Absolute Pitch

Nabokov: His Life in Art: A Critical Narrative

by Andrew Field
Little, Brown, 350 pp., $8.95

Mr. Field claims to be one of the few people who have read pretty nearly everything by Mr. Nabokov in Russian and English. I am sure the claim is sound. Another claim is more debatable: that his book is an innovation in criticism because it is “structured in a way roughly corresponding to that of the narrative in fiction.” Later, he refers to Nabokov’s Gogol as “one of the five or six existing examples of narrative criticism.” I am not sure that there is a difference between narrative criticism and critical narrative, or that it matters. A critical book is only as good as the perceptions it contains. I should mention, however, that the touch of arrogance in the Foreword of Mr. Field’s book is rarely felt in the book itself. By any name the critical narrative is an illuminating companion to the Life and Works of V. Nabokov. Mr. Field is particularly informative on the Russian side.

In the first Canto of Pale Fire the poet John Shade speaks of himself as “a preterist: one who collects cold nests.” Shade’s editor, Charles Kinbote, reports that the manuscript contains, in the margin at that point, two lines, of which only the first can be deciphered. This reads: “The evening is the time to praise the day.” The line was rejected, we assume, because its burden was already implied in the single word: preterist. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a preterist is “one whose chief interest is in the past; one who regards the past with most pleasure or favor.” In theology a preterist is “one who holds that the prophecies of the Apocalypse have been already (wholly or in great part) fulfilled.” In Calvinism preterition is the passing over of those who have not been elected for redemption. In law it means the passing over by a testator of an heir otherwise entitled to a portion. These meanings chime with our sense of John Shade and, more variously, with our sense of his creator, Vladimir Nabokov. There is more to be said about both characters than the word, by itself, will comfortably say, but with a little freedom in the interpretation we can use it to make a start.

IMPELLED ALSO by Mr. Field’s narrative, we remark that the past is important to Nabokov as the content of his memory. If he says “in illo tempore” he means “haec est enim memoria mea,” and the effect is to forestall fruitless discussion. He is not a historian. He is not responsible to a past independent of his consciousness. Rather, he is the pious guardian of his own memory, in the first instance, the faculty itself rather than the events memorized. Events are often other people, to whom no particular loyalty is due. To the author of Speak, Memory and other fictions, events are welcome so long as they are willing to be made—in Susanne Langer’s term—virtual. They must be willing to sacrifice their actuality for the higher cause…

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