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Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism

Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism

John Burt Foster
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 284
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    Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism
    Book Description:

    Despite Vladimir Nabokov's hostility toward literary labels, he clearly recognized his own place in cultural history. In a fresh approach stressing Nabokov's European context, John Foster shows how this writer's art of memory intersects with early twentieth-century modernism. Tracing his interests in temporal perspective and the mnemonic image, in intertextual "reminiscences," and in individuality amid cultural multiplicity, the book begins with such early Russian novels asMary, then treats his emerging art of memory fromLaughter in the DarktoThe Gift. After discussing the author's cultural repositioning in his first English novels, Foster turns to Nabokov's masterpiece as an artist of memory, the autobiographySpeak, Memory, and ends with an epilogue onPale Fire.

    As a cross-cultural overview of modernism, this book examines how Nabokov navigated among Proust and Bergson, Freud and Mann, and Joyce and Eliot. It also explores his response to Baudelaire and Nietzsche as theorists of modernity, and his sense of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin as modernist precursors. As an approach to Nabokov, the book reflects the heightened importance of autobiography in current literary study. Other critical issues addressed include Bakhtin's theory of intertextuality, deconstructive views of memory, Benjamin's modernism of memory, and Nabokov's assumptions about modernism as a concept.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2089-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Part One: Points of Departure

    • CHAPTER 1 The European Nabokov, the Modernist Moment, and Cultural Biography
      (pp. 3-23)

      The European Nabokov remains an enigma. Readers throughout the English-speaking world remember the author ofLolita, of course, and how he burst onto the literary scene in the late 1950s. During the cultural ferment of the next decade, this retired professor, heavyset and genial in appearance yet holding acerbic literary opinions, became a name to conjure with. Somewhat like the new novelists in France, Nabokov—along with Borges, Barth, and Pynchon—was seen as the founder of an innovative trend in American fiction, a trend that was militantly antirealistic, disconcertingly self-conscious, and passionately devoted to style. It was even claimed...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Self-Defined Origins of an Artist of Memory
      (pp. 24-51)

      “How did it begin with you?” This invitation to describe the sources of one’s creativity appears in Nabokov’s last Russian novel,The Gift, written in the mid-1930s. It is directed at the artist-hero Fyodor, during an imaginary dialogue with Koncheyev, another aspiring writer he admires but barely knows. The following discussion opens up a crucial problematic in Nabokov’s own career. For again and again, as Nabokov weighs his basic motives as an author, he senses both the strong desire to be modern and an irresistible urge to remember his past. As we shall see,The Giftis pivotal for Nabokov’s...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Rejection of Anticipatory Memory: FROM MARY TO THE DEFENSE AND GLORY (1925–1930)
      (pp. 52-70)

      InThe GiftNabokov retrospectively located an origin for his mnemonic art. Modernity and memory come together in a primal experience of synesthesia, and eventually he builds on this moment to create the cluster of images that he associates with his very identity as a writer. But this “colored glass” account of his beginnings, though it refers back to Nabokov’s actual beginnings as a novelist and an autobiographer, is still quite schematic. Even the key initiatory allusions to Nietzsche and Baudelaire, which accompany these fresh departures in his writing and suggest the basic assumptions that guided Nabokov’s reception of European...

  6. Part Two: Toward France

    • CHAPTER 4 Encountering French Modernism: KAMERA OBSKURA (1931–1932)
      (pp. 73-90)

      During the early and mid-1930s Nabokov passed through a period of remarkable, even explosive, creativity. Foreshadowed in May of 1930 by the semifantastic psychological novellaThe Eye, it began in earnest afterGlorywhen he wroteKamera Obskura(1931–1932),Despair(1932–1933), andInvitation to a Beheading(1934) in quick succession. It culminated with Nabokov’s émigré masterpiece, the long novelThe Gift(1934–1937). All of these works differ significantly in conception, tone, style, and thematic orientation; taken as a series, they display an intense will to experiment on several fronts at once, thereby suggesting a more active commitment...

    • CHAPTER 5 From the Personal to the Intertextual: DOSTOEVSKY AND THE TWO-TIERED MNEMONIC SYSTEM IN DESPAIR (1932–1933)
      (pp. 91-109)

      Nabokov wroteDespairright afterKamera Obskura, at an interval so close that excerpts from the two books came out simultaneously in late 1932. But this novel, as if reacting against the stark externality of its predecessor, gives a much larger role to memory. As the story of a supposed “perfect crime,” told retrospectively by the murderer himself,Despairfocuses almost entirely on the narrator Hermann as he writes down memories of the past year. Occasionally he quotes from letters, which offer a more objective view of certain situations, but only at the very end, when Hermann switches to a...

    • CHAPTER 6 Narrative between Art and Memory: WRITING AND REWRITING “MADEMOISELLE O” (1936–1967)
      (pp. 110-129)

      In 1936, when “Mademoiselle O” first appeared in the French literary magazineMesures, it marked a double breakthrough in Nabokov’s art of memory. Not only was it his first avowedly autobiographical work, but by being written in French it was also the fullest expression to date of his European cultural identity. Yet the breakthrough into autobiography is hardly absolute, for such is Nabokov’s fascination with the counterclaims of art and memory that as he repeatedly rewrites “Mademoiselle O” in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, he vacillates between regarding the work as autobiography and as fiction. Thus, after translating and greatly...

    • CHAPTER 7 Memory, Modernism, and the Fictive Autobiographies
      (pp. 130-156)

      More than a decade would pass before Nabokov proceeded to turn “Mademoiselle O” into a full-fledged autobiography. In that period his circumstances changed dramatically: not only did he move from Germany to France and then to the United States, but he settled on English rather than French as his new literary language, to replace Russian. Nabokov’s delay in realizing the memoir’s potential does not, however, mean that his art of memory failed to advance on other fronts. For in the later 1930s, during his last years as a Russian writer, questions of memory, modernism, and their possible relationship are crucial...

  7. Part Three: In English

    • CHAPTER 8 Cultural Mobility and British Modernism: THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT AND BEND SINISTER (1938–1946)
      (pp. 159-177)

      The Giftwas Nabokov’s last Russian novel, though he continued to write in Russian after 1937. Several stories and plays appeared in the later 1930s, and in the early 1940s two chapters from the never-finished novelSolus Rex; during this period he also found a new vitality as a Russian poet. But all this activity seems peripheral to his main achievement, his transformation into an English-language author. Nor was this sharp turn in Nabokov’s career the only major change around 1940. Unlike his period of rapid development in the early 1930s, when he lived in relative freedom, circumstances now seemed...

    • CHAPTER 9 Autobiographical Images: THE SHAPING OF SPEAK, MEMORY (1946–1967)
      (pp. 178-202)

      After finishingBend Sinisterin May 1946, Nabokov went back to the project begun with “Mademoiselle O” a decade earlier. From January 1948 to January 1951 he published fourteen more autobiographical sketches, mostly inThe New Yorker, which concentrated on his boyhood and youth in Russia and then moved more quickly through his European years. In 1951, after making various revisions, he put the sketches together—minus their original titles—to make a fifteen-chapter autobiography calledConclusive Evidence, soon to be renamedSpeak, Memory.¹ Nabokov would later emphasize the “erratic sequence” in which he wrote the book (SM10), but...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Cultural Self-Consciousness of Speak, Memory
      (pp. 203-218)

      True to Nabokov’s initial plan of portraying “many different lands and peoples,”Speak, Memorycovers a much wider range of cultural experiences than “Mademoiselle O.” Simply because it records so many aspects of Nabokov’s passage from Russia through Europe to the United States, it must give much more attention to situations of multiplicity. Gone is the relatively straightforward dualism of the memoir, where the tributes to French modernism shaded into a more complex Franco-Russian awareness; at least five variables interact in this autobiography, which emphasizes three separate European cultures along with Nabokov’s Russian origins and his American destination. Nabokov’s basic...

  8. EPILOGUE: Proust over T. S. Eliot in Pale Fire (1962)
    (pp. 219-232)

    In the fifteen years between the two English versions of his autobiography, Nabokov finally confronted the rival vision of modern literature he had avoided at Cambridge in the early 1920s. His growing awareness of key differences between his own art of memory and T. S. Eliot’s high modernism, by then dominant in the Anglo-American literary world, would culminate with some carefully calibrated allusions, parodies, and adaptations in his novelPale Fire. Not only are these passages unusually specific in accounting for Nabokov’s impatience with Eliot, but by emphasizing Proust’s importance as an alternative, they hark back to his long involvement...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 233-254)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 255-260)