- Vokzal—Garazh—Angar: Vladimir Nabokov i poetika russkogo urbanizma
Yuri Leving's ambitious monograph undertakes to provide a comprehensive overview of Nabokov's use of three dominant cultural topoi from the early twentieth century: the train, the car, and the airplane. The author's approach is primarily structuralist, and his aim is not so much to catalogue all instances of each of these object throughout Nabokov's oeuvre, but rather to provide multiple examples of the deep cultural context within which Nabokov's own urbanist poetics emerged. As a result, the book provides a widely multifaceted picture of Nabokov's work and of the times in which he was formed as an artist. The reader is treated, on the one hand, to a number of fascinating and compelling intertextual dialogues (with, for example, Tsvetaeva, Blok, and Sasha Cherny, to name just a few), and on the other to a dizzying array of citations from numerous contemporary writers and poets who also invoke planes, trains, and automobiles in somewhat similar ways. What emerges in the end, through an accumulation of a very great number of facts and examples, is a feeling that one has almost visited the world of the early 1900s and felt firsthand the thrill of contemplating the final glory of rail travel and the arrival of automobiles and airplanes as the transportation of the future. This achievement is greatly aided by over a hundred period images that illuminate the text, including postcards, private photographs, magazine illustrations, and other media. This book recreates a sense of the past both as a historically "real" entity and as a complex network of cultural codes. Leving does an excellent job of subjecting bygone days to philological science while completely avoiding the all-too-common structuralist flaw of stripping the old world of all of its charm. Here, charm is ever-present.
The book's format will seem unusual to traditionalists and structuralists alike. It comprises three chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, and these are broken into numbered subsections, like many structuralist or social science monographs. In total there are seventy "sections," each of which serves as a distinct chapter, or perhaps it would be better to say "article"—in the spirit of Nabokov's beloved Brockhaus-Efron encyclopedia. These sections range in size from about a page to about eight pages, with most spanning about four pages. However, the material is not organized by a strict mechanical plan, nor alphabetically, but, it seems, by organic connections that Leving [End Page 228] has been able to discern. As a result, most sections seem to grow naturally from their predecessors, rather than follow an arbitrarily or scientifically imposed order. Each section presents a theme or a lexeme, or a gradation of a theme. Leving work strives to provide a vocabulary, or as he calls it, a "thesaurus" of urbanism in Russian literature.
The introduction, or chapter "0" (one really wonders whether Leving's use of these numbers is at all ironic, perhaps akin to the numbered blank stanzas in Nabokov's publication of the Russian Evgenii Onegin), is devoted to a variety of technological advances that accompanied the three main objects of study. Containing ten sections, it concerns such topics as telephones, elevators, electricity, street advertisements, and so on. Its goal is to provide a brief look at other major aspects of urban life that, while important in culture and in Nabokov's works, do not receive major attention in this book. Even here, Leving succeeds in making brief, demonstrative connections between the appearance of these objects (the poetic vocabulary of urban literature) in Nabokov's works and in that of his predecessors and contemporaries.
Chapter 1, "The Train as a New Mythogenic Zone in Literature," contains twenty-seven sections and spans 140 pages. Here, expected themes mingle with the innovative, with the following section titles representing just a few examples: "The Railroad Metaphor"; "The Railroad Catastrophe"; "The Path to Immortality...