Nabokov's Poetics of Vision, or, What Anna Karenina is Doing in Kamera obskura
by Thomas Seifrid

"A mysl' liubit zanavesku i kameru obskuru."
Dar (383)

"But thought likes curtains and the camera obscura."
The Gift (338)


Unlike Dostoevsky (“old Dusty,” with his “dusty-and-dusky” ways, as the hero of Despair puts it), Tolstoy typically comes in for high praise in Nabokov's remarks on his Russian predecessors.1 One early work in particular (Kamera obskura, 1933; Laughter in the Dark, 1938/1965) dwells on Tolstoy with a concentration that might induce us to wonder about the nature of the Tolstoyan influence on Nabokov's early fiction—and thus also, in a broader context, of the reception of Russia's nineteenth-century fiction by the modernist emigration. With Kamera obskura something much more central to Nabokov's poetics is involved than is usually the case in his prolifically allusive works, and this essay is an attempt to speculate on what that something might be.2

The most prominent Tolstoyan references in this novel point to Anna Karenina and do so in a way which suggests not a casual lifting of motifs but the adaptation of a complete apparatus of intentions and meanings.3 As if the obvious borrowing of plot (“adultery leading to death”) were not enough, the novel contains a character named “Dorianna Karenina,” who moreover is asked point-blank by another (Gorn) whether she has ever read Tolstoy (thus incidentally pairing the two authors George Bernard Shaw once proposed as ideal players for a wicked game he called “purgatory mates”). The strange figure wearing dark glasses and smashing rocks whom Kretschmar and Magda see beside the road before their fateful accident is the descendant of the strange, bent-over peasant hammering iron who haunts the dreams of Anna and Vronsky (Nabokov's narrator notes the “knocking and ringing noise”—“zvon i stuk”—his hammering makes, just as Anna hears the clang of iron in her dream). Just before their respective catastrophes, both Anna and Kretschmar identically see their lives as if illuminated by a bright light;4 and so forth, grading into possible if less obvious indices: Anna and Magda both pose for artists, with similar suggestions of immorality; the red pillow that, peeking out from behind a curtain, so frightens and excites Kretschmar after Magda's romp through his apartment (he thinks it is the hem of her dress, sweats through dinner with his family terrified of being found out, at last trades anxiety for sinful expectation—only to discover his mistake) may derive from Anna's red purse—a seemingly trivial object on which Nabokov nonetheless dwelt years later in his lectures on Tolstoy and which he made the answer to a famously arcane exam question.

The blind man, the harsh light, the deceitful red pillow: all point up what I believe forms the central Tolstoyan presence in Kamera obskura, namely an exploration of the nature of vision, its relation to truth, its linked roles in art and morality. Indeed, in one of his later lectures on Anna Karenina one of the points Nabokov is most insistent about is that the novel is a pattern of images rather than ideas (Lectures on Russian Literature 166).

Tolstoy himself is a profoundly visual author, not only in the sense that his works contain famously vivid descriptions and episodes in which experiences of seeing prove crucial to his characters' development, but also in the deeper, epistemological sense of manifesting an attitude that could be called “visual absolutism”: Tolstoy everywhere subscribes to the belief—one with a long lineage in European thought, though by no means an inevitable component of human culture—that only if something is seen clearly can it be known, and to the still more powerful converse that seeing is constitutive of the truth.

Most fictional prose is implicity visual; but in Tolstoy's case the manner of seeing is imperatively, if subtly, bound up with the way his texts seek to discover meaning in the world. A typical example, made famous by Shklovskii's inclusion of it in “Iskusstvo, kak priem” (“Art as Device”), is the diary entry of 1 March 1897 in which Tolstoy describes himself dusting his room. He approaches the divan and cannot remember whether he dusted it or not. This quotidian lapse of memory then inspires the striking claim that consciousness and even life itself are wholly dependent on seeing:

Tak chto, esli ia obtiral i zabyl eto, t.e. deistvoval bessoznatel’no, to eto vse ravno, kak ne bylo. Esli by kto soznatel’nyi videl, to mozhno bylo vosstanovit’. Esli zhe nikto ne vidal, ili videl, no bessoznatel’no; esli tselaia slozhnaia zhizn’ mnogikh proiskhodit bessoznatel’no, to eta zhizn’ kak by ne byla.

[So that if I had dusted and forgotten that I had done so, i.e., acted unconciously, then it would be as if I had not dusted at all. If somebody conscious saw it, then one could recover [the event]. But if no one saw it, or saw it unconsciously; if entire complex lives of many people pass by unconsciously, then it is as if those lives did not happen at all. (53: 141-2; emphasis added).]5

Thus only if something is seen can it exist, but for Tolstoy it is also the essential nature of truth to be hidden from, then revealed to, the eyes.

Tolstoy's fiction is every bit as insistent in its reliance on vision as the mode through which to comprehend human experience. The examples of this proclivity in his works are many, but to prepare the way for Nabokov I will concentrate on how it reveals itself in Anna Karenina.6

The novel's visual bent has been noted before (especially by Amy Mandelker, who aptly speaks of the novel's “emphasis on the visual as the venue for knowledge” 8); but the specific kind of viewing involved perhaps has not adequately been defined. Mandelker argues that something akin to the visual properties of the Russian icon informs the novel, but a closer reading in fact suggests that Tolstoy remains obstinately committed to an opposite mode of seeing: the post-Renaissance paradigm of direct perspective, with its solitary eye gazing on the world through a window, frame, or aperture. Because its implicit structure closely resembles the Enlightenment-era device Locke so influentially promoted as a metaphor for mind (and, I should admit, because it works so well with Nabokov's title), one could call this paradigm the camera obscura.

In Anna Karenina this way of seeing finds striking expression and, anticipating Nabokov, intersects the realm of art (reading, but also latently writing), in a pivotal scene that portrays Anna's true—inner—seduction by the idea of Vronsky. Preparing to journey home to St. Petersburg after the Moscow visit in which she meets him, Anna enters her train compartment, asks her servant for her reading lamp—in Russian “fonarik”—and in the compartment's murky “half-light” (“v polusvete”) fitfully attempts to settle down and read an English novel. With her light trained on the pages of the book, into whose world she may be said to peer as through an aperture, Anna has composed herself for the quintessential Tolstoyan visual experience, governed by the optics of the camera obscura (as Mandelker notes, the novel becomes a “frame onto a textual world, illuminated by her candle”). Despite some initial tension between the fictional world and real life, the two quickly merge in Anna's mind as she falls under the spell of seduction. She projects herself into the novel (“she wanted to do it herself,” is the refrain appended to each of the novelistic events she reviews), and this little theater of fictional life displayed before her mind's eye prompts a parallel review of events from her own ("She reviewed all her Moscow memories”— “Ona perebrala vse svoi moskovskie vospominaniia,” 18: 107). The “half-light” of the compartment soon fills with images from her own life and from the novel, and by the time thoughts of Vronsky take over her mind the two streams have blended into one— “all the images and sounds in this wavering halflight struck her with exceptional clarity” (“vse obrazy i zvuki v etom kolebliushchemsia polumrake s neobychainoiu iarkost’iu porazhaiut ee,” 18: 107). The compartment in which Anna sits pondering recent events (which also, incidentally, comes equipped with a very screen-like window) and the book she holds before her eyes turn out to be but large- and small-scale versions of the same theater of vision: a literal darkroom whose architectonics of sight is as important for Tolstoy as is its indisputable evocation of Plato's cave (see also Mandelker 132-3). The scene thus turns out to be a richly redundant mis-en-abîme of a sort that Nabokov might very well have noticed.7

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Notes

1. Consider, at the very least, the opening remark of Nabokov's lecture on Anna Karenina: “Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction”; Lectures on Russian Literature 137.

2. This article deals with the novel's original, Russian version, in which the characters' names differ from those Nabokov used in the later English version, Laughter in the Dark. For the sake of readers more familiar with that work, the more important correspondences are as follows (Russian/English): Kretschmar/Albinus, Magda/Margot, Robert Gorn/Axel Rex, Anneliza/Elizabeth, Maks/Paul. All references to English versions of Nabokov's works in this article are to the Vintage International editions.

3. G. M. Hyde (ch. 3, “Laughter in the Dark: or, who killed Lev Tolstoy?”) suggests the Tolstoyan target text is the later story “The Devil” (“D'iavol,” 1889). While I would still argue for the preeminence of Anna Karenina, some clues suggest Nabokov also had this work in mind. Most significant is the story's linking of nearsightedness and moral failing; but also—and this is not noted by Hyde, who seems to have relied exlusively on the English version of Nabokov's novel—the protagonist's wife is named “Liza Annenskaia,” which surely suggests the Anneliza of Kamera obskura.

4. This parallel, in fact, reveals some of the most explicit verbal evidence for the novel's borrowings from Tolstoy. Nabokov's phrase is: “Krechmar perebiral vse, chto proizoshlo; vse melochi, i sredi nikh vspominalis’ emu takie, kotorye teper’ osveshcheny byli tem zhe mertvennym svetom, kakim nynche katastroficheski ozarilas’ zhizn’” (157). This telescopes and quotes verbatim bits of two key Tolstoyan passages: “Ona perebrala vse svoi moskovskie vospominaniia,” (18: 107) and “i svecha, pri kotoroi ona chitala ispolnennuiu trevog, obmanov, goria i zla knigu, vspykhnula bolee iarkim, chem kogda-nibud’, svetom, osvetilo ei vse to, chto prezhde bylo vo mrake, zatreshchala, stala merknut’ i navsegda potukhla.” (19: 349); emphasis added.

5. Shklovskii actually gives the diary entry as “29 February,” a date whose fictitiousness was apparently intended to drive home his point about automatized perception. My thanks to Michael Wachtel for removing this bit of wool from my eyes.

6. On Tolstoy's visualism, see also my “Tolstoy's Theater of Vision,” from which these remarks have been excerpted (in submission).

7. In his lecture on the novel Nabokov quotes this passage at significant length; Lectures on Russian Literature 155-9.

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