Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004777, Fri, 18 Feb 2000 08:19:37 -0800

Otherworldly homophobia in Pale Fire; ordering VN's works (fwd)
------------------ I am enjoying both debates on this marvelously elusive
text. I find Robert Myers' recent response especially interesting: it
speculates that Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada can be seen as a series of
narrative experiments with "perverted" narrators (my quotation marks).

Are there other sets to be found in the works? Despair and RLSK as
variations on the Doppelganger theme? Transparent Things and LATH as
self-reflexive autobiographies? Are VN's works each too original and
autonomous to be designed in dialogue with another? Or does his penchant
for literary allusion and allusion to his own works and his own persona(e)
indicate that these individual works may be part of a larger plan?

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
Associate Professor of English
Holy Cross College

<<< Donald Barton Johnson <chtodel@humanitas.ucsb.edu> 2/17 4:02p >>>
> ------------------------------------
>Nabokov's treatment of gay characters may, in
> some of his works, fall
> short of today's "political correctness" (something, in my view,
> irrelevant to artistic merit).

I agree with Donald Johnson that holding an author of a previous era up to
today's standards of "political correctness" is irrelevant to artistic
merit. I don't even want to hold authors of our own era up to such
standards. But what is relevant is that Nabokov wrote three of his most
significant English novels about narrators who grapple with their own
transgressions of major cultural taboos: pedophilia, homosexuality, and
incest. And much of the ingenuity of those novels comes from the ways in
which those narrators deal with their own guilt. How they admit it, deny
it, subvert it, transform it, etc., through art. And the interesting
question is whether it matters that one of those taboos (homosexuality) has
dissolved, more or less, in the context of the present attitudes toward it.
Does this have any effect on the text?

I think the lack of a taboo does have an effect. Much of the incredible
disorientation and ambiguity of a book like Lolita rests on the fact that
the reader considers having sex with 12-year-olds to be wrong. If we could
argue this question convincingly, as Humbert tries to do, I think the
meaning of Lolita would be drastically altered. By the same token it
seems--from all the contrasts between Shade and Kinbote, the relationship
with Disa, and especially the inverted acceptance of homosexuality in
Zembla--that something within Pale Fire is trying to rest on the idea that
homosexuality is wrong. When this fact can be questioned convincingly, I
think Pale Fire is drastically altered. And I don't just find this
interesting because it shows Nabokov, a generally wonderful fellow by most
accounts, to be fallible. It's interesting because it calls into question
the presumptions behind using aberrant narrators to probe the relationship
between art and morality. One would hope that readers in the next few
centuries will not read Lolita and find it prudish or "politically
incorrect". But Nabokov chose an aberrant narrator for Pale Fire who is no
longer aberrant, and something unravels as a result.

Robert Myers