NABOKV-L post 0015459, Tue, 4 Sep 2007 18:44:31 +0100

Re: [TRANS NAB] The subject of the sentence and animate objects
Hi Jansy,

Thanks very much for the questions. My answers are below...

1. What is a "portal" in literature?

Yes, I do want to use a wider definition of a portal than that suggested by
its purely sci-fi associations. As far as I'm aware there is no existing
literary definition, but I'm picking up not only on the sci-fi/fantasy idea
of an object that transports you somewhere (Pullman's knife, J K Rowling's
portkeys are both recent examples of this traditional use - other examples
are Jack's beanstalk, Alice's rabbit-hole/mirror, and of course the painting
in _Glory_) but also on more recent uses of the term in internet/gaming
contexts. A portal is any object that transports someone - a character or
perhaps the reader - to other realms, either within the fiction or outside
the fiction. Within the worlds of Nabokov's fictions, portals allow
magical-realist time transitions such as Fyodor's from winter in Berlin to
the Russia of his childhood and back again (the trees on the pavement), or
the "sinking into the history of" the pencil at the beginning of
_Transparent Things_. These portals are akin to Proust's madeleine. There
are also portals which are not temporal but spatial or metaphysical, as in
_Glory_. Many of Nabokov's protagonists encounter a portal at the end of the
novel: Luzhin's bathroom window is one; another example is the puddle in
_Bend Sinister_, which Nabokov describes in his Foreword as "a rent in his
[Krug's] world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and

Clearly, widening the definition of the portal from the sci-fi context
suggests that the text itself can and often does function as a portal for
its reader - and this spatialisation of the relationship between reader and
fiction is one of my interests in making these links.

2. Are Nabokov's objects indeed "animate" and if so who animates them?

There are two kinds of object I am calling "animate" in Nabokov's work, the
fetish and the portal. Fetishes, as Freud and Marx both suggest in their
definitions, are animated by those who believe in and use them. The
fetishist uses the object to mask or to subsume relationships between
people, and the objects thus become animate (i.e. in the mind of the
fetishist - whom Freud imagines as a lone individual, unlike Marx, who sees
people under capitalism as colluding in the fetishisation of consumer
goods). As for the portal, Proust leads up to the madeleine with an explicit
discussion of animism, and the idea that objects can somehow contain the
life of the past. Although this isn't quite how all of Nabokov's portals
work (some do), some of the same assumptions come into play - the portal can
be seen as the surface (two- or three-dimensional) of the realm it leads to
- and thus contains.

When the text is considered in the guise of fetish or portal, the reader is
implicated in this "animating" process - ascribing various kinds of life to
the text. Of course, these ways of reading are so common that it's almost
intuitive to think of the text as an animate object - or, perhaps, one in
suspended animation until we interpret it. But the dangers, in Nabokov's
world, of animate objects, despite their attractions, may make us
dissatisfied with some of these readings.

3. How do fetish and portal "over-determine the world, leaving no room for
the true quiddity of things or people"?

I've suggested above some of what I mean by this: both worldviews, as acts
of interpretation which animate objects, are ways of allowing objects to
stand in for, or elide, people and the relationships between them. Both
fetish and portal are superficially attractive - many of the beautiful
things about Nabokov's style are related to them, and the magical objects in
his worlds contribute to our sense of wonder and excitement when we're
reading his novels. But the characters who are most invested in seeing the
world in those terms are the characters who are most disconnected from human
relationships: nasty or disturbed or both. Humbert's fetishisation of the
objects surrounding Lolita is an integral part of what allows him to treat
her the way he does: he attributes her life to things (in phrases like "her
beautiful young bicycle") and tries to negotiate their relationship in terms
of material objects, in a combination of Marxist and Freudian fetishisms.
Luzhin's understanding of the material world as the visible, tangible
surface of another realm is what causes his death - and whether or not he's
right, he has irrevocably left the building.

As readers, we risk the same problems in fetishising the text or in making a
portal of it - we can allow it to stand in for human issues in a fetishistic
economy (this is the kind of reading John Ray sets up in _Lolita_, where the
text becomes a status-object circulating among men) or we can attempt to
move through it to what it "really" signifies. Perhaps both kinds of
interpretation are necessary or desirable, to some extent, but I think
Nabokov suggests their pitfalls at the beginning of _Transparent Things_,
when his narrator warns that "the inexperienced miracle-worker will find
himself... descending upright among staring fish" and later complains that
"the solid pencil... still somehow eludes us!" That is, move through an
object/text, treat it as animate, and you might: fail to enjoy yourself;
drown; miss the reality.



On 30/8/07 18:14, "jansymello" <jansy@AETERN.US> wrote:

> Emily Collins sent us her abstract about "Nabokov's animate objects" where
> she wrote: "Both fetish and portal are problematic: they tend to
> over-determine the world, leaving no room for the true quiddity of things or
> people".
> I selected the sentence quoted above as a representative of what surprised me
> in her text.
> In the first place, what is "a portal" in literature? ( EC defined it as: "an
> object which magically transports someone to a different realm", but this
> seems to stamp it as something operative outside games and sci-fi unlike, say,
> Pullman's "Subtle Knife" for those that read about it in his novel.);
> 2. Who animates Nabokov's objects, or are they indeed "animate"? ;
> 3. How do fetish and portal over-determine the world... leave no room...etc?
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