By Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov, describing the work of "V. Sirin" (his pseudonym as a Russian emigre novelist) in Conclusive Evidence, says, "the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech," and "his best works are those in which he condemns his people to the solitary confinement of their souls." Despair, the sixth of the nine novels Nabokov wrote in Russian, is neatly bracketed by these remarks. He wrote it in 1932, and translated it into English in 1936. But the text now published is a revision of the original--the reader who has no Russian, and no copy of the first translation for comparison is persuaded that important changes have been made by the virtuosity of the concise and resonant English of the present version. Single words carry more weight than they did in Nabokov's first two novels in English, and produce effects of startling distinctness, effects quite beyond the reach of the accomplished author of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947).
Hermann, the central figure in Despair, is a Russian emigre living in Germany. He is entranced by a fantasy which he justifies to his worldly consciousness as an insurance swindle. He will kill the tramp who appears to him to be his double, get his wife, whom he believes to be devoted to him, to collect the insurance on his life, and assume the double's identity. His absorption in the pattern he is creating is complete. He does not notice that his wife is sleeping with her cousin, and in the end he quite overlooks the walking stick the double is carrying at the time of the murder, a stick on which the double has carved his own name, and that of his town.
Hermann writes this book after having carried out the fantasy. He is waiting for the reviews of his work; that is, for the press reports of the murder to reach the little town in the Pyrenees where he is hiding. While he waits he lets his memory dictate a book of which the title is unknown until the disastrous realization that he has forgotten the walking stick overtakes him. He had thought of calling his book "Crime and Pun" and "The Poet and the Rabble." But Despair is the only possibility in the end--and not simply because of the stick. There is a deeper failure. The whole basis of his work of art has been ignored, nobody thinks him dead, nobody has even noticed the resemblance between the murdered man and himself. In the world's eyes he has no double, and the death he will no doubt die for murder will not even have the effect of bringing him into that final juxtaposition with his image which he had imagined while watching a leaf falling into still water as its double swam up toward it. The reader is confronted by various shifts in perspective--the account given of the whole affair by Hermann's "memory" stands for the fullness of event, for "life," while his work of art, a fantasy which he had pursued in the common light of day, has the status of art in that it is a selection of events made to serve a chosen design. Finally, the account given by memory is the work of the art of the emigre Russian novelist to whom Hermann proposes to send his manuscript!
Is the book more than a suffocating joke on its central figure and a trip to a mirrored fun house for its reader? It depends on what you think of the language, it depends on "the figures of speech" and how much you prize them. The very qualities which led Mary McCarthy to say that Pale Fire was "one of the very great works of art of this century" are here--not, it is true, in the same measure (the book is not so multilayered), but still they are here. For example, an extraordinary passage in which Hermann finds that the town in which he has undertaken to meet his double seems to be almost wholly built out of reminiscences of his own past; he wonders whether Felix can in fact appear there, or whether his very conception of Felix is not the product of an appetite for repetition which is growing in him. The play with resemblances is, ofcourse, very intricate: is Felix a "minus I" in the sense that traces on a blotter are negatives, and can only be read in a mirror? Did Felix have the obstinacy, the stubborn bad taste (from Hermann's viewpoint) to read himself as the positive, Hermann as the negative?
All this is consonant with the patterned games played in certain other Nabokov novels. The Eye, a novella, and The Defense resemble Despair in that their chief figures are condemned as is Hermann to spin a world out of their fatally repetitive inner resources. With some qualifications. Laughter in the Dark and Lolita belong in this group.
In the light of one common assumption about the novel it would be denied that these were novels at all. In them the recording consciousness is jealous, and won't give up its world to the reader. What we are given is theme and variations, and denied any sense of cumulation or growth. We get experience of the order of a child's memories, experience deprived of temporal dimension. Each of the rendered moments is like a separate raid on the continuum of life which brings back an observation that is rendered with the tang of immediacy and yet serves an exemplary use in the web Nabokov is weaving. The life of his work does in fact lie in his figures of speech. And there is something in it which is wholly inimical to our gross appetite for stories of growth, development, sequential change.
I confess I do not believe in time. 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. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness--in a landscape selected at random is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern--to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (Conclusive Evidence)
Nabokov's prose medium deserves a name, partly a designation, partly frankly incantatory, as is Gerard Manley Hopkins' "sprung rhythm." We might call it the "light anthropomorphic," and find a simple and characteristic instance of it in the sentence, "Let visitors trip." In this medium the interpenetration of humanity by language, language by humanity is, moment by moment, felt as complete. Its range, its horizontal range, is very wide, gallery upon glittering gallery of the tricks by which we betray ourselves in language and language betrays us. But its scale is single; it can only tell us what we do to words and they to us; it cannot tell us what men have done. It appears to deny the possibility of saying consummatum est of any human action. It works minutely and reflectively: one little vaudeville of the light anthropomorphic gives way to the next, and so on until the pattern is complete. Here are some "verbal adventures," to steal a Nabokov phrase.
He felt that he loved his wife sincerely, tenderly--as much in fact as he was capable of loving a human being; and he was perfectly frank with her in everything except that secret foolish craving, that dream, that lust burning a hole in his life. (Laughter in the Dark)
Occasionally, in the middle of a conversation her name would be mentioned, and she would run down the steps of a chance sentence, without turning her head. ("Spring in Fialta")
No lover of solitude, Boris Ivanovich would soon begin to get bored, and from his room Fyodor would hear the rustling growth of this boredom, as if the flat were slowly being overgrown with burdocks which had now grown up to his door. He would pray to fate that something might distract Schyogolev, but (until he got the radio) salvation was not forthcoming. Inevitably came the ominous, tactful knock. . . . (The Gift)
When at last I reached the summit I found there a few shacks standing awry, a washing line, and on it some pants bloated with the wind's sham life. (Despair)
The effect of these passages is seldom occasional; three of these are particular reflections of the theme of the work in which they appear. Examples, however, cannot suggest the intricate echoic games which are the works themselves.
Everything that threatens the games played in the group of books to which Despair belongs is fiercely attacked by Nabokov as if art were unsafe as long as anybody was generalizing about anything in any context. This is Nabokov's public role, and it is the only public role he permits his characters to assume. Historical and cultural judgment, Marx, Freud, politicians and metaphysicians, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Stendhal, Proust, the novelist who is described as "the family doctor of Europe"--Thomas Mann?--anyone who classifies anything except words and butterflies is scorned. A novelist remarks in Laughter in the Dark, "Well, when a literature subsists on Life and Lives, it means it is dying. And I don't think much of Freudian novels or novels about the quiet countryside." The young writer of The Gift remarks on the unsuitability of a theme: "I would have become enmired involuntarily in a 'deep' social-interest novel with a disgusting Freudian reek." (As one might anticipate, there is quite another view of Joyce, a figure whom Nabokov says he reveres.) John Wain has remarked in these columns that this scorn of Nabokov's appears to be the scorn conventionally attributed to the artist who is asked to write to somebody else's ends, or everybody else's ends. I think it is a symptom of something more than this.
The scornful detachment of the prefaces conceals the fact that in another group of novels Nabokov's art is--in his sense--very impure indeed. Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister are novels in which all reality and value inhere in the central figure, and the environing world is condemned to act out an imprisoning fantasy which the hero and the reader see through. These novels are occasioned by their times, and reflect Nabokov's response to his sense of the idiocy of Communism and Nazi Germany. They can hardly be defended on the ground on which Nabokov habitually asserts the independence of his art from all ideological and psychological generalities. The human glory of their central figures is dependent on convictions about human worth that the reader must bring to the book, convictions on which Nabokov relies. With these two novels we may associate two more. The Gift (1937) and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in which the recording consciousness is that of a writer, and is quite as authoritative for the reader as are the heroes of the first two novels. I shall come to Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire in a moment; these four novels suffice to make the point that Nabokov has often ignored what he says in Conclusive Evidence: "in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world." There is a quite shameless human glory about Krug in Bend Sinister, about the figures of the writer's parents in The Gift, about the hero of Invitation to a Beheading--with these characters our sympathy is complete. When these persons are placed beside Hermann, Luzhin of The Defense, the central figure of The Eye, these latter recede into the texture of the works in which they appear, seem mere themes for light anthropomorphic exercises. We are once more outsiders.
Why shouldn't Nabokov have written in two fictional modes, giving now one, now the other, the ascendency? What is important is the critical significance of the divergence and final confluence of these two kinds in Nabokov's work. What we may call his naturalism is dominant in Nabokov's recorded memories of his childhood and youth in Conclusive Evidence. It is a fully peopled world, rather lush, even sentimental, through which move the figures of a father and mother (whose splendid worldly ascendancy is matched by inner grace and strength), a group of attendant persons, first loves, family retainers and so on. This interrelatedness, this sense of an ordered life in common with others does not of course recur in the Nabokov fiction I know. But The Gift offers, in the persons of the young writer's parents, characters who survive out of such a time and such a world. These characters are bordered in black, cherished, lonely and doomed, like Krug, and the lepidopterist father of The Gift, who has, anticipating John Shade of Pale fire, a relation to cosmic patterns, "A sense of oneness with sun and stone." This strong sense of a lost sunlit world is the hidden positive in Nabokov's work; it is what such glinting constructs as Despair operate to hide. We are justified in saying that Nabokov's publicly stated aesthetic theory is equivalent to a historical judgment. He willed time to a stop. Certain lonely figures in his fiction survive the actual holocaust and his aesthetic assertion of its finality. The naturalism survives in his work and reemerges (somewhat attenuated) in the sentimental naturalism of Pale Fire. It is as if, having incautiously trusted to the persistence of the rules of the social order which had nourished his first nineteen years, he had determined never again to accept any set of rules from anyone, or write anything which could be subsumed within any order.
I shall not attempt here to deal with the complex interplay of the patterned as against the naturalist strands in Nabokov's work. I have suggested that the human glory of Krug, which is posed against a cruel and mindless society, represents a naturalism which gives way to a more sentimental strain in Nabokov's later work, in fact in the very next novel, Sebastian Knight. Knight, unsupported by a sense of the wholeness of a human community of the order we find in Conclusive Evidence, makes his lonely assertion ofthe generically human: "All things belong to the same order of things, for such is the oneness of human perception, the oneness of individuality, the oneness of matter, whatever matter may be. The only real number is one, the rest are mere repetition." To reinforce this we may quote Shade's poem in Pale Fire:
And if my private universe scans
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
A longer passage from Sebastian Knight, which, like Shade's poem, is concerned with a solution to the riddle of death, may make Nabokov's movement from a naturalism conditioned by the memory of community to a naturalism founded on a faith in our kinship with the order of nature somewhat plainer. Both seem to have been present from his youth onward, but the ascendancy of the latter grows as the memory of a society in being recedes.
And the word, the meaning which
appears is astounding in its simplicity:
the greatest surprise being perhaps
that in the course of one's
earthly existence, with one's brain
encompassed by an iron ring, by
the close-fitting dream of one's
own personality--one had not made
by chance that simple mental jerk,
which would have set free imprisoned
thought and granted it the
great understanding. Now the puzzle
was solved. "And as the meaning of
all things shone through their
shapes, many ideas and events which
had seemed of the utmost importance
dwindled not to insignificance,
for nothing could be insignificant
now, but to the same size which
other ideas and events, once denied
any importance, now attained."
Thus, such shining giants of our
brain as science, art or religion fell
out of the familiar scheme of their
classification, and joining hands,
were mixed and joyfully levelled.
Thus, a cherry stone and its tiny
shadow which lay on the painted
wood of a tired bench, or a bit of
torn paper, or any other such trifle
out of millions and millions of trifles
grew to a wonderful size. Remodelled
and re-combined, the world
yielded its sense to the soul as naturally
as both breathed.
The belief that such an awareness of nature might afford this measure of human fulfillment lies about fifty years behind us in the European consciousness. It stems from an age in which science seemed to authorize wider hopes, rather than pose deeper threats. When we are thinking of Nabokov as a modernist his grounding in a sentimental naturalism must be recalled. The hardness, brightness and echoing intricacy of his patterned fiction is a culturally determined mode of coping with a orld which denies he "sense of oneness with sun and stone."
But I have been speaking as if the Nabokov who willed time to a stop had in the process suppressed the world of his childhood, and this is misleading. His delight in exposing "the that contrapuntal genius of human fate" is a quite logical extension of that world, or rather of the breakdown of the inter-personal hierarchic order world represented. Luzhin, Paduk (the Hitler figure of Laughter in the Dark), Humbert, Hermann, are persons in whom the child's absorption in his play is prolonged into adulthood, prisoners rather than makers of patterns. Humbert keeps wooing the ten year-old girl of the Biarritz beach, and our consciousness of this is the source of our sympathy, which persists together with our awareness that he has become loathsome. Such figures, like Luzhin, who also invites our sympathy, nonetheless fail to respond to the first moral value of the Nabokovian universe, a respect for the singleness of others. The mocking memoir of Chernyshevski in The Gift brims with venom directed at a generation which infected us all--infected Lenin himself—with the horrible smarmy presumption that we were so nearly identical that we could be understood en masse. Hermann's unforgivable spiritual vulgarity is the hunger for a resemblance that amounts to identity something that can only be attributed to inanimate things, dead things. And Despair is, like all the internally echoing works, a struggle with the reader; he is being tested: if he thinks he can assimilate the pattern to his beliefs and expectations he is one more fool who doesn't know the value of singleness.
I have made it plain enough that the works in which everything is subdued to the pattern, while serially brilliant, seem to me as exhaustible in their interest as reported games of chess. The hero of Invitation to a Beheading, while describing himself as incapable of writing says that he has an intuition of the way in which words must be combined, "what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and to share its neighbor's sheen, heat, shadow, while reflecting itself in its neighbor and renewing the neighboring word in the process, so that the whole line is live iridescence." If you find the patterned works delightful it is such effects you delight in. If you are persuaded you are reading a full-fledged novelist you are unaware of the extent of your collaboration. The text under your eye is like a brilliant musical score, but the continuity of the performance is supplied by the reader, who fills in the curve of imagined human action. Of course this is a question of degree. Lolita, up to the death of the mother, has no such limitation. Thereafter it falls, on rereading, into fragments, some of which retain their lustre, like the scene in which Humbert sees his married and pregnant love for the last time, while others have lost it altogether, and in fact share with certain of the American social observations in Pale Fire the fade and dissonant quality of the marzipan hot dogs sold in fake Viennese candy shops. Pale Fire is at once more ambitious and less successful than Lolita, because, although there is much to be said for the poem, there is less to be said for the sentimental naturalism which informs it--except as a historical artifact--and the trapped and obsessed figure, Kinbote, unpacked in all his awful flatness and spiritual repetitiousness gives the book the flavor of his sterility. It is possible to be very serious, enormously talented, highly witty, and nonetheless to trivialize what seems a proper outgrowth of Nabokov's career, the attempt to bring to a focus the struggle between the patterned figure, Kinbote, and a last beleaguered human being, John Shade.
But there remains one almost perfect work, Pnin. What I have rather clumsily described as the "naturalism" is here to be found in the implied character of the narrator, perhaps the most winning of Nabokov's persons, and the book appears to be completely patterned, yet the narrator's scrupulous and tender attention supplies exactly that continuity of human concern that the other patterned works lack. Not that the narrator has an unqualified role. Indeed his dramatic relation to Pnin is brilliantly sustained and developed. As he physically approaches Pnin must recede, because the narrator is precisely that element within whose ambience Pnin cannot exist. The book is a delight and a minor classic.
Modernism, the period of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Eliot, is over, and the preoccupations of poets and writers of fiction are now so different that Nabokov has begun to seem remote. He tries to make language the vessel of our humanity, and supports in public the contention that art is its own excuse for being. He gives this contention away in certain works, and it becomes plain that it is actually parasitic on the memory of an ordered community. His assertion of the self sufficiency of art will come to seem increasingly unintelligible to a generation unaware of the hidden premise of his humanism. He will go into a temporary eclipse. If the world of community were magically to be reborn the influence of the very thing he publicly denies would serve lo reinstate him. But the world in which Beckett, Genet, Burroughs, and the non-novel flourish is a world in which the politics of the soul is primary, and verbal adventure has lost its invisible supporting warp of remembered human solidarity. This, I take it, is the end, so often prematurely announced, of the romantic movement.
Quentin Anderson, a professor of English at Columbia, is editing a seven volume history of American literature.
By Quentin Anderson