Nabokov the Magician

by Elizabeth Janeway

VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH NABOKOV, aged sixtyeight, best known as the author of Lolita, has this year become the object of scholarly study. Two book-length evaluations have appeared, Escape Into Aesthetics by Page Stegner, and Nabokov: His Life in Art by Andrew Field, while the University of Wisconsin devoted the spring issue of its Studies in Contemporary Literature to his work.

Ordinary readers are likely to be taken aback when this metamorphosis transforms a writer they have been following with interest and pleasure into the subject of analysis and argument. The minutiae of scholarship often seem irritating or grotesque. My father, in his latter years, maintained that he had always read the novels of Melville and Conrad as “good yarns,” and he had no intention of changing his mind because these familiar authors were suddenly being plumbed for symbols. I must confess that the same sort of philistine cramp assailed me when I came on Alfred Appel’s remark (in Wisconsin Studies) that “careful readers should be able to identify (the butterfly motif) for many of the lepidopteral descriptions of Lolita are explicit, and a familiarity with Nabokov’s other books, especially Speak, Memory, should alert one to this possibility”; or when Andrew Field advises us that The Defense “is an ornament and perhaps even a cornerstone to Nabokov’s art, but one does not feel a need or compulsion to read it more than twice.” Gentle scholars! The plain reader confronted with such dicta is almost bound to declare that he will read The Defense four times or not at all, and that the metamorphoses of Lolita may be intellectually interesting but add no emotional weight to the book.

Yet the plain reader is wrong. Philistinism is a much more dangerous disease (as Nabokov himself has shown — none better!) than even that aberrant form of scholarship, Kinbotism, which our author described so hilariously in Pale Fire, Appel and Field are excellent critics of Nabokov’s work, and they have a great deal to tell us about it that we will be the better to know. Appel, who was Nabokov’s student at Cornell, contributes to Wisconsin Studies an interesting, if rather reverential, interview with him and a most perceptive article on Lolita which can only enlarge one’s vision of the book. As for Field, his painstaking survey of Nabokov’s whole production in Russian and in English — novels, stories, poems, criticism, translations, and plays — will be indispensable for future students. It is a truly remarkable feat of analysis and integration.

Of course, scholarship has its failures. Claire Rosenfield, who writes on Despair in Wisconsin Studies, and Page Stegner, when he is discussing The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in his book, seem to have the sort of tin ear which can’t detect irony. This is a truly disabling fault in reading Nabokov, who likes to let his characters convict and condemn themselves out of their own mouths. But the virtues of close and serious study are clear. Whether the plain reader cares or not, the effect of scholarly inquiry is to extend the context of a piece of work and deepen its resonance, to free it from its mold of “everydayness” and invite a more general as well as a closer view.

The one thing scholarship can’t do is decide whether or not the piece of work is worth the effort. That job is for readers, contemporary and to come. It is the “one big thing” which the hedgehog knows and the fox does not. Criticism won’t keep a work alive; only a continuing and living connection between a writer and his public will do that. Contemporary readers begin the connection, but none of them, alas, can really judge how long it will last.

Heaven knows whether Nabokov “is worth it” or whether he “will live.” He writes magnificently, but then so did Swinburne. But whether or not his themes will attract readers in the future, they are profoundly a part of our world — exile from a lost and loved past; unprovoked violence; the uncertainty of one’s identity, which sprinkles doubles and mirrors through his books; the equivalent questioning of the world outside oneself in an effort to understand what is really there; what art achieves and how it differs from the acting out of fantasy.

His method — tricks, puns, parody, and surprises, the coincidences which suggest a secret pattern, the stroke of McFate, the writer’s face perceived behind the actions of his characters: all this is marvelously suited to his material. His technique in itself expresses and comments on his themes, and by so doing raises that very contemporary question: control. How much of my life do I control, and if not I, then who? What? Which comes around again to the sense of identity and the value and function of art.

NABOKOV’S material affects his technique at another level. Much of it is taken from his own life: childhood happiness, exile in a strange land, the effort and rapture of creation, the father lost or killed, the grim absurd horrors of the police state, lepidoptery, teaching. Episodes from his past, reworked to varying degrees, have been bestowed on a number of his characters. Author-heroes, like Sebastian Knight and Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (in The Gift), have received the largest bequests, but many others, like Humbert Humbert, are also inheritors of Nabokov’s memories.

To translate one’s own life into fiction is extremely difficult to do. The fact that it’s done all the time, badly and wrong, sentimentally, tendentiously, and that a vulgar interpretation of Freud’s theories suggests it is always done — this makes doing it right all the harder. To do it right, an author must distance himself as creator from himself as character, step back to see himself in perspective, and drop, or cut, the emotional link of his self-justifying me-ness. Nabokov has been called cold. It is rather, I think, this distancing which produces that impression.

All fiction, of course, involves the use of one’s own experience in the sense that one must find there analogies to the events one creates. But if the experience has in fact been lived through and felt strongly, the effort to cut it off from one’s private (and therefore misleading) emotions is so much the greater. What is astonishing about Nabokov’s use of his past is not that it occasionally seems cold, but that so often it does not; and yet the tenderness and joy of memories given — for instance, to Fyodor, in The Gift — are totally unsentimental.

How much the experience of Vladimir Nabokov the individual, plunged from riches to poverty and driven from his home, influences Vladimir Nabokov the writer is an obvious question but not, I think, a profitable one. What happens to a writer is certainly important to his work, but the connection is labyrinthine, and trying to trace correspondences is a misinterpretation of art. I suppose one could make a case for the hypothesis that Nabokov’s exile, which took from him a place in a wealthy and influential family, cost him the opportunity of following his father, a dedicated liberal statesman, into the arena of political action. Result: Nabokov’s heroes are patients, not agents; acted upon rather than acting. But so are the heroes of most serious novels today.

Perhaps, to follow the argument around its circle, one should conclude that we are most of us exiles from power; which at once does away with the whole question of how Nabokov s individual experience shapes his work, by sinking him back into a general situation. The most one can say is that an exile’s rootlessness probably forces the use of his own experiences rather than more general social material, and at the same time makes easier the “distancing” which allows such intimate experience to be turned into art. But searching a man’s life as a way of understanding his books is a blunder based on a fallacy. It ignores the creative act, by which alone experience and fantasy are fused and raised into a work of art. It is the public work of art which is the business of the critic, even when that work of art is a memoir.

In Speak, Memory Nabokov has written a classic of reminiscence. But his younger self, whose life he is describing, mutters no secrets, nor does he try to persuade his readers to this or that opinion, even when the opinions are strongly held. He and his parents, his cousins, his governesses and tutors and early loves are there to show us a vanished way of life, a family-sized segment of the Golden Age. The book is at once intimate and impersonal. If Chekhov had made himself a character in The Cherry Orchard, the effect would be rather the same.

Nabokov’s art is full of tricks, sleight of hand, and puzzles. He likes to compose chess problems in which the purpose is to mislead, not the innocent, but the semi-informed. In somewhat the same way, his books tend to lure the unwary into concentrating on the puzzles and ignoring the total effect. (Here the plain reader who decides the puzzles are over his head may initially be better off.) But the point of the puzzles is what they do and how they work within the whole area of the book.

Often the overall statement which the book illustrates can be summed up (though inadequately) by a simple phrase. As Field points out, Laughter in the Dark is an enactment of the statement that love is blind; and Invitation to a Beheading, that life is a dream. The book then sets up a situation which both parallels and parodies the proposition. The parody and the jokes supply a running commentary interwoven with the action.

These propositions can be highly moral. The fate of Albinus, hero of Laughter in the Dark, is announced by the author at the opening of the book in terms which are naÏve even for soap opera. Albinus is a wealthy man with a wife and child who is infatuated by a greedy young tart, leaves his family for her (the little daughter dies of pneumonia, and he does not attend the funeral), and in consequence comes to a very bad end, blinded, cuckolded, and mocked. He sets out to shoot his mistress and kills himself by accident.

Thank heaven, says the plain reader at this denouement, with almost as much relief as when Little Nell finally breathes her last. But even in this quite straightforward book, irony and melodrama combine to question and judge the drama of the narrative. This apparently sentimental tale becomes suspenseful and funny, a result which eliminates the sentimentality and refreshes the banality of the situation. Albinus, the bewildered villain, becomes a sympathetic character; more so, in fact, than Humbert Humbert, whose moralizing over the wrong he did Lolita I find distasteful. Albinus simply is, does, and suffers. He is contained within his book as a parable is contained in a stained-glass window.

Thus the distance which Nabokov maintains by means of his tricks between his work and the world, and his work and his readers, permits the work to complete itself. His novels illustrate life while standing apart from it. Nabokov’s books are not abstracts of reality, but constructs which mimic and perfect it. Sebastian Knight, his only novelisthero, is discovered once lying on his back on the floor. “No, I’m not dead,” he says to an intruder. “I have finished building a world, and this is my Sabbath rest.” The novelist, that is, does not interpret an existing world. He creates another; which would be worthless if it were simply a mirror reflection, useless unless it were finer and more complete.

Another effect of the puzzle element in Nabokov’s work may be the feeling, which he shares with Sebastian Knight, that his books exist before they are written, waiting to be discovered. In his interview with Appel he puts it this way: “I do think that in my case it is true that the entire book, before it is written, seems to be ready ideally in some other, now transparent, now dimming, dimension, and my job is to take down as much of it as I can make out and as precisely as I am humanly able to.”

This is a hallucination which has haunted other artists and which seems to have a subterranean connection with the idea of puzzle-solving. Thus, in his latest collection of essays, Norm and Form, Professor E. H. Gombrich comes, by way of puzzlesolving, to a discussion of the feeling “expressed by Schiller that somewhere, in a Platonic heaven, the solution [the artist] gropes for is already prefigured —that once it is found it is inevitable and right. . . . Wherever you set yourself the task of combining a number of orders,” he goes on, “the number of possible solutions will decrease with the richness of the order you aim at.”

Clearly, Nabokov’s work is “rich” in this sense; it combines layer after layer of intent, until it approaches that ideal point where there can really be only one “right” way of interpreting it. Taken in this light, the puzzle element in Nabokov’s novels and stories is not an overlay put there to irritate the reader and entice him from the point. It is rather a way of defining the central mystery and directing him toward the solution.

Return for a moment to Sebastian Knight, spread-eagled on the floor. The incident illustrates just how Nabokov does use his memories. In Speak, Memory it was his mother’s brother, Uncle Ruka, who lay on his back on the floor after dinner. “He insisted that he had an incurable heart ailment and that, when the seizures came, he could obtain relief only by lying supine on the floor. Nobody took him seriously, and after he died of angina pectoris, all alone, in Paris, at the end of 1916, aged forty-five, it was with a quite special pang that one recalled those after-dinner incidents in the drawing room.”

After Sebastian dies, young and alone, of Uncle Ruka’s heart ailment, this pang creates the book in which Sebastian appears, for it impels his younger brother, V., to search out The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in order to write his brother’s biography. Yet to imagine that Sebastian is Uncle Ruka in any useful sense is absurd (though I suspect that Uncle Ruka turns up in other guises). A particle of memory has simply served as a magnetic point to attract layer upon layer of diverse material, which then becomes a created character-and-situation. To this point, Nabokov says in his interview with Appel, “Imagination is a form of memory. An image depends on the power of association, and association is supplied and prompted by memory. In this sense, both memory and imagination are a negation of time.”

“I confess I don’t believe in time,” Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory. But in the same book he also records his first consciousness (at four) of “the radiant and mobile medium that was none other than the pure element of time”; and postulates that “the beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning of the sense of time.” Time, for this nonbeliever, is not something to be ignored, but to be met actively — challenged, tricked, perhaps turned inside out. His new novel, Field tells us, “is to be in large degree an artistic expression and exploration of the exact meaning of time.” But as Field also points out, “Time has held an important place in almost all Nabokov’s major fiction.”

The perception of time is one way of ordering the world, and it is intimately connected with other kinds of ordering. Jean Piaget and Bruno Bettelheim, in separate studies of children, have found evidence that the ability to predict what will happen (and memory comes in here, for one can predict only if one can recognize a pattern) precedes an understanding of causality. Without such an understanding, meaningful action is impossible; and the ability to predict, understand, and act to control one’s environments is basic to the growth of personality. I apologize for this shockingly oversimplified summation of complicated theory based on long observation; but these themes chime together at the heart of Nabokov’s work. It is therefore important to suggest that he is handling a complex of material which has turned up in quite another context as being related, and as being central to the formation of identity: memory involving prediction, understanding which permits action and leads to control. Without these props, children retreat into violence, schizophrenia, and autism; into fantasy, repetitive ritual, useless action, and withdrawal. The insane have a great deal to tell the normal about how the world works.

Nabokov’s exploration of time is much closer to such psychological studies of time-perception than it is to Proust’s search for things past and lost time. It is in a way more mechanical, just as Nabokov’s use of his own experience is more objective; but it is also more complex and more inventive.

For a sketch of how he handles these themes, we might glance at Pale Fire, that trap, that puzzlenovel par excellence. Like all Nabokov’s books it is a construct, but this one lacks the usual outer layer of plausibility. There is no sensible narrative, no real-seeming hero, no story. Only a madman and a poet exist, plus the creations of each — the poet’s autobiographical poem, “Pale Fire,” and the madman’s commentary on it, which turns out apparently to have nothing to do with the poem.

Now a great deal of research has been done to discover how these two creations are in fact related: strange voices speak through each, ghosts knock, mirrors shine, and the verses which the poet John Shade has discarded are closer to mad Dr. Kinbote’s commentary than the ones which make up the poem. But I would like to step back from this intimate inquiry — “distance” the book — and try to see what sort of shadow this construct throws if one looks at it from the right angle and asks it the right question; or rather, a right question. Perhaps there are many.

A useful question, perhaps a right question, is, Who is the Red King? Who is dreaming whom? Has Shade created Kinbote, or Kinbote Shade? Let us, that is, approach Pale Fire through the Looking Glass.

I was the shadow of the waxwing, slain
By the false azure of the windowpane.

So begins John Shade’s poem. The windowpane has become a mirror, reflecting the bird it kills. Alice, dreaming before the fire, saw the mirror over the mantel fade and become a window through which she could climb into another world, paralleling and parodying ours. Descending, she discovered she had landed on a chessboard and was involved in a game whether she liked it or not. All this, of course, is familiar Nabokov symbology. So are the characters Alice met — a couple of lunatics of varying charm, the White Knight and the Mad Hatter, now transformed into Hatta the Anglo-Saxon messenger, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the twins and doubles who engage in fake combat, Humpty-Dumpty, whose words mean whatever he tells them to, the White Queen, who reversed time and lived backward, and the abovementioned Red King, asleep and snoring, who, Tweedledee assured Alice, was not only dreaming, but dreaming her. “If he left off dreaming about you . . . you’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream.” To which Tweedledum adds, “If that there King was to wake, you’d go out — bang! —just like a candle!”

Among the chores which Nabokov did as a young exile in Berlin was to translate Alice in Wonderland into Russian. Perhaps his next interviewer will undertake to ask him whether he also translated its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass; but really, it hardly matters. No one who knows Alice well enough to translate the first volume is going to be ignorant of the second. The young Nabokovs, growing up in an Anglophile household at the turn of the century, must certainly have had Alice read to them. Indeed, when Appel in his interview spoke of Lewis Carroll in another context, Nabokov replied, “In common with many other English children (I was an English child) I have always been very fond of Carroll.” To anyone exposed to them in childhood, the Carroll books become a lingua franca. Leaving the theater recently, after seeing a Pinter play, I heard myself asking exactly this question, Who was the Red King?

Andrew Field arrives at the same question by another route (his discussion of Pale Fire is very interesting, though not, I think, complete), and his answer is that Shade creates Kinbote, not Kinbote Shade. His argument is that a sane poet can create a madman, but not the other way around, which is persuasive. I agree, but on other grounds as well, that Shade is the primary character, who in a sense creates Kinbote, while Kinbote creates the third person who is present, Gradus, the murderer. (Field maintains that the third member of the trilogy is Nabokov himself, creating them all. But I believe Gradus must be included to understand the pattern of the book.)

The sequence then runs, Shade creates Kinbote, who creates Gradus, who murders Shade. And at once it becomes impossible, a vicious circle. For how can already-murdered Shade create the Kinbote who writes the commentary to Shade’s poem which he sees only after Shade has been shot down by the creature Gradus, who first appears in the commentary? But the impossibility of an answer is no reason for discarding the question, as a friend from Alice Through the Looking Glass will remind us — the White Queen, who practiced believing impossible things before breakfast. An apparent impossibility is a signal that one is looking at something in a wrong or superficial way. If we again “distance” the problem presented by this apparently impossible situation, we can arrive at an answer; and one that is entirely consonant with Nabokov’s experiments in time. For what is impossible in reality becomes possible when taken out of time and placed in the world of art; and because it is impossible in reality, it must be so taken. Then the vicious circle — but let Nabokov himself explain:

“The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free. I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel’s triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time. Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series.”

Art is the home of the impossible, in which time is suspended. The wandering madman who shoots Shade in the real world (a world which is absent in Pale Fire) is accidental. He has mistaken Shade for the Judge who sentenced him. But in art there can be no accidents. Take time away, and the murderer becomes a purposeful figure who tracks down the banished King of Zembla, mad Kinbote, in a world which is ordered by causality, not mere prediction. So art and reality confront each other, mirror images and doubles which illuminate each other by their differences. The book is like a top, spun by the bullet out of “real” time, but whirling through another dimension.

Why should Nabokov do this? Or, to put it differently, what is the book about? Field says — and Field is intelligent as well as hardworking — that it is about death, and indeed, as many deaths occur, at least, as in Hamlet. But death in Nabokov’s work is curiously unfinal. Smurov in The Eye, Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading may or may not die. I they do, they continue in some other time element. In The Gift a father sees his son’s ghost and a son feels the living presence of a dead father. Sebastian Knight’s brother attempts to resurrect him in a biography. In Pale Fire Shade’s daughter Hazel talks with ghosts, and the poet himself experiences (he believes) death, a vision of the hereafter, and immediate resurrection.

Pale Fire, then, is as much about survival as it is about death. The shadow of the waxwing, slain in the first line of the poem, “lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.” As a boy, Shade had wondered how one

“. . . could . . . live without
Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom
Awaited consciousness beyond the tomb,”

and decided to “explore and fight / The foul, the inadmissible abyss, Devoting all my twisted life on this One task.” If we live on, he wonders, how do we live on?

What if you are tossed [he asks]
Into a boundless void, your bearings lost
Your spirit stripped and utterly alone,
Your task unfinished, your despair unknown. . . .
A wrench, a rift — that is all one can foresee.
Maybe one finds le grand néant; maybe
Again one spirals from the tuber’s eye.

His experience of death and resurrection convinces him that something survives, but “that the sense behind / The scene was not our sense.” In fact, to one’s present self, one’s ghost might well appear mad.

The clues point in one direction. Kinbote is Shade’s mad ghost, attempting in his commentary to carry on the unfinished task and write the last line of Shade’s poem; to express the simplicity of the expected repetition, “I was the shadow of the waxwing, slain.” in his grotesque autobiography.

The impression is reinforced by the possibility that Hazel, Shade’s daughter, may be a reincarnation of Aunt Maude, who brought him up. Hazel is odd and unfitted for life, perhaps because she is close to the ghost world with its sense-not-oursense. In fact, once one sees that the true relationships in the book can exist only outside normal time, and actually counter to it, the problems start to unravel. And this, finally, is why there is no “real story” in Pale Fire: it is a work of art that can exist and be understood only outside the time-tied world of reality.

Under the guise of a study of death and immortality, it is an inquiry into identity. Who are we? it asks. What is that “I” which each of us feels to endure through the passage of time and of change? The study of this problem has been a lifelong task not only for Shade but for Nabokov himself. “Over and over again.” he writes in Speak, Memoir, “my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage.” But, he adds, “I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and has no outlets.”

It is in his books that Nabokov breaks through the prison wall. His art is not, as Stegner suggests, “an escape into aesthetics.” It is an instrument of inquiry into reality, into the nature of the prison which holds us and of the creature which bruises its fists against those prison walls. His tricks are not an attempt to obscure reality, but to determine its nature by imitating it.

In the fall of 1939, in Paris (Field tells us), Nabokov wrote a story which was a first version and false start of Lolita. It was called, in Russian, “ Volshebnik,” which Field translates as “ I he Conjuror”; and indeed, the unfortunate middleaged hero who falls in love with a twelve-year-old nymphet was a conjuror. But the straightforward translation of “volshebnik” is rather magician or enchanter, a larger and more ambiguous term which admits the possibility that the magic may work, or be real. This minor fact seems to me a pointer. Nabokov is a magician who at times calls himself a conjuror, but he is fooling. His magic works, and its purpose is to understand reality through creation.