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Delicate Markers: Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (review)

From: Nabokov Studies
Volume 6, 2000/2001
pp. 201-203 | 10.1353/nab.2011.0066

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Nabokov Studies 6 (2000/2001) Reviews Gavriel Shapiro. Delicate Markers: Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Middlebury Studies in Russian Language and Literature, Vol. 19. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. 243 pp. ISBN 0820439460. Review by Stephen H. Blackwell, University of Tennessee. Gavriel Shapiro's study oÃ- Invitation to a Beheading takes a different approach to Nabokov's work than do most scholarly books, and in a sense one might call it an exhaustive, thematically organized "Annotation" rather than a monograph proper. In broadly surveying the novel's imagery, trickery, and referentiality , Shapiro connects Invitation to folk traditions, to history, to the visual arts, and of course to the literary canon. His aim is to surpass the narrow view afforded by more limited, selective discussions of particular subtexts and instead to treat the subtexts "in their plurality" in order to shed light on the author's "range of interests" at the time of composition (5). This multiplicity of vision is used, as well, to connect and compare Invitation to other Nabokov works in an effort to examine a "significant side of Nabokov's verbal art in general." The basic categories of subtext are organized into five chapters, representing self-referential subtexts, alphabetically coded subtexts (iconic and chromaesthetic ), Christian subtexts, Russian literary allusions, and a chapter on Baudelaire and flower subtexts. Interspersed somewhat haphazardly throughout these are many references to folk and classical mythological traditions. Shapiro has amassed an enormous quantity of information, and for the most part he convincingly demonstrates the relevance of the various subtexts he identifies. It should be noted that many of these subtexts have been discussed in prior scholarship, and Shapiro is scrupulous in his acknowledgement of his predecessors ' work. The most original of Shapiro's material centers on the visual arts, on historical references, and on the Christian tradition. Shapiro is correct that there is particular value in attempting to collect in one place all (perhaps "most" is more appropriate when dealing with Nabokov) of the subtextual strands within a single resource. In this way, Shapiro adds to the study of "poligenetichnost '," initiated by Kirill Taranovsky and introduced to Nabokov studies by Pekka Tammi. The first chapter, however, is somewhat disconcerting: in the guise of a chapter on the author's concealed identity in the text, one finds an extended treatise on Nabokov's Russian pen name, "Sirin." As a historical and mythological overview of the name's own subtextual resonance, the chapter provides the most comprehensive introduction yet written to the laden significance of 202 Nabokov Studies that name. However, since the "sirin" is not a significant motif within Invitation , its detailed history seems somewhat out of place, as if the book begins with a digression. Or a "regression": since Sirin (the author) is a subtext in the novel, then one ought, it seems, to track down all of the subtexts the name itself conceals. However, the presence of the author's self-referential mark, whether anagrammatic, chromaesthetic, or ornithological ("birds of paradise"), can be debated. For example, does "krasno-sinii" necessarily imply an anagrammatized "Sirin"? Likewise "sinii mir," which also has color associations with Sirin's initial letter (blue)? Most doubtful by far is Shapiro's discovery of the extended anagram "Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov Sirin," representing 34 letters plucked out of a string of 108. While acknowledging the likelihood of misgivings about such a choosy anagram, Shapiro stands firmly by its veracity. Still, it strikes me that this particular decoding lacks the characteristic precision found, for example, in Gennady Barabtarlo's "Smert' mila, èto taina" or the concluding paragraph of "The Vane Sisters." In the chapter "Man of Letters Revisited," Shapiro produces a remarkable and persuasive collection of visual sources connecting the novel's alphabetic motifs (discussed previously by D. Barton Johnson) to diabolic, Nazi, and Soviet symbols. Particularly compelling is the association of the spider, the swastika, and Marthe's extramarital tanglings under the table. The chapter's second section deals with the color associations of the main characters' initials, tying these to the perception of various colors in folk tradition. I am somewhat doubtful that the "red-and-blue ball" marks authorial presence through its colors, since V...