Reflecting on Nabokov

3 minute read

Carl Zimmer yesterday had a NY Times article about some new genetic work on butterflies – the interesting thing was that the work vindicated a scenario for New World butterfly evolution that had been proposed by Vladimir Nabokov.

It’s a cool story, which brought back my days as an English major. I know a lot of people are reading the butterfly thing, thinking “how interesting” that this major figure in literature was a serious lepidopterist. But for me, it brings back some of the joy of reading Nabokov’s work.

“Terra Incognita” is one of my favorite short stories. Nabokov wrote the story in 1931 in Russian, later translated it into English (as he did much of his work). The story is surreal – the narrator describing a doomed expedition to find tropical insects. The narrator, Valliere, describes his colleagues turning on each other, as their native bearers abandon them. At last he is left alone, dying of fever, to tell the tale. Yet his story becomes evermore infected with hallucinatory details. At times, the outlines of a hospital bed seem to intrude upon his jungle. Nabokov played with this story, dreamlike images showing the narrator’s unreliability while leaving us in doubt as to his fate. It’s a bit like a short version of Heart of Darkness, here the rationality of the scientist is unwoven by delirium.

Of course, everybody knows about Lolita. A reader of this book cannot help but be affected by the story, but the genius is the way that Nabokov ratchets up the insane tension of the main character, like an off-key violin.

For a short introduction to Nabokov, I think one cannot do better than the short story, “Signs and Symbols.” The story begins as an older Jewish couple go to visit their son in a mental institution. The son has just survived a suicide attempt, and he is diagnosed with a condition in which he imagines that every random event around him is about him – a sign about his life and inner consciousness. The couple are turned away and go home through a parade of seemingly random events that clearly refer to their current situation. The reality of their son’s situation seems transposed into the very structure of their existence.

He was such a gifted writer, modernist in an essential way but standing quite contrary to the Hemingway-influenced style of twentieth-century American literature. Sadly, none of these stories are available online, but “Signs and Symbols” and “Terra Incognita” appear in several collections. “Terra Incognita” is such a neat case of art intersecting science – a literary equivalent of today’s scientific confirmation of Nabokov’s importance.

UPDATE (2011-01-29): A reader writes:

You said the two stories can't be found online. I decided to check that with google, and it turns out the former is freely available, while the latter would require a subscription to the New Yorker.

A second reader wrote that all of the originals are readily available in Russia. What may surprise many of you is that this information will be useful to a good number of my Russian readers! Additionally:

[P]erhaps you'd be curious to hear how he is viewed in Russia. Best I can tell, he is well-respected but generally not viewed as a great writer. Nabokov is more known and respected as an outstanding stylist in Russian language. The story-telling and intellectual aspects of his books are not given that much weight (at least in comparison with other Russian/Soviet greats). Personally, Nabokov the writer always felt like a cold person to me. Seemed to be intellect-driven, calculating prose. Although in this respect it is interesting to note that Nabokov the translator was an utter failure. His translations of Alice in Wonderland into Russian and Onegin into English are, simplifying a bit, universally frowned upon.

That’s probably why his prose appeals to me…it’s like a puzzle that you can tell someone elaborately crafted, and rewards repeated reading. But I agree that it doesn’t have the spontaneity or feeling that draws me to many of his contemporaries.