Vladimir Nabokov and the Struggles Within

Father’s violent end informed the master’s depictions of warring internal factions

Vladimir Nabokov in Montreux, Switzerland in 1973. (Walter Mori/Mondadori Publishers)

Reading the work of Vladimir Nabokov elevates the mind. Nabokov’s writing is so full of felicitous phrasing and rich imagery, so appealing to the ear, so sublime, that one almost does not notice or care when one has lost sight of whatever passes for a plot in a given story or novel. Stories such as “Terra Incognita,” “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” “Lance,” and “Spring in Fialta,” and novels like PninThe Real Life of Sebastian KnightThe DefenseDespair, and Laughter In the Dark offer sensory experiences to the intrepid reader. (I have deliberately left out the vulgar Lolita, in some ways his least representative and least interesting work, and, predictably enough, his most popular.)

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

But to say that Nabokov puts vision first and plot second is not to imply that personal history had no part in informing the style and subject matter of his fiction. On the contrary, to read Nabokov is to find auto-fictional elements in their least disguised form, however little the reader may personally relate to his fantastic scenarios and situations. One needs to know a bit about the famous writer’s life to see what he is up to.

Those familiar with the broad outline of Nabokov’s life know that he lost his father at an early age, and in tragic circumstances. Nabokov senior was taking part in a political rally by fellow Russian émigrés in Berlin one day in 1922 when a far-right thug attempted to assassinate the speaker, Paul Miliukov. Even though the  senior Nabokov had more than his share of political differences with the assassin’s intended target, he leapt off the stage and tried to tackle the shooter, at which point a second assailant came up and fatally shot the father of the soon-to-be-famous writer.

Over and over again, in Vladimir Nabokov’s memoirs and fiction, we see the same scenario played out in one guise or another. “Terra Incognita” is the story of a small band of Western explorers in the wilds of an unnamed region of Africa. As their supplies run low and they despair of finding their way back to familiar terrain, they fall into increasingly violent quarrels. The reader might expect a band of fellow nationals lost in a strange land to stick together and help each other out, but, much like the squabbling Russian exiles in Berlin in 1922, they devote far more energy to venting their frustrations and ultimately their homicidal urges toward each other.

Cloud, Castle, Lake” is the story of a Russian émigré who wins a lottery prize entitling him to embark on a sightseeing trip with fellow Russians through a supposedly beautiful part of the country of their adopted homeland. It is an alluring place, sure enough, but in a surreal and haunting kind of way. Nabokov takes pains to depict the landscape of this strange terra incognita, where a lake bearing the reflection of a cloud separates the observer from a remote and forbiddingly barren castle, which may represent some kind of unattainable ideal, a place where émigrés from a land torn asunder by a revolutionary ideology gone berserk can at last find peace and security, if at the expense of socializing with people outside their ragtag tribe. Needless to say, the émigrés never make it to the castle. The protagonist, who won a place on the sightseeing tour, begins to have second thoughts about participating. He resists accompanying the others until they subdue him.

Vladimir Nabokov. (Walter Mori/Mondadori Publishers)

The two stories cited above are only some of the most abstract expressions of Nabokov’s theme of the lack of cohesion among people who have set out from their motherland to discover a new life in a weird terra incognita. The theme comes out again and again in his work, even when he is writing in a nonfictional medium that might not seem to lend itself to allusion and metaphor. In the essay “Reply to My Critics,” Nabokov vents a great deal of spleen against literary critics—and one in particular, Edmund Wilson—who have dared to take issue with his idiosyncratic uses of the English language in one or another novel, short story, or translation of Pushkin. Indeed, a bulk of the work is a rather nasty rebuttal to Wilson, whom Nabokov insists on calling his friend, but the early pages of the essay offer a response to Russian critics who have called out Nabokov on one of the more esoteric points of translation. The work says, as eloquently as the short stories, Here we are in a new world, a new life, and you fellow Russians are arguing with me over trifles rather than recognizing and acting upon our common interests.

I have tried to make all of this very simple, but this is Nabokov we are talking about. Who am I to try to analyze a genius? At the end of the day, I really do not mean to suggest that Nabokov sees no place at all for ambiguity or even internal conflict among people who have set out from their homeland to start a new life in a terra incognita. Such conflict may be a necessary condition of their plight and indeed a universal condition. The inescapable message of so much of Nabokov’s fiction is that the mind is a realm of eternally dueling elements, of undefeatable ambiguity. Squabbling factions may represent disparate yet oddly complementary parts of the same identity. To quote from the ending of one of his most brilliant novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the story of a man who searches in vain for nearly two hundred pages for his long-lost brother: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we are both someone whom neither of us knows.”

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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