Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0020988, Fri, 19 Nov 2010 08:35:19 -0800

Re: Dead and living authors
I intended no disrespect to Jansy in my post about Barthes. If my “surely not”
came across that way, then of course I apologize.

To look at the matter from a different angle, Barthes’ famous essay, with its
even more famous title, didn’t appear in either French or English till several
years after Pale Fire was published. It could not, therefore, have been an
object of parody for VN.

Stripped of the drama of the word “death” and of his broader philosophical and
political aims, Barthes’ thesis has much in common with a key idea of American
New Criticism. As Wimsatt and Beardsley put it in their paper on the intentional
fallacy, published in 1946, a poem “is detached from the author at birth and
goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem
belongs to the public.” In other words, for all he can do about its fate, the
author of a poem (or novel) might as well be dead the minute it falls into the
hands of readers.

Although I appreciate Simon Rowberry’s point, not even as vigilant and imposing
a presence as VN could control the vast flow of conflicting readings that every
work of any value is bound to provoke. The reception and history of Lolita--and
of the very name “Lolita” and the word “nymphet”--provide obvious examples. For
that matter, VN himself seemed to be well aware of what Barthes, and before him
Wimsatt and Beardsley, had in mind. In a letter to Carl Proffer, mentioned by A.
Bouazza and Stephen Blackwell back in August, VN wrote as follows:

"Page 72 A considerable part of what Mr. Nabokov thinks has been thought up by
his critics and commentators, including Mr. Proffer, for whose thinking he is
not responsible. Many of the delightful combinations and clues, though quite
acceptable, never entered my head or are the result of an author's intuition and
inspiration, not calculation and craft. Otherwise why bother at all--in your
case as well as mine." Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 391, letter dated
September 26, 1966.

I agree with Stephen that this passage, written in response to Proffer’s book
Keys to Lolita, is “very important and under-quoted.”

The English translation of Barthes’ essay and also Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The
Intentional Fallacy” are readily available online.

Finally, Jansy may share my amusement that in 1992 Gilbert Adair published a
novella called The Death of the Author, based apparently (I haven’t read it) on
the rise and fall of the arch-deconstructionist Paul de Man. Although VN likely
didn’t know any deconstructionists, he was bound to have met, at each of his
American schools, a few new critics. Or perhaps in creating the character of
Kinbote, he was pulling the legs of such old-critic friends as Wilson and Levin.
And perhaps Pale Fire is not only a seeming parody of what later came to be
called postmodernism but is itself, as some have said, an early entry in that
movement. It hardly seems to matter. Wild interpretations are neither recent
inventions nor the special failures of any particular school of thought. They
have been around as long as there have been writers and readers, speakers and
listeners--which is to say, since the dawn of communication.

Jim Twiggs

From: Jansy <jansy@AETERN.US>
Sent: Wed, November 17, 2010 10:04:31 PM
Subject: Re: [NABOKV-L] Dead and living authors

Simon Rowbery: "Is it not Nabokov himself who enacts Barthes' 'death of the
author' in Pale Fire? I believe it is the novel whose criticism has moved
beyond the intentions of Nabokov the most within his canon because of the death
of his authority in the novel, predominantly by writing a novel of such
complexity with multiple characters in various fictional worlds. In Pale Fire,
however, it can only be said that the death of the author leads to the birth of
the re-reader. Something that Nabokov would appreciate. Perhaps this is where
the ideologies converge with their focus on re-reading a text."

JM: Good point on "the death of the author leads to the birth of the
re-reader" and the convergence of several ideologies taking place
- independently of Nabokov's original intention.

Just as it happened when I read James Twiggs assertion that the death of Shade
is "not illustrative of any such general idea as Barthes' "death of the
author," I must puzzle over the meaning of "enact the 'death of the author'. "
I'm probably wrong in my assumption... For me, the "death of the
author" isn't an enacted posture, a strategy which may be technically applied
over a text, but it'd come closer to a Weltanschauung or an "ideology," as you
described it further on, admitting its "inevitability" in a complex novel with
various fictional worlds, and inspite of Nabokov's deliberate control over his
This is why I considered it possible that Nabokov used the expression in a
satirical vein for he'd not accept his "disappearance" from his novel: let his
characters suffer death, not their creator. For him a bigger Gradus is

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