Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003501, Wed, 18 Nov 1998 14:32:42 -0800

Blackwell MLA VN Session Program & Abstracts (fwd)

MLA Panel 147, Sunday 27 Dec, 9.00-10.15pm, Union Square 13, San
Francisco Hilton
Topic: "Reading Nabokov Reading"
Presiding: Stephen H. Blackwell, Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville

William F. Monroe, Univ. of Houston, University Park

The Vices and Virtues of Reading in _Pale Fire_, _Lolita_, and _Speak,

This paper explores the vices and virtues of the interpretive reading done
by various characters in Pale Fire, Lolita, and Speak, Memory and suggests
Nabokov's own ethical attitude about interpretive practice. After
examining the reading done by Shade, Kinbote, Humbert, and the narrator of
Speak, Memory, the paper suggests a composite Nabokovian model of reading
emphasizing two essential and apparently conflicting virtues: creativity
and precision. Drawing on the insights of Vladimir Alexandrov, I suggest
that inventiveness or creativity is one of two (surprisingly related)
virtues that Nabokov endeavors to cultivate in his readers. Inventiveness
includes an avoidance of handy conventions, for that which is conventional
becomes stultifying, hence immoral, even criminal. On the other hand,
there is another, superficially opposed, virtue required of the Nabokovian
reader: marked by care, delicacy, patience, and receptivity, it is
precision. Precision is as important as creativity. Indeed, just as
Nabokov equates artifice and nature, a close examination of his works
reveals a sense that precision and creativity are not different virtues
but alternative or complementary manifestations of the same virtue.
Flesh-and-blood readers of Nabokov engage in a kind of tutelage through
which they are taught to be patient and vigilant as well as playful and
inventive. His works demand artful precision as well as resplendent

Common mistakes made by reader-interpreters in Nabokov are the expectation
of certainty and a reliance on reductive formulas and categories.
Inferior readers depend on encompassing theories and convenient systems,
common categories and "step-saving" cliches. Because reading is a
practice that Nabokov associates with a realm of experience and meaning
that is fundamentally other, it should not be practiced with the help of
materialistic categories and reductive conventions. Avoiding the moral
crimes of a Kinbote, a Humbert, and even a Shade requires the following
Nabokovian virtues in a reader: the combining of work with play, tough
precision tempering high-spirited inventiveness, imagination continually
checking predatory or exploitive inclinations.

Nabokov's genius inspires a strategy of reading that urges us toward his
favored virtues and prods us out of our habituated torpor. (Often,
perhaps a bit too much like Beckett's Pozzo, the author seems to be
calling to his reader, "On! On!) If we tire and object to Nabokov's
demanding verbal genius, his ludic excesses, we risk reducing ourselves to
the level of the Russians in Kinbote's Zemblan fantasy: stupid,
totalitarian literalists ewho tear the palace apart looking for jewels
that are fictional constructs, not real gems. If we theorize too
aggressively, confidently applying our handy but rigid academic terms and
abstractions, we "Kinbote" or "Humbert" the text and miss the revelatory
possibilities inherent in it. Nabokov, I argue, takes comfort in the fact
that the readers of his metaphorical patterns, if they practice both
precision and creativity, can never put his works in the service of
reductive theory, exploitive relationships, or repressive ideologies,
whether of the Left or the Right.

Russell J. A Kilbourn, Univ. of Toronto, Saint George Campus
Chiasmus in _Ada_, _Ada_ in Chiasmus



Kevin Ohi Department of English, Cornell University

Narcissism, Homosexuality, and Reading: _Pale Fire_ and the Spectacle of
the Closet

Brian Boyd and Mary McCarthy, among others, have argued that _Pale Fire_
offers, to the careful reader, something like a detective story which
leads the reader to discredit the critical commentary offered by Kinbote
(unmasked as the homosexual and deranged Professor Botkin) in favor of the
"poem itself" and its heterosexual, more psychologically stable author,
John Shade. Such a critical judgment, I would argue, depends on reading
the novel's allegory of reading in ways determined by sexual politics and
traditions of reading inherited from the lyric (determinations which, I
would argue, are, finally, mutually imbricated). It involves, on the one
hand, a privileging of transcendence where a poet's rapt self-absorption
is justified only if it leads, with majestic clarification, "outside" of
him or herself to "larger" truths about the world and "the imagination."
On the other hand, this critical judgment also relies on a traditional
disparagement of narcissism as the mode of relating to the world which
characterizes gay men. Boyd can then unmask the narcissistic, lonely,
deranged, incompetent, homosexual Professor Botkin and place him in
contrast to the stable, happily married, altruistic, artistically
virtuosic, and happily heterosexual John Shade. Boyd's often explicit
homophobia, then, is not incidental but rather central to the mode of
reading he wants to see _Pale Fire_ as authorizing. The question of how
one reads the model of reading counterposed here against narcissism
depends, I think, on the status we give "transcendence" in Shade's poem,
and, after briefly adumbrating what I see as the tradition of a critical
and sexual disparagement of narcissism, I would outline the gestures the
poem makes toward transcendence, its stagings of and yearnings for a
"beyond" that can make meaning out of the death of the poet's daughter. I
would then turn to the self-absorption so often criticized in Kinbote's
commentary to examine the mode of reading the commentary suggests. Thus,
for example, the commentary seems to celebrate narcissistic absorption as
a ravished permeability to both rapturous beauty and homoeroticism. The
"villains" in Kinbote's tale are demonized as much for their vulgar
insusceptibility to beauty (and their inability to read the artistic play
of reflection so important in the land of mirrors Kinbote nostalgically
evokes) as for their revolutionary violence and fervor. The
revolutionaries are bad readers, and the tragedy of the revolution seems
to be that artists are exiled from their homeland. Such attributions of
bad reading, however, prove particularly prone to a boomerang return,
implicating the accuser in his own accusation in a structure redolent of
the homosexual closet itself. The novel, that is, explicitly provides
several stagings of critical unmasking, unmaskings particularly of
narcissistic absorption and incompetent reading, and the stagings of such
moments invariably suggests that to unmask such critical mistakes is to be
implicated in the very fault one would censure. The retributive return of
attribution's vicarious censure also implicates, of course, my own
unmasking of a critic like Boyd, and the novel does not, finally, allow us
simply to reverse the terms of Boyd's critical judgment. The bind here is
structured by our need to make a choice, a choice between Shade's poem,
with its concomitant values of a denigrated but enabling narcissism, and
Kinbote's commentary, with its impassioned, and often ravishingly
beautiful, meditations on loss that are quite openly narcissistic. The
coherence of modern heterosexual definition and our modes of reading
inherited from the lyric tradition seem to ride on our choice; that
tradition, the novel suggests, might depend on the very fact of making
such a choice. But need we really make a choice? Do we really have the
option of not choosing? As we stand before the spectacle of the closet,
the dynamics of narcissism explored here and the confrontation that _Pale
Fire_ seems to stage between lyric poetry and its roots in narcissism
should at least lead us to reflect, to reflect on the consequences of our
decision to choose, leading us to wonder if it is not perhaps best to
leave ourselves suspended between the worlds of commentary and poem,
somewhere "out in that crystal land." The question of whether such a
suspension is, finally, possible, is, perhaps, the question of the most
generalized structures of reading itself, and the novel's staging of
seemingly agonistic modes of reading thus interrogates the conditions of
reading and the sexual politics they condense.
Jeffrey A. Netto, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

What's Fair is Square: The Game of Reading in Nabokov's _Defense_


Taking a cue from Nabokov's occasional suggestions of a fundamental
affinity between literature and chess, this paper addresses the
reflexive rendering of reading's gambits as they are played out in his
early novel, The Defense. For Nabokov, as for Saussure and Derrida,
chess serves as an apt analogy for language in its most ludic and most
terrifying aspect--namely, language as a disembodied and disembodying
structure of shifting limits and fatal transgressions; or better still,
as a high-stakes game of textual (in)determination. And the practice of
reading--to the extent that it implicates both the novel's protagonist
and its readers in this structural play--is precisely what sets the game
in motion. This paper (a risky reading in its own right) accordingly
sets out to play through some of the trickier combinations and
transpositional variations of Nabokov's Defense