This article offers an account of Vladimir Nabokov’s peculiar approach to character and characterization in the novel, on the basis of readings of Lolita, Pnin, and other texts. I argue that the mimetic figural character is more important to Nabokov’s aesthetics than has previously been recognized. Both in his novels and in his writings about literature, Nabokov most often treats the character not as a valued and person-like other, but as a key device for drawing readers into the impersonal thrill of a structural pattern. In what Nabokov called a “good” reading, characters thus serve to open the author’s imaginative vision to a reader, bringing about a shared “telltale tingle” of aesthetic pleasure. But to feel this pleasure is at least momentarily to occupy a kind of figural, characterological body: to stand apart from one’s emotional interests in the story and one’s own life, at the dead center from which the work’s pattern can be seen. Figural character is, in this sense, both the instrument of and the model for the sensation of “beauty plus pity” that Nabokov associated with the experience of art. Exploring this Nabokovian intersection between the novelistic illusion of embodied characters, and the embodied aesthetic experience of reading, I aim to bring a new perspective to the ongoing discussion of his uses of fictional character.
“A Variety of Forms”: Reading Bodies in Nabokov
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