Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001167, Fri, 28 Jun 1996 10:26:58 -0700

Re: Unreliable narrators (fwd) -Reply (fwd)
From: Brian D. Walter <bdwalter@artsci.wustl.edu>

In response to the earlier request for titles of works that incorporate
'unreliable narrators,' I am tempted to ask (w/o, I hope, sounding
flippant), what exactly the original inquirer (whose name, unfortunately,
escapes me at the moment) means by the term. If you mean simply a narrator
whose account, at face value, cannot be accepted for truth, then, as a
good Nabokovian, you know that any book you pick up fits the definition,
for no narrator (in Nabokov's view of art) fails of partiality in his or
her recording efforts. The artist, he says in "Good Readers and Good
Writers," only follows the lead of the 'arch-cheat Nature' by investing
the work with intricate systems of enchantment and deception. It is, in
fact, quite possible to discern in Nabokov's work a concerted effort to
make us as readers recognize that the term 'unreliable narrator' is little
more than a tautology, whether we are reading PALE FIRE under the guidance
of the inspired lunatic, Charles Kinbote, or wading our way through a
narrative by Henry James, the champion of the 'fixed' or apparently
reliable narrative point-of-view (a writer who seldom failed to draw
Nabokov's criticism).

That gratuitous homily now delivered, let me suggest a few titles whose
narrators may not be encapsulated by simple notions of unreliability, but
in which the narrators' perceptions of the events described clearly
departs from our perceptions as readers -- works moreover where this gap
is put to interesting, sometimes even compelling, use within the author's
larger artistic designs:

Laclos, DANGEROUS LIAISONS (a work Nabokov knew, and quite likely knew
well and sympathetically, to judge from his commentary to EUGENE

Poe, stories (another author VN obviously knew well; try especially
"William Wilson," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of
Amontillado," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," to name a
few of the more obvious and well-known examples)

Dostoyevsky, NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (perhaps the most famous example of
the 'unreliable narrator' and another source of Nabokovian parody)

James, THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE ASPERN PAPERS (Nabokov hinted that he
liked the former, but criticized the latter rather harshly in
letters to James fan Edmund Wilson; nevertheless, both novellas
are well worth your time)

Ford, THE GOOD SOLDIER (narrator John Dowell is another famous dupe or
liar -- maybe both; you make the call)

Banville, THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE, GHOSTS, and ATHENA (Nabokov's name
appears over and over again as a likely influence on the author in
these novels told by a cultured convict)

Gass, THE TUNNEL (a huge book told by a repellent monster, with numerous
passages of inspired prose)

Brian Walter
Washington University