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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) GEOFFREY GREEN (San Francisco) Visions of a "Perfect Past": Nabokov, Autobiography, Biography, and Fiction Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." Inspector Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time." Holmes: "That was the curious incident." —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "Silver Blaze" Holmes: "I followed you." Sterndale: "I saw no one." Holmes: "That is what you may expect to see when I follow you." —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "The Devil's Foot" Writing to his editor at Doubleday in 1946, Vladimir Nabokov recounted his plans for "a new kind of autobiography, or rather a new hybrid between that and a novel" (Selected Letters 69). This would result in his memoir, Conclusive Evidence (1951) and its revision, Speak, Memory (1966). The title Nabokov devised for the first chapter of this "new kind of autobiography" was "Perfect Past," and it was under this title that chapter one was published initially in the New Yorker. In this "new hybrid," we find the intriguing statement: "There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world, a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" (Speak, Memory 167). A preliminary or superficial reading of this passage could suggest that the distinction between imagination and knowledge might become obscure at their "delicate 90 Nabokov Studies meeting place"; this artistic obfuscation would be "arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones"—creating, thus, a "new hybrid" between fiction and fact. Nabokov, in an interview, described reality as "an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable" (Strong Opinions 11). In another interview, Nabokov maintained , "I do not believe that 'history' exists apart from the historian" (Strong Opinions 138): it is entirely appropriate, that, for such a chronicler, the only form of history possible would be the autobiography; the only form of autobiography possible would be one that blends and merges a factual account of his experiences with the artistic structure of a novel. "The best part of a writer's biography," Nabokov emphasized, "is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style" (Strong Opinions 155). Despite this apparent motif—the artistic obfuscation of the distinction between fact and fiction—Nabokov had frequent recourse to the instructive clarification, correction, or rejoinder. On one such occasion, he wrote to the London Times in 1967 to "object" to their account (that his father had been shot because "'he was suspected of being too Left-wing'") on the grounds that "the reason it gives for the murder is false." Nabokov presented the actual facts to establish that his father had not even been targeted and that he had died while shielding Milyukov, the true object of the assassins. "I wish to submit," Nabokov wrote, "that at a time when in so many eastern countries history has become a joke, this precise beam of light upon a precious detail may be of some help to the next investigator" (Strong Opinions 214-215). In this matter Nabokov described bis clarification as a "precise beam of light" shining to remedy the threat of "history [becoming] a joke." In the same volume of collected pieces Nabokov included his statement that there is no history apart from the historian and the statement that history ought not to become a joke. How is it possible for these two statements to coexist? It would appear, if history is inherently connected to the particular historian who concocts it, that history is subjective: how, then, may we distinguish between objectively true or false versions of events? How do we differentiate between "reality" (a word Nabokov preferred to cite ironically in quotation marks [Strong Opinions 154]) and art? Can it be said that Nabokov was trying to have it both ways? Is there a way in which history may be said to be both serious and yet utterly dependent on the subjective and esthetic narrative of the historian ? This is a question that has not...


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