Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 3)
Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–
A Russian-born American citizen now living in Switzerland, Nabokov is a novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, autobiographer, playwright, translator, chess master, and amateur lepidopterist. He is one of the world's foremost living writers. Excepting Joseph Conrad, Nabokov is perhaps the only writer to achieve major stature writing in a second language. Nabokov's most profound genius is his ability to present a complete fictive universe having no relation to the real world. He is a consummate stylist and master conjuror. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Vladimir Nabokov distinctly seems to be the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship, the only writer, with the possible exception of the long-silent Thornton Wilder, whose books, considered as a whole, give the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly. His works are an edifice whose every corner rewards inspection. Each book, including the super-slim Poems and the uproariously pedantic and copious commentaries to his translation of Eugene Onegin, yields delight and presents to the aesthetic sense the peculiar hardness of a finished, fully meant thing. His sentences are beautiful out of context and doubly beautiful in it. He writes prose the only way it should be written—that is, ecstatically. In the intensity of its intelligence and reflective joy, his fiction is unique in this decade and scarcely precedented in American literature. Melville and James do not, oddly, offer themselves for comparison. Yet our literature, that scraggly association of hermits, cranks, and exiles, is strange enough to include this arrogant immigrant; as an expatriate Nabokov is squarely in the native tradition.
John Updike, "Grandmaster Nabokov" (1964), in his Assorted Prose (© 1965 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Alfred Knopf), Knopf, 1965.
Nabokov's prose medium deserves a name, partly a designation, partly frankly incantatory, as is Gerard Manley Hopkins' "sprung rhythm." We might call it the "light anthropomorphic," and find a simple and characteristic instance of it in the sentence, "Let visitors trip." In this medium the interpenetration of humanity by language, language by humanity is, moment by moment, felt as complete. Its range, its horizontal range, is very wide, gallery upon glittering gallery of the tricks by which we betray ourselves in language and language betrays us. But its scale is single; it can only tell us what we do to words and they to us; it cannot tell us what men have done. It appears to deny the possibility of saying consummatum est of any human action. It works minutely and reflectively: one little vaudeville of the light anthropomorphic gives way to the next, and so on until the pattern is complete….
Modernism, the period of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Eliot, is over, and the preoccupations of poets and writers of fiction are now so different that Nabokov has begun to seem remote. He tries to make language the vessel of our humanity, and supports in public the contention that art is its own excuse for being. He gives this contention away in certain works, and it becomes plain that it is actually parasitic on the memory of an ordered community. His assertion of the self-sufficiency of art will come to seem increasingly unintelligible to a generation unaware of the hidden premise of his humanism. He will go into a temporary eclipse.
Quentin Anderson, "Despair" (originally titled "Nabokov in Time"; copyright © 1966 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 16-26.
The train stands still. The world is moving. Objects shatter into points of light, reflections are observant, shadows follow us like menacing dogs. All the visual qualities of things, and these predominate, are hard and impersonal. Everything's a mirror or an image in a mirror; depth is space upon a surface where every visual relationship is retained, though subtly inverted. A Nabokov novel is sliding by us, through our still attention, and the objects which it holds up to us are flat and disconnected: cathedral, shop sign, top hat, fish, a barber's copper basin. The people, head to foot, are faces (knees, toes, elbows: these are also faces); faces done in glossy printers' colors and stamped out on the covers of a million magazines, the copies of each kind the same, yet when found in different combinations, they are strangely altered (if left in the seat of a train or taken to a room, scissored up for scrapbooks, read in bed, or stacked in dusty attics to be saved), and they possess, in every place they occupy, an additional significance, as cards are changed in fresh hands, so that the two of spades on one occasion fills a flush, while on another proves to be superfluous, or as the white queen's puissant knave is rendered impotent, slid to a new square. Cards and chessmen, characters and words: all are hollow powers. Ruled by rules which confine their moves, they form a world of crisp, complex, abstract, and often elegant, though finally trivial, relations….
His characters are his clowns. They blunder comically about. Clubbed by coincidence, they trip when most passionate. With rouge on their pates and wigs on their features, their fundaments honk and trousers tear. Brought eagerly, naïvely near, beauty in a boutonniere pees on their faces. Like the other clowns, how we laugh at that. Pieces in the play, they live, unaware, in the world of Descartes' evil demon, that relentless deceiver whose deceptions do not qualify, but constitute, his nature. For Descartes, perhaps, the demon was merely a philosophical fear, an academic danger and a happy thought, but not for Nabokov's creatures or his readers; for if it's not we who remain in our squares to be moved, it's ourselves the moves are made against: we are the other player. Most of Nabokov's novels … are attacks upon their readers, though not like Genêt's and much modern theater….
The funny, the comical, side-splitting Nabokovian thing is that Nabokov's novels are frequently formless, or when form presides it's mechanical, lacking instinct, desire, feeling, life (nostalgia is the honest bloodstream of his books, their skin his witty and wonderful eye); and when the form is so ruthlessly imposed from the outside, seldom allowed to grow from within, rather bearing its bones on its hide as some insects do, then not only the end, but beginning and middle as well, are directed deus ex machina. We perceive this at once when the critics, clothed in butcher's aprons, carving come, for they clearly regard their discussions of construction as interpretations, and as they go about their operations, we hear not a squeak from the beast. What our author possesses in plenty is technique. Pale Fire, Lolita, and Sebastian Knight are built of devices: these bones make the meat….
These elaborate shapes fail to function as form, as a mollusk might cleverly exude a shell in Gothic style it didn't use but sold, instead, in shops. Not only do the novels seem cold (though Pnin is not, and The Defense is a loving exception to everything; every move is emotional, even the last one, when Luzhin flies like a Pegasus from life to death and board to board), there is a striking contrast between their rich contrivance and the thin interest they have for the entirely engaged mind. Even a sentence which fails the demands of the body, which calls upon only the deductive faculty, which does not fuse the total self in a single act of sense and thought and feeling, is artistically incomplete, for when the great dancer leaps, he leaves nothing of himself behind, he leaps with, and into, all he is, and never merely climbs the air with his feet. Nabokov's novels often … seem like those Renaissance designs of flying machines—dreams enclosed in finely drawn lines—which are intended to intrigue, to dazzle, but not to fly….
One puzzle of Nabokov's long imperial career is why he's never signed his books with a large and simple N. It was good enough for Napoleon; and after all, Nabokov's novels are empires, and more than that, they're his.
William H. Gass, "Mirror, Mirror," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1968 by NYREV, Inc.), June 6, 1968, pp. 3-5.
Nabokov is one of the few living writers I honestly admire and would, had I the equipment, like to emulate. But his approach to English is essentially a foreign approach; he does not play cricket but chess; he doesn't appreciate any of the unwritten laws about rhetoric and reticence. He is ridden by cerebral passion, which is indecent. But he is yet another sad exemplification of the truth that literary English in this century has owed most to foreigners (which, of course, includes Irishmen and Americans). The special task of the English-writing Slav has been to remind us of the gorgeousness of our language—a gorgeousness repressed by puritans and pragmatists—and it is probably right to bracket Nabokov and Conrad. But whereas it was Conrad's vocation to be an English writer, Nabokov became the author of Lolita only by historical accident.
Anthony Burgess, "Poet and Pedant," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 142-46.
Any author worth parodying will sometimes achieve self-parody (Sordello, Pericles, The Golden Bowl, The Kreutzer Sonata, Across the River and into the Trees). Mr. Nabokov is no exception. Ada is the most Nabokovian novel ever, an idyll of aristocratic incest decked out with enough word games to stock an ocean liner. To appreciate it fully one should have perfect command of English, French and Russian, a working knowledge of botany and entomology, a flair for anagrams and a good deal of patience. (Well he's not writing for cretins is he?) If it ends in delight, it begins in hard labour. This book is clearly the author's Waterloo; it's less clear whether he figures as Wellington or Napoleon….
If literature was invented for critics to practise on, Ada, like Finnegans Wake, might crown the arch of European writing. It is, like The Golden Bowl, a hard read. Perhaps for that reason, true Nabokovians should find it his masterpiece. The peasants may grumble.
"Nabokov's Waterloo," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), October 2, 1969, p. 1121.
Few indeed of Nabokov's fans have questioned the implications of his obsession with the superman hero, arrogant and (except where he himself is concerned) callous, lording it over his natural inferiors. That the superman hero may be insane, or that eventually he slips up on a banana skin left in his way by normal, mean, everyday reality makes little difference: we know where Nabokov's sympathies lie. Perhaps he is a child of the times—this would account for his ready acceptance at a number of levels—but I incline to hope that he will not prove a father of the future.
D. J. Enright, "Pale Organisms: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov" (1969), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 78-91.
Writing mostly in Russian during nearly two decades of exile in the West and then transforming himself in middle life into an Anglo-American novelist, Nabokov improvised a stylistic manner of extraordinary verbal ingenuity, having, one feels, all the properties of masterliness except natural fluency and natural resonance. Precisely because his effort was not only to establish a new working medium (and thus a new readership) but to preserve himself as a human being solidly rooted in life, an element of strain and artificiality cemented itself into his work, deadening the active flow of it…. He now writes English, including various odd sorts of jargon and slang, with remarkable virtuosity and inventiveness, but he writes it as if it were about to become a dead language; the texts of his novels are scenarios, awaiting realization.
Warner Berthoff, in his Fictions and Events: Essays in Criticism and Literary History (copyright © 1971 by Warner Berthoff; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1971, pp. 90-1.
In each of Nabokov's novels there is one person who stands out as even more grotesque and terrifying than the brutal subhuman and unimaginative creatures who oppose the hero. The horror induced by this character stems from the fact that he has so many of the characteristics of the hero and yet these are so perverted as to present us with a hideous parody of everything for which the hero stands. The clearest portrait of the type is … to be found in Laughter in the Dark. Axel Rex, once a brilliant faker of Old Masters, now a successful caricaturist, has all the characteristics of the artist except one: he lacks the capacity to love…. Art has here been diverted from its true function, which is to give pleasure by making available to the realm of consciousness more of the world than we can normally grasp, and has been used for a purely selfish purpose, to humiliate and hurt. The disinterestedness which is the basis of art has been replaced by a deliberate mingling of art and life to provide amusement for the artist at the expense of another human being. There is an imagination at work here but it is a parody of the natural function of the imagination and springs not from love but from envy and hatred. In Bend Sinister the different forms that this perversion can take are almost clinically examined and contrasted to the attitude of the hero; in Invitation to a Beheading it is the executioner, M. Pierre, who embodies the type; and it is probable that if Pale Fire leaves one vaguely dissatisfied, despite its brilliance, this is because the equivalent figure there is of course Kinbote, the editor of the poem, who has now moved from a position as the foil of the hero into the very centre of the picture. An experiment with such a scheme was obviously to be expected of Nabokov sooner or later (in some of the early books it is not so much that the villain is the protagonist as that all the characters are infinitely dislikeable), but it is difficult not to feel that he was making things too hard for himself by denying himself any outlet for the sympathy and understanding that are as much a part of his vision as the bitterness and satire.
Clare Quilty is the anti-hero of Lolita, the parody of Humbert. With his collection of erotica and his arty plays, his hobbies (as Who's Who in the Limelight informs us) of fast cars and pets, he is a worthy member of that grotesque company….
Humbert's story … can only be seen through Humbert's words, the baroque language capturing Lolita as could no other medium. But Humbert himself is of course only made up out of the words of Nabokov…. Humbert's situation mirrors that of his creator, Nabokov, who also has only words to play with and the violent urges of a poet to articulate. When Nabokov said that his novel was about his love affair with the English language he spoke more literally than his critics realised. The novel is about his love affair with language, but since there are many languages it is necessary to make a choice….
For the reader to ask what the novel is 'about', for him to try and extract its 'theme' or 'message' is for him to be guilty of Humbert's initial error: to try and possess carnally what can only be apprehended imaginatively. The novel does not reveal its secret once and for all; the imaginative effort must be renewed each time it is reread. Ultimately the theme is the imaginative effort itself, that progress towards inevitable failure and loss which is the pattern of success. In the end Humbert does fail. The beauty is not there for us to behold. Lolita has once again slipped through his hands. In the actuality of the fiction he is about to die and all that is left of his story is a pile of paper: part is only a local palliative, it will not save anybody's life. He has had his vision, made his effort, and now it is the turn of life, of the ordinary, of that which is silent and without meaning. Despite Humbert's disclaimer, he was not one of nature's faithful hounds, his initial act was not natural, no matter how much he desired it. Just as Nabokov's first act, his choice of subject-matter and of how and when to start, was not natural. And for this unnatural act life will have its revenge…. When the novel comes to an end there is nothing there for us to hold. The palliative of art works only while Humbert is actually writing, or the reader actually reading. But the miracle of art lies in the fact that we can reread this novel as often as we like.
Gabriel Josipovici, "Lolita: Parody and the Pursuit of Beauty," in his The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971, pp. 201-20.
Transparent Things carries further into compressed and urgent stylistic parody the main tendencies of Nabokov's last novel, Ada; while by the same token it makes seem more remote, since it is discontinuous with, the attractive imaginative generosity animating his best novels: Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire. This generosity was surely fed by Nabokov's fascination with America (a love-affair, it has been called) and the marvelous small-town landscapes—dotted with dotty, middle Americans—of Pnin and Lolita are given glory through the stolid single-mindedness of Timofey or the obsessed impatience of Humbert; while Pale Fire always struck me as split between the rich comedy of Kinbote stalking Shade in New Wye and the tedious fantasies about what did or didn't happen in mythical Zembla. These novels were unabashedly fictions, as self-consciously and ingeniously parodic as anyone could wish, but they also existed at the level of comic realism. With Ada, and now Transparent Things, that level is at the vanishing point. The erotic flights in Lolita were surely Nabokovian but also seemed truly to emanate from an imagined not-so-humble Humbert….
I could not finish Ada, and though no such problem occurred with Transparent Things the final result was not happier. The hero, "Hugh Person" (you, person) is constantly played with and harassed by the brilliant word-man who conducts, with side excursions into various transparencies, the narration. As always there is fine Nabokovian contempt at the expense of new fashions…. Transparent Things is too transparently a fiction, all made up: the reader feels lonely and hopeless because there's nothing for him to care about except Nabokov brilliantly all alone with his magic.
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 227-28.
History offered the gift of several lives to Vladimir Nabokov, and he made of it what we know: an odyssey of three languages, a stylish fable of emigrés and aristocrats which he conjured finally into English, and at least one masterpiece, "Lolita." Since then, it is generally agreed, he has become America's foremost, one might say our official, literary stylist: prodigiously active, caustic; alternating brilliant new works with older ones from the emigré past, retooled into English either by himself or, usually, by his son Dimitri. It is a unique destiny: to refit one's past lives to a new language, becoming again the author of one's youth; a conjuror's trick, to use one of Nabokov's favorite images. Through it, a writer haunted by an inaccessible past contrives to have no past. His background shimmers forward, year by year, to be reauthored as foreground.
"A Russian Beauty" is yet another installment from Nabokov's past lives, perhaps the last, for the book is composed essentially of odds and ends: some inconclusive stories from his Berlin period, a striking dream fable, "Terra Incognita," and two chapters from an unfinished novel, the last he attempted before converting to the English language. If Nabokov's recent book, "Transparent Things," was a farewell to literature, as some critics have guessed, then "A Russian Beauty" is a bit of tidying up….
Not since Thomas Mann, or perhaps T. S. Eliot, has a writer bricked himself in so studiously. Perhaps that explains some of the enthusiasm he continues to evoke in his followers. Nabokov offers solace to those who have been unnerved by our indigenous free-lance anarchists of literature. Burroughs, Pynchon, Mailer, even Bellow, dig in the underside of culture; they offer us literature as guerrilla warfare. Nabokov restores for us the tarnished but splendid ideal of art as a counter-institution, an oracular palace in which the reader can take refuge from the hums of contemporary vulgarity.
Although "A Russian Beauty" makes no major contribution to the Nabokovian opus, it is a revealing book, for it shows the cosmopolitan magus, as he indirectly styled himself in moments of rare weakness. The stories limp almost touchingly, with an elegant and pointless air. Coy circus tricks of narrative don't quite make it to the flourish. Between the winking lights of his style and the situations he describes, there is a gap. One doesn't imagine an artistic youth for Nabokov, who seems to have sprung fully grown from Europe's ear, but these stories are a youth of sorts: a cruel, décadent youth, whose affinities are with the evilly immaculate Huysmans, or the pontificating filigree of the brothers Goncourt….
Although I found myself repelled by the frozen brilliance of the stories, I could not help but be fascinated too. How compelling it is to enter a world in which there is no blur, no shadings of uncertainty, where every shadow is black, and every color declares itself with perfect clarity. Nabokov's genius for surfaces is positively Homeric, even in these early stories. Perhaps it is in such terms that one must consider his persistent quarrel with Freud, whose view of experience made surfaces appear suspect, and backgrounds annoyingly true. Psychoanalysis, for Nabokov, becomes nothing less than a sin against style; a science for fat men, and Freud, though he was thin, is the prince of blur.
"A Russian Beauty" is a small book that will change nobody's mind, and will delight some. Although we may soon decide that Nabokov is not the giant we have made him out to be, his conjuror's gift is unmistakeable, even in these fragments from a former life.
Paul Zweig, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1973, p. 21.
From these stories [A Russian Beauty and Other Stories] certain images linger, certain moments: emigre father and son from "Torpid Smoke;" the notion of congruency in "Ultima Thule;" the hanging margin of ham fat in "An Affair of Honor;" geographical and political metamorphosis in "The Visit to the Museum;" echoes of Pale Fire from "Solus Rex;" sleight of hand in "The Potato Elf;" the circle that is "The Circle."
It is enough to say that Vladimir Nabokov is conceivably our greatest living writer in English. Certainly these literary miniatures add to his distinction. Old as they are, they are remarkable for their durability. The time in Nabokov's tales may have passed, but the surface of his fiction still glitters.
Elliott Anderson, in Chicago Tribune Book World, May 6, 1973, p. 15.
[In] Nabokov the nature of reality and the relationship between reality in life and in art (that is, in his own writing) have been constantly recurring themes. In the early poems, for instance, Russia and Russian life are in fact equated with the Russian language, which in turn is the geography of the writer's soul. In Pale Fire the main theme is death, but one searches for reality, tries to find out what actually happened, from John Shade's long narrative poem, from the commentary on that poem, and from the narrative world of the novel itself, of which these two are part. This concern is why the Author as God so often (more often recently?) enters the novels, Nabokov Himself appearing subtly, to express his concern, his problems or his pleasure in exploring reality. If indeed any reality outside literature exists—there is a moving passage in Speak Memory where he describes how when he looks back much of his life seems to have vanished, devoured by his art.
There is in fact no work of Nabokov's where this theme, and attendant puzzles, does not play a fairly major role. No work in which his style is not an integral part of the demonstration. What makes Transparent Things so interesting, and important, is that both have become the entire substance of the book.
J. Gathorne-Hardy, "Poor Person," in London Magazine, August/September, 1973, pp. 152-53.
Transparent Things surprises not with its invention, flair, astounding twists, etc, but because it appears that, at last, Nabokov, the king who plays the jester, has come up with a work which, if not a dud, is certainly much slighter in its aspiration, scope, ingenuity and power to delight than one might reasonably have anticipated on the strength of his string of marvels stretching from Laughter in the Dark (written in the early Thirties) to Ada, four years ago. Still, his one previous mishap, clumsy Pnin, came lumbering in Lolita's alluring little tracks and preceded Pale Fire, so maybe next season our hero will be in fine form….
Most of the author's characteristic devices are to be found here in one form or another: the intertwining of dream and reality (two words which, he asserts in a chapter on punctuation, require inverted commas), the rather arch use of interior duplications, anagrams, alliteration, puns, tarnished, hopeless romanticism et al. But it all seems so tired and Nabokov ('Adam von Librikov') who appeared so mischievous, as well he might, in the photo on Ada's dustcover now looks jaded and resigned.
Jonathan Meades, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1973, p. 86.
Nabokov's collection of early stories [A Russian Beauty and Other Stories] shows that he was an earnest reader of at least Chekhov and Mann, not necessarily to his advantage….
Nabokov's development tends to resemble a creeping elephantiasis of traits that weren't attractive from the beginning, though in the beginning they at least permitted him to have literary ancestors. Ultimately Nabokov, like Joyce, eliminates art by creating the autonomous author: sensibility orbiting perpetually on itself.
Marvin Mudrick, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973, pp. 560-61.
The stories [in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories] are important footnotes to the old trickster's later oeuvre, early work it's good to have available, even though the author's footnotes to it deliberately blur our focus on it. The notes, in fact, confirm the place of this youthful stuff in the game with readers and reality whose rules and ploys have got increasingly elaborate as the years have rolled by. Signs of the game are there even this early. There's experimenting with form: 'The Circle' is circular and, the note boasts, before Finnegans Wake. There's the easing of the author away from his fiction: the narrator of 'The Leopard' evinces astonishment that the hero turns out to be a counterfeiter, not the poor poet he always assumed him. There's linguistic and logical teasing: the narrator of 'Ultima Thule' addresses his dead wife on the grounds that 'the memory of you can pass, grammatically speaking at least, for your memory.' And Nabokov's customary verbal obscurity is also there, though perhaps the translation is more to blame than the original: I would bet that he used simpler words in the Russian for nictating, sculptitory, urningism, caromlike and rutaboga. But better than all the flashiness is Nabokov's manifest skill at constructing short stories: his endings are frequently superb: wry, of course, sad and saddening, and deeply humane.
Valentine Cunningham, "Old Hats," in The Listener, October 11, 1973, pp. 491-92.
Bend Sinister, reissued now after years of hiding out of print, contends with Ada for pride of place as Nabokov's most unsuccessful work. Unsuccessful shall be understood to mean what literary critics and other lowlife seem to think it connotes: unconvincing, cluttered with cute distractions, uneven, unrealized, poor, disappointing. Of course, the judgment is relative—BS is disappointing compared with other books its author has written before, and after. And even if it is his worst, or next to worst, that doesn't signify that it is his least interesting or that, in the phrase of his publisher's PR man (see Mr. N. wince), its re-publication is not "politically timely."…
Insofar as any of Nabokov's elaborate artifices of books are about anything, they are about the prism of his mind, about how the world is reflected in it real and imagined, that unique optical instrument being intersected by mirrors on which are superimposed decals of butterflies, chessboards, anagrams, and the persistent flashback of a father assassinated by Fascists in Berlin….
[There] is no doubt that the verbal play in this book is sometimes gratuitous, the intrusion of the godlike author irritating, and, most damaging, the central, heroic figure, Krug, is rather incredible and uninteresting—strange attributes for a Nabokovian protagonist. It is as if the hatred and revulsion Nabokov, a two-time refugee, feels for totalitarians, the levelers masked as supermen, and the succoring salvation he takes from intellectual superiority and art for its own sake interfered here with the infinitely complicated refractions of his mind, simplifying them almost, though not quite, out of recognition. For BS, while it is not first-rate Nabokov, is recognizably the artist's, not an imitator's work; nor is it an unintended self-parody. From it glow unmistakably, if dimly—as though back in pupa, so to speak—intimations of the radiant, wonderfully sustained flash of his masterpieces, to wit, The Gift, Lolita, Pale Fire, Speak Memory, and the dark horse (pun and mixed metaphors intended) entry, The Defense.
Edward Grossman, "Butterflies, Chessboards, and Anagrams," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 23, 1973, p. 59.
"Strong Opinions" might be subtitled "The Mostly Collected Nabokov." Though he composes his answers, they are not always composed….
The master of sexual evocation is irritable generally toward sexual content in the fiction of others. The fact is, he does sexual writing better than anyone else; why can't he let his inferiors alone?…
In his ceaseless petulance over Freudianism Nabokov becomes stupider and sillier yet. "I cannot conceive how anybody in his right mind should go to a psychoanalyst." "Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of my mind?" "I also suggest that the Freudian faith leads to dangerous ethical consequences, such as when a filthy murderer with the brain of a tapeworm is given a lighter sentence because his mother spanked him too much or too little." This is the language of an ignorant reactionary inducing a philistine yock, and it misses the point every time….
But just around the corner of these asinine, corny opinions lives the great Nabokov. His hatred of Freud is his adoration of the independent imagination. His hatred of "general ideas" is his love for specific things. His love for the specific is one reason his fiction is capable of such luminosity; the subject of the specific gets loving attention in "Strong Opinions."…
It may be damaging to his work that, though Nabokov has his literary loves (Joyce, for "Ulysses"; Pushkin, H. G. Wells, Chekhov, Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Melville, Hawthorne, Sterne, Lewis Carroll, Salinger, Updike, and others) and his butterflies, he is short on the spirit of admiration—the quality that Mann, in a moving essay on Wagner, calls "the best thing we have." But when we think of the thrillingly vivid worlds Nabokov has re-created with such immaculate originality—when we think of his powerful and generous uniqueness in stead of his "supreme indifference"—we cannot help loving and thanking him.
Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1973, pp. 36-7.
The conflict that a novel sets up, Nabokov was to say, is not between the characters but between the author and his readers. The illusionist in charge must "trip up" the reader, outwit him at every turn, and in fact unseat him as the condition of the author's keeping control. As Nabokov's Russian novels mounted up in English versions, their barbed prefaces said explicitly (with a certain innocent pomposity characteristic of the swagger in his English), what his American novels—Pnin, Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada—had already hinted. My fiction, dear reader, is a cunning and systematic revision of your reality. Fiction is the most urgent game, a contest of minds: if I win, the reader must surrender. There is no equality in nature, only endless adaptation. The novelist is supreme, and the novel brings out the different shimmering patterns—a contrast between those who cannot see beyond the bars of their cage and a mind that is free, lordly, momentous, ranging in nature just wherever it likes. And so is in command of the comedy inherent in the clash of appearances….
Nabokov plainly circumscribes the novels as a form to the quality of his own perceptions….
This ability to find the world so resplendently at his nerve ends, this exalted quality of self-reference means for Nabokov the supremacy of fiction the "antiworld" over reality. All political and religious dogmatisms, all constructed systems that seek to be absolutist versions of "reality," are founded on lies. But his novels honestly seem to Nabokov more interesting, more valuable than others because they are so much his, express so much curiosity, playfulness, invention, subtlety, that they give more free exercise to the mind, fortify the constructing human imagination. There is no "world," no model or replica that will unify the various stands of our imagination. There are no "spots of time" in this world that are landmarks of eternity, no divine patience that will raise ordinary life to the sublimity of mythology, pace Joyce in Ulysses! Hemingway said that "one true sentence" was enough to get him started. But this world as an allegory of the truth has for Nabokov nothing to do with fiction; there is just the mundane and the other. Life is too complex, as we are too specialized, for any reflection or "epiphany" or symbol of something higher than itself to emerge from fiction. Life and death are fascinatingly patterned phenomena, endlessly foldable and unfoldable, the beautiful variousness of nature: the thing-in-itself….
What moves us, indeed, is fiction as Nabokov's reality, the insistency of the emotional loyalties that his elaborate wary mind likes to conceal. There is no "reality" except as we divest it of the "quotation marks it wore like claws"? There is no central truth, only a supreme fiction created by that matching relationship of subject and artist, that appropriation of reality for oneself? That matching, that coming together of "mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation" made Nabokov discover in nature and art the same "nonutilitarian delights…. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and description." Fiction even for this exile was not time recaptured but the sought-for thing in itself; fiction was the antiworld that could take one out of "exile."
This has been Nabokov's peculiarly personal achievement. He has in fact been so living and existential a storyteller in making us identify with his protagonists, all those shades of and jokes on Nabokov, that one irony of his career is that despite his refusal to belong to anything but his art and his family, he is the one twentieth-century master novelist whose mind and heart we know best—whose every personal opinion we know better than we have ever known Joyce and Proust. This is because of the extraordinary expressiveness with which Nabokov has itemized his sense of exile—and therefore what he holds on to. The consistency of his affections is openly at variance with the seeming concealment of his means. Only fiction, as Nabokov practices it, could so much bring home the personal aspiration behind it: which is not to remake life into fiction, but to celebrate the conclusive evidence of his own heart.
So, with Nabokov, we come back to something that everyone else has doubted: the indissolubility of life with fiction. When we see life as purely a story, and story as the natural projection of a mind wholly curious rather than moral, we grasp what Nabokov has gained by seeing life wholly as the truth of what seems. We escape the clutching at relevance, the effort to establish relations between life and art. Perhaps this unusual freedom is possible only when a writer is so deep in his exile that exile becomes his life—not "life" in general, not anyone else's life. Then, from the depths of his exile, he is able to see everything as necessarily a fiction, to tell the story over and again to himself as if there were nothing but the shapes made by the unfolding of the story.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 299-312.
Nabokov's Lolita is (at last estimate) two thousand or so things—prominent among the rest, a detective story. (McFate is sometimes called Lieutenant Trapp.) As in Crime and Punishment, the detective is also the criminal; but Dostoyevsky makes Raskolnikov play this double role, back and forth, through a policeman essentially outside the crime: he must stalk the man who stalks him. Humbert and Quilty, by contrast, track in on each other as mutual accuser-criminals, growing toward each other's destruction, Humbert in terror and Quilty with a leer. Not only Humbert, but Lolita herself, is possessed by Quilty, who can only be exorcised at last by murder. This detective story does not solve a crime, but is solved by one.
It is also, of course, a love story, as many have realized. All the clinical talk of girls half-nymphed into womanhood—time's mermaids, amphibious, belonging fully to neither world—is in the long run misleading. Lolita does not fulfill Humbert's obsession with nymphets; she destroys it. His concern had been for a type, cocooned outside of time in a frozen moment of becoming. The mounted butterfly cannot decay, because it cannot (any longer) live. Humbert, with a thousand such butterfly slides to view, in his poise of remote satisfaction, meets Lolita at just her moment of chrysalus—loss and descent from nymphethood—and he follows her down. The two years of his life with her, and the two years after, are all post-nymphet years. He sees her last in a splayed and cowlike pregnancy, and never loved her more. By his own fastidious measure, cultivated half a lifeless lifetime, she represents his fall from an aesthetic state of grace. He dies into time with every sag of her flesh. Having flirted with her in his Eden of the mind, he loves her outside the fiery gates—now his and her flesh darken together back toward earth. He is redeemed by his fall, made capable of loving. And so capable of damning her….
Lolita is an even rarer thing than an honest love story. It is our best modern hate story. Unrequited love is, from the outset, half made up of hate. Self-hate for loving—or else, on the other side, for not loving; a shared intimacy of detesting, uncontrollable as love itself….
No matter what the division or barriers between a cold loved person and the lover, they agree on one crucial point—both do love the same person…. In the case of the loved unlover (who is an unmoved mover), the secret tie lies in a barren uniformity under all the reversals: both A and B love A, and only A….
This is the bond Humbert and Lolita share, wedded by her unresponsiveness. She accepts that burden, and even appeals to it, later, asking for financial support as a dark marriage right. But as they both loved the same object ("Lo"), they are also linked, in a camaraderie of plague victims, by hating the same object: the Humbert mirrored back on Humbert in her own revulsion or coarsening…. There is nothing crueler than love. He needs her, and diminishes her by the need; and despises himself for doing so. He preys on what he admires, destroying it with admiration. He is her tempter, but also—quite sincerely, as he assures Quilty at the end—her father. Both God and Satan to her, creating and undoing her. Romantic agony over his own deterioration he could stand, and even prettify. But love breaks him out from all such excuses into a larger prison—hers, the one he forged for her in darkness. His hell is the fact that he damned her….
Why is Quilty needed? Humbert is quite sufficient to his own dis-Edening. We all glide as our own serpent into our own garden. Why blame this on any other? Humbert mirrors the answer back on Humbert: the hate in him mocking his love, growing with it, inseparable—until he kills it, hating his hatred out of existence, destroying himself for love….
Love tries to absorb the other, and so does hate. The unwilling recipient of this attention has obviously inflicted an agony he was unaware of, just like the loved person who cannot respond.
In this way does the cool, intelligent malice of Quilty dog and disanimate Humbert till he turns at bay to hunt down his hunter. Everything doubled and palindromic in Humbert Humbert—the father who cradles, and rapist who tore—adds up to the need for exorcizing Quilty….
Quilty has not descended into the flesh by loving Lolita. He represents the pure butterfly-collecting Humbert of the book's first pages, living on untouched, playing in lepidopteral heaven—until boredom begins to twist the colored slides new perverse ways. Quilty uses and moves on, laughing. Of course, his amusements become more recondite, as his final temptations to Humbert indicate: he would have his chum with a gun join him in connoisseurship of "a young lady with three breasts, one a dandy." He barely remembers the girl who gave Humbert a soul to be damned. He remains a Humbert not yet fallen down toward love, a truly angelic mocker.
And Lolita is still fascinated by that "higher" Humbert, to which the lower one introduced her, seducing her—as it turns out—for another. His other. So Quilty must be destroyed, to rescue her. In the novel's mythic scheme, we never question the necessity of killing Quilty. Devils must be exorcised, destroyed even when this is self-destruction. Humbert therefore kills, like Ahab, trammeled up in his own act: "I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us."
This fierce exorcism over, Humbert rests in his own hell. Destroying his image, he has stepped through the mirror, gone where his simius Dei dwelt, whence he looks out now, suspended in an eternity of upside-down, the last Orwellian state…. The "wrong side" is now his natural condition. He has achieved his hell through love, and the entire book, written in retrospect, is a set of love letters from hell. Hell, that is, is not an absence of love (defectus amoris), but a conscious love that tortures itself for what it has done to the beloved…. So the hellish letters get written. By killing his devil-image in the mirror, Humbert has achieved his self-abdication, and can rest in hell….
Lolita would not be the masterpiece it is without Quilty. The devil is, at least, necessary in that sense. Humbert, however complexified internally, needs his "outside" devil to become himself—by destroying himself. There is no question, here, of shifting blame onto another. We come to be, after all, in and through others. The serpent is in Eden for the same reason that Adam and Eve are—they must have a dialogue to have a seduction; man falls as part of a story, and drops into history.
Garry Wills, "The Devil and Lolita," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), February 21, 1974, pp. 4-6.