally what the narrator fails to recognize…. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Nabokov's narrative technique is the way in which he always manages to impress the presence of the implied author on the reader's consciousness without making direct intrusions into action and without switching into omniscient comment. (pp. 47-8)
Philosophically, it seems to me, Nabokov's attitude toward truth and appearance and reality is entirely impressionistic. While some knowledge is possible, and while we can get closer and closer to truth by examining a subject from a variety of angles and depths, we can never know everything about that subject, and our judgments, moral and otherwise, will always be based ultimately on subjective impressions…. Images, from the dreamlike hallucinations of the mind and from the physical surroundings we call reality, compose Nabokov's world, and his language is a continual attempt to find fresh metaphors, original similes, to unite objects that appear to be totally unalike; to bridge the gap, as he says, between thought and expression. (pp. 50-5)
The dream imagery that so pervades Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister arises, perhaps, from Nabokov's own mental excursions into the timeless and spaceless world of visual and aural impressions. Although he might dislike being called a mystic, it is impossible to miss the similarity among various passages in his memoir (not to mention his fiction) and numerous accounts of mind-flights by avowed mystics and experimenters with psychedelic drugs. (p. 57)
The pain of finite consciousness, the suffering produced by ignorance, vulgarity, cruelty, conventional patterns of thought that inhibit imaginative perception of timeless beauty; all are escapable only through art, and it is this escape, the finding of one's immortal soul through artistic creation, that is the central concern of Nabokov's fiction. (p. 59)
Page Stegner, in his Escape Into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov (copyright 1966 by Page Stegner; reprinted by permission of Harold Matson Co., Inc.), Dial, 1966.
Nabokov's Lolita has emerged as a virtual classic of contemporary literature. Although it has received much serious attention, the criticism which Lolita has elicited invariably treats Nabokov's twelfth novel as a special case quite apart from the rest of his fiction, and almost always forces a thesis which does not and in fact cannot accommodate the total design of the novel. Nabokov affords that rare and disarming spectacle of a man who seems to know exactly what he is about; the most incisive criticism of Nabokov is found in his own books….
His characters continually confront mirrors where they had hoped to find windows, and the attempt to transcend solipsism is one of Nabokov's major themes. Many readers overlook the deep moral resonance of his work, for characters hopelessly imprisoned within themselves must submit to Nabokov's irony, parody, or, most significantly, self-parody…. There are many references to James Joyce in Lolita, and not surprisingly, for the pun is its principal mirror-language. Joyce rehabilitated the pun for modern literature and Nabokov has continued to dignify this much disparaged rhetorical resource. Like Joyce, Nabokov fashions his puns from literary sources, from any of the several languages available to him, from obsolete words, or the roots of arcane words. If the discordant associations are rich enough, Nabokov's puns succeed in projecting a theme central to the fiction, in summarizing or commenting on the action…. Parody is the "keyword" in Lolita, and it provides a key to all of Nabokov. Like Joyce, Nabokov has shown how parody may inform a high literary art, and parody figures in the design of each of his novels…. The texture of Nabokov's parody is unique because, in addition to being a master parodist of literary styles, he is able to make brief references to another writer's themes or devices which are so telling in effect that Nabokov need not burlesque that writer's style. He not only parodies narrative clichés and outworn subject matter, but genres and prototypes of the novel….
Nabokov has said that poetry is the "mystery of the irrational perceived through rational words." Throughout his work he confronts the central problem of post-Romantic art and literature and, using parody and self-parody as "springboards," offers a critique of Romanticism. At its very best, Nabokov's verbal slapstick will thus suggest the inner tensions which threaten to break down a character and with him the language, especially when he is trying to communicate that "mystery," to re-create an abyss.
Alfred Appel, Jr., "Lolita: The Springbroad of Parody," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 204-41.
The reception of Nabokov … by the Russian critics was mixed and recognition came slowly. It took one of the leading Russian émigré critics, George Adamovich, himself a poet and a talented essayist …, many years to admit the significance of Nabokov as a writer. For that matter, in the West, too, Nabokov achieved wide recognition only after the resounding success of Lolita….
[Nabokov] is a "realist" (I know he himself detests the use of such labels in literature) in the sense that he nearly always uses material with which real life provides him, and in using it displays the astounding keenness of his vision and the uncanny power of his memory. But there is always in his work a blending of realism and artifice. Not content with recreating the natural flow of life, he artificially organizes his real life material. His artificiality is deliberate, a part of his artistic credo…. Nabokov's conception of literature as an artifice, his interest in, and concern with, the problems of composition, of pattern, his outspoken contempt for any kind of "message" in literature, be it social, moral, or religious-philosophical, are all against the grain of the Russian literary tradition, if not also of much of the European tradition of the nineteenth century. These attitudes lie behind Nabokov's harsh criticism of so many established writers who are more or less universally admired, particularly Dostoevsky,… but also such different writers as Racine, Goethe, and Balzac. What makes Nabokov even more alien to the Russian literary tradition is his lack of sympathy with, if not interest in, human beings as such.
Gleb Struve, "Notes on Nabokov as a Russian Writer," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 153-64.
Nabokov's Pale Fire is undoubtedly one of the wittiest (in the eighteenth-century sense of wit) novels since Joyce's Ulysses. What makes it so is largely its inheritance of a sly narrative pose from Pope, Sterne, and Byron. This is a scutcheon that on its dexter side has an impatience with cant and injustice expressed in a full range of satirical rhetoric. On its sinister side there is more than a little flippancy, innuendo, and playing of games with words and events that often make the work hated as a swallowed bait. This is in general terms the method. The purpose of this method is to convey the attitude (also inherited from the eighteenth century) that man is an animal both blessed and cursed with reason (or Reason), and equally despicable when he affirms or denies the existence of God at the end of his rational analysis of natural events. The works of Pope, Sterne, Byron, and Nabokov always return after the documentation of the ways of a blind Fate to the view that this very blindness must throw man back on a belief in an inscrutable Deity. Again and again the argument is that because this is such a perversely organized planet there must be a divine disorganizing principle; or, as Nabokov has put it, "There must be an original of the clumsy copy."… In Nabokov's work the proof that a Creator exists is not that his creation is orderly but that its order is eternally hidden from man.
John O. Lyons, "Pale Fire and the Fine Art of Annotation," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 242-49.
It was Vladislav Khodasevich who in 1937 characterized Nabokov as a writer obsessed with a single theme. Nabokov's writings of the subsequent decades have confirmed the accuracy of this observation. Nabokov's central theme is, of course, the nature of the creative imagination and the solitary, freak-like role into which a man gifted with such imagination is inevitably cast in any society. Such a person may be shown pursuing his basic endeavor directly …, but more often, as Khodasevich pointed out, Nabokov's artist-hero is disguised by means of some mask that may appear at first glance unrelated to artistic creation. Thus, the work of art that the hero strives to create, or at times actually achieves, may be presented in the guise of chess playing (The Defense), butterfly collecting ("The Aurelian"), a murder (Despair), seduction of a young girl (Lolita), preservation of one's own individuality in a nightmarish totalitarian world (Invitation to a Beheading), or of simply trying to reconstruct one's identity (The Eye). In all these cases, however, the hero uses his imagination to devise a reality of his own, which he seeks to impose on the surrounding reality. The question of which reality is real, that of the hero or that of his environment, is usually left open. What matters is which of the two realities is the more relevant one for the artistic conception of the particular novel or story.
Simon Karlinsky, "Illusion, Reality, and Parody in Nabokov's Plays," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 268-79.
Nabokov is a consummate master of style. He is capable of more exquisite modulation, nuance, beauty, and power than is any person who has written of his work. His mastery of English is not quite the incredible anomaly that it has often been made out to be. Comparisons with Conrad are unfair to the latter, since he learned English comparatively much later in his life. Nabokov grew up in a thoroughly Anglophile family and knew how to write English before he knew how to write Russian. Still, it is remarkable for a writer of such foreign origin and temperament to serve as a model in many matters of style for indigenous authors—e.g., John Updike—and to have produced in Lolita, I believe, a more entrancingly verisimilar version of teenage talk than our own poet-laureate of the soiled white cotton sock, J. D. Salinger….
One of the commonest words in the Nabokovian lexicon is fate. It is fate who wills the unity of all things, who prompts the little unity of alliteration and the other poetic devices of sound repetition so common in the prose of Nabokov, who seeks out for words of one language unsuspected cousins in another language, who provides that abundance of Pasternakian and Lermontovian coincidence which informs the novels. In his translation of Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time Nabokov refers to all these lucky encounters and overheard conversations as "the barely noticeable routine of fate." Nabokov's account of his own life in Speak, Memory is a kind of diary of the workings of fate. Fate is really one of the guises of the muse of Nabokov. If we turn to one of the larger elements of Nabokov's art, the structure of the character relationships, we find fate busily at work, inevitably with the same result, since fate has only one passion—the passion for unity. In these character relationships we begin, typically, with an apparent duality, which is then reduced to unity—two men who in the course of the novel strangely coalesce…. I said that fate was the muse of Nabokov. I might with equal justice have said that Pushkin is and has always been the muse of Nabokov. Nabokov is very much a Russian writer, and whenever Russian literature of the modern period has risen above the humdrum and everyday it has risen on the wings borrowed from Alexander Pushkin. Fate and Pushkin are identical. Pushkin is Nabokov's fate….
It has been often remarked that Nabokov has a phenomenal visual acuity and an equally phenomenal ability to render the objects of that visual acuity in words. No one currently practicing the art of the English novel can see as well as he can. We speak rather glibly sometimes of the "heightened reality" of this or that work. Since the phrase is so worn we ought perhaps to modify it slightly when applying it to Nabokov: a "sharpened reality"? a "focussed reality"? a "clarified reality"? Whatever we choose, the meaning is that he makes us more acutely aware of what had always struck us as familiar things; and in doing so he makes them both real and new. Reading Nabokov is using, for a time, his central nervous system. We cease to be ourselves and become the person whom he supplies. And that is the point of his art. He has said that what he seeks in writing is best described as "aesthetic bliss." He means by this "ecstasy," with its etymological sense of being taken outside of oneself.
Clarence Brown, "Nabokov's Pushkin and Nabokov's Nabokov," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 280-93.
Vladimir Nabokov never lets his readers forget that he is the conjuror, the illusionist, the stage-manager, to whom his characters owe their existence; this flaunting of artifice, not merely as technique but also as theme, can perhaps be elucidated by a closer examination of one type of Nabokovian device, the book that, in whole or in part, explicitly imitates another book: a "discovered manuscript," a fictious confession, a book about imaginary books, or a book that parodies such an already conventionalized structure as the detective story, the scholarly commentary, or the literary biography.
Patricia Merivale, "The Flaunting of Artifice in Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 294-309.
Nabokov is to me as interesting as any poet or writer in this century (or the last, for that matter), and thus to speak of not "getting" or "caring for" Nabokov, unless one cares for literature in only a very conditional way, is not for me an entirely reasonable statement. Second, it is quite clear to me that neither his Russian nor his English readers have ever "gotten" Nabokov in the sense of having access to everything he has written and to full cultural tradition in which he writes. (pp. 3-4)
The principle of poetic prose is … central to Nabokov's fiction, and its success stems directly from its use in such a way that it does not cloy or obtrude itself in any way. [It] is most important in The Gift and Speak, Memory, and we find it no less important in Nabokov's English novels. (p. 43)
Nabokov never really abandoned his placid themes. Memories of his childhood and of Russia are a constant motif of his novels and the remarkable personalities of their protagonists tend either to obscure this or present the theme in grotesquely distorted form. (p. 47)
Vladimir Nabokov … is not, as he is usually called, a Russian-American author, but rather, he is an American-Russian writer, and was that long before he began to write in English, or had come to America.
Nabokov's very strong affection for the real America does not interfere with this perhaps overly elegant formulation of his true nationality. Nabokov has always been direct and eloquent in his statements about his adopted land—and especially so when he is not speaking to Americans…. It is Nabokov's claim that he is trying to be an American writer and desires only those rights that other American writers have. (p. 65)
[Its] heroic couplets notwithstanding, [Pale Fire] is nothing if not "American" and "contemporary" to the core, and, if one is interested in such things as "the author's attitude towards and depiction of" America, it is here, rather than to Lolita, that one should turn. (p. 106)
Pnin is the most gently and sadly comic of all of Nabokov's books, and Timofey Pnin is the most winning of all his eccentric characters. This is, in large part, a formal matter. In Nabokov's other novels the humor—and Nabokov has never written a novel that is not in some degree funny—derives from the highly developed self-irony of the narrator (Humbert Humbert is the best instance of this, and, in quite a different way, John Shade is another) or else its source is a radical disparity of norms in which either the character (the chess master Luzhin in The Defense) or the society (Invitation to a Beheading) must be adjudged "mad." In Pnin the humor is not a vital function of Timofey Pnin's personal misfortunes (that is, the humor is not a device of the novel; one can rather easily mentally transpose the dour personality of Luzhin into the narrative in place of Pnin, and it would remain essentially the same novel, but Pnin could never play the part of Luzhin). Neither madness nor self-irony play any role in Pnin. Pnin does have a delightful donnish sense of humor, but his conscious wit is minor indeed in comparison to the hilarious eccentricity of which he is quite unaware and which has made him an academic legend and source of cocktail-party hilarity at Waindell. The humor in Pnin comes to us directly (or, as seen from a different vantage point, indirectly) from a discreetly omniscient narrator. In this, the novels closest to Pnin are Mashenka and The Gift, but neither of these novels allows humor anywhere near the scope and prominence that it has in Pnin. (pp. 130-31)
In a sense …, King, Queen, Knave is an extraordinary tour de force. It is no easy task to adapt the means peculiarly suited to the fable to a full-length work of fiction, and Nabokov has succeeded by engaging the reader's interest fully while never letting him forget that he is involved with cardboard figures. Consciousness of the fact that literature is an artificial convention is stretched to its farthest limits and used to create a radically different style of writing…. The novel's artificiality is so deft and its mechanism so cunning that King, Queen, Knave is, far more than Pale Fire or any other of Nabokov's novels, a work in which one sees and feels the artist in the very act of manipulating his subject and characters. (p. 153)
Apart from his treatment in his early stories of characters who hold strong political views—which is quite a different thing from a "political story"—and the general theme of return to Russia—which is a theme of memory deeply felt—there is a period of slightly over a decade, roughly from 1935 to 1947, in which Nabokov frequently utilized seemingly political themes in his art. But, as in all of his works, the apparent theme is most frequently the least important one, and even taken as political tales these works are equally applicable to (and thus equally independent of) fascism, communism, or any other form of oppression, including democratic tyranny. (pp. 181-82)
It is true that one cannot find a "sympathetic character" in Nabokov's fiction who is also a Communist—the Soviet brother in the short story A Meeting and the writer Novgorodtsev are about the closest to it—but it is also true that one will not find a Communist character who is used to "prove a point."
It was perhaps inevitable, given the number of remarkable allegorical professions and situations employed by Nabokov to explore and demonstrate artistic problems, that he would finally use a "political" theme in such a way. He first did this in his major 1935 novel Invitation to a Beheading, a novel which gave rise to more controversy and commentary than any other of his Russian works. Invitation to a Beheading is a fantasy, but rather than a fantastic description of the real world Nabokov has insisted that the novel is a real description of a fantastic world. (p. 185)
Although it is true that the tale is complex and cannot be reduced to any simple pointe, Invitation to a Beheading is all the same the most patently fable-like of Nabokov's novels. If the novel has a weakness it is the disparity between the air of fable and the story's rather protracted length (for a fable). (p. 195)
For a writer whose claim is that he recognizes but one number—One—and only the individual …, the incidence and importance of the doppelgänger motif in Nabokov's art may seem rather incongruous. In fact, Nabokov is not only the foremost living practitioner of the doppelgänger theme, but also its most subtle and imaginative manipulator in the history of literature. There are few Nabokov works in which the "double" motif does not at least poke its way into the narrative fabric, and there are many in which it constitutes the narrative axis…. What is new in Nabokov's use of the "double" theme is that it is presented in a markedly ironic, anti-Romantic way…. Nabokov makes fun of the double, even as he uses it to examine and portray not only psychological but also aesthetic and formal artistic problems, such as the relationship of the author to what he is writing…. Nabokov's doubles are reflections, refigurations, and refractions, and their whimsical deployment in a palpable fictional context constitutes a new and wonderfully malleable variant of realism. (pp. 220-21)
Despair is, measured against the outstanding fiction of this century, a major novel—the first one Nabokov wrote—but it has been its poor fortune to be overshadowed by some four or five other later Nabokov novels…. It should properly be compared not with Lolita, The Gift, and Pale Fire, but with the best works of Fitzgerald, Waugh, Anderson, Faulkner, and Hemingway (choose any two). (p. 235)
The Gift has been rather carelessly called the "key" to Nabokov's art. It is true that its form does in a vague way look forward to Pale Fire, and much of its substance looks backward to the early sources of Nabokov's art, but the particular tone and manner of The Gift are unique, and so it is better to say that The Gift occupies a singular place in Nabokov's art. It is the greatest novel Russian literature has yet produced in this century. (p. 249)
[In] all of Russian literature there are really only two prose writers against whose work Nabokov's should be measured—Gogol and Tolstoy. (p. 252)
Andrew Field, in his Nabokov: His Life in Art (© 1967 by Andrew Field; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Little, Brown, 1967.
Nabokov's work, even more than that of James Joyce, requires an involvement with the author's private calculus. The idiosyncratic literalness of his translation of Eugene Onegin suggests that Nabokov regards literature as a collection of cabbalistic texts…. Perhaps there is no religion but art. For Nabokov, as for Joyce, a work has submerged structures probably not grasped at first glance, designed to intensify the reading experience. It is all the more remarkable that these gnostic novels are couched in the most lucid prose; Nabokov's labyrinthine buildings have glass-and-steel, curtain-wall exteriors…. To describe a Nabokov novel as "a book of mirrors" is to employ an accurate metaphor, one that has been frequently used by Nabokov himself. For instance, Nabokov describes a novella as "my rain-sparkling crystograms."… Any reader acquainted with Speak, Memory soon discovers that all of Nabokov's novels teem with details from his own life, given to various characters almost haphazardly.
Charles Nicol, "The Mirrors of Sebastian Knight," in Nabokov: The Man and His Work, edited by L. S. Dembo, University of Wisconsin Press, 1967, pp. 85-94.
One large European sensibility has engaged American parochialism, with startling results. This belongs to Vladimir Nabokov who, on the strength of Lolita, gained an international reputation in late middle age. Nabokov's first language is Russian, and his earliest novels were written in that language, though—as he is totally out of sympathy with the Soviet régime—they addressed an audience of cultivated émigrés like himself. A good number of these early novels have recently appeared translated—by, naturally, Nabokov himself—into the involved, dense, witty, learned, allusive English that disappointed the smut-hound readers of Lolita…. There is something in Nabokov's vocabulary that is contemptuous of the ordinary reader's difficulties …, just as there is something in his approach to the America of Lolita that is supercilious, world-weary, cynically 'European'. But his aim with this book was not merely to probe an obsession but to indulge in 'a love affair with the English language', and the style exalts the subject-matter. The style is the most allusive since James Joyce and, like Joyce, Nabokov is both pedantic and cosmopolitan at the same time. He has seen the world and despises it; only the most ingrown scholarship remains….
Perhaps his most attractive novel is one about a lonely, absorbed scholar in exile…. This is Pnin. The character of Timofey Pnin is one of the most amiable creations of modern fiction. A St. Petersburg bourgeois who has come to teach in an American college, Pnin can never do anything right. He cannot master the intricacies of English pronunciation, the timetables of trains and buses, the gadgetry of modern America. And yet he represents a saner civilization than that represented by either Soviet Russia or capitalist America, and his devotion to scholarship (Russian literature) is genuine and profound….
It is easy to disparage Nabokov's preciousness, his clogging of action with a luxuriance of self-indulgent detail, his curious despair that so often finds comic expression, the elements of perversity and pedantry which find outlet in heroes who are either ill-adjusted or frankly insane. But he is a major force in the contemporary novel, and an example of the manner in which an alien culture, the approach to English as to a strange but exciting tool, and what we may go on calling the European sensibility, are able to fertilize a tradition in danger of inanition through looking inwards and feeding on itself. He is an import for which America is rightly grateful. Exported back to Europe (which includes ourselves), he is beginning to influence the continent which he left behind. But there is no likelihood of his sweetening, with the breath of a rejected civilization, the thick air of the country which saw his birth and even the beginnings of his devotion to language.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 165-69.
[Ada] is an interplay of young love and old memory, which produces an illusion of blissful sensuality…. The retrospective imagination dwells less upon … inarticulate finales than upon all their piquant preliminaries. The past in Ada is a miscellany of details (pouting lips and honeyed fingers) which, swimming up separately in the memory, carry with them the heavy, sweet ambience of lost innuendos, enticements, and approaches. The disjunction of these details admits the loss of the whole, even as, nonetheless, each detail defies the loss by its own immanence.
Often then, a lovely nostalgia and, for all the whimsies of geography, a lovely Russian nostalgia. Something here continues and revives one's whole literary sense of that country's romantic White charms—the summery fields, the white dresses, the odd Chekovian trailings in and out of the birthday picnic. But Ada is not entirely a novel of nostalgia. It is a wild attempt at narrative simultaneity: every scene must recapture its original quality and at the same time express the current (or now) quality of the Van Veen who remembers the scene. This twoness accounts … for the singular lightness of its sexuality. But it also accounts for the novel's singular attitude toward language.
In unforeseeable spurts, words work for the narrator, fitting the old lost animality as smoothly as a cat's fur. But more often, he seems to be working for the words. He is subject to the same disjunctive sense of words in the present as of objects in the past, but while all the returns to the concrete are humid, these excursions into the abstract are arid…. It is all evidently intended to be a perilous, marvellous balance, in the end, of lust and lucubration, a linguist's love nest.
Mary Ellmann, in Yale Review (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1969, pp. 118-19.
The nearly unanimous chorus of acclaim with which Ada has been greeted can perhaps be accounted for by a lack of self-confidence among its readers, an uncritical reverence for what is difficult and boring. Having struggled through the book and found it nearly as long and hard as those of Proust or Joyce, the intimidated reader concludes that it must be as good. Once the dull job of reading it is over, the book is fun to figure out. A puzzle, however, is not the same thing as a novel….
In discussing a work as complex and ambitious as Ada, there is a temptation to substitute the conception of the work for the work itself. In fact, the book is considerably less interesting and attractive than the idea it adumbrates. There are pages that are almost impossible to read, that the eye rolls down like a marble without taking anything in, not because they are difficult, but because the difficulty seems so silly and pointless. The prose is intolerably overdecorated, its forward movement clogged and impeded with trilingual puns…. The alliteration and wordplay which have always given Nabokov's prose a kind of cut-glass brilliance are here exaggerated to the point of an art nouveau horror vacui. And if the theme of Ada is grand, its plot is rather slight; there is not really enough story to go around….
The main result of the forest of allusions, puns and alienating devices is to foreclose any possibility of the reader's involvement. The characters and events are so consistently given the brittle shell of self-parody that they end by repelling interest and attention.
Perhaps the most curious failure of Ada is that of its aestheticism. In spite of its consistent presentation of experience in the forms of art, the novel never achieves the independent existence of an artifact….
There are, of course, wonderful things in Ada, passages of extraordinary charm and beauty…. Nabokov's gift is for the creation of these small-scale effects, rather than for larger structures. His best books, among them Pnin, Lolita, and Speak, Memory, have relatively little of the anagrammatic hide-and-seek and fussy pedantry that usurp the center of later and apparently more ambitious works such as Pale Fire and Ada.
Elizabeth Dalton, in Partisan Review (reprinted by permission of the author), No. 1, 1970, pp. 155-58.
[Mary] contains foreshadowings of Nabokov's later interest in the figure of the double and in complicated games, but the primary link is thematic: Mary helps us see that its author's central subject has always been the power and pain of the memory of lost love. What saves him, unlike Hemingway, from self-pity is his passionate intellectual interest in the workings of memory, his psychological fidelity.
David J. Gordon, in Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1971, p. 428.
In Nabokov's created world, language is the gift of the gods, a divine blessing which makes possible all human inspiriation, potency, beauty, refinement, salvation. Ada is the rhapsodic story of Nabokov's ardor for his muse. This novel, like Lolita, is both a romantic quest and the parody of that quest: Nabokov is exaggerating and mocking the same romantic values and attitudes to which he gives such beautiful and convincing reality. Ada is both wildly romantic and a wild critique of romanticism.
Howard M. Harper, Jr., in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 217.
Ada can be read … as a confession, but one of a very unusual kind. For while it shares with legal and religious confessions the admission of guilt and thus the acceptance of a standard of evaluation, there is neither a sanction to be imposed by law, nor any solace to be found in divine forgiveness. The confession is a quest for redemption which can only be partial; the transformation of the confession into a work of art produces but a "melancholy and very local palliative." There can be no hope of a new existence, in life or after death. It is a measure of Nabokov's achievement that he can approach such a task without falling into sentimentality or sententiousness. Nor can his aim be obvious; it is possible to read Ada on a simpler level, and to extract from it either joyous innocence or bored surfeit, without ever coming across the moral problems it raises….
Ada illustrates in an illuminating fashion the choice of the exclusively aesthetic over the human, and the subsequent stifling of growth….
[Redemption] through art [and] the defiance of death through rendering permanent certain moments from the past [are two of the principles which] pervade the novel and give it unity.
If, moreover, a nulliverse is a world where events and sequences, names and personalities seem to be chosen at random or to possess no "gravity," no connection with each other or with reality, then surely such a world could not be farther from that created by Nabokov. A wealth of such connections in Ada provide depth, intensity, and meaning, even though the relations cannot be said to exhibit a mirrorlike resemblance to any universe with which we are familiar. It is doubtless true that the book demands a receptiveness and perhaps even a certain parallelism of experiences in the reader, so that there can be, as often as possible, a recognition of what Nabokov is recreating, as well as a clearer perception of what he is creating. The experience, in particular, of having been up-rooted from one culture, of having had to absorb another one and another language, will facilitate the understanding of Ada…. For the reader, such a work can be a permanent addition to his experience, much as are the great confessional works of Augustine and Rousseau.
Sissela Bok, "Redemption Through Art in Nabokov's Ada," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 3, 1971, pp. 110-20.
It is sometimes objected today that Nabokov is too clever by half. Glory dates from the time when he was not clever enough….
What Glory lacks is a sense of focus. It is full of brilliant flashes. A metaphor sparkles, a memory gleams. One is constantly aware of the presence of Nabokov himself….
Finally, there is the matter of language. It is curiously insensitive. I do not believe that anything said in Russian in 1924 by a girl brushing away an ant is adequately expressed by "Scram, chum." And the phrases dredged up from a dictionary—phrases like "rubineous fumes of sin"—call too anxiously for attention….
Felicities also abound—occasionally felicities of language, but more often of thought: fancies, darting asides, conceits. At a time when gray, workaday prose is the rule, or else dense patches of private writing, it is marvelous to find such loving care for detail. At the same time, the effect is often reminiscent of art nouveau—like, say an excessive piece of Lalique jewelry. It goes too far, to the detriment of the English language.
Alan Pryce-Jones, in Book World, January 2, 1972, pp. 3, 7.
Like Gide, James, and dozens of others (who against howls from Montreux we hasten to say the work of Nabokov in no other way resembles)—like Shakespeare and Chekhov as a matter of fact—[Nabokov] is a very homogeneous writer, in whose pages the same experience, imaginary or life-cognate, is transubstantiated over and over….
Nabokov, in spite of his alliances, here [in Glory] is entirely a European writer, who has always teased or forced readers toward his continuities through prefaces and linguistic linkages book-to-book, just as Beckett, by coincidence also working from more than one language, has kept us staring at the whole by means of his remorseless monotone. As to his Russian connections after Gogol, Nabokov can generally trust our ignorance not to see them….
Hortense Calisher, in New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 9, 1972, pp. 1, 36.
Nabokov's prose always lives a busy life of its own, ranging from the quiet exuberance of Glory to the Joycean intricacies of Pale Fire and Ada, ever consciously playing tunes and jokes, making allusions and creating illusions, keeping the reader happy.
J. D. O'Hara, in Saturday Review, January 15, 1972, pp. 36, 41.