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A book could be written on Nabokov’s relations to modernism. It might not be a very rewarding book, since modernism, like all group labels, was a concept that never engaged Nabokov. A much more worthwhile book could be written on his relationship to modernist writers (Joyce, Proust and Kafka, among those he admired; Eliot, Pound, Mann, Faulkner, Lawrence, Woolf among those he disliked), and, perhaps, to writers who could still be considered “modern” at the time he began to read and write (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Ibsen, James, Conrad), along with, perhaps, Russian writers who coincide with the modernist period (Blok, Bely, Bunin, Olesha, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Khodasevich) or the period leading up to it (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Sologub, Chekhov). Nabokov has expressed opinions about these writers, taught the works of more than a dozen of them to students at Stanford, Wellesley, Cornell and Harvard, alluded to, [End Page 203] echoed, parodied, extolled, decried or challenged many of them in his own creative works.
But John Burt Foster, Jr., has written neither the second kind of book nor even the first. Foster tries to open many doors with what he singles out as a key passage in Speak, Memory. It describes a helplessly clumsy dying swan Nabokov saw on the shores of Lake Geneva when he was visiting his former French governess for the last time; when he heard of his governess’s death, that image was the first to flash into his mind. Foster declares the swan an allusion to Baudelaire’s poem “The Swan” and on that basis takes the passage as proof of Nabokov’s engagement with Baudelaire’s ideas of modernity in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life.”
But the image is poignant and perfectly justified in its context; swans abound on the banks of Lake Geneva; Nabokov insisted on the factual accuracy of his autobiography, and apart from a few minor slips he made in recording information about others, nothing contradicts his claims. Many writers have referred to swans, and there is nothing in the Speak, Memory passage to point readers to Baudelaire’s poem. Even if Nabokov had intended a reference to Baudelaire, but had foregone the customary precision of his allusions, there would still be no reason whatever for Foster to declare an allusion to one Baudelaire poem an engagement with a Baudelaire essay very different in manner and matter.
Yet this is Foster’s method throughout his book. It is as if, after I tell you I have arrived by train, you take that as an allusion to the train that kills Anna Karenina, and so to Tolstoy’s view of history, and therefore see my plain statement as entering into a debate with nineteenth-century historical theory or practice, with Tolstoy, Hegel and Marx or Macaulay, Parkman, and Mommsen. Foster wants to think about European modernism and therefore tries to show Nabokov thinking about it. He fails, for the simple reason that all but three of his examples are as strained as the Baudelaire connection, and those three are either explicit and obvious (Dostoevsky in Despair) or additional examples of known connections (Proust and Joyce in The Gift: the page and a half identifying these echoes offer the sole valid findings in the book).
When Nabokov alludes even covertly he does so with precision. Foster may avoid for instance Nabokov’s numerous explicit allusions to Baudelaire (“stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of a genuine kind” in Lolita, “Poor old man Swift, poor ___, [End Page 204] poor Baudelaire” in Pale Fire), because they show that he is simply not interested in Baudelaire as a precursor let alone a theorist of modernism. But ignoring the ways Nabokov operates, foisting on him allusions he never intended, and then connecting those allusions by a chain of broken links to modernist writings or theory tells us nothing about Nabokov’s real relationship to “modernism” (an entity in whose solidity Foster has a strangely unquestioning belief) or even to writers of the so-called modernist period.