Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels

In 1937, Vladeslav Khodasevich, an émigré poet and champion of “V. Sirin’s” work, wrote, “Sirin [Nabokov] proves for the most part to be an artist of form, of the writer’s device, and not only in that . . . sense of which . . . his writing is distinguished by exceptional diversity, complexity, brilliance, and novelty.” Khodasevich went on to say that the key to all Sirin’s work was his ability to put all his literary devices on display, with little or no attempt to conceal them, thus entertaining his readers more with the revelation of how the magician performs his tricks, than with the trick itself. “The life of the artist and the life of a device in the consciousness of an artist—this is Sirin’s theme.” Khodasevich, although he had not yet read The Gift—purported to be Vladimir Nabokov’s greatest Russian novel—had discovered the most important element of Nabokov’s fiction.

Vladimir_Nabokov_1969Throughout his entire life, although Nabokov underwent great changes in his circumstances, he was consistent, whether writing in Russian or English, in his unflagging delight in literary devices of all sorts, art for its own sake, and a contempt for mimetic conventions, simplistic psychological motivation, ordinary plot structure, and anything that inhibits the literary imagination. He can, in many respects, be called an aesthete, but his rejection of most schools of thought makes him difficult to classify. He strove for and achieved a uniqueness that runs as a thread throughout his oeuvre. Clarence Brown once commented in a critical essay that “for well over a quarter of a century now . . . [Nabokov] has been writing in book after book about the same thing,” and Nabokov is said to have admitted that Brown was probably correct.

Mary and King, Queen, Knave
Nabokov’s first novel, Mary, is rather sentimental and probably based on Nabokov’s regret for a lost love, but it already contains two elements he would use repeatedly—the love triangle and uncertain identity. King, Queen, Knave, however, is an even more obvious reflection of the Nabokov canon. In it, a character named Franz Bubendorf, a country bumpkin on his way to the city, apparently to be corrupted by the bourgeois life, is, in fact, already corrupted by his distaste for his own class, which distorts his perception. As if to emphasize this distortion of perception, Franz steps on his glasses and Berlin becomes a blur. Again, there is a love triangle, and each of the participants is, in his or her own way, unable to perceive reality. The melodrama of a love triangle and a planned murder is handled with the authorial detachment that is one of Nabokov’s hallmarks. The novel becomes a parody of traditional forms, and the characters become obvious contrivances of the author. Derived from a Hans Christian Andersen work of the same title, the novel consists of thirteen chapters, as there are thirteen cards in each suit in a deck of cards. The card metaphor is carried throughout the work, even in the description of clothes.

Laughter in the Dark
Laughter in the Dark opens with a parody of the fairy tale revealing the entire plot, here a relatively conventional bourgeois love story that Nabokov typically manipulates. The main character, blinded by love, becomes literally blinded and trapped in a love triangle, which results in his murder (accomplished in a scene that is a parody of motion-picture melodrama). This type of parody, which partially represents Nabokov’s delight in mocking inferior art, can also be seen as a parody of the reader’s expectations. Nabokov constantly thwarts the reader who wants a nice, comfortable, conventional novel. The writer is always in control, always tugging the reader this way and that, never allowing a moment of certainty. Perceptions are distorted on all levels. The characters have distorted perceptions of one another. The reader’s perception of events is teasingly distorted by the author. Nabokov operates a house of mirrors. If a reader expects realism, there will be no pleasure in the warped mirrors Nabokov presents. One must delight instead in the odd shapes and obvious deformities in the mirrors he has shaped.

Nabokov’s Characters
Character types in the Russian novels also recur throughout Nabokov’s career, so much so that some critics have attempted to pair earlier Russian novels with later English ones. Usually, the central figure is an outsider, an unusual person in his milieu. Bubendorf of King, Queen, Knave is a country boy in the city. In The Defense, the chess master Luzhin does not fit in with his family or his school and is sent into exile after the Revolution. Martin Edelweiss of Glory is in exile in London.

What is more important, however, is that these and many more of Nabokov’s characters are isolated as much by their mental states as by their physical surroundings. Their fantasies, dreams, ambitions, and obsessions set them utterly apart from the ordinary world. Luzhin, for example, is so obsessed with chess that he cannot deal with the disorder of life. Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading is thought peculiar by his fellow workers in the doll factory. In later English novels, immigrant Timofey Pnin is thought mad by his academic colleagues, Humbert Humbert and Adam Krug are seen as dangers to society, and Charles Kinbote intrudes and imposes on people. Generally, the main characters of Nabokov’s novels are perceived as talented men, in some sense more valuable than the soulless people and society that persecute them. They are outsiders because they are extraordinary. They are free, imaginative, and capable of a kind of heroism that ordinary people lack: the ability to remake the world according to their own obsessions.

The Gift
The Gift is generally thought of as Nabokov’s best Russian novel. Originally published serially in Sovremennye Zapiski, an émigré periodical, the fourth section was not included (for political reasons) in a complete edition until 1952. In The Gift, the central figure is Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a brilliant émigré poet. As the book opens, he has just published a collection of poems, and much of the early part concerns his literary career. Later, his obsession with the memory of his father begins to dominate his everyday life, and he becomes caught in the typical confusions of the biographer: What is the truth and how can one see it? He feels an obligation to write a biography of his father but becomes trapped in assessing the various versions of his father’s life. Later, he does succeed in writing a biography of Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevski, a so-called “poetic history” based upon the idea that reconstructing the past is essentially a creative act—history only exists in the historian’s imagination—and that the best biographies are literary creations.

The Gift has been seen as the summing up of Nabokov’s experiences as an émigré writer, and similarities have been seen between the author’s biography and the events and people in the novel. The book is heavy with allusions to Russian literature and has been called the Russian counterpart to Ada or Ardor, an extremely allusive and complex book that also focuses on the nature of the writer. In The Gift, many of Nabokov’s favourite devices are employed: the love triangle, the ironic suicide, and the heightened perception of the hero, in which he imagines conversations with the dead.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
After his decision to begin writing in English, Nabokov produced two novels before the succès de scandale of Lolita. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was begun in Paris and is ostensibly the biography of a fiction writer, Sebastian, narrated by his brother, “V.” V. is shocked to discover upon his brother’s death in 1936 that there was more to learn of Sebastian from his novels than he had learned in person. Once again, Nabokov introduces the theme that art surpasses reality. V. fights the various distortions of Sebastian’s life yet, at the end of his biography, confesses that “Sebastian’s mask clings to my face.” V. created Sebastian, so Sebastian is V. (as both characters were created by Nabokov). Again, the novel is characterized by the use of parodistic techniques and distorted characters. One can easily recognize this novel as a Nabokov work, yet because of Nabokov’s uncertainty at writing in the English language at this stage, the work is not completely satisfying. Nabokov admitted, for example, to having had native speakers help him with the editing, something he would never permit later.

Bend Sinister
Many resemblances have been noted between Nabokov and his brother Sergei, and V. and his brother Sebastian. Sergei, unlike Vladimir, stayed in Europe during the Nazi period and died of starvation in a concentration camp near Hamburg on January 10, 1945. These events perhaps explain the harsh allegorical tone of Bend Sinister, a novel that is, in some ways, better than its predecessor and perhaps one of the most accessible of Nabokov’s novels. The hero, Adam Krug, is an intellectual whose ideas are largely responsible for the new regime in an Eastern European country. Krug, however, refuses to swear allegiance to the ruler of the regime, a fellow student from childhood named Paduk. “I am not interested in politics,” he says. Inexorably, the ring of tyranny tightens around Krug, resulting in the arrest of friends, the death of his son, and Krug’s death as he attempts to attack Paduk in a mad vision of schoolyard life.

The artist, the literary craftsman in Nabokov, was incapable, however, of writing a straightforward novel of outrage against fascists or communists. The country is not specified; numerous vague descriptions of setting give the work a Kafkaesque flavor. The regime is tyrannical—it wants the souls of its people as well as their cooperation (not unlike Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)—yet it is not a specific ideology that is being attacked. Any formof coercion that limits the imagination of the artist or the intellectual is the target. Although some critics have argued that Krug’s flaw is that he refuses to become involved in politics, it is difficult to imagine Bend Sinister, in the light of other works, as being a call to commitment. Krug has made a commitment to his own intellectual life. He, like many Nabokov heroes, does not “fit in” and, like many Nabokov heroes, comes to a tragic end. The supremacy of the individual imagination is Nabokov’s “message”; art is his morality. There is an abundant helping of satire and parody directed against the intellectual community and the “great” political leaders of the world. Paduk is shown as a sniveling, ugly weakling who craves Krug’s approval, but the alternatives to his tyranny are shown to be equally preposterous. Even in reacting to the horrors of dictatorship, Nabokov remains the detached artist.

Lolita, the novel that would provide a comfortable living for the author for the rest of his life, has been called everything from pornography to one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Today, when virtually every sexual predilection has been the subject of motion pictures and television, it is hard to appreciate the whirlwind of controversy that was stirred up by Lolita’s publication. Humbert Humbert, the central character and narrator, has an obsession for young girls that he has hidden by unhappy affairs with older women. He comes to the United States after inheriting a business and separating from his childish wife Valeria. Eventually, he becomes the boarder of Charlotte Haze and becomes sexually obsessed with her twelveyear- old daughter Lolita. He marries Mrs. Haze to be near Lolita, and when the mother is killed, he takes the girl on a trip across the United States. She is eventually stolen by Clare Quilty, who is, in many ways, Humbert’s double, and Humbert goes on a two-year quest to rescue her. He finds the sad, pregnant Lolita married to a man named Richard Schiller and, in revenge, shoots Quilty. The novel is allegedly Humbert’s manuscript, written as he awaits trial. According to the foreword, Humbert died in jail of a coronary thrombosis, and the manuscript was transmitted to one John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., who prepared it for publication.

As in all of Nabokov’s works, however, a plot summary is absurdly inadequate in characterizing the book. Lolita is protean in its directions and effects. It has been seen as a satire on the United States (though Nabokov denied it), as a psychological study (although Nabokov called Freud a “medieval mind”), and as a parody of the romantic novel. Lionel Trilling argued that, since adultery was such a commonplace in the modern world, only a perverse love could cause the adequate passion mixed with suffering characteristic of great romantic loves: Tristan and Isolde, Abélard and Héloise, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura. Humbert often justifies his pedophilia by references to the courtly love tradition. There is also much reference to the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s love for Virginia Clemm (Humbert’s first teenage love was a girl named Annabel Leigh).

Although many critics attempted to justify Lolita as having an important moral message, Nabokov rebuked the notion by saying, “I am no messenger boy.” His aesthetic philosophy would never have permitted him to subordinate his art to a moral. He once said that Lolita was about his love for the English language, but even that is an oversimplification of an immensely complex book. Among the various elements critics have noted are the doppelgänger relation of Quilty to Humbert, chess metaphors, puns on names, the question of the masks of the narrator (the probably unreliable Humbert through the clinical Ray through the mischievous Nabokov), and the supposed immortality of Humbert’s love, a love that becomes timeless through a work of art. It has even been argued that Nabokov’s description of Lolita very much resembles his description of a certain species of butterfly in his scientific studies. Although Lolita’s place in the canon of world literature is still debated, there is little doubt that it may be the finest example of the author’s “game-playing” method of artistic creation.

Pale Fire
In Pale Fire, readers were once again amused, perplexed, or horrified with Nabokov’s ironic wit. This experimental novel inspired extremes of praise— such as Mary McCarthy’s judgment that “it is one of the great works of art of this century”— and mockery. The novel is presented in the form of a scholarly edition of a poem titled “Pale Fire” by John Shade, with commentary by Charles Kinbote. Both worked at Wordsmith University, where Kinbote seems to have believed that Shade was writing a poem about Kinbote’s obsession with Charles Xavier Vseslav, “The Beloved,” the King of Zembla who was forced to flee the revolution that replaced him. Pale Fire can be described as a series of Russian dolls, one enclosed within another. John Shade’s poem (as edited by Kinbote) is explained by Kinbote, who intends to give life to the extraordinary personality of Shade. He writes in the foreword, “without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all,” but the reader soon recognizes that Kinbote is a madman who either is, or imagines himself to be, the displaced King of Zembla, and whatever human reality Shade may have exists only through his colleague’s warped interpretation of events. On another level, the reader finds some of Shade’s “reality” in the text of his poem and reads much into and between Kinbote’s lines as the madman gradually exposes his own madness. Yet, Nabokov never wants his reader to forget that all this invention is entirely of his making. Much more is intended than a mere parody of scholarly editions, scholars, and neo-Romantic poetry. Once more, Nabokov wittily develops his lifelong theme that reality exists only in the eyes of its interpreter.


Major works

Long fiction • Mashenka, 1926 (Mary, 1970); Korol’, dama, valet, 1928 (King, Queen, Knave, 1968); Zashchita Luzhina, 1929 (serial), 1930 (book; The Defense, 1964); Kamera obskura, 1932 (Camera Obscura, 1936; revised as Laughter in the Dark, 1938); Podvig, 1932 (Glory, 1971); Otchayanie, 1934 (serial), 1936 (book; Despair, 1937; revised 1966); Priglashenie na kazn’, 1935-1936 (serial), 1938 (book; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959); Dar, 1937-1938 (serial), 1952 (book; The Gift, 1963); The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941; Bend Sinister, 1947; Lolita, 1955; Pnin, 1957; Pale Fire, 1962; Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969; Transparent Things, 1972; Look at the Harlequins!, 1974.
Short fiction: Vozrashchenie Chorba, 1930; Soglyadatay, 1938; Nine Stories, 1947; Vesna v Fialte i drugie rasskazy, 1956; Nabokov’s Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories, 1958; Nabokov’s Quartet, 1966; A Russian Beauty, and Other Stories, 1973; Tyrants Destroyed, and Other Stories, 1975; Details of a Sunset, and Other Stories, 1976.
Plays: Dedushka, pb. 1923; Smert’, pb. 1923; Polius, pb. 1924; Tragediya gospodina Morna, pb. 1924; Chelovek iz SSSR, pb. 1927; Izobretenie Val’sa, pb. 1938 (The Waltz Invention, 1966); Sobytiye, pr., pb. 1938.
Screenplay: Lolita, 1962.
Poetry: Stikhi, 1916; Dva puti, 1918; Gorny put, 1923; Grozd’, 1923; Stikhotvorenia, 1929-1951, 1952; Poems, 1959; Poems and Problems, 1970.
Nonfiction: Nikolai Gogol, 1944; Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir, 1951; Drugie Berega, 1954; Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966 (revision of Conclusive Evidence and Drugie berega); Strong Opinions, 1973; The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, 1979; Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German, 1980; Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981; Lectures on Don Quixote, 1983; Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977, 1989.
Translations: Anya v strane chudes, 1923 (of Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland); Three Russian Poets: Translations of Pushkin, Lermontov, and 972 Notable American Novelists Tiutchev, 1944 (with Dmitri Nabokov); A Hero of Our Time, 1958 (of Mikhail Lermontov’s novel; with Dmitri Nabokov); The Song of Igor’s Campaign, 1960 (of the twelfth century epic Slovo o polki Igoreve); Eugene Onegin, 1964 (of Alexander Pushkin’s novel).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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4 replies

  1. “Many critics attempted to justify Lolita as having an important moral message (…) Nabokov rebuked the notion”

    Yes, Lolita doesn’t not convey any messages. It’s art for the sake of art.

    How and why did Nabokov write Lolita?
    As you may know, he said in interviews in the 60s, when asked on why he wrote “Lolita”: “(…) I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.”. In another interview in 1964, about the writing of “Lolita”, he confessed “She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle – its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look.”.

    And indeed, it has been noticed that there are several actual instances of undeniabale reflexions in “Lolita”. For instance, the presence of a Blanche schwarzmann, roughly around the beginning of the novel, and of a Melanie Weiss, around the end (etymologically, these names make pairs mirroring each others: white-black / black-white) is a good example of that (but there are other instances of reflexion in the novel, e.g. trapp/pratt, widow Haze/widow Hays, and so on…).

    It has thus been suspected that Nabokov had pushed the sophistication to the point of hiding a riddle in Lolita, a second level of reading hidden in plain sight (which could indeed explain some incongruities of the text). it was not the first time he did so (e.g. the short story “The Vane Sisters”), not surprising for someone who published Chess problems, published a riddle book in the 20s and takes so much pleasure playing with words and the mind of his readers.
    If you’re interested by the subject you might be interested by this blog article:

    Well, in fact, this page ( ) could be a good short introduction first, to this (the main page of the blog):


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