Vladimir Nabokov

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Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–1977

Born in Russia, Nabokov emigrated to England in 1919, became an American citizen in 1945, and resided in Switzerland during the last years of his life. He was a prolific contributor to many literary fields, producing work in both Russian and English and distinguishing himself as a novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, translator, biographer, and autobiographer. Nabokov was fascinated with all aspects of the creative life: in his works he explored the origins of creativity, the relationships of the artist to his work, and the nature of invented reality. A brilliant prose stylist, Nabokov entertained and sometimes exasperated his readers with his love of intellectual and verbal games. His technical genius as well as the exuberance of his creative imagination mark him as a major twentieth-century author. Nabokov also wrote under the pseudonym of V. Sirin. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)

R. M. Keils

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The best of [Nabokov's] humor is not inflicted upon us. It appears thinly, a condensate, like something in our breath. It is humor that points at something unseen and unfunny. "Speaking of old men … an eccentric librarian called Porlock … in the last years of his dusty life had been engaged in examining old books for miraculous misprints such as the substitution of 'l' for the second 'h' in the word 'hither.'… all he sought was the freak itself, the chance that mimics choice …" (from "The Vane Sisters").

Out of the comic practice of individuals arises the tragic condition of man. Accepting this as a premise of Nabokov's art, the reader finds no surprises in [Tyrants Destroyed And Other Stories]. Politicans pursued (perhaps), lovers missed at railroad stops because of the chance shunting of a car, a child's prank. Finally, death. These are some of the colors of the thirteen stories in Tyrants Destroyed. (p. 384)

R. M. Keils, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1976 by Newberry College), Summer, 1976.

James Rother

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Can anyone doubt that rather than duplicate the parturitional feat whereby a mountain spews forth a mouse, Nabokov opts for the reverse maternal drama in which a mouse risks conception to bring forth a mountain? Ostensibly in Ada, the authorial quest involves the pursuit of Time by Memory, the two being courtly lovers of the mind whose Proustian infidelities often leave us wondering whether in our romance with the past we haven't somehow confused the fictional swain with the autobiographical cuckold. But the real obsession of the book (and of all Nabokov's works since his first "American" novel, Lolita) is with facts, and having grasped this, we should have no difficulty making sense of a style whose passion for instructing the reader (mostly in things he never dreamt he was ignorant of) is discernible on every page.

Instruction, of course, suggests the deploying of facts, and the discreet observer of "transparent things," like his fellow peripheralists, never tires of telling us that our night-sea journey is through an ocean of data as much as through a vortex of words—data, it may be pointed out, which have in themselves as meager a rationale as do the varieties of supposition which led their formulators to discover them. And they are everywhere in Nabokov, fastidiously avoiding verification and one another, since, from the parafictional point of view, any collusion of facts within the grand cabal of a novel or story sows suspicion regarding the identicalness of fiction and reality. Thus, from Lolita to the present, Nabokov's oeuvre is seamless and of a piece, which is why grave problems arise whenever we try to distinguish his parafictional "fiction" from his parafictional...

(This entire section contains 867 words.)

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"non-fiction."… (p. 40)

Of course, it is nearly impossible to do so…. For one thing, the acts of creation which brought both Ada and the autobiographical work Speak, Memory … into being, though disjunct in time, are not in Nabokov's mind really separable at all. The universe which includes these utterances among its paraphernalia also contains not one Russian emigré named Vladimir Nabokov, but thousands of them, each capable of recalling in the leisure of his mind some memorable time when some other Nabokov, with either the same or a different name, remembered having imagined an author imagining him. Such frame-tales are the very stuff of life, not of novels; that we tend to forget this fact and ignore its implications speaks well of our empiricism but not of our perspicacity. Exhibit: a parafictionist (let us for lack of a better name call him Nabokov) undertakes in the year 1969 to publish an account of how a Her or a She (named Ada) was pursued within the confines of some 445 pages of manuscript. (In all fairness to my terminological competitors, it must be admitted that figures in parafiction [not the parafictionists themselves] do frequently quest after some meta-fictional object which, like Barth's Her or She, remains chronically inaccessible.) He envisions a narrator who in turn posits an author having several tomes to his credit…. This same author claims to be fifty-two years old at a present moment in mid-July, 1922, and is beginning yet another masterwork, The Texture of Time. Not without a certain gourmet's complacency does this man of letters ponder the delicacies of Time and the pleasures of recollection…. (p. 41)

In 1922, the original parafictionist, already identified as Nabokov, was in the process of graduating from Cambridge University, having to his credit a number of publications…. Having himself always been fascinated with "the texture of time," he undertook to revise in 1966 (a mere three years before the appearance of Ada) a memoir which had originally been titled Conclusive Evidence, and which had described a "genius of total recall" recapturing from some lost and phantasmagorical past such minutiae as the vague remembrance of "the memory of 'memory's sting.'"… Of course, one of the major literary events of 1922 was a book called Ulysses about a particular day in 1904—June 16, to be exact—which day begins its odyssey in a Martello tower strangely similar to the "crenelated, cream-colored tower" where, according to the reminiscences of [Nabokov's] Speak, Memory, the parafictionist, aged five, spent the summer of that same year. (p. 42)

Nabokov's canon invokes monumental indeterminacy to suggest that to use one's memory is not to remember what has happened, but rather to remember what is happening. To demand that memory speak beyond earshot of the present is to make of memory a ventriloquist's dummy which, being unable to speak for itself, must be spoken for just as characters in novels are spoken for. And what this dummy inevitably articulates are facts—facts delivered in the wooden prose of history and which, by their rich profusion in text after text, disguise the ongoing impersonation of truth, deny that what is being said yields no recapturable past. The parafictionist, regardless of whom he is not being from moment to moment, can only speak in the language shared by his created selves—those autobiodegradable doubles who, by some magic of dissimulation, give his world resonance within the voice-box of a book. Which is, of course, mute—as mute as everything must be beyond catastrophe, beyond finale's outer rim. (pp. 42-3)

James Rother, in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1976), Fall, 1976.

W. Walkarput

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Andrew Field does not exist. The book recently published under his name, Nabokov: His Life in Part, is in fact a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov. It is the final and most triumphantly ironic work of one of the most important authors of this century. Such, at any rate, is the impression created upon a reader of Nabokov's fiction by Mr. Field's new book.

I do not actually know whether Andrew Field exists, and I would prefer not to find out. Unfortunately, so as to protect this publication and myself from possible legal action, I must appear to assume that Mr. Field does exist. But I shall continue to read and think of Nabokov: His Life in Part not as if it were some stranger's strange job of biography, but rather as one of Nabokov's own delightful blends of fact and fiction. For there is no other way to make sense of this book.

"I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel," as Charles Kinbote puts it in Nabokov's novel Pale Fire (1962). But like Kinbote's "Commentary" on John Shade's poem, Nabokov: His Life in Part is not nearly so unambiguous as it seems. Vladimir Nabokov may as conceivably be the author behind Andrew Field's work as he is of the series of Russian novels published under the name of V. Sirin. It would be far from the first time that the author had fooled us for, as his readers well know, Vladimir Nabokov is nothing if not a master of disguise. (p. 72)

More than a few of Nabokov's acknowledged novels are properly read as intellectual comedies in which more or less persistent biographers struggle to pin down their more or less unwilling subjects. The centerpiece of his most ambitious Russian novel. The Gift (written in 1937), is the biography of a real writer (Nikolai Chernyshevsky) as composed by Nabokov's imaginary narrator. In Conclusive Evidence (1951, later Speak, Memory, "An Autobiography Revisited"), Nabokov fashioned his own memoir into a durable work of art. And in Pnin (1957) a distinguished Russian émigré, teaching, like Nabokov himself, at an American university, is ridiculed and belittled by a mean-spirited narrator who only succeeds in making his subject more lovable than ever. I submit (as 'Andrew Field' would say) that Nabokov: His Life in Part inherits its themes from all of these books; and that, as a deft and complex intellectual comedy, it deserves its place on the shelf of Nabokov's best fiction.

The comedy in this book is easily overlooked and yet, for that very reason, all the more satisfying once it is perceived. It derives from the exaggerated obtuseness of the character named 'Field' as he persists in tormenting the character named 'Nabokov.' 'Field' plays Kinbote to 'Nabokov''s John Shade. 'Field' appropriates 'Nabokov,' he belittles him, he ridicules him, he makes his life miserable—and makes himself ludicrous in the process…. 'Nabokov,' meanwhile, performs as the classic comic butt (falling fully dressed into ponds, committing impossible blunders of syntax) and yet somehow—here is the magic—he manages to transcend his "biografiend." It is an astonishing performance. (p. 73)

Nabokov: His Life in Part is not only the comedy of 'Field' versus 'Nabokov'—it is also the sequel to Nabokov's first memoir Speak, Memory, and therefore contains the author's long-promised account of his American period. Nabokov's success in co-ordinating these two fundamentally different genres—the autonomous comedy and the personal memoir—marks the true mastery for which this book must be valued. (p. 74)

Those of any sensitivity who try to read Nabokov: His Life in Part as a serious biography can only be pained by 'Field's' disrespect for his subject, in much the same way that the naive reader of Pale Fire resents Kinbote's distortion of John Shade's poem. In fact, the kinship of these two responses is one of the surest clues to the 'Field' book's true nature. (p. 75)

In his discussions of Nabokov's novels, 'Field' seems at times to exemplify literary biography's very worst tendency, a denial of the possibility of artistic creativity: "Glory is a direct telling of many details of Nabokov's life in slightly altered form." After such statements as this, no reader who has any acquaintance with Nabokov should be able to take 'Andrew Field' seriously. (p. 76)

The paradoxical effort of two characters writing about each other to produce a single book informs the basic structure of at least three other Nabokov novels: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pale Fire, and Ada. In the last line of Sebastian Knight, the famous author and his biographer reveal themselves to be one and the same person, an invisible but strongly implied Vladimir Nabokov…. The debate in the Life in Part over whether John Shade or Charles Kinbote is the real author of Pale Fire is protracted to such an absurd degree that the reader cannot fail to recognize that true responsibility for that novel lies with neither but behind them both in Nabokov's own implied authorship. The issue is neatly displayed in a splendid diagram of the situation of Pale Fire in the Life in Art—no more of Shade than his legs or of Kinbote than his head can be made out, suggesting that they may indeed be one creature, and the entire scene is illuminated by a radiant sun labelled NABOKOV—but of course 'Andrew Field' takes no note of these things in his accompanying text. The same struggle for control of the implied authorship takes place in the Life in Part as in Pale Fire, but in the 'Field-Nabokov' contest the stakes are much higher. The names of both contenders appear on the cover of the book. (p. 80)

Vladimir Nabokov's death so soon after the publication of Nabokov: His Life in Part is impossible to discuss at this point without pain. But it must be asserted that such patterns do lie at the very center of the master's work. In Pale Fire, John Shade dies into the last line of his poem when an assassin mistakes the poet for his critic. At the end of The Defense (1930), Luzhin perishes into the eternity of his chessboard, finally at one with the patterns of his art. Nabokov wrote of Ada and Van,

One can even surmise that if our time-racked, flat-lying couple ever intended to die, they would die, as it were, into the finished book, into Eden or Hades, into the prose of the book or the poetry of its blurb.

Nabokov's final, most oblique and most personal novel concludes as follows:

Done and done then. A portrait of Vladimir Nabokov, Russian-American writer of our time and of his own reality.

The End. Oh. The End. (p. 81)

[The Editors of Chicago Review add the following disclaimer]: The Editors of Chicago Review accept no responsibility for the views expressed in the preceding article. Andrew Field is a well-known critic who has published widely, and not only on Nabokov; he teaches at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. We offer "NABOKOV: His Life Is Art" to our readers as a curiosity merely; the reality of Mr. Walkarput is itself in some doubt. (p. 82)

W. Walkarput [pseudonym of Brian Stonehill], "Nabokov: His Life 'Is' Art" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright © 1979 by Brian Stonehill), in Chicago Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1977, pp. 72-82.

Robert Martin Adams

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Sometimes Nabokov in his authorial person mocks the passive or careless reader with his inattention; more often he silently challenges the alert reader by hiding significant clues in insignificant places, covering a real gesture with flashy indirections, hinting through what seem to be accidental correspondences at what seem to be significant significances. The novels click and glitter like sewing machines; they are so active and provoking on their corrugated and baroque surfaces, that one is apt to overlook their retention, at the center, of a touch of romantic sentiment, a shy and well-protected element of human feeling. Beneath even that level, there is occasionally to be found another layer of thought or feeling, perhaps only half-serious but perhaps more than that—persistent enough, in any case, to merit comment—a teasing, tantalizing fascination with the occult and the notion of life after death. (p. 146)

[At the end of Lolita,] Humbert undergoes a kind of transformation. He is said to reach through his sickness, rise out of his selfishness, and recognize in himself nothing less than True Love:…

I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another's child, but … still mine….

Perhaps the rhetoric carries the reader along; Humbert clearly intends it to, and the fact that she is no longer a radiant child tempts us to think that he has perhaps transcended his hangup, is declaring (as forcibly as the long-debauched idiom of romantic passion will allow) an authentic adoration. Yet the last phrase of the passage all but overtly declares itself a self-deception. "Still mine," indeed!—except as a beast in a cage belongs to its keeper, she had never been "his." To possess a nymphet was a selfish fantasy; perhaps the idea of "possessing" any fellow creature is bound to be a selfish fantasy. Humbert's notion that he ever had "possessed" Lolita is as false as his notion that he can or will possess her again. But I don't think these are the feelings with which we read, or are supposed to read, the passage. (Literary moralists, an extremely offensive subspecies of an offensive breed, are always tugging us by the elbow and telling us we shouldn't react as an author has in fact made us react; as a critical procedure, it simply raises taking-out-of-context to the level of a first principle.) At least on the wings of his own imagination and his own undeniable eloquence, Humbert has risen from the state of a loathsome creep to the simulation—at least—of a grand, heroic passion. And if there is, inevitably, enough egoism in every grand passion to suggest the possibility of the lover being a loathsome creep, that may be because grand passions themselves are pretty anachronistic.

Such being the case, we are bound to feel that the very presence of a grand passion in Nabokov's fiction (however ambiguous, however qualified) is more Proustian than Joycean…. Humbert is a descendant of Tristan; his story is a Liebestod. Lolita as classic romance is qualified chiefly by the uncrucial circumstance that the knight is himself half-dragon, but it culminates, just as securely as any medieval chanson de geste, with the hero standing triumphantly over the decapitated monster. (pp. 149-50)

Nabokov's theme of the pure, sustained, difficult, and ultimately fatal passion can be traced from the quite early Russian fictions (Glory, for example) through Ada at least; though a recurrent theme, it peeps forth only guardedly and intermittently from under the carapace of the hard-shelled, trick-playing, exhibitionistic fictions. One may feel that without this strain many of them would be only glistening mechanical contraptions; yet it undeniably marks Nabokov as of an older and more ample generation than our own. He himself has said something to this effect in Ada, by declaring that affairs in Anti-terra (which I take to be the world of his imagination) lag about fifty years behind those on Terra—the real, that is, the imaginary world common to his readers.

Of all these later novels, Pale Fire is surely the most oddly shaped, the most heavily laden with verbal and representational tricks; it has received the most loving attention from those readers who delight in the gamesman side of Nabokov's art. Yet within it too there can be found a kernel of something softer and more inward, the germ of a thwarted and difficult romance triumphing over impossibilities. At first glance. Pale Fire seems to be a novel in spite of itself. Divided into four parts, it would consist of a bumbling poem by bumbling John Shade, a predatory, paranoid commentary on the poem by Charles Kinbote, and within that commentary a tale of Ruritanian romance (intrigue, escape, ruthless long-range revenge), plus a wildly comic and very informative index. Telling a pair of converging stories across these several obstacles and through incongruous angles of consciousness is a tour de force in itself. As usual in Nabokov, we must take account of distorted consciousness and several varieties of contrived reticence in order to get anywhere near the heart of the matter. Kinbote is the most obviously disturbed of our narrators…. [He] is a botched and incompetent artist, vain, self-conscious, self-absorbed, and utterly insensitive to the feelings of others. Apart from his persistent fantasies of humiliation, Nabokov's thought was surely shaped here by an impulse to parody his own parasitic relation, as editor, to Pushkin as poet. The success of his parody is shown by the fact that most readers have been more intrigued by Kinbote and his melodramatic tale of Gradus and Charles-Xavier the Beloved than by the poem of John Shade which provides the pretext for the commentary that provides the pretext for the tale.

Shade's poem is an ungainly and uncouth piece of verse which, from the literary point of view, deserves no better reading than the one it gets from Kinbote. But he is wholly wrong about it in two ways; he thinks it a marvelous piece of writing, and ignores precisely and brutally those passages which do achieve an awkward kind of pathos. (pp. 150-52)

[An] important new element in Pale Fire is surely the sustained contrast between Shade, the provincial at ease in his own New Wye environment—interpenetrated as it is with intimations and correspondences of another existence …—and the haunted, haunting outsider Kinbote, who is in so many respects Shade's mirror image, moon to Shade's sun. In another analogy, Shade is very like transparent glass, Kinbote a mirror; the one (like Bloom) is the vehicle of intuitions to which he offers no obstacle and so hardly perceives, the other (like Stephen) carries his own story with him, always and everywhere the same. But both characters, and in this respect they carry forward strikingly a feature of late Joycean technique, are penetrated and infused with messages and images, intimations and intuitions, from outside reality. Some effort has been put into the thesis that Kinbote's Zembla and the entire story woven about it are nothing but a private hallucination…. [However], we are not dealing here with an essay in ontology. It's precisely the struggle between two different (and rather awful) modes of reality that creates the interest of the fiction; and to make one of them (however Ruritanian) wholly fictitious is to throw oneself into the arms of the other, however drab. Like others of Nabokov's artist-criminals (Humbert of Lolita, Hermann of Despair), Kinbote winds up in a mountain refuge, writing the story of his crimes and applauding his own insane ingenuity. Precisely because he's so unchecked, so unreliable, we are not supposed to believe or disbelieve whole-heartedly what he says; we must guess, grope, blunder among the probabilities. And so with the novel of which he forms a part. Pale Fire no more affirms or denies anything, including the potentiality of its own cosmos, than does [Finnegans Wake]—it is simply an achieved book. Its theme is the invasion of a haunted ordinary by an obsessed fantasy, a zombie in bondage to a spellbound ghost. The inevitably inconclusive conclusion of such an encounter throws us back on the tricks of language, synchrony, mirror-imagery, and recondite reference interwoven with fancy, that make up the detailed texture of Pale Fire.

Gamesmanship in this book is more ostentatious than in Nabokov's other novels because it consists, not just of little knots in the narrative lines, but of direct and massive opposition between one theme and another. Kinbote of course is determined that Shade's poem shall not be itself, but rather the poem he would have imposed upon (inspired in) Shade; in addition, the basic structure of footnotes and index imposes on the narrative abrupt leaps backward and forward in time, as well as sidelong motions from theme to theme. There are as many false leads along synchronic lines as there are significant ones…. [Whether coincidental data] do or don't have tangential significance is up to the reader to guess; but hardly a fragment of Zemblan is cited that can't be heard as a variety of deformed English, anagrams and backward spellings are everywhere, and playful fantasies like the garden containing all the trees mentioned by Shakespeare entice one into further reflections than they can possibly reward. (pp. 155-57)

Not only the language but the landscapes of Ada deliberately conflate spheres of existence—and these are more than the spheres of two very different minds, as in Pale Fire; they are two entirely different nations and cultures and even two mirror-images of the cosmos, Terra (our world, which occupies the same ambiguous status as heaven or the afterlife) and the world of the fiction, Demonia or Anti-terra, which all the characters accept as the "real" world…. Nabokov distances this imaginary "real" world not only in time (the entire action of Ada takes place after the Revelation, also known as the L-disaster), but in a cosmos of incalculable, though peripheral, strangeness. The law of gravity is now and then suspended through the operation of flying carpets, and there is a permanent ban on the use, or even the mention (except covertly) of electricity—which seems to have taken the place of sex as a taboo topic. People speak a mongrel mixture of Russian, French, German, English slang, and erudite English from the small-print section at the bottom of the page of Webster's Second International. Trans-lingual puns abound, along with bastardized place names (Akapulkovo) and a rich array of verbal off-rhymes and almostings (Kaluga, Raduga, Ladoga, Luga, Laguna, Lugano, Lumbago, Ladore, Ladorah, Radugalet); the effect is to blur and diffuse one's sense of Anti-terra by dissolving it into a set of unsteady and constantly shifting overlays. In the large sense. Anti-terra is haunted by fitful glimpses and unreliable intimations of life on Terra.

I don't doubt that Nabokov is particularly delighted with some of the proofs invented by modern physics for establishing the existence of life or anti-life on other planets—proofs which levitate giddily on the laws of bare probability and the total absence of factual evidence. Just so the Anti-terrans can neither accept nor dismiss the existence of Terra…. Anti-terra is a blur of fantasies. Czarist Russia, Hollywood, Canadian frontier-life, and international high society blend together in a froth of cinematic collages. Literature spills over into life repeatedly; we find Chateaubriand's oak in botany textbooks, Chateaubriand's mosquito biting bare legs, John Shade's poem being translated by Ada into Russian, Maupassant meandering through the watery labyrinths of Mlle. Lariviere's mind. Van, as ostensible author, intervenes from time to time; Nabokov as real author does the same; Ada interjects, and so (discreetly) does an unidentified Ed.

Set in this layercake of contrasting contexts, the romance of Van and Ada Veen contains too many elements of derring-do and pre-fab fictional claptrap not to be seen, at least in some measure, as parody or self-parody. (There's an awful possibility that parodic intent may not underlie Van Veen's vacant meditations on time, which occupy so much of Section 4; but that's an alternative to be avoided for as long as possible.) In the other direction, the romance is qualified by the inhuman egotism of this marvelously self-satisfied couple and a frank recognition, even on their part, of their own hideous brutality toward others—like a gang of birds setting on a weak member of the flock, they have literally pecked Lucette to death. But at root the romance is to be accepted romantically—one sign of which is the sardonic little review that Nabokov has appended to his own fiction. It is, of course, a silly, sentimental, and superficial review—as if Nabokov were trying to ward off, by parodying, a view of his novel that in fact it invites. Amid the phantoms, demons, delusions, and echoes in which his novels delight to play, amid all the skepticisms and sterilities with which he must surround it and ridicule it, Nabokov retains a core of feeling whose intensity we sense for the most part only reflexively, through the cheval de frise of verbal fortifications with which he protects it.

Of all Joyce's influences on Nabokov, probably the most important though the least easy to document is in the matter of imitative prose. The influence is hard to document, not for lack of examples, but because a master of prose style will find the special rhythms and images of his subject, regardless of predecessors or authorities. Prose style in fiction is, after all, not a thing in itself, so much as a matter of fluidity and flexibility in intimating both a scene and a set of feelings surrounding it. Like Joyce, Nabokov writes a wonderfully adaptable and various prose which at its best freezes a bundle of widespread particulars into an instant of suddenly stopped unity…. [He can write] a sentence as swift and sinuous as the complex of actions that it embraces. On the other hand, when the narrative disappears into the strange sick minds of Aqua or Lucette, though it maintains a difference between them, the language moves with a quick and frightened vivacity, as if disordered and out of control but drawn irresistibly forward by a power outside itself. In moments of stress, when the mind of some character is darting back and forth, seeking some way out, the prose follows it down its different narrative pockets, shaping out the future into a dozen different forms all more convenient than the present. It is an old trick with Nabokov to move uninterruptedly from straightforward third-person exposition into the fantasy of a character, leading the reader unsuspectingly along until "reality" catches up with him, he blinks, and looks back to find the spot where a private fantasy-trail branched off a public one…. [In] the later books, it is used less as a trick for its own sake than as a way of weaving into and out of the minds of characters, sometimes only for a fleeting adjective or the intimation of a point of view. And again, there are moments when Nabokov takes great pains to keep out of the minds of his characters; how determined and appropriate is the superficiality and impressionistic allusiveness of the scene in which Ada and Lucette combine briefly to entertain Van in the large bed of a New York apartment. It is a scene painted entirely in colors, lights, darks, dimly perceived shapes, as if the observing eye were high and distant—a wonderfully poised and discreet piece of pornography, as if seen through Seurat's distracting vision.

This mobility of Nabokov's prose distinguishes him, it seems to me, even from such great admirations of his as Proust and Chateaubriand—indeed, from most of the past masters of "fine style."… In a twentieth century of insubstantial, phantom persons who nonetheless manage to write wooden and obtuse prose, it is Nabokov's peculiar accomplishment to have inverted the process. His characters may be agitated outlines, but they inhabit a glittering and slippery element of prose that is always capable of, and sometimes achieves, genuine events. (pp. 157-61)

Robert Martin Adams, "Vladimir Nabokov," in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, pp. 146-61.

John Updike

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Faithful Nabokovians have met Mary before; she sat for her portrait as Tamara in Speak, Memory, lurks near the heart of Lolita, and was deified in Ada. [In Mary], artistically as well as chronologically young, she is the first love of the autobiographical hero, Ganin, for whom her wanton yet delicate Tartar beauty condenses into pure perfume the idyll of rural Russia and the enchantment of privileged youth. But Ganin remembers her from afar, when he is in a Berlin boarding house surrounded by other émigrés, comic and pathetic types of exile from reality…. Ganin wakes from the shadows, from dreaming of Mary, at the end, and slopes off to his future as, it may be, an internationally renowned poet/scholar/novelist. Mary not only adumbrates the future of a master, it shines by its own light. From the start, Nabokov had his sharp peripheral vision, an intent deftness at netting the gaudy phrase, and the knack (crucial to novelists and chess players) of setting up combinations. Though his materials are tender, his treatment shows the good-natured toughness that gives an artist long life. Wisely, and nicely, he has spared this venerable text the—he admits—"high-handed revampments" to which his elder self is prone, and has supervised an exact, deferential translation. (pp. 193-94)

John Updike, "Mary Unrevamped," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1977, pp. 193-94.

June Perry Levine

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The structure of Pale Fire provides its meaning and delight…. [Most critics] have used it as a way of unraveling the "plot"—what happens among the three principal characters, John Shade, Charles Kinbote, and Jakob Gradus—and, therefore, have approached the poem and commentary which comprise Pale Fire as separate entities to be studied as two units and then connected, usually by having either poet Shade or commentator Kinbote assigned the authorship of the whole. (p. 103)

In Pale Fire, the form itself—a poem and a commentary on the poem—creates the tension of the whole and should be approached like a character: how are we meant to apprehend it? If Nabokov's method of composition is the hero, the reader's method of perusal determines how the hero will be perceived…. For the first reading, merely alternating between the poem and the commentary provides sufficient involvement in Nabokov's scheme while, at the same time, keeping the movement of both dimensions clear; on second reading … one can start raveling the web.

The web is the controlling metaphor of Pale Fire. Sometimes conceived as a plex or grid, the visual pattern and the metaphysical formulation remain the same. (pp. 103-04)

The dimensions that the axes on Nabokov's grid represent are time and space because events occur at the intersection of their relationships. In Pale Fire, the poem exists as the spatial dimension and the commentary as the temporal. Within the reality of each of these parts, naturally, time and space operate, but within the created structure of the whole novel, Shade and Kinbote each serve as a single dimension. Shade's poem is essentially self-contained and unalterable, a work of art outside of time…. I speculate that Nabokov composed the poem in heroic couplets to emphasize its crafted quality and that he attempted to make it a very good poem. (p. 104)

Throughout Pale Fire, Nabokov makes "ornaments of accidents and possibilities."… This device is not merely decorative; it is the philosophic substance of the work. Long before Marshall McLuhan informed the world, Nabokov knew that the medium is the message. The major difference between Nabokov and other writers who conceive of life as governed by accident is that Nabokov does not espouse despair, apathy, or anarchy. Like a modern physicist, he is a pattern-hunter in a universe of chance. (p. 105)

Objects and events are plotted, using the axes of poem and commentary for the dimensions of space and time, to create a model of chance occurrence in the Universe. The novelist's dilemma is that he must persuade the reader that chance is operating in a deliberately contrived medium. Two factors work in behalf of his illusion: the reader's experiential acceptance of coincidence in the real world, and Nabokov's skill in choosing the absurdly ill-matched poem and commentary as vehicle. (p. 107)

Yes, complains the disgruntled reader, the novel is clever enough, but learning how the web is spun by spinning it oneself is not enough; I want to know the meaning of the pattern: Nabokov never turns to the real provenance of the great artist—moral questions. It is true that Nabokov as novelist, as well as Lepidopterist, works descriptively. It is also true that pattern in fiction, like pattern in music, has no intrinsic value. But a particular pattern can emblemize a particular ethical conception of the universe. The chief feature of the grid, web, or plex is that no axis, no thread, no line is paramount in the entity. Significance is achieved through interconnection…. The principal idea of Pale Fire, emerging from its structure, is not the ascendancy either of Shade or Kinbote; it is that the random interplay of their lives exemplifies non-deterministic interdependency in the universe. (p. 108)

June Perry Levine, "Vladimir Nabokov's 'Pale Fire': 'The Method of Composition' as Hero," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), July, 1978, pp. 103-08.


Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 1)


Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 15)