O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

appendix B: Deceit


“How clever, how gracefully sly and how essentially good life is!” exclaims Fyodor in The Gift. Nabokov stresses the benignly deceptive nature of reality throughout his work, and believes that he is at his most “realistic” when he is at his trickiest. The following are just a few of the many references that Nabokov makes to deceit in life and art.

from Laughter in the Dark:

“Destiny, which had promised him so much, had not the right to cheat him now.”

“Perhaps the only real thing about him was his innate conviction that everything that had ever been created in the world of art, science or sentiment, was only a more or less clever trick.”

from Despair:

“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.”

“. . . Every work of art is a deception. Oh, yes, I was the pure artist of romance.”

from The Gift:

“And then there were the mirages — the mirages where nature, that exquisite cheat, achieved absolute miracles. . . .”

“. . . for there is nothing in nature more bewitchingly divine than her ingenious deceptions cropping up in unexpected places.”

“The most enchanting things in nature and art are based on deception.”

from Speak, Memory:

“I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

(re. chess problems) “Deceit, to the point of diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my notions of strategy, I was always ready to sacrifice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastical content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil.”

from a letter to Edmund Wilson, 5 April 1960:

“Isn’t all art whimsical, from Shakespeare to Joyce?”

from the Eugene Onegin commentary:

Pushkin is described as “a deceiver as all artists are. . . .”

“Art is a magical deception, as all nature is magic and deception. To speak of a ‘sincere’ poem or picture is about the same thing as to call ‘sincere’ a bird’s mating dance or a caterpillar’s mimetic behavior.”

from the Playboy interview:

“Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”

from the BBC interview, in Strong Opinions:

“. . . 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.”

“Do You know how Poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, ‘Wolf, wolf,’ and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a good hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born — the tall story had been born in the tall grass.”


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