- Nabokov's World
The centenary of Nabokov's birth, in 1999, also marked the beginning of the fourth decade of the international industry of Nabokov scholarship. Since the pioneering (still very worthwhile) studies published in the late sixties by Alfred Appel, Carl Proffer, and others, books and articles on the author have mushroomed by the thousand. His novels and stories have been scrupulously annotated, their conundrums and allusions explicated, their themes exposed in plain view of the reader. We also have the magisterial two-tome biography by Brian Boyd, and carefully prepared editions of collected works now exist in several languages (the five-volume Russian edition by Alexander Dolinin meriting special praise). After all such toil, what remains to be done by the budding dissertation writer today—or by the seasoned Nabokovian, if one wishes to avoid mere tautological rehearsal of bygone research? [End Page 161]
Not all research needs to end up in tautology, of course. Why deny the possibility, in scholarship or literature, of digging still deeper, towards ever subtler insights and associations? As has been eloquently argued by Gennady Barabtarlo, in another centennial anthology:
the most, perhaps the only, fruitful method of future research will require, I am convinced, a synthetic consideration of the three overlapping planes [in Nabokov's work], loosely defined here as artistic . . . psychological . . . and metaphysical . . . . Each plane is backstitched by "themes," and these themes, as well as the planes they compose, are in a prodigiously complex but coordinated relation to one another.1
When all approaches have already been tried, the option of coming up with wholly unprecedented readings still remains open—as Nabokov famously said—for the very expert solver (though we might still beware the notion that a critic delving deep enough will arrive, one day, at the definitive synthesis to end all syntheses: witness the dreary fundamentalist debates about Nabokov's "otherworld" and the like).
Another option, chosen by many contributors in the anthology now under consideration, is to search for new interpretive contexts for Nabokov's work by aid of intertextual and / or interdisciplinary readings. The papers here assembled come from two centennial conferences; together, the joint volumes comprise almost 500 pages, two pithy introductory chapters by one of the editors, Jane Grayson, plus thirty articles treating diverse facets of Nabokov's career as a writer. Among the scholars choosing the intertextual route, D. Barton Johnson provides a remarkably well-informed survey of "possible (and perhaps impossible) echoes of [Walter] de la Mare in Nabokov's work" (Vol. 1, p. 74). The caveat notwithstanding, this proves to be fruitful probingground, for according to Nabokov's own testimony, in the early twenties he was a keen reader of "Georgian" writers like de la Mare or Rupert Brooke. The Brookean traces in Nabokov have been disclosed by Johnson elsewhere (see his essay in the New Perspectives volume, note 1 above). Here, he provides valuable addenda by demonstrating that de la Mare's influence is detectable specifically in Nabokov's "aborted [End Page 162] line of development," as in the early stories with an English setting that the author—very wisely—declined to reissue during his lifetime. This is a needed reminder of the essential derivativeness of Nabokov's early oeuvre. One shudders to think what he might have become had he not shed his British models before attaining the status of a full-fledged novelist. Another utile contribution is the dissection by Vladimir E. Alexandrov of hitherto unnoticed allusions to Tolstoy in Nabokov's prose. The multilayered textual knot tying together Anna Karenina with Laughter in the Dark via the birth/death thematics, or the connection between Anna's tangled lace and Margot's, are shrewdly observed as is the reversal of the key phrase from "Master and Man" in the Nabokov story. These are solid additions to our knowledge concerning Nabokov's Russian subtexts. Neil Cornwell furnishes a long-overdue investigation of the Henry James connection in Nabokov...