Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001292, Wed, 11 Sep 1996 16:29:52 -0700

Nabokov and Music (fwd)
From: Lisa Zunshine <zunshine@HUMANITAS.UCSB.EDU>

I want to thank again everybody who has written to me so far and offered
suggestions and comments. I also have to apologize for not including my
"snail-mail" address in the original message. Proposals can be sent
(and, yes, I do welcome in the lieu of proposals finished papers that have
been presented at the conferences) to:

Lisa Zunshine, 724 Kroeber Walk # 108, Goleta, CA 93117.

I followed with great interest the discussion generated by my call for
paper proposals. Apart from any glaring absence or triumphant presence of
structural resemblance between Nabokov's prose/poetry and classical musical
forms, I want to point out that Nabokov might have decided not to dwell
on his OWN musical experience (or inexperience) in his work, but he by no
means denied variegated and psychologically suggestive musical experience
to his characters.

Music is invariably present in Nabokov's short stories written in Russian
(and how can it be otherwise - with music being one of the most important
components of a Russian upbringing and, later, nostalgia?). There is the
anguished narrator of "The Admiralty Spire" who "cherished the echoes of
modish tziganshchina that inclined Katya to singing, and [him] to
composing verse." The same story features the "gramophone's gaping mouth ...
[pouring] forth uncontrollable Gypsy passion; or to the tune of "Under
a Cloud the Moon is Hidden," a menacing voice [mimicking] the Kaiser:
"Give me a nib and a holder, to write ultimatums it's time.""
There is a famous passage in "Spring in Fialta" starting with the "music
box of memory:" "... and that melody, the pain, the offense, the link
between hymen and death evoked by the rhythm, and the voice itself of the
dead singer, which accompanied the recollection as the sole owner of the
song, gave [the narrator] no rest for several hours after Nina's
departure and even later arose at increasing intervals ..."

Which brings me to a point about music serving as a code (a map? a
system of passwords?) for figuring out the varying degrees of "us versus
them" (those interested in Nabokov's treatment of the premises of
Darwinian evolution - be my guests!) paradigm. Indeed, one of the
horrors and humiliations that Vasiliy Ivanovich from the "Cloud, Castle,
Lake" is subjected to, is the obligation to sing a vulgar song in a
foreign language. Lolita tries to code (or to uncode?) Humbert Humbert
evoking the image of "her favorite crooner," and Humbert himself all too
readily employs one of her favorite songs (Carmen (!), bar men something)
to map out their destiny together. _Ada_ abounds with musical allusions
that serve precisely to designate various degrees of "otherness," of
inclusiveness, and/or of alienation.

This is only one perspective at Nabokov and music theme - by no means the
only one. I want to stress again that Nabokov's "dislikes" never
prevented him from infusing his novels and short stories with the very
objects of his indifference or abhorrence. I am reminded of the early
reviews of _Ada_ where Van was described as a possible alter ego of
his creator, and Nabokov's indignant replies to that. He, after all,
was especially enamored (I don't remember the exact quote) of creating
characters whose psychology and motivations were deeply alien to him ...

Lisa Zunshine