Transparent Things is Nabokov’s sixteenth novel, his seventh in English. In an odd sense it is a fresh start, since Nabokov’s English novels, at least since Lolita (1955), have all been published in counterpoint or crossweave with the English versions of his earlier Russian novels: Invitation to a Beheading between Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962); five Russian novels (The Gift, The Defense, The Eye, Despair, and King, Queen, Knave) between Pale Fire and Ada (1969); two more since Ada (Mary, Glory) to close the series of nine Russian novels—Laughter in the Dark was translated in 1938. The other two English novels, since I seem to find myself listing the whole oeuvre, are The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947).
Transparent Things, then, is Nabokov’s first work in English to have no Russian novel peering over its shoulder, waiting for its chance, and this seems to make a large difference in the writing. The novel is brief, terse, oblique, abstract, almost penitent, almost awkward, as if the glitter of earlier works had to be atoned for, or as if the re-creation of all the Russian novels in English had ended a cycle and the author had to begin again, groping for a new style.
The voice here is not the intricate, flippant, aesthetic, or aristocratic voice of Van Veen, Humbert Humbert, Professor Botkin, or the Russian Nabokov, indeed is not really a voice at all but rather a set of rapid shifts of tone, imitations of the tones of various commonplace pretexts and occasions for stories: the television talk show, the letter of acknowledgment, the dim, clinical essay on a vast subject, the interview with the prison psychiatrist. “More in a moment,” we read at a chapter’s end. Or: “Let us now illustrate our difficulties.” A chapter opens: “We shall now discuss love” and closes: “We must end now our discussion of love.” Now and again a breezy, hopeful note intrudes, of the kind that usually appears in Nabokov’s fiction only in the mouths of murderous fools like the M’sieur Pierre of Invitation to a Beheading. “It might be fun,” the novel says archly, and its last words are: “Easy, you know, does it, son.”
The narrative excuse for this manner is not hard to find, although I don’t think it matters much whether we find it or not. There is in Transparent Things a minor but eminent novelist who talks in this way, and we can, if we wish, see him as the unseen author of the book, which is the story of the ungainly life and transfiguring death of a man called Hugh Person, who works for the novelist’s publisher. The novelist has written about this man, perhaps invented him, and has then disappeared into his own text, where we learn that he writes English (he is German) with a “shapeliness, a richness, an ostensible dash, that caused some of the less demanding reviewers in his adopted country to call him a master stylist.” On the other hand he speaks English fluently but regularly gets his colloquialisms wrong. “To make a story quite short,” he says, and “My liver, you know, was holding something against me.” At one point he offers a chatty goodbye: “So long and soon see.”
Transparent Things is a mixture of the master stylist’s written and spoken manners, eloquent at times, absurd at times, at all times elusive. For the effect, whether we attribute the book to the fictional author or not, is to evoke Nabokov’s mind without Nabokov’s language, or with Nabokov’s language only sporadically in attendance, and this, as any critic will tell you, is to erase Nabokov altogether.
It isn’t, though. The place names alone in this book are a kind of signature, a conversion of Switzerland into Nabokov’s private country: Trux, Witt, Chur, Versex, Toss and Thurn. The master stylist notes, as Humbert Humbert might well have done, that there is “many a mile between Condom in Gascogne and Pussy in Savoie.” A play called Cunning Stunts is showing in the book’s New York, and a proofreader worries about the order of the letters in the “Reign of Cnut.” The playful, slightly scabrous, nympholatrous intelligence that marked Lolita is fully present here—“tickling her in her bath, kissing her wet shoulders, then one day carrying her wrapped in a big towel to his lair”—and there are more generally characteristic touches too.
There is speculation about the disadvantages of major surgery as a means of sidetracking a destructive urge: “A respected though not always lucky practitioner had admitted privately how difficult he found it to stop himself from hacking out every organ in sight during an operation.” An investigation of the sleeping and dreaming habits of two hundred prison inmates—taken on singlehanded, Nabokov says without the trace of a smirk, by a lady called Clarissa Dark—reveals that “one hundred seventy-eight of the men were seen to have powerful erections during the stage of sleep called HAREM (“Has A Rapid Eye Movement”) marked by visions causing a lustful ophthalmic roll, a kind of internal ogling.” I wonder who, apart from Nabokov, could have come up with that lustful ophthalmic roll, that precise and comic use of the beautiful unsuited word.
Transparent Things also shows us a lady novelist who lives in a house “decorated almost exclusively with her late husband’s oils”—and here the broadening and then broken cadence seems perfect, and inimitable—“early spring in the parlor, summertime in the dining room, all the glory of New England in the library, and winter in the bedchamber.”
Still, this is a new, shy Nabokov for much of the time, hiding in borrowed language far more than before. The characters in the earlier works were lost among objects, virtually invisible in a world of brilliantly realized and memorialized things. There was hardly room for a person to be human in those novels, and Transparent Things seems to confess this. It is a quest for its own central character, for a person (Hugh Person): a problematic, uncertain pursuit. Hugh’s father dies while trying on a pair of pants, and we learn of his death in this way:
Spatial disarrangement and dislocation have always their droll side, and few things are funnier than three pairs of trousers tangling in a frozen dance on the floor—brown slacks, blue jeans, old pants of gray flannel. Awkward Person Senior had been struggling to push a shod foot through the zigzag of a narrow trouser leg when he felt a roaring redness fill his head. He died before reaching the floor, as if falling from some great height, and now lay on his back, one arm outstretched, umbrella and hat out of reach in the tall looking glass.
The lecturing tone at the beginning and the focus through the mirror at the end tend to push the whole event into another dimension, a place where feeling is foolish, or perhaps simply unavailable. The comment on the “droll side” of such things, along with the attention to what is seen, to the tangled trousers and the umbrella and the hat, seem to mock Nabokov’s own previous predilection for just such details, just such configurations, while the abrupt leap into the consciousness of the old man (“he felt a roaring redness fill his head”) foils those perspectives without really answering them or balancing them.
It is an impressive and disturbing passage, I think, almost a clinical portrait of what it means to be cut off from feeling, but it also expresses something like repentance, is a recognition through parody of the inhumanity of the kind of vision Nabokov has been nurturing for so long. But even as he makes such a recognition, Nabokov seems to shrug and turn away, to suggest there is nothing he can do, and this gesture, this helpless acknowledgment of a limit, characterizes the whole book.
Nabokov has a great tenderness for neglected things, as Denis Donoghue said in these pages some time ago (NYR, August 3, 1967), but it is a tenderness reserved only for neglected things, and this is a very small area for a man’s humanity to work in. Whatever Nabokov himself may feel about an old man’s death or the general relations of people to objects, his prose plainly prefers the objects, will close up on people only when they have let themselves become ludicrous or isolated, when they can provoke pure pity, when they make no demands, call for no complicated human engagement. Even in the passage I have just quoted, which is about such disassociations, the umbrella and the hat and the trousers are animate and bereft and oddly touching, in a way that neither the dead man nor his son is. This is not so much a flaw in Nabokov’s work, perhaps, as its boundary, the place where his competence ends.
Of course, there is a truth in this too. The inhumanity of Nabokov’s vision is a large part of his fidelity to an inhuman world, where people are hard to find, or feel anything for, among objects. There is a remarkable corroborating moment in Thomas Pynchon’s V, where a character contemplating the jumbled bodies of wrecked cars near Elmira New York, thinks of Auschwitz, and by a strangling act of repression and transfer saves his compassion for the cars. But Nabokov’s answer, even now, is not to return us to humanity but to propose new directions of flight. He finds his person not in his flesh and blood but in his fate, in the design his life yields when it’s over.
Cincinnatus C., in Invitation to a Beheading, was imprisoned for being opaque when everyone else was transparent: sheer, stubborn resistance to a dreary common lot, to the unreality of what people call the world—or in a phrase from Transparent Things, to “what not very happy people call ‘life.’ ” In the new novel transparency can’t be resisted, it can only be endorsed, exploited. Things are transparent because they are constantly replaced in our minds by stories about them. We are tugged into flashbacks by the pull of the past, sent off on daydreams by our distraction or by the dullness of the present person or object. The present is fragile, always invaded, haunted—a girl in a hotel puts her handbag down on a table and through it we see the manuscript of a novel which a Russian writer worked on in this room some “ninety-one, ninety-two, nearly ninety-three years ago.” In a more playful moment, a description of Hugh Person turns into a description of his entrails seen through his transparent skin, a “landscape of serpents and caves.” Readers are invited to see through Hugh’s head to his pillow as he lies in bed.
We can’t stay on surfaces, the thin ice of our perception is constantly caving in beneath the pressure of our busy, embroidering minds, and in imitation of this the narrative of Transparent Things is full of information we don’t need or would rather not have, is crowded with garrulously offered extra details. The main street of a Swiss village “teems with transparent people and processes, into which,” we read, “we might sink with an angel’s or author’s delight,” and sure enough an irrelevant and ephemeral lady sitting at a table in a cafe turns out to be a “dear soul, with five cats, living in a toy house, at the end of a birch avenue, in the quietest part of….” The effusion is interrupted at this point by a waitress dropping a tray, but the waitress, of course, is a “poor woman in her own right,” and the sense of a permanent temptation to fly from the matter in hand continues.
At the end of the novel, when he is dying in a hotel fire, having strangled his wife in his sleep, poor fellow, having served time for his unintended womanslaughter and returned now to the scene of his courtship, chasing a ghost, seeking to provoke a reapparition of his dry, shallow, much-loved wife, Hugh Person hears cries and we are told that “one of his last wrong ideas was that those were the shouts of people anxious to help him, and not the howls of fellow men.”
There is a clue there, though. This is something more than a cruel irony, more than a conspiracy of author and reader against an unknowing character. Hugh’s idea was one of his last wrong ideas because soon, on the other side of death, Hugh will have only right ideas, and in the scheme of this book this means that the character will come to share the author’s vision, will come to see as pattern and configuration what he has previously seen only as linear event. Hugh visits the house of his wife’s mother, and a shuttlecock sails over a neighboring wall to land at his feet. Hugh ignores it. Eight years later, when he returns to the same house, a little girl with a badminton racket crouches on the sidewalk, picking up her shuttlecock. Thus the transparency of time can defeat the transparency of things, can put them together into an atemporal meaning.
Hugh is described very early in the book as a person “harrowed by coincident symbols,” and the novel is full of near misses, instances of the “muffled shock of an incomplete coincidence” (Hugh’s father asking for his mail and being given a telegram for a Mrs. Parson, a girl dressed for a funeral on the day the old man dies), as well as full of hits, cases in which the coincidence is complete but trivial (a man in a hotel reading a magazine Hugh left there eight years ago, the fact that both Hugh’s mother and his wife’s grandmother were the daughters of veterinarians). The patterns are often imperfect, and insignificant in themselves anyway. But they are patterns, they promise order, hint at a larger pattern which would not be trivial, which would redeem a man’s scattered, senseless life.
The many prefigurations of Hugh’s crime and death—suggestions of fire, shots of his large, strangler’s hands, descriptions of his childhood sleep-walking, multiple connections between Hugh’s life and the lives created in the master stylist’s fiction, so that Hugh must be either another character in the fiction or so entangled in his publishing job that he makes his life correspond to the proofs he reads—are both literary devices and metaphors, are literary devices used as metaphors. Life, here as in Pale Fire, is seen as a text, a scrambled message, and the life after death, in such an image, has to be seen as a promotion to the perspective of the author of the text; a final unraveling, a translation:
This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another.
Transparent Things resembles The Defense in many ways: mood; theme; gangling hero without a name, or who acquires a name or lives up to his name only as he dies. Hugh Person becomes a person as the flames consume him; Luzhin (pronounced to rhyme with illusion if we say it thickly, Nabokov tells us) loses his first name as The Defense opens and we hear his patronymic only after he has flung himself to suicide from a high window:
“Aleksandr Ivanovich, Aleksandr Ivanovich,” roared several voices. But there was no Aleksandr Ivanovich.
The difference is that Transparent Things clearly suggests a hope, a chance of some kind of intelligible hereafter, even if it lasts only a moment, whereas The Defense offered an eternity of crippling paranoia as its only prospect. But the similarity will serve to remind us what to look for in the rarefied air of Nabokov’s mountains. Not human affections, or at least not much in that line, but a human vertigo, an extraordinary perception of how we feel on the edge of a metaphysical drop. He draws the “silhouette of human panic,” as he writes here. I suspect the phrase was planted just for the eager reviewer, but no matter. I step into the trap without regrets.