The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov
Chapter 5: Artistic Reality
Nabokov has said that by the mid-1930s, he and most other émigrés had given up any realistic hope of returning to Russia. Under Stalin the Soviet Government was stronger and more dangerous than ever, and there was little reason to expect its collapse or relaxation. At the same time in Berlin, the Nazis were gaining political momentum; no longer were they merely beerhall buffoons. It is against this backdrop that Invitation to a Beheading was written in 1935.
The novel is perhaps one of the two or three finest (and certainly the most imaginative) of his Russian works, a masterpiece of terror and black comedy. Despite the seeming political nature of its inspiration and content, Nabokov has said that the subject of Invitation to a Beheading is consciousness, and that which threatens consciousness.
The novel’s central figure is Cincinnatus C., who has the deadly misfortune to live in an unspecified fantasy nation where “the solicitous sunshine of public concern” penetrates everywhere. “In reality everything in this city was always quite dead and awful by comparison with the secret life of Cincinnatus and his guilty flame.” He is accused of “the most terrible of crimes,
Cincinnatus is guilty of having an “opaque” soul in a nation of transparent zombies, where secrets are not allowed, and so “with the gracious consent of the audience,” he “will be made to don the red top hat.”
Nabokov can get away with the rather gruesome humor of this novel because it does not exist on the “realistic” plane where characters are to be pitied, or are even meant to be seen as human beings. The novel is not an allegory or a roman à clef. Rather, Invitation to a Beheading pits consciousness (Cincinnatus, Nabokov) against stupidity and bestiality. The “action” of the novel is simple: Cincinnatus waits, is given hope, has all hopes dashed, and finally is executed. Throughout the story, though, Cincinnatus struggles to leave this horrible fictional plane, as if to lift himself right out of the novel and into the safe plane of artistic consciousness.
There are really two of Cincinnatus: one waiting meekly for a meaningless death, the other (“the double, the gangrel, that accompanies each of us — you, and me, and him over there — doing what we would like to do at that very moment, but cannot”) feverishly prying himself out of the novel and into reality. This being a Nabokov novel, it goes without saying that Cincinnatus’ only hope is to write. He knows with his “criminal intuition how words are combined,” and through the dark fog of his nightmare world he can glimpse a spark of redeeming light:
His goal is the salvation that can be obtained by the soul’s “surrounding itself in a structure of words.”
Compare this to the jovial sentiments of the headsman, M’sieur Pierre: “There is nothing more pleasant . . . than to surround oneself with mirrors and watch the good work going on there — wonderful!” The opposition couldn’t be more explicit. Consciousness surrounds itself with art, unconsciousness with mirrors. Invitation to a Beheading is a key to Nabokov’s Russian career in that it combines these themes and sets them in distinct contrast; heretofore no single one of his novels had done so.
The mirror theme that developed in The Eye and evolved in Despair finds its clearest and most powerful expression in Invitation to a Beheading. Nabokov introduces the concept of
Cincinnatus’ world is a nonnon, and through art (something which, at its Nabokovian best, can be an absurd, shapeless, mottled, and knobby thing, like this very novel) he produces a mirror whose reflection is reality.
This metaphor “works” throughout the novel, and on every level. We can even find nonnons in the novel’s sentence structure. For example, when Cincinnatus is shown his weeping, half-real wife; “Cincinnatus took one of these tears and tasted it: it was neither salty nor sweet — merely a drop of luke-warm water. Cincinnatus did not do this.” (The “negative comparison,” otrisatel’noe sravnenie, is a fairly common verbal figure in Russian folklore.) In the end, it does not matter that Cincinnatus’ own nonnon body is “made to don the red top hat,” because the nonnon mirror of his art has succeeded in freeing the double, real, Cincinnatus. The world of the novel dissolves completely, no longer necessary:
Waking up is normally the mere first mundane action of a mundane day. To awaken from a nightmare, though, is a joyful, almost triumphant return to consciousness and reality. Much of Nabokov’s art lurks in the dimly-lit side streets between dreamworlds and consciousness, a distinction that art turns to profit. “Thought likes curtains and the camera obscura,” he observes in The Gift. “Sunlight is good in the degree that it heightens the value of shade.” Art can display the grandeur of human consciousness either by portraying the thing itself, or the horrifying nonnon absence of it, understood only by the accompanying nonnon mirror of artifice.
The dream is an important symbol to Nabokov, a fascinating gray area between levels of reality. Smurov exclaims, “It is frightening when real life suddenly turns out to be a dream, but how much more frightening when that which one had thought a dream — fluid and irresponsible — suddenly starts to congeal into reality!” Martin (Glory) notes “a certain peculiarity about his life: the property that his reveries had of crystallizing and mutating into reality, as previously they mutated into sleep.” In King, Queen, Knave, Nabokov describes the “not infrequent” experience of coming to, but
The Paris Review asked for Nabokov’s response to some criticule’s fatuous notion that Nabokov’s worlds “may become tense with obsession, but they do not break apart like the worlds of everyday reality.” Nabokov snorted back:
When stalking this issue in Nabokov’s work we must keep continually aware of the many facets of his attitudes toward “reality.” First, any individual has as many “realities” as his consciousness can endure, and all of these — his past, his dreams, his present, his future — are unique and distinct from those of anyone else. Second, it is not a continuum, but a mélange of patches of an individual’s perceptions (Nabokov’s empiricism), some of which may be utter distortions of the forms behind them (Nabokov’s Platonism). Third, to discuss “reality” in relation to art is to beg several questions. Isn’t all art artifice, by definition? Can a series of symbols inked on sewn-together pieces of paper actually be a downy-limbed nymphet? Is the subject of a biography of Chernyshevsky less “real” after Chernyshevsky has died? Suppose Chernyshevsky had never lived, and the book is thus fiction: is he “real” then?
As Nabokov has said, “‘Reality’ is a very subjective affair.” Any time we shift our perceptions, a leap of faith is involved. (As when we wake up, for example, we habitually assume — but it is only an assumption — that our existence is a continuation of what was left unfinished the night before.) Remember that Nabokov thinks of himself as a psychologist, and that his work can be seen as a study of the ways that the human mind constructs the world through consciousness, perception, and imagination. The ever-visible artifice of his fiction reminds us that we are making leaps of faith, and Nabokov invites us to leap to the levels he has imagined for us. In Glory, he asserts:
Though the nonnon is an important and useful metaphor for Nabokov, there is another that is really the key to all of his work and all of his philosophy. Fyodor hints at it in The Gift:
In Speak, Memory, Nabokov completes the metaphor:
We can construct a model by winding a string around a pencil, preferably one that is not round, but facet-sided. The pencil’s lead here is time. It is dark and travels in a straight line. Or does it? After all, we can’t see it, and we can only guess about it since the wood obscures our view of it, the wood being the world, or the “knowable universe,” or “reality” in its common usage. The string is human experience, bumping up against the wood, the texture of life (which itself has a glossed-over exterior). Through the course of, say, a twenty-four-hour day, we have made what seems to be a circle, but we are not quite where we started. Instead we are one loop further along. And in the course of making that loop, we encountered six bumps (the pencil’s facets) that corresponded exactly to the six bumps of the previous day, and tomorrow we may even encounter six more bumps (though it would be just like nature to put the eraser there). These bumps are the physical manifestations in our existence of the underlying pattern of reality (the wood) that enshrouds time (the lead).
Fyodor writes that “the molders of opinion” — meaning Chernyshevsky and his claque — “were incapable of understanding Hegel’s vital truth: a truth that was not stagnant, like shallow water, but flowed like blood, through the very process of cognition.” Herein lies the key to all of Nabokov’s work: cognition, perception, consciousness, ever spiraling around time, form impressions of it, and with the aid of the imagination the mind can then conjecture about the pattern and meaning of experience. In Nabokov’s understanding of Hegel, Truth is an ongoing process of consciousness, a life-giving force. To be alive is to be aware, to feel, to ponder. “Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series.”
Almost everything in Nabokov can be expressed in a Hegelian syllogism. A few samples:
Here is an example from Laughter in the Dark:
A final sample, involving the trick to a chess problem: “The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely, and discover its fairly simple, ‘thetic’ solution without having passed through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one.”
At one point in The Gift, Fyodor admires a chess problem he has found in a magazine, and finds that “perhaps most fascinating of all was the fine fabric of deceit, the abundance of insidious tries (the refutation of which had its own accessory beauty), and of false trails carefully prepared for the reader.” Nabokov has said that “in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world.”
The “fine fabric of deceit” that Fyodor finds so admirable in chess problems is also a crucial element in Nabokov’s fiction. Each of his novels is completely consistent in its own terms, but these may be carefully concealed terms that we’ve never encountered before. One of the reader’s tasks is always to find the most stable toehold upon which to stand and view the swirling lights of spiraling nonreality. Often the only weight of actuality upon which gravity can tug is our knowledge that a real author sat down (or, in Nabokov’s later years, stood at a lectern) and wrote the book. He once explained to an interviewer, “I work hard, I work long, on a body of words until it grants me complete possession and pleasure. If the reader has to work in his turn — so much the better. Art is difficult.” Nabokov is little interested in the Book-of-the-Month-Club passive reader of “entertainment.” Reading, like writing, is an artistic craft when done “right,” and we need a few tools to read Nabokov: tenacity, humor, skepticism, a pencil for marginalia and cross-checking, and above all an unabridged dictionary.
In describing The Overcoat, Nabokov wrote:
Art is difficult, but rewarding for the creative reader. Nabokov recalls a childhood memory of falling blossom petals and their pool-reflected twins: “Every time the delicate union did take place, with the magic precision of a poet’s word meeting halfway his, or a reader’s, recollection.” Nabokov is not interested in any sort of art-for-art’s-sake that puts a book in a vacuum. Books exist to be read, to promote the encounter of one creative consciousness with another. In Laughter in the Dark, Nabokov writes of Axel Rex:
Rex is Nabokov’s kind of reader.
We might put our Hegelian triad model to use yet again, this time in describing approaches to reading:
In The Gift Fyodor muses about an ideal reader of his poems:
With all this in mind, it does not require a terribly heroic leap of the imagination to comprehend Vladimir Vladimirovich’s annoyance with group thought. Groups don’t read books, individuals do — such is the nature of the printed word. Nabokov told Playboy that the pleasures of writing
This time the “grateful reader” is not the same as the grateful fellow mentioned above; he is grateful not for finding his own ideas, but is delighted at discovering new ones. Nabokov is emphatically not a mind-reader. He can only allow himself one possible model of the ideal reader: Vladimir Nabokov (or someone with exactly his sensibilities, like Vivian Darkbloom). In the foreword to Despair he describes “the ecstatic love of a young writer for the old writer he will be someday is ambition in its most laudable form.” In Strong Opinions we find: “I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that sort of thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask”; and “I write for myself in multiplicate, a not unfamiliar phenomenon on the horizon of shimmering deserts.”
It comes as no surprise to read in The Gift that “the real writer should ignore all readers but one, that of the future, who in his turn is merely the author reflected in time.” As a sentiment of this author it is fairly typical and characteristic. Within the context of history, though, it rings with prophetic irony. The Gift was not published complete until 1952, fifteen years after its composition. (Nabokov’s émigré publishing house refused to include the Chernyshevsky chapter, already described.) And since the Soviets continue to ban Nabokov’s novels, these still haven’t found a Russian audience beyond the pitifully small émigré communities of the 1920s and 1930s. The “future” mentioned in The Gift, the crowning achievement of Nabokov’s Russian work, has not yet come to pass.
In the foreword to the novel, Nabokov gruffly insists, “I am not, and never was, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev.” Later, though, he coyly admits that “here and there history shows through artistry.” Readers of Nabokov (synthetic, skeptical souls that they are) realize that The Gift contains a wealth of autobiographical material, not only in its writer-protagonist, but also in its Berlin émigré setting of the mid-1920s, its heroine (a none-too-distant cousin of Nabokov’s wife Véra, whom he married in 1925), and especially in its continual evocation of the author’s favorite themes, moods, and attitudes. The Gift is a wonderful keystone to his Russian work, a synthesis of all the autobiographical and imaginative impulses displayed in his earlier fiction, a book that would not be surpassed until Lolita.
As the novel opens, we learn that young Fyodor has just published a volume entitled Poems,
Through Fyodor’s musings about the book, we learn that his was a wonderful childhood not at all unlike that of the author of Speak, Memory. He showed promise as a painter, a chess player, and a lepidopterist, before deciding to become a writer. After the revolution he settled into the haphazard lifestyle that Nabokov describes of himself: a mixture of poorly paid artistry (poems sold for pittances to émigré newspapers) and lesson-giving. (From Speak, Memory: “Patiently I thwarted the persistent knack Berlin businessmen had of pronouncing ‘business’ so as to rhyme with ‘dizziness’; and like a slick automaton, under the slow-moving clouds of a long summer day, on dusty courts, I ladled ball after ball over the net to their tanned, bob-haired daughters.”
Despite his high hopes for the book’s success, it is generally ignored — an experience Fyodor shares with his author and his first books of poetry, The Cluster and The Empyrean Path (both 1923). Nevertheless it is clear to the reader from the samples of the poems themselves and especially from Fyodor’s attitudes about art that he has “the gift” of
Nabokov never, in any of his writing, attempts to dissect clinically the artistic imagination. In The Gift as elsewhere it is a miraculous mystery, literally a gift of Fate.
Fyodor soon recovers from his disappointment over his Poems; “he was already looking for the creation of something new, something still unknown, genuine, corresponding fully to the gift which he felt like a burden inside himself.” Art is difficult, it is both the artist’s bliss and burden, and it is something that he cannot evade. Fyodor first considers composing a biography of his father, a famed naturalist (and generally not unlike V. D. Nabokov), but, after months of work the book refuses to materialize and the project is abandoned — after the narrator has given us the biography anyway.
As a joke, a friend challenges Fyodor to write a life of Chernyshevsky, and he sarcastically assents. Later, though, the idea continues to claw at his mind, and with the encouragement of his new-found love, Zina Mertz (also an émigré, and half-Jewish, like Véra) he plunges into the project with zeal. Zina oversees his work with amusement and wonder.
Fyodor has difficulty finding a publisher, but (unlike his creator’s actual experience), he at last finds an émigré firm that will print The Life of Chernyshevsky. After some initial vicious attacks upon the book — they are parodies of the sort of vitriolic drivel that greeted much of Nabokov’s work — and a few sensitive, comprehending, and highly favorable reviews, the biography begins to sell.
The final chapter of The Gift portrays Fyodor radiant with his success, his love, and his hopes for the future. “Definition is always finite,” intones the narrator, and in a characteristic shift to the first person, he continues, “but I keep straining for the faraway; I search beyond the barricades (of words, of senses, of the world) for infinity, where all, all lines meet.” In the novel’s closing moments we see Fyodor “Pondering now fate’s methods . . . , found a certain thread, a hidden spirit, a chess idea for his as yet hardly planned ‘novel.’”
One of the many themes of The Gift is the interface between poetry and prose, where the artist disregards any distinction. The Gift depicts this theme in its action — Fyodor, like Nabokov, makes the transition from “mainly a poet” to “mainly a fictionist” — and at the same time, the novel’s verbal texture is directly infused with poetry. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the poems that Nabokov has given to his hero (see, for example, the poem included here on p. 48). Often, the poetry is much more subtle. The reader, strolling comfortably through a long descriptive passage, may begin to feel a tingle, to notice a certain lilt in the surface of the words, and then realize (with a stab of wonder, of course) that the “prose” has slid quietly into hidden lines of iambic pentameter. The final paragraph of The Gift (one hesitates to call it “The End”) lifts itself off the page with a “wafture of bliss”:
The Gift and Invitation to a Beheading would seem to be antithetical novels. One luxuriates in a crisply realistic frame, with very few flights into the surreal, while the other is a protean nightmare with few toeholds of realism. The former drifts away from us into an aesthetic haze, the latter clambers joyfully upward from its murky abyss to join us here.
The synthesis between these novels lies in our thinking about them. Both explore the nature of art and the relationship between reader and author. Both are quite demanding; both are extremely rewarding. The two novels can also be seen as two circuits of a spiral through levels of reality, with our day-to-day actuality as the goal of the earlier novel and the starting point of the later one.
And both are farewells of sorts. Invitation to a Beheading, with its dark overtones, was the last novel Nabokov composed entirely in Berlin. In 1937, Vladimir Vladimirovich and his half-Jewish bride prudently left Germany for France. The Gift was completed soon afterward, and in the foreword to the English version Nabokov informs us, “It is the last novel I wrote, or shall ever write, in Russian. Its heroine is not Zina, but Russian Literature.”
One final syllogism with which to end this chapter:
© Michael Fleming
Princeton, New Jersey