Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003559, Thu, 31 Dec 1998 16:23:43 -0800

Brian Boyd on Chapter XVI "Conclusive Evidence" in New Yorker
EDITOR's NOTE. As already remarked on NABOKV-L, the current NEW YORKER
(Dec. 28 & Jan.4, 1999) carries the hitherto unpublished sixteenth chapter
of Nabokov's autobiography. The chapter, written in 1950) takes the form
of a review of CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE (the 1951 version that preceded SPEAK,
MEMORY). In it, inter alia, VN subtly points
out the thematic threads that shape his story and concludes with a survey
of his editorial tussles with the NEW YORKER where many of the earlier
chapters appeared. Although the piece is vintage Nabokov, I, for one, find
the author's decision to omit the section in CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE a
sound one. For one, a gourmet dish is not improved by throwing in the
recipe; for another, appending the new chapter would have destroyed the
the symmetry is what is, as stands, a perfect conlusion.

Nikki Smith, the literary agent for the Nabokov Estate, sold the rights to
the NEW YORKER after Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd had secured the
Estate's permission to publish the chapter in a forthcoming EVERYMAN/KNOPF
edition of the VN autobiography for which Boyd is writing the

Soon after the NEW YORKER publication, Phil Howerton <howerton@vnet.net>
sent in the quote below which I, in turn, sent to the list with a request
for a Nabokovian stylistic analysis.

"In the course of its development it [the thematic approach -- DBJ] guides
the author into new regions life. The diamond pattern of art and the
muscles of sinuous memory are combined in one strong and supple movement
and produce a style that seems to slip through grass and flowers toward
the warm flat stone upon which it will richly coil."

NABOKV-L received and ran several brief commentaries. Below, Brian Boyd
offers a detailed exegesis.

From: Brian Boyd <b.boyd@stargate1.auckland.ac.nz>

Re the tissue sample Phil Howerton slid under the microscope:

1) Nabokov here describes the special sinuosity and controlled
deceptiveness of his own prose in a sentence whose manner and matter
incorporate this deceptive sinuosity to the utmost.

2) The "new regions of life" in the previous sentence foreshadows both the
emergence of the diamondback rattlesnake from a simile that never names it,
and its American habitat, which keeps on faintly and feintingly showing
through the autobiography itself.

3) The simile that we suddenly recognize as a hitherto unnoticed snake of
course echoes the previous chapter of the autobiography ("It occurs to me
that the closest reproduction of the mind's birth obtainable is the stab of
wonder that accompanies the precise moment when, gazing at a tangle of
twigs and leaves, one suddenly realizes that what had seemed a natural
component of that tangle is a marvelously disguised insect or bird") and
indeed the whole motif of mimetic disguise throughout the book, culminating
in Find What the Sailor Has Hidden.

4) It also anticipates the beginning of the second paragraph after our
sentence, "The reader will surely enjoy finding for himself the
convolutions, the stepping stones, the various disguises of this or that
thematic line running through the book." The "convolutions" are there in
the snake's coil, the "stepping stones" in the stone the reader could have
stepped on without seeing what was there, the "smiling disguise" in the
mimetic concealment and half-disclosure of the source of the simile, the
"thematic line" in both the linear shape of a snake and the theme of the
"diamond-pattern" ("stained glass, festive lights, paint, jewels, and so
forth," as VN glosses it in the third paragraph after our sentence) that R.
Oakes rightly associates with Harlequin.

5) It also anticipates the fourth paragraph after our sentence, where
Nabokov explains: "The unravelling of a riddle is the purest and most basic
act of the human mind. All thematic lines mentioned are gradually brought
together, are seen to interweave or merge. . . . Thus, toward the end of
the book, the theme of mimicry, of the 'cryptic disguise' studied by
Nabokov in his entomological pursuits, comes to a punctual rendezvous with
the 'riddle' theme, with the camouflaged solution of a chess problem, with
the piecing together of a design on bits of broken pottery, and with a
picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new country. . .
. The solution of the riddle theme is also the solution of the theme of
exile, of the 'intrinsic loss' running through the whole book, and these
lines blend, in their turn, with the culmination of the 'rainbow' theme ('a
spiral of life in an agate'), and merge, at a most satisfying rond point,
with the many garden paths and park walks and forest trails meandering
through the book." Notice here:

a) the chess pattern evoked by the diamond design on the snake;
b) the "picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new
country" echoing the "new regions of life" and the concealed inhabitant of
the American West
c) the coil of the snake as the rond point of the paths and especially the
forest trails "meandering" (a snake-like course) through the book
d) "the solution . . . of the 'intrinsic loss'": the snake as an image of
danger, but danger averted by the eye's and the mind's capacity to detect
the snake's presence and pattern, just as, Nabokov suggests, the losses in
one's past lose their sting when we can see their concealed design
e) the "spiral of life in an agate" is a bogus quotation from Conclusive
Evidence, as indeed every apparent citation the "reviewer" makes is in fact
either Nabokov's alternative recollection or plausible new phrasal
f) "spiral of life in an agate" in turn smuggles in the "agate snail"
(snails of course are alive and have spiral shells); "snake" and "snail"
both derive from words meaning "to creep": behind the obvious mimetic
disguise of the snake lurks another "new region of life" in the snail. Just
as life or Visible Nature deceives by being more various and complicated
than we had thought, so too does VN. And just where his prose seems at its
most showy it conceals the most.

Happy New Century (A.N. 100)!

Professor Brian Boyd
English Department
University of Auckland
Auckland, New Zealand
fax + 64 9 373 7429
tel + 64 9 377 7599 x 7480
e-mail: b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz
To Boyd's commentary I would add only reference to the sequence of
slithering SSSSs in the sentence which iconicly echo the shape & sound of
the serpent. The coiled snake with the superposition of its repeating
patterns on itself that mimick the thematic structure of Conclusive
Evidence that VN is pointing out. Also noteworthy, and perhaps not so
evident to the American reader, is how very "American" the rattlesnake is.
At least to young Russian (and all European) readers of Nabokov's
generation, the rattlesnake (unknown in Europe) was paradigmatic for the
Wild West.