Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0017205, Tue, 21 Oct 2008 13:28:47 -0700

Re: THOUGHTS, if you can call them that (on misspellings,
accent marks, narcissism, metaphors)

J.A to JM.: I disagree. And while I know Nabokov would vociferously disagree with me I think it's almost impossible not to see the sexuality of Kinbote as pretty much a conceit. Everything from how Kinbote picks up those boys to what exactly he does with them is vague, a vagueness Nabokov tries to cover over with bluster. Perhaps I should have said thematic rather than symbolic, that Kinbote's sexuality is an extension of the solipsism that fuels the entire contraption of the novel, and that there is no sensuous expressive reality to Kinbote's attraction to men (it's not even clear over the course of the novel whether he likes smooth effeminate little boys with curly lashes--when Nabokov has Kinbote describe those he likes in close up--or rugged masculine types--the various "tricks" and affairs which are merely brought up and quickly dispensed with). Because Kinbote's "condition" is basically dramatized as a giggly joke soaked in abstract academicality
the effect in my opinion is to have the character's libido simply stand in for solipsism. Personally I think this weakens a book that is already so much of a stunt in terms of its structure that it doesn't need a cloudy "Freudian reek" to quote another Nabokov novel at the center of it, turning the book into a kind of racy word jumble. Lolita also had this symbolic use of sexuality with the same thematic meaning, but he dramatized all its implications (there are other structural reasons I think Pale Fire is also a back-(word) step in Nabokov's development, but I won't go into that here).   

JM: I'm still confused by what you call "symbolic homosexuality". Are you isolating homosexual practices from homosexuality proper? Not every homosexual practices homosexual sex, of course, but this doesn't turn him into a "symbolic homosexual" - unless you mean literary allusions to solipsism or narcisism.
J.A.: I thought I was fairly clear in the above. I suspose you could possibly argue that all  homosexuals don't "indulge" in homosexual practices, but Kinbote does. My point was that while we know exactly what goes on between Humbert and his little girl, Nabokov is much more circumspect in his description of Kinbote. The reason I said symbolic of narcism is because in old psychological terms a theory suggested that a man's loving a man was a form of self love. As I happen to believe that's "nun's nonsense" it seems to me, because Nabokov is not too precise about Kinbote's "sinful" longings and practices, that the gay aspect of the character is an abstraction. This is bad because it's a stereotype, and the idea that Kinbote out of self loathing for his homosexualtiy would kill himself, as is suggested in the novel, and declared absolutely by Nabokov in interviews, was corny even back in sixty-four. So, in sum, if Nabokov is not really
interested in exploring the character's sexuality, then what function does said sexuality play? Falling back on the "bl" which I was making fun of, only empasizes my point I think, it's used thematically and for a joke.  Quoting you: a "symbolic use of sexuality with the same  'thematic' meaning" (?). 
Kinbote, as a fictional character, sees the world "homosexually". 
J.A.: But one doesn't "see the world homosexually", that special lens is an abstract stereotyped generality which Nabokov marshal's in service of notions like solipsism and sterility.
Besides, he despises women or is unable to perceive them as such 
J.A.: You have to remember at the time the book was written it was received wisdom that mysogyny and homosexuality were synonymous, a particularly pernicious bit of stereotyping that is beneath an artist of Nabokov's stature, and which makes the fantasy of the book wobble. Not in a deliberate metaliterary way, but in exactly the same sort of ways he criticized authors from the previous century in their uses of Jews and "ideas".
(VN's playfulness with freudian "reeks" seems to have made Kinbote dream "heterosexual dreams", though, as if he could have been a caricature of a repressed heterosexual).
J.A.: I didn't go into that because the meaning of the image of Queen Disa is perhaps the most amusing bit of the book. My point through these criticisms was that Nabokov is perfectly able to project his imagination into a child molestor but that it doesn't extend to homosexuals; the dreams Kinbote has about Queen Disa only fan the sense that without a beautiful woman to describe Nabokov couldn't find his bearings artistically, so he throws in the stuff about her to keep himself going and to give the reader an image of the difference between the sterile lust of the character's homosexuality and the possibility of real love in the always out of reach woman--Disa is Nabokov's not Kinbote's repressed heteroxexuality.
Perhaps VN's play with "bl" sounds as in "siblings" comes closer to what you consider this symbolic dimension. I still cannot see how this terminology can clarify literary issues, though. You wrote "the solipsism that fuels the entire contraption of the novel" , referring to Pale Fire and, perhaps, to Lolita - but Humbert's sexuality is a pervert's ( not fully unfolded ie immature): HH is solipsistic, not a homosexual. 
J.A.: My point is that even though Humbert is a pedophile, that Kinbote is gay, and Van is in love with his sister, altogether the books show us the same exact thematic use of eros, which I think sort of flattens out the differences.
I prefer to think, as Alfred Appel Jr. has focused in his "Annotated Lolita", that solipsism ( symbolically and I agree with you here) is a device used as as a theoretical "self-referentiality", a mise-en-abîme kind of style with infinite regress as in D.B.Johnsons' "worlds in regression". Yes, in that sense solipsism "fuels" VN's novels...
J.A.: I don't know about the metaliterary thing. My point was that Lolita is superior to Pale Fire because the use of the sexual material is dramatic, and specific, regardless of whatever meta-literary interests he had, and so Humbert's obsession is fun and compelling, while Pale Fire, in trying to up the ante on originality comes across as a brilliantly written, like Ada, but somewhat strained comedy. All you have is artistic intention; the fun of the book seems to be in trying to figure out what precisely that intention was.

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,nabokv-l@holycross.edu
Visit Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
View Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com

Manage subscription options: http://listserv.ucsb.edu/