- The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov
The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, most ably edited by Julian Connolly, nicely serves a dual purpose. It is a valuable, challenging introduction to central and important aspects of Nabokov's work and career for the fairly [End Page 216] sophisticated neophyte. It is also a broad and penetrating survey of a number of the most vital current foci of Nabokov research that will be of keen interest to experienced Nabokovians. Nabokov studies have certainly reached the point where no single volume, no matter how fat, can aspire to be a comprehensive survey of the complex works and development of this most richly faceted of authors, but this collection has admirable and sensible breadth, including discussions of the various genres and languages in which Nabokov worked, and studies of his early, middle, and late literary productions. (It has been almost forty years since the first collection of Nabokov critical essays, L. S. Dembo's Nabokov: The Man and His Work, 1967.) Unlike some critical anthologies, the individual authors have been encouraged to maintain their individual voices and idiosyncratic approaches, which give the book a richness of texture sometimes missing in similar collections. The book is loosely organized in three sections: "Contexts," "Works," and "Related Worlds."
In a very interesting introductory essay, Zoran Kuzmanovich finds in the 1952 poem "Restoration" a springboard into Nabokov's life and art; indeed, the ways in which he uses each to create the other. Ten words or phrases, called "nerve points" by the author, from this thirty-line poem point to important motifs in what Nabokov saw as the recurrent thematic and artistic motifs of his biography. Thus, for example, the phrase "they restore" initiates a discussion of Nabokov's understanding that first his note cards, then his novels "restore" an initial flash of whole and self-contained inspiration. Kuzmanovich's tactic in this essay runs the risk of a kind of Kinbotian disconnect between the poetic text and the critical exegesis. A reader might wonder if the text of the poem actually points so directly at key themes of Nabokov's life—it is, as Kuzmanovich himself suggests, "unremarkable as a lyric." But I found the case persuasive and the authorial strategy winning. Nabokov's life and work seem at times like some elaborately knitted object; a complex sweater for the Russian winter, perhaps, where one can pluck and pull on any bit of yarn, and ultimately unravel the entire construction. I found particularly sensitive and moving Kuzmanovich's discussion of the loving and close relationship between Nabokov and his mother.
In his essay on Nabokov as storyteller, Brian Boyd proves once again that he is not only Nabokov's best biographer, but also one of his most astute and sensitive readers. Boyd focuses upon the openings of Mary and Transparent Things, one early work and one late, neither at the pinnacle of Nabokov's achievements. He shows that both openings reveal how Nabokov's narrative strategies shift from work to work, and how they grew over his career. Rejecting conventional devices of plot and character (both traditional tactics and [End Page 217] more recent, trendy ones) Nabokov tells stories which challenge the imagination and attention of his readers. For example, his plots tend to proceed in lineal fashion, but at any moment within a scene, shift backwards in time, or forward, and from external physical details to the mind of a character, or of the narrator, or even of the reader.
As Boyd notes Nabokov's self-referential tracing of the workings of his own mind in his own works, Alexander Dolinin similarly discusses Nabokov's creation of an artist persona in his later, English-language works, which contrasts sharply with the earlier, Russian Nabokov-Sirin. Sirin, Dolinin argues, was solidly rooted in the Russian literary context, drawing from it, building upon it, parodying it, claiming a role as its "heir apparent." But in his later work, especially the English translations of the Russian novels, Nabokov deliberately de...