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  • Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov
  • Ellen Pifer (bio)
Leland de la Durantaye . Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Cornell University Press, 2007. 211 pages. ISBN 978-0-8014-4563-7.

The centerpiece of this erudite, philosophically sophisticated study is Nabokov's Lolita-most particularly, the moral issues intrinsic to its subject and structure and the hotly debated questions to which they give rise. In an effort to solve the "riddle" of how to read this controversial novel, Durantaye also discusses relevant aspects of numerous other works of Nabokov's fiction, from his earliest Russian novel, Mary, to the last one he completed in English, Look at the Harlequins! Cutting a broad swath through Nabokov's oeuvre, the author at the same time digs deep, paying as much, if not more, attention to Nabokov's statements and opinions about art-culled from the author's abundant letters, interviews, essays, lectures, scholarly studies, and translation projects-as he does to the verbal texture, or style, of a specific novel, Lolita included. In a study entitled Style Is Matter, this emphasis on expository statements is rather surprising; sometimes the critic appears more intrigued by the author's cryptic pronouncements than by the texts themselves. Still, Durantaye's analysis of Nabokov's views and stated intentions is searching rather than naïve. Over the course of Nabokov's life and career, the tenor and content of his statements on art, literature, morality, and reality vary greatly; Durantaye carefully sifts through the apparent contradictions to get to the heart of the author's artistic vision. Perhaps the most original feature of this critical study is the way that Durantaye situates his discussion of Nabokov's ethical thought and practice within the context and tradition of Western philosophy and art-drawing on examples from Plato to Hegel, Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell, as well as from Milton to Blake, Dickens, and Joyce. In addition, Durantaye devotes numerous pages to discussions of Marx, Darwin, and Freud, locating Nabokov's well-known antipathy to their theories in his equally well-known preference for individual detail over general idea. There is much to praise in his efforts to situate Nabokov's body of work-too often regarded as the bizarre, if intriguing, output of an eccentric genius-within a broad intellectual framework; but at times these efforts produce less salutary results. Here Durantaye's talent for close reasoning and intelligent speculation gives way to protracted analyses of tangential topics, leaving the reader stranded among a plethora of observations that have come unmoored from the central question he has pledged to answer: "how should we read Lolita?" (6). Technical errors, including numerous typographical glitches, also detract from the general effect, as does an index that appears inconsistent: whereas some proper names mentioned in the text or discussed in a footnote are listed in the index, others are not.

Let me begin, however, by accentuating the positive, offering a few examples of the kind and quality of insights that make this book a worthy contribution to Nabokov studies. Given the "riddle" he seeks to answer, Durantaye is obliged to survey a great deal of territory already covered by previous commentators. No topic, for example, is more familiar to Nabokov scholars and critics than that of parody and the role it plays in his fiction. Most informed readers are well aware of the "mixture of plangent lyricism and merciless self-parody" that, in Durantaye's formulation, infuses Humbert's narration. But here, as often in his study, the critic has something new to contribute to our understanding. Noting the way that "parody and poignancy" prove "indissociable from one another" in Humbert's memoir, Durantaye offers one brief-indeed, the briefest possible-example of this strategy: the narrator's famously laconic account of the childhood loss of his mother, who "died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)." Instead of drawing attention to other salient examples of Humbert's stylistic maneuvers, Durantaye distills from this single instance a telling insight into Humbert's cunning negotiations with his readers. Holding up to the light of moral scrutiny the intricate web in which Humbert entraps us, Durantaye notes...

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