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«‘Ecco una nostra lettura recente: Lolita. La virtù di questo libro è che può esser letto contemporaneamente su molti piani: storia lirica, poema ...»

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The Pattern of Cruelty and the Cruelty

of Pattern in Vladimir Nabokov

Leland de la Durantaye

I. Cruelty

FEW OF NABOKOV’S READERS have begrudged him their admiration, but

many their affection. Asked in 1959 whether he felt that the novel was then

traversing a ‘crisis’, Italo Calvino responded that it was not, and pointed to

the recently published Lolita as proof.1 Many years later, Calvino was to

restate his admiration, but this time accompanied by an aside. He

remarked that Nabokov was ‘truly a genius, one of the greatest writers of the century and one of the people in whom I most recognise myself’, and that, ‘if I had to name the author who has most influenced me these last years and who I’ve preferred above all others, I would answer: Vladimir Nabokov’ Calvino goes so far as to credit Nabokov with having, ‘invented an English of extraordinary richness’. Despite this highest of praise, however, Calvino appends to his appreciation that, as a writer, Nabokov possessed ‘an extraordinary cynicism and a formidable cruelty’.2 ‘Ecco una nostra lettura recente: Lolita. La virtù di questo libro è che può esser letto contemporaneamente su molti piani: storia lirica, poema allegorico dell’America, divertimento linguistico, divagazione saggistica su un tema-pretesto, ecc...

[Calvino’s ellipses] Per questo Lolita è un bel libro: per il suo esser tante cose insieme, il suo riuscir a muovere la nostra attenzione in infinite direzioni contemporaneamente.’ Italo Calvino, Saggi 1945–1985, ed. Mario Barenghi, 2 vols (Milan

1995) i. 1524.

‘veramente un grande genio, une dei più grandi scrittori del secolo e una delle persone in cui mi riconosco di più... si devessi dire chi è l’autore di questi anni che preferisco, e che mi ha anche in qualche modo influenzato, dire che è Vladimir Nabokov... si è inventato una lingua inglese di una ricchezza straordinaria... un personaggio di uno straordinario cinismo, di una crudeltà formidabile’. Ibid.

ii. 2908.

doi:10.1093/camqtly/bfl018 © The Author, 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of

The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions please email:

journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org 302 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY Calvino was not the first or the only reader to remark upon a cynicism and a cruelty in Nabokov’s writing. Simon Karlinsky summarised the tenor of much of the Russian criticism of Nabokov in the European émigré communities of the 1930s by stating that Nabokov’s ‘originality and novelty’ were often seen as ‘a mask covering up his indifference to his fellow humans’.3 In Nabokov’s country of adoption, Joyce Carol Oates was to write of him that he ‘exhibits the most amazing capacity for loathing that one is likely to find in serious literature’.4 This note of ‘cruelty’, ‘indifference’, and ‘loathing’ is heard with equal regularity from Nabokov’s professional critics. ‘Being a character in one of the Vladimir Nabokov fictions is evidently not much fun’, wrote critic William Caroll.5 Pioneering critic and friend Carl Proffer referred to Nabokov as, ‘a somewhat sadistic author’.6 And the consternation of Nabokov’s most insightful and sensitive contemporary critic, Michael Wood, at Nabokov’s literary character was such that he delimited four different and distinct facets of it in his study The Magician’s Doubts, amongst which there is ‘Nabokov the mandarin’, whom he does not like, as well as the private, diffident, sensitive, observant Nabokov whom he likes very much.7 In his essay on Nabokov, Richard Rorty contends that the ‘central topic’ of Nabokov’s books is ‘cruelty’.8 Martin Amis was still more lapidary in his estimation that ‘Nabokov is the laureate of cruelty.’9 Just as did Calvino and a host of Nabokov’s other most perceptive readers, Rorty and Amis find a kernel of hard, bright cruelty at the heart of Nabokov’s person and work.

This cruel streak did not escape Nabokov. In 1954, then at work on Pnin, Nabokov wrote to Katharine White, ‘let me say merely that the “unpleasant” quality of Chapter 2 [of Pnin] is a special trait of my work in general’.10 This ‘unpleasant’ quality was thus not accidental, not expugnable, and not simply to be found in the work in question. His acknowledgement that there was a method to the madnesses of his characters does not, however, Simon Karlinsky, ‘Nabokov and Chekhov: The Lesser Russian Tradition’, TriQuarterly, 17 (Winter 1970) p. 10.

Joyce Carol Oates, ‘A Personal View of Vladimir Nabokov’, Saturday Review (Jan. 1973) p. 37.

William Carroll, ‘Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”’, in Carl Proffer (ed.), A Book of Things About Vladimir Nabokov (Ann Arbor 1974) pp. 203–17.

Carl Proffer, Keys to Lolita (Bloomington 1968) p. 4.

Michael Wood, The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (London

1994) p. 22.

‘Nabokov wrote about cruelty from the inside’, says Rorty, ‘helping us see the way in which the private pursuit of aesthetic bliss produces cruelty’: Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge 1989) p. 146.

Amis, introduction to Lolita (London 1992) pp. 1–9.

Selected Letters 1940–1977, ed. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Broccoli (New York 1989) p. 150.





THE PATTERN OF CRUELTY 303 explain why he incorporated them into his work. Why, then, did Nabokov paint – and with such strange relish – the portraits of such unpleasant characters?

In an unsigned article entitled ‘Vladimir Nabokov-Sirin,11 Lover of Life’ from a 1931 issue of Le Mois (a Parisian periodical which also contained in that same issue an essay of Nabokov’s), one finds a laudatory and

artful essay on Nabokov. Amidst the praise therein is the following reserve:

‘It is a strange and paradoxical fact that this young man – healthy, balanced, active and brimming with vitality, enjoys depicting perverse, sickly, even pathological figures. There is scarce a single likable character in any of his novels’.12 This insightful observation dates from years before the appearance of a new and dazzling generation of villains in such works as Laughter in the Dark (1938), where the unjust are punished by nothing more than the loss of their cash cow, Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada (1969). In all these cases, Nabokov’s readers are confronted with a cruelty which is difficult to reconcile with the kindly, if mischievous, figure the author cut.

To understand what cruelty might lurk in his works, we should recall that it is not only that Nabokov’s characters are cruel to other characters;

Nabokov is also cruel to them. While many a character in his works lives and breathes with surprising life, they do so in absolute servitude to their author. In his descriptions of the process of his creation, he treats his characters with a tyrannical stringency recalling Michelangelo’s boast that marble trembled at his approach. Early in his career, in a letter to his mother, the then 26-year-old writer tells of how the characters in what would become his first novel, Mary (1926), had become, ‘real people, not characters invented by me’.13 It seems, however, that after this first work Nabokov began to keep his characters more carefully in line. In Strong Opinions ‘Sirin’ was Nabokov’s Russian pen name (his reason for selecting a pen name being principally that he shared his father’s name and at the time of his first publications his father was a very well-known man and prolific contributor to the émigré press).

‘Chose bizarre et paradoxale: ce jeune homme sain, équilibré, sportif, chez qui la joie de vivre éclate, se plaît à peindre des êtres pervers, maladifs, voir pathologiques. Il n’y a pas un seul personnage sympathique dans ses romans, ou peu s’en faut’: ‘Vladimir Nabokoff-Sirine, L’amoureux de la vie’, Le Mois: Synthèse de l’activité mondiale (Paris), 6 (June/July 1931) p. 141. Given the general atmosphere of hoaxing that Nabokov surrounded his literary self with, all such artful and anonymous moments connected with the reception of his works excite suspicion. As far as this essay, it is less likely that Nabokov wrote it himself than that it was written by Nabokov’s close friend Gleb Struve. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton 1990) p. 364.

Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Part (New York 1977) p. 182.

304 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY Nabokov proclaims, ‘my characters are galley slaves’.14 In response to a question about the experience of having ‘a character take hold of [the writer] and in a sense dictate the course of the action’, Nabokov replied: ‘I have never experienced this. What a preposterous experience! Writers who have had it must be very minor or insane’ (SO, p. 69).

Novelists not usually considered minor or insane have, however, often offered such professions de foi in their characters. Though one might find Balzac’s calling on his deathbed for a doctor from his work rather than his life – Dr Bianchon, from La Comédie humaine – as beyond the bounds of a healthy relation to one’s creations, it is not difficult to understand and appreciate the position of his countryman André Gide some hundred years later declaring towards the end of his own life that ‘no sooner have I conceived of the work than I am completely at its mercy, and my every energy dedicated to its composition. I then have no more personality than that which is appropriate to the work in question’.15 One finds, moreover, remarks in a similar vein under the pen of one of the few novelists in English (or any language) whom Nabokov genuinely treasured. In the preface to the first edition of David Copperfield, Dickens writes of ‘how an Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world’, after the completion of a work, ‘when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him forever’. For him, whatever the reader’s engagement with his story, ‘no one can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I have believed in the writing’.16 Though Nabokov would say, in the closing lines of his lecture on a different work of Dickens (Bleak House), that ‘a great writer’s world’ is ‘a magic democracy... where even some very minor character, even the most incidental character like the person who tosses the twopence, has the right to live and breed’, the writer himself, as Nabokov sees him, is an absolute monarch.17 In relegating such experiences of characters taking control of the course of a book to the ‘minor’ and ‘insane’, Nabokov was perhaps thinking of an author Strong Opinions (1973; repr. New York 1990) p. 95. In this they fared better than his butterflies. Nabokov’s responses to the propriety of killing the butterflies he so ardently studied are indignant (see for one example, his long response to the question in the Apostrophes interview: Apostrophes: Bernard Pivot rencontre Vladimir Nabokov, May 30, 1975; Live broadcast by Antenne 2, Paris. Video version (VHS SECAM): Visions Senil, Paris. LoC shelf no: VAB 3408. On another note, though Nabokov claims absolute authorial control over his worlds, the work has its occasional, if slight, revenge. In the opening lines of chapter 5 of Speak, Memory (p. 95), Nabokov talks of the weakening of his memories of his French governess after having loaned her to a character in one of his books.

‘le livre, sitôt conçu, dispose de moi tout entier, et que pour lui, tout en moi, jusqu’au plus profond de moi s’instrumente. Je n’ai plus d’autre personnalité que celle qui convient à cette œuvre’: from a journal entry dated July 1922, cited in Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire (Paris 1955) p. 88 n. 1.

David Copperfield (Oxford 1999) p. iv.

Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York 1980) p. 124.

THE PATTERN OF CRUELTY 305 whom he considered, in fact, to be both: Henry James. A few years earlier, Nabokov had debated with his choleric correspondent Edmund Wilson the value of Henry James’s writing and found James sorely wanting (James had a certain ‘charm... but that’s about all’).18 As the celebrated prefaces to the New York edition of James’s works bear ample witness, James experienced, half-appalled, half-enthralled, what he called that ‘happiest season of surrender to the invoked muse and the projected fable’, when his characters resolutely took the upper hand and dictated to him the rhythm of the work.19 Nabokov’s literary calendar knows no such season of happy surrender.

To make sure his galley slaves are rowing in unison, he goes so far as to penetrate the confines of his fictional worlds, appearing as a cross between a character and a god in his fictions. He and his wife briefly stop in for a dance and a quick round of inspection in Nabokov’s early work King, Queen, Knave. In a passage omitted from the second edition of Speak, Memory, Nabokov says of Sirin that ‘his best works are those in which he condemns his people to the solitary confinement of their souls’.20 In Invitation to a Beheading and The Defense are perfect instances of such, and in both works Nabokov the creator – an ‘anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me’,21 as he would later call himself – offers encoded tips as to how to break out of such confinement (Cincinnatus from Invitation to a Beheading succeeds, and Luzhin from The Defense tragically fails). In the early Russian novels, the trapped character is dimly aware of his creator but powerless to obtain a greater share of knowledge or control. ‘How cruel’, wrote Nabokov of himself, ‘to prevent him from finding in art – not an “escape” (which is only a cleaner cell on a quieter floor), but relief from the itch of being.’22 In the foreword to Bend Sinister Nabokov evokes how the story’s main character (a philosopher by calling), ‘suddenly perceives the simple reality of things and knows but cannot express in the words of his world that he and his son and his wife and everybody else are merely my whims and megrims’ (BS, p. xiv).

To his readers he confesses that he, ‘the Author, take Krug to my bosom and the horrors of the life he has been experiencing turn out to be the artistic invention of the Author’.23 More sedately, Nabokov appears, butterfly The Nabokov–Wilson Letters: Correspondence Between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1941–1971, ed. Simon Karlinsky (New York 1979; corrected edn, with same pagination, Harper Colophon, 1980) p. 53.



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