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Nabokov’s ‘Homework in Paris’: Stéphane Mallarmé, Bend Sinister, and the Death of the Author
Abstract

Abstract:

In Nabokov’s final work, Look at the Harlequins!, Vadim, discussing the reviews of Bend Sinister (reincarnated as Esmerelda and her Parandrus), says that his “homework in Paris had never received its due.” In the period Nabokov spent in Paris from 1937 to 1940, he seems to have read and been influence by a number of French authors, especially Stéphane Mallarmé. Mallarmé’s theory of a poetic language from which the Author has resigned sovereignty, which anticipates post-structuralism, seems to have been of particular importance to Nabokov. Like other pieces of Nabokov’s writings of the late 1930s and early 1940s, and indeed like Joyce’s and Borges’s writing of the same period, Bend Sinister dramatises this Mallarméan ‘death of the author’, and by a series of detailed allusions to Mallarmé, Bend Sinister, like Nabokov’s later American novels, signals that it is following Mallarmé’s conclusions about the implications of this evacuation of textual authority. In Bend Sinister’s Mallarméan poetic, art and life are governed by nothingness, doubt, and ambivalence. Experiences which language usually holds apart, such as grief and desire, come into a perverse unity. The transcendence towards which art traditionally aspired is placed in question, and the substance of the world itself, and even the artwork, is replaced by a nothingness or “néant” which, as in post-structuralism, is both present and absent. In Bend Sinister, as in Mallarmé, language is torn towards two extremes of punning and austerity, nonsense and silence, which for Nabokov would be represented by the antithetical modernist examples of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Eliot’s Four Quartets.