O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

Chapter 6: Consciousness II


In 1940 the Nabokovs, Vladimir, Véra, and Dmitri (aged six) left France for America on what proved to the last ship to sail from Cherbourg before the Nazi takeover. Another twenty-year fold in his life was ending in escape. With Nabokov was the manuscript for The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a novel whose circumstances suit rather well this knuckle in Nabokov’s personal history. The novel was composed in 1939 in France, was his first English novel, and was published in the United States in 1941.

  It hardly needs to be said by now that the plotting of Sebastian Knight is fairly simple. The title character — a celebrated author not unlike Nabokov in many ways — has recently died, and the novel is ostensibly his biography, written by his brother V. in an effort to find the truth about Sebastian that was not only missed, but avoided, by a spurious volume on the writer’s life. In the course of Sebastian Knight, V. becomes, alternately, sleuth, critic, biographer, and finally artist.

  If the novel never rises to the magnificence of The Gift, it is not because of failure (Sebastian Knight was Edmund Wilson’s favorite Nabokov novel) but because its aims are less ambitious. If Nabokov’s literary career were a symphony, then The Gift would be the soaring cadenza and rousing coda to the first movement, his Russian work, while Sebastian Knight tests the more subdued strains of the second movement, his early English career. Incredible as it may seem to us now, Nabokov was terribly afraid that his English would never be up to snuff:

My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English.

  Sebastian’s great skill, we are told, lay in his use of parody:

As often was the way with Sebastian Knight he used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion. . . . With something akin to fanatical hate Sebastian Knight was ever hunting out the things which had once been fresh and bright but which were now worn to a thread, dead things among living ones; dead things shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud.

In Nabokov’s own constant use of parody as a device, it is important to keep in mind his distinction that whereas “satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” Nabokov is interested in the object to be parodied only insofar as it can function as a “springboard to the highest region of serious emotion.” (Or, to use the previous chapter’s model — thesis: object parodied; antithesis: the parody itself; synthesis: serious emotion.) To attack something specifically in satire is to shadow-box like Chernyshevsky. In the 1925 short story “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” the narrator argues that:

Fashion is a creature of man’s mediocrity, a certain level of life, the vulgarity of equality, and to denounce it means admitting that mediocrity can create something (whether it be a government or a new kind of hairdo) worth making a fuss about.

We can bear the horror of Cincinnatus’ apparent surroundings because of their surreality; “For,” he tells his “clever parody” of a mother, “I can see perfectly well that you are just as much of a parody as everybody and everything else.” With the flash of the ax the parody world falls apart, no longer needed since consciousness has been discovered. If parody is a sort of falsification, then to parody the already false is (in this novel of nonnons) to expose falsity, and create reality.

  Nabokov’s favorite object of parody is poshlust, another Russian term for which English has no exact equivalent. Nabokov has described poshlust as:

Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature — these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlust in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over-concern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.

All of Nabokov’s work parodies poshlust in some degree, and here his Hermann does so with his usual diabolical glee (note also Nabokov’s joke-within-a-joke, the strangely familiar first line):

A laugh in the darkness: “It was you who saw double, you old sot.”

  Here another — literary device has crept in: the imitation of foreign novels, themselves imitations, which depict the ways of merry vagabonds, good hearty fellows.

(Appendix F is a sampling of more of Nabokov’s joy in exposing the dulled tools of the literary trade.) Parody serves the dual purpose of arousing our consciousness to what is cheap, and at the same time it uses humor to reveal the artifice of the fictive surface, an always important aspect of Nabokov’s work. Thus the “high region of serious emotion” is the consciousness first of what art is not, and then what it is.


  Nabokov, like Sebastian Knight, is not a reader for everyone. Many of his own readers are put off by the self-assurance with which he debunks their fondest literary preconceptions. It is hard to imagine that Nabokov ever worried much about “accessibility” in his writing. He never condescends to readers whom he considers to be beneath him in taste. Nabokov writes with one, and only one, ideal reader in mind — Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. Parts of, say, Ada or Transparent Things seem like an expensively catered party with place setting for one. Like Sebastian, Nabokov appears “to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules.”

  Nevertheless, the “creative reader” can always find a home in Nabokov’s work. We are ever challenged, ever confronted with the idea that obscure passages are carefully laid miracles waiting to be studied, to be “earned” before they yield their treasures. Nabokov was no art-for-art’s-sake extremist. Words exist to be read, for it is the unity of author and reader that is the goal of art — indeed, this unity is art itself. Only in art can man express the “aesthetic bliss” that otherwise exists only in nature, only in art can he reproduce “the strangeness of life, the strangeness of its magic, as if a corner of it had been turned back for an instant. . . .”





Throughout the preceding six-odd chapters my attempt has been to trace the development of Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian career, based only loosely upon chronology and mainly on the texture of his work itself. “The best part of a writer’s biography,” he has said, “is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style.”

  Nabokov saw the task of the artist as two-fold. First, he must put his consciousness to its fullest possible use, to feel, to analyze, to remember, to ponder, and to wonder. The artist must experience life in the fullest possible sense. Second, he must render as faithfully as possible the reality of that experience, not as it fits into preconceived contexts about the nature of life or art, but as he feels it directly.

  “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two extremities of darkness.” Man’s struggle is to comprehend the infinite within the cage of mortal life. He probes to one extreme, and like Descartes finds that “I am.” In all of Nabokov’s work, the individual consciousness can be seen as the first thesis of the spiral that will be his life. Beyond that first thesis we can know nothing, and peering into the darkness behind us we can only join Martin Edelweiss in asking, “What does it matter whence comes the gentle nudge that jars the soul into motion and sets it rolling, doomed never again to stop?”

  Time tugs inexorably toward the other extreme of human knowledge, time that is experienced as the perception of the world. We begin to develop memory, to see certain things in life again and again, and if we are gifted with imagination, intuition, and luck, the pattern of nature that reveals the hand of fate can suddenly burst into our consciousness, never to be unseen. “How not to believe in fate, in the infallibility of its promptings, in the obstinacy of its purpose, when its black lines persistently show through the handwriting of life?” Once we are assured of fate’s existence, we can find continual delight in the texture of our twirl through time, the magic of life.

  It is precisely during these “moments of robust joy and achievement,” when we are braced on

the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle, tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction.

Thus we reach the outer limit of mortal knowledge at the portal to “the beyond,” and if we can’t open that door in life, we can nevertheless be sure that the door does open. There is something there, says Nabokov. When asked by an interviewer whether he believed in God, Nabokov answered:

To be quite candid — and what I am going to say now is something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill: I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.


  The challenge to man, then, is to express the inexpressible, to assure ourselves of the truth of these vague mental gropings. Science is “hopeless,” claims Nabokov. “We shall never know the origin of life, or the nature of nature, or the nature of thought.” Likewise he believes that organized religion, like any organized system of thought that denies the primacy of individual consciousness, gets us nowhere. “The tedium of worship, the bother, sin, and holy toast — that doesn’t interest me. I prefer to respect the wishes of the anonymous donor of existence.”

  Our only remaining outlet is art, specifically the verbal art. In The Gift Nabokov describes his Fyodor’s thoughts on poetry:

The oft repeated complaints of poets that, alas, no words are available, that words are pale corpses, that words are incapable of expressing our thingumybob feelings . . . seemed to him just as senseless as the staid conviction of the eldest inhabitant of a mountain hamlet that yonder mountain has never been climbed by anyone and never will be; one fine, clear morning a long lean Englishman appears — and cheerfully scrambles to the top.

The real artist must abandon the despair of his predecessors and light the darkness before him with his own refulgent consciousness.

  We can recognize at least four levels in the spiral of Nabokov’s artistry. First, there is that of the word, not a pale corpse at all but a living thing that shares the radiance of its neighbors. Nabokov’s work has a verbal texture of puns, prosody, and poetry that is unequaled in twentieth-century English literature, and perhaps finds rival only in the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

  Next we can recognize the level of imagery, which Nabokov says is the natural language of the human mind. He paints a scene not merely to convey the sense of place and plot, but to render the impressions of a consciousness that records its existence through its perceptions. Nabokov wields his brush like a literary Monet.

It is as if a painter said: look, here I’m going to show you not the painting of a landscape, but the painting of different ways of painting a landscape, and I trust their harmonious fusion will disclose the landscape as I intend you to see it.

Nabokov’s imagery is always impressionistic, even when elements within the dance of colors are photographically realistic.

  He spins through the next level quickly and wittily, for this is the pseudo-sophisticated province of the “general idea.” Nabokov has no interest, except in passing, in the second-hand banalities of third-rate thinkers because they have such a nasty tendency to become ends in themselves, vicious circles that can trap the flow of individual consciousness, as it tries to spiral higher. For the artist, any critical search for general ideas in his work becomes an affront to his original genius. “True art deals not with the genus, and not even with the species, but with an aberrant individual of the species.” A reader’s search for generalities, for “universality,” in a truly original work is absurd since a reader “does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.” Ideas have value in their distinction more than their simplicity and similarity.

  Finally, there is the uppermost realm of art, beyond the reductiveness of general thought. Writing of Gogol, Nabokov found that

at this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

  As one or two patient readers may have gathered by now, this is the only appeal that interests me.

To bring the reader to the “aesthetic bliss” of this highest level requires all the tricks of artifice. “Every creator is a plotter.” Patterning renders fate, memory renders experience, harmony renders heaven.

  I’m afraid that I’ve done injustice to Nabokov’s magnificent sense of humor, which lies so near the heart of his creative genius, and is perhaps the magic wand with which he conjures his worlds. Nabokov once wrote of the “conjurer’s patter” which

gives one the sensation of something ludicrous and at the same time stellar, lurking constantly around the corner — and one likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.


  Nabokov’s Russian work was by no means a mere precursor to his much more famous career as an American writer. Rather, books like Lolita and Ada were very much a continuation of the thematic concerns that Nabokov had begun to explore from the outset of his life as an artist. Like his Fyodor, he seems to have conceived the whole of his work at the very beginning, and then remembered it book by book in the years to come. (Appendix G contains a few instances of Nabokov’s knack for producing echoes that seem to precede their sources.) These Russian novels are further unique in that they are also, certainly, American novels, not just translations but the English-language flowering of a mind that found a second homeland and a second idiom.

  Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov: shaman, Slavic Proust, scientist, chess player, gamesman, artist. Few people can boast his breadth of experience, from Russian aristocracy to obscure exile to American academia to vigorous European retirement, or his range of artistic expression, from crystalline autobiographical rememberings to highly fantastical flights of the poetic imagination. His work can draw us to the same blissful heights “where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.”

  The sonnet continues —


We trace the texture of your words

and make our own another’s mind.

Years can melt to moments, wind

themselves around again. I heard

a window open in the dark

and felt the laughing gust of art.


© Michael Fleming

Princeton, New Jersey

March 1980


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