Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 3)

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Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 7,414 words.)