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Transitional Nabokov by Will Norman and Duncan White (review)
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Transitional Nabokov. Edited By Will Norman and Duncan White. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009. 326 pp. Paperback $58.95.

The title and topic of this volume originated at a conference held at the University of Oxford in July 2007 and attended by Nabokov scholars from around the world. Selected from the papers delivered over the entire conference period, the volume includes sixteen essays by both well-established and emerging scholars. Some of the shorter essays reflect the suggestive nature [End Page 367] and scope of the conference-paper format; others are more fully worked out. This unevenness notwithstanding, the volume offers an engaging variety of perspectives on the "transitional" aspects of this trilingual author's prodigious literary career.

In life as well as art, Vladimir Nabokov was in perpetual transit: he left St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, attended Cambridge University in England, and subsequently settled in Germany and then in France before emigrating to the United States, where he lived and worked for nearly two decades until returning to Europe in 1959. As Will Norman and Duncan White observe in their introduction, Nabokov's peripatetic life suggests only the most obvious aspect of his transitional career. By the time he effected his geographical transition to America in 1940, Nabokov had already embarked on the linguistic transformation that eventually propelled him from the rank of leading Russian émigré novelist of his generation to even greater prominence as an American writer of international renown. Perceived by many (myself included) as one of the twentieth century's finest novelists, Nabokov—an accomplished poet, translator, playwright, literary scholar, and teacher—was also in perpetual transit between one literary medium or genre to another. The ease with which he traversed linguistic boundaries was matched, moreover, by his ability to move between the disciplines of science and art. His lifetime dedication to the study of lepidoptery led, in the 1940s, to a post at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and to a number of important publications on the scientific classification of butterflies.

The sixteen essays in this volume, which take a wide range of approaches to the transitions characterizing Nabokov's life and art—including the stylistic innovations and verbal sleights-of-hand for which his fiction is famous—are presented in four sections: "Nabokov and Science," "Transnational Nabokov," "Nabokov Beyond Language," and "Nabokov and Ethics." Within each section, the essays differ widely in approach. Due to limitations of space, I offer a brief overview of their contents, paying closer attention to those essays that break new ground.

Leading off the first section, "Nabokov and Science," Stephen Blackwell elegantly demonstrates, in "Nabokov's Fugitive Sense," the way in which Nabokov's view of evolution—of both life and human consciousness— undermines the notion of permanence and, therefore, of stable taxonomic classification. As Nabokov noted early in the 1940s, such classifications cannot claim a fixed identity but only "a fugitive sense." If, he stated, "such conceptions as species, subspecies, etc. . . . do exist they do so taxonomically as abstract conceptions, mummified ideas severed from and uninfluenced by the continuous evolution of data-perception" (16-17). Blackwell goes on to point out how Nabokov's view of "continuous evolution" operates as a [End Page 368] principle in his fiction. In novels ranging from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight to Lolita and Pnin, Nabokov's narrators futilely seek to establish a fixed or static image of the individual who is named in the novel's title but whose nature remains elusive. Two other essays in this section, by Brian Boyd and Leland de la Durantaye, respectively, also take up the subject of Nabokov's evolutionary thinking and the relationship he perceived between natural and artistic creation. In "Thinking About Impossible Things in Nabokov," Susan Elizabeth Sweeney examines Nabokov's approach to the "continuous evolution of data-perception" from yet another angle. His novels, she contends, achieve their dynamic effects by "dramatizing how the mind works" (67). Analyzing passages from several of Nabokov's novels, Sweeney draws attention to the ways Nabokov's fiction displays the cognitive process known as conceptual blending: the process by which "the mind combines recognizable elements into something new...