The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov
Chapter 2: Patterning and Artifice
In the years between Vladimir Vladimirovich’s “dawn of consciousness” (in 1903), and the day upon which he was inspired to write his first poem (in 1914), he learned English — which he could read and write even before he could do so in Russian — and French (from a rotund Swiss governess he called “Mademoiselle”). At the same time that he was dipping into his father’s extensive trilingual library, he was also acquiring two of his father’s other passions — lepidopterology and chess.
From these pastimes he drew perhaps more of his governing “philosophies” than he did from his formal education. The deceit and patterning that are obvious components of chess were just as manifest to him in nature. (His favorite example is “mimicry” in moths and butterflies, whereby a species has adapted to mimic the physical appearance of its surroundings — say, for example, a dead leaf or a growth of lichens.) Patterning and artifice became a central part of Nabokov’s literary method, and he urged that because of this use of artistic deceit his books were even more “lifelike” than life itself.
In Speak, Memory, Nabokov reports that he “discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that [he] sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of enchantment and deception,” Note also: “Coincidence of pattern is one of the wonders of nature. The wonders of nature were beginning to impress me at that early age.”
In nearly every interview Nabokov reiterated this theme. He told the BBC, for example, that “all art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation.” When asked for a more specific tie between lepidopterology and his writing, Nabokov replied, “I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.”
This is a neat reversal of our usual attitudes toward art and science, and it provides us with real insight into Nabokov’s methods. We must remember that his special brand of “art-for-art’s-sake” does not mean that literature exists only in some cold, inaccessible void, but that he presupposes a reader, someone who can feel “aesthetic bliss” and experience a “stab of wonder” as the artifice in art instantly crystallizes in the perceiver’s imagination. The “precision of poetry” must be as precise as the hand of the author of nature in shaping his worlds, so that the “excitement of pure science” is the reward of careful attention and luck. Similarly, it can refer to the spontaneous, wonderful images generated by the imagination (the poet’s “nature”), and “the precision of poetry” is needed in order to communicate these images. A reader of Nabokov cannot be too circumspect, too wary, just as (to a lepidopterist) any ordinary blotch of color on the trunk of a tree may actually be a concealed moth. Words can suddenly crystallize into images, images into patterns, patterns into an understanding of Nabokov’s view of true nature, and this is aesthetic bliss.
The artistic impulse, then, becomes what Nabokov calls “innermost in man,” “the spiritual pleasure derivable from the possibilities of outtugging and outrunning gravity, of overcoming or re-enacting the earth’s pull . . . no wonder a growing child desires to out-Nature Nature.”
This sort of Neoplatonist approach to art is evidenced throughout Nabokov’s work. Behind the physical world there is a “Nature” that can be imitated by the artist, who imitates not “life” but the forms beyond life. Thus, the artistic creation can not only rival the texture of the physical world, but can actually precede it; life can often follow art. In describing a real incident that aped an episode of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Nabokov finds that “this vulgar imitation of artistic fiction on the part of life is somehow more pleasing than the opposite thing.” A character in Laughter in the Dark shares his creator’s curiosity,
Another facet of Nabokov’s attitude toward nature is his belief in its inherent unreasonableness. In The Gift, Fyodor’s father warns him:
Central to our interpretation of Nabokov’s games and patterns must be his belief that understanding always comes after the fact; awareness of life’s patterns can never be a tool for us to manipulate the future, but must remain a means of discovering the artifice behind what has already occurred. “Nature” is not a set of laws to be broken, or a group of tendencies for which we can prepare, but a pattern of details that are to be wondered at after they have become apparent in a retrospective “stab of wonder.” Nabokov was concerned about Edmund Wilson’s predilection for social engineering, and in 1940 wrote to him:
The “meaning” to be perceived from the patterning of Nature is that Fate tips its hand through detail. We should marvel, but stop short of extrapolation. Smurov, the narrator of The Eye, echoes Nabokov with his assertion that:
It is the details, Nabokov asserts, that display life’s patterning. Perception of chance details cannot be grasped except in retrospect. Because of life’s essential quirkiness, “developments” can never be foreseen. Nabokov points to an example in his own life: he twice met a Russian general, once at his home in 1905, and again after the Revolution in 1919. Both occasions were marked in some very minor way by matches; the first time, the general showed young Vladimir a simple trick that utilized matchsticks, and the second time, as the Nabokovs were fleeing through southern Russia, a stranger asked Nabokov’s father for a light and only then was he recognized as that same general. This coincidence, says Nabokov, is more a delightful example of Fate than a missed prophecy.
Nabokov knows our reading habits; he knows our idea of “foreshadowing” and sometimes he plays upon our expectations, as in Laughter in the Dark:
In Despair, Hermann (our seldom-faithful narrator) turns Rex’s observation inside out: “Every man with a keen eye is familiar with those anonymously retold passages from his past life: false-innocent combinations of details, which smack revoltingly of plagiarism.”
Nature’s deceitfulness always dodges artfully away from us as we stumble blindly along in expectation. Fate is always with us, but is only visible when we turn around and look back.
Nabokov finds a curious relationship between life and art, in which the author (who, we remember, is an “anthropomorphic deity”) impersonates Fate by mimicking Fate’s patterns. Still, the process remains an enigma. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov observes that
R. H. W. Dillard has explained how Nabokov’s sense of Fate is not something bizarre and novel, but is a continuation of the Russian literary tradition:
Nabokov never wished to disassociate himself from a literary heritage that includes Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. He disliked Dostoyevsky, and the distinction between them is critical: whereas the latter often talked about a rather morose sort of Fate in his books, Nabokov becomes a jocose Fate in his own. He leads not by precept but by example. (Even in the actual way Nabokov worked, we can see the Platonic idea that life and art both reflect pre-determined forms. “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing,” he told the Paris Review. “I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done.”)
A crucial remark made by “the critic” in a short story, “The Passenger” (1927), reveals Nabokov’s assurance that literature has the “sublime right” to render Fate’s patterns: “There is much in life that is casual, and there is also much that is unusual. The Word is given the sublime right to enhance chance and to make of the transcendental something that is not accidental.” This “Word” is literary art, and the artist alone has the ability to mimic creation.
As his career progressed Nabokov was less given to such unabashedly sincere pronouncements, but he always retained the idea: the author is Fate, and whenever he spices a novel with games of recurrence and flashes of auto-plagiarism. (the very techniques for which he is generally thought to be “unreal”), he is actually portraying reality at its most “life-like.” Just as glimpses of his own life’s patterns convince him of its reality, and give it a sense of timelessness, so can the author utilize the same effects in art. (In Appendix A I have compiled a by-no-means-exhaustive list of a few of the details that echo one another throughout Nabokov’s Russian novels, and into his English work.) The last words of Speak, Memory describe “something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.” Life is a puzzle whose joy comes in the solution.
The Defense (1929) was Nabokov’s third novel, and the first that combined both his autobiographical and his imaginative impulses. The novel relates the life and death of Luzhin, an émigré of Nabokov’s generation (like so many of the author’s other protagonists), with an aristocratic, wealthy heritage very much like Nabokov’s. (Young Vladimir’s Swiss governess is even given to Luzhin.) The “theme” of The Defense is the pattern of Fate, and the novel’s controlling metaphor is the game of chess.
As a boy, Luzhin is listless and unaccomplished. His father, a hack writer of children’s stories, senses a glimmer of talent in his son, a passion to excel at something, but he can’t imagine what that “something” might be. One evening during a party, Luzhin steals away to his father’s study and sees a box of chessmen. A musician enters and becomes enraptured: “‘What a game, what a game,’ said the violinist, tenderly closing the box. “Combinations like melodies! You know, I can simply hear the moves. . . . The game of the gods, infinite possibilities.’” Luzhin is entranced; he seems to sense in this game the thing which had been missing in his life — a harmonious pattern.
Immediately thereafter Luzhin begins to dip surreptitiously into the world of chess. He learns the moves, studies gambits, replays great games of the past. Finally he reveals his new passion to his father (who is a bit disappointed to learn that this “mere parlor game” is Luzhin’s long-hidden talent), and begins a career of tournament chess after beating all the local masters.
Luzhin has found not only his calling, but his pattern. (Perhaps they are the same thing, both products of Fate.) He recalls the favorite books of his youth — Around the World in Eighty Days and Sherlock Holmes — and realizes that “what it was that had thrilled him about these two books . . . was that exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern.” We begin to hear the echoes of Nabokov’s favorite themes; we know therefore that creative consciousness is passing through the pen and into the protagonist. In Luzhin’s chess, the “secret” for which he strives is “simplicity, harmonious simplicity, which can amaze one far more than the most intricate magic.” Luzhin has found his home, his calling. “Real life, chess life, was orderly, clear-cut, and rich in adventure, and Luzhin noted with pride how easy it was for him to reign in this life, and the way everything obeyed his will and bowed to his schemes.” At last he falls in love with a woman who is powerfully attracted to the artistry of Luzhin’s obscure profession (artists are always attractive romantically in Nabokov’s novels), “and perhaps it was precisely because she knew nothing at all about chess that chess for her was not simply a parlor game or a pleasant pastime, but a mysterious art equal to all the recognized arts.” This is an echo of Luzhin’s first glimpse at the game — we’ve gone full circle, or rather, we’ve completed the first loop of a spiral.
The limits to Luzhin’s peculiar form of creative consciousness begin to show themselves. Luzhin does not understand that the “watermark in life’s foolscap” — the pattern — is not a tyrannical rule of thumb but a playful nod from whimsical Fate. Chess engulfs Luzhin:
The “awesome power” in the “universe of chess concepts” becomes oppressive, and in the middle of a crucial game against the master Turati, Luzhin’s mind snaps. He becomes a zombie who can no longer face chess but for whom almost nothing else exists.
The prescribed cure for him is a new life, a life without chess. He is married, coddled by his wife, and seems to regain his health. Still, something is missing; we’ve completed another loop in our spiral. Luzhin is again a listless child.
Soon he begins to sense a terrifying, chess-like pattern that will lead him to “devastation, horror, madness.” (Compare this to a doctor’s warning eighty pages earlier: “Horror, suffering, despair. . . . Those are what this exhausting game gives rise to.” Thus we see the patterning of the novel itself.) “Luzhin’s Defense” — the title of the Russian version of the book — consists in “voluntarily committing some absurd unexpected act that would be outside the schematic order of life, thus confusing the sequence of moves planned by his opponent.” Luzhin’s ultimate move, inevitably, is suicide, because authorial Fate has destined him to make all the mistakes of partial consciousness: misunderstood perception of life’s patterning, attempted circumvention of his creator’s plan, and obsession, which is nearly always fatal in a Nabokov novel.
Nabokov’s own relationship with chess was perhaps as passionate as Luzhin’s but certainly was far less obsessive. For him it was another outlet for the creative imagination (along with writing and entomology) and he took to a different form of the game altogether. Rather than competitive skill, Nabokov’s chess talent lay in the composition of chess problems — puzzles to be solved in a given number of moves. In The Gift, Fyodor finds that the ability to devise these labyrinths stems from “an inner impulse . . . indistinguishable from poetic inspiration,” and we can learn more about Nabokov’s creative mind by watching him hover over a chessboard than by listening to his humorous circumlocutions concerning the literary imagination. In Speak, Memory, he describes how
Inspiration is literally a “gift,” anonymously and unexpectedly granted to the artist. Regarding his approach to the tactics of chess problem composition, Nabokov reports:
Nabokov remarks about a rather knavish artist in Laughter in the Dark,
The same creative “small furious devil” behind Nabokov’s chess problems is his artistic muse as well.
Nabokov continually delights in nature at its trickiest. Fyodor in The Gift is the author’s spokesman for the wonders of sham: “How clever, how gracefully sly and how essentially good life is!” (Appendix B is a very incomplete compilation of Nabokov’s comments about the shamanstvo of both life and art.) In his Eugene Onegin commentary, Nabokov wrote of “sincerity”:
This is Nabokov at his most Platonic. Nature (or “real life”), and art are both the reflections of a single ideal form: benign trickery. Art at its most realistic, then, should reflect the true forms casting the same shadows of deceit on both life and art.
The shamanstvo of art serves as a constant reminder of the hand guiding the pen. Hermann, the narrator of Despair, rather blithely remarks, “If every now and again my face pops out, as from behind a hedge, perhaps to the prim reader’s annoyance, it is really for the latter’s good: let him get used to my countenance.” Often Nabokov’s own face pops out, as in King, Queen, Knave. “A remarkably handsome man . . . slender, elegantly balding” can be seen lurking in the background of the last few scenes. (Appendix C notes some of Nabokov’s many Hitchcockian intrusions in this and other novels. He even placed himself in an incidental role in the screenplay for Lolita, but Stanley Kubrick rejected the idea.) Few authors have gone as far as Nabokov in preaching the need to display the hand of creation, and, as always, he leads also by example.
None of this is to imply that art “lies,” as Plato argues in The Republic. The artist must carefully select only the magic of Nature and reject anything that is intellectually dishonest. Hermann speaks of a “creative intuition,” “a maker’s certainty,” a mysterious faculty of genius that can distinguish the sublimely deceitful from the merely phony, just as Shelley argued in his Defense of Poetry.
The artist makes magic, not lies. Cincinnatus stresses his envy of poets: “How wonderful it must be to speed along a page and, right from the page, where only a shadow continues to run, to take off into the blue.” True artistic creativity is ultimately benign in its trickery, because it leads us to the consciousness of “aesthetic bliss.” It tends to humor; Hermann observes, “As a rule I have always been noted for my exceptional humorousness; it goes naturally with a fine imagination; woe to the fancy which is not accompanied by wit.” And of course the imagination tends to originality. Chess-gifted Fyodor points out that “actually, of course, any genuinely new trend is a knight’s move, a change of shadows, a shift that displaces the mirror.”
The faculty of imaginative creativity is a magical gift for erecting the same scaffolding of Fate (which we see as deceit), by which Nature reveals the day-to-day world. True art reflects the same forms as true life, and is essentially good because life is essentially good.
The delight, then, that Nabokov finds in chess is that it poses the same problems as writing, and living: a “small furious devil” is his muse in all three. The tie between them, Nabokov believes, is that all are intellectual activities with certain rules, certain givens, beyond which one cannot go (the rook cannot move diagonally, for example) but within which the creative “devil” can roam completely unfettered. The strictures are not at all confining but are made part of the art when
Nabokov’s second novel, King, Queen, Knave (1928), and his sixth, Laughter in the Dark (a revision of the Camera Obscura of 1932) might be described as his “chess problem novels,” because in both he adopts rather severe restrictions for himself — the conventions of the “love triangle” — yet he manages to make hash of our expectations without ever breaking the “rules.” Neither novel is as explicitly thematic as The Defense, because in both Nabokov has limited his palette to the dull hues of very ordinary characters. The “trick” in these novels is that consciousness has no spokesman, but nevertheless becomes apparent through the texture of the narration.
In the preface to the English edition of King, Queen, Knave, Nabokov notes that “in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device.” The “glaring disadvantage” shared by the members of the title triangle is their uniform lack of imagination. All three of them are non-entities; all three are unconscious:
Dreyer, the owner of a Berlin haberdashery, is blind to life’s patterns:
The metamorphoses that so delight the lepidopterist are invisible to him and thus he makes no notice of his wife’s disaffection from him and her affair with his nephew.
Dreyer’s wife, Martha, commences a sordid yet farcical affair with the nephew, Franz. They become Nabokov’s slaves to the conventions of “trashy novelettes,” and so the pair naturally plots to kill Dreyer:
Franz is singularly dull, severely myopic both literally and figuratively, and his mind is only semi-functional:
Franz has life’s patterning served to him on a silver tray (King, Queen, Knave is all triangles and mirrors) but he never grasps it.
The plot hastens to a bungled conclusion of course, because Martha and Franz make the error of “believing, with so many novelists, that if the details were correct the plot and characters would take care of themselves.” The murder attempt naturally is a failure, Martha becomes sick and dies, and Dreyer and Franz are left pretty much as they were, because their “glaring disadvantage” — their mutual lack of any consciousness — “turns out to be a subtle protective device” — the inability to feel grief.
King, Queen, Knave, in the simplest sense, is a parody novel of the conventions of romantic fiction, but more than that, it shows that Nabokov can explore his favorite themes without ever mentioning them explicitly.
Nabokov makes his authorial task even more difficult in Laughter in the Dark; the same romantic triangle as in King, Queen, Knave (and again, they are all three Germans), is further limited by both a cinematic attention to plot worthy of Hollywood, and a sort of fairy-tale format. The novel opens:
Nabokov plays brilliantly on Samuel Johnson’s notion that literature should “instruct and delight”; Laughter in the Dark can delight by parodying the conventions of poetic justice.
Little needs to be said by way of plot summary that isn’t already revealed in the novel’s first paragraph. Instead we are left to ask Why? Why is Albinus’ life such a failure? Our first impulse might be to answer that Nabokov is portraying a just punishment for the same sort of “crime” that was to provide the theme for a much more famous novel of the late 1950s. But what justice is there in ruining Albinus so completely? (And it’s even worse than our summary indicates: he also goes blind and broke, his daughter dies, he is humiliated at every turn, he is denied revenge, he is fatally shot with his own gun.)
So a second reader might argue, “Well, then, this is Nabokov’s portrayal of the God of Job.” He, too, is fooled. There is no salvation in Laughter in the Dark — it’s just one awful thing after another.
The key to this novel is the character Rex, a nasty but talented and intelligent artist who exults in the de ceits of life’s trickery:
Rex is at liberty to laugh at the darkness of Albinus’ torments because he glimpses that they are all only characters “on a shimmering curtain,” playing out their formal roles for Nabokov’s jovial Plato.
Laughter in the Dark can be an extremely chilly novel to the kind of reader who wants to “empathize” with the characters. Albinus is witless and his fate is dismal, Margot (his young mistress) is an ambitious and vulgar brat who deceives him, and Rex is a conniving charlatan with enough consciousness to glimpse the workings of Fate but not enough to keep him from sneering at it. A BBC reporter once remarked to Nabokov, “It sometimes seems . . . that in your novels — Laughter in the Dark for instance — there is a certain strain of perversity amounting to cruelty.” Nabokov responded:
Nabokov is the only “real” protagonist in any of his novels, and he always stars in his favorite role of Fate. The lessons he learned in his childhood from science and from chess were later put to use in what were to become both major themes and central devices of his writing — patterning and artifice. The creative consciousness finds the workings of Fate in nature, and then reproduces them not in imitation of life’s outward show but in imitation of the mechanism behind both life and art.
The Paris Review once asked Nabokov, “Are you a lepidopterist, stalking your victims? If so, doesn’t your laughter startle them?” to which he replied, “On the contrary, it lulls them into a state of torpid security which an insect experiences when mimicking a dead leaf.” Both his characters and his readers are the objects of a whimsical authorial fate.
© Michael Fleming
Princeton, New Jersey