“I inspected “my” room through the mist of my utter rejection of it; but I did discern above “my” bed Rene Prinet’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” And she called that servant maid’s room a “semi-studio”! Let’s get out of here at once, I firmly said to myself as I pretended to deliberate over the absurdly, and ominously, low price that my wistful hostess was asking for board and bed.” (38)
As soon as Humbert arrives to Charlotte Haze’s house, he is disgusted by the way it is furnished. This is the painting he notices when entering his soon-to-be “semi-studio”. The violin is certainly a symbol used throughout Nabokov’s production, one of his hidden signatures. This painting was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella carrying the same name, and what is most striking to me is how the plot of this story deals with some interesting themes also present in Lolita.
- In “The Kreutzer Sonata” Pozdnyshev is on a train ride, and he overhears a woman asking “what is love?”. He enters the conversation by stating that “women’s dresses are designed to arouse men’s desires” and adds that “women will never enjoy equal rights to men as long as men view them as objects of desire”.
- He then describes women’s situation as a form of power over men, for “society is geared towards their pleasure and well-being” and commenting “how much sway they have over men’s actions”.
- Later on in the story, Pozdnyshev’s wife takes a liking to a violinist and eventually his jealous husband kills his wife with a dagger.
The first point can be connected with Humbert’s criticism of American hyper-sexualized clothing advertisements and their role in corrupting Lolita. Similarly, the second point also connects with Humbert’s perception of his relationship with Lolita: she has the upper-hand and he is irrationally enchanted by her. The third point is interesting as well, because the epilogue of Tolstoy’s novella ends pretty much like Carmen, who Nabokov introduces in chapter 13 to create a parallel with Lolita’s denouement.
After our recent discussion regarding the supposed presence of totalitarian criticism in Invitation to a Beheading, I started thinking about the main reasons that made it hard for me to experience this novel as a product mainly aimed at verbally attacking totalitarian systems.
My first thought was that there are many things in the narration that are left unsaid, unspecified, vague. There is no context that explains to the reader why the theatrical world Cincinnatus C. lives in is the way it is. There is neither temporal indication, nor spatial one. It seems to me there is no real reference undoubtedly aimed at criticizing neither the Communists, nor the Nazis. The protagonist’s crime is never properly explained or substantiates, and he is never revealed the day he will die. It is thus hard to pinpoint whether Nabokov targets a real-life totalitarian regime, and at first I thought this made the criticism less effective.
Then I read this sentence: “But how can I begin writing when I do not know whether I shall have time enough, and the torture comes when you say to yourself ‘Yesterday there would have been enough time.” (46, online version) This made me think of Cincinnatus as someone stuck in a limbo, and there lies his cause of suffering. This connects with the vague tut/tam (here/there) in the Russian version, and the Tamariny Sady (Tamara Gardens). There becomes an ideal concept more than a spacial one, it is a place of freedom, a place of specificity and exactness.
I therefore started thinking about totalitarian systems and their manipulation of knowledge to create blind devotion and mass conformity: they need to get rid of specific knowledge and replace it with vagueness, for instance through slogans and a fixed ideological agenda. And maybe this was what Nabokov had in mind when writing this novel, and in its vagueness lies the strong criticism towards totalitarianism. The solution is writing, is creativity, is mental emancipation. And maybe it’s just me, and probably I should write my essay about this, but this really reminded me of another Czech author: not Kundera, but Havel, with his “the Power of the Powerless”. The system distorts and limits the truth by reducing it to a slogan like “workers of the world, unite!” and the only way out is to stop accepting the lie and embrace truth, and specific knowledge.
I have noticed that in many occasions in the novel, Rodrig Ivanovich shows the utmost admiration and respect for M’sieur Pierre. However, he is really rude when addressing the prison director? Why?
One example can be found when looking at page 191:
At the third gate, Rodrig Ivanovich was waiting in dressing gown and nightcap.
“Well, how was it?” He asked impatiently.
“Nobody missed you,” M’sieur Pierre said dryly.
While reading “The Luzhin’s Defense”, I often found myself hesitant to formulate a definite moral judgement towards Mrs. Luzhin. Although I was aware Nabokov did not necessarily want to create relatable or likable characters, I
realized that I was harboring contrasting feelings when reading about her.
On one side, I tried to empathize with her situation, acknowledging her as the only character in the book eager to help Luzhin out of a sense of genuine compassion/pity rather than out of self-interest. However, the more I read, the more she appeared to me flat and redundant. And this made me think that she represents for Luzhin the two-dimensional world he wants to escape, with her marriage, her parents and her travel plans.
Going back to the scene where Luzhin and his future wife meet for the first time, there are two things that captured my attention: firstly, this quote:”And suddenly there appeared from no one knew where a person who was so unexpected and so familiar, and who spoke with a voice that seemed to have been sounding mutely all his life and now had
suddenly burst through the usual murk.[…] He noticed with surprise that he was actually talking to her” (99). I am quite sure this is one of the first times Luzhin engages in conversation with someone, and I think that the beginning of his relation with Mrs. Luzhin represents a paramount shift in the novel’s narrative. Before that, Luzhin had isolated himself from the alienating real world, and this had prevented him from losing focus on his ideal world of chess. However, Mrs. Luzhin brings him back to the real oppressive world by talking to him, then deciding to marry him, and then by restricting him from playing chess.
Secondly, this quote:”Trying to unravel in his mind this impression of something very familiar he recalled quite irrelevantly but with stunning clarity the face of a bare-shouldered, black-stockinged young prostitute, standing in a lighted doorway in a dark side street in a nameless town” (99). This is a comparison with Phryne, whose reproduction in the Luzhin’s house was “particularly vivid as a result of the intensified light” (40). The fact that the first impression Luzhin has of her future wife is thus a 2-D painting, which I found rather interesting? Was this Nabokov’s way to flatten Mrs.Luzhin, making her a two-dimension “less pretty” copy of a “Turkish beauty” in Luzhin’s mind?
Valentine’s Day reminder:Luzhin and Luzhina’s love story is not one to be emulated.
Here is the reading scene I found. It is in Chapter 1, pages 15-16.
They had moved around him in apprehensively
narrowing circles, but he had only to raise his head and his
father would already be rapping with feigned interest on the
barometer dial, where the hand always stood at storm, while
his mother would sail away somewhere into the depths of the
house, leaving all the doors open and forgetting the long,
messy bunch of bluebells on the lid of the piano. The stout
French governess who used to read The Count of Monte Cristo
aloud to him (and interrupt her reading in order to exclaim
feelingly ‘poor, poor Dantè!’) proposed to the parents that she
herself take the bull by the horns, though this bull inspired
mortal fear in her. Poor, poor Dantès did not arouse any
sympathy in him, and observing her educational sigh he merely
slitted his eyes and rived his drawing paper with an eraser, as
he tried to portray her protuberant bust as horribly as