restricted access Style as Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (review)
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Reviewed by
Leland de la Durantaye. Style as Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2007.

Leland de la Durantaye’s thesis is that Lolita is a moral book because its real subject matter is not the abuse of young girl but the [End Page 945] peculiarly detailed manner in which Nabokov constructed the words Humbert Humbert uses to describe his cruelty. Durantaye sidesteps the task of describing that manner. He rarely offers close readings of passages from Nabokov’s fiction, and not once in the book does he mention that Nabokov is funny. Instead, he judiciously interrogates what it means for a reader to pass judgment on a book. Taking his cue from a story Hannah Arendt tells of how, when given a copy of Lolita by one of his jailors, an indignant Adolph Eichman returned it two days later saying “Das ist abert ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch” (“Quite an unwholesome book”), Durantaye shows how that story illustrates Kant’s distinction between moral and aesthetic judgment. Durantaye reads the idea of moral judgment as the ability “to think from the standpoint of someone else,” to see into “the strangeness and wonder of another’s world” (5). Aesthetic judgment seems to be the opposite. It is the ability to judge an object entirely disinterestedly. Such disinterested judgment is what Nabokov constantly preaches in his interviews, prefaces, and lectures on literature: for example, when he warns against readers’ identifying with the characters in a story or valuing a work’s moral or political position. The logic of Durantaye’s book is that moral and aesthetic judgment are not the opposites they seem, but two strands of a double helix that operate together in some mysterious way to produce art.

Nabokov used an idiosyncratic set of terms to express this mystery. He talked about things like puzzles, riddles, magic, tenderness, magic carpets, patterns, counterpoints, enchantments, and combinations. He also said what would ruin the mystery: allegories, Freud, general ideas, group thinking, common sense, and imprecision. He urged readers to respond to verbal art with both their brains and their spines. A proper response was a combination of thought and feeling.

This simple opposition between moral and aesthetic judgment (so ripe for deconstruction that Durantaye hardly needs to bother, leaving it to almost the last page of the book) provides a framework that allows a series of what might be called mini-essays on the terms Nabokov used, many of which have been difficult for critics to understand precisely. These discussions run from many pages (like the one on why Nabokov mocked Freud) to merely suggestive footnotes (like the discussion about Nabokov’s attitude toward homosexuals) and the occasional “scholium,” which tries to referee one or another of the debates that have arisen among Nabokovians. These discussions provide up-to-date syntheses of current topics that will be useful for students entering the field. It takes no ghost from beyond the grave to predict that the disagreements will continue. I was afraid that this book would focus only on Lolita, but Durantaye has done his reading [End Page 946] and brings in the expected examples from Nabokov’s fiction, interviews, and criticism as well as some new ones: besides the Eichman moment, there are interesting remarks on the waxwing’s facial features relevant to Pale Fire and on the “retrospective verisimilitude” that results because Humbert does not let his situation (in jail) color the telling of his story. Durantaye comments on Michael Maar’s overpublicized claim that Nabokov found the precursor to the character of Lolita in a 1916 story by Heinz von Eschwege. Also he notes something new to me, that Freud’s Wolf-Man was, like Nabokov, a cosmopolitan but destitute White Russian exile who, however, had “schmetterlingsphobie”: butteryfly phobia! The discussion of Nabokov’s rejection of Darwin is similarly interesting for me because, like his contemporary C. S. Lewis, Nabokov belittled natural selection as a way “of attacking the utilitarianism of his age” (155).

The problem with a novel presided over by an unreliable narrator is that his actions are different from the events of the story. As a moral actor, Humbert excuses, wheedles...


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