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Reviewed by:
Vladimir E. Alexandrov. Nabokov's Otherworld. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991. 270 pp. $29.95.

Vladimir Alexandrov has written the second book devoted to the "otherworld" as the "central theme" of Nabokov's work. Despite his insistence on the novelty of the enterprise, the role of the beyond is hardly a new discovery in Nabokov studies. My own doctoral dissertation, submitted in January 1979, which contains what Alexandrov calls "an essential outline of the subject," preceded the [End Page 477] publication later that year of Véra Nabokov's assertion in the introduction to Nabokov's collected Russian poems that the "beyond" was Nabokov's "main theme," and in the 1980s this "beyond" has become a main focus for Nabokov studies, in William Woodin Rowe's crude Nabokov's Spectral Dimension (1981), and in superb books by Sergei Davydov (1982), D. Barton Johnson (1985), and Pekka Tammi (1985).

However, Alexandrov is the first since Rowe to devote a book to the subject, and his is immeasurably superior to Rowe's in intelligence and argument. But is the "otherworld" Nabokov's "main theme"? Nabokov himself declared that he "can't find any so-called main ideas, such as that of fate, in my novels." He was interested in the physical world, in the world of heart and mind and imagination, and in whatever might lie beyond the human mind. To stress one of these as fundamental distorts and reduces Nabokov.

In his introduction, Alexandrov acknowledges the betrayal of Nabokov's obliqueness necessarily involved in focusing directly on the subject. But after his fertile, flexible, many-faceted introduction, Alexandrov becomes much more rigid and much less skeptical on individual novels than he indicated he should be.

Readers admire Nabokov's gift for vivid detail, his evident love of the things of this world. Alexandrov makes Nabokov out to be a neo-Platonist or almost a Gnostic, who prefers to escape the sordidness of materiality. He makes the "other-world" a place of first resort rather than, as Nabokov made it, something that might offer an explanation when all others were exhausted.

Take the first novel Alexandrov discusses. Because Luzhin cannot cope with the real world outside the chessboard, Alexandrov singles him out as the man attuned to the otherworld. (The procedure is akin to Douglas Fowler's search for Nabokov stooges in his straitjacketed Reading Nabokov [1974].) He overlooks both Luzhin's evident blindness to most of life and Nabokov's emphatic distinction between chess problem composition, in which an element of timelessness can be achieved, and chess play, where the clock ticks on relentlessly.

When Luzhin leaves an uncompleted chess game in a state of stupor because he can no longer focus on the outside world, he tries to head home. He reaches a river and sees "great female figures" on a bridge. At this point, Alexandrov thinks of "the so-called guardians of thresholds that heroes in many mythological quests must confront in order to complete their quests. . . . More specifically, the entire ominous realm through which Luzhin passes after the game recalls the Gnostic view of the world of matter as fallen." Alexandrov ignores the point that the statues indicate that this is a specific bridge in Berlin and not the simple bridge by the sawmill near Luzhin's Russian country home, which Luzhin in his confusion hopes to reach.

As he often does, Alexandrov here disregards the fictional situation and the internal connections of the novel (in this case, a theme of "home" that if examined carefully does indicate the possibility of intervention from the beyond). Luzhin's suicide, according to Alexandrov, "seems less the act of a madman than an attempt to transcend an evil realm by releasing the soul from the fetters of the body." Suicide as an ideal? Would it not be better to judge the works by their own workings, rather than by an automatic presumption in favour of an "otherworld"? [End Page 478]

Brian Boyd
University of Auckland
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