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Reading Nabokov

In response to:

The Wizard of Lake Cayuga from the January 30, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Adams reviews the biographical side of my Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years with great sympathy [“The Wizard of Lake Cayuga,” NYR, January 30]. Had I encountered more informants with his precision of recollection I would have had a much easier task. But his comments on my critical analyses of Nabokov’s work are another matter.

I am amused to find him instructing me that Clare Quilty is primarily a phantom of Humbert Humbert’s imagination, but not allowing me to suggest that Charles Kinbote might be a phantom of John Shade’s. Does he not find it odd to decree that an American playwright in an American novel must be imaginary and a next-door neighbor who happens to be a Zemblan madman (or perhaps an ex-King) must be solidly real?

Professor Adams writes that Quilty’s “taunting and tantalizing, like his debauching Lolita into an actress in a skin flick, are as much Humbert’s invention as those of a real person.” Leaving aside that “as much as” (50 percent real, 50 percent invented: how does that work? does Quilty sign half of those hotel registers, and Humbert imagine the rest? does Humbert kill the real or the invented half of Quilty, and if the latter, why has it landed him in prison?), this would imply that Humbert has invented the dialogue in which Lolita informs him of her role in these movies:

What things?”

Oh, weird, filthy things. I mean, he had two girls and two boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude while an old woman took movie pictures.” (Sade’s Justine was twelve at the start.)

What things exactly?”

Oh, things…Oh, I—really I”—she uttered the “I” as a subdued cry while she listened to the source of the ache, and for lack of words spread the five fingers of her angularly up-and-down moving hand. No, she gave it up, she refused to go into particulars with that baby inside her.

It is of no importance now,” she said pounding a gray cushion with her fist and then lying back, belly up, on the divan. “Crazy things, filthy things, I said no, I’m just not going to [she used, in all insouciance really, a disgusting slang term which, in a literal French translation, would be souffler] your beastly boys, because I want only you. Well, he kicked me out.”

The sudden gap between Lolita’s speech and Humbert’s aside, the heart-rending gesture Lolita makes as she thinks protectively of the innocent child inside her, the confirmation that Quilty was the only man she had ever loved—nothing here seems remotely likely to have been invented by Humbert. He prides himself on his dignity and loves to manipulate and control, whether it be Valeria, Charlotte, Lolita or the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” Why would such a man invent a Quilty who easily and humiliatingly manipulates him and steals the heart he so wants to win?

About Pale Fire Robert Adams writes: “Shade does not survive by more than a few minutes the creation of his poem. When, then, can he be supposed to have invented Kinbote and his wacky commentary?” Adams seems to have missed most of my argument. If Shade has invented Kinbote and commentary, then he has invented the account of his own death that the commentary contains, and has as much time as his imagination needs.

Professor Adams takes issue with my interpretation of Pale Fire without taking account of the evidence I present. “Shade has no notion at any point that there is to be a commentary,” he writes. But Shade says in the poem that he cannot convey his ideas directly, but only through the interrelations between things (“Not text, but texture”), and that he has a habit, as he states in the poem’s opening lines, of projecting himself beyond death, into an azure mirror world (Zembla is pointedly both “blue inenubilable Zembla” and “the land of reflections”). When he dies with only one line of the poem left to complete, in a death scene that suspiciously echoes his youthful explorations of “playful death,” and when he does so shortly after having dropped the name Zembla and having written in the next couplet “Man’s life as commentary to abstruse unfinished poem. Note for further use,” and when in the commentary that follows, the Zemblan commentator says his own prose style resembles Shade’s, some investigation into the relationship of poem and commentary seems to be called for. Professor Adams can refuse the inquiry, but why he should make a virtue of this remains unclear.

Brian Boyd
University of Auckland
Aukland, New Zealand

Robert M Adams replies:

I am sorry that Mr. Boyd, whose biography of Nabokov I thoroughly enjoyed, was not better pleased with my assessment of his critical commentaries—especially since I don’t (and I don’t think he will very long) maintain the critical postures with which we entered on this discussion.

With regard to Lolita I suspect we’re largely in agreement already. The book is mostly (as I see it) the work of an obsessive observer/narrator; the reader’s game is to grope after elements of tangible reality behind screens of interposed disguise, defense, and obsession. It’s part of the relatively conventional conclusion that after his feverish fantasies and delusions, Humbert emerges at least partially into the clear light of day. How does that work? Very nicely, as it has done in most obsession-stories, starting with Don Quixote.

The problems with Pale Fire are more resistant. John Shade, the Wordsmith Professor of English Literature, doesn’t seem to me imaginatively capable of assembling a story like that of Kinbote-Botkin-Charles Xavier, not to mention the whole Baroness-Orczy plot of Zemblan intrigue. The question is not whether it’s right to imagine this and not that, but simply what is dramatically convincing. The idea that the author of the poem (domestic, homely, Appalachian) could also be the author of a Pimpernel-intrigue does not convince me, and at that I leave it. On the slightly larger point, I don’t like what happens to a novel like Pale Fire when one of the main characters is supposed to be an imaginative projection of another. There are too many scenes in the book where third parties interact as fictional people with the supposed private projection of the Professor of Zemblan. Not that they can’t be explained or adjusted to the interpretation, but in the process all semblance of fictional action disappears. While the reader grasps after clues, implications, and analogies, other aspects of the book, much less exasperating to the reader of fiction, slip out of reach.

But both my original point of view, and Professor Boyd’s, seem likely to undergo major modification as a result of a new, important study entitled Nabokov’s Otherworld by Vladimir E. Alexandrov (Princeton University Press, 1991). This book, which did not appear in time for Boyd to take notice of it in his biography or bibliographies, proposes a radical revaluation of Nabokov’s thought. Alexandrov sees that thought as originally based on, and never deviating from, a secret perception of a transcendent, eternal realm, by contrast with which “nature” and “artifice” are humble synonyms. What Nabokov intuited, in other words, was eternity. Readers immersed in the secular, rationalist modalities of modern scientific thought (among whom I number myself) have found it easy to dismiss Nabokov’s transcendental intuitions as metaphorical flourishes, mere hyperboles. Alexandrov argues that they made up the core of Nabokov’s deepest intellectual life, that he kept them mainly secret because he held them wholly sacred and personal. In this estimate he is supported by someone who maintained a lucid, unflawed, and maybe pitiless perspective on Nabokov—his wife Véra.

Alexandrov’s book is far from easy going; I have not yet completed even a preliminary run-through. This is not a compte-rendu, far less a formal review. But Alexandrov’s is clearly a revolutionary study, an important landmark which points students of Nabokov toward a group of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century mystics and visionaries such as Mme. Blavatsky, P.D. Oustinov, Nikolai Evrainov, and Nikolai Gumilev. Their precepts and practices provided for Nabokov a more profound and enduring inspiration than has generally been recognized. And of course their looming presence is bound to change the way we approach the fictions.

Among the consequences of the new perspective, those for a reading of Pale Fire are clearly enormous. If “flesh and blood” people and “imaginary” people, figments of obsessions and fantasy, are all but synonymous, what do the distinctions between them matter at all?

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