Theatricality and the removal of the Moon as a prop

“A blunt knock-knock-knock came from somewhere off to the left as they were descending Steep Avenue. Knock-knock-knock.

“The scoundrels,” muttered M’sieur Pierre. “Didn’t they swear it was all done?”

At last they crossed the bridge and started uphill. The moon had already been removed and the dark towers of the fortress blended with the clouds.” (Nabokov, 190-191)

Luzhin’s books

“On the other hand, there were two books, both given to him by his aunt, with which he had fallen in love for his whole life, holding them in his memory as if under a magnifying glass, and experiencing them so intensely that 20 years later, when he read them over again, he only saw a dryish paraphrase, an abridged edition, as if they has been outdistanced by the unrepeatable, immortal image that he had retained. ” (pg. 33)

The Frustration of Description: An Ode to Qualia

In phenomenology, a field of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of conscious experience, one of the most seminal concepts has been that of qualia. Though often described rather vaguely as the ‘redness of red’ or ‘what it’s like’ to have an experience, qualia is in actuality a very precise construct that describes the aspect of conscious experience that cannot be communicated, described, or reconstructed through any information about the experience (besides the experience itself). The seemingly infinite complexity and multi-dimensionality of any given experience, from the coarseness of a streetcar conductor’s hands to the wonderfully alluring, phantasmagoric shadow-play of icicles, appears to elude lossless compression through self-expression.

Nabokov’s constant dissection of the minutiae of everyday experience, whether through the intensely evocative, multi-sensory imagery that characterizes the descriptions of his often rather perceptive narrators (e.g. The Vane Sisters, The Passenger, A Guide to Berlin, etc.), or through his extensive usage of metaphors, reflects a tacit understanding of the physical boundaries that restrain his prose as an author. It could even be argued that the prevalent meta-fictive awareness motif in his stories is a rebellion against the constraints of his medium as an artist – a very sophisticated one to say the least. For Nabokov does not merely break the fourth wall as other artists tend to or mock the reader a la ‘Jack the Fataliste’, but he rather acknowledges the many layers of creation, recreation, and creative imagination that is at the heart of any literary engagement: First the creation of the fictional universe by the author (in the image of the real world that the author undeniably bases their creations off of), then the initial reconstruction of the scaffolding of the universe by the reader upon first reading. Further readings only serve to flesh out and color the recreation of the recreation, exploring the variegated sensations provided to the reader by the author and generating new ones to fill the blanks inevitably left out by the author.

Practical considerations (such as readers often not having infinite time to engage with a text) aside, the precise conceptual cause of this inevitability is the aforementioned concept of qualia, and I find Nabokov’s engagement with this concept in his short stories utterly fascinating.