O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

Chapter 4: Re-Creation: Self-Creation


Fate seems to have been unusually methodical in organizing Vladimir Vladimirovich’s life, which came to him in four parcels of very nearly twenty years each. First there was his Russian childhood and adolescence, then his émigré life, followed by his tenure as an American scholar, and then a final European phase. No wonder he saw patterns in his life.

  In 1919, the Nabokovs left Crimea, the last White stronghold, and would never return to Russia. (They had fled their St. Petersburg home two years before.) The family split up — Vladimir and his younger brother Sergei went to Cambridge on the last of the once-vast family fortune (some jewels had been secreted in a jar of talcum powder), and their parents and younger siblings moved to the émigré community in Paris. In 1922, while the two elder boys were still in college, V. D. Nabokov, a democratic liberal, was shot and killed by tsarist extremists at a political gathering.


  Glory draws upon many elements of Nabokov’s own experience: exile, Cambridge, the specter of death. It is his most searchingly poignant autobiographical novel in its attempt to make sense out of the insanity of expatriation. In the foreword to the book Nabokov writes: “It is the glory of high adventure and disinterested achievement; the glory of this earth and its patchy paradise; the glory of personal pluck; the glory of the radiant martyr.”

  Glory’s hero, Martin Edelweiss (“the kindest, uprightest, and most touching of all my young men”) is a young Russian of Russo-Swiss ancestry. In experience and sensibility he is a very close cousin to Nabokov, but with one critical difference: he is not an artist. He feels all the writer’s needs to recapture the past in words, but lacks the imaginative energy to meet his powerful retrospection halfway. When he chances upon a series of well-written prosaic miniatures, we are told:

If Martin had ever thought of becoming a writer and been tormented by a writer’s covetousness (so akin to the fear of death), by that constant state of anxiety compelling one to fix indelibly this or that evanescent trifle, perhaps these dissertations on minutiae that were deeply familiar to him might have aroused in him a pang of envy and the desire to write of the same things still better.

Nabokov continually dangles this carrot before Martin’s face, but the young man’s destiny is not art, but “fulfillment . . . invariably permeated by poignant nostalgia. The memory of the childish reverie blends with the expectation of death.”

  Throughout the novel poor Martin must endure

a feeling he had known on more than one occasion as a child: an unbearable intensification of all his senses, a magical and demanding impulse, the presence of something for which alone it was worth living.

He constantly yearns for a purpose through which to give meaning to this feeling, but Nabokov plucks the possibilities out of Martin’s grasp: love, country, childhood. At Cambridge, “the prospect of studying wordy, watery works and their influence on other wordy, watery works did not attract him.” He gains temporary satisfaction in turning his scholarly skills to the study of Russian literature and culture, just as his creator did in actuality. (“It was as if Martin had found the key to all the vague, tender and fierce feelings that besieged him.”) Many episodes in Glory have fairly exact counterparts in Speak, Memory, but sadly, Martin never composes that first poem. (Appendix D is a sampling of passages from Glory and other novels that mimic rather closely their creator’s actual experiences, as related in Speak, Memory.) At the end of the novel, Martin attempts the heroic act (or “exploit,” a more literal translation than “glory” of the original title of the novel) of making a probably fatal foray into the Soviet Union.

  Martin is driven to a desperate act of retrieval precisely because he is not a writer. He can recapture the past only in a tangible, fleeting (and, of course, utterly futile) sense. He hasn’t the re-creative imagination to make the past live again in art. His consciousness is of the highest sort but it has no safety valve, and the poignancy of lost time finally overwhelms him. Nabokov notes:

The purpose of my novel, my only novel with a purpose, lay in stressing the thrill and the glamour that my young expatriate finds in the most ordinary pleasures as well as in the seemingly meaningless adventures of a lonely life.

  Glory is perhaps the one Nabokov novel in which the whole fails to transcend the wonder of its particulars. (And perhaps Nabokov thought so too, since this was the last of his Russian works to be Englished.) On the one hand it seems as though Nabokov loves his hero too much — he has endowed him with marvelous powers of perception and sensibility — while on the other hand Martin has been cruelly denied a creative outlet. This is, of course, the premise (hence Martin’s need for an “exploit”) but, pace the author, this novel that is unique in having a “purpose” may also be unique among Nabokov’s works in being conceptually flawed.

  Just as was the case with Mary, though, Glory gives us a glimpse at Nabokov at his most autobiographical and candid. It is explicit in demonstrating Nabokov’s obsessive concern to separate the particular from the general, the individual from the group. Martin, like his creator,

avidly sought out what was live and human, what belonged to that class of astonishing details which well may satiate coming generations as they watch old, drizzly films of our day. . . .

  In literature he sought not the general sense, but the unexpected, sunlit clearings, where you can stretch until your joints crunch, and remain entranced.

  As a professor of literature at Cornell in the 1950s, Nabokov had his students learn the fine detailing of great novels. They had to know that Gregor Samsa was a domed (or “dung”) beetle, not a cockroach. They had to visualize the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train for Anna Karenina, the “larch labyrinth” in Mansfield Park, and the facade of Dr. Jekyll’s house in Stevenson’s tale. His approach to Ulysses: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.”

  “I believe in stressing the specific detail,” Nabokov has said; “the general ideas can take care of themselves.” As we have already seen, he has a number of goals in mind in so approaching his art. First, “everything will be ennobled and justified by its age” when the bits and pieces of everyday existence, captured in art, become the historical treasures of the future. More important in the writer’s own time is that without the “unexpected, sunlit clearings” of detail, a book is not art but merely essay and plot summary. In his Onegin commentary Nabokov explains:

In art as in science there is no delight without the detail, and it is on details that I have tried to fix the reader’s attention. Let me repeat that unless these are thoroughly understood and remembered, all “general ideas” (so easily acquired, so profitably resold) must necessarily remain but worn passports allowing their bearers short cuts from one area of ignorance to another.


  During the latter half of the nineteenth century a school of criticism centered around Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky became the dominant literary force in Russia. Unless a writer demonstrated exactly the sort of social and ethical purpose that Chernyshevsky had in mind, he could be drummed right out of literature (as was the poet Fet). The links between this movement and the rise of Bolshevism are strong — Lenin’s favorite novel, for example, was Chernyshevsky’s What to Do? — yet Chernyshevsky remained almost a canonized figure among nearly all literary Russians, even after 1917.

  The émigré publishers of The Gift (1937) refused to bring out the entire book, because the long Chapter Four is an extremely critical biography of Chernyshevsky, ostensibly written by the novel’s young hero, Fyodor. Nabokov is very rarely given to anything that smacks of polemics, but Chernyshevsky is a symbol of everything he loathes: generalizing, politics in art, ignorance of nature, well-meaning stupidity. Chernyshevsky

most definitely did not give a hoot for the opinions of specialists, and he saw no harm in not knowing the details of the subject under examination: details were for him merely the autocratic element in the nation of our general ideas.

Nabokov’s treatise was the first serious attempt at debunking the Chernyshevsky myth, and it is devastating. Crack after crack opens up in the foundations of the latter’s school of thought, especially as it relates (or fails to relate) to art. For example,

As a person ridiculously alien to artistic creation, he [Chernyshevsky] supposed that the “polishing” took place on paper while the “real work” — i.e., “the task of forming the general plan” — occurred “in the mind” — another sign of that dangerous dualism, that crack in his “materialism,” whence more than on snake was to slither and bite him during his life.

More cracks, more snakes: “. . . So Chernyshevsky, having not the slightest notion of the true nature of art, saw its crown in conventional, slick art (i.e., anti-art), which he combated — lunging at nothing.” “. . . Chernyshevsky’s aesthetics — where ‘form’ and ‘content’ are distinct. . . .”

  Fyodor is amazed at the ill-founded Chernyshevsky myth:

. . . The seriousness, the limpness, the honesty, the poverty — all this pleased Fyodor so much, he was so amazed and tickled by the fact that an author with such a mental and verbal style was considered to have influenced the literary destiny of Russia. . . .

  The “Chernyshevsky” chapter of The Gift is perhaps the most thematically crucial in all of Nabokov’s Russian works. It shows that Nabokov did not spring out of any aesthetic vacuum, but rather that he developed in direct reaction to a school of Russian intellectualism that attacked Pushkin and Tolstoy, and instead deified the fool Chernyshevsky.


  As Nabokov has made clear, his hatred of the Reds stems not from his “lost banknotes,” but a philosophical repudiation of the bases and consequences of Marxism/Leninism.

What the Tsars had never been able to achieve, namely the complete curbing of minds to the government’s will, was achieved by the Bolsheviks in no time after the main contingent of the intellectuals had escaped abroad or been destroyed.

This “curbing of the mind,” a denial of individual consciousness, is the ultimate crime against man, says Nabokov. He places in Hermann’s mouth a sentiment that he himself would find absolutely abhorrent: “Communism shall indeed create a beautifully square world of identical brawny fellows, broad-shouldered and microcephalous.”

  Group thought — ideology — leads to group action — politics — which Nabokov finds just as distasteful, a “ridiculous sequence of pacts, discords, collapses, and the transformation of perfectly innocent little towns into the names of international treaties.” Fyodor describes “my kingdom, where everyone keeps to himself and there is no equality and no authorities — but if you don’t want it, I don’t insist and don’t care.” True Utopia is “aesthetic bliss” in Nabokov’s fiction, an individual’s private kingdom, a parcel of unreal estate that cannot be reached by tank or bandwagon.


  In Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls a childhood picture book that culminated with the toy balloon ascent of a family of dolls.

At the immense altitude to which the ship reached, the aeronauts huddled together for warmth while the little lost soloist, still the object of my intense envy notwithstanding his plight, drifted into an abyss of frost and stars — alone.

There is a certain romantic appeal to Nabokov’s loneliness-of-the-genius fiction. If his heroes avoid the errors of group thought, they also miss the comforts, however illusory. They are intensely individual, like Fyodor, who “had long since realized that he was incapable of giving his entire soul to anyone or anything: its working capital was too necessary to him for his own private affairs.” In Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus discovers the Cartesian first premise as an end in itself. “I know this: through the process of gradual divestment I reach the final, indivisible, firm, radiant point, and this point says: I am!”

  Having ascertained his own existence, an individual is then responsible for creating himself, for exploring inner and outer worlds. Nabokov neatly straddles the fence between extreme fatalism (man an impotent slave to Fate) and “social ecology” (man completely “free” within the confines of an enslaving environment that forces his choices anyway). Genius, says Nabokov, is the gift of an “anonymous donor,” and the hand of Fate is a quirky, vaguely benign force that for the most part will let a strong-willed individual make his own decisions.

  A genius by his very nature will soak up his surroundings like a sponge, retaining everything. Nabokov finds nothing inherent about his past that made him an artist. Rather, he made use of what were (admittedly) extremely favorable conditions. “Impressions do not make good writers,” he asserts. “Good writers make up themselves in their youth and then use them as if they had been real originally.” Had he been born, say, the son of a dentist in San Francisco, he still would have been an artist; genius has its ideal form, too, and the creative consciousness can make art out of its perceptions where- or whenever they occur.

  By way of analogy, we might say that all men are destined to spend life atop logs, spinning their way down-stream (time). For the common herd, life is a struggle just to stay aboard, a frantic scramble to avoid the plunge. For the artistic genius, life is a pleasant game: he controls the tempo, delights in the texture of the log itself and the shimmer of the river; he knows the common and Latin names of the trees on the shore and the butterflies that light upon his nose.

  An artist’s masterpiece should be his own life, since “artistic originality has only its own self to copy.” Nabokov’s disgust with Marxians and Freudists is two-fold. First, they represent organized systems of thought with potentially dire consequences. The for-the-most-part-benign intentions of the German economist (and those, like Chernyshevsky, of the same ilk) are based on misconceptions about mankind, Nabokov argues. (From Bend Sinister: “The economist had not seen that no leveling of wealth could be successfully accomplished, nor indeed was of any real moment, so long as there existed some individuals with more brains or guts than others.”) It finally took Lenin and his “beastly regime” to force upon the Russian population that which Marx had insisted was an order that would evolve naturally. As to the “Viennese delegation,” Nabokov suggests that “the Freudian faith leads to dangerous ethical consequences, such as when a filthy murderer with the brain of a tapeworm is given a lighter sentence because his mother spanked him too much or too little — it works both ways.”

  A second and even more heartfelt repudiation of these ideologues stems from their trespass upon the sanctity of the individual mind. They have the audacity to tell Vladimir Nabokov how and why Vladimir Nabokov thinks, speculation which he prefers to reserve for himself. Marx he simply laughs off: “There is in every child the essentially human urge to reshape the earth, to act upon a friable environment (unless he is a born Marxist or a corpse and meekly waits for the environment to fashion him).” Freud’s “spying, bitter little embryos” invoke all of Nabokov’s individualistic venom. “Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of my mind? . . .. I’ve no intention to dream the drab middle-class dreams of an Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella.” (Appendix E contains more examples of Nabokov’s jabs at Marx and Freud.)


  Nabokov will have none of “unbridled genius.” Instead he argues that genius must be bridled, and by one thing only: itself. His plea for individuality is not a call for anarchy. Self-creation necessarily implies self-restraint; the individual consciousness must fashion itself carefully. The process is not simple, and in the hands of the wrong person the results can be disastrous. Despair depicts individuality run amuck.

  Hermann is one of Nabokov’s two most wickedly funny narrators, and even the famous nympholept is not as despicable as this villain:

Hermann and Humbert are alike only in the sense that two dragons painted by the same artist at different periods of his life resemble each other. Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.

As with most of Nabokov’s novels, the plot of Despair is fairly simple. Hermann, a failing chocolate entrepreneur, discovers a man, Felix, who is his exact double in appearance. Hermann wishes to escape his oppressive life and its irksome responsibilities, so he tricks Felix into switching identities (for a film, explains Hermann) and then shoots him. He next retires to the south of France, and during his writing of Despair he is tracked down and presumably captured as he pens the final page.

  Hermann is completely insane. By reading between the lines we learn that Felix looks nothing like him; that his stupid, bovine wife is cuckolding him; that his exalted consciousness is actually a mirrored cage, like Smurov’s in The Eye. His hilarious asides reveal his utter poverty of any real self-knowledge:

Something snapped. I noticed that I was not thinking at all of what I thought I was thinking; attempted to catch my consciousness tripping, but got mazed myself.

Frolics of the intuition, artistic vision, inspiration, all the grand things which have lent my life such beauty, may, I suspect, strike the layman ever though he may be, as the preface of mild lunacy.

“I have grown much too used to an outside view of myself, to being both painter and model, so no wonder my style is denied the blessed grace of spontaneity.” Hermann is the complete anti-artist. His masterwork is a knavish murder which he bungles, and his memoirs are scandalously dishonest. After one narrative ramble Hermann digresses:

That bit about my mother was a deliberate lie. . . . I could, of course, have crossed it out, but I purposely leave it there as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted, inspired lying.

Hermann is the epitome of the “unreliable narrator,” and the joy of Despair lies in discovering the pattern of his deceits.

  Thematically, we can see in Despair the disastrous results of a mind that sees the world as an inferior reflection of itself; that thinks it can raise murder to an art form; that is completely dishonest with its own memory. Hermann, an ardent supporter of the Soviets, can imagine nothing finer than a world of identical Hermanns. We see through him, yet we can marvel at the truth of his cry, “What a great powerful thing art is!” And when we marvel, it is at the grinning face of Hermann’s creator, peeping out from behind his hedge of words.


  Nabokov holds up for our delight a world of particulars, details, and strong-willed, self-creating individualism, where the lonely genius is the only barrier against a flood of insanity and unconsciousness. This is the world of Glory and his other autobiographical creations, especially Speak, Memory.

  At the other extreme is the anti-world of group thought, politics, psychoanalysis, and trashy novelettes. It is the world of Freud, Marx, and Chernyshevsky, a “hell of mirrors” where everyone looks the same, where “form” and “content” are distinct, and where unconsciousness is the norm.

  Nabokov’s artistic genius can capture either world. His religion of individuality and artistic self-expression has a very simple teleology: “I am all for the ivory tower, and for writing to please one reader alone — one’s own self.”


© Michael Fleming

Princeton, New Jersey

March 1980


top of page   back to contents   chronology   chapter 5

e-mail to Mike   Fox Paws home page