Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vladimir Nabokov

On an afternoon not long ago, I read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov [link]. I suspect that there is no need for me to write anything about the book - the Internet is already saturated with Nabokov criticism [link] - but Pale Fire is so uncannily good, so beautifully intricate that I am compelled to write something brief, in the vague, optimistic hope of understanding this book better or, more precisely, of coming closer to a work of art that is seemingly (and brilliantly) so unknowable. 

Pale Fire impressed me in a way that none of Nabokov's other books ever have before (I haven't read all of his work: a selection of his English novels, a translation of one of his Russian novels, The Luzhin Defense [link], and some of his Lectures on Literature [link]). It is typically clever and verbally inventive, but, formally, it is exceptionally inventive. The form is parodic; the book presents itself as a volume of poetry, published posthumously (the alliteration is unfortunate). Rather than narrowing the scope for the novel, this form - which divides the book into four pieces: Forward, Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos, Notes, and Index - opens up the narrative to an endless sequence of imaginative possibilities, which are hilarious and tragic. A narrator, Charles Kinbote, attends whimsically and ironically to stern, intellectual responsibilities. He is the editor of Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, a recently deceased friend, and, almost out of nowhere, a story appears, full of thought and personality:
I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your stool or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gently - not fall, not jump - but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised by how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is form an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your pack parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off - farewell shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the minuscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality.
In an article (well worth reading), entitled The Problem with Nabokov [link], that coincided with the publication of The Original of Laura [link], Martin Amis attempted bravely to describe the essence of Nabokov:
They call it a "shimmer" – a glint, a glitter, a glisten. The Nabokovian essence is a miraculously fertile instability, where without warning the words detach themselves from the everyday and streak off like flares in a night sky, illuminating hidden versts of longing and terror.
Recently, Penguin decided to reissue all of Nabokov's work, including the books he wrote in Russian, living as an exile in Berlin. There is an thorough article by Leslie Chamberlain, called Nabokov in Berlin, on the Standpoint page [link].
And, this is a good excuse to post the well-watched video of Nabokov discussing Lolita with Lionel Trilling (who very nearly steals the show: "We can't trust a creative writer to say what he has done. He can say what he meant to do, but even then, we don't have to believe him!" And: "All great love affairs are tragic"), and a man in a tuxedo with a pencil mustache.  At one of my favourite moments in the video, the three men stand up, simultaneously and spontaneously, and move from the desk to the couches, which I have always interpreted as a homely, comforting gesture. 

It should be mentioned that this video also includes the famous moment when Nabokov revealed his inspiration for Lolita. And then there are the clouds of cigarette smoke...


  1. great blog found you via anz lit blog ,just got two of the nabokov classics myself glory and bend sinster two of his lesser known ones ,have enjoyed his other books I ve read ,also agree re bernhard comment

  2. thanks.

    the new editions of nabokov are excellent. next on my list is his memoir "Speak, Memory" which people tend to rave about...

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  4. Good post. I too am a great admirer of Nabokov, though not of Pale Fire which I find to be a little too weightless, a little too gamey. (For me it's a harbinger of the unreadable Ada). That said, I've read everything else by him and have greatly enjoyed the vast majority of it. Especially when his work describes a style of mourning. This is clearest in books like The Gift, Lolita, Glory, Pnin, and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. It's also the element of Nabokov's work, I would argue, that must have resonated with Sebald the most...

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I stop by here occasionally and enjoy your writing.

  5. Thanks for comment David - it is nice to know that this place isn't just getting dusty whilst I'm not here.