Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf
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Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf

Сколько у Вас пишущих дам! Будьте осторожны—это признак проbинциальной литературы (голландской, ческой и т. д.)

(You have so many writing women! Be careful—it’s a sign of a provincial literature (Dutch, Czech, etc.))

—Vladimir Nabokov, letter to Mark Aldanov

I gradually got used to his manner of … taking something from a great author and then saying he’d never read him.

—Nina Berberova, “Nabokov in the Thirties”

Nabokov did say he had read Woolf. In fact he claims to have read “all” of Woolf in 1933 in preparation for writing “The Admiralty Spire.”1 Yet the faults for which his story’s horrid narrator reviles “lady novelists” have nothing to do with either the subject, method, or stylistic devices of Woolf ’s novels.2 Nabokov finds lady novelists sentimental and famously wrote to Edmund Wilson, “I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class.”3 Maxim D. Shrayer reviews Nabokov’s largely negative criticism of the works of Russian and anglophone women poets and prose writers, finding that he “fails to offer grounds for his dismissive remarks” about even such a poet as Marina Tsvetaeva.4

What led Nabokov to read all of Woolf ’s work but never anywhere to allude explicitly or covertly, except in his letter to Zinaida Shakovskaia, as far as we know, to one of the most important anglophone modernists publishing while Nabokov was studying literature in England? After all, by 1933 Woolf [End Page 490] had written Jacob’s Room (1922), The Common Reader (1925), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), A Room of One’s Own (1929), and The Waves (1931), works that at the time were overturning the way prose fiction was written no less remarkably than Joyce’s Ulysses.5 Woolf ’s reputation by the 1930s was too well established for him to treat her work as only representative of women’s (deridable) authorship.6

By the early thirties, Woolf was a major prose stylist whose novels expanded the boundaries of fictional form while exploring the intricate relationship between memory, consciousness, and perception. Woolf ’s linguistic and formal experiments achieve a novelty and sophistication (and recognition) Nabokov had not at the time yet matched. As we show, his covert use of her work reveals their shared interest in the complex interpenetration of personal memory and literary influence, of public history and private fate. At a time when he was an impoverished émigré known only to a small circle of Russians, Nabokov’s discovery that a woman was already engaging, with obvious success, in the kind of experiments he was interested in himself could help account for his dismissal of Woolf. His hidden readings of Woolf demonstrate his determination to maintain his vision of himself as sui generis, an artistic self-description that was daring, liberating, and somewhat overstated. At the same time, his suppression of Woolf ’s contribution to his work suggests his resemblance to the angry male writers Woolf describes in A Room of One’s Own.

The dense referentiality that characterizes Nabokov’s fiction is one of the most important of his creative methods and takes several forms. Nabokov makes precise textual references (Pale Fire’s “bodkin” is a hyperlink to Hamlet, the soliloquy “ To Be or Not to Be,” to Shakespeare’s life, work, and period, which he wants the reader to be well aware of), which constitutes a subtextual mode. Whole plot lines have identifiable sources (Sally Horner’s real-life abduction by Frank Lasalle helps structure part 2 of Lolita) that carry with them their own cultural settings, forming an intertextual method. A third order of reference is the network of secondary texts “standing behind” an initial set of references, in which the system of references makes its own argument, establishing intratextuality.7 Cryptomnesia on this scale in the case of such a highly self-consciously referential writer as Nabokov is a wild hypothesis. There is another, more elusive category, a mode of referentiality that refers to a looming invisible relationship, hidden in not-so-plain view, without detectable sub-, inter- or intratextual clues. Michael Marr, demonstrating Nabokov’s appropriations of Thomas Mann’s work in “The...