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Nabokov Studies 5 (1998/1999) ERIC NAEVIAN (Berkeley) Litland: The Allegorical Poetics of The Defense for Robert P. Hughes Much recent scholarly work on Nabokov has its root in the nervous desire that Nabokov prove more than a master of metafiction. Fearing that metafiction is not a sufficient engine to drive an author's canonization to the pinnacle of literary greatness, scholars have urged us to move beyond that initial phase and accept Nabokov as a philosopher of subjectivity and personal relations, as an occult, even religious thinker, or as a moral prophet asserting the compatibility of art with humanitarian values.1 While these approaches have significantly expanded the scope of Nabokov studies, they rest upon the assumption that the metafictive interpretive game has been adequately played out. As far as The Defense is concerned, this assumption is unfounded, in fact, so unfounded that the novel's central poetic device has not, I believe, been named in its scholarly treatments. While it may be that no novel by Nabokov can ever be read closely enough, The Defense, in particular, requires a closer reading than it has hitherto received. Ultimately, the interpretation of the novel offered here builds on that well formulated by Tammi and Connolly—The Defense explores the fundamental differences between the perspectives of character and author; it is about the struggle between "the hero's attempt to order the design of his life" and "the superior order imposed by the [author]."21 want to go further, though, and use a dirty word in Nabokov criticism. My argument will be that the work is an allegory about the relationship prevailing between author and character in all fiction. Fundamental to allegory is the extent to which virtually all events in a text are reducible to an abstract idea or set of ideas relentlessly pursued; I would like to thank Thomas Banchoff, Avram Brown, Robert P. Hughes, Lina IHc, John Malmstad and Anne Nesbet for their assistance. 1. See Connolly, Alexandrov, Boyd 1990 and 1991. 2. Tammi, 136. See also Connolly, 93. Nabokov Studies according to an unsigned article in the Brokhaus Encyclopedia, allegory is characterized by a continuous rapport between a general concept arising from philosophical reflection and that concept's "cleverly conceived individual shell"; it may be defined as "the artistic description of abstract concepts by means of concrete representations" (1:461). According to Northrop Frye, allegory occurs "when the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena" (12). To use the language of Nabokov's novel itself—drawn from a passage that ostensibly deals with the description of an apartment—allegory materializes "when a strictly problem idea, long since discovered in theory, is repeated in a striking guise on the board in live play" (133,143-44)? A few procedural notes are essential at the outset. The method of close reading practiced in this essay has been developed in psychoanalytic and deconstructive studies. As usually employed, it entails "reading against the grain," finding the places where a text's wording is inadequate (or excessive) to its purpose. Reading against the grain generally rests on the assumption that the subconscious expresses itself through lapses, unanticipated word "plays" and other forms of verbal symptomatology.4 Nabokov's writing is profitably read this way, with the crucial distinction that the textual 'level' assumed by psychoanalysis and deconstruction to be the province of the subconscious has in Nabokov's fiction been preemptively occupied by the writer and is insistently and playfully conscious. In reading Nabokov against the grain, one reads with the author against the superficial or inadequate mode of interpretation employed by naive, traditional readers and by not a few of Nabokov's own characters. In one of several scenes in The Defense in which the text comments on its own hermeneutic position, Mrs. Luzhin overhears a conversation "about a new novel." One character asserts that "it was elaborately and subtly written and that every word betrayed a sleepless night." A woman's voice asserts: "Oh, no, it reads so easily" (232, 243). Here Nabokov stages an exchange between two types of readers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 1-46
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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