Nabokov’s Game

To push stylization through obsession to the creation of a wholly new private world—or at least to the radical unsettling of the reader’s position in this one—is part of a rather special artistic strategy. In this connection Nabokov’s work can be compared to the work of Jorge Luis Borges. Like those of Borges, Nabokov’s characters are continually creating new worlds of their own; a key image in both writers is the mind as a warped mirror.* As creators of a private order, they invite identification with the order-obsessed writer, and their multiple worlds of compulsion, perversion, and defiant private fantasy are those of artistic stylization. Unlike Borges, Nabokov does not generally see his characters as intellectual propositions. Humiliated, quivering animals, they are hurt and hit back. (Hence the importance of defense in Nabokov’s fiction, from Cincinnatus C. and Luzhin to Humbert Humbert; his central characters all seek a tribunal before which to offer rebuttal or an explanation. Yet it is curious that in chess as in literature, there is no such thing as pure defense; the only possible defense is a form of attack.) Again like the characters of Borges, Nabokov’s characters lose themselves in the image they have created, in the formal gridwork they place over experience in order to control it. Their diabolically ingenious defenses against evil are in the end the evil itself, or a major part of it. Multiply alienated, then, from their health as well as their sickness, they are held together only by their author’s voluminous words; so that for Nabokov, every character is really an adventure in style, a testing of style’s ability to control its own energies. Fascination with fantastically reduplicated reality is most evident in Pale Fire, but it is already felt in The Defense; and it is especially captivating when combined with that detailed and specific expertise of which Nabokov and Borges are masters. The hard style, the specific fact, the acurate surface, yes; but soaring behind it, is the imagination, which calls all things into question and by a simple shift of perspective makes plain to us the extraordinary within the commonplace. Indeed the exploding worlds, the hard controlling styles, the erudite fantasies and duplicities of Nabokov and Borges seem a welcome alternative to the glut of fact, social or psychological, that has dominated American fiction for the past fifty years.

In these early novels of Nabokov’s, one sees the later complexities often in surprisingly well-developed form, and they are interesting for that reason. But they have, in addition, a special charm of their own. Nabokov’s world is not austerely intellectual (like the worlds conceived by Borges). It is haunted by certain memories of nineteenth-century baroque (a memory of mad King Ludwig, a melody of overwrought Schumann, something rhapsodic and rotten). And Luzhin, like Humbert is capable of old-fashioned love. Stammering, shambling, lost and incompetent among his shadows, he is still a lover. This is no part of his defense, quite the contrary, it is the root of a fatal weakness. But it is more appealing than the complexities of Kinbote and Gradus and their misanthropic rage.

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