Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000076, Mon, 16 Aug 1993 15:52:13 -0700

Rampton review
Dear Nabokov Subscriber:
I have just finished reading David Rampton's new Nabokov book and
jotted down a few thoughts about it. I hope you find it useful,
Don Johnson

David Rampton. Vladimir Nabokov. New York: St. Martin's, 1993. 143p.
ISBN 0-312-09629-1, $29.95

David Rampton (University of Ottawa), author of the well-received
Vladimir Nabokov : A Critical Study of the Novels offers a survey
volume in St. Martin's "Modern Novelists" series. Intended as an
introduction, his work is restricted by the series format to Nabokov's
novels--leaving aside the poetry, stories, plays, translations, criti-
cal writings, and (auto-)biography. King, Queen, Knave, Pnin, and
Transparent Things have also been omitted for lack of space. Within
these formidable constraints Rampton has done a fine job in providing
concise, sophisticated critiques of the novels. Especially attractive
is the chapter groupings into Bildungsromans (Mary, Glory, & The
Gift); novels of obsession (The Defense, The Eye, Laughter in the
Dark, and Despair); the modernist (Invitation to a Beheading, The Real
Life of Sebastian Knight, & Bend Sinister); and "metafictions (Pale
Fire, Ada, & LATH!)." Lolita receives its own chapter. Rampton, an
erudite and eclectic critic, makes use of a variety of theoretical
frameworks depending in part on the category of novel under examina-
tion: biographical for the Bildungsromane; (mildly) Freudian for the
psychological; formalist for the experimental modernist works; "ethi-
cal" for Lo; and deconstructionist for the postmodern metafictions. To
call these orientations "frameworks" is something of an overstatement,
for Rampton, far from being bound (or "overdetermined" as we say now)
by any of these, simply draws on whatever insights they offer. Several
recent Nabokov studies have focussed on the otherworldly. It is good
to have one from a more general perspective.
Many of the novel treatments are very good---Sebastian Knight and
The Eye, to mention just two. Oddly, because Rampton has previously
written extremely well on certain aspects of The Gift, the present
examination seems below the general overall level of excellence--
possibly due to the novel's formidable substratum of Russian literary
culture. Several of the book's few lapses fall in this area. On page
one, we are told that "novels by Adamovich, Aldanovs, and Gazdanov"
are still available. Critic and poet Adamovich never wrote a novel.
Elsewhere we read in passing of the late works of Nadson. Nadson,
alas, died at 25 (123).
Felicities far outweigh such minor gaffes, however. Rampton is one
of the few critics consistently to remind readers that Nabokov was,
inter alia, a comic writer. Also to be remarked are occasional charm-
ing apercus such as the observation that Alfred Kinsey (also) began
his career as a gifted entomologist (wasps) [88]; or that the gesture
of Cincinnatus' midwife mother when she seems to indicate the size of
a newborn infant by holding apart her index fingers echos the cell
grafitto "Smer'te do smerti--potom budet pozno" (Measure me while I
live--after it will be too late) [62].
Nabokov is a major figure, and this is the ninth such series sur-
vey that I find on my shelf. Most are simply entitled Vladimir
Nabokov. The first was Julian Moynahan's graceful 1971 pamphlet.
Donald Morton's 1974 attempt was quickly supplanted by L.L. Lee's
serviceable 1976 Twayne volume. G.M. Hyde's Vladimir Nabokov:
America's Russian Novelist (1977) was a full-fledged critical study
that was (for its time) especially strong in seeing Nabokov's Russian
roots.) Charles Ross's pamphlet of 1985 was basically a reference
guide. Two more recent works include Leszek Engelking's 1989 Polish
survey, and Tony Sharpe's ill-informed 1991 examination of some of the
English novels. Rampton's nearest competitor is Stephen Jan Parker's
1987 Understanding Vladimir Nabokov. While Parker's much shorter
volume better meets the needs of the "general reader," sophisticated
users will find Rampton's work superior.
Rampton writes very well on the whole, although a few badly clotted
sentences arise from his valiant attempt to get as much as possible into
his allotted space. See, for example, the sentence starting the second
paragraph on page 1, and the epic sentence on pages 104-105. This
"survey," although assertedly designed for the non-specialists, contains
much of interest for many subscribers toNABOKV-L. One of its strongest
features is the bibliography. Rampton notes that there are over a thousand
publications dealing with Nabokov. His list of circa forty books (current
through 1991) and a handful of article provides a convenient core. It does
not include Julian Connolly's 1992 Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of
Self and Other or John Burt Foster's Nabokov's Art of Memory and European
Mod- ernism (1993). On the other hand, it lists Michael Wood's Vladimir
Nabokov (London: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1988) which doesn't show up
in any catalogue that I have seen.
I would strongly recommend this brief study to literature special-
ists who have read a couple of the novels and want a perceptive over- view
of Nabokov's novelistic oeuvre. Any reader will find much of interest.

D. Barton Johnson