On Vladimir Nabokov

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April 30, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

nabokov-timeLast year I gave a paper on Vladimir Nabokov and St. Augustine and their conceptions of the relation between human temporality and human desire. I am trying to publish the finished product, and here are some of the scraps. The following is an introduction I wrote, all about Nabokov. I realized it was not at all right for my essay, but I might as well post it up here. I found Nabokov a real thrill to read, and I highly recommend his autobiography Speak, Memory.

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Towards the beginning of his memoirs, Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes: “The following of…thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.”[1] Life is neither simply linear nor simply circular. Rather, for Nabokov, it is best expressed by a Hegelian triadic series; each twirl of the spiral intimately and essentially related to the next. The synaesthete Nabokov hastens to add: “A colored spiral in a small ball of glass, this is how I see my own life.”[2] And so Nabokov’s colorful life spiraled all over the globe. He spent twenty years (1899-1919) in his native Russia, where his family fled the aftermath of the October revolution. He lived another two decades (1919-1940) in England, Germany, and France, before World War II forced him and his Jewish wife to flee to the United States. The latter nation provided the backdrop for Nabokov’s personal “synthesis”, during which he produced some of the most kaleidoscopic English prose of the 20th century.

There is a collection of minor themes that Nabokov traces through his autobiography and weaves into the autobiographical fiction of his novels: an obsession with lepidoptery, an ardent passion for language, travel themes, and vivid eroticism. Of course it is sex which has come to define Nabokov in popular consciousness, for better or for worse. But in a 1964 Playboy interview, Nabokov was asked about the exhilaration of sex in his novels. He responded with ennui: “Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.”[3] Whatever role sex plays in Nabokov’s work—novels routinely (and in some ways understandably) mistaken for pornography—it is certainly not sex for sex’s sake.

At a deeper level, there are four major themes, all interrelated, which permeate Nabokov’s oeuvre. The first is his attempt to convey pure delight, “aesthetic bliss” as he calls it in his afterword to Lolita—“a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” This is what his writing is about, he says, rather than any didactic purpose or “moral”.[4] Writing stories to teach a lesson or to critique the social order is something which Nabokov rejects. This is why he so strongly objects to Dostoevsky’s novels; he rejects not necessarily the ideas they traffic in, but the fact that they are structured around ideological dialogue at all.[5] At one point he notes that the Russian émigré Dostoevsky followers—mystics and soul re-shapers, Nabokov called them—ended up in envy of Parisian Catholics. If it was a creed they longed for, “Dostoevskian drisk could not compete with neo-Thomist thought”.[6] Nabokov’s novels, on the other hand, while tracing certain themes, are chock full of aesthetic and linguistic gratuity. The patterns of meaning and the constant allusions of all types exist in order to facilitate the resurrection of language (which suffers death through familiarity), and to bring on the epiphanic joy of literary discovery.[7]

A second major theme that runs throughout Nabokov’s work is his fixation on time. “Chronophobia” lies at the heart of Speak, Memory. Here he expresses a rather ambivalent disposition towards time. On the one hand, he says his true birthday, and his more divine baptism, came about at four years of age, when he discovered time through the realization that his parents predated him. This, he says, was “the birth of sentient life”.[8] In the same space, however, he describes the whole of his life as an attempt to escape from “the prison of time”. “Short of suicide,” he says, “I have tried everything.”[9] Later on, a more ecstatic Nabokov, fresh from recollecting his earliest forays into entomological exploration, goes so far as to deny time altogether: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip”.[10] Time appears as both threat and opportunity—and something which Nabokov wants to transcend altogether, at least in some sense, through the memory of aesthetic bliss (and the aesthetic bliss of memory).

Third, the theme of anti-Freudianism is ubiquitous. “All my books,” Nabokov writes, “should be stamped FREUDIANS, KEEP OUT”.[11] The irony, of course, is that he ends up everywhere insisting that “the Viennese Quack” is nowhere to be found.  The reason for the fierce fixation on Freud, according to Jenefer Shute, is that Nabokov resists all interpretive totalitarianism: myths and systems which “perpetually threaten the delicate, intricate, multicolored tissue of individual experience”.[12] Because Nabokov lives in the same world as Freud—the world of imagination, memory, and desire, he is ever aware of the threat of Freudianism.[13] The main way that Nabokov ensures his texts cannot be smothered by Freudian myth is through his use of parody.[14] Parody will be especially apparent in Lolita. But the theme of anti-Freudianism goes deeper than this, I want to suggest. For the danger is not only that Freud’s myth will stifle the individuality of personal experience expressed in the text, but that it results in a temporal determinism that Nabokov finds antithetical to human freedom. This will become clearer as I move into narrative particulars below.

There is a fourth and final feature to be noticed in Nabokov’s works. Nearly all of his narratives unfold in the mode of confession. This is true of the two novels which are given consideration in this paper, Lolita and Ada or Ardor. Lolita falls into two types of confession—the criminal and the autobiographical. Ada or Ardor falls squarely into the latter category. As such Nabokov’s work is located in a tradition of confession which stretches from Augustine to Foucault. Here confessions are, according to Zoran Kuzmanovich, “verbal exercises by which one authenticates and restores oneself in the process of revealing oneself to God (Augustine) or (re)constitutes oneself in a perpetual hermeneutics for producing truth (Foucault).”[15] Nabokov’s fiction possesses this confessional quality as it objectifies an experimental self, uniting this self to the reader who receives the confession, and through this process presents knowledge of the uncanny reality that often eludes us.[16] Confession is thus an attempt to re-member, a putting-myself-back-together. The constant intertwining of his personal and fictional autobiographies indicates that Nabokov is himself engaged in this process.[17] Whether this is a possibility for the literary eavesdropper is something which lies entirely outside of Nabokov’s purview—“let visitors trip”.

So Nabokov’s work operates in a confessional mode, and its themes are desire (aesthetics), memory (time), and freedom (hence the anti-totalitarian polemics). This skeletal description of Nabokov’s project could also apply to St. Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine was an aesthete of the highest order, he was himself a type of “chronophobiac”, and he was concerned to find and maintain a form of freedom, employing a variety of rhetorical devices against ideologies he deemed oppressive (e.g., Manichaeism). Of course, the differences between Augustine and Nabokov are stark. Chiefly, Nabokov’s work betrays no discernible trace of Christian theological influences. Biblical themes like sin, forgiveness, and atonement are nowhere to be found. Religion seems to play almost no constitutive role in Nabokov’s life story or those of his characters. And yet Nabokov does not polemicize against religion either. He recalls how a fellow Russian émigré writer was put off by his “refusal to discuss eschatological matters”[18], and when asked by the Playboy interviewer whether he believed in God, Nabokov replied cryptically: “I know  more  than  I  can  express  in words,  and  the  little  I  can  express  would  not have been expressed, had I not known more.”[19] Considering how carefully managed these written interviews were, this should probably be seen as deliberate obfuscation. It appears that what Nabokov wanted, like most modern writers, is for his novels to be entered into and read in all their ambiguity.


[1] Speak, Memory, p. 27.

[2] Speak, Memory, p. 275.

[4] Lolita, p. 315.

[5] John Burt Foster, Jr. “Nabokov and Modernism” in The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, ed. Julian M. Connoly (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 93.

[6] Speak, Memory, 284.

[7] Leona Toker, “Nabokov’s Worldview” in The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, ed. Julian M. Connoly (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 232-233.

[8] Speak, Memory, p. 21-22.

[9] Speak, Memory, p. 20.

[10] Speak, Memory, p. 139.

[11] Bend Sinister (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 12.

[12] J.P. Shute, “Nabokov and Freud: The Play of Power”, Modern Fiction Studies 30:4 (1984), p. 640.

[13] Shute, “Nabokov and Freud”, p. 640.

[14] Shute, “Nabokov and Freud”, p. 642.

[15] Zoran Kuzmanovich, “Strong opinions and nerve points: Nabokov’s life and art” in The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, ed. Julian M. Connoly (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 27.

[16] Kuzmanovich, “Strong Opinions and nerve points”, p. 27.

[17] Updike sees Nabokov’s fiction as incorporating key aspects of his autobiography, but in a form “cunningly rearranged and transformed by fictional design”. Cf. Updike, “Grandmaster Nabokov,” Assorted Prose (New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 319.

[18] Speak, Memory, p. 286.

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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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