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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) THOMAS SEIFRID (Los Angeles) Nabokov's Poetics of Vision or What Anna Karenina is Doing in Kamera obskura "A Mbicjib jik)6ht 3aHaBecKy h KaMepy oôcKypy" flap 383. "But thought likes curtains and the camera obscura" The Gift 338. Unlike Dostoevsky ("old Dusty," with his "dusty-and-dusky" ways, as the hero of Despair puts it), Tolstoy typically comes in for high praise in Nabokov's remarks on his Russian predecessors.1 One early work in particular (Kamera obskura, 1933; Laughter in the Dark, 1938/1965) dwells on Tolstoy with a concentration that might induce us to wonder about the nature of the Tolstoyan influence on Nabokov's early fiction—and thus also, in a broader context, of the reception of Russia's nineteenth-century fiction by the modernist emigration. With Kamera obskura something much more central to Nabokov's poetics is involved than is usually the case in his prolifically allusive works, and this essay is an attempt to speculate on what that something might be.2 The most prominent Tolstoyan references in this novel point to Anna Karenina and do so in a way which suggests not a casual lifting of motifs but 1. Consider, at the very least, the opening remark of Nabokov's lecture on Anna Karenina: "Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction"; Lectures on Russian Literature 137. 2. This article deals with the novel's original, Russian version, in which the characters' names differ from those Nabokov used in the later English version, Laughter in the Dark. For the sake of readers more familiar with that work, the more important correspondences are as follows (Russian /English): Kretschmar/Albinus, Magda/Margot, Robert Gorn/Axel Rex, Anneliza/Elizabeth, Maks/Paul. All references to English versions of Nabokov's works in mis article are to the Vintage International editions. Nabokov Studies the adaptation of a complete apparatus of intentions and meanings.3 As if the obvious borrowing of plot ("adultery leading to death") were not enough, the novel contains a character named "Donanna Karenina," who moreover is asked point-blank by another (Gorn) whether she has ever read Tolstoy (thus incidentally pairing the two authors George Bernard Shaw once proposed as ideal players for a wicked game he called "purgatory mates"). The strange figure wearing dark glasses and smashing rocks whom Kretschmar and Magda see beside the road before their fateful accident is the descendant of the strange, bent-over peasant hammering iron who haunts the dreams of Anna and Vronsky (Nabokov's narrator notes the "knocking and ringing noise"—"3B0H H CTyK"—his hammering makes, just as Anna hears the clang of iron in her dream). Just before their respective catastrophes, both Anna and Kretschmar identically see their lives as if illuminated by a bright light;4 and so forth, grading into possible if less obvious indices: Anna and Magda both pose for artists, with similar suggestions of immorality; the red pillow that, peeking out from behind a curtain, so frightens and excites Kretschmar after Magda's romp through his apartment (he thinks it is the hem of her dress, sweats through dinner with his family terrified of being found out, at last trades anxiety for sinful expectation—only to discover his mistake) may derive from Anna's red purse—a seemingly trivial object on which Nabokov nonetheless dwelt years later in his lectures on Tolstoy and which he made 3. G. M. Hyde (ch. 3, "Laughter in the Dark: or, who killed Lev Tolstoy ?") suggests the Tolstoyan target text is the later story "The Devil" ("D'iavol," 1889). While I would still argue for the preeminence of Anna Karenina, some clues suggest Nabokov also had this work in mind. Most significant is the story's linking of nearsightedness and moral failing; but also—and this is not noted by Hyde, who seems to have relied exlusively on the English version of Nabokov's novel—the protagonist's wife is named "Liza Annenskaia," which surely suggests the Anneliza of Kamera obskura. 4. This parallel, in fact, reveals some of the most explicit verbal evidence for the novel's borrowings from Tolstoy. Nabokov's phrase is: "KpeiMap nepeönpaji Bee...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 1-12
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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