'Lords and Owners': Nabokov's Sequestered Imagination*
by William Monroe

We are told that both the self and the literary work are imprisoned constructs whose cognitive and imaginative functions are delimited by relations of power. Delimited, yes, the alienistic resister might say, but not defined, not articulated, not yet performed. Nabokov experienced firsthand the oppression of institutional power and control, both statist and capitalist.1 He knew well that revolutions tend to produce campaigns that are monistic and relentlessly thorough. Régimes both nouveaux and anciens are alike in this: they take no prisoners. Or rather, they take only prisoners, for encompassing systems make the entire world a vast confinement.

Nabokov's reaction to the authoritarian control of language, like his personal response to the totalitarian control of the Red Army and the Leninists, was that of the underground rebel. His career made him a respected member of the establishment, but through his fiction he led the double life of a resister. Like Eliot, Nabokov was influenced by the syncretic mysticism and theosophy that swept through Europe in the late nineteenth century.2 Though he was no fan of Eliot,3 he too was influenced early by Symbolist strategies and remained sympathetic to their renunciation of utilitarian agendas.4 Forced by circumstance to become a "Smyrna merchant" of the imagination, Nabokov's alienistic artifices are tricky, "sparkling," and subtle. Never attracted by asceticism or apocalyptic strategies, Nabokov practices a strategy of smiling alienation: he does not allow ascesis or transgression to overburden his performances, preferring to leaven them with magic, invention, and transcendent design.

Nabokov's "Non Servium," then, is not so much openly defiant as savvy and circumspect. It is pragmatic in its dogged impracticality: to avoid defeat by the world's gross machinations, Nabokov departs from the agora of politics and secretly aligns with the aesthetic underground. In "Good Readers and Good Writers" he presses his claim that the artist is not a product of economic and political forces, but is a powerful "magician," "enchanter," and "inventor"--claims reminiscent of Simon the Magus.5 Elsewhere Nabokov celebrates the apolitical, ahistorical "gleam" of true creativity as part of his lifelong effort to resist the gloomy news that art and artist are entrapped by the encompassing political world. "There is nothing dictators hate," Nabokov says in "The Art of Literature and Common Sense," "so much as that unassailable, eternally elusive, eternally provoking gleam. One of the main reasons why the very gallant Russian poet Gumilev was put to death by Lenin's ruffians thirty odd years ago was that during the whole ordeal, in the prosecutor's dim office, in the torture house, in the winding corridors that led to the truck, in the truck that took him to the place of execution, and at that place itself, full of the shuffling feet of the clumsy and gloomy shooting squad, the poet kept smiling."6 By telling this story Nabokov suggests that writers and texts are not wholly inscribed within culture; the realm of art need not be a manifestation of institutional patterns of control and containment. Pale Fire is probably Nabokov's most ludic and liberated Gumilevian performance: a hare's nest of formal patterns, mock-scholarly apparatus, and shifting motives, Pale Fire is a cryptic, secretive text designed to disrupt and confound totalizing systems. It is a provocative gauntlet thrown down before systemizers of every stripe, an aesthetic performance put on with smiling fierceness.7

Nabokov specifically addresses the reductionist tendency of theory in the character of Charles Kinbote--literary critic, disenchanted intellectual, self-proclaimed political exile. Kinbote is Nabokov's parasitic processor of literary materials, criticism's answer to the Cuisinart. The appetitive and mechanical Kinbote has written an introduction and an extensive index to the lines of a poem ("Pale Fire") by the late John Shade. Kinbote reads into the poem his own preoccupations and disappointments, both personal and political, reducing Shade's poem to a gloss on the political affairs of Zembla, a "distant, northern land." A monarchist rather than a Marxist, Kinbote imagines himself to be King Charles of Zembla, who has been deposed by revolutionary forces and has barely escaped with his life. Gradus, a menacing fabrication of Kinbote's solipsistic, paranoid, and probably psychotic imagination, is hunting for the escaped King Charles in order to assassinate him. Such are the broad outlines of the "plot." But as readers we do not know, as Peter Rabinowitz says, whether we are supposed to believe that both Shade and Kinbote exist, whether one has invented the other, or whether a man named Botkin has invented them both.8 We also do not know whether we are supposed to believe that Shade is a famous poet, whether Zembla is a real country (within the fiction), or whether Shade, or anyone, is actually shot and killed at the end of the "Commentary." The novel's unusual combination of modes of discourse--a foreword, commentary, and index all enveloping a poem--makes Pale Fire an exercise in frame analysis and, for many readers, a hilariously complex aesthetic game.

Almost all commentators agree on the novel's complexity, but from the beginning there have also been persistent claims for Pale Fire's morality and human significance, most notably from Mary McCarthy:

this centaur-work of Nabokov, half poem, half prose, this merman of the deep, is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the very great works of art of this century . . . .9
But the "moral truth" of Pale Fire remains artfully disguised, and we can only agree with Page Stegner that it would have been instructive if McCarthy had taken just a few sentences to expound the novel's human significance and ethical implications.10 Germane to my purpose is the fact that the novel raises questions--finally ethical questions--about the adequacy of any critique that confidently explains and systematically predicts the collaboration between text and culture. It is as if Nabokov set out, thirty years before the current critical fashion, to provide a text so aesthetically pure that it could not be reduced to an ideological product of extraliterary forces. Nabokov's declaration of independence from culture's containments, from power politics and institutional control, is part of his aesthetic strategy. Nominally discussing chess problems in his autobiographical Speak, Memory, Nabokov says, "Deceit, to the point of diabolism, and originality, verging on the grotesque, were my notions of strategy."11 Deceit and originality mark his artistic games as well and, to my mind, allow him to successfully free the artistic performance from the quotidian world. I am convinced that Pale Fire, like much of Gertrude Stein's work, offers us an alienistic performance of those virtues proper to the aesthetic imagination while at the same time daring and taunting materialist theories and their would-be reductions.

[ page one | page two | page three ]
[ page four | page five ]


*From Power to Hurt: The Virtues of Alienation. © Copyright 1998 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press. Portions of this essay are revised from "The Sequestered Imagination: Nabokov versus the Materialists," Philological Quarterly 70:3 (1991): 379-94.

1. Vladimir E. Alexandrov notes that Nabokov's life was "brushed by the worst horrors of the twentieth century. Nabokov and his family had to escape from the Bolsheviks in Russia, his father was murdered in Berlin by political assassins, one of his brothers perished in a Nazi concentration camp, and Nabokov and his wife (who is Jewish) risked the same by staying in Germany until 1937." In Vladimir E. Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 53.

2. Alexandrov, p. 228.

3. John Burt Foster describes how Nabokov "reworks three words from Four Quartets so as to undermine Eliot's depersonalized, mythico-symbolic version of modernism" in "Nabokov and Proust," The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Vladimir E. Alexandrov (New York: Garland, 1995), p. 479.

4. Brian Boyd documents Nabokov's fascination with Alexander Blok (1880-1921), the greatest of the Russian Symbolist poets. Nabokov was particularly sympathetic to several Symbolist strategies: a turning away from nineteenth-century positivism and civic-mindedness; the placement of the individual before society; the independence of art; and the capacity of art to evoke "a higher reality beyond the sensual world." According to Boyd, Nabokov was particularly drawn to the aesthetic refinements of Symbolism: "the increasing richness and subtlety of mental association, the greater acuteness and diversity of the senses and the emotions, the readiness to seek other architectures than logic, proportion, classical meter." See Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 93.

5. Vladimir Nabokov, "Good Readers and Good Writers," Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, (New York: Harcourt, 1980), pp. 5-6.

6. Vladimir Nabokov, "The Art of Literature and Common Sense," Lectures on Literature, pp. 377-78.

7. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: Berkley, 1962). Nabokov challenges anti-volitional materialisms wherever he finds them. Freud and Marx, for example, are favorite targets of his fictional and non-fictional barbs.

8. Peter Rabinowitz, "Truth in Fiction: A Reexamination of Audiences," Critical Inquiry, 4 (1977), p. 137.

9. Mary McCarthy,"A Bolt from the Blue," New Republic (11 June 1962), p. 27.

10. Page Stegner, Escape Into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Dial, 1966), p. 134.

11.Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Putnam's, 1966), p. 289.

[ page one | page two | page three ]
[ page four | page five ]

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.