Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 "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...

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W. Walkarput

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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