Secrecy is one of the staple ingredients of any good story. The very term for 'plot' in French is “intrigue”. Indeed, the fabric of a narrative is by essence a complex and dynamic interweaving of information disclosed and information withheld, which, when successful, will sufficiently intrigue the reader to draw him wholeheartedly into the world of fiction. One of the traditional roles of the critic is to 'explain', that is, unravel this complex interplay of warp and weft by observing the 'underside of the weave,' to borrow a Nabokovian phrase. Nabokov is one of those writers who is not only particularly aware of this underside, but is also particularly fond of making the reader aware of it too, and thus invites his readers to engage in the story from a critical stance which will bring them into close contact with creativity itself. Secrecy lies at the heart of this relationship between Nabokov and his reader: Humbert's journal is perhaps the most eloquent example of this process whereby the author seduces us into penetrating the heart of secrecy, where such intimacy would appear repugnant if viewed from a greater distance. Besides the moral issues raised by such a stance–complicity vs. detachment–, we may notice that secrecy hinges upon a dynamics of exclusion and inclusion, a dynamics which is not only very present in the reader/character relationship, as is here the case (we are included in a privileged circle, from which Charlotte Haze and her daughter are excluded), but also the reader/narrator relationship, as when Vadim claims he and his beloved, “You”, share secrets nobody else will ever penetrate. In this case, the reader is most conspicuously excluded, the secret vibrantly flaunted in order to maintain its very existence, its “raison d'être,” one might say. Once more, this might be interpreted as a basic narrative ploy. Yet Zembla's crown jewels or the shadow behind Pnin's heart are not merely riddles to which the reader may find 'elegant solutions' after a thorough study of the novel. Or so it may appear. How far, indeed, does the experience of reading Nabokov challenge the critic's position as riddle solver, or explainer? In other words, what limits to 'explanation' may such secrecy point to? What is the critic's legitimacy in such instances, whether he chooses to explain through annotation or interpretation (both attitudes denoting after all a faith in the critic's capacity to unravel fiction's mysteries)? Are some secrets best left undisturbed, while others seem suitable to decipherment? Would such typologies make any sense, considering Nabokov's aesthetic creeds? These are some of the many questions that shine through Nabokov's “translucent undertones”.
Disclosures under Seal: Nabokov, Secrecy and the Reader
Periodical or collection
v. 24, no. 1