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Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 62.2 (2006) 77-98

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Vulgarity's Ironist:

New Criticism, Midcult, and Nabokov's Pale Fire

Yale University
"It becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is serious and who is not."
—Clement Greenberg

"Artist of the first rank, or colossal hoaxer" ("Lolita's Creator" 11)? This was the question on the lips of many Americans in 1962, the year Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Stanley Kubrick's film version of Lolita made their debuts, and so Newsweek sent a reporter and photographer to Montreux to pin down the difficult author like one of his own butterflies. The verdict: first-rank artist or—to use the adjective the article most often employs—serious. The magazine's cover portrays Nabokov frowning into the middle distance of writerly inspiration beneath the smiling visage of Sue Lyons, the actress who played Lolita (fig. 1), and the interior photo spread depicts him at work in his genteel hotel suite. But it is the final photo in the spread, a family portrait taken in Russia during Nabokov's childhood, which clarifies what this irascible foreign author was doing on the cover of a national weekly; captioned "Wealthy and aristocratic," the photo solidifies Nabokov's credentials as indisputably highbrow (fig. 2). The author himself collaborates in this persona, announcing in his typically strident tone that he is "a person of no public appeal. . . . I never use schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had an influence on me. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: Butterfly hunting and writing" ("Lolita's Creator" 51). [End Page 77]

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Figure 1
Nabokov photo by Curtis G Pepper. Background photo of Lyon by Patrick Ward. © 1962 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
[End Page 78]

Neither the magazine nor its subject acknowledges the patent irony of a middlebrow publication adjudicating an artist's claim to highbrow status.

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Figure 2
Photograph: Courtesy of the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov.

Newsweek's evaluation of Pale Fire concorded with Mary McCarthy's awestruck review published that same month in the New Republic, in which she famously termed it "one of the very great works of art of this century" (34). McCarthy's remarks touched off a critical debate about the novel which raged in the rarified realm of the Partisan Review and the New Statesman and which had its echoes in dozens of other reviews written in small-town newspapers across America. Like Newsweek's readers, these readers wanted to know if the novel's antics aspired to a higher literary purpose, or if they worked purely as satire, a satire which they suspected was waged at their own expense.1 Nabokov's tale of a scholarly American poet and his woefully misguided reader twanged an already quivering nerve in mid-century America: what is the right way to read and evaluate literature? What does the way that one reads say about oneself, one's place in society? As such, Pale Fire [End Page 79] functioned as a weathervane for the prevailing winds of taste in academic and mainstream reading cultures. The novel polarized its early readers in surprising configurations that illuminate the discontinuities of its historical moment—the cultural critics who weighed in on the serious/spoof question did not necessarily align with the principles they espoused in their other writings.

As interesting as the anxieties this debate reveals is the fact that the entire conversation has been all but forgotten by academic commentators on Pale Fire. Nabokov's literary critics assume a priori that the novel stands at the pinnacle of literary achievement, and therefore stands above the particular cultural milieu into which it was born. If mainstream reviews of the novel were picayunish, academic analyses have been almost hagiographic. Dazzled by his word play...


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