Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000643, Wed, 12 Jul 1995 09:41:07 -0700

Nice VN Conference Abstracts: 1995
EDITORIAL NOTE: The Second Nice Conference on Nabokov, "Nabokov, at the
Crossroads of Modernism and Postmodernism," took place on June 22-24, 1995.
Superbly organized and hosted by Professor Maurice Couturier, Director of=
CRELA at the Universite de Nice, and his family and colleagues, the=20
conference was a convivial highlight in Nabokov studies. The papers, the=20
abstracts of which appear below, will be published later this year. (The=20
papers of the first Nice conference appeared in _CYCNOS_, vol.=20
10, 1 (1993) under the title _Nabokov. Autobiography, Biography and Fiction=
=09The abstracts below are, for the most part, those that appeared=20
in the printed program. In some cases, the papers actually presented=20
differed in varying degrees from the descriptions below. In addition to=20
those mentioned here, there were approximately half-a-dozen papers for=20
which no abstracts are available. These will be presented NABOKV-L as they=
become available.
=09Should you wish to contact any of the authors, most ar=20
subscribers to NABOKV-L.

Brian Boyd, University of Auckland: "Words, Works and Worlds in Joyce and
Nabokov Or Intertextuality, Intratextuality, Supratextuality,
Infratextuality, Extra-textuality and Autotextuality in Modernist and
Pre-postmodernist Narrative Discourse."

With the openings of Ulysses and Ada as samples, I compare the
way Joyce and Nabokov relate word and work and world. Although this
involves first identifying a particular allusive source in Ulysses, I take
Ada's intertexts and intratexts as read. I try to test terms like
intertextuality and its offshoots, to assess the usefulness of the
opposition between modernism and postmodernism, and to describe and
distinguish two outstanding twentieth-century novelists. I consider
especially the way both writers explore the relationship between time and
freedom by, among other strategies, challenging a prior Greek text. But the
initial similarity of aims and methods soon collapses under the irreducible
difference even between two writers with so much in common.
Laurent Milesi, University of Wales, Swansea: "Dead on Time? Nabokov's
Modo-Post to the Letter."

How do Nabokov's characters, directly or indirectly, date death?
That is, what conception(s) of temporality and existence are at work in the
mistimings of the Nabokovian protagonists who either mistake the dying
patient of their search (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight), (do not)
commit suicide and watch themselves more dead than alive (The Eye), or
cannot prevent the mistaken murder of their shade (Pale Fire)-to name a few
paradigmatic examples. The aim of this paper is to address the question
whether Nabokov is a postmodern writer by looking at several manifestations
of temporality in his works in the light of Lyotard's modo-post or future
perfect, illustrative of the postmodern condition, and of the (inchoate)
Lacanian theory of temporality, especially his redeployment of Freud's
"deferred action" (Nachtr=E4glichkeit, apr=E8s-coup). But an appointment or
date also conjures up the data littera of its etymology, the letters
given at the beginning of a letter, which Jacques Derrida has taken up with
issues of temporality and existence (cf. Donner le temps), and this paper
will thus also focus on these themes via the joint problematic of letters
which, rather than reaching their "destiny" (cf. the end of Lacan's seminar
on Poe's "Purloined Letter" and Sebastian's last letter "destined
[prednaznachalos] to quite a different person", thus involving problems of
transmission and translation), do not reach their destination (cf.
Derrida's reply to Lacan) in order for the quest and the biofictional
writing to take place. Starting from the literary antecedent of Poe (and
the impact of his treatment of the double on Nabokov), I will therefore
look at the (failed) transmission of (alphabetical and narrative letters
in) Nabokov's writing as biography (Sebastian Knight), as criticism (Pale
Fire), or as a testamentary will have been (The Eye).
Christine Raguet-Bouvart, University of Bordeaux: "Riverrunning
acrostically through 'The Vane Sisters' and 'A.L.P.,' or genealogy on its

In 1951, while composing "The Vane Sisters," Vladimir Nabokov
jotted down these few words on a notebook: "Instead of Alph-use this
somewhere: where A/L/P, the sacred river ran (run)"

In Finnegans Wake, the flow of words carries the body of meaning
on an everlasting circle/cycle, taking the reader in this jetsam of
letterring, whatever course it runs. Interpreting the flow is perhaps not
intended as the first concern of the book, what matters more is its rhythm
and composition. Though he might have been interested in the process,
Nabokov declared on several occasions that he detested Finnegans Wake, "a
formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a
persistent snore in the next room." Thus why did he want to link his story
to Dublin river's? In "The Vane Sisters," Nabokov invites the reader to
observe the narrator's attraction to the rhythmic falling of drops until
these sounds shape into words, themselves shaping into verbal body and
ending the story on an invitation to reread the dream-story from its
beginning in order to make out its meaning along the flow of words
"drip-dripping" from shadowy icicles.

First intended as a genealogical study of the story, this paper
will seek to explain Anna Livia Plurabelle's textual presence in "The Vane

D. Barton Johnson, University of California at Santa Barbara: "Nabokov,=20
Ayn Rand, and Russo-American Literature"

=09Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand (nee Alisa Rozenbaum), born in=20
imperial Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1899 and 1905 respectively, became=20
best-selling American writers in the late 1950s. Their chef-d'oeuvres,=20
_Atlas Shrugged_ (1957) and _Lolita_ (1958) were both both highly=20
controversial novels. Few readers recognized that the two works had their=
origins in polar positions in the Russian literary tradition and that, in=
a sense, both writers took Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 classic _What is=20
to be Done?_ as a central point of reference. Rand continued the tradition=
of the didactic novel of social comment a la Chernyshevsky, while Nabokov=
very explicitly reacted against that tradition. Both writers, however,=20
had more recent antecedents in the Russian cultural scene of the first=20
decades of the XXth century. If the young Nabokov breathed in the recherche=
atmosphere of the Symbolists, Rand apparently grew up with the likes of=20
Anastasiya Verbitskaya (who far outsold Tolstoy) and the "decadents"=20
Leonid Andreev and Mikhail Artsybashev, whose ideological potboilers, such=
as the latter's _Sanin_, titillated the Russian reading public. In spite=
of their manifest differences, neither Nabokov nor Rand were untouched by=
th ideas of Nietzsche whose influence was prominent in both the high=20
Symbolists and, in vulgarized form, among the "decadents." My paper=20
lightly sketches the literary origins and parallel careers of the two=20
Russians, ending in their improbable fates as icons on the current=20
American cultural scene.
Maurice Couturier, University of Nice: "Censorship and the Authorial Figure
in Ulysses and Lolita."

These two great masterpieces of twentieth century literature have
always challenged the critics and compelled them to develop highly
sophisticated though fragmentary discourses-based on such methodological
systems as psychoanalysis, philosophy, narratology, linguistics, and so
forth-but still seem to keep their secret. Our difficulty to place them in
terms of modernity or postmodernity derives from their paradoxical
structures, their over-determination, their poetic language, and also and
perhaps above all from their sexual contents. The censors who passed
judgment upon them all had to answer the same question: can poetic
excellence redeem such sexually explicit and immoral books? They answered
yes or no, depending more on their preferences or prejudices than on legal
arguments, thereby acknowledging their incapacity to take only the text
into consideration. The critics who, on the whole, have tended to overlook
partly or totally the immoral element and to pay homage only to the poetic
quality, have perhaps been similarly guilty of censoring the text. The
unreadability of these two monumental works shows that the authors have
totally managed to solipsize their readers. If one takes into account the
two dimensions, the poetic and the sexual, one suddenly realizes that the
text is the result of a paradoxical meshing of desires and gives rise, in
the reader's mind, to that authorial figure mentioned by Michel Foucault in
his 1969 essay "What is an Author?"
Simon Karlinsky, University of California, Berkeley: "Nabokov and Certain
Poets of Russian Modernism."

In a 1973 article Vladimir Markov postulated a "great
twentieth-century triad" within the Russian poetic tradition: Vladimir
Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, who, for him, were united
by their common derivation from Andrei Bely. Such derivation can be
accepted only with considerable reservations. But this idea points to a
possible connection between these three poets and their younger
contemporary Vladimir Nabokov. What all four have in common has been
described in French as un m=E9taphorisme exacerb=E9 and l'attention consta=
=E0 la facture de la trame verbale. This quality, perceptible in both the
poetry and the prose of the three poets, is to be found only to Nabokov's
fictional prose (in both Russian and English). As a poet, he belongs to an
entirely different school and tradition.

As a critic Nabokov had interesting and at times highly negative
things to say about the three poets. He also wrote clever and, in
Tsvetaeva's case, highly unfair parodies of their poetry. Yet, as a prose
stylist, he clearly belongs to the same "verbalist" trend within the early
twentieth-century Russian literature as do Mayakovsky, Pasternak and

Julian W. Connolly, University of Virginia: "Cicinnatus and Differance:
Subversive Discourse in Invitation to a Beheading."

Written in 1934, Invitation to a Beheading is a novel poised on
the threshold between modernism and postmodernism. Among the features which
encourage analysis of the novel in these terms are its focus on the powers
and limitations of human consciousness, its inclusion of a high degree of
indeterminacy and ambiguity, its manipulation of shifting fields of
signification, and its gestures in the direction of metaliterary
self-consciousness. Critics have approached the novel from a variety of
angles, examining its treatment of the relationship between art and
politics, its metaphysics, artistic patterning, and literary allusiveness.

This essay argues that a new perspective can be gained by looking
at the novel in light of Jacques Derrida's writings on Western philosophy
and the paradoxes of verbal representation. Cincinnatus's relationship to
the society which imprisons him, and his role in the potential disruption
of the order which attempts to suppress or appropriate his otherness, bear
some affinity with what Derrida has called "differance." Further
affinities can be discerned in Nabokov's handling of several key issues:
the relationship between speech and writing, the inherent instability of
expressive discourse, and the notion that death may be the only avenue
available to the self by which to escape the oppressive order, even if the
cost be self-dissolution. An investigation of the novel along these lines
is not meant to suggest that the work should be seen as an allegory or
illustration of Derrida's views. Rather, Derrida's writings offer an
incisive tool for revealing the ways in which Nabokov's novel-in both its
metaliterary and metaphysical dimensions-points to some of the distinctive
concerns articulated in postmodernist theory. It is hoped that this
discussion will provide new insight into Nabokov's complex relationship to
modernism and postmodernism.
Galya Diment, University of Washington: "From Kafka's Castle to Axel's
Castle: Nabokov versus Wilson as Critics of Modernism."

"It is difficult to imagine a close friendship between two people
with such different political and aesthetic views," John Kopper writes
about Wilson and Nabokov in the recent Companion to Nabokov (Alexandrov,
57). Nabokov himself characterized his relationship with Wilson to Andrew
Field as one where there was "hardly a moment when the tension between two
highly dissimilar minds, attitudes and educations is slackened" (Boyd,
494). Given these stark differences between the two men, it should
obviously not come as a surprise that Wilson and Nabokov differed, among
other things, in their evaluation of European Modernism, in general, and
individual modernist writers in particular. My paper will discuss and
analyze those differences of opinions (as found in Nabokov's Lectures on
Literature as well as Strong Opinions, and Wilson's Axel's Castle, as
well as his diaries), will attempt to account for them, and will also
evaluate Nabokov's and Wilson's individual contributions to our
understanding of Modernism.
Suzanne Fraysse, University of Paris VII: "Nabokov and Poe: The Philosophy
of Composition."

Given the importance of the allusions to Poe in Lolita one may
wonder if they do not function among other things as an implicit
acknowledgement of Poe's literary theory. I propose to study the way such a
text as Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" can account for Nabokov's
writing strategies in Lolita and in particular can help define a relevant
model of the writer-reader relationship in the novel. This model constantly
challenges the author-reader relationship constructed by Humbert's
manuscript and apparently gives the key to the Nabokovian game, or to put
it bluntly to the way Nabokov wanted his novel to be read. From that
viewpoint it is perhaps a quirk in literary history if the novel owed its
commercial success to the more traditional author-reader relationship that
emerges from Humbert's manuscript and that Nabokov's novel constantly
undermines. However one may wonder if the interplay between those two vying
reading models simply works as a means of setting up an implicit hierachy
between "good" readers and "bad" readers or if it does not ultimately serve
to go beyond Poe's legacy and create a new (postmodernist?) reading
practice in which the reader is always a loser and thus hopefully a willing

John Burt Foster, Jr., George Mason University: "Parody, Pastiche and the
Postmodern Turn: Nabokov/Jameson."

This paper will re-examine Frederic Jameson's proposal (in
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) that a major
shift in intertextual practices took place in the 1950s. In the place of
parody, with its nuanced evaluations of past styles and conventions, which
thus still function as valid benchmarks even when they are rejected or
transformed, we get pastiche-in which this ingrained awareness of cultural
history has vanished. As a result, Jameson argues, we get "a neutral
practice of such mimicry" (17) which undertakes "the random cannibalization
of all the styles of the past" (18). This shift in intertextual practice,
he further contends, correlates with the larger transition from modernism
to posmodernism, which has devalued both memory and history in what amounts
to a massive detemporalization of experience.

How well does this theory account for Nabokov's own evolution as an
intertextualist during the 1950s? Focusing on three scenes of violent
death-the therapeutic murder of David Krug in Bend Sinister, Humbert
Humbert's killing of Clare Quilty, and Jack Grey's mistaken retaliation
against John Shade-I will argue for a mixed verdict. Although Jameson's
theory allows us to see an increasing level of artifice in Nabokov's
treatment of these scenes, it would be a mistake to associate him with any
postmodern tendency toward detemporalization.

Herbert Grabes, University of Giessen: "Modernism into Postmodernism:
Nabokov's Exemplary Fictions."

If one looks for literary works of art demonstrating the change
from a modernist view of art and reality to a postmodern one, there is
hardly a writer who provided better examples than Nabokov. Though concrete
fictions through and through, his novels quite clearly imply philosophical
positions with a much wider claim and thus are eminently suited for a
discussion of the modernist versus postmodernist query. Thus The Real Life
of Sebastian Knight both affirms and parodies the modernist search for a
"true" rendering of subjective reality, and Bend Sinister unmistakably
demonstrates that the world of art is a better world. In Lolita the
representation of "reality" becomes problematic both through subjective
distortion and competing genre frames, and while this continues in Pale
Fire, here the epistemological scepticism for the first time turns
ontological in the equation of a "game of worlds" with a "game of words."
In Ada we then have reached the "joyous affirmation of the free play of
the world" in a clearly postmodern way (including the artistic upgrading of
SF conventions), in Transparent Things the demonstration of the
"constructedness" of narrated reality, and in Look at the Harlequins! a
parody of the return to autobiographical writing that inevitably becomes
self-parody. If according to modernist assumptions a subjective distortion
of "reality" is unavoidable, and in postmodern times the author (of one's
life and one's "Life") is dead, what else can a writer do in the return to
his own life but create a wilfully absurd double of himself in the hope
that the now authorized reader will zero out the distortion by another
distortion and "author" a more likely double of the double presented?

Geoffrey Green, University of San Francisco: "Beyond Modernism and
Postmodernism: Vladimir Nabokov's Fiction of Transcendent Perspective."

The fiction of Vladimir Nabokov has confounded those literary
critics who would place his writing conveniently in a descriptive container
that would all-too-readily explain and enclose the multifarious
possibilities and imaginative significance of his work. By education and
training, he was a formalist; that is, he was accustomed to making informed
public comments on his novels in terms of explication de texte. Thus, an
examination of his own critical pronouncements would present him as a close
reader. His statements of preference in authors, however, often reflected a
taste for pre-Modernist writers of the decidedly Romanticist variety. To
further confound things, Nabokov's novels may be viewed as being modernist
(in terms of Nabokov's emphasis on authorial conceptualization and control
and his concern on the accurate and correct reading of his work) and
postmodernist (in terms of his generic innovation, his use of parody to
usurp the conventions of traditional forms, his polyphonic use of dialogic
voices within his fiction, and his playful conception of himself as an
authorial fiction). I would maintain that the key to this conundrum lies in
Nabokov's goal of transcending time and history. By conceiving of himself
as a unique author who included within him Russian, French, English,
German, and American influences and intellectual traditions, he was able to
reflect a multitude of perspective within his writing. Furthermore, his
efforts to "circle back" and translate his earlier work in Russian into
English as the later work of an American writer point toward a movement
beyond postmodernism. In summary, he was free enough not to be a modernist
reactive to social realism, or a postmodernist tethered to modernism, and
thus was able to create genuinely new and uncanny fictions of the future.

Ellen Pifer, University of Delaware: "Birds of a Different Feather: Nabokov
and Kosinski in the Postwar Period."

Although Nabokov and his family were direct victims of this
century's worst social and political upheavals-ideological revolutions,
global warfare and the Holocaust-his optimistic vision, and metaphysical
"faith," remained uniquely intact for a postwar writer. The distinction
between Nabokov and other postwar writers emerges with particular clarity
when we compare his artistic vision to that of a younger =E9migr=E9 who als=
became an American writer, Jerzy Kosinski. Born a generation after Nabokov,
Kosinski also arrived on America's shores by way of Europe and Russia; he
too became a bestselling American novelist. But here the similarities end,
making way for constrasts that, I believe, help to clarify Nabokov's unique
position at the crossroads of modernism and postmodernism.
In a 1972 interview in The Paris Review, Kosinski overtly
contrasts the "invisible" style of his writing to that of his admired
predecessor, Nabokov, who draws the reader's attention to the "visible
veil" of language drawn, like a semi-transparent screen, across the window
that opens on his world. But while Nabokov's style is overtly playful,
intrusive and self-reflexive, Kosinski's "invisible" language does not, as
his statement appears to suggest, deliver the reader to the unambiguous
realm of reality invoked by nineteenth-century practitioners of realism.
Already in his first published novel, The Painted Bird (1965), Kosinski's
narrative may give the appearance-but yields none of the assurance-of
objective, unmediated reality. When, moreover, one examines Kosinski's
treatment of the novel's two central figures-the child and "the painted
bird"-in the light of Nabokov's own handling of such images, Nabokov's
greater ties to tradition become clear.
Kosinski's child-protagonist proves extremely resourceful,
surviving brutal conditions that prove fatal to countless other victims;
but he lacks the inner resources of the Wordsworthian child. To this divine
spark Nabokov's Dolly Haze-still tender, trusting and essentially innocent
despite her entrapment by Humbert-proves heir. Although Nabokov's allusive
and involuted narrative style displays all the outward trappings of a
postmodernist narrative, it is Kosinski's deceptively transparent language
that discovers a postmodern universe sealed off from transcendence. Instead
of "trailing clouds of glory," Kosinski's child's "body" (to recall
Foucault's characteristic inversion of Judeo-Christian formulations) is
fatally inscribed by the "technology"-imprisoned in the "soul"-of human
culture (Discipline and Punish).

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, College of the Holy Cross: "The V- Shaped
Paradigm: Nabokov and Pynchon."

This paper surveys biographical and textual evidence of Pynchon's
debt to Nabokov, and discusses the similarity in their narrative technique.
I will use Success-an imaginary novel embedded in Nabokov's The Real Life
of Sebastian Knight (95-100)-as a model for my investigation, and for the
similarity of Nabokov's and Pynchon's narratives. Success, "one of the most
complicated researches that has ever been attempted by a writer," traces
the mechanisms by which fate finally brings together two different
individuals. Its narrative structure, as Nabokov's narrator describes it,
is shaped roughly like the letter V, "with two lines which have finally
tapered to the point of meeting" (96).
Success provides a useful model for tracing the fateful
conjunction of these two writers. Fate managed to bring both of them to
Cornell University, where Nabokov taught Pynchon in one course (most likely
"Masters of European Literature") between fall 1957 and spring 1959. They
may not have had any substantial personal interaction, however; indeed,
given Nabokov's teaching style, and the fact that he could not remember
Pynchon, it is doubtful that they did. And yet Pynchon was Nabokov's
student in more than the one course he took from him. V., the narrator of
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, seems to be Sebastian's ideal successor
and biographer, in one sense, because he has read Sebastian's works so
carefully and lovingly. The same could be said of Pynchon's relationship to
Nabokov. Pynchon's first three novels offer ample evidence that he had
carefully studied Nabokov's English fiction (especially Lolita). His first
novel, V., in particular, reveals the pervasive influence of Nabokov's
first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in matters of
plot, technique, characterization, style, and even wordplay (for example,
the preponderance of V's).
_Success_ provides a useful model, too, for tracing the relationshi=
between these two texts, and between Nabokov's and Pynchon's work in
general. Success also illustrates the most important lesson Pynchon
learned from Nabokov: how to use narrative form to question the very nature
of "reality." Accordingly, I will show how Pynchon's V. recapitulates the
very same "detective theme"-in content, in generic parody, and in literary
form-that Nabokov's narrator "V." traces in all of Sebastian's work. Like
Nabokov, then, Pynchon transforms classic detective-story formulas into
parodic, inverted, self-reflexive narrative structures. Both writers
manipulate detective-story formulas in order to question narrative itself
(epecially in terms of history, reliability, and closure) as well as the
nature of meaning and interpretation.
Ultimately, my reading of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and V.
shows how Nabokov's and Pynchon's shared affinity for parody,
epistemology, self-reflexivity, and narrative experimentation locate these
novels precisely where two other lines-modernism and postmodernism-also
taper "to the point of meeting." Nabokov's and Pynchon's similar
transformations of detective-story formulas, in particular, suggests that
the "metaphysical detective story" may be an exemplary postmodernist text.
Indeed, comparing their novels, in turn, to "metaphysical detective
stories" by Borges, Alfau, Robbe-Grillet, Perec, Sciascia, Eco, and Auster
(among others), should help us to clarify the distinct contributions that
Nabokov and Pynchon have made to postmodernism.

Pekka Tammi, University of Tampere: "Echoes. Pale Fire and Foucault's

There is not much evidence of Umberto Eco's having read Nabokov
(aside from his spoof "Nonita", published in 1959). But the question of
influence is of secondary importance. What seems like a more worthwhile
topic-at least from the outset-is the considerable confluence of stylistic
and structural tricks (e.g. "fatidic dates") and thematic concerns
(coincidences, paranoia, unlimited semiosis, and so forth) in the works of
these two authors. They also share some literary loves (Joyce), have a huge
penchant for parody, and demonstrate formidable learning (plus a marked
interest in popular culture, a grudging interest in Nabokov's case).
The paper proposes to pursue these comparisons in some detail. The
main focus will be on Pale Fire and Foucault's Pendulum, though it seems
profitable to digress on several other texts by these authors as well (both
fictional and scholarly). In the end, resemblances may turn out to be just
shadows of differences: Nabokov remains a hard-nosed Modernist no matter
how close we look, whereas behind Eco's Postmodernist fa=E7ade one may
sometimes glimpse a traditionalist and (perhaps) even a weepy
Leona Toker, The Hebrew University: "The Fragmentation of Reality in
Nabokov's Fiction."

Nabokov's texts intimate that though the human mind seeks to
assemble, stabilize, and complete fragments of reality, authentic creative
life calls for the opposite activity as well. Nabokov explores
possibilities of an active fragmentation of the reality given to individual
experience. These possibilities involve constant resistance not only to
external pressures but also to one's inner need for stability. Nabokov
counters the valorization of the quest for a holistic Weltanschauung by
turning the fragmentation of one's vision of the world into an active inner

Universite de Nice - Sophia Antipolis
U.F.R. Lettres et Sciences Humaines
Maurice Couturier
phone : (33)
email : couturier@unice.fr