The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov
Chapter 1: Consciousness
The anonymous sonneteer retraces a probe into the back-eddies of a man’s consciousness — that of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, who has paddled the same stream relentlessly through the whole of his literary art. During his Russian period in particular — that is, from the time he composed the first poem of his pre-revolution adolescence, to the publication of his Russian masterpiece, The Gift — Nabokov was a sort of Slavic Proust, feverishly striving to recapture an idyllic childhood that had been lost to time and politics. Even after more than forty years as an émigré and twenty years as an American writing in English, he nevertheless told a reporter in 1962:
In a way, it is impossible to write about Vladimir Vladimirovich’s work without creating at least a pallid ghost of something he himself might have written. To touch upon any one of his themes is to feel the shiver of the single creative consciousness at the heart, and the hum of the whole reverberates through each of the parts. “Looking at it objectively,” Nabokov once remarked rather subjectively, “I have never seen a more lucid, lonely, better balanced mad mind than mine.” The many and varied products of his very fertile mind have an organic unity that won’t go away, even under the knife of the most ardent literary taxonomist. No matter how hard we might try to isolate the melody of, say, the “mirror theme,” the echoes of such other themes as “deceit” and “influence of lepidopterology” can still be heard harmonizing off-stage.
When attempting to analyze Nabokov’s work, then, perhaps the most we can hope to do is to produce at least a crude model of one of his own infinitely more animated creations with its surface gleam of patterned recurrence and its structural marrow of artistic unity. One may hope that such an approach will provide a key to the art of this man who speaks of the “cosmic synchronization” that a work has when the poet keeps himself firmly at the center of things. The reader’s task, therefore, is always to keep Nabokov in mind when trying to interrelate the facets of his art.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on 22 April 1899, not on 23 April and certainly not on 32 April, both of which have been reported. (Even Nabokov was not quite cunning enough at birth to arrive on a date that doesn’t exist.) His family was wealthy and aristocratic, and anything but stuffy, as we learn in Nabokov’s remarkable memoir, Speak, Memory. (His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was himself an author and a leading liberal jurist.) Young Vladimir led a childhood that was happy and typical of his class: travel, plenty of play, and private tutorings in Russian, English, and French. “As is invariably noted at the beginning of positively all literary biographies,” Nabokov later wrote (of Chernyshevsky), “the little boy was a glutton for books.”
The most important date in Nabokov’s prodigious memory is an August day in 1903, when he experienced the “birth of sentient life.” It is his very first lasting recollection, and the very limit to which he has been able to stretch his formidable powers of retrieval — he strolls hand in hand with his mother and father down a country lane dappled by the bright sun filtering through the trees. He remembers being acutely aware at that moment that these two people are his parents, and thus we have a fitting first image of what Nabokov was much later to label one of his protagonists: “an extremely receptive boy, living in extremely favorable surroundings.”
“In probing my childhood,” he writes in his autobiography,
Hence the importance of time to Nabokov’s art; our mode of thought, just as Kant argued, is inextricably linked to our sense of time’s passage. To “afford memory a slippery hold” is nothing less than to gain an insight into the very core of the human thought process and its development. Using his own childhood as an example (it is, needless to say, the only one he can know), his art provides a model of his conception of the way the human mind evolves. To render consciousness becomes the process of recreating the almost magical intensity of the emotional experience of the child, delighting in his first encounters with the world and himself.
“Vivian Bloodmark,” he wrote of his “philosophical” (and anagrammatic) friend, “used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time ... all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawnchair in Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.” The artist constructs an impressionistic sphere of a moment of consciousness centered in his own perceptive and emotional response to it. In one interview he stated, “A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world.”
The key to this study, as we find in all of Nabokov’s writings, is the inherent pattern to be discovered in nature. It is this “web of when and where” (to quote his English poem, “Restoration”) that contains the essence of reality, rather than simple — and for Nabokov very “unreal” — clock-measured chronology. “I confess I do not believe in time,” he writes. “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.”
Another key to Nabokov’s art is this “magic” that lets him fold time so as to display the workings of its web. In 1946 he wrote to Edmund Wilson that “the longer I live the more I become convinced that the only thing that matters in literature is the (more or less) shamanstvo [shamanism] of a book, i.e., that the good writer is first of all an enchanter.” Herein we find the basis of an aspect of Nabokov’s art that many critics (including Wilson) have found troubling: his complete indifference to any moral or didactic purpose. Nabokov gently reproves Chekhov (a writer whom he greatly admires) when he notes:
When critics see this love of shamanstvo in Nabokov’s own art as an indifference to suffering (Wilson, for example, deemed “repellent” Nabokov’s “addiction to Schadenfreude. Everyone is always being humiliated.”), they misunderstand Nabokov’s very Russian priorities. Any strictures on art become anathema when they tread upon the artist’s freedom to invent whatever he wishes. This amorality in no sense implies immorality, but is rather a reaction to the Chernyshevsky school of criticism in the nineteenth century and to the “people’s art” of the Soviet authorities. Simon Karlinsky explains:
Throughout Nabokov’s canon he stresses the existence of a form of consciousness that completely transcends worldly morality. In the afterword to Lolita, he announces, “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” In a sense, “aesthetic bliss” is Nabokov’s teleology, the end for which art alone can be the means. It is an ecstatic pang of timelessness, an instantaneous grasp of natural patterns, and a sense of the highest level of consciousness that makes all thought possible. Nabokov compares it to the “stab of wonder that accompanies the precise moment when, gazing at a tangle of twigs and leaves, one suddenly realized that what had seemed a natural component of that tangle is a marvelously disguised insect or bird.”
Nabokov is perfectly serious in considering himself to be a scientist of the mind. His own consciousness is his laboratory in which he works with the honesty and thoroughness of an entomologist.
For the sake of analysis we might imagine four possible “levels” in a work of fiction (though there may of course be any number, and to be strictly “Nabokovian” we would admit only one — the work itself). First, there is the plane of the minute, word by word detail. Second, there is the specific sensory image — the play of sunlight through the trees, for example. Third, there is the level of social and political ideas embodied in, embedded in, or engulfing the work. Finally, there are abstract, philosophical upper reaches. Nabokov has a very personal approach to his art on each of these planes.
First-time readers of Nabokov are instantly struck by the dazzling poetry of his prose, the phonetic devices, the vast, infinitely pliable vocabulary, and the rather exotic use of grammar. One statement made by the protagonist in The Gift might well be his own: “If you like I’ll admit it: I myself am a mere seeker of verbal adventures.”
In the last days before his execution, Cincinnatus C. (hero of Invitation to a Beheading) scrawls:
William Rowe, after studying Nabokov’s Russian novels in both their originals and the author’s own English trans lations, found that “a faintly Russian coloration further contributes to the ‘live iridescence’ of Nabokov’s English prose. His writings evince a unique perspective on especially these two languages and cultures.” Even (or particularly) on the level of closest possible reading we find a unique mastery, and feel the pulse of his creative consciousness delighting in every word. His adventuring in Russian, English, and French left him a premiere stylist in each, and his writing in any one language contains a delightful murmur of the other two, almost as though any word has an international essence that goes beyond culture.
At our next “level” we deal with images, which are perhaps even more integral to the function of Nabokov’s creativity than language itself. He once told a BBC interviewer, “I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates.” Words are not a product of the creative imagination — images are. The linguistic scientist in Nabokov uses words as precision lenses with which to focus exactly upon the images generated by the imagination.
In his imagery Nabokov adopts many of the techniques of the impressionist painter in order to render the sense and mood of a scene. In fact, he describes himself as a “born painter — really!” and has one of his narrators declare, “At the present moment it is not literary methods that I need, but the plain, crude obviousness of the painter’s art.” As a child, Vladimir Vladimirovich was tutored by “the celebrated” Dobuzhinsky. Nabokov recalls:
This exactitude in detail can be combined with an impressionistic mood in a way that may be impossible for the painter, but which is a central element in Nabokov’s palette. Julia Bader has noted perceptively that we must read a work by Nabokov as we would a painting: carefully circling the tableau for spots of repeated color and detail, for reflections, for symmetry of composition.
Our next level is “the Museum of General Ideas, which is on your left as you stroll down University Boulevard.” As noted before, Nabokov’s impatience with those who worry about such matters stems from the suffocation he feels by being expected to produce literature that “means something.” In average fiction, the level of surface detail is often a badly sketched box (which we are to regard only passingly or not at all), into which has been dumped a cargo of sociological jargon and “universality.” In an interview Nabokov has described the market for such a product:
In the short story “Spring in Fialta,” the narrator exclaims, “I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash.”
The consumers of this sort of trash miss the literary point in two ways. At one extreme, they fail to understand that “form” and “content” are one, that (to take one of the favorite apothegms of the 1960s out of context) “the medium is the message,” that the art of a piece of real literature is its highest (indeed only) aspiration. Of Gogol, Nabokov has written, “His work, as all great literary achievements, is a phenomenon of language and not of ideas,” and “the final result . . . is due (as with all masterpieces) not to what is said but how it is said.” In his commentary to Pushkin’s greatest poem, Eugene Onegin, Nabokov claims that “Pushkin’s composition is first of all and above all a phenomenon of style.”
That the “general reader” misses the joy of words and imagery — form — in his myopic quest for “the meaning” — content — is his lamentable but unconscious loss. Even more disturbing to Nabokov is his loss at the other extreme — consciousness itself. Nabokov’s ideal reader will immerse himself in the surface, feeling it as real sensory experience, while at the same time remaining continually aware that the book is the artifice of a distinct creative mind. Only in this way can he be vaulted to that fourth, very abstract plane, of which most readers (and, sadly, writers) are not even aware. It is a chilly but exhilarating realm in which the reader’s and the author’s consciousnesses unite and mutually experience “aesthetic bliss” — this is the stuff of Nabokovian reality.
Nabokov’s vision of poetic heaven will be described later. For now, we should keep in mind that irony is his controlling tone. He very rarely asks us to make judgments upon anything he writes about, since the undertow — the grin behind the pen — is ever capable of pulling that magic rug out from under any seeming reality. Our final opinion can only concern the work itself, not its “ideas.” Nabokov’s tone is never that of blushing adoration, or howling anguish, or even derisive laughter. Rather, it is the detached voice of an ironist who sees all the facets of his subjects that can be seen, while remaining aware that there might be many more that are unknowable. If we don’t always believe him directly (he is often pulling our literary leg), we nevertheless always believe in him, in the power of his taste and intellect. Nabokov is an “author” in the fullest sense of that term: he has authority.
The controlling metaphor that Nabokov uses for irony of this sort is that the authorial voice is “an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me.” The artist hovers playfully over his manuscript in a way that mirrors Nabokov’s notion of a vaguely benevolent, almost always humorous deity hovering over his creation. The detachment is ever apparent; we are not asked to “suspend disbelief” or “become emotionally involved” with any one character. The horror in novels like Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister would be unbearable without an undercutting irony. When Charlotte Humbert is killed by a car in Lolita the sense is not one of death so much as deletion — she has been erased and brushed off the page because her presence as a character is no longer required. Our emotional reaction must be to the body of the book, not its dismembered parts.
What, then, is the “thing itself,” a novel by Vladimir Nabokov? People have dismissed much of his work with the remark that “Nabokov’s worlds are unreal, they are not relevant,” which is entirely beside the point. The center of Nabokov’s method is the creative consciousness which can either fabricate reality or a distortion of reality. The “meaning” is the “stab of wonder” in suddenly discovering a certain key, often some sly narrative trick or a cleverly concealed structural pattern, and the “aesthetic bliss” to be had in experiencing both the surface and artifice.
The floodgates of Nabokov’s creative consciousness were ever open; even a single sentence can release a torrent of allusions, ironies, puns, and associations both real and false. Consider this sample from Despair:
Besides the contextual meaning (narrator Hermann’s mocking sort of atheism) and the iteration of several “Nabokovian themes” (his unique form of deism; authorial presence in a god-like incarnation; etc.), we also find allusions to Hamlet, Heart of Darkness, King Lear, Macbeth, and — doubtless — more. (Nabokov was astonishingly well read and never hesitated to “borrow” material from sources ranging from Shakespeare to the comics page.) In describing Gogol’s art, Nabokov says,
With Nabokov’s own many-faceted art we find exquisite reproduction of any number of literary effects: parody, poetry, mimesis, allusion, word-play, and so on. This is the meaning of Nabokov’s art: he renders the many levels of consciousness in the creative mind, which has perceived them already in the pattern of nature. Just as “a bad play is more apt to be good comedy or good tragedy than the incredibly complicated creations of such men as Shakespeare or Gogol,” so do Nabokov’s works bristle with life on every plane.
All of Nabokov’s novels are fairly similar in relation to the tradition terms of fiction: plot, character, and so forth. A central character (or less frequently, characters), not necessarily an artist, but with some form of creative consciousness, grapples with exactly the sort of problems that Nabokov sets for himself. In a sense each deals in some way with the same isolation of time/consciousness that Nabokov describes in Speak, Memory:
Like their creator, Nabokov’s figures are searching for exits.
It is fairly simple to divide these central characters into two groups. On the one hand there are those who have been called “equivalents” or “favorites.” Especially in Nabokov’s Russian novels, these all tend to be émigré writers much like their creator. They share his tastes, manners, background, and most important, his groping for an escape from the prison of time through some heroic feat of imaginative re-creation. Ganin in Mary and Fyodor in The Gift are artists whose happiness lies in recreative fulfillment. Martin in Glory, Luzhin in The Defense, and Albinus in Laughter in the Dark have Nabokov’s hypertrophied vision but lack his creative powers; they are doomed. Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading is saved from a dismal fate by literally escaping to a realm of higher consciousness through art.
Nabokov’s villains — at the center of a number of his novels — are quite like sinister doubles to his heroes. They are consciousness run amuck, perversions of artistry. Smurov in The Eye is a false artist, though not quite so wicked a charlatan as the monstrous Hermann of Despair. Franz, in King, Queen, Knave, lacks the imagination for his acts to be really evil, but Rex in Laughter in the Dark makes up for him.
Nabokov has little interest in some of the main themes of fiction, such as “character development” or “self-recognition.” Just as no action can occur in a single point of time, so does plot play a relatively minor role in most of these novels. Rather, their interest is in the presentation of minds and worlds that are relatively static. “Development” here is more a function of unfolding narrative patterns than of action, and whenever plot does appear to predominate momentarily (as, say, in Laughter in the Dark), we can be sure that our jovial author is parodying some convention, such as the Hollywood romance. Witness even this short passage from Lolita: “Then I pulled out my automatic — I mean, this is the kind of fool thing a reader might suppose I did. It never even occurred to me to do it.”
These books are not “about” their characters or plots but a reality (not the “reality” of the literary cocktail circuit, with its twin claw marks, but the real thing) that is the product of the actual, sensory world as interpreted through the creative imagination, which defines the patterns and meanings of real experience. This reality is not a set of dogmas but an evolving, spiraling system that Nabokov termed
Nabokov’s characters are projections of this quest for reality which can either be a satisfying attempt in its own right, or an exercise in deadly futility, but which can never end in complete fulfillment: mortality (that is, the human mind and its earthly a priori prison of time) is an inescapable sphere, which we can transcend only through the abyss of suicide and madness, or dull unconsciousness, or the aesthetic bliss found in art.
Speaking of Gogol (but obviously relevant to his own work), Nabokov writes:
Imputing moral purpose to Nabokov’s work is to stomp on a mirror-surface of very thin ice, and more than one criticule has fallen through the work and into an abyss of absurdity. Lionel Trilling airily informs us that “Lolita is not about sex, but about love.” Actually, Lolita is as profoundly “about” sex as any novel ever written, and is about love in a mainly oblique manner — Nabokov calls the book his “love affair” with the English language.
When we venture out onto that metaphorical ice we should delight in its sheen and structure. If there is a “lesson” it might be this: Nabokov shows us how to live the way we should read his books — consciously, carefully, skeptically, individually, taking special delight in the texture of things as we go along.
Two final notes on “morality.” First, authorial presence is so strong in Nabokov’s novels, the strictures of his reality so singly defined, that the characters cannot really be moral actors at all; they have no choices. “Fate” and “predetermination” hinge solely on authorial whim, and Nabokov is an absolute tyrant in his fictive worlds.
Second, his characters don’t represent “good” and “evil,” nearly so much as “consciousness” and “flawed (or lacking) consciousness.” Morality is such a natural offshoot of consciousness for Nabokov that he finds it trivial and misleading even to utter the word. Hence the continual denials in his forewords and interviews of having any moral purpose. He is saying, in effect, Morality in the way you think of it is beside the point. I have an entirely different way of thinking about it, so let’s talk about the creative consciousness.
Before discussing Nabokov’s Russian novels individually, a few more facts about him should be stressed.
First, Nabokov “developed” almost as little as any of his characters; his genius was evident at the outset. Readers looking for metamorphoses might best see Vladimir Vladimirovich as one of his beloved butterflies, a Plebejus (Lysandra) cormion Nabokov, which emerges a little sticky and new perhaps but is fully conceived, ready to flutter among the thriving greenery in the meadow of his own mind.
Each of his novels was a new approach to various philosophical and literary challenges that he continued to confront throughout his career. When asked, “Why did you write Lolita?” he answered:
In fact, Nabokov’s career seems very much the realization of a remark made by young Fyodor in The Gift: “It’s queer, I seem to remember my future works, although I don’t even know what they will be about. I’ll recall them completely and write them.” Nabokov lived his own themes, no matter how “unrealistic”: nature, patterning, timelessness, humor, butterflies.
Second, Nabokov’s Russian novels were published under the pseudonym “V. V. Sirin,” which he adopted in order to differentiate his work from the treatises on legal matters published by his already-famous father, V. D. Nabokov. (The “sirin,” by the way, is a mythical bird.) The Russian émigré communities of Berlin (where Nabokov spent most of the 1920s and 1930s) and Paris were intensely intellectual and their influence upon Nabokov has not yet been fully analyzed. Far from being a band of White Russian generals, tsarists, and old women with lorgnettes, the Russian émigrés included many democratic liberals (such as the Nabokovs), artists, and Jews. A “best seller” in this milieu might only sell 1,500 copies, but literature was the lifeblood of the émigrés, and Nabokov/Sirin quickly became famous within that small circle.
Nabokov’s pre-1940 career can be seen as his process of creating a world that could replace his lost Russia. This process was a two-fold conjuring of mainly autobiographical works (e.g., Mary, Glory) on the one hand, and mainly imaginative works (e.g., King, Queen, Knave; Invitation to a Beheading) on the other. These twin lines spiral like strands of DNA (or Yeats’ “gyres”); where they cross we have works like The Defense and The Gift.
A final point: our English versions of these novels do not necessarily reflect exactly their Russian originals. Nabokov has said,
Mary follows its prototype by forty-four years, and Glory (his last novel to be Englished) completes Nabokov’s canon only in 1971, more than fifty years after the time period described in the novel. Further, bilingual critics have noted substantial revision of King, Queen, Knave and Laughter in the Dark (which was Camera Obscura in a 1938 English incarnation), and not much less in Despair. Time and authorial second thoughts may distort somewhat our English-language ideas about these Russian novels; still, Nabokov himself insists that they are nevertheless quite representative and bilingual readers generally agree. We’ll have to take him at his word, armed with the circumspect skepticism we bring to all of his work.
In The Defense, young Luzhin is “wonderfully stirred by the precise combinations of these varicolored pieces that formed at the last moment an intelligible figure.” As we study Nabokov’s fiction, we can delight in the “stab of wonder” that occurs when we grasp the patterns laid out for us by this “anthropomorphic deity.” This is the teleological purpose of Nabokov’s art, to take us to the very edge of mortal experience of time and space, that we might squint happily into the haze beyond. In his 1952 poem “Restoration,” Nabokov marvels
© Michael Fleming
Princeton, New Jersey