O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

appendix C: Nabokov as Character


Like most authors, Nabokov frequently puts his own ideas into the mouths of his characters. Unlike most authors, Nabokov also delights in making himself (or a fairly close version of himself) a minor character of his own novels. Here are a few examples of both techniques:

from King, Queen, Knave:

Nabokov and Véra are guests at the same resort attended by Franz and the Dreyers, and we see them often, butterfly nets at the ready.

“Her [Véra’s] companion, a suntanned fellow, smoked and smiled. What language were they speaking? Polish? Estonian? Leaning near them against the wall was some kind of net: a bag of pale-bluish gauze on a ring fixed to a rod of light metal.

  ‘Shrimp catchers,’ said Martha.”

“Blavdak Vinomori,” a friend of Vladimir Nabokov and Vivian Darkbloom, appears on the guest list.

“The foreign girl in the blue dress danced with a remarkably handsome man in an old-fashioned dinner jacket. Franz had long since noticed this couple; they had appeared to him in fleeting glimpses, like a recurrent dream image or a subtle leitmotiv — now at the beach, now in a cafe, now on the promenade. Sometimes the man carried a butterfly net. The girl had a delicately painted mouth and tender gray-blue eyes, and her fiancé or husband, slender, elegantly balding, contemptuous of everything on earth but her, was looking at her with pride; and Franz felt envious at that unusual pair. . . . They walked past him. They were speaking loudly. They were speaking a totally incomprehensible language.”

from Laughter in the Dark:

Baum says, “What matters is not the book one writes, but the problem it sets — and solves.”

Udo Conrad “is that type of author with exquisite vision and a divine style . . . he has contempt for social problems.” Says Albinus, “I consider his best book to be The Vanishing Trick.”

Exclaims Udo, “When a literature subsists almost exclusively on Life and Lives, it means it is dying. . . . It makes me wild to see the books that are being taken seriously.”

from Despair:

The novel we see was supposedly written by Hermann and then mailed to “the penetrating novelist . . . my chosen one (you, my first reader), [who] is an émigré novelist, whose books cannot possibly appear in the U.S.S.R.”

from The Gift:

In the Foreword Nabokov tells us, “I am not, and never was, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev; my father is not the explorer of Central Asia that I still may become some day; I never wooed Zina Mertz, and never worried about the poet Koncheyev or any other writer. In fact, it is rather in Koncheyev, as well as in another incidental character, the novelist Vladimirov, that I distinguish odds and ends of myself as I was circa 1925.” This is Nabokov’s way of saying that The Gift is fiction, and is to be read as art rather that memorabilia; nevertheless, anyone familiar with the life and attitudes of Vladimir Nabokov can see a lot of the creator in the creation, Fyodor.

Re. the novelist Vladimirov: “At twenty-nine he was already the author of two novels — outstanding for the force and swiftness of their mirror-like style — which irritated Fyodor perhaps for the very reason that he felt a certain affinity with him. . . . One blamed him for being derisive, supercilious, cold, incapable of thawing to friendly discussions — but that was also said about Fyodor himself, and about anyone whose thoughts lived in their own private house and not in a barrack-room or a pub.”

from Speak, Memory:

Nabokov’s memoir includes a brief run-down of some of the leading Russian émigré writers, ending with this assessment of Sirin, whom he never identifies as himself: “Sirin’s admirers made much, perhaps too much, of his unusual style, brilliant precision, functional imagery and that sort of thing. Russian readers . . . were impressed by the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to ‘windows giving upon a contiguous world . . . a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.’”


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