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Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures OPEN ACCESS

Copyright Date: 1989
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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    Book Description:

    Vladimir Nabokov described the literature course he taught at Cornell as ""a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures."" Leona Toker here pursues a similar investigation of the enigmatic structures of Nabokov's own fiction. According to Toker, most previous critics stressed either Nabokov's concern with form or the humanistic side of his works, but rarely if ever the two together. In sensitive and revealing readings of ten novels, Toker demonstrates that the need to reconcile the human element with aesthetic or metaphysical pursuits is a constant theme of Nabokov's and that the tension between technique and content is itself a key to his fiction. Written with verve and precision, Toker's book begins with Pnin and follows the circular pattern that is one of her subject's own favored devices.

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-0704-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. 1 Introduction (pp. 1-20)

    Vladimir Nabokov belongs among those writers who are continually exposed to distrust during their lives, whose first steps encounter inauspicious predictions, who must struggle against the prejudices of the audience yet have admirers as ardent as the general public is unjust. When such writers die, there often follows a reversal: their works almost instantly become part of the classical canon.

    The recognition of V. Sirin (Nabokov’s prewar pseudonym) by the Russian emigre readers of the twenties and thirties was slow and frequently reluctant. In the forties, having moved to the United States and adopted English as the language of his...

  2. Around 1950-51, withLolitastill unfinished, Nabokov started intermittently working onPnin. Separate chapters first appeared in theNew Yorker, and the book came out in 1957, four years after the completion and two years after the publication ofLolita.

    Lolitadeliberately excludes explicit Russian references, the only exception being the Paris taxi driver Maximovich.¹ The symbolic element in its story (see Chapter 11), is not estranged from the Russian connection, yet the “Russian” material—that is, such issues as the predicament of Russian intellectuals in America, and Nabokov’s own status as a Russian-born author of a would-be all-American novel...

  3. Nabokov’s first novel,Mary (Mashen’ka,1926), initiates the theme of the need for a balance between human commitment and aesthetic pursuit, focusing on the conflict between sympathy and selfprotective detachment. This conflict is reproduced in the tension between the different layers of the novel’s meaning: the moral value of the protagonist’s actions clashes with their aesthetic value and their symbolic significance.

    Maryis set in a Russianpensionin Berlin in the mid-twenties.¹ Nabokov breathes new life into the conventionalpensionsetting (as of Balzac’sPère Goriot) by exploring the significance of the proximity imposed on the characters. People from...

  4. Nabokov’s second novel,King, Queen, Knave (Korol’, dama, valet,1928), a self-reflexive satirical version of the novel of adultery, asserted his intellectual and artistic independence, his refusal to restrict himself to the genre of the “human document” (KQK, viii), or to cater to the emigre readers’ need for explicit moral and ideological support.

    The characters ofKing, Queen, Knaveare Germans, people whom Nabokov during his stay in Berlin did not bother to observe as closely as he would later observe his new compatriots across the Atlantic. “I spoke no German,” he says in the foreword, “had no German friends,...

  5. The hwnan “warmth” (D, 10) that was largely kept out ofKing, Queen, Knaveerupted in Nabokov’s so-called “chess novel,” The Defense (Zashchita Luzhina,1929), a novel that deals more directly than any other of Nabokov’s works with the problem of balance between intellectual pursuit and hwnan commitment.

    It would be an oversimplification to say that the major conflict ofThe Defenseis between art and life. Chess is a game that explores the infinite potentialities of its own mediwn, whereas a truly great work of art explores its mediwn in order to reveal insufficiencies in the existing patterns of...

  6. Nabokov’sGlory(Podvig,1932), translated into English in 1971 (later than his other Russian novels), is probably the most underrated of his longer narratives. In the thirties, part of the emigre audience was antagonized by the book’s refusal to keep what seemed to be its promise of a patriotic message;¹ today, readers tend to show an interest mainly in its autobiographical element (images of the Cambridge life, of the Crimea, of visits to Switzerland) and to wonder at the relative straightforwardness of its narrative.² In fact, however,Gloryis as complex as any of the later works. It is the...

  7. The years 1929-32 saw an outburst of creative activity: upon completingThe Defense,Nabokov wrote a number of shorter works, includingThe Eye,and two novels,Glory and Kamera obscura. In 1938 his own considerably revised translation of Kamera obscura came out in America under the titleLaughter in the Dark.

    There is a close thematic relationship betweenGloryandKamera obscura.Both are devoted to a metaphysical error: their protagonists feel a call, a lure of something inaccessible, and attempt to pursue it in different wrong ways. Whereas Martin Edelweiss of Glory mistakes this mysterious beckoning for nostalgia, Bruno...

  8. The first draft ofInvitation to a Beheading (Priglashenie na kazn’,1935, published in 1938) was written “in one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration” (SO, 68). Like most products of a great writer’s burst of creative energy, this novel is characterized by a strong element of overdetermination. Cincinnatus C., a citizen of a totalitarian anti-science-fictional dystopia, is accused of an obscure crime called “gnostical turpitude” (IB, 72) and described as “opacity” (IB, 21). He is imprisoned in a fortress, condemned to death by beheading, and invited to collaborate in his own execution. The Kafkaesque situation lends itself a...

  9. The Gift, serialized (with the significant omission of its fourth chapter) in 1937-38, is Nabokov’s portrait of an artist as a young man. By the end of the novel the protagonist, Fyodor GodunovCherdyntsev, is on the threshold of a full-fledged literary career, ready to fulfill his girlfriend’s prophecy that he will be “such a writer as has never been before” (G, 376). Paradoxically, however,The Giftmarks the end of its author’s career as a Russian writer; through this work Nabokov, who had for some time been polishing his English prose (in 1936 he had translated hisDespairinto English)...

  10. Berni Sinisterwas written five or six years after Nabokov’s immigration to the United States in 1940; it was published in 1947. In the 1963 foreword, Nabokov notes that it was composed “at a particularly cloudless and vigorous period” of his life, yet he calls its main characters his “whims and megrims” (BS, v, viii). The reference to “whims” should remind the reader of the deliberate overstatement with which Emerson proclaimed his wish to writeWhim“on the lintels of the doorpost.”¹ “Megrims” is an ironic understatement: the time is winter and spring 1945-46; reports of the scale of recent...

  11. A novel that deals with a broken sexual taboo is suspected either of sensationalism or of a defiantly callous aestheticism that promotes insensitivity to crime and suffering. It is no longer necessary to defendLolitafrom the former imputation; yet Nabokov’s muchquoted remarks about the priority of “aesthetic bliss” may still leave him exposed to the latter charge. What all too often remains unnoticed, however, is that these remarks contain unmistakable moral connotations: “aesthetic bliss” is “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm” (L, 316-17). In...

  12. 12 Conclusion (pp. 228-230)

    “By all means place the ‘how’ above the ‘what,’” is Nabokov’s advice to critics, “but do not let it be confused with the ‘so what’” (SO, 66). If the “how” stands for the local felicities of good writing, then the “so what” refers to their integration into a work’s general design. But if the “how” stands for the general design, then the “so what” must be the mystery of the literary structure, the moral aspect of the relationship between the content and the form. Nabokov does not merely pay lip service to morality when he makes Humbert “quote” the following...

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This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
Funding is provided by National Endowment for the Humanities