- Reviewed by
There are many rooms in the mansion of mediocrity, some worth ransacking. But before visiting Priscilla Meyers in the attic, let us pay our respects to Leona Toker whose Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structure is one of the most competent academic studies of Nabokov to appear in some time. Her serviceable thesis is mat Nabokov reconciled human commitment with virtuoso technique. One is disappointed that she was not able to avoid the now-I-will-give-my-reading-of-the-next-novel format, especially because her original and intriguing reading of Schopenhauer gives her the possibility of organizing her chapters along thematic lines-for example, tragedy, diversion, coincidence, perception, margins. A good editor would have helped her. Moreover, the book has been printed carelessly. [End Page 757]
That said, Toker has a genuine critical intelligence. She has read Nabokov deeply, and she astutely positions each of her discussions on the cutting edge of criticism, unlike many recent scholars who side-skirt important work in the field. Whom she ignores is as important as whom she cites. This book may be recommended to students as both a fine introduction to the earlier fiction and a summary of scholarship for Nabokov's work up to Lolita. Within individual chapters her organization is sophisticated. Thematically relevant short stories are brought to bear, summary is avoided, and Toker places Nabokov in contexts of political and intellectual history. She is at her best in tracing rhetorical structures: catachresis in Invitation to a Beheading, for example, where her discussion of the word "something" could, perhaps, have structured her whole book. I find her discussion of Lolita not quite central, despite her brilliant and original reading of Dolly's psychological anxiety. I wish she had realized that the "small matter-of-fact voice" that speaks to Humbert from the mailbox has an enormous literary history, starting from 1 Kings 12:12, but that is a quibble.
In this journal I have previously questioned the article on which Priscilla Meyer's Find What the Sailor Has Hidden: Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" is based, an attempt to find connections between Lolita and Pushkin's Onegin. Toker also refers to this article and, after summarizing its point, writes: "I do not agree with this thesis. What Meyer presents as analogies between the two works may be symptoms of Pushkin's blood diffusely running in the arteries of Nabokov's imagination."
Meyer's thesis is so large that I hesitate to restate it: she finds that in Pale Fire Nabokov recapitulates a millenium of northern European and American history in order to justify or palliate through his art the assassination of his father and the loss of his language and country. There is more than just a problem of intentionality here.
At her best when fresh from a Russian or etymological dictionary, at her worst in presenting potted history, Meyer inscribes vagueness into her texts with words like "linked," "hint," "interconnectedness," "involves," "suggests," "reflects," "associates," "echoes," "recalls." Her book is a welter of irrelevant detail, or, to take the author's position, "a welter of hidden references" among which some precious gems are to be found—in fact, she is so good on the famous crown jewels of Pale Fire that I wish she had used that image to structure her book. Language we are ready to believe Nabokov valorized, but not King Charles II of England, whom we are asked to think relevant because he liked tennis and Kinbote has two pingpong tables. It is not just "Why two?" that we want to ask.
Presumably this book was meant to be a sort of "keys" to Pale Fire, to do for that novel what Appel did for Lolita. As such, it fails. What are we to think when Meyer insists that Coriolanus, Timon, and Prospero are kings, or fails to be clear that "Tintern Abbey" is one of the poems contained in the Lyrical Ballads...