In a speech given in December 1925, Vladimir Nabokov declared that ‘everything in the world plays’, including ‘love, nature, the arts, and domestic puns’. Each of Nabokov's novels contains a scene of games: chess, Scrabble, cards, football, croquet, tennis, and boxing, the play of light and the play of thought, the play of language, of forms, and of ideas, children's games, cruel games of exploitation, and erotic play. This book studies this central theme in Nabokov, and the first work apart from Boyd's critical biography to draw in detail on Nabokov's untranslated early essays and poems, only collected and republished in 1999 to 2000, and on highly restricted archival material in New York and Washington. It argues that play is Nabokov's signature theme, and indeed that Nabokov's novels form one of the most sophisticated treatments of play ever achieved. It traces the idea of art as play back to German aesthetics, and shows how Nabokov's aesthetic outlook was formed by various Russian émigré writers who espoused those aesthetics. It then follows Nabokov's exploration of play as subject and style through his whole oeuvre, outlining the relation of play to other important themes such as faith, make-believe, violence, freedom, order, work, Marxism, desire, childhood, art, and scholarship. As it does so it demonstrates a series of new literary sources, contexts, and parallels for Nabokov's writing, in writers as diverse as Kant, Schiller, and Nietzsche, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Bely, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, and Alexander Pope and the humanist tradition of the literary game. As such it provides what is the fullest scholarly-critical reading of Nabokov to date, and defines the ludic aspect of his work that has been such a vital example for and influence on contemporary writers, from Orhan Pamuk, W. G. Sebald, and Georges Perec, to John Updike, Martin Amis, and Tom Stoppard.
Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play