Beneath the radiant surface that dazzles from the first lie endless depths and echoes, sunken cities with trapdoors into more mysteries and wonders. A handsome year-old pedophile hunts and traps the year-old love of his life. Perhaps the only scandalous work to shock later readers even more than its initial audience, it assaults our imaginations as it mingles memory and desire, passion and playfulness, tenderness and cruelty, love and its contraries: lust, self-love, hatred. Endless variations on the hunter hunted offer surprises and ironies that deepen as we reread.
For all its accessibility Lolita may still elude us more than even the mirage world of Pale Fire or the opulent antiworld of Ada. Ada - The novel in the Nabokov canon that provokes the wildest disagreement. Readers who dislike it suppose Nabokov cannot disentangle himself from his super-endowed hero and heroine; readers who love it see his critique of the abuse of privilege of every kind, from wealth, class, intelligence, confidence and energy all the way to birth order.
The precision of detail, the controlled radiance of feeling, the force of thought, the evocative attention to unique people and places, the shapeliness within the accidents of history and the wear and tear of time, the interweaving of subtly concealed themes—all make this as enchanting as Nabokov thought the best fiction should be.
Fyodor does not let us see until the end that the love story that emerges only halfway through this long novel has actually shaped it from the start, a recognition that magically redeems what had seemed his lost time. Nabokov challenges Proust and Joyce in his portrait of an artist discovering how to render his life into art, his frustration into fulfillment.
Orhan Pamuk has learned much from this novel. Outwardly, Professor Pnin, with his impossible English, seems only a comic figure on campus; inwardly, he is nobly selfless, dedicated, infinitely lonely and sad. The novel examines humor and sympathy, dislocation and human displacement. In the course of his thwarted quest for Knight and the woman who may have precipitated his death, V.
Invitation to a Beheading - A poetic dystopian novel of a man condemned to execution for the opacity of his mind in a world of transparent souls. Subscribers: to set up your digital access click here. To subscribe, click here. Simply close and relaunch your preferred browser to log-in. If you have questions or need assistance setting up your account please email pw pubservice. More from pw. LRL What Nabokov is presenting here as a general truth will immediately seem less persuasive if we think not of plays and novels but of poetry, and especially of the poetry on religious subjects that Nabokov was writing in significant quantities well into the mid s: a pious religious writer could hardly wish his subject matter to be taken as make- believe.
To me, however, the poems show a nearly inhuman absence of irony, obliquity, or doubt: they seem to aspire to the declaratory purity and harmony of the angelic order of experience, and give every appearance of being religious poetry in a straightforward sense. It would not have been surprising if Nabokov had turned to faith at this time. His father was shot in January But Nabokov would reject the consolations of religion. Instead, in , play enters as a defence of life on earth against the seductions of the beyond. These stories take the downfall of the gods as an effect of nineteenth century science and not a matter of personal belief.
Kern believes that God is a projection of the human mind, which shaped him by imagining a vertebrate made of gas. The narrator and his wife have lost their child, but he is trying to show her how much joy and wonder remain in existence. He begins where Kern left off, by seeing that the divine is a projection of consciousness, not something external and alien, as in the Bible. This creative element of consciousness is seated in the childlike capacity for play, which is why his consolatory vision of the world begins with the child doodling a god on the pavement.
Sometimes it hops softly and sadly from the table and rolls gently on the floor. But it turns out that while skiing after dark she has made contact with the beyond, meeting a demon — or angel — lover. In a parallel plot of the story, Kern is also seduced by an otherworldly presence, more devil than angel. Monfiori, who is first seen playing billiards, travels the world searching for those who will allow him to watch them commit suicide, and identifies Kern as a promising candidate.
His first move is to propose a drinking game. That there ought to be some middle ground between faith and play, certainty and doubt? Perhaps the solution to the dilemma posed by Monfiori is the make-believe character of art, which, if it is understood in terms of other human activities, will be mistaken for either faith or deceit. The play is set in a Cambridge college in There are two characters, Gonville, a tutor, and Edmond, his best student. Gonville is jealous and is determined to find out whether Stella has been unfaithful to him.
Summoning Edmond to his room, he tells him that Stella is dead. Edmond demands a poison so he can kill himself. Gonville gives him a hallucinogen, persuades him that he is dead and that his imagination, still active, is conjuring up the scene. But when Gonville, bored of his trick, explains it to Edmond, Edmond refuses to believe him.
But Edmond, and Nabokov, turn the tables on Gonville, science, and reason. The beyond, which Edmond thought he was experiencing, may be an illusion. But, conversely, the everyday world given us by the senses may also be an illusion. A little doubt destroys faith in a transcendent realm, but a lot of doubt restores it, not as the definitive truth of orthodox religion, but as an indeterminate intuition of possible alternative worlds.
But Death does not especially encourage one to think of it in terms of play: it contains only one brief mention of a game and a couple of chance uses of the word igra, or play. There is a potential contrast here between destructive and creative play, but it remains embryonic. Ten years later, however, Nabokov wrote a novel in which he reworked the idea of Death and made explicit the idea of the cruel game with perception. This is Camera Obscura , which he revised in as Laughter in the Dark. When Albinus is blinded in a car accident, Rex and Margot set up house with him, letting him believe that only Margot is present.
Cambridge University Examination Papers , Like Gonville, he does this for the pleasure of experimenting with a human being, something made plain by the original opening of Camera Obscura, which, like the opening of Death, is a description of the scientific dissection of matter. But he differs from Nabokov because he treats make-believe as mere deception. His play is entirely destructive. In The Tragedy of Mr. Morn is a direct response to the Russian Revolution, an attempt to counter a revolutionary politics, grounded in the ideal of equality, with a conservative politics, grounded in the ideal of happiness.
The play takes place in an imaginary kingdom repeatedly described as having LD 90; 95; Four years before the beginning of the play, a long period of revolution was brought to an end by the accession to power of a king who rules incognito, Mr. There is a semi-Kantian allegory here: for the sake of order, morality, and happiness in the real world, people must make-believe in the possibility of an ideal world.
Morn says: I created An era of happiness, an ear of harmony … O God, Give me strength … As if in play [igraiuchi], lightly I ruled; I appeared in a black mask In the ringing hall to my dignitaries, Who were cold, senile … imperiously I brought them back to life — And left again, laughing, laughing … 49 Tragediia gospodina Morna, All translations from The Tragedy of Mr. Morn mine. The image of Morn riding about in a closed coach is an allegory for the fairy-tale of God. When Morn seems to have died, Ganus decides to become a Christian so as to fill the void That is all.
The revolutionary leader, Tremens, embodies the reality-principle which Morn had resisted. For him everything in the world is play, always equally amusing, always equally accidental. Nabokov clearly intends Dandilio to be a disquietingly amoral figure. At the end of the novel, Ganin decides not to wait for Mary, re-inhabits the present, forges a new passport, and is ready to move away, his memories of Mary exhausted and dispelled In the first part of the story, SS ; ; The story presents itself at first glance as a study in opposite states of experience.
Conversely, conflict can be subsumed into the category of play. In this perspective, events are the constructions of the mind, and the narrator also reflects that the pre-history of the fight he has given us is only one of many possible ways he might have imagined what had happened. The point, firstly, is the beauty of the very art of boxing, the perfect exactitude of the lunges, of the sideways leaps, the dives, the different blows, curved, straight, with the back of the hand, — and secondly, the excellent manly excitement that this art arouses.
By insisting on the element of conflict in play, he had already done so: There is no play without competition; which is why some forms of play, as, for example, gymnastic festivals, when a brigade of men or women draws up in a communal area in figures of a single movement, seem insipid, as if lacking in the main thing, which gives play its entrancing, thrilling delight. Which is why the communist system is so absurd, in which everyone is condemned to do everything as one and as in the boring gymnastics, not allowing, that anyone might be better built than his neighbour.
In boxing, this violence in play finds its apotheosis. Instead of this, Carroll showed Nabokov how to conceive of doubling as free and creative play. But neither is the nervous man Nabokov. The nervous man, who dares not look at himself naked in the morning, who is disgusted by violence and who prefers poetry, is the empty shell of Nabokov, left behind by the artist who flits upwards and casts a cold eye back upon himself.
He is the shadow-self whom the narrator boxes. Part of what makes the essay difficult is its almost violent refusal to meet its audience halfway. The two and a half connoisseurs to whom Nabokov first read out the essay at the Aikhenvald circle, and the scepticism they might have been expected to feel about the claim that there is no pain in boxing, are blankly ignored. Violence destroys the context of common decency in which judgements would ordinarily be made.
Behind him was Mary, an undistinguished Turgenevian novel of longing and loneliness. Ahead of him was King, Queen, Knave, a cruel novel about play, in which Nabokov inverted all his ideals and for the first time discovered the acid-etched tone and cut-glass images which would become his signature style.
In Laughter in the Dark, Axel Rex, appropriately, glimpses him again: He watched with interest the sufferings of Albinus […] The stage manager of this performance was neither God nor the devil. For two whole years, and , he produced relatively little work. This delay suggests the enormous conceptual advance Nabokov was about to make.
The preparations for writing King, Queen, Knave seem to have taken most of the second half of Of his two major works of these years, A University Poem, written in December , deals relatively superficially with play, while there is no reference to play in the slight drama The Man from the U. The devil offers a young man, Erwin, his choice of all the women he passes on the street on a given day, so long as the number is odd. Two poems of these years deal with play. King, Queen, Knave is a satirical novel which attacks its characters.
It tears away their illusions. The Luzhin Defense is, as its title suggests, a book about defence. It defends the illusions in which people live. It describes a person trying to eliminate play from life, and insists that this is impossible, and that the attempt leads to destruction.
Whereas King, Queen, Knave is an artistic realisation of a universe in continual play, quick and nervous in tone, and sparkling with reckless images, the art of The Luzhin Defense is that of cerebral form abstracted as far as is possible from the flux of the universe, imitating the measured, deliberative, and structured character of chess. The distinction between the two novels, like that between Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, is symbolised by the contrast between cards and chess. Schiller, Nietzsche, and Bely had all been content to write about play without considering what games they had in mind, but in the s Nabokov carried out a Aesthetic Education, Nabokov reads the characteristics of one sport into another in surprising ways.
The game being played, Skat, reflects the plot of the novel. There is a variation in which knaves are the only trumps and the novel ends with the laughter of Franz, the knave. Both Kostandi and Rogachevskii seem, however, to have confused German Skat with the much simpler American Scat and so they miss the point about the knave being trumps when the declarer calls Grand. There is no system. The roulette of history knows no laws. Hermann, a German engineer in St. Petersburg, watches others gamble at cards every night but is too cautious and calculating ever to take part, until he hears the story of an elderly Countess to whom the secret of winning at faro was once entrusted.
Though he scares the old lady to death, her ghost seems to give him the secret combination of three, seven, and ace: the first two cards win for him on two successive nights, but on the last night he loses his entire fortune. Translation mine. Play in King, Queen, Knave is manipulative, violent, commercialised and superficial. Football comes as a substitute for the goose march, lawn tennis replaces the art of war. Neither Martha nor Franz understand tennis. This is a telling misunderstanding: Franz is always oppressed, never liberated, by the rules of the games in which he is caught up.
Dreyer, by contrast, can play tennis but cannot ski or swim, because these are forms of play without rules, and he cannot grasp the element of freedom in play. Nabokov goes beyond this mere aestheticism, searching out aspects of mental experience for which no salubrious visual representation is possible. But it also pulls away the face beneath this mask, alerting us to this procedure at its opening by the startling image of a man from whose face the nose and skin seem to have been burned away 3.
The keynote of the book is a thrilled disgust with the raw flesh beneath the skin. For Franz, play is a nauseating memory of filthy children in a schoolyard with slippery skin and spittle, and desire itself is extraordinarily close to this experience of disgust 4. We are so satiated with it that sometimes we grow lazy in mocking our object. It allows him to create a world in which he is at home, and yet from which he can safely watch the potentially menacing outside world.
Nabokov sees the banal action of his novel from that perspective. The very title King, Queen, Knave points to how Nabokov has consciously adopted as his subject the frivolous and tired story of three very unimaginative people acting out the perennial tale of greed, lust, and adultery dealt with in so many nineteenth century novels. Life seen from this inhumanly distant perspective is, in the most limited sense of the phrase, only a game. What makes life seem a futile game is that, from a perspective completely external to human affairs, few if any objects justify the interest with which people invest them.
At the end of King, Queen, Knave, two children are building a sand-castle, constantly repairing it as the waves sweep its structures away Lewis Carroll began Through the Looking-Glass with a detailed chess-game, but the game is based on nonsensical rules. The school chosen for Luzhin places a great emphasis on games.
From the beginning, play means unreliability, threat, and the disgustingly physical side of life. Not that the young Luzhin has no instinct for play: he enjoys solitary games such as mathematical puzzles and jigsaws But since play must always involve some element that the ego does not control, Luzhin soon enough extinguishes his capacity for play and tries to eliminate play from chess. Of these various solutions, the most overarching is the Pushkinian equation of play with life, and the rejection of play with death: chess boxes are compared to wooden coffins A compassionate young woman, never named, identifies Luzhin as the ideal object for her pity, and in the central chapters of the book, courts him, marries him, and tries to cure him of chess and save him from madness.
But she cannot break the tyranny of chess over his perceptions: he sees TLD Pushkin, The Queen of Spades, Petersburg Nabokov would quote them in his Lectures on Don Quixote. In the sonnet, Nabokov chose a poetic form comparable to chess for its strict rules, its restricted material, and its self-containment.
For the piece on Khayyam, see SS As John Updike remarks, chapters nine to fourteen feel more aimless, and the pattern they gradually reveal is a haphazard one clear only to Luzhin in his paranoia TLD The opening compares the movements of the rook to an iambic rhythm and those of the bishop to an anapest. The second sonnet depicts the mind immobilised as it broods over an insoluble chess problem.
The chess problem is not solved, but the sonnet is satisfyingly concluded, leaving the reader with a delicate distinction between chess and poetry: like chess, literature is based on conventions, but unlike chess, literature is always extending and redefining conventions such as those of rhyme and stanza, using them to create novelties of thought and emotion which the mind would not have reached without the aid of such external structures. In the third sonnet Nabokov undertakes an inversion appropriately, since the subject is chess, in which the opposing pieces are set out in an inverted pattern.
Now, instead of solving a chess problem, he is sitting up through the night trying to compose one. Where in the second sonnet the emphasis was on how the mind is illuminated at the moment that it liberates itself from the conventions it has imposed on itself, the third sonnet inverts this idea. Just as a chess problem, by the apparently static organisation of a few pieces, encodes the long sequence of preceding and subsequent moves, so in a sonnet a few images and words are magnified by their precise positioning and selection in the rigorously organised structure, so that they come to imply the emotions and experiences of an entire world: And I locked away in its pattern the answer To all of our night, to all of your cries, And the shadow of branches, and the bright streams Of the fluctuating stars, and the craft of the poet.
In the third sonnet he is reconciled to them by a profounder understanding of the truth they can embody. In this history Nabokov is particularly interested in the lives of the boxing champions after their careers had ended, and there is a striking contrast between the happy scene he creates of the nineteenth century champions reliving their victories in convivial pubs and the farcical story of Jack Johnson, who in became the first black world heavyweight champion, only to become a music-hall exhibit and end up in prison SS Dmitri Nabokov. Imagining himself as a chess piece, the chess master begins hopping around the room like a knight SS He tries to reach positions that are as static as he is himself.
He is like Lasker, or, more precisely, like a later disciple of the positional school, Akika Rubinstein, whom Nabokov acknowledged as a model for Luzhin. And lastly every art was once a game and a pastime. Revokatrat SS This name, if reversed, spells S. But in hypermodern theory, the player, exercising guile, hangs back, allowing his opponent to expose and eventually destroy himself as a result of his own aggression.
The idea that Nabokov is capitalising on — that hypermodern theory is so radical that it questions not only an orthodoxy of chess theory but an assumption deeply embedded in all of human culture — was reflected by Tartakover when he remarked of The Works of G. It expresses the logic that lies behind the name of Sebastian Knight. He discovers his first chess board at a crucial moment in the opening chapter when he runs away from the train taking him back to St.
He is a series of defences organised around a hollow centre, like chess pieces huddled around their powerless king But he has no home to come back to, literally and psychologically, and is found the next day having slept rough in the street. The two objects Luzhin finds with the chessboard in the attic say a great deal about what chess will mean to him. This results in a fatal psychic rupture, foreshadowed by a crack in the chessboard that Luzhin finds. Khodasevich put the point in a review, where, true to the Kantian view of the aesthetic as a passageway between the phenomenal and the noumenal, he described the artist as an intermediary between the world of art and the world of reality.
But whereas King, Queen, Knave itself follows Franz and tears away the illusions designed to keep out of sight what is disgusting and destructive in reality, The Luzhin Defense is, as its title suggests, a defence of illusion. In his English foreword Nabokov pressed this point, saying that Luzhin rhymes with illusion 7. Luzhin Senior tries to cut out his memories of the revolution and the war, and the crabbed unhappy figure of his son in adulthood. This idea of art as a defence and an illusion so radically violates the modern idea of art as expressive and truth-telling, that is, of art as a kind of speech, that it cannot be heard, only overheard.
Nevertheless it is as old as epic: in the Aeneid, the shield of Aeneas portrays civilisation, and the poem is itself a shield against savagery. Defence is central to the public persona Nabokov created in Speak, Memory, where he writes about having been a goalkeeper in football and about his interest in protective mimicry in butterflies The fears behind this feeling are dramatised in The Luzhin Defense, where a black- bearded psychiatrist tries to cure Luzhin of chess and seeks out in his childhood the In an unpublished lecture given at the Nabokov Museum in St.
Petersburg in July It is as if Nabokov had a need to create Freud, a fictional Freud who became for Nabokov a manufactured foil or double to his own authorial persona, analogous to those doubles so prevalent in his fiction. Only in an appendix to his Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxieties did he attempt to distinguish the two terms. Chess is the keystone of a defence of silence and repression that Luzhin must maintain at the cost of his life, and because Luzhin has invested in it all his erotic energies, he cannot consummate his marriage and his life is empty when he is forbidden to play chess.
But for Luzhin it proves to be fatal. NWL Strachey, —, ; and —; In play a child learns to relate to objects in such a way that they can serve at the same time as symbols for the external world and for internal life. Without play, the child TLD He remains a child, seems barely alive, reigns unopposed in the kingdom of his own consciousness, is only aware of the outside world when it fails him, and handles symbols so poorly that he can barely speak: the chess pieces he wields express the forces in his own mind but, unlike words, do not refer outwards into the external world.
And yet Luzhin is also an image of the artist, or at least of one artistic imperative, the instinct to create structures in which to hide oneself. Winnicott understood and defended this side of human nature from the psychoanalytic invasiveness that Nabokov and Luzhin also resist. Luzhin, once known for the brilliant sacrifices he had played , is sacrificed so that Nabokov can write The Luzhin Defense.
The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist […] The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life-process of society is subsumed under playfulness.
Adorno and Horkheimer allegorise this absolute breach between culture and labour in their Dialectic of Enlightenment by the image of Odysseus bound to the mast and listening to the music of the sirens while his crew row past with their ears stopped up. But many other nineteenth-century thinkers and writers, from Carlyle and Ruskin, through Fourier and Marx, to Tolstoy, were also trying to close the gap between culture and labour, by making work more like art, and art more like work.
Most of the best-known nineteenth century novelists, in Russia as abroad, were also engaged in this same project. Nabokov might appear to have simply rejected the gospel of work. As a young man he defiantly lived out the untimely Pushkinian vision of the artist as idler. After he finished his degree at Cambridge, a job was found for him in a Berlin bank, but he lasted only a day there RY Despite his satirical comments in the article, in he had just finished The Gift, whose hero, Fyodor, shamelessly flaunts his idleness, lying on his bed all day writing poetry while the noises of work come in through his window and his girlfriend, Zina, does a miserable office job.
In Speak, Memory, which he wrote in the late s, he would develop this picture and apply it comprehensively to his own past. In the fifteenth chapter of Speak, Memory he suggests that poetry, consciousness, and civilisation begin not with toil and struggle but with idleness: There is also a keen pleasure and, after all, what else should the pursuit of science produce?
Toilers of the world, disband! Old books are wrong. The world was made on a Sunday. But in the s, Nabokov, like most other Western writers, was concerned with questions about the place and value of the artist in society that had been made urgent by the economic depression and the rise of Fascism. The third section of this chapter shows how, in Glory, Despair and Invitation to a Beheading, written between and , Nabokov addresses these issues.
He does so subtly and indirectly, aiming to move beyond the antithesis of work and play that he had formulated, however provisionally, in He insists instead that work and play are intersecting perspectives on life, which cannot be divorced from one another, and that to divide life up into work and play is to submit to the assumptions of a utilitarianism which degrades life as well as art.
Gogol and Tolstoy both abandoned writing novels in favour of writing religious tracts for this very reason. Nabokov is, then, looking for a way to write novels that is not implicated in labour. The Gift is a praise of idleness, and in it Nabokov is attempting radically to refashion of the aesthetics of the modern novel, insofar as they had been first shaped by the vision of work. And however we practically assess this demand of the workers, it in any case touches upon primordial parts of our psychology.
The profound bible legend teaches us, that the first man did not work, did not strain himself, but lived without a care in the nurturing gardens of Eden, enjoying the hospitality of the universe; and only then, in punishment for the first sin, did he lose his happiness in idleness and was he condemned to work; and from this time forth he began to work in the sweat of his brow for his daily bread. Is it not significant, therefore, that in the consciousness of human labour there is retribution, but [that this is] not a fundamental and natural condition of a rational creature? Once there was a Golden Age in which there was no work.
Aikhenvald takes a dialectical approach to the gospel of work. On the one hand he represents it as a slave-philosophy, an aestheticisation of pain, a way of making a virtue out of the necessity of miserable labour: we have got used to our station as labouring oxen, and have obediently harnessed ourselves to the yoke, and even glorify the beauty and greatness of labour, kissing the rod that beats us; and this is the result of our having been punished at the hand of God: a love of toil is not at all an indisputable virtue, but a mark of slavery, that Aikhenvald, Pokhvala prazdnosti, Translations from Praise of Idleness mine.
It may well be that at this deepest stratum of human nature there is a longing for Edenic idleness. Yet through the work which nature has demanded of fallen man, man has built civilisation as a second home for himself on earth, making all of the characteristics by which he now recognises himself as human. It is necessary to transubstantiate the matter, the materials of nature into organised forms, but for this we need concentrated labour.
Sean Michael DiLeonardi
For between Schiller and Aikhenvald comes the nineteenth century and the gospel of work. These moments reflect the profound artistic and psychological commitment to labour in Anna Karenina. See Gustafson, Leo Tolstoy, on the spiritual progression implied by the mowing scene. The purposeful unconsciousness Levin finds in mowing corresponds to the unconscious artistic work going on in Mikhaylov as he gathers the material for his painting.
Tolstoy notices all of the hidden manual labour that goes on behind the scenes of an opera, and on which the fine appearances of high culture rest. Next to the authenticity of physical labour, the sort of work that deals with paper and words seems futile. Chichikov buys and sells the paper rights to dead souls; Bashmachkin spends his life copying out screeds of paper. In praising idleness and play, Aikhenvald and Nabokov were, then, working against cultural assumptions which had had nearly a hundred years to embed and which had formed nineteenth century fiction.
Though Aikhenvald does not spell it out, they were also working against the more obvious adversary of Marxist-Leninism, and trying to subvert its premise that man is made for work. Under the conditions of capitalism, however, the worker is alienated. Aikhenvald argues that machines will take over the irredeemably degrading work.
Pokhvala prazdnosti, All work of that kind should be done by a machine.
Author Bios | From Russia with Love Symposium
Live, read, think. What to do? Jerome, who edited The Idler. Perhaps because the pose of the idle clerk makes the best available mask for an artist of play, Sebastian Knight is glad to invoke Jerome K. Jerome when he tells a story about himself SK But Lewis Carroll is the writer whose subversion of the Victorian gospel of work must have been most influential on Nabokov, at least after he translated Alice in Wonderland in In wonderland, and through the looking-glass, nonsense is made of the hymns to work and duty and foresight which Victorian children learned by heart. Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque, ; They are as free to indulge in conversation and pleasure as those legendary ancients that we see so clearly reclining around fruit-laden tables or walking in high discourse over painted floors, but whom we never see in the countinghouse or the shipyard.
LL Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses both have jobs to which they give very little attention. They have the time and the psychological space to wander through Dublin and through a labyrinth of thoughts. The radicalism of rejecting the work ethic can easily be judged by the fact that Kafka, Joyce, and Nabokov all do so by comparing the artist to an insect — so deeply had the nineteenth century established its definition of man as homo faber.
In Metamorphosis , Gregor Samsa can only avoid getting out of bed and going off to his miserable job by no longer being a human. Blake comments on this in Play, Games, and Sport, While the butterfly is a caterpillar the ants offer it their own larvae as food, extracting a juice from the caterpillar in exchange.
The butterfly then produces a glue in which the ants get caught and die, while the butterfly flies away Or rather — as is the prerogative of art — the job it performs is one it has invented for itself. It aims to show how the world works, and to depict that work before it has been completed and become hidden. A van jingles past with cases on its roof containing rows of emerald-glittering empty bottles, collected from taverns. Bread is not earned in the sweat of the brow, but rather, spirit and value are attributed to the flour-dusted angel and the emerald bottles.
The crust built up over many years of handling change is an image for the sensuous immediacy of an art that understands itself as the product of a skill evolved by long practice, like playing the piano; an art that is fascinated by the process of habituation by which people humanise the world and learn to balance themselves in an unpredictable, swaying, environment. The knowledge embodied by this art is unconscious and invisible.
Culture is a product of work. He does not see art as the memory and promise of the Golden Age, that unalienated world prior to pain and labour and conflict. He has woken up early, so as to see the bread before it is in the shops and the bottles before they are back in the pubs. He wants to see the coins in the hand of the conductor before the transaction has been completed and the ticket issued. He is interested in the city pipes that bring water and take away waste, ever since the Romans an emblem for the internal workings of civilisation. Only that morning, someone has written a name, Otto, on the snow covering the pipes.
The part of the world that is writable and legible is the world seen before it has become functional, while it can still be played with. The narrator is fascinated by work My italics. He is getting in the way of work, insofar as work aims at a conclusion that will make the work invisible. He is engaged in the formalist practice of obnazhenie or making naked. The tree lies flat; its tip quivers gently, while the earth- covered roots, enveloped in sturdy burlap, form an enormous beige bomblike sphere at its base.
Disrupting this process is essential to modernism. The central metaphor of Finnegans Wake is the comparison Joyce makes between his book and an undelivered letter. Here, too, the narrator has positioned himself so as to interfere with the communications system, catching experience before it has been recognised and eaten up and made invisible. The Russian word — zavernutye — is a different one but the image is the same SS Just before being sent into the man-made Eden of the Berlin Zoo, the reader is sharply reminded of the violent element of labour.
We are killing and eating the world every day, and that violence is essential to all aspects of work, even to the work of recognition, the work of limiting the shock and adjusting for the sway of experience. Shklovsky speaks of how people are habituated to the fear of war. But Nabokov notices the paradox that violence is hidden by an act of violence.
Animals have to be killed and cooked before they can be eaten, and society can only eat its meat so long as it can forget those raw facts. The leather hood makes the butcher seem like a traditional executioner, whose work society needs but cannot bear to acknowledge directly, and therefore needs to My translation. Here the butcher makes another parallel with the artist. Both are untouchables, both deal in the raw unclean secrets which society wants to hide but also needs to have acknowledged, both are face-to-face with the violence needed for living.
This is one reason why the narrator sees arabesques, the emblems of his own ludic art, in the brightly coloured guts of the dead animals. The guts of the carcasses are defamiliarised as blotches of colour and arabesque forms. This violent image of digging into the bowels of the earth is a traditional one for the condition of work after the Fall.
The image of pipes as entrails suggests that the functionalist mode of thought is a product of human self-disgust. We were reminded that a world in which blood plays is one in which blood is not bloody. He is back in the pub, a place of idleness. After all, the name someone had marked in the snow, Otto, is the same as that of the publican of the earlier story. He looks at a child, and imagines seeing the world though his eyes, not yet blinded to its strangeness by the habits of working life.
From there he can see the inside of the tavern — the green island of the billiard table, the ivory ball he is forbidden to touch, the metallic gloss of the bar, a pair of fat truckers at one table and the two of us at another. Or perhaps it is not. But Nabokov now contends that the antithesis of work and play, which he had handled so brilliantly in , is in its origins a drab product of utilitarianism, and, in turn, of human suffering.
Nabokov neatly sums up how the thought that joins work and play trivialises literature when he pictures Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading working in a toy factory. Any art that refuses to be trivialised as a toy — especially one that prides itself on being a serious toy — will subvert the contrast between work and play and the assumptions it encodes.
Play and work can be interpreted as useless and useful activities, but the distinction can also be made between what is free or spontaneous and what is necessary and mechanical, and by this logic play may come to be considered more useful than work. Quoted by Updike in Hugging the Shore, But Nabokov goes further, disturbing the contrast between use and art, work and play, by attending to the strangeness and inexplicability of art in a society of jobholders. Is art work or play?
Senselessly, artists waste all the time they ought to spend working. Instead they devote great ability and effort to an activity that is really a hobby, or an entertainment for children. They are trying to make a profession out of what is really play. Worse, some of them cannot even make a living by their art, because they refuse or are unable to supply any recognised public need. At least guidebooks help people to find their way around foreign cities, an obvious and recognised need.
As a difficult activity art may, admittedly, make a claim to being work, since it is understood that work is exhausting and difficult. Sometimes art deals with serious matters, such as the ills of society, which some artists claim to be working to redress. Art is like work in this regard, because work is serious and fixes things. But art builds nothing and rarely pays. It makes nothing happen, but diverts people from producing food and shelter and making a better society. It makes complications where things had been functioning simply. It explores issues endlessly, like a child playing with plasticine but never making any recognisable shape out of the material.
Given that an artist has come to no conclusion and achieved no goal, one might say that he has not worked and even that he has not done anything. On this question Nabokov was ambivalent. He devoted his career to exploring the idea of art as a game, and he vigorously opposed the crude utilitarianism that often underwrites the view that art is work.
But he also liked at times to insist that the creation of art was difficult work. If the reader has to work in his turn — so much the better. Art is difficult. Easy art is what you see at modern exhibitions of things and doodles. Nabokov did not want to think of literature in either of the socially sanctioned ways, as a profession or as a hobby. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income.
Several times in his novels of the twenties and thirties, Nabokov embodied the ambiguity of his own position as an artist by giving his characters jobs in which the distinction between work and play is somehow blurred. In Invitation to a Beheading Cincinnatus works in a toy factory. In Glory, Martin supports himself by working as a tennis coach. Nabokov also allegorises the professionalisation of art in the fact that Luzhin is a professional chess player. Chess Afterword to The Luzhin Defense, But that does not necessarily make it work. Art is neither an action nor an identity.
The next year, after writing The Eye , he returned, in Glory, to the irrationality of art in a culture of work and play. This time, however, he not only allegorised the riddle of art in modern society, but projected it onto his own early adult life. In Glory Nabokov wrote an account of his youth, focused on the years between and , taking work and play as terms in which to analyse his own late adolescent search for an authentic form of existence, and finding both terms unsatisfactory.
That summer, processing this loss and the death of his father, Nabokov chose to go as a fruit-picker in the south of France, the cure of work that Levin recommends in Anna Karenina. It resembles Anna Karenina in that it examines work and play as alternative modes of life, before leaving both behind in favour of an act of faith which, being unstatable, goes outside the scope of words, forcing the novel to an end. After a brief introduction, it follows its protagonist, Martin Edelweiss, from his emigration from Russia and his first love affair, through to his time at Cambridge, where he plays football and boxes.
When he leaves Cambridge he moves to Germany and works as a tennis coach there, before working as a farm labourer in the south of France. Finally he decides to cross back into the Soviet Union, disappearing from the novel and possibly dying. Glory 10 RY See Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. When Martin is writing to his mother, Suddenly, in his mind, he saw the mailman walking across the snow; the snow crunched slightly, and blue footprints remained on it.
It is raining here. Nevertheless Martin is driven to fulfil an element of aesthetic consciousness in himself that is somehow always being cancelled out and being made invisible. Although he cannot write it down, he tries to live it out, and this search leads to his inexplicable act of self-sacrifice. While he is at Cambridge, Martin turns to two writers whose visions were non-utilitarian, though in opposite ways: Carlyle and Horace.
Martin associates Horace with a life of leisured conversation. No one else can see what he is looking for. The problem comes up again when he leaves Berlin and is on a train to Strasbourg. He falls into conversation with a Frenchman, who wants to know why Martin is travelling. Is he a commercial traveller, or an engineer, or working in the colonies, or on a scientific expedition?
The Frenchman finally concludes that Martin is an explorer and record-seeker, which he thinks is very English. And yet even that, even le sport, is not all. There are besides — how shall I say? Each of the paradigms segues into the next, so that each metamorphosis involves a moment of violence, and a moment of misrecognition. Martin cannot understand why he is always reminded of his first Glory 65; At first Martin would get so tired, his right shoulder would ache and his feet burn so badly, that as soon as he had earned his five or six dollars he would go to bed.
His hair grew lighter and his skin darker from the sun, so that he seemed a negative of himself. Martin does not want to seem more cultured than he is. He wants to seem more romantic than he is. The self-obliteration of his labour appeals to him as a foreshadowing of the heroic self-sacrifice he wants. When Sonia turns Martin down again, he takes a train and gets off in pursuit of the promise seemingly offered by some lights in the distance, which he is told come from a town called Molignac.
He signs on as a labourer on a farm.
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The pages that follow are a pure hymn to unalienated labour: Far below him the lucerne rippled in the wind, from above the glowing blue pressed upon him, sliver-veined leaves rustled close to his cheek, and the oilcloth- lined basket suspended from a bough gradually acquired weight as it got filled with the glossy-black fruit Martin pulled off by its taut stems. Martin finds out that he was never at Molignac, leading us to conclude that he was not where he thought he was, psychologically as well as geographically.
When he was losing himself in work, his happiness was a mirage cast by his passion for self-abnegation. But the ideal of work is not completely dismissed, only displaced deeper into consciousness. Hermann Hermann, a Russian businessman living in Berlin, seizes for himself a world not filled with play but poisonously glutted with images of play. In a particularly striking image, used twice, two girls are playing marbles.
For a moment, Hermann D 64; 96; ; ; Nabokov positions Hermann at an ideological crossroads between play and work, aestheticism and Marxism. Like Lolita, Despair is about aestheticism. Between and six million Germans, or a third of the labour force, lost their jobs. Fortunately such people are few. The RY Nabokov talked about the meeting in a interview: SO The twist in Despair is that only Hermann sees any resemblance between Felix and himself.
What Hermann recognises in Felix, though he dares not see it, is the bedraggled image of his own despair, hidden beneath arabesques of vanity and self- congratulation. Murdering Felix is a displaced act of suicide.
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The soul turned into an exchangeable commodity is a human being deprived of his essence, and this is the liberation from his own self-disgust that Hermann craves. Hermann is like a man throwing a rope ladder up into the air, climbing up it, and then pulling it away after himself. By sacrificing and expending Felix, Hermann hopes to cut himself free from his previous workaday self, to lose all memory of himself. In The Eye, Nabokov had already written a Dostoevskyan story about a man so unable to bear his self-image that he splits off from himself.
This previous abandoned self is described in the third person as Smurov, this name suggesting the Russian word for ant, muravei. The I or eye which breaks free of that self is, implicitly, unantlike, able to move in three dimensions, a butterfly of play. In Despair, similarly, the old quotidian self that is abandoned is thought of as the part of the self that labours. However Hermann is not altogether wrong to see an affinity between himself and Felix. And generally speaking … the world, you know, is dirt.
I lied as a nightingale sings, ecstatically, self- obliviously; revelling in the new life-harmony which I was creating. Hermann and Felix are mirror images of one another, as far as their author is concerned, since they both believe that reality is dirt and art a lie. It is only the inversion of a labouring ethos that equates reality with matter. It is the shadow cast by a mound of earth. The poem, which Nabokov translated in full in his introduction to the novel, so that non-Russian readers could catch the point, ends with a very surprising thought: Long have I, weary slave, been contemplating flight To a remote abode of work and pure delight.
Cincinnatus has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of being the only opaque person in a frictionless world of transparent people. Because there are no rules, his wife is perpetually unfaithful and one of his gaolers, Pierre, cheats him at chess. The novel itself imitates this absence of rule in its many factual inconsistencies: on one page Cincinnatus moves a table which, two pages later, is bolted to the floor.
Invitation to a Beheading is structured as a series of unsuccessful escape attempts, all of which only lead back to the prison forged in his own mind. One of those false escape routes is a mythic past — whose sequel seems to be presented to him in the pages of an old magazine: It was a bound magazine, published once upon a time, in a barely remembered age. Those were years of universal fluidity; well-oiled metals performed silent soundless acrobatics […] Everything was lustrous and shimmering; everything gravitated passionately towards a kind of perfection whose definition was the absence of friction.
To accept the history presented in these old magazines, which might have been forged by the new regime, would mean accepting this prison of substanceless spectres as inevitable. Two alternative hopes of escape tantalise Cincinnatus for much of the book. She bounces a ball against a wall, a game without rules 64 , and draws Cincinnatus a picture of her leading him out of prison But the attraction she exerts on Cincinnatus is charged with a perverse sexual desire that anticipates Lolita, and she becomes cruel in her play, mockingly imitating a crippled boy Like work, play seems to promise escape from the prison of the world, but here it only re- imprisons.
Invitation to a Beheading is a nightmare allegory not just of tyranny, but also of life itself as a prison, and in it Nabokov re-uses the pattern of Glory, exploring work and play as possible means of redemption, before rejecting both. Cincinnatus has to realise that only he can save himself, and that he can do so only by ceasing to fear death and by refusing to believe in the reality of the material world, that is, by declining the invitation to his own beheading. It is difficult to make a clear logic out of the ideas in Invitation to a Beheading and to dispel its nightmare. The text by its indeterminacy demands real, endless work from its reader, its game cannot be reduced to rule.
As in a Piranesi prison, the lines will never meet. Invitation to a Beheading does however gesture towards redemption in an ideal that dissolves the distinction between work and play. The time has now come — and thank God it has! The distinction between labour and writing can crystallise into the thought that because the writer makes nothing, he is a parasite and a forger.
There will be work, there will be belly-cheer, there will be a clean, warm, sunny — […] Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich, Idlers, parasites, and musicians are not admitted. He poisons the life of honest folks. In The Gift as in the Lectures on Russian Literature, the explicit view that utilitarianism destroyed Russian literature and led to Soviet despotism sits upon a more unexpected perception, shown rather than stated, that this utilitarianism itself expressed the vision of work.
Reading a Soviet chess magazine, Fyodor is struck by the dull laboriousness of the problems, which he finds typical. Further, he thinks that although the radical critics courageously opposed the tyranny of the Tsar, they were themselves just as tyrannical in the demands they made on artists, so that their superficial idea of freedom laid the ideological basis for the oppressiveness as well as the philistinism of the Soviet regime. By contrast, Fyodor spends all day sitting in his room smoking and trying to compose a poem, waiting for inspiration, while the noises of men at work drift in through his window.
The Gift is built on the contrast between Chernyshevsky, who thinks of literature and life as work, and Pushkin, who thinks of the writer as someone who strolls rather than labours, whose more profound understanding of freedom is really more useful to the people, and whose legacy Fyodor is trying to reclaim. His thought may be animated by the concept of work, the abstraction of labour that Marx viewed as an ideological construct, but he is not interested in the jobs people actually do. The metaphor of mental work that drives him has such uncanny power precisely because it is a ghostly abstraction divorced from real work.
It is sad to read in his diary about the appliances of which he tries to make use — scale-arms, bobs, corks, basins — and nothing revolves, or if it does according to unwelcome laws, in the reverse direction of what he wants: an eternal motor going in reverse — why, this is an absolute nightmare, the abstraction to end all abstractions, infinity with a minus sign, plus a broken jug into the bargain. Instead Chernyshevsky makes holes in poems and is interested in the void between objects. Fyodor wants to win his battle against Chernyshevsky by convincing us that the ideology that presents itself as promoting work turns out to have been based on an incomprehension of work.
It should have flowed effortlessly, since common sense speaks its mind immediately, for it knows what it wants to say. G ; SS Chernyshevsky is putting work in the wrong place, in the head and not on the page. Nabokov, through Fyodor, refuses to accept either that an ethic of labour must give rise to a simple-minded didactic realism, or that his own intricate parodic art is necessarily the expression of a privileged world of leisure and play.
If Fyodor had been willing to ignore this, and ignore the course of Russian culture, he could have stayed in Chapter One with Pushkin. They have, in a sense, stopped living, and so have leisure for art. Once again life is boring, and he and Anna have to move on from Rome. For Mikhaylov, however, art is not a hobby to be taken up and put down. It is his life, and he is always working at it, even when he is away from his easel and just looking at the world. He is trying to get right the chin of a figure in his painting.
Louis and Aylmer Maude, Yes, all my life I shall be getting that extra little payment in kind to compensate my regular overpayment for merchandise foisted on me. Mikhaylov makes a purchase, Fyodor does not. Gogol presented Nabokov with a still more complex case. Yet Gogol also shows that in his alienated literary labour Bashmachkin creates for himself a wonderful world in which he can live, to compensate himself for the sensuous world of which writing has deprived him.
To say he worked with zeal would be an understatement: no, he worked with love. In that copying of his he glimpsed a whole varied and pleasant world of his own.
The attempt to turn literature into work, paradoxically, exposes its futility and opens up the possibility for literary play. That this is a precarious and self-contradictory basis for literature is what attracted Nabokov to it. Any satirist must want to destroy the materials of his art, the people he includes and invents and condemns. It therefore corresponds to the logic of the Lectures on Russian Literature that in The Gift the chapter on Chernyshevsky and the destruction of Russian literature follows the chapter on Gogol, and precedes the chapter in which Fyodor comes into his gift.
After the dead letter of the copy office literature as work cannot survive; it must become either political propaganda or modernism. Chernyshevsky stands at the end of one path out of Gogol, while Fyodor stands at the end of another. Both Fyodor and Chernyshevsky are creatures of ink and paper, the materials that Gogol considered insubstantial and made an art out of satirising. This grounding in the Russian earth and in agricultural labour is the standard according to which Tolstoy and Gogol eventually condemn the intricacies of self-sufficient art, and, in the literary scheme of The Gift and Lectures on Russian Literature, usher in Chernyshevsky and the Soviets.
Pushkin teaches Fyodor how to escape that chthonic ethos. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable. The artist in exile is free of the earth. Death is no longer inevitable. This means that the Text requires that one try to abolish or at the very least diminish the distance between writing and reading. Nabokov resists the tendency, natural to those writers who want to think of themselves as workers or craftsmen, to imagine the novel or poem as a work, a made object, such as a wooden Barthes, Image, Music, Text, ; But we are reading and shall keep on reading.
Here Fyodor So for instance D. In general there await us unlimited possibilities. In this respect, Chapter Four telescopes the elusiveness of The Gift. Fyodor, defying death, liked drawing horizons and the setting sun, which can never be complete Nabokov had been reading Finnegans Wake as it came out in instalments over the s. In it he would find a model for the novel that would entirely leave behind the aesthetic of the nineteenth century.