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Reviews 227 Nina Allan. Madness, Death and Disease in the Fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. Birmingham Slavonic Monographs #23. Birmingham, UK: Department of Russian Language and Literature, University of Birmingham, 1994. 89pp. Review by Nassim Berdjis, University of California, Davis. Nina Allan's study falls into three chapters on madness, death, and disease respectively. In Chapter 1, she defines four groups of madness and discusses Nabokov's works in chronological order. The first group comprises "'true' madmen . . . who inhabit their own fantasy-world . . . and try to impose their own world-view on others—with disastrous results" (3). Characters in that category possess "heightened . . . perceptions" (4) and varying degrees of talent, but they fail as artists. The second group of madmen represents "victims of 'superconsciousness' or soznanie" (3), a phenomenon that Allan connects with Dostoevskian characters whose preoccupation with the metaphysical renders them unable to deal with more mundane questions. The third kind of madness occurs when characters "lose their accustomed powers of reasoning" (4) because of specific persons or events. Characters in the fourth (and less prevalent) category of madness suffer from a "clinical condition" (4) or medical predicament that, however, does not touch their spiritual reality. Following her discussion of the novels and selected stories, Allan concludes the first chapter by saying that Nabokov's literary renderings of madness show the logical basis of lunacy: "any person who constantly feels compelled to concern himself with questions of metaphysics to which there are no provable solutions is bound to suffer anxieties which, depending on their degree of severity, could well affect mental stabiUty" (33). Ultimately, Nabokov illustrates "the 'borderline' nature of madness and the always uncertain distance between a 'benign' instability which gives its bearer, in compensation for the accompanying angst and anguish, the necessary insight for artistic creation or visionary genius, and a 'malignant' lunacy which warps perception into delusion and makes of its victim an instrument of selftorture and a menace to others" (33). Chapter 2 attributes "a specific 'meaning' or moral/artistic significance within the Nabokovian canon" to instances of "murder, suicide, and death by natural causes" (35). The murderers' fate indicates that "Nabokov does not condone" (45) the killing of even the most flawed victim, as the writer "makes murder appear banal and pathetic" (45). Having discussed suicide, Allan concludes that the suicidal characters possess greater or more genuine artistic talent than the murderers; however, the vessels of their souls cannot deal with this gift (cf. 55). In the sub-chapter on death by natural causes, Allan includes death by pneumonia, death in childbirth, and accidents. 228 Nabokov Studies Chapter 3 deals with "physical illness, deformity, mental handicap and sexual perversion" (68). Except for the recurring motif of heart disease, most disorders in Nabokov's fiction represent illnesses which—similar to madness , murder, and suicide—affect a small number of people. In her conclusion, Allan places Nabokov "in the tradition of great Russian prose—notably that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—in his central concern with the proklyatye voprosy, the 'accursed questions' of human existence: the nature of man, the existence of God, the power of Death, the meaning of the Universe" (81). In contrast to his literary predecessors, however, Nabokov regards art as its own 'message' so that creativity becomes an instrument of immortality. His works reflect "an almost Christian ethic: successful genius and consequent immortality are won only through persistence" (82). Ultimately, madness, death, disease "symbolise and illustrate his chief concern , forming the central tableaux in a series of pictures devoted to the portrayal of the struggle to bring meaning and excellence, against all the odds, to a confusing, treacherous and often horrible world" (83). The laudable attempt to provide a survey of different forms of madness occurring in Nabokov's fiction suffers from the broad definition of madness. In the context of Allan's study, any feeling out of the 'ordinary' (whatever that may be) as well as intensive contemplation of the metaphysical realm becomes some form of madness. For example, other readers may interpret Franz's dependence on Martha in King, Queen, Knave as a manifestation of his weak character rather than as lunacy. And which traumata did Margot and Axel Rex in Laughter...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 227-229
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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