Nabokov, Perversely

Nabokov, Perversely

Eric Naiman
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Nabokov, Perversely
    Book Description:

    In an original and provocative reading of Vladimir Nabokov's work and the pleasures and perils to which its readers are subjected, Eric Naiman explores the significance and consequences of Nabokov's insistence on bringing the issue of art's essential perversity to the fore. Nabokov's fiction is notorious for the interpretive panic it occasions in its readers, the sense that no matter how hard he or she tries, the reader has not gotten Nabokov "right." At the same time, the fictions abound with characters who might be labeled perverts, and questions of sexuality lurk everywhere.

    Naiman argues that the sexual and the interpretive are so bound together in Nabokov's stories and novels that the reader confronts the fear that there is no stable line between good reading and overreading, and that reading Nabokov well is beset by the exhilaration and performance anxiety more frequently associated with questions of sexuality than of literature. Nabokov's fictions pervert their readers, obligingly training them to twist and turn the text in order to puzzle out its meanings, so that they become not better people but closer readers, assuming all the impudence and potential for shame that sexually oriented close-looking entails.

    In Nabokov, Perversely, Naiman traces the connections between sex and interpretation in Lolita (which he reads as a perverse work of Shakespeare scholarship), Pnin, Bend Sinister, and Ada. He examines the roots of perverse reading in The Defense and charts the enhanced attention to the connection between sex and metafiction in works translated from the Russian. He also takes on books by other authors-such as Reading Lolita in Tehran-that misguidedly incorporate Nabokov's writing within frameworks of moral usefulness. In a final, extraordinary chapter, Naiman reads Dostoevsky's The Double with Nabokov-trained eyes, making clear the power a strong writer can exert on readers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6023-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 1926 Vladimir Nabokov wrote a short story called “Skazka” (A Fairy Tale). Published in Rul', the Berlin émigré newspaper founded by his father, it opens with the protagonist riding in a tram. Every day, on his way to and from work, Erwin looks through the window and chooses girls for his harem. The harem is strictly imaginary; “only once in his life” has Erwin tried to pick up a woman, and that attempt ended badly: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Leave me alone” (Stories, 161). On this evening, however, Erwin meets a tall middle-aged lady who introduces...

  4. Part One: Sexual Orientation

    • Chapter 1 A Filthy Look at Shakespeare’s Lolita
      (pp. 17-45)

      “Not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work” (4)—so states the fictitious Dr. John Ray, Jr., and until recently I had not thought that many readers would agree. Lolita has always struck me as a stylistically lewd book, an opinion I had not regarded as an original point of view. I was, therefore, surprised by an exchange in which I participated several years ago on NABOKV-L. The discussion began with a relayed query concerning “Chestnut Lodge,” a motel in which Humbert Humbert discerns a clue left by his nemesis Clare Quilty. The author of...

    • Chapter 2 Art as Afterglow (Bend Sinister)
      (pp. 46-73)

      Received wisdom has it that Bend Sinister, completed a year after the defeat of the Nazis and in the face of Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, is about the saving power of art and the importance of individual freedom. Such a reading is fundamentally rooted in the liberal, humanist tradition, and if Bend Sinister is generally considered one of Nabokov’s least successful novels (Boyd, American Years, 105; Clancy, 92–100), it may be because it seems to choose such an easy target.¹ Who, after all, could argue with the notion that totalitarianism is a bad thing?

      Even though Nabokov, in...

    • Chapter 3 Perversion in Pnin
      (pp. 74-104)

      Perversion in Pnin? Even when we have begun to appreciate the narrative war being waged between Pnin and those who tell stories about him, the novel appears to lack the dark, salacious side of much of Nabokov’s English work. Pnin’s virtual simultaneity to Lolita—it was written right after Lolita but published in the United States before it—reinforces this impression; it is as if the latter novel has unsexed the former, absorbing all the libidinal energy Nabokov was capable of producing at one time. Yet not only is Pnin frequently a lewd book, its hidden lewdness hints at a...

    • Chapter 4 Hermophobia (On Sexual Orientation and Reading Nabokov)
      (pp. 105-132)

      What is to be done with the homosexuals who inhabit Nabokov’s novels? These characters, whose sexual preference is so immediately legible, so caricatured, raise questions about the role of excess in the work of an author so famously focused on the control of every word in a highly organized aesthetic structure. Some readers may be tempted to look away, dismissing Nabokov’s homosexuals as a sign of his times and a feature without fundamental importance to an appreciation of his work, but scholars have produced several attempts to address this issue. Most of the work falls into one of three categories:...

  5. Part Two: Setting Nabokov Straight

    • Chapter 5 Reading Chernyshevsky in Tehran: Nabokov and Nafisi
      (pp. 135-147)

      Although neither Azar Nafisi nor any of her reviewers seem to have acknowledged it, by the standards of Nabokov’s famous quiz about good readers, the word “well” could not be added to the title of Reading “Lolita” in Tehran. Nabokov begins his little test—“Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader”—with six wrong responses, the first three of which are:

      the reader should belong to a book club;

      the reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine; and

      the reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle (Lectures...

    • Chapter 6 Lolita in the Real World
      (pp. 148-160)

      A few years ago, in one of the first senior seminars I offered on Lolita, we spent a few days discussing critical works employing a feminist approach to the novel. In the course of debating the merits of a chapter by Linda Kauffman that focuses on the silencing of Lolita, the students considered whether the novel was participating in or critiquing the suppression of women’s speech. Several noted that the answer to this question depended on what a reader brought to the novel, both in terms of worldview and method of reading. One expressed the opinion that Lolita was a...

    • Chapter 7 Blackwell’s Paradox and Fyodor’s Gift: A Kinder and Gentler Nabokov
      (pp. 161-178)

      In 1999 Brian Boyd delivered two addresses in honor of Nabokov’s one-hundredth birthday. Conflated, they were published a few years later as “A Centennial Toast.” Boyd begins with a story. After his truck breaks down in Utah, a biology student with an interest in lepidoptery notices an older man walking down the road with a butterfly net. The student attempts to engage the collector in a conversation, but the man introduces himself (as Vladimir Nabokov) only after the student has responded correctly to his request that he identify several species of butterfly. The two stay in contact and eventually Nabokov...

  6. Part Three: Reading Preposterously

    • Chapter 8 Litland: The Allegorical Poetics of The Defense
      (pp. 181-220)

      Much scholarly work written on Nabokov in the past twenty years 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, 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. Although these approaches have significantly expanded the scope of Nabokov studies, they rest upon the assumption that the metafictive interpretive...

    • Chapter 9 The Costs of Character: The Maiming of the Narrator in “A Guide to Berlin”
      (pp. 221-232)

      Why does an author cripple a character? This question acquires poignancy only for readers with feet firmly planted on both sides of the modernist divide, readers simultaneously old-fashioned and textually aware. Violence inflicted on a character matters only when we identify with him or, at the very least, attribute to him a meaningful subjectivity and the capacity to suffer. Readers of nineteenth-century fiction do this all the time, but the illusion of realist fiction precludes its readers from holding the author responsible for the misfortunes of characters. Readers of modernist and postmodernist fiction will focus more on the presence of...

    • Chapter 10 The Meaning of “Life”: Nabokov in Code ( King, Queen, Knave and Ada)
      (pp. 233-268)

      Driving away from Ardis after his first summer with Ada, Van stops at the Forest Fork, where he plans to meet her for one last tryst before catching the train:

      Van plunged into the dense undergrowth. He wore a silk shirt, a velvet jacket, black breeches, riding boots with star spurs—and this attire was hardly convenient for making klv zdB AoyvBno wkh gwzxm dqg kzwAAqvo a gwttp vq wifhm Ada in a natural bower of aspens; xliC mujzikml, after which she said:

      “Yes—so as not to forget. Here’s the formula for our correspondence. Learn this by heart and...

  7. Epilogue. What If Nabokov Had Written “The Double”: Reading Dostoevsky after Nabokov
    (pp. 269-284)

    What did Nabokov teach Dostoevsky? When I took my first course in comparative literature—after several years of philological training in the citation, quotation, and parody analysis that is the bread and butter of Slavic Languages and Literatures—I became aware of a much underappreciated fact: It is a central purpose of comparative literature to enable us to speak of the influence of a living writer on a dead one. Or of one who died recently on writers dead years before his birth. We don’t usually put it in such terms—a distinction is drawn between influence and comparison, but...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 285-286)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-300)
  10. Index
    (pp. 301-306)