Mikhail Epstein


Good-bye to Objects, or, the Nabokovian in Nabokov,

in A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov’s Short Fiction, ed. by Gene Barabtarlo and Charles Nicol, New York: Garland Publishers (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 1580), 1993, pp. 217-224.

My life is a perpetual good-bye to objects.

[Moia zhizn' - sploshnoe proshchanie s predmetami...]

V. Nabokov. In Memory of L.I.Shigaev.

The living flesh is full of shadows

or spectres...

...it is the sweetest of all

to leave them all, remembering nothing.

Olga Sedakova. In memory of Nabokov.

Most categories of literary criticism are expressed in common notions such as "poetry", "novel", "plot", or "metaphor". I believe that more important categories are designated by proper names: the Pushkinian, the Gogolian, the Dostoevskian, or the Tolstoian. Although these categories refer to individual qualities, they have general significance and cannot be reduced to their namesakes. The Pushkinian (pushkinskoe) is not identical to Pushkin, its meaning is broader and narrower at the same time. The phenomenon of Pushkin is broader than the Pushkinian because one can find in Pushkin something Derzhavian or Zhukovskian. But the Pushkinian is also broader than Pushkin and can be found in Mandelstam or Nabokov.

These theoretical categories derived from proper names have some advantage before the abstract concepts when they are applied to concrete authors. The discrepancy between general concepts and individual works is an inevitable evil of literary criticism; this gap between the theory and its subject, however, can be bridged by using the concepts immanent to the authors' names. These middle categories, semi-terms and semi-names, do not impose a general concept on an author's creation, but derive this concept from the uniqueness of his personality.

These theoretical categories derived from proper names have some advantage before the abstract concepts when they are applied to concrete authors. The discrepancy between general concepts and individual works is an inevitable evil of literary criticism; this gap between the theory and its subject, however, can be bridged by using the concepts immanent to the authors' names. These middle categories, semi-terms and semi-names, do not impose a general concept on an author's creation, but derive this concept from the uniqueness of his personality.

It is not my intention to talk about Nabokov per se in some general literary terms. Rather I will regard the "Nabokovian" (nabokovskoe) as a principal category of Russian aesthetics and metaphysics. Nabokov is a phenomenon; the Nabokovian is a unique concept that encompasses a multitude of phenomena. Along with the Pushkinian and the Gogolian, the Tolstoian and the Dostoyevskian, it possesses an enormous clarifying capacity.

Doesn't it seem to us at times that "the prospect of a free novel"(dal' svobodnogo romana) and "the magical crystal" (magicheskii kristall) reveal the Nabokovian in Pushkin? They all contain the Nabokovian: Pushkin, Turgenev, Bunin, Mandel'shtam, Andrei Bely, and Andrei Bitov. Nabokov himself, of course, also contains it - more than anyone else. For this reason, he is of special interest to those who love all of the Nabokovian in life and literature.

Actually, it is rare to find someone who possesses as many Nabokovian pearls as Nabokov himself, even in the most commonplace phrases where no claim is laid to any specific imagery. For example, witness the beginning of "Spring in Fialta," both the story and the collection: "Spring in Fialta is cloudy and boring." 1 ("Vesna v Fial'te oblachna I skuchna",4) What appears to be Nabokovian here, aside from the fact that it was emitted from Nabokov's pen?

Don't you feel, however, a special pearly nuance of the Nabokovian spring and its charming autumnal sluggishness? The "violet" (fioletovyi) color of the very name Fialta in combination with the cloudiness - what a delicate gamut of silverly-pearly tones, a palely-diffused light, that is reflected in the epithet "Fialta ... cloudy!" What about the wonderfully whimsical combination "spring... boring" - this epithet weakens, as if by soothing gesture, the intense and almost sickly energy of spring which is strengthened by that very exotic ethnic name "Fialta"!

Of course, the two epithets would not rise next to each other if there were not such an assonance, similar to the crunching sound of one's step in melting snow, in the suffix "chn"? "Vesna v Fial'te oblachna I skuchna,"- in such a damp, transparent, Nabokovian springtime world you suddenly turn out to exist, thanks to the fact that one quality is dissolved in the other: Fialta melts in a cloud, spring dissolves in boredom. Thus, this world is already filled with the pellucid presence of something different, to which there is neither a trace nor a name. .

If Nabokov were a singer of this Other World, we would have dealings with metaphysics, symbolism, and the reaping of words specifically comprehensible to you and me. But Nabokov's style is free of this strong bias of supra-significance that unites the mystic and the ideologist, the symbolist and the socialist realist. Nabokov's style always grips the thing at the edge of presence - the thing bends somewhere, it heels, almost disappearing and finally sending off some kind of washed-away reflection.

The Russian name Nabokov means "leaning sideways" or "on one's side" (perhaps the closest English approximation would be "Sideman"). It seems that this name itself contains the formula of his style and conveys the magic of this bending, this slanting movement of all things: not straight but skewed on its side like a ray of light at sunset. Thus, the sum of all Nabokovian works turns out to be the justification of this magical surname, which is the first and most important word uttered about the writer, earmarking him, and setting the path for his own words.

The first word which significantly impresses the consciousness of an individual is his own name. If the individual grows to become a writer, all his artistic self-expression becomes a modification of this name which is his own verbal essence. In this way, we can understand the flying ease of Pushkin (his name in Russian signifies both feathers and a cannon), the unwieldiness of Tolstoi's style ("thick, fat"), the teasing-redoubling of Gogol that was transformed into the grosteque dualism of his characters and such names as Chichikov, the austerity of Nekrasov ("homely") who introduced the aesthetic of ugliness in Russian poetry, the overstated self-awareness of Dostoyevsky's characters ("dignity"), the wistful clarity of Esenin ("autumn"), the evocative signals of Mayakovsky ("lighthouse"), and the bitter description of vagrants in Maxim Peshkov-Gorky ("on foot" and "bitter"). The feeling of a word starts to grow in a writer from the sound of his own name, which thereafter turns into a system of stylistic means, enveloping all of the universe. The writer's goal is to prove that the universe could be given his own name.

Nabokov sharply formulated his principle of "side vision" in the novel The Gift. The protagonist Fiodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, Nabokov's alter ego, is a sophisticated aristocratic poet who writes a critical essay on Chernyshevskii, the father of Russian revolutionary realism. For him, Chernyshevsii is an example of a straight, plebeian mind which neglects nuances and recognizes only the utilitarian view of things. A genuine artist, according to Nabokov, sees all things in a slanted perspective and in oblique cases: "Like words, things have their own grammatical cases. Chernyshevskii saw everything in the nominative case, while all truly new trends are similar to the movement of a chess knight, to a change of shadows, to a tilting of a mirror." (251; Dar 268)

("Kak i slova, veshchi imeiut svoi padezhi. Chernyshevskii vsio videl v imenitel'nom. Mezhdu tem vsiakoe podlinno novoe veianie est' xod konia, peremena tenej, sdvig, smeshchaiushchii zerkalo)

I will set forth several phrases from Nabokov's earlier stories so that it may be immediately revealed something inevitably Nabokovian about them.

"Far away, in a watery vista between the jagged edges of pale bluish houses, which have tottered up from their knees to climb the

slope ..." (Spring in Fialta, 13; Vesna v fial'te, 7) 2

"Occasionally, in the middle of a conversation her name would be mentioned, and she would run down the steps of a chance sentence, without turning her head."(Ibid. 30; 26)3

"... Beyond were visible still other clouds, among which floated the delicate idols of religious art in blue and pink vestments; and all this resolved itself in an abrupt turbulence of misty draperies."4 (Poseshchenie muzeiia)

"And in the same way as the luminosity of the water and its every throb pass through a medusa, so everything traversed his inner being, and that sense of fluidity became transfigured into something like second sight. As he lay flat on his couch, he felt carried sideways by the flow of shadows and, simultaneously, he escorted distant foot-passengers, and visualized now the sidewalk's surface right under his eyes (with the exhaustive accuracy of a dog's sight)."(5 ) (Torpid Smoke, 28; Tiazhelyi dym, 76)

It would seem that all of this deals with different things - but the reader, the Nabokov lover, comprehends with a sixth sense the particular, always askance, "sided" Nabokovian vision of this world. Examples abound: the girl runs down the small stairs of a chance sentence, the pictures shine obliquely, the homes arduously raise themselves up from their knees, the tilt of a chair is seen through the windowpanes, and the current of shadows carries a person sideways.

To be sure, this bending is not always spatial; it can be visual, auditory, psychological, or situational, and generally it can present an ordinary occurence of such displacement when a thing is situated in a sideways plane. It may be reflected in something, it may fall somewhere or it may cast off its reflection and disappear unnoticeably, leaving only a shadow. Nabokov is masterfully consistent in this crossing of different projections of an object, and these projections generally reshuffle and bring the capacity of the object's existence to naught.

This tendency may be seen even in Nabokovian titles, that merit individual study themselves. Bend Sinister is the most explicit example: in Nabokov's novel, these two words signify the reversal of an insignia on a coat of arms. "Torpid Smoke" or Pale Fire - the meaning of one word makes the meaning of the other word fade. "The smoke" is "torpid;" according to the word order in the title, it has already settled to the earth but then rises to the sky, producing two flowing currents above and below which keep it in the vacillating middle, or more precisely, sideways in the movement; this smoke hobbles on a little march. These and other Nabokovian titles - such as Laughter in the Dark and Camera Obscura - are not oxymorons of the "burning snow" type in which juxtapositions collide bluntly; in the former, there is no collision, but rather a blending or a sidelong bend. The two signs, "pale" and "fire," do not initiate a juxtaposition but rather dilute each other. This is the same fading gesture that permeates all syntactical couplings and lexical links.

We grasp all this Nabokovism even in just one passage from "Torpid Smoke." "At intervals scraps of indistinct, laconic speech came from the adjacent parlor (the cavernal centerpiece of one of those bourgeois flats which Russian emigre families used to rent in Berlin at the time), separated from his room by sliding doors, through whose ripply mat glass the tall lamp beyond shone yellow, while lower down there showed through, as if in deep water, the fuzzy dark back of a chair placed in that position to foil the propensity of the door - leaves to crawl apart in a series of jerks."(6)

["Iz glubiny sosednei gostinoi, otdelennoi ot ego komnaty razdvizhnymi dver'mi (skvoz' slepoe, zybkoe steklo kotoryx gorel rassypannyi po zybi zheltyi blesk tamoshnei lampy, a ponizhe skvozil, kak v glubokoi vode, rasplyvchato-temnyi prislon stula, stavimogo tak vvidu popolznoveniia dverei medlenno, s sodroganiiami, raz''ezzhat'sia), slyshalsia po vremenam nevniatnyi, maloslovnyi razgovor" ("Tiazhelyi dym," 76).]

In this one sentence there are more than ten instances of dilution. The parentheses after which the phrase rehabilitates itself is a graphic equivalent of doors which slide in opposite directions. It is difficult to catch both ends of the sliding doors with outstretched arms, just as it is difficult to catch both ends of the sliding phrase with one's consciousness. This sliding from one's grasp is the characteristic trait of Nabokov. Each object displays itself as a disappearance, as if on the edge of loss or death.

The drawing-room in this description is separated from the room where the author is present with the hero by glass doors.

The glass of the doors is blind, "rippling" and does not let the light pass through but sends it back.

The light from a lamp similarly spills forth and shines with a watery ripple.

A bit lower, sideways, from this washed-away spot the reflection of the chair shows through.

Not even the chair, but rather its particular leaning, its particular turning, on its side, toward something else.

And this leaning itself is vaguely dark.

And it is reflected as if in flowing water.

And this chair stands in the way of the doors - something is always running into something else from the side, distorting the line of movement or vision.

And these doors themselves have a propensity to slide somewhere in different directions, to disappear from themselves .

And even the conversation itself, which carries out from the sitting-room, is heard only for a while, and then "disappears" as do the doors.

And this indistinct discussion is vague and oblique itself, with an omission of meaning and words.

In this one sentence, there are so many deviations or peripheral distractions--perhaps the attentive reader will disclose more--that they disclose a certain peculiarity of Nabokovian stylistic thinking. What does such a sentence add to the reader's perception of reality? It makes it feel unreal. Each thing becomes smoothed out in another thing, and the world, remaining described in great detail, disappears in proportion to its description.

Each entity displays itself as a disappearance, as if on the edge of loss or death:

I cite the beginning of John Shade's poem from Pale Fire:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff- and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (7)

Nabokov's own stylistic peculiarities are condensed to some extent in the writing of his hero-poet. "I," the most immediate reality that I have, appears like a shadow casted of a dead bird, that was killed by the illusion of the mirror's lying azure. Reality reveals in itself a double or a triple illusion that is capable of endless proliferation. What can be more weightless and phantasmal than a fluff that also is similar to ash? But here only a smudge of this fluff is taken, a shadow of a shadow, the non-existence of non-existence. One could measure the Nabokovian illusoriness by very strict ontological units such as "one disappearance," "two disappearances," and so forth. Details do not add up to this world; rather, it is as if they were subtracted from it.

What remains? Nabokov himself answers: "an illusionary perspective was formed, a remote mirage enchanting in its graphic transparency and isolation." 8 The morbid spirit of this mirage is not horrible, unlike that of Gogol, who was the great expert on. "dead souls." Rather, its illusiveness is captivating. Gogolian detail is underlined and outlined by its absurdity, the "sticking out" thingness, such as the famous wheel discussed separately from the carriage in the beginning of Dead Souls. Conversely, the Nabokovian detail is crossed out with a slanting, swift gesture, after which it turns into a part of the mirage. The Nabokovian style is the soft eraser, rubbing off the outline of the theme, so that the substance of absent reality or the blank paper on which the author works could be more definitely presented.

The last example is from "The Visit to the Museum;" the canvases in the museum "shine slantwise" (4koso losniatsia", "rjcj kjcyzncz"). The common component of both these words is "os," which in Russian means "axis" and is associated with "revolving." The entire artistic view is revolving around the objects' axis. While shining slantwise, the canvases are also full of shining storm-clouds; that is they are simultaneously washed out from within and from without, dissolving in the light of the cloudiness and in the luster reflected from the canvases themselves.. The canvas's reality is itself lost in these two cross-reflections.

Moreover, "all this resolved itself in an abrupt turbulence of misty draperies" (9) This is not the best Nabokovian phrase but perhaps one of the most typical. All four words signify, in exemplary fashion, the same process of turbulent dissolution: "abrupt" is a distraction in time, "turbulence" in space, "misty" in lighting, "draperies" is itself the substance of swaying, and all of these are different methods of designating the devices for evaporation of reality.

Tolstoi said that the most important thing in art is "the tiniest bit." Is it not because "the tiniest bit" is the essential object and spirit of Nabokov's creation that he is perceived as a model and mentor of pure artistry? His rare, unique flair in Russian literature extends to the very limit of this "tiniest bit." "Chut-chut" in Russian means the imperative mood of "feeling." Thus the very will of the Russian language summons us to feel more deeply about that which is added to chut-chut: "a tiny bit" of smelling means the imperative to have a keener sense of smell and the same is implied by "chut-chut" of the wind's breathing, "chut-chut" of soul's presence in this world.

Nabokov's love for chut-chut caused him to hate all great ideas and missions of art that were provoked by its alleged social, political, psychological, and religious functions. Literature, for Nabokov, must not take too much upon itself, for its eternal love is the small and the meek of the world, which diminishes and loses one feature after another while they are cancelled by the flowing, slanted Nabokovian handwriting.

Nabokov is a poet of disappearance, a genius of disappearances, not simply the Grand Master, as John Updike called him in the well-known article "The Grand Master Nabokov," but a great master of the end-game. This determines his marvelous and irreplaceable participation in Russian culture, which is chiefly a culture of the end, the insight into the final mystery and the ending of all things. From these depths surface the themes: Nabokov and Chaadaev, Nabokov and Vladimir Soloviev, Nabokov and Berdiaev, Nabokov and the Apocalypse, Nabokov and Revolution.

Russia has not often surprised the world with new creative trends or initiatives or with the kind of positive newness that Chaadaev complained about in his time. Isn't this lack of "originality" a prerequisite for a different art - to approach the brink of the end? Not knowing how to start, it is as if Russia had found her mission in the completion of all those beginnings which came to Russia from abroad, from the "Varangians" to the "Greeks." Everything foreign coming into Russia will gradually be reduced to nothing and bend into non-existence, becoming phantasmal and empty. Nature herself attracts by her fading, "parting beauty" (proshchal'naia krasa) - these words of Pushkin's are quintessentially Nabokovian.

Love for the thing in Russia is the farewell to the thing: civilization is a farewell to civilization, revolution is a farewell to revolution, life is a farewell to life. This does not mean that Russia is contrary to civilization or to life and functions as a denial of them because it would imply that Russia has another fixed essence: "barbarity" or "death." Rather, Russia is a farewell to all these objects and essences which are seen long after they disappear into the Nabokovian darkening haze. This is an appropriate answer to those who consider Nabokov to be too Western and not Russian enough: where else do things scatter irreversibly and phantasmically as they do in Russia, as she does herself?

The Nabokovian is the art of the farewell. Because of this, on the cusp of the Nineties, when Russia is not beginning anything new, but is again and again saying goodbye to her past, Nabokov suggests essential words that translate the current political and economic disembodiment of reality into poetic dimension. "Everything was as it should be: grey tints, the sleep of substance, matter dematerialized." ("The Visit to the Museum.")10 For the Nabokovian hero, this endless museum, a collection of sleepy and increasingly phantasmal things, turned out to be his elusive native land, Russia.




1. Vladimir Nabokov, "Spring in Fialta," in Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of 13 Stories (Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York 1958), 13. Some English translations of Nabokov's stories differ from the originals considerably. In all cases we used Russian texts as the subject matter of our analysis.

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Ibid., 30.

4. Vladimir Nabokov, "The Visit to the Museum," in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (New York: McGraw-Hill International, Inc., 1973), 75.

5. Vladimir Nabokov, "Torpid Smoke," in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories, 28.

6. Ibid., 28.

7. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: G. Putnam's Sons, 1962), 33.

8. Nabokov, "Torpid Smoke," 27.

9. Nabokov, "The Visit to the Museum," 75.

10. Ibid., 68.



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