Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026864, Sun, 14 Feb 2016 21:18:58 -0200

The Eye and RLSK: Thornton Wilder
Jansy Mello: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was composed in Paris in the
late thirties, and published in 1941 (“As I think I told you, I wrote it
five years ago, in Paris, on the implement called bidet as a writing desk —
because we lived in one room and I had to use our small bathroom as a
study.” excerpt from a letter to Edmund Wilson), We find in it a reference
to Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”. Am I correct to assume
that this is the first time that V. Nabokov mentions the name of an
American author?

V. encounters a selection of books in the shelves of his half-brother
Sebastian, in Cambridge:

“I glanced too, at the books; they were numerous, untidy, and miscellaneous.
But one shelf was a little neater than the rest and here I noted the
following sequence which for a moment seemed to form a vague musical phrase,
oddly familiar: Hamlet, La morte d'Arthur, The Bridge of San Luis Rey,
Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, South Wind, The Lady with the Dog, Madame Bovary,
The Invisible Man, Le Temps Retrouvé, Anglo-Persian Dictionary, The Author
of Trixie, Alice in Wonderland, Ulysses, About Buying a Horse, King

While I was busy assembling a few sentences from VN’s “The Eye” for later
use, I had a flitting recollection of Thornton Wilder’s novel, stimulated
by a special tone in one of its paragraphs. Unfortunately I couldn’t gain
access to D. Barton Johnson’s
=70&uid=4&sid=21103881731951> "The Books Reflected in Nabokov's Eye"*, to
check for this specific reference to VN’s novel. “The Eye” was published
in Russian in 1930 and, at that time the author had had ample opportunity to
get acquainted with “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, published in 1927 and
that, in 1928, won Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. “The novel tells the
story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope
bridge in Peru, and the events that lead up to their being on the bridge. A
friar who has witnessed the accident then goes about inquiring into the
lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of
why each had to die.” (a wikipedia summary). The pattern of these people’s
lives in the web of their (exposed or hidden inter-relationships) is an
integral part of the friar’s investigation.

The sentence from “The Eye” runs as follows:

“The task was far from easy. For instance, I knew perfectly well that
insipid Marianna saw in Smurov a brutal and brilliant officer of the White
Army, “the kind that went around stringing people up right and left,”, as
Evgenia informed me in the greatest secrecy during a confidential chat. To
define this image accurately, however, I would have had to be familiar with
Marianna’s entire life, with all the secondary associations that came alive
inside her when she looked at Smurov -other reminiscences, other chance
impressions and all those lightning effects that vary from soul to soul.”
(Vintage, 55)

Neither the narrator nor I are able to “define this image accurately,” for
the subjective task of exploring a person’s entire life, and her expanding
emotional ties and associations related to different events and people, is
an impossibility, even for disembodied consciousnesses (in Wilder’s novel
the friar was not intimidated by it). I suggest it to the VN-L because, in
this seminal novel, the seeds that are cultivated in it, in spite of their
belonging to a single mind, are extremely varied and spread out. In RLSK, as
in The Eye, there’s a search after a unifying “I” ( a basic unifying
pattern, a watermark, an essence, a soul...),whereas in Pale Fire, as in
Wilder’s novel, the quest is after a recognizable cosmic pattern.

To make matters even more difficult, concerning the link between Wilder’s
and V.Nabokov’s novels, the novel’s character Smurov explores such
associations ad infinitum. In the interesting observations of Annalisa
Volpone**, we may find a theme that arises not only in RLSK but, as Volpone
notes, in PF, too:

“Notably at the very end of the novel the reader comes to know that: “I [the
narrational “I”] do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that
reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms
resembling me increases. Somewhere they multiply, I alone do not exist.
Smurov, however, will live on for a long time. (Nabokov 1965,103).[ ]
“...From a stylistic perspective, Nabokov effaces the presence of the
narrative voice – and consequently of the traditional well-defined point of
view – in favour of a multiplicity of refracted and fragmentary voices.
Therefore he dramatically complicates the role and function of the narrator,
whose (individual) voice turns into a polyphony of silente voices within a
network of stories to be told and re-told, disrupting the world that has
been depicted, and making it multilevel.” (and now she finds indications of
James Joyce’s influences on V.N).

Faint traces, indeed. Nevertheless, I thought it was an experience worth
sharing here.


* The Slavic and East European Journal 29 (4): 393–404

** Focus 1. The New Nabokov A. Volpone. “Not text but Texture” or CosMo:
Comparative Studies of Modernism n.7 (Fall), 2015, p.69

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