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To think away thought: Nabokov’s Death Kit

From: Nabokov Studies
Volume 12, 2009/2011
pp. 188-199 | 10.1353/nab.2009.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“Everything was as it should be: grey tints, the sleep of substance, matter dematerialized.”

Vladimir Nabokov, “The Visit to the Museum”

Moia zhizn’ - sploshnoe proshchanie s predmetami…

V. Nabokov, “In Memory of L.I. Shigaev”

These days the papers I give divide a little too neatly into two types. The first involves stand up self-laceration that produces chuckles but often makes me uncomfortable, and the second defaults to my asking questions to which I genuinely do not have the answers and which often make my audience uncomfortable. Unfortunately for you, but consistent with the theme of this conference, today’s paper is decidedly of the second type. I began it exactly two years ago when Professor Gennady Barabtarlo and I discussed Martin Amis’s negative reviews of The Original of Laura (hereafter TOOL ).2 Like Professor Barabtarlo, I had found myself greatly troubled by what Amis chose to emphasize. Among other reviewers, I was also surprised by Alexander Hemon and more than a little annoyed by John Simon. Amis could not find any theme in TOOL other than the kinky “infernal” one of “sexual despoilation of very young girls,” a charge Simon echoed in not-so-slyly accusing Nabokov of having “pedophile fantasies,” while Hemon rightly saw “Wild’s self-eradication” as a dominant theme but dismissed this theme as “traver[sing] the border between plain silly and ridiculously serious.”

Since I have never been happy with my own understanding of the to me decidedly unsilly scenes depicting the self-dissolution of Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading and of Olga in Bend Sinister , I greeted the re-appearance of that theme in the TOOL fragments as a chastising occasion for self-improvement. But I quickly found that I could not help delaying the due chastisement by self-diversion or two. From Professor Boyd’s biography I knew that Nabokov referred to TOOL as the “abyss of my new novel” (653). The metaphor struck me as both rich and odd. Remembering Ada’s claim that “Tropes are the dreams of speech” (Ada 416/328), I decided to re-read those parts of Strong Opinions and Lectures on Literature where Nabokov speaks about his composing process to see if the trope of the abyss is a singular occurrence or a part of a pattern. He does indeed speak of “a solipsistical abyss where general ideas” (SO 136) (presumably the reader’s) about the world, the writer, and the novel must be “dissolved” before the work at hand can materialize completely. Other abysses and dissolutions, too many to list here, yawned at my invitingly.

Nabokov told us that for him “the entire book” he is composing, even “before it is written, seems to be ready ideally in some other, now transparent, now dimming, dimension, and my job is to take down as much of it as I can make out and as precisely as I am humanly able to” (SO 69). In other words, the book is already completed before it is even composed. That certainly cannot be said of TOOL if one imagines the process of making out patterns and taking them down on paper as occurring across the temporal and spatial abyss separating the ideal flash of rapturous vision from the long and laborious index card composition and its graphite smudged tell-tale of revision. By the way, revision at one level is a form of willed self-dissolution. To make matters even more complicated, Nabokov also reports that “[t]he greatest happiness I experience in composing is when I feel I cannot understand, or rather catch myself not understanding … how or why that image or structural move or exact formulation of phrase has just come to me” (SO 69).

The phrasing here gives rise to at least four other upside down propositions: (1) the work’s completion seems premised on the writer’s required ignorance about the origins of the work’s particular features as they materialize; (2) for a man who claimed that “Imagination is a form of memory” (SO 78), the work of art thus is not necessarily limited to the expression of personal or remembered experience, and personal experience may even be seen as interfering...

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