Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKOV AND CURIOSITY: MLA Panel, Sunday, January 8

By dana_dragunoiu, 5 January, 2023

MLA 2023, San Francisco, Sunday, January 8, 2023 (Marriott Marquis, Sierra Suite E)

If you are at the MLA Convention in San Francisco, please consider joining us for the in-person panel session, “Nabokov and Curiosity,” chaired by Christopher A. Link, SUNY New Paltz. Below are the abstracts for the panel presentations.

Puzzles, Curiosity, and the Otherworld in “Lance” 

Eric Hyman, Fayetteville State University

“Lance” is not science fiction.  Rather, like many Nabokov short stories, “Lance” operates like a chess problem (Gezari, Hyman), where readers must use clues to solve the puzzle that the eponymous hero Lance’s apparent interplanetary exploration is a visit to and return from a metaphysically real Otherworld (Alexandrov, Howell).  Some critics identify Nabokov’s Otherworld as either an aesthetic world of art or nostalgia for Nabokov’s lost aristocratic Russia; but for Nabokov the Otherworld is present, immanent, and yet more real than the common-sense mundane world.  A few other Nabokov short stories, notably “The Vane Sisters,” also operate by puzzle-solving the presence of an Otherworld.  That Otherworld is not the post-death heavenly Hereafter, because some people can glimpse and partially experience it in this world (e.g. Vasily in “Cloud, Castle, Lake”), and like Lance and Lancelot might visit and return from it.

“Lance,” Nabokov’s last short story, is a confection of many themes and features from throughout Nabokov’s works: clues to the immanence of the Otherworld; allusions to the phenomenal familiar world; wordplay; parents’ love for their sons, especially Dmitri’s mountaineering (Nicol, Boyd); natural science (“curiosity surpasses [the scientist’s] courage”); other literature, most prominently Chretien de Troyes’s 12th century romance “The Knight of the Cart”; varying narrative voices; non-linear time; attending to apparently irrelevant or deceptive details, like a chess puzzle (Hyman).  “Lance” invites readers’ curiosity to construct, or re-construct, the immanent real story behind the overt surface story, which for some readers might require research.


Curiosity and Criminality in Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave

Robyn Jensen, UC Berkeley

This paper explores the theme of curiosity as it intersects with criminality in Nabokov’s early novel Korol’, dama, valet (King, Queen, Knave). When one of the main characters, Dreyer, visits a crime exhibition staged by the police (a reference to the popular Great Police Exhibition of 1926), he advocates the need to “look with curiosity” as he inspects the photographs of murderers and their victims. He then applies this curious gaze to his interactions with passersby on the street, all of whom he now suspects to be potential murderers and criminals. Dreyer here falls into a form of paranoid surveillance that was actively encouraged at the time by the Weimar police. During this period, the police collaborated with the illustrated press and other forms of popular mass entertainment to train the Berlin public to become active spectators who could serve not only as reliable eyewitnesses but also as amateur detectives. Despite the fact that Nabokov would later connect art with “curiosity” in his Afterword to Lolita, in King, Queen, Knave curiosity is bound up with problems of voyeurism, paranoid suspicion, and surveillance. By situating Nabokov’s Berlin novel about murder within contemporary discourses about criminality and Weimar’s new approaches to policing, I show how Nabokov interrogates the cultivation of “curiosity” and attentive looking as pernicious forms of surveillance.  


“Is masc the keyword?”: Masculine Curiosity in Lolita

Ryan Lackey, UC Berkeley

The men of Lolita are everywhere, in shadowy or ghostly forms, from obvious Quilty to the window-frame “nymphet” who resolves into a man after Humbert’s onanistic orgasm. These men exist at a constant remove—an arm’s length away. The man Humbert sees through the window exemplifies the spectatorial intimacy-at-a-distance that is the text’s texture of masculinity, which becomes an object of disavowed, blurred, masked curiosity

In Between Men, Eve Sedgwick describes masculinity as double-bind: “For a man to be a man’s man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being ‘interested in men’” (89). That the line is both invisible and carefully blurred suggests the paradoxical masculinity of Lolita, which is, along with its suggestion of queer and homosocial interest, always masked—which is to say, both demonstrative and concealed. To blur or mask masculinity and its haunting implications is to confirm it as an object of curiosity, one that must be examined, taken note of, even as it is denied, kept at range. 

This operation of masculine curiosity becomes evident in scene and intertextual reference. In the former case, Humbert’s two instances of mistaking men for nymphets bookend the novel and foreground problems of looking and framing. In the latter case, the reference to tennis star (and [in]famously queer man) Bill Tilden, given the curious appellation “Ma Tilden,” opens up into a striking relationship-at-a-distance between Nabokov’s novel and Tilden’s short story “The Phantom Drive,” which shares Lolita’s thematics in an explicitly masculine context.

Reading masculinity-as-curiosity in Lolita expands the growing body of Nabokovian criticism with eye to gender and sexuality (although, still, rarely masculinity) and allows new purchase on familiar Nabokovian obsessions. 


Nabokov's Religious Curiosity Shop

Erik Eklund, University of Nottingham

Even as Vladimir Nabokov’s interest in the biblical and theological imaginary of the Christian tradition remains something of an enigma, a modest increase in critical curiosity toward the ideas, themes, and texts that form the theological terroir of his art will have enduring value for the future of Nabokov studies. Taking up Gennady Barabtarlo’s invitation to consider Nabokov “also as a mystic,” I argue that the religious, mystical, or otherwise theological “plane” of Nabokov’s art is irreducible to ironic evocations, stylistic concerns, or the metaliterary expressions in which it is so often voiced, even as the metaliterary frame of his art grounds, delimits, and gives form to what Sergei Davydov calls Nabokov’s “metapoetic theology.” I consider the various ends to which Nabokov deploys: the cult of St. Antony of Egypt in Bend Sinister; influential works by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine in Pale Fire; and the liturgical calendar to delimit the theological temporalities within Lolita and Pale Fire. In addition to uncovering new sources within Nabokov’s theological library, my analysis subverts the idea that Nabokov’s American works abandon the Christian topoi of his earlier poetry while also gesturing to the fitness of a distinctly theological curiosity toward Nabokov’s work.