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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 of consciousness and art.

The easiest analogy is with music. In Mrs. Langer’s symbolism, music is not time; it is virtual time, the semblance or illusion of time. So the past, to Nabokov, is something that exists only for perception; as space, to a sculptor, exists only for vision. We live in the present. The past is what we know, in the degree to which we know it. There is a remarkable and extremely difficult passage in The Gift, a conversation between Fyodor and Koncheyev, where Fyodor offers his view of time and eternity, subject to the qualification that all views are necessarily hopeless. He speaks of the possibility “that there is no time, that everything is the present situated like a radiance outside our blindness.” Fyodor is preoccupied with the past, but he does not give in to it. Translating his spatial concept of time into another category, we fancy him saying that the difference between past, present, and future is that past and future are sensed in the virtual mode; the present is sensed in the actual mode. So it is reasonable to treat the actual mode of apprehension as blindness, if the imagination is identified with the eye. The perceiver must deprive experience of its insistence. You cannot see anything if it is too near. One of the incidental merits of the eye is to hold things at a safe distance. So there is nothing in this incident to contradict the figure of Nabokov as a preterist, to whom “the savour of anciency,” as he calls it in The Eye, is inescapable. If escape is necessary, there is always art. Some of the greatest pages in The Gift are those in which Fyodor memorizes his childhood, his mother, his first bicycle, his splendid father. These passages call to other books, notably to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight with its recollection of Cambridge and attendant thoughts, “the heartbreaking beauty of a pebble among millions and millions of pebbles, all making sense, but what sense?”; and to many other passages in the fiction until, circling, we are back in The Gift. In a crucial passage Fyodor ponders his relation to the Russian past. “Ought one not to reject any longing for one’s homeland,” he asks, “for any homeland besides that which is with me, within me, which is stuck like the silver sand of the sea to the skin of my soles, lives in my eyes, my blood, gives depth and distance to the background of life’s every hope.” The question is hopelessly rhetorical.

ONE WHO collects cold-nests.” If this defines the preterist, it also qualifies the definition. In Nabokov it points to his tenderness for the unregarded thing, and equally to his aloofness from objects universally visited with smiles. There is a beautiful passage in The Gift where Fyodor speaks of “that subtle sorrow of parting with an unloved abode”:

The heart does not break, as it does in parting with dear objects. The humid gaze does not wander around holding back a tear, as if it wished to carry away in it a trembling reflection of the abandoned spot, but in the best corner of our hearts we feel pity for the things which we did not bring to life with our breath, which we hardly noticed and are now leaving forever. This already dead inventory will not be resurrected later in our memory….

It is typical of Nabokov to redeem things not marked for redemption and a little to despise the elect. He likes serenity with a touch of frost, a nip in the air rather than the clammy cells of bonhomie. In the end he will ensure his own immunity, but only after he has settled his debts. The Eye deals with this motive by making a travesty of it, as Smurov, going back to his old haunt, finds the bullet-hole in the wall and knows that all is well. “The world immediately regained its reassuring insignificance—I was strong once again, nothing could hurt me.” But even in genial moments Nabokov’s fiction cultivates the eye as a stay against the human mess; there must be only the inescapable blur between “the feeling self” and “the thing felt.” This is why the common comparison with Proust is of limited value. Rather, Nabokov seeks immunity on Swift’s principle in the Tale of a Tub, where “seaman have a custom, when they meet a whale, to fling him out an empty tub, by way of amusement, to divert him from laying violent hands upon the ship.” In Pale Fire Nabokov flings out John Shade, his poem, his editor, the commentary, the index. Zembla, Alexander Pope, Charles the Beloved, Fleur, whatever comes to hand, while he withdraws, like Joyce’s divinity, consulting his manicure. He gets over the difficulty of single vision (Blake’s enemy) by ensuring multiple perspectives.

So Nabokov exercises the eye of imagination, keeping things at bay. Hence, as Mr. Field shows in detail, the proliferation of mirror-images in this fiction. Everything is seen in the reflection of something else. Indeed, a glancing comparison with Valéry might be offered instead of fellowship with Proust. Like Monsieur Teste, Nabokov works on a reflexive plan, doing something while watching himself doing it. The “aesthetic bliss” which he seeks is the release of this double act. He writes as he does because it pleases him to arrange his green thoughts according to the persuasions of his “plexed artistry,” and he has a happy way with mirrors. In “La Soirée” Monsieur Teste says in Nabokov’s spirit: “Je suis étant et me voyant, me voyant me voir….”

SO IT IS A COMMONPLACE that many of Nabokov’s books are more fruitfully read as dreams or ficciones than as cousins to the palpable. The novels often imply that the relation between words and things, narrowly interpreted, is a bore. It is a commonplace only less pronounced that Nabokov is particularly tender to “the bright demented dream.” The dream must be a vision, not a messy brew for “the Viennese witch-doctor.” Nabokov is still the novelist of the eye, the writer that Wyndham Lewis should have been. Poet of ossature rather than intestine, he is a master of surfaces and structures. His characters are always watching themselves and one another, but they are distinct from the objects of vision. In The Eye as in a hall of mirrors Roman Bogdanovich watches the narrator, who watches Smurov (himself, finally), who watches Vanya, who watches Mukhin. Mr. Field considers “The Potato Elf” Nabokov’s finest short story, but “Signs and Symbols” is closer, I think, to the center of his art. Suppose a young man, looking for sense in the world, were to derive everything in nature from himself, his whole life a pathetic fallacy. Suppose further that everything thus derived were to acquire dreadful malignancy in the process. Memory would be a horror comic, every hieroglyph a monster:

Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.

The scientists call it referential mania. It is what happens when the eye of imagination fails and experience is too much to contain. Nothing can be made virtual. The saving harmony of the senses breaks down. Mr. Field uses the phrase, “clear madness,” resuscitated from one of Nabokov’s poems and now most persuasively applied to Luzhin in The Defense.

Mirror, window, eye, cage, door: think of them, and it is impossible to escape the motif of double identity. Nabokov’s fiction is full of secret sharers, halves put monstrously apart and even more monstrously together. There is no blur or seepage. Malcolm de Chazal says: “A mirror has no heart but plenty of ideas.” In Nabokov’s world fracture is the price a character pays for his ideas. Intimations of heart are allowed in transit from one mirror to another. Mr. Field is very interesting on the doubles in Nabokov’s world, especially where he discusses Pale Fire and Solus Rex. Settling for the nearest instances, one thinks of Felix and Hermann in Despair, the narrator and his hero in Sebastian Knight, the mutations of Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading. “As far back as I can remember myself,” Cincinnatus says, “—and I remember myself with lawless lucidity—I have been my own accomplice, who knows too much, and therefore is dangerous.” Despair is the classic exercise in this genre, notably in the procedures of “imp Split” loosed among the nuptial occasions of Hermann and Lydia. It takes virtuosity to confront one’s double and remain secure; an ideal featured, appropriately, in Despair when Hermann reports an occasion on which Felix offered to shake hands:

I grasped it only because it provided me with the curious sensation of Narcissus fooling Nemesis by helping his image out of the brook.

The equivalent power, in Nabokov’s art, is a remarkable rapidity of imagination. There is in him something of Spinoza, who proposed a geometrical account of vice and folly, human actions and desires, “in exactly the same manner as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.” The nearest example in Nabokov is the relation between Yasha, Rudolf, and Olya in The Gift, formulated not as a mere triangle but as a triangle inscribed in a circle. This is Yasha’s description, where the circle represents “the normal, simple, ‘Euclidian’ friendship that unites the three.” If the circle alone had existed, their union would have remained unbroken:

But the triangle inscribed within it was a different system of relationships, complex, agonizing, and slow in forming, which had an existence of its own, quite independent of its common enclosure of uniform friendship.

The same rapidity, the same pressure of perspective, is variously applied when a game is made to impinge upon life, as in The Defense, Chess has the advantage over life that every moment in its operation is demonstrably significant. There is no waste. Luzhin’s tragedy is that the poor fellow has to live. Nabokov takes refined pleasure in these impingements. In the poem “Words,” Yeats thought words poor things by strict comparison with the life of feeling and reciprocated passion. Nabokov is of sterner cast. A preterist, yes, because there is no point in having a memory and keeping it unemployed, but just as he declines to give into the past, so he claims for his words a more exotic role than description or transportation; so also he claims for chess a more exotic role than that of passing the time. His favorite word is not the mot which is juste to the experience, but the word which conspires with a geometrical imagination to produce new lines, planes, and solids for the gratification of doing so. “Genius is an African who dreams up snow,” Fyodor says; but an African has no need of snow, except for the pleasure of the dream. Nabokov is as good as any other remarkably fine writer with spring in Fialta, but he excels other writers in the subtle purposes for which his coloratura style is designed. “Some day I’m going to produce prose,” Fyodor says, “in which thought and music are conjoined as are the folds of life in sleep.” That is another way of putting it, and it suggests, if we think of modern American literature, that Nabokov is to prose what Stevens is to verse: thought, eloquence, music, vif. We do not push the comparison. But both are nice in their sensibilities. C.S. Peirce urged William James to use a suitably disagreeable set of words so that loose thinkers would be discouraged from putting their grubby hands upon his terminology. If Nabokov’s language has a touch of Decadence, the reason is that words are still, as Fyodor says, “trying to vote,” and it is essential for him to impose “a final dictatorship.”

But much of Nabokov’s eloquence is the perennial kind. It is a mistake to think that more than a fraction of it could have been devised by Marius the Epicurean. Nabokov sees no reason why proper words in their proper places should not have a shine to go with their propriety. This is in line with a formula provided in Pale Fire, “making ornaments/Of accidents and possibilities.” The eloquence of Sebastian Knight, for instance, invites quotation as we mark favorite sentences in Scott Fitzgerald. One or two samples: “She entered his life without knocking, as one might step into the wrong room because of its vague resemblance to one’s own.” This one from Pnin: “…the Egg and We, a recently inaugurated and not very successful little restaurant which Pnin frequented from sheer sympathy with failure.” The same eloquence over a longer stretch is seen in “Spring in Fialta,” where the sun soaks up everything before destroying Nina in its radiance.

What is exhilarating in these and other passages is the unerring movement of invention; as Fyodor, speaking of the progression of his thought, says, “I must peel my apple in a single strip, without removing the knife.” In the larger organization of the fiction we register this power when we think of its risk. Think, for instance, of Nabokov’s daring when he places his fiction, deliberately, halfway between the banal and its corrective parody. The “real life” of Sebastian Knight hovers between the banality of his secretary’s biography and the refined corrective imposed by the narrator. Thinking of the relation between Sebastian’s first romance and “the echoes of his last dark love,” the narrator reflects: “Two modes of his life question each other and the answer is his life itself.” This is one of the exemplary rhythms of Nabokov’s fiction: his books are thrillers with a difference, romances with a difference, detective stories with a difference. Partly this is his way of applying intelligence to the matter in hand. Partly it is his old tenderness for the unregarded thing, the genre to which for compelling reason one condescends. Partly it is his imaginative refusal of preterition. In Lolita love is “that routine rhythm that shakes the world,” but it is also radiance.

One of Nabokov’s greatest achievements is to derive this radiance from poor, vulgar Dolores by adding poor, crazy Humbert. It is a Symbolist procedure. So it is entirely fitting that Humbert, sensitive to decorum, speaks of himself as a doe “trembling in the forest of my own iniquity,” just as it is fitting for him to say, surveying his story: “It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.” The narrator of “That in Aleppo Once” sees his mangled romance “engulfed in a deep valley of mist between the crags of two matter-of-fact mountains.” It is in Nabokov’s place. The poem Pale Fire swings between bad and good; in that posture, ideally placed for an editorial commentary similarly loose.

The daring is at once flamboyance and magic. The flamboyance needs no gloss. The magic transforms dross into gold, as we think of the English language, vulgar, second-hand, something of a slut, but in Nabokov’s hands still radiant. Everybody knows that the title, Pale Fire, comes from Shakespeare, Timon of Athens (IV. iii. 436) when Timon gives the thieves a spirited lecture on theft, sending them packing while insisting that in the whole world “each thing’s a thief.” But a few lines beyond the pale fire Timon says:

…the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol’n
From general excrement…

I like to think that Nabokov, at that point in Timon, felt aesthetic bliss, the thrill of transformation, alchemy, principles dear to his art. All that dross, all that gold. Kenneth Burke writes of Timon of Athens as “this corrupt text on the subject of absolute corruption.” Nabokov goes through the ocular world in search of poor corrupt texts waiting to be redeemed, cold nests never to be collected unless he collects them. His trade, his “mystery,” as Timon’s thieves call theft, is to derive from the quantity of general excrement a new, golden quality. The process is implied in Pale Fire: “not text but texture.”

Perhaps there is a hint of disproportion, obliquities in the margin of an accomplished art. We think of Nabokov as a sophisticated artist, knowing that the word abides our question. There is no doubt that his art is consistent with the relegation of many respectable concerns to the trash can. Even as a preterist, he is extremely selective. Readers who think of charity as the cardinal virtue are often dismayed by this writer. Often, indeed, the kind of praise he receives has the effect of making the common reader question an art which attracts praise in such questionable terms. Mary McCarthy writes of Pale Fire as “one of the very great works of art of this century” without offering much evidence beyond the novelist’s ingenuity. Mr. Field thinks Nabokov a better writer than Dostoevsky; Pale Fire “one of the eight masterpieces of the novel in this century”; and Nabokov “the foremost writer of our times.” I am not sure that the art is well served by its encomiasts. After reading Mr. Field’s book I still think that Nabokov’s best work invites comparison with the Fitzgerald of Gatsby and The Last Tycoon rather than with James, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Gogol, or Dostoevsky.

To put this bluntly: one speaks of Fitzgerald’s eloquence, or Nabokov’s, and the point is worth making, but a corresponding account of James or Dostoevsky would find the question of their eloquence, in that sense, almost irrelevant. Mr. Field speaks of Nabokov in terms which I would wish to reserve for the greatest writers. But he does not produce the evidence. Indeed, it is significant that in a forest of critical comment (most of the trees are listed, by the way, in Mr. Field’s invaluable bibliography), very few critics have disclosed the art by quotation and analysis. Elucidation, yes. Mr. Field is disappointing in this respect. I have implied that his notes are pitched too high: too high for me, that is.

When I try to represent my own sense of such works as The Gift, Lolita, Sebastian Knight, The Defense, and the short stories, I find myself drawn to a quieter tone than Mr. Field’s. What I admire in these works is what the narrator of Sebastian Knight admired in a book called The Doubtful Asphodel. “I like its manners,” he said. One would hardly say that of Anna Karenina. I am afraid Mr. Field will not agree.

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