restricted access Nabokov, Perversely (review)
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Reviewed by
Eric Naiman. Nabokov, Perversely. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010. 305 pp.

Approaching Nabokov, Perversely requires a certain amount of caution. This is an academic title without the de rigueur colon and subtitle, with no declaration of theoretical camp or hint at area of interest except for perversion, or perversity, or things done in the spirit of either. (Never fear, however: there are plenty of colons in Nabokov, Perversely, between the covers.) And what title we do have is in fact a kind of clever trick. "What are you reading?" asks a curious friend. And one replies, without thinking: "Nabokov, Perversely"—unintentionally declaring one's loyalty to Naiman's prescribed reading practices, thus the use of the word "approaching" instead of "reading" in the first sentence of this paragraph.

What is clear—and remains so—is that much of Naiman's book is dedicated to thinking about reading Nabokov as a process. As suggested by that word "perversely," this is an adverbial book; Naiman's point is that to love and read Nabokov well, we must read him badly, perversely, against scholarly and social and socioscholarly norms. We must "leer at the text," read "not against the grain but with a hidden one" (20). Certain words, images, phrases, and associations switch on currents of libidinous energy running through each text. That we trace these currents, wade into them, let ourselves be shocked and refreshed by them as we read, is Naiman's exhortation and is certainly one of Nabokov's great gifts to his readers. Naiman's further insistence [End Page 184] that this process has most in common with sexual performance, its pleasures and anxieties, is slightly more problematic.

Though he makes clear that his approach is highly subjective—and that the objection just raised would be the most common objection to his book—Naiman does attempt to furnish evidence of those pleasures and anxieties and their supposed link to sexual life. He points to the constant battles and revisions ongoing on NABOKVL, a list-serv frequented by Nabokov scholars as well as readers and writers outside the academy. In "Hermophobia"—which turns out to mean something like fear of perverse interpretation—Naiman concludes that Nabokov's texts bring "the circuits of interpretation and sexual desire" into "formal conjunction" after presenting a reading posted by an adolescent about his frustration with reading the novels (110). Suffice to say that many circuits are operating in conjunction, formal and otherwise, with sexual desire when one is a teenager; this may not necessarily be the best place to begin an argument that all readings of Nabokov are also in formal conjunction with desire.

Certainly Nabokov scholars may bristle to find their work linked to "appeals made to sexual health experts and advice columnists" (110). And one hopes that none of them take certain of Naiman's rather ad hominem remarks to heart; in one instance Naiman generalizes from another critic's reading of a single passage of Lolita to the suggestion that said critic is uncomfortable with representations of female sexuality tout court. This is decidedly unfair and deserves to be noted as such. But it ought further be noted that Naiman is "aware, however, that Nabokov, Perversely will succeed only if I can convince its readers that my sexually oriented reading of Nabokov is not born primarily of my own quirkiness" (19). Thus, too, the laudable work he performs for all Nabokovians by arguing against selective or manipulative quotation in particular. Block quoting, Naiman seems to understand, is ethical work, because it is the restoration of a mutilated text.

The book itself is split into three parts. In the first we find three chapters of "sexual close readings" of Lolita, Bend Sinister, and Pnin, and a fourth chapter queerly entitled "Hermophobia (On Sexual Orientation and Reading Nabokov)." Certainly, bawdy or sexualized readings can energize, facilitate a thrilling demonstration of a text and its author's verbal and imaginative powers as well as focus larger arguments about reading, for example, or narrative time, or metafictionality, all of which Naiman scrutinizes. But at points his readings seem to suffer from an unfortunate a lack of verbal imagination. The words he...