Novel of the Century

Attached is a link to an article arguing that Pale Fire is the best novel of the 20th century and one that suggests Pale Fire is in the midst of a cultural resurgence.

In the view of Ron Rosenbaum, the author of the first piece, what makes Pale Fire so brilliant is its communication with Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet, and its singular achievement of Shakespearean complexity. The second article notes Pale Fire’s presence in two recent movies, Blade Runner 2049 and Unsane.

A meta-arc concerning reflection appears to be running through both these pieces. While “The Novel of the Century” is preoccupied with Pale Fire‘s reflection of the foremost author in the English language, the Boston Globe article notes the novel’s reverberating reflections through contemporary culture.

Could Pale Fire be thought to function as a timeless reflector or mirror of literary history? If so, does it deserve to be termed the best novel possibly not just of the twentieth century, but of recent history, despite the subjectivity and arbitrariness necessarily associated with such distinctions?

The Novel of the Century: Nabokov’s Pale Fire


Pnin, Don Quixote, and Authorial Cruelty

It seems to be somewhat of a consensus in the critical literature on Pnin that the book constitutes, at least in part, Nabokov’s response to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nabokov lectured on the book, but didn’t seem to like it much, finding it not “humane,” and disapproving of the cruelty Cervantes inflicts on the titular character: “a whole section of the lectures is given over to literally scoring (as in tennis) the Don’s cruel humiliations.”

Pnin, much like the hidalgo, is subject to a not insignificant amount of suffering; “Pnin” even bears a passing resemblance to “pain.” What I have trouble understanding is why Nabokov, if he didn’t take to Cervantes’ authorial cruelty, would craft a story in which the main character never wins, as it were in terms of tennis points. Pnin takes the wrong train, arguably brings the wrong lecture to Cremona, is misunderstood as a freak, betrayed by his protector, and kicked out of Waindell by a man who in the past has humiliated him (and this list is not exhaustive).

In my mind, the differences in the two authors’ approaches may lie in the affect they create in their readers. Cervantes, at least in Nabokov’s view, engenders a cruel mockery of his protagonist on the part of his readers. In contrast, although Pnin is humiliated time and time again, the reader cannot help but have great affection for him. He is comical and out of place, but sweet, smart, sincere, and caring at the same time. Additionally, the ending of the book seems to be relatively happy, with Pnin and the dog, one of the beings he selflessly cares for, finally becoming free.

I think such questions are interesting, especially in light of the fact that Nabokov has been known to be cruel, at times, to his characters, but perhaps much more so to his readers (in his creation of hermeneutic performance anxiety). Is Nabokov kinder to his readers in Pnin than in a novel such as Lolita?

Link to a Kirkus review of Nabokov’s lectures on Don Quixote:


Grapes at Pnin’s Party

Grapes are perhaps one of the more mundane foods served at Pnin’s party, yet they are mentioned three times in the text. I think the only item of consumption that crops up more is Pnin’s punch; the various Russian delicacies are only mentioned twice at most.

I found it interesting that grapes were the only food or drink item that the text didn’t denote as having been eaten. They just sit there, presumably from the time when Betty rinses them to when Hagen puts out his cigar in them. What could this mean, and is there some connection between the three characters mentioned in connection with the grapes?

  1. Betty rinses “three large bunches of grapes” (152).
  2. “Joan sat on a footstool, at her husband’s knee, a plate of grapes in the lap of her wide skirt…” (160).
  3. “Hagen had quenched a messy cigar in an uneaten bunchlet of grapes” (171).

All Things to All People: The Problem with Lolita

After this past week, I’ve felt the need to clarify some of my instincts and thoughts on Lolita against secondary sources external to the class. I’m not sure exactly how productive that initiative was, but I’m writing a condensed version here in the hope that it might be of use to someone else or help spark a discussion. Articles linked below.

Quoted in “Vladimir Nabokov: Genius or Narcissist”, Elif Batuman says: “He plays to the fantasies of artsy people with the chess, the butterflies, the Russianness, but he’s the ultimate crossover artist. He gets all the role-playing fans with Zembla; he gets all the aesthetes with nostalgia and Rimbaud; and he gets the creative-writing types with the incredibly vivid pictures of Americana. I think he tried to be everything to all people, like Shakespeare.”

I think such a statement is useful in explaining the plurality of reactions that result from reading Lolita. If I’m being honest, my natural disposition is probably somewhere between that of “aesthete” and “creative-writing type”; I loved Nabokov’s “invention” of America in Lolita, loved the road trip elements of the text that detail the sprawling nation in which we live. If Lolita were purely a road novel about the arguably unique beauty–and ugliness–of America and American life, I wouldn’t feel conflicted about this love.

But then there’s the issue of sexual violence, of rape. It’s unavoidably there, and it’s horrifying. My inability to subscribe completely to an “aesthete” or “creative-writing type” frame of mind came to a head when I read the New Yorker article, linked below. The author describes an adverse reaction he had to a professor labelling the events of Lolita as “rape”; to him, that was an entirely “prescriptive reading” of the novel that interfered with its artfulness. I will always maintain that the presence of rape in the novel is a descriptive reading. To my mind, readings that argue that Nabokov normalizes or endorses child molestation would be prescriptive–not necessarily wrong (although my personal opinion leans slightly the other way on this issue)–but the rape of Dolores Haze will always be a fact of the novel’s fictional world, never to be mitigated by the novel’s artistic merit.

My thoughts about the novel are thus left ambiguous. The only conclusion I’ve been somewhat happy with so far is that Lolita is both a magisterial, allusive, work of art and a representation of the moral abomination that is rape. It isn’t, nor can it be, one or the other; I don’t think form and content can be separated in this case.

Doris Lee’s “Noon” in Lolita

Lolita is drawn to a painting in the book, History of Modern American Painting, that HH gives her as a gift, called “Noon.” What preoccupies her is “if the guy noon-napping on Doris Lee’s hay was the father of the pseudo-voluptuous hoyden in the foreground” (199).

Humbert’s gift is meant to elevate Lolita’s “pictorial taste,” a task in which it fails. The two character’s vastly differing modes of taking in the painting reflect a larger theme throughout the book that there exists a vast discrepancy in the worldviews of HH and Lolita, with the former constantly “solipsizing” the latter. HH’s desire for Lolita’s aesthetic inclinations to tilt toward higher forms of culture manifests this solipsizing in that Humbert is attempting to get Lolita to conform to his interests, the artifacts of beauty of the world he has created for himself. He doesn’t understand that Lolita’s preoccupation with the possible familial relationships in the painting reflects the degree to which sex and notions of family are intertwined in her mind.

In a different possible mode of interpretation, the painting could depict quite literally the relationship between HH, Lolita, and Quilty. Lolita’s preoccupation with the sleeping man being the father of the woman in the painting could almost prefigure or foreshadow Quilty’s kidnapping of Lolita right from under HH’s nose. Perhaps Lolita wants to identify the sleeping man to be the father since, in this light, the painting would constitute a representation external to herself of what she desires: an escape from HH, asleep (or perhaps enchanted), and a connection with Quilty.

Possible Intersections of Metafiction and Morality

When scribbling down his last wish that, alas, the prison staff can’t (for a multitude of reasons) grant him, Cincinnatus writes: “I must have at least the theoretical possibility of having a reader, otherwise, really, I might as well tear it all up” (194). Especially in the light of Alter’s argument, which seeks, as we discussed yesterday, to imbue Invitation with some kind of moral heft, I want to read this quote as a metafictive moment; are we the readers Cincinnatus so longs for? If we are his readers, does that grant us some stake or some kind of textual existence within “this” world?

This semi-formed interpretation would appear to be at odds with Alter’s analysis, since it so clearly transgresses the “comic distance” he reads into the novel (52). Yet, Alter writes in his concluding sentence: “…the novel affirms the tough persistence of humanity in a world that is progressively more brutal and more subtle in its attempts to take us away from ourselves” (64). Although his use of the first person plural in the final words of the sentence can be interpreted as a mere borrowing of a phrase used by Cincinnatus in the novel, it has the potential, I believe, to personalize the novel’s critique of totalitarianism. After all, Alter explicitly frames the novel as a text with moral implications in our world.

I suppose my wonderings can be summarized as such: are we as readers somehow communing with Cincinnatus through the quote used above, and, if so, does this mean the delineation between this “real” world and that “fictional” world is blurred, resulting in a possible instance of metafiction on Nabokov’s part? Might this enhance the moral weight of the novel?

Our Berlin, Your Berlin

Having discussed a bit the nature of life as a Russian émigré in class, I thought it would be interesting to delve a little deeper into how the characters in The Luzhin Defense conceive of Berlin.

Upon arriving in his (at this point in the novel, future) in-laws Berlin apartment, the future Luzhina’s father greets Luzhin with “Well, here you are in our good old Berlin” (121). The phrase “our good old Berlin” is odd on a couple of levels. First, the use of the possessive “our” sticks out simply by virtue of the fact that they’re from Russia. Second, “good old” would seem to fly in the face of the fact that they’ve decorated their apartment in a most poshlust manner to reflect their Russian-ness; perhaps the linguistic terming of the city as “our good old Berlin” is an attempt to overcome feelings of alienation inherent in émigré life.

When the lady from Russia comes to visit the (now married) Luzhins, one of the first things she says is: “So this is your Berlin…” (210). Here we have, similar to the scene quoted above, a Russian, who, unlike the scene above, is not an emigre, and who ascribes ownership of Berlin to the Luzhins.

Between the passages there exists a sharp dichotomy between emigres who now claim Berlin as their home, and those who never left the mother country–for even Luzhin’s in-laws have replaced Russia with mere kitschy images of it, and now own, in a manner of speaking Berlin.

So, to whom does Berlin belong, and what are the implications of that ownership?

Writing in The Luzhin Defense

Chapter 5, pp. 79-80

Now, a decade and a half later, these war years turned out to be an exasperating obstacle; they seemed an encroachment upon creative freedom, for in every book describing the gradual development of a given human personality one had somehow to mention the war, and even the hero’s dying in his youth could not provide a way out f this situation. There were characters and circumstances surrounding his son’s image that unfortunately were conceivable only against the background of the war and which could not have existed without this background. With the revolution it had been even worse. The general opinion was that it had influenced the course of every Russian’s life; and author could not have his hero go through it without getting scorched, and to doge it was impossible. This amounted to a genuine violation of the writer’s free will.

The Significance of Frau Monde

In “A Nursery Tale,” Nabokov’s protagonist, Erwin, meets a woman who although appears unremarkable, is in fact the Devil. Going by by the name Frau Monde, the Devil offers Erwin a chance to actualize his fantasy of possessing a harem composed of women he finds attractive.

It seems to me that any time an author, and especially one as precise and meticulous as Nabokov, includes a figure of pure evil such as the Devil in a text, special attention to that figure is merited as a possible way to uncover the underlying worldview of a story, and potentially its author. To that end, I want to discuss certain features of Frau Monde’s character that seem particularly interesting in light of her position as an embodiment of evil, namely that she’s German-born, is a (masculine) woman, and bears a name that, when translated into English, means “world.”

Last class, we learned that Nabokov harbored certain anti-German sentiments. Were these sentiments intensified after he witnessed Germany’s role in WWII, and, if so, did they contribute to a particularly harsh depiction of Frau Monde when he translated his 1926 short story into English? Or were they present in the Russian-language original as a manifestation of his dissatisfaction with life in Weimar Germany?

Then comes the matter of Frau Monde’s gender. A misogynist line definitely runs through at least some of Nabokov’s writings. I don’t think it’s an accident that his literary imagination conceived of the Devil as a woman. Furthermore, Frau Monde is portrayed as a masculine woman, with oversized hands and “mannish” eyebrows, the exact type of woman Erwin finds to be unattractive. Perhaps Nabokov could be seen as arguing that the Devil has both masculine and feminine traits, but I don’t really think so. To me, Nabokov deliberately presents the Devil as a woman who neglects to fulfill traditional societal norms of femininity.

Lastly, why does the Devil bear the last name Monde? Does it signify the extent to which Nabokov perceived the world to be evil? Why is it in French, specifically?