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Nabokov's Puppet Show, Part II

Speak, Memory Invitation to a BeheadingBend SinisterSpeak, Memory,The Eye

Although Speak, Memory clearly illuminates the self-parodic content of Nabokov's fiction, no one has fully recognized the aesthetic implications of these transmutations, or the extent to which Nabokov has consciously projected his own life in his fiction. To be sure, this is dangerous talk, easily misunderstood: Of course Nabokov does not write the kind of thinly disguised transcription of personal experience which too often passes for fiction. But it is crucial to an understanding of his art to realize how often his novels are improvisations on an autobiographic theme, and in Speak, Memory Nabokov good-naturedly anticipates his critics: "The future specialist in such dull literary lore as autoplagiarism will like to collate a protagonist's experience in my novel The Gift with the original event." Further on, he comments on his habit of bestowing "treasured items" from his past on his characters, but it is more than mere "items" that Nabokov has transmogrified in the "artificial world" of his novels, as a dull specialist discovers by comparing Chapters Eleven and Thirteen of Speak, Memory with The Gift, or, since it is Nabokov's overriding subject, by comparing the attitudes toward exile expressed in Speak, Memory with the treatment of it in his fiction. The reader of his memoir learns that Nabokov's great-grandfather explored and mapped Nova Zembia (where Nabokov's River is named after him), and in Pale fire Kinbote believes himself to be the exiled King of Zembia. His is both a fantastic vision of Nabokov's opulent past, entertained by a madman, and of a poet's irreparable loss, expressed by Nabokov in 1945: "Beyond the seas where I have lost a sceptre, / I hear the neighing of my dappled nouns" ("An Evening of Russian Poetry"). Nabokov's avatars do not grieve for "lost banknotes." Their circumstances, though exacerbated by adversity, are not exclusive to the emigre. Exile is a correlative for all human loss, and Nabokov records with infinite tenderness the constrictions the heart must suffer; even in his most parodic novels, such as Lolita, he makes audible through all the playfulness a cry of pain. "Pity," says John Shade, "is the password." Nabokov's are emotional and spiritual exiles, turned back upon themselves, trapped by their obsessive memories and desires in a solipsistic "prison of mirrors" in which they cannot distinguish the glass from themselves (to use another prison trope, drawn from the story, "The Assistant Producer").

The transcendence of solipsism is a central concern in Nabokov. He recommends no "escape," and there is an unmistakable moral resonance in his treatment of the theme; it is only at the outset of Lolita that Humbert can say that he had Lolita "Safely solipsized." The coldly unromantic scrutiny which his exiles endure is often overlooked by critics.

In Pnin, the gentle addlepated professor is seen in a new and harsh light in the final chapter, when the narrator assumes control and makes it clear that he is inheriting Pnin's job but not, he would hope, his existence. John Shade asks us to pity "the exile, the old man/Dying in a motel," and we do, but in the Commentary, Kinbote says that a "king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is guilty of [a regicide]." "The past is the past," Lolita tells Humbert at the end of the novel, when he asks her to relive what had always been inexorably lost. As a book about the spell exerted by the past, Lolita is Nabokov's own parodic answer to his previous book, the first edition of Speak, Memory. Mnemosyne is now seen as a black muse, nostalgia as a grotesque cul-de-sac. Lolita is the last book one would offer as "autobiographical," but even in its totally created form it connects with the deepest reaches of Nabokov's soul. Like the poet Fyodor in The Gift, Nabokov could say that while he keeps everything "on the very brink of parody. . . there must be on the other hand an abyss of seriousness, and I must make my way along this narrow ridge between my own truth and a caricature of it."

An autobiographic theme submitted to the imagination thus takes on a new life: frozen in art, halted in space, now timeless, it can be lived with. When the clownish Gradus assassinates John Shade by mistake, in a novel published 40 years after Nabokov's father was similarly murdered, one may remember the butterfly which the seven-year old Nabokov caught and then lost, but which was "finally overtaken and captured, after a 40-year race, on an immigrant dandelion . . . near Boulder. "One recognizes how art makes life possible for Nabokov, and why he calls Invitation to a Beheading a "violin in a void." His art records a constant process of becoming--the evolution of the artist's self through artistic creation--and the cycle of insect metamorphosis is Nabokov's controlling metaphor for the process, provided by a lifetime of biological investigations which established in his mind "links between butterflies and the central problems of nature." Significantly, a butterfly or moth will often appear at the end of a Nabokov novel, when the artistic "cycle" is complete.

Speak, Memory only reinforces what is suggested by Nabokov's visibly active participation in the life of his fiction, as in Invitation to a Beheading when Cincinnatus strains to look out of his barred window, and sees on the prison wall the telling inscription, "You cannot see anything. I tried it too," written in the neat, recognizable hand of the "prison director"--that is, the author--whose intrusions involute the book, and deny it any reality except that of "book." Nabokov's remarks on Gogol help to define this involution. "All reality is a mask," he writes, and Nabokov's own narratives are masques, stagings of Nabokov's inventions rather than re-creations of the naturalistic world, and since the latter is what most readers expect and demand of fiction, many still do not understand what Nabokov is doing. They are not accustomed to "the allusions to something else behind the crudely painted scenes," where the "real plots behind the obvious ones are taking place." There are thus two "plots" in all of Nabokov's fiction: the characters in the book and the consciousness of the creator above it--the "real plot" which is visible in the "gaps" and "holes" in the narrative. These are best described in Speak, Memory, when Nabokov discusses "the loneliest and most arrogant" of the emigre writers, Sirin (his emigre penname): "The real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic [Nabokov?] has compared to windows giving upon a contiguous world . . . a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought." The contiguous world is the mind and spirit of the author, whose identity, psychic survival; and "manifold awareness" is ultimately both the subject and the product of the book. In whatever way they are opened, the "windows" always reveal that "the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus" of everything.

From its birth in The Eye (1930), to its full maturation in Invitation to a Beheading (1936), to its apotheosis in the "involute abode" of Pale Fire (1962), the strategy of involution has determined the structure and meaning of Nabokov's novels. One must always be aware of the imprint of "that master thumb," to quote Frank Lane in Pale Fire, "that made- the whole involuted boggling thing one beautiful straight line," for only then does it become possible to see how the "obvious plots" spiral in and out of the "real" ones. Not including autobiographic themes, the involution is achieved in six basic ways, all closely interrelated, but schematized here for the sake of clarity:

Parody. As willful artifice, parody provides the main basis for Nabokov's involution, the "springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion," as the narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight says of Knight's novels. Because its referents are either other works of art or itself, parody denies the possibility of a naturalistic fiction. Only an authorial sensibility can be responsible for the texture of parody and self-parody; it is a verbal vaudeville, a series of literary impersonations performed by the author. When Nabokov calls a character or even a window shade "a parody," it is in the sense that his creation can possess no other "reality." In a novel such as Lolita, which has the fewest "gaps" of any novel after Despair (1934), the involution is almost entirely sustained by the parody.

Coincidence. Speak, Memory is filled with examples of Nabokov's love of coincidence. Because they are drawn from his life, these incidents demonstrate how Nabokov's imagination responds to coincidence, using it to trace the pattern of a life's design, to achieve shattering interpenetrations of space and time. Humbert goes to live in Charlotte Haze's house at 342 Lawn Street; he and Lolita inaugurate their illicit cross-country tour in room 342 of The Enchanted Hunters hotel; and in one year on the road they register in 342 motels and hotels. Given the endless mathematical combinations possible, the numbers seem to signal his entrapment by McFate (to use Humbert's personification). But they are also a patent, purposeful contrivance, like the copy of the 1946 Who's Who in the Limelight which Humbert would have us believe he found in the prison library on the night previous to his writing the chapter we are now reading. The yearbook not only prefigures the novel's action, but under Lolita's mock-entry of "Dolores Quine," we are informed that she "Made New York debut in 1904 in Never Talk to Strangers"--and in the closing paragraph of the novel, almost three hundred pages later, Humbert advises the absent Lolita, "Do not talk to strangers," a detail that exhibits extraordinary narrative control for an allegedly unrevised, first draft confessional, written during 56 chaotic days. Clearly, "Someone else is in the know," to quote a mysterious voice that interrupts the narration of Bend Sinister. It is no coincidence when coincidences extend from book to book. Creations from one "reality" continually turn up in another: the imaginary writer Pierre Delalande is quoted in The Gift, and provides the epigraph for Invitation to a Beheading (inadvertently omitted from the paperback edition); Pnin and another character mention "Vladimir Vladimirovich" and dismiss his entomology as an affectation: "Hurricane Lolita" is mentioned in Pale Fire, and Pnin is glimpsed in the university library. Mythic or prosaic names and certain fatidic numbers recur with slight variation in many books, carrying no burden of meaning whatsoever other than the fact that someone beyond the work is repeating them, that they are all part of one master pattern.

Patterning. Nabokov's passion for chess, language, and lepidoptery has inspired the most elaborately involuted patterning in his work. Like the games implemented by parody, the puns, anagrams, and spoonerisms all reveal the controlling hand of the logomachist; thematically, they are appropriate to the prison of mirrors. Chess games are woven into several narratives, and even in The Defense (1930), the earliest novel in translation and, fittingly, the most naturalistically ordered, the chess patterning points to forces beyond Grandmaster Luzhin's comprehension ("Thus toward the end of Chapter Four an unexpected move is made by me in a corner of the board," writes Nabokov in the Foreword). The importance of the lepidopteral motif has already been suggested, and it spirals freely in and out of Nabokov's books: in Invitation to a Beheading, just before he is scheduled to die, Cincinnatus gently strokes a giant moth; in Pale Fire, a butterfly alights on John Shade's arm the minute before he is killed; and at the end of Bend Sinister, the masked author intrudes and suspends the "obvious plot" and, as the book closes, he looks out of the window and decides, as a moth twangs against the screen, that it is "A good night for mothing." Bend Sinister was published in 1947, and it is no accident that in Nabokov's next novel (1955), Humbert meets Lolita back in 1947, thus sustaining the author's "fictive time" without interruption, enabling him to pursue that moth's lovely diurnal Double through the substratum of the new novel in the most fantastic butterfly hunt of his career. "I confess I do not believe in time," writes Nabokov at the end of the ecstatic butterfly chapter in Speak, Memory. "I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another."

The work within the work. The self-referential devices in Nabokov, mirrors inserted into the book at oblique angles, are clearly of the author's making since no point of view within the fiction could possibly account for the dizzying inversions which they create. The course of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which purports to be an attempt to gather material for a proposed literary biography of the narrator's half-brother but ends by obfuscating even the narrator's identity, is refracted in Knight's first novel. The Prismatic Bezel, "a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale." Like an Elizabethan play within a play, Quilty's play within Lolita, The Enchanted Hunter, offers a "message" that can be taken seriously as a commentary on the progression of the entire novel. The a-novelistic components of Pale Fire - Foreword, Poem, Commentary, and Index--create a mirror-lined labyrinth of involuted crossreferences,

a closed cosmos that only can be of the author's making, rather than the product of an "unreliable" narrator. Pale Fire realizes the ultimate possibilities of works within works, already present 24 years earlier in the literary biography that serves as the fourth chapter of The Gift. If it is disturbing to discover that the characters in The Gift are also the readers of Chapter Four, it is because this suggests, as Jorge Luis Borges says of the play within Hamlet, "that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious."

The staging of the novel. Nabokov wrote seven plays in Russian, including one of his several forays into science fiction. The Waltz Invention (1938), which was translated and published last year. It is not surprising, then, that his novels should proliferate with "theatrical" effects that serve his play-spirit exceedingly well. Problems of identity can be investigated poetically by trying on and discarding a series of masks. Moreover, what better way to demonstrate that everything in a book is being manipulated than by seeming to stage it? In Invitation to a Beheading, "A Summer thunderstorm, simply yet tastefully staged, was performed outside," and in Laughter in the Dark (1932), "The stage manager whom Rex had in view was an elusive, double, triple, selfreflecting Proteus." Nabokov the protean impersonator is always a masked presence in his fiction: as impresario, scenarist, director, warden, dictator, and even as bit player (the seventh Hunter in Quilty's play within Lolita, a Young Poet who insists that everything in the play is his invention)—to name only a few of the disguises he has donned as a secret agent who moves among his own creations like Prospero in The Tempest. Shakespeare is very much an ancestor (he and Nabokov even share a birthday), and the creaking, splintering noises made by the stage-setting as it disintegrates at the end of Invitation to a Beheading is Nabokov's version of the snapping of Prospero's wand, and his speech to the players ("Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, thin air"; IV. i).

Authorial voice. All the involuted effects spiral into the authorial voice--"an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me," Nabokov calls it—which intrudes continually in all of his novels after Despair, most strikingly at the end, when it completely takes over the book (Lolita is a notable exception). It is this "deity" who is responsible for everything: who begins a narrative only to stop and retell the passage differently; halts a scene to "rerun" it on the chapter's screen, or turns a reversed lantern slide around to project it properly; intrudes to give stage directions, to compliment or exhort the actors, to have a prop moved; who reveals that the characters have "cotton-padded bodies" and are the author's puppets, that all is a fiction; and who widens the "gaps" and "holes" in the narrative until it breaks apart at "the end," when the vectors are removed, the cast of characters is dismissed, and even the fiction fades away, at most leaving behind an imprint on space in the form of the "deity's" precis of "an old-fashioned [stage] melodrama" he may one day write, and which describes Pale Fire, the book we've just finished reading.

The vertiginous conclusion of a Nabokov novel calls for a complicated response which many readers, after a lifetime of realistic novels, are incapable of making. Children, however, are aware of other possibilities, as their art reveals. My own children, ages three and six, reminded me of this last summer when they inadvertently demonstrated that, unless they change, they will be among Nabokov's ideal readers. One afternoon, my wife and I built them a puppet theatre. After propping the theatre on the top edge of the living room couch, I crouched down behind it and began manipulating the two hand puppets in the theatre above me. The couch and the theatre's scenery provided good cover, enabling me to peer over the edge and watch the children immediately become engrossed in the show, and then virtually mesmerized by my improvised little story that ended with a patient father spanking an impossible child. But the puppeteer, carried away by his story's violent climax, knocked over the entire theatre, which clattered onto the floor, collapsing into a heap of cardboard, wood, and cloth--leaving me crouched, peeking out at the room. my head now visible over the couch's rim, my puppeted hands, with their naked wrists, poised in mid-air. For several moments my children remained in their open-mouthed trance, still in the story, staring at the space where the theatre had been, not seeing me at all. Then they did the kind of doubletake that a comedian might take a lifetime to perfect, and began to laugh uncontrollably, in a way I had never seen before, and not so much at my clumsiness, which was nothing new, but rather at those moments of total involvement in a non-existent world, and at what its collapse implied to them about the authenticity of the larger world, and their daily efforts to order it and their own fabricated illusions. They were laughing too over their sense of what the vigorous performance had meant to me, but they saw how easily they could be tricked and their trust belied, and the shrillness of their laughter finally suggested that they recognized the frightening implications of what had happened, and that only laughter could steel them in their new awareness.

When I recently visited Vladimir Nabokov for four days in Montreux, Switzerland, to interview him for Wisconsin Studies and in regard to my critical study of his work, I told him about this incident, and how for me it defined literary involution and the response which he hoped to elicit from his readers at "the end" of a novel. "Exactly, exactly" he said as I finished. "You must put that in your book."

By parodying the reader's complete, self-indulgent identification with a character, which in its mindlessness limits consciousness, Nabokov is able to create the detachment necessary for a multiform, spatial view of his novels. The reader of Pale Fire then may see that the fatuous locutions in annotator Kinbote's monstrously presumptive analysis of Shade's poem inform but one of four distinctive voices in a shifting sequence of "serial selves": the self seen by the world, a construct whose assumed name and distracting scholarly labors conceal the terror and despair experienced by another self, Botkin, who "live[s] like Timon in his cave," and whose anguished voice every so often surfaces through the unintentional comedy of Kinbote's compensatory, royal ravings--to plea, "Dear Jesus, do something," or moan, "Migraine again worse today," or debate with its anagrammatic self the efficacy or means of suicide. And at the end of Pale Fire, the "voices" are all absorbed by the authorial voice which, by suspending the fiction altogether and then providing an Index, demonstrates the author'scommand of the book, and his outdistancing of Botkin's "nightfall of the mind." From the Index, the reader moves to a global view of the novel. Seen from all sides, its four dimensions of sensory perception, memory, imagination, and death are perceived as instantaneous: Botkin, Kinbote, King Charles, and, surrounding their "death-padded life," Gradus, a jetpropelled Angel of Death--an idea and an actuality who casts his shadow across the entire book, its creations and creator. The "two plots" in Nabokov's puppet show are thus made plainly visible, describing the total design of his work, which reveals that in novel after novel his characters try to escape from Nabokov's prison of mirrors, engaging in a struggle toward a self-awareness that only their creator has achieved by creating them--an involuted process which connects his art with his life, and clearly indicates that the author himself is not in this prison, but is its creator, and is above it, in control of a book, as in one of those Saul Steinberg drawings (greatly admired by Nabokov) in which a man is seen to be drawing the very line that gives him "life," in the fullest sense. But the process of Nabokov's involution, the global perspective which he invites us to share with him in a novel such as Pale Fire, is best described in Speak, Memory, Chapter Fifteen, when Nabokov comments on the disinclination of

". . . physicists to discuss the outside of the inside, the whereabouts of the curvature; for every dimension presupposes a medium within which it can act, and if, in the spiral unwinding of things, space warps into something akin to time, and time, in its turn, warps into something akin to thought, then, surely, another dimension follows--a special Space maybe, not the old one, we trust, unless spirals become vicious circles again."

The ultimate detachment of an "outside" view of a novel inspires our wonder and enlarges our potential for compassion because, "in the spiral unwinding of things," such compassion is extended to include the mind of an author whose deeply humanistic art affirms man's ability to confront and order chaos.

Alfred Appel, Jr.

By Alfred Appel, Jr.