MLA 2019 Convention (Chicago) Session: Dreaming with Nabokov
Chair: Dr Thomas Karshan (University of East Anglia, President of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society)
1. Professor Jennifer Sears (New York City College of Technology): ‘Kissing Her Ellipses: Dreams and Narrative Texture in Nabokov’s “Ultima Thule”’
In his 1964 dream experiment, Nabokov investigated whether his dreams revealed a sense of the future within their recasting of the past.1 Curiously, his story “Ultima Thule” and its companion “Solus Rex” offer similar testing ground. Among the last of Nabokov’s Russian writings, their first publication marked radical shifts in Nabokov’s life and language and introduced shifts in artistic style and philosophical preoccupations that anticipated future work. Their English translations in 1973 followed the success of Bend Sinister and Pale Fire, works they helped engender. Their second publication gave Nabokov occasion to observe in his earlier artistic dreams a powerful “underflow” and an “amplitude” of style that indeed contained a sense of future work.2 This paper aims to explore how dreams play an integral role in this “underflow” and “styling” in the story “Ultima Thule” and in the evolution of his “Ultima Thule theme.”3
First, in “Ultima Thule,” the liveliest drama centers on the combative dialogue concerning the “riddle of life” between the grieving widower-artist Sineusov and mathematician-seer-“kvak” Adam Falter; however, the many references to dreams and dreams-within-dreams emerge only in Sineusov’s unanswered appeals to his dead wife. Frustrated that she refuses to haunt him on demand, Sineusov fails to see what the reader can: her new form infusing the surrounding landscape, calling him to an authentic search for truth through his art. While Falter plays games with his knowledge, his wife’s subtler version is available, as uncalculated dreams are, to all. In future work, Nabokov deepens this dreamlike underflow through the similarly layered presence and present non-presence (ellipses) of Dolores Haze and Hazel Shade.
Secondly, shaped as Sineusov’s letter or cry to his wife, the second person narrative introduced in “Ultima Thule” adds a dreamlike intensity to the sentences and transforms the imaginative reader into the recipient of his grief and silent muse, and a character who knows more than he. Through this narrative approach, the reader becomes a participant in Nabokov’s artistic dream. This “amplified” styling is reorganized in longer works including Pale Fire, the ending of Bend Sinister, and even Humbert Humbert’s confessional appeal in Lolita, which turns the reader into juror, priest-like confessor, and even Lolita herself.
As he makes the reader a participant in his art, Nabokov made himself a short-term participant in John Dunne’s dream-based “Experiment with Time” in 1964, long after his initial launch into the dream territory of Ultima Thule, attracted perhaps by the glimmer of Dunne’s like mind haunting from the beyond, like Sineusov’s wife, or by finding a new way of articulating territory he was already investigating, like Sineusov, through his art.
2. Dr Beci Carver (University of Exeter): Unsuspicious Sleepers in Nabokov
Lolita lies lank in a hotel bed while Humbert plots; Margot is sleeping ‘sweetly’ when Rex leaves her in Laughter in the Dark; and in Despair, Felix is sound asleep when Hermann first stumbles upon him and becomes fixated on the illusion of their resemblance. In Nabokov, sleep is often associated with cognitive disadvantage, while being awake can be a weapon or a gift. Nabokov saw his own insomnia as ‘buzzy’ and ‘brilliant’, for all its inconvenience. In this conference paper, I will explore the possibility that Nabokov’s fiction sets out to overturn the Freudian notion of the ‘traum’ as a site of traumatic knowledge, in arguing that sleepers may be oblivious to the point of becoming sitting ducks for whatever harm may be dreamt up by those watching them. Nabokov’s unsuspicious sleepers, through their constitutive naivety, offer an argument for holding onto one’s insomnia.
3. Professor Malynne Sternstein (University of Chicago): Nabokov’s Metempsychogeographies
There must be a reversal possible to the Zemblan proverb, “Happy is the Lost Glove.” Perhaps not a ‘logical’ counter but a potential for finding the source of the reactionary opposition that may have engendered such an adage. Is the glove not lost unhappy? To what extent can such bon mots from the mouth of Charles Kinbote clue us into the affect of Nabokov’s creature when it comes to journey, exile, homelessness? In looking deep into the (apparently) bee line journey of Jakub Gradus to New Wye as described by a character with a marked non-sense of scalar geographies, this presentation assails a question not only of journey but of journey as narrative affect, that is, what can a parsing of the assassin’s progress as it is described by Kinbote—with all its anacruses—tell us about Nabokov’s many psychotopic terrae incognitae and to what extent our gentle author wish us to remain in the illegible (unreadable) topography so that we may dwell ethically in art? In service of investigating this holographic aporia, Joyce’s Ulysses, that work much admired by Nabokov, and which maps of its Dublin Nabokov imagined and remapped over and over again, will be requisitioned for its impact on Nabokov’s formulations of space/time in motion.