Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023799, Sun, 17 Mar 2013 22:09:02 -0300

[NABOKV-L} [SIGHTING] More google tips
SUNDAY, MAR 17, 2013 04:00 PM HB - Vladimir Nabokov, "Houdini of history"?

A new biography and a recently published play offer insights into how the author felt about the past
BY ALISA SNIDERMAN (This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.)

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his novel "Bend Sinister" (1947), Vladimir Nabokov writes the following:I am not "sincere," I am not "provocative," I am not "satirical." I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of "thaw" in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent.
Nabokov was no stranger to the political atrocities of the 20th century. In 1919, he and his immediate family fled revolutionary Russia on the last ship out of Sevastopol, a vessel aptly named "Nadezhda" ("Hope"). In 1937 he escaped Hitler's Germany by fleeing to France, and in 1940, just weeks before Paris fell to the Nazis, he boarded a French ocean liner's last voyage to New York with his Jewish wife and son. So, was his insistence that his art was independent of politics and society fact or fiction? In "The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov," Andrea Pitzer suggests that such pronouncements were merely part of Nabokov's public façade - "the genteel, charming cosmopolitan, incapable of being dented or diminished by history." The Nabokov that Pitzer presents to us "is more vulnerable to the past than he publically led the world to believe," recording events "that have fallen so completely out of public memory that they went unnoticed." Pitzer is particularly interested in tracing how Nabokov planted references to concentration camps in his art. To prove her point, she chronicles historical events as they unfolded in the course of Nabokov's life and shows how Nabokov's works "refract" these events. While the result is an admirable work of archival research, Nabokov's art, unfortunately, comes out as a mere apparatus for capturing history - a heroic service no doubt but one that raises the question: if all you wanted to do was record events, why go through the trouble of writing fiction? Pitzer suggests that, by burying "his past in his art" and waiting "for readers to exhume it," Nabokov had devised a new and different method for documenting inhumanity and the history of violence.
If Pitzer is correct, why was Nabokov so cryptic? [ ].
Nabokov did not always hide history. He could be direct and poignant, as when describing Pnin's memories of his first love, Mira Belochkin:
One had to forget - because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol to the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past.
History does lurk in the wings of Nabokov's fiction, but he never gives it center stage. The émigré narrator of Nabokov's short story "Spring in Fialta," for example, obliquely and scornfully refers to the Russian Revolution as "left-wing theater rumblings backstage." Interestingly, Pitzer's own use of theater metaphors to narrate 20th-century history ("other tragedies were waiting in the wings") suggests one potential way of thinking about the relationship between art and history: Nabokov's interest in theater.
{ ]While Nabokov might have been the Houdini of history, his art is anything but escapist. In many ways, his lecture on tragedy anticipates Lionel Abel's seminal 1963 "Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form." Put simply, Abel argues that while classical tragedy presents a world ruled by fate, indifferent gods, and inherent forms, the metaplays of Shakespeare, Calderón, and the modern playwrights that they inspired celebrate not only the artifice of theater, but also the theatricality of life itself. And Abel finds this liberating. [ ]If all the world's a stage and life is a dream, then order is something continually improvised by human striving and imagination. In other words, if the world as we know it has been created by human imagination (at times by the banal and boorish brains of despots) then it is also a world capable of change by other consciousnesses. When Cincinnatus C., the artist of Nabokov's "Invitation to a Beheading" (1935-1936), bravely goes to his execution and realizes that everything is "coming apart" as though during the striking of a theater set, he not only returns to the bosom of his maker, but also "makes his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him."
[ ]When complimented in an interview for having "a remarkable sense of history and period," Nabokov responded: "We should define, should we not, what we mean by 'history.'" The author then expressed his reservations about "history," [ ] Throughout history, the wounds of history have often been called upon to justify further atrocities and solicit sympathy. While earning him the criticisms of many Russian émigrés, it is perhaps precisely Nabokov's artistic distance from and skepticism about "history" that prevented him from falling into the trap that Solzhenitsyn did later in his life when he embraced both Putin and ardent nationalism. "I do not believe that 'history' exists apart from the historian," Nabokov said. "If I try to select a keeper of records, I think it safer (for my comfort, at least) to choose my own self."

Vladimir Nabokov, "Houdini of history"?
Vladimir Nabokov had a specific term for the kind of reader who obsessively searches for political and social clues in fiction: "the solemn reader." This "solemn reader" falls into the trap of reading his novel "Bend Sinister," widely recognized as his ...
See all stories on this topic »

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,nabokv-l@holycross.edu
Visit Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
View Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com

Manage subscription options: http://listserv.ucsb.edu/