The Caning of Modernist Profaners: Parody in Despair*
by Alexander Dolinin

Numerous critics have noted that Despair is the first major work by Nabokov in which the author resorts to intertextual strategies and stratagems--to literary parody, disguised polemic, cunning play with several superimposed subtexts, and so on. "Behind Despair stands a nexus of allusions so dense, so rich, that progressing through their labyrinth would require another Holmes," wrote William C. Carroll1 in a pioneering article that tracks some very important routes inside this labyrinth leading to Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, and Conan Doyle.

Though Hermann Karlovich, the well-read hero-narrator of Despair, either names or quotes all the above mentioned authors, in the consensus of critical opinion the most important among them is Dostoevsky or, in the narrator's spiteful parlance, Dusty-and-Dusky, "our national expert in soul ague and the aberrations of human self-respect."2 Much has been written about Dostoevsky as a main parodic target of Despair, a book which does indeed abound in echoes from The Double, Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground.3

Such intertextual readings centered on Dostoevsky accord fairly well with Nabokov's 1964 English version of Despair, which differs drastically from the original in several aspects,4 including its elaborate system of subtexts and parodic allusions. In this version Dostoevsky looms significantly larger than in its Russian counterpart, and the vicious attacks upon him become too prominent to be ascribed exclusively to the narrator's idiosyncrasy. The derogatory paronomasia semanticizing the very name of Dostoevsky as connected with "dust" and "dusk"5 (which has no analog in the Russian original) not only injects more venom into Hermann's iconoclastic stingers but also becomes a part of the deeper semantic layers of the text controlled by the auctor rather than the narrator. Thus when Hermann in the English translation complains of being unable to free his "dusty, dusky soul" through a "refined self-torture" of writing (118), this addition to the original ex post facto becomes a defamatory authorial allusion to the soul-searching of Dostoevsky's heroes and, by implication, to the popular Western concept of the Russian (or Slavic) Soul associated with Dostoevsky's writings.6 Similarly, the "vortex of dust" that Hermann imagines in the yard of the Tarnitz hotel together with a Tartar, "the Caspian wind" and "the pale sky sick of looking on fisheries" (77) can be decoded either as truncated "text of Dusty" or as a part of the anagram VOrtEx Of DuST + SKY = DOSTOEVSKY and thereby offers a clue to the hidden literary subtexts of this pivotal scene. These anagrams, puns and paronomastic echoes place the concealed allusions to Dostoevsky on the same level as the "author's watermarks" which, to quote Julian W. Connolly, now and then "shine through Hermann's words."7

The reorientation of the English Despair toward Dostoevsky was undoubtedly prompted by the Western cultural context of the 1960's in which (and for which) Nabokov was rewriting his thirty-year-old novel. By this time Nabokov had severed his ties to contemporary Russian literature, whether written by émigrés or Soviet nationals. In an interview he explained:

The era of expatriation can be said to have ended during World War II. Old writers died, Russian publishers also vanished, and worst of all, the general atmosphere of exile culture, with its splendor, and vigor, and purity, and reverberative force, dwindled to a sprinkle of Russian language periodicals, anemic in talent and provincial in tone (Strong Opinions, 37) .
As for the Soviet Union, the Communist "jackbooted baboons have gradually exterminated the really talented authors, the special individual, the fragile genius," (Strong Opinions, 58) and because of this its current literature manifests only "provincial banality." In America Nabokov wanted to play the role of the last survivor and representative of the great Russian literary tradition, the ambassador plenipotentiary of the mutilated Russian culture and language, the sole peer and interlocutor of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov rather than Pasternak (as the author of Doctor Zhivago) or Solzhenitsyn. This is why he was so enraged when in the 1950's and 1960's the American intellectual elite, under the influence of French existentialists, began to venerate Dostoevsky, whom they proclaimed the father of existentialism and the only Russian writer of genius.8 The main aim of Nabokov's individual crusade against Dostoevsky was not so much to dethrone the mighty predecessor as to undermine his uncritical cult in America, which tended to reduce all Russian cultural heritage to the soul-searching of Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. As he put it in an interview:
Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist (Strong Opinions, 42).
For Nabokov in the 1960s, Dostoevsky was a clear and present peril, an immediate enemy, as well as a very strong irritant, and he used the English translation of Despair as a weapon in his fight; with the book he meant to lampoon the darling of the existentialist crowd and thereby to overbear the artistic authority of his inflated compatriot.

However, in the context of 1920s and 1930s both the position of Nabokov in respect to Dostoevsky and the priorities of his polemical battles were quite different. With the demise of Russian Symbolism and the end of the Silver Age, the era of ardent critical debate, philosophizing and essayistic preaching about "the visionary of the spirit" came to a close, sealing Dostoevsky's reputation as an indisputable classic. He became a well established, integral part of the Russian cultural canon--an object of extensive research and scholarly study, annotating, and theorizing rather than the subject of passionate harangues and grand philosophical concepts in the vein of Merezhkovsky, Viacheslav Ivanov or Berdiaev. True, one could argue that Dostoevsky had been a crude, clumsy artist and disagree with his moral or religious ideas, but such a critique would be a legitimate part of the discourse rooted in a tradition and based on a number of well-known precedents.

For such influential émigré writers as Bunin, Osorgin or Aldanov, Dostoevsky was the epitome of "bad writing," and in the 1930's many younger literati took up their views. The growing opposition to Dostoevsky disturbed Adamovich, the literary dictator of Russian Paris. Though himself not a great admirer of Dostoevsky,9 he regarded it as a victory for the "Pushkin party" fighting for the values of the objective, well-wrought "Apollonian" art, and rushed to the defense of the "Dionesian" icon. In his article "The Twilight of Dostoevsky" Adamovich cunningly embraces all the main points made by Bunin, Aldanov and other iconoclasts, repeating their objections to Dostoevsky's "artificial, false atmosphere," the "distorted," nightmarish, vindictive depiction of the external world, and the lack of artistic precision but then, in a volte-face, claims these deficiencies are irrelevant and are overshadowed by a deeper spiritual vision:

In our literary "circles" here [...] there is a stubborn antagonism to Dostoevsky, the aesthetic, ridiculous antagonism that is bursting into view more and more frequently. [...] They allege Dostoevsky "is not an artist" and "writes badly": this and nothing else. [...] Of course, a major writer always has strong likes and dislikes. It is only natural, for example, that Bunin "does not accept" Dostoevsky. [...] Yet if we are told: "Dostoevsky is not an artist," let us ask then what an artist is supposed to be? What does it mean "to write well"? An artist--using the word in its genuine rather than childish meaning--is not a craftsman who knows how to evenly distribute "lively images," "telling details of everyday life," "colorful landscapes," and other trifles in his books; an artist is the one who finds a rhythm unknown before, and enlivens and permeates the world he has created by this rhythm. "Writes badly"? Yes, it is true, Dostoevsky wrote carelessly: he used to dictate, to choke, to hurry. [...] But what does it really matter? Do you want to say that the creative art is trimming and polishing while the incessant glow of the story from within, the irrepressible light breaking through the murky, helter-skelter shell is not "that important"?10
Adamovich’s metaphors, as it were, absolve Dostoevsky from any aesthetic judgment: it is only the inner "irrepressible light" of Dostoevsky's insights, he argued, that matters because it redeems and outweighs the outward "darkness" of his style.11 Contrasting the visionary art of Dostoevsky to that of unnamed authors engrossed in "trimming and polishing," Adamovich targeted his opponents from the "Pushkin party," foremost among them Nabokov, whose writings he had persistently belittled as "too polished."12

Nabokov's response was swift and biting. In the last chapter of The Gift Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev makes fun of the average Russian literati's "blissful incapacity for observation (and hence complete uninformedness about the surrounding world--and a complete inability to put a name to anything) [...] as if a beneficent fate were at work refusing the blessing of sensory cognition to the untalented so that they will not wantonly mess up the material" (Gift, 315), and adds:

It happens, of course, that such a benighted person has some little lamp of his own glimmering inside him--not to speak of those known instances in which, through the caprice of resourceful nature that loves startling adjustments and substitutions, such an inner light is astonishingly bright--enough to make the envy of the ruddiest talent But even Dostoevski always brings to mind somehow a room in which a lamp burns during the day (Gift, 315-16).

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*This is an expanded version of an essay that originally appeared in Cycnos, vol. 12, no. 2, 1995, pp. 43-54, reprinted here by permission. It is also a condensed version of a chapter from my book-in-progress A Great Unknown: Vladimir Nabokov as a Russian Writer, which will be submitted to Wisconsin University Press in March of 1998. I am grateful to Jeff Edmunds for his encouragement and expert editorial assistance.

1. See: William C. Carroll. "The Cartesian Nightmare of Despair." Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work. Ed. by J. E. Rivers and Charles Nicol. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982, 82-104.

2. Vladimir Nabokov. Despair. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966, 98; cf. the original Russian text in Vladimir Nabokov. Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh. Moskva: Pravda, 1990. T.3. S.386. (Henceforth all references to the above mentioned editions of Despair will be given in brackets, with page numbers of the Russian edition preceded by R.)

3. See: Ellen Pifer. Nabokov and the Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, 102-104; Sergej Davydov. "Dostoevsky and Nabokov: The Morality of Structure in Crime and Punishment and Despair." Dostoevsky Studies 3 (1982), 157-70; Julian W. Connolly. "The Function of Literary Allusion in Nabokov's Despair." Slavic and East European Journal 26, no. 3 (1982), 310; Julian W. Connolly. "Dostoevski and Vladimir Nabokov: The Case of Despair." Dostoevski and the Human Condition after a Century. Ed. by Alexej Ugrinsky, Frank Lambasa and Valija Ozolins. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986, 155-62; John Burt Foster, Jr. Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1993, 91-109.

4. On the main changes made in the English translation see: Proffer, Carl R. "From Otchaianie to Despair." Slavic Review 27, No. 2 (1968), 258-67; Grayson, Jane. Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov's Russian and English Prose. Oxford University Press, 1977, 59-82.

5. See: "...that's from old Dusty's great book, Crime and Slime" (187); "Farewell, Turgy! Farewell, Dusty" (190); "...I felt all the Dusty-and-Dusky charm of hysterics..." (198). Cf. a similar pun in Nabokov's lecture on The Brothers Karamazov: "Dusky paths lead the reader away into a murky world of cold reasoning abandoned by the spirit of art" (Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, 135).

6. Cf. Hermann's advertising his book for German readers who, as he puts it, would "relish the skittish side of a semi-Slavonic soul" (169) -- a hint at the infatuation of some German intellectuals (among others, Stefan Zweig, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann) with Dostoevsky and problems of the Russian Soul in the early 1920's.

7. Julian W. Connolly. Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 157. As Connolly and several other scholars have shown, in the original version these "watermarks" include two cases when the name and pseudonym of Nabokov-Sirin is encoded into the very texture of Hermann's narration: "malinovoi siren'iu v naboko i v aze" (R 351) and "svernuv s bul'vara na bokovuiu ulitsu" (R 373). There are many more similar plays upon "siren" and "sirenevyi" (lilac) as well as "bok" (side) throughout the text; in addition, Nabokov's pen-name is anagrammatized in a number of marked places. Thus Christina Formann, the name of the woman Hermann for some reason recalls in Tarnitz (R 372) , contains the signature of the author: "roman Sirina" (Sirin's novel); a variation of this anagram is a nonexistent name of a painkiller "salipirin" that can be deciphered as "pisal Sirin" [written by Sirin -- R .400]). Nabokov uses the same technique for such key words of the novel as "palka" (stick), "avtor" (author), and "son" (dream) whose phonic "doubles" and anagrams remain unnoticed by the narrator.

8. Cf. Nabokov's gibe in the introduction to Despair: "...I do know French and shall be interested to see if anyone calls my Hermann "the father of existentialism" (9).

9. The poet Iury Terapiano remarks in his memoir that the Parisian literati knew that Adamovich did not like Dostoevsky, and quotes Adamovich’s public statements: "Actually, Dostoevsky is just an episode in both Russian and the world literature," or "Dostoevsky can shock and overwhelm us when we are twenty years old." (Iury Terapiano. Literaturnaia zhizn' russkogo Parizha za polveka. Paris; New York, 1987, 166).

10. Georgii Adamovich. "Sumerki Dostoevskogo." Poslednie novosti, 1936, September 17.

11. Adamovich's metaphors derive from Viacheslav Ivanov's influential essay "Dostoevsky and The Novel-Tragedy," which defined Dostoevsky as a "man with a torch in his hand" hunting "in the darkness of souls" and who therefore "does not need the overall lighting of the material world" (Viacheslav Ivanov. Borozdy i mezhi. Opyty esteticheskie i kriticheskie. Moskva, 1916, 30-31).

12 .See, for example, his remark about Despair and Camera Obscura: "The surface of the novels seems to be polished." (Adamovich, Georgii. "Sovremennye zapiski, kniga 56. Chast' literaturnaia." Poslednie novosti. 1934, November 8. Cf. also Georgii Ivanov's odious attack of Nabokov in Chisla, which defines his art as "literature polished so much that it glitters" (Georgii Ivanov. Sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh. Tom 3. Moskva, 1994, 523).

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