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Nabokov's Otherworld

Nabokov's Otherworld

by Vladimir E. Alexandrov

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A major reexamination of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov as "literary gamesman," this book systematically shows that behind his ironic manipulation of narrative and his puzzle-like treatment of detail there lies an aesthetic rooted in his intuition of a transcendent realm and in his consequent redefinition of "nature" and "artifice" as synonyms. Beginning with Nabokov's


A major reexamination of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov as "literary gamesman," this book systematically shows that behind his ironic manipulation of narrative and his puzzle-like treatment of detail there lies an aesthetic rooted in his intuition of a transcendent realm and in his consequent redefinition of "nature" and "artifice" as synonyms. Beginning with Nabokov's discursive writings, Vladimir Alexandrov finds his world view centered on the experience of epiphany--characterized by a sudden fusion of varied sensory data and memories, a feeling of timelessness, and an intuition of immortality--which grants the true artist intimations of an "otherworld." Readings of The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lolita, and Pale Fire reveal the epiphanic experience to be a touchstone for the characters' metaphysical insightfulness, moral makeup, and aesthetic sensibility, and to be a structural model for how the narratives themselves are fashioned and for the nature of the reader's involvement with the text. In his conclusion, Alexandrov outlines several of Nabokov's possible intellectual and artistic debts to the brilliant and variegated culture that flourished in Russia on the eve of the Revolution. Nabokov emerges as less alienated from Russian culture than most of his emigre readers believed, and as less "modernist" than many of his Western readers still imagine. "Alexandrov's work is distinctive in that it applies an `otherworld' hypothesis as a consistent context to Nabokov's novels. The approach is obviously a fruitful one. Alexandrov is innovative in rooting Nabokov's ethics and aesthetics in the otherwordly and contributes greatly to Nabokov studies by examining certain key terms such as `commonsense,' `nature,' and `artifice.' In general Alexandrov's study leads to a much clearer understanding of Nabokov's metaphysics."--D. Barton Johnson, University of California, Santa Barbara

Editorial Reviews

Two thousand citations from several libraries--most held by the U. of Hawaii's Hamilton Library. Divided into sections by geographic region, indexed by island, district and traditional land unit. Clumsily printed sideways--the fore edge is to the reader. Will replace the Hawaii register of historic places; bibliography of Hawaiiana, 1970. Alexandrov (Russian literature, Yale) dismantles the widespread critical view that Nabokov is first and foremost a metaliterary writer and suggests instead that an aesthetic rooted in his intuition of a transcendent realm is the basis of his art. He concludes by outlining some of Nabokov's intellectual and artistic debts to the culture that flourished in Russia on the eve of the Revolution. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 1991

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.56(h) x 0.97(d)

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Nabokov's Otherworld

By Vladimir E. Alexandrov


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06866-4


Speak, Memory and Other Discursive Writings

Nabokov begins Speak, Memory (1966) with a discussion of death, life, time, and eternity that adumbrates themes he will develop at length throughout the work. But in keeping with his elevation of deception to a primary aesthetic principle, the seemingly straightforward remarks he makes are in fact misleading and conceal his true attitudes. Here as everywhere else in his oeuvre, Nabokov's method cannot be separated from his meaning.

The first sentence of the autobiography reads: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." The key words here are "common sense," and they need to be examined within the context of Nabokov's own lexicon. Now, it is clear from everything he wrote that he valued precision and uniqueness most highly. Thus, anything that is widespread, thought of as given or "common" becomes suspect when he seems to be appealing to it. There is more specific evidence of Nabokov's distaste for the notion of "common sense" as well. In the Foreword to Speak, Memory (p. 10) he mentions that the autobiography's opening chapter was first published in 1950. (The same beginning lines appear in all book variants of the chapter—Conclusive Evidence [1951], the first version of the autobiography, and the revised Russian version Drugie berega [Other Shores, 1954]. The date Nabokov provides suggests a general chronological connection with the lecture "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," which was delivered at about the same time as the first chapter of the autobiography. In the lecture Nabokov quotes a standard dictionary definition of the term commonsense, and then goes on to redefine it with an unequivocally negative meaning: "Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch"; "the biography of commonsense makes nasty reading"; "Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth.... commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that it would have been ridiculous not to exploit." By contrast, all the values Nabokov advocates in the lecture stem from his conception of the unique and the "irrational," qualities that are manifested by various select individuals—"the meek prophet, the enchanter in his cave, the indignant artist, the nonconforming little schoolboy" (p. 372.). When seen in Nabokov's own terms, therefore, the first sentence of Speak, Memory emerges as highly ironic, and suggests that the "commonsensical" view of life as being short ("a brief crack of light"), and without any issue into the realm of death ("between two eternities of darkness"), is simply wrong.

The next sentence, beginning "although the two [eternities of darkness] are identical twins," is also deceptive because the misleadingly authoritative "although" allows Nabokov to slip in a startling affirmation of something that he has not yet proven and that certainly cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the remainder of the paragraph implies that the "abysses" preceding and following human life may not be quite as empty and foreboding as might seem. The primary vehicle for this oblique suggestion is the "young chronophobiac" whom Nabokov introduces and describes as being particularly unnerved by a home movie made several weeks before his birth because it shows a world from which he was absent. He is also upset by the baby carriage that appears in the film with the "encroaching air of a coffin"; it is empty, "as if, in the reverse course of events, [the chronophobiac's] very bones had disintegrated" (p. 19). Nabokov's deception in this passage lies in his concealing that the young man was mistaken to focus on the empty baby carriage and to regret that no one missed him prior to his birth. Obviously he had already existed in another form for some eight months before the film was made. Nabokov reinforces this idea by adding that the young man catches "a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window" in the film, a significant detail that does not appear in either of the two earlier versions of the autobiography. Another inference suggested by this passage is that prenatal existence may not be exclusively physical in the familiar sense, because one is both present in the world and absent from it. And since we have been told that the abysses before and after life are "identical," we are left with the potential conclusion that just as man exists before birth, he may continue to exist in some form after death.

On the pages that follow, in a series of statements that can be, and have been readily misunderstood or dismissed as merely figurative language, Nabokov continues to intimate that a search for an escape from the "two black voids" is central to his life and works, and of primary importance for Speak, Memory. He admits that he repeatedly "made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life." And then he makes the surprising announcement that the "abysses" are illusory, which implies there is another existence after death: "That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage" (p. 2.0). The surprise here lies in Nabokov's not explaining immediately the foundations of his belief. On the contrary, his affirmation of faith is seemingly undermined in the lines that follow because, although he describes the various methods he tried in order to reach the timeless realm, including occultism of a recognizably theosophical sort, he does not in fact acknowledge that he succeeded in doing so. Instead, he states that he saw "the prison of time" as "spherical and without exits." The deception in this case is that many pages of Speak, Memory deal precisely with the ways in which Nabokov succeeded in escaping from time's prison, even though the connections between these passages and the ones under discussion are never made explicit. (In fact, he later indicated in an interview that the reference to time as a prison in the autobiography "was only a stylistic device" with which he introduced the subject of time.) One is thus forced to conclude that the view of time as a prison is more a reflection on the incorrect methods Nabokov had explored and rejected than his final word on this aspect of his metaphysics.

Nabokov's view of time as problematic is intimately connected with his conception of human consciousness. The mundane relationship between consciousness and time emerges from his recollection in Speak, Memory of how he first became aware of himself as a separate being when he discovered how old he was in relation to his parents. Because of this connection, Nabokov concludes that "the beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning of the sense of time" (p. 21). Moreover, deception is an inherent part of the process. Nabokov remembers that he associated the birth of his self-awareness with the image of his father wearing a splendid uniform, and that he did not realize until later that this must have been part of some "festive joke" on his father's part, who had in fact completed his military service many years earlier. This chance witnessing of a masquerade acquires "recapitulatory implications" for Nabokov that transcend its immediate significance because, as he concludes, "the first creatures on earth to become aware of time were also the first creatures to smile" (p. 22). In an interview Nabokov made similar connections among time, consciousness, and human evolution, and summarized them neatly as "time without consciousness—lower animal world; time with consciousness—man; consciousness without time—some still higher state." The last formulation is especially important for understanding Nabokov's intuitions regarding the otherworld.

The paradoxical nature of time in Nabokov's view is underscored by the fact that although it comes into existence with consciousness, consciousness can also provide the means to escape it. The relation between consciousness and the transcendence of time lies at the heart of Nabokov's probing discussion in Speak, Memory of the creation of art (and thus throws a bridge between his metaphysics and his aesthetics). His most revealing comments are prompted by his memory of how, in early adolescence, he composed his first poem after seeing a raindrop run off a leaf, which gave rise to the sequence of rhymes "tip, leaf, dip, relief." Most significantly, he recalls that "the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it" (italics added); and that the stanza of his nascent poem, although crude, "resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one" (p. 217). Nabokov's image of a "fissure" in time obviously raises questions about its being a "spherical prison" with no exit. Moreover, the poem emerges as stemming from a momentary fusion of subject and object that is capable of being captured and communicated by language. The implications of this are twofold: the work of art is underlain by a cognitive act, the form as well as the content of which can be preserved in, or mimicked by, the artifact's verbal texture; and art has truth value because it stems from specific phenomena illuminated by the inner state of the observer. These inferences are supported by Nabokov's admission in two interviews that philosophically he was an "indivisible monist," which "implies a oneness of basic reality" and the impossibility of separating "mind" and "matter." Similarly, in his book on Gogol, Nabokov insisted that phenomena cannot be conceived apart from the perceiver's mind: "bare facts do not exist in a state of nature, for they are never really quite bare: the white trace of a wrist watch, a curled piece of sticking plaster on a bruised heel, these cannot be discarded by the most ardent nudist ... I doubt whether you can even give your telephone number without giving something of yourself."

Reflecting upon his youthful attempts to write poetry, Nabokov concludes that they were in fact primarily an expression of his beginning sense of orientation in relation to the things and experiences constituting his world. This thought leads him to the generalization that "all poetry is positional," and to the seminal conclusion that "to try to express one's position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge." Indeed, Nabokov raises this idea to a major principle of his art, and thereby further intertwines his metaphysics with his aesthetics. Under the guise of quoting his "philosophical friend" Vivian Bloodmark, whose name is of course an anagram of his own, Nabokov states that "while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time" (p. 218). He calls this experience "cosmic synchronization," a term that may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek since it also derives from his anagrammatic friend. But this does not detract from the significance of the concept, for Nabokov says unequivocally that "a person hoping to become a poet must have the capacity of thinking of several things at a time." Neither does it reduce the utility of the concrete examples Nabokov gives of the experience itself, which can serve as paradigms for many of his novels: in works from his Russian and English periods "cosmic synchronization" appears as one of the characteristic traits of all of his positive characters, and as an aesthetic, cognitive, and moral touchstone against which negative characters are measured. As Nabokov stated in an interview, consciousness is the quintessential characteristic of man; when asked what distinguishes man from animals, he responded: "Being aware of being aware of being. In other words, if I not only know that I am but also know that I know it, then I belong to the human species. All the rest follows—the glory of thought, poetry, a vision of the universe."

One especially beautiful illustration of Nabokov's thinking of "several things at a time" in Speak, Memory is his recollection of running into the village schoolmaster near his family's estate:

While politely discussing with him my father's sudden journey to town, I registered simultaneously and with equal clarity not only his wilting flowers, his flowing tie and the blackheads on the fleshy volutes of his nostrils, but also the dull little voice of the cuckoo coming from afar, and the flash of a Queen of Spain settling on the road, and the remembered impression of the pictures (enlarged agricultural pests and bearded Russian writers) in the well-aerated classrooms of the village school which I had once or twice visited; and—to continue a tabulation that hardly does justice to the ethereal simplicity of the whole process—the throb of some utterly irrelevant recollection (a pedometer I had lost) was released from a neighboring brain cell, and the savor of the grass stalk I was chewing mingled with the cuckoo's note and the fritillary's takeoff, and all the while I was richly, serenely aware of my own manifold awareness. (Pp. 218–19)

The effect of such disparate details coming together is that they form "an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet ... is the nucleus" (p. 218). Because the essential feature of the experience is the individual's ability to apprehend connections among many phenomena that are not necessarily contiguous in terms of space, time, or causality, as well as between these phenomena and himself, the process might also be designated multidimensional metaphoric thinking or cognition. An additional way of conceiving of it is in terms of "epiphany," both in the sense of vatic, revelatory "moments" in time such as one finds in Romantic works like Wordsworth's Prelude, and in the sense usually associated with Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where it refers to the sudden "radiance" common objects can achieve. In one of his lectures on literature, Nabokov himself indicates that the term epiphany could be applied to the famous incident of Marcel's memories being resurrected by the madeleine in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, an event that resembles "cosmic synchronization." Moreover, he quotes with apparent approval what Marcel says about the timeless truth of "reality" emerging only when sensations or memories are linked via metaphor, or, in other words, are embodied in art. Sisson has shown that Nabokov's cosmic synchronization also resembles the holistic experiences related to the creation of poetry that Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot described, as well as the kind of "universal noetic awareness" that William James posits as an essential characteristic of mystical experience in his The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In his lecture "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," rather than speak of "cosmic synchronization" Nabokov uses the term "inspiration." However, the example he provides (pp. 377–78) shows that the experience behind this term is identical to the epiphanic moments he describes in Speak, Memory. One of the most valuable and interesting aspects of the lecture is that it reveals exactly how the "spiritual thrill" of inspiration is connected with the creation of art. Nabokov explains that although many people who are not writers may be familiar with the instantaneous fusion of present phenomena and past memories, "the inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire circle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist" (p. 378). The specific nature of the artist's epiphanic moment is, therefore, that it carries within it the germ of a future work of art. What this entails can be gleaned in turn from the fascinating details Nabokov provides in a late, important article entitled "Inspiration" (1972). Following an initial impression of a "prefatory glow," the "narrator forefeels what he is going to tell. The forefeeling can be defined as an instant vision turning into rapid speech. If some instrument were to render this rare and delightful phenomenon, the image would come as a shimmer of exact details, and the verbal part as a tumble of merging words." The writer takes this down, and in so doing "transforms what is little more than a running blur into gradually dawning sense, with epithets and sentence construction." Inspiration can then continue to serve the writer with additional jolts over time. In "The Art of Literature and Commonsense" Nabokov also makes the important qualification that the initial seed of the future work may not be related to "a kind of glorified physical experience," such as in the case of sensory details suddenly jelling, but may be "an inspired combination of several abstract ideas without a definite physical background" (p. 379). This explanation is particularly germane for understanding how Nabokov dramatizes the origins of Fyodor's biography of Chernyshevski in The Gift, and why he could equate art and chess in The Defense. In any event, the writer can subsequently verify the flowering of his inspiration by examining the completed work, which will reveal that it is the "outcome of a definite plan contained in the initial shock" (p. 377), a conclusion that is identical to the one he reached in Speak, Memory with regard to his first poem. The continuity over time of Nabokov's aesthetic beliefs is suggested by the fact that as early as 1932 he had described the origins of his works in terms similar to those he used some four decades later in "Inspiration": "The plan of my novel comes to me suddenly, is born in a minute.... The first jolt is what is important."


Excerpted from Nabokov's Otherworld by Vladimir E. Alexandrov. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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