Style Is Matter

Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov

Leland de la Durantaye
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Style Is Matter
    Book Description:

    "How should we read Lolita? The beginning of an answer is that we should read it the way all great works deserve to be read: with attention and intelligence. But what sort of attention should we pay and what sort of intelligence should we apply to a work of art that recounts so much love, so much loss, so much thoughtlessness-and across which flashes something we might be tempted to call evil? To begin with, we should read with the attention and intelligence we call empathy. A point on which all readers can agree is that great literature offers us a lesson in empathy: it encourages us to feel with the strange and the familiar, the strong and the weak, the vulgar and the cultivated, the young and the old, the lover and the beloved. It urges us to see our own fates as connected to those of others, to link the starry sky we see above us with whatever moral laws we might sense within."-from Style is Matter

    "Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don't care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral facade-demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out."-Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

    With this quote Leland de la Durantaye launches his elegant and incisive exploration of the ethics of art in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. Focusing on Lolita but also addressing other major works (especially Speak, Memory and Pale Fire), the author asks whether the work of this writer whom many find cruel contains a moral message and, if so, why that message is so artfully concealed. Style is Matter places Nabokov's work once and for all into dialogue with some of the most basic issues concerning the ethics of writing and of reading itself.

    De la Durantaye argues that Humbert's narrative confession artfully seduces the reader into complicity with his dark fantasies and even darker acts until the very end, where he expresses his bitter regret for what he has done. In this sense, Lolita becomes a study in the danger of art, the artist's responsibility to the real world, and the perils and pitfalls of reading itself. In addition to Nabokov's fictions, de la Durantaye also draws on his nonfiction writings to explore Nabokov's belief that all genuine art is deceptive-as is nature itself. Through de la Durantaye's deft and compelling writing, we see that Nabokov learned valuable lessons in mimicry and camouflage from the intricate patterns of the butterflies he adored.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6852-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Abbreviations of Works by Nabokov
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Introduction: Lolita, and a Hitherto Little Remarked-upon Reader
    (pp. 1-18)

    Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita. Hannah Arendt recounts this curious incident as follows: “Eichmann’s best opportunity to show this positive side of his character [which he insisted that he had] in Jerusalem came when the young police officer in charge of his mental and psychological well-being handed him Lolita for relaxation. After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book”—‘Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch’—he told his guard.” (Arendt, 49). Though...

  5. Part One: Reader and Response

    • CHAPTER ONE Cruelty, or Nabokov’s Reader
      (pp. 21-31)

      Evil is a word that rarely helps us understand—or limit—what we bring under its dark heading. More often than not it marks a boundary beyond which we are unwilling or unable to venture. Things stand differently, however, with cruelty. Once asked why he wrote Lolita, Nabokov answered with another question, “Why did I write any of my books, after all?” and gave as answer, “I like composing riddles with elegant solutions” (SO, 16). If we are to solve the at once aesthetic and ethical riddle Lolita presents, we might begin with what we know of the riddler who...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Reality of the Author
      (pp. 32-47)

      The cruelty seen in the last chapter pervades Nabokov’s work—from the fates dealt his characters to his “supreme indifference” as to when and how readers were to follow his subtleties. To better understand the many facets of Nabokov’s literary cruelty—and to which we will return at the close of this study—let us look more closely at his vision of the relation of author to reader, and art to reality.

      In an interview with the Italian periodical Il Giorno, Nabokov once remarked that “the people I invite to my feasts must have stomachs as strong as wineskins, and...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Criminal Artist
      (pp. 48-65)

      Just as Lolita had a precursor she eclipses, so too does Lolita. In “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov notes that the Russian novella “The Enchanter” anticipated his Lolita, but that he “was not pleased with the thing and destroyed it sometime after moving to America in 1940” (AL, 312). This turned out not to be the case and Nabokov came across a manuscript copy of the story in 1959 and found it not as bad as he had remembered it.¹ Lolita, however, does not have just this one precedent; it has a host of them with its pedophile theme...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Safely Solipsizing
      (pp. 66-75)

      “Let us skip sex,” says Nabokov in an interview in Strong Opinions, and in both his fictional and nonfictional writing, he is at some pains to frustrate those searching for sexual symbols, or reading only for the prurient plot (SO, 23). “Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude,” he states, “all this is something I find too tedious for words” (ibid.). Humbert, with whom Nabokov is of course not always in agreement, similarly informs his reader: “I am not concerned with so-called ‘sex’ at all. Anybody can imagine those elements...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Anesthesia
      (pp. 76-83)

      Toward the end of his tale, Humbert notes:

      I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azurebarred—I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blinds—her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever—for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major...

    • CHAPTER SIX Humbert’s Green Lane
      (pp. 84-100)

      Humbert Humbert owes his fame to the discomfort he has caused his readers. At the outset of his memoir, and for quite a few pages thereafter, Humbert dismisses and discredits the cares and concerns of others with what many readers—such as Trilling, Booth, Appel, Pifer and many others—have described as unnerving facility. But how exactly does he do this? In the name of what values, through what reasoning, and playing upon what weaknesses or vanities does he so successfully place his readers so ill at ease?

      The first and best answer to the question of how Humbert manages...

  6. Part Two: Style and Matter

    • CHAPTER SEVEN A Riddle with an Elegant Solution
      (pp. 103-109)

      If the argument made in part one of this study is correct and what Nabokov meant to offer his readers was a lesson in cruelty and tenderness, a question remains: Why did he not simply say so—why he instead vehemently and repeatedly stated that there was no such lesson—and in fact no lesson of any sort—to be taken from his work? If Nabokov chose to offer an artistic lesson in tenderness, and yet was in no way prepared to openly concede this, one possible reason is that he had an interest in dissimulation. And an interest in...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Particularity of Literature
      (pp. 110-136)

      While working at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in the 1940s, Nabokov, instead of relying on a generic description of band formation on butterflies’ wings, developed a new classificatory technique involving the counting of stripes, and in some cases scales, on the wings of the butterflies in question (cf. Field 1977, 270). At work on a later lepidopterological project, he spent six hours a day months at a time posted in front of a microscope examining, treating, and removing the complex genitalia of thousands of members of the “blue” family of butterflies. At the height of his fame, in...

    • CHAPTER NINE Lexicomania
      (pp. 137-146)

      Nabokov’s insistence on the particularity of perception has as its natural corollary a focus on the words used to convey it. With this in mind, let us look more closely at his language.

      In the preface to his finest Russian novel, Nabokov notes that the book’s “heroine is not Zina, but Russian Literature” (Gift, ii). In the afterword to his finest English novel, he remarks: “an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct” (AL, 316). The “heroine”...

    • CHAPTER TEN The Fine Fabric of Deceit
      (pp. 147-156)

      One of Nabokov’s students from his lecture class at Cornell relates the following anecdote:

      “I want you to copy this down exactly as I draw it on the blackboard,” Vladimir Nabokov instructed us, after explaining that he was going to diagram the themes of Bleak House. He turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and scrawled “the theme of inheritances” in a weird arching loop. “The theme of generations” dipped and rose and dipped in an undulating line. “The theme of social consciousness” wiggled crazily toward the other lines, then veered sharply away.

      Nabokov turned from the...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN The Figure in the Magic Carpet
      (pp. 157-180)

      Ezra Pound claimed to have heard sometime in 1921 or 1922 that members of the British wartime censorship authorities believed they had discovered that James Joyce’s Ulysses was, in fact, a German code. Though the British authorities also met Nabokov’s Lolita with skepticism, no such suspicion seems to have arisen as concerns his complicated and coded work. Nevertheless, Nabokov was at no small pains to indicate to his better readers and critics that there was more in his works than they had found, that there were hidden patterns therein, and while it seems unlikely that he meant anything like a...

  7. Conclusion: Style
    (pp. 181-194)

    At the end of “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov notes that “the three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought” (LL, 6). Now that we have examined something of the bones of Nabokov’s stories and the marrow of his thought, let us return to the magic, the story, and the lesson of Lolita.

    The question this study has endeavored to ask is a simple one:...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 195-196)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-208)
  10. Index
    (pp. 209-212)