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The Magician's Doubts:
Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction
Michael Wood

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Deaths of the Author

"To write is not to engage in an easy relationship with an average of all possible readers, it is to engage in a difficult relationship with our own language..." --Roland Barthes, Criticism and Truth


Vladimir Nabokov died on 2 July 1977. It was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden said of the day of Yeath's death: "he became his admirers" - and his detractors and his publishers and anyone who cares to take one his books from a shelf. He became a memory; disappeared into his name, rhyming with `cough' and almost always associated with Lolita, as in `Don't Stand So Close to Me', 1986, the murky popular song by The Police ("He starts to shake, he starts to cough,/Just like the old man in/That famous book by Nabokov").

It is one of the mysteries of death that it should seem, in the case of an artist or anyone with a public face, to make so little difference to all but those close to the person. What has changed? There will be no more books, tunes, painting, films, acts from that source. But what if there weren't many, or any, such performances still to come, what if the work's epilogue or aftermath had already started ? What if the work we have is already rich and deep, enough for a lifetime? What more do we want? We shall not be able to meet the person we probably should not have met anyway; we shall not write the letters she/he might not have answered. Such deaths are like the deaths of acquaintances we have not seen for ages, would never have seen again. A scarcely perceptible shift in what was already an absence.

But the deaths of figures whose work we care about do diminish us, take away a piece of our world, even if we can't quite say how our world is poorer. These persons were not persons for us, but they were not mere reputations either. They were habits of affection, ways of looking and thinking; they altered, as Catherine Earnshaw says of her dreams, the colour of our mind. This life of theirs cannot be changed by their deaths; can be changed only by our death or involvement in some other form of mental wreckage. But there's the rub. The Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar has an intimate, unforgettable note on just this subject:

After the age of fifty we begin to the little by little in the deaths of others... Sometimes we no longer thought much about them, they'd remained behind in history... In some way they were still there, but like paintings no longer viewed as in the beginning, poems that only vaguely scent our memory.

Then - everyone has his beloved ghosts, his major interceders - the day arrives when the first of them horribly bursts out in the newspaper and radio scene. Maybe we'll take some time to realize that our death has begun on that day too; I knew it that night when in the middle of dinner someone indifferently alluded to a television news item that said Jean Cocteau had just died in Milly-la-Foret ...

The rest have followed along... Louis Armstrong, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, and last night, while I was coughing in a hospital in Havana, last night in a friend's voice that brought the rumour from the outside world to my bed, Charles Chaplin. I shall leave this hospital, I shall leave cured, that's for certain, but, for a sixth time, a little less alive.

I would suggest only that one can begin this process much earlier or quite a bit later than fifty. Similarly, for Roland Barthes the `middle of our life' was not a generalised, arithmetical point - thirty-five, say - but the day we feel we are going to die (`this is not a natural feeling; what's natural is to believe oneself immortal'), as distinct from abstractly knowing this mortal fact. Time in this context is a matter not of the clock but of chance and temperament.

I start with these mementoes because I am about to talk about deaths which are largely fictional and metaphorical (real too in their own modes) and want to make sure I give physical death its due: propitiation, perhaps, and a mark of piety towards what is actually irreplaceable, untransferable in those lives now gone. Nabokov in particular teaches us about particulars, offers to define reality `as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization'. `In art as in science there is no delight without the detail'. `I guess it's your father under that oak, isn't it?' a character asks in Ada. `No,' Ada answers crisply, `it's an elm'. The man referred to is nominally her father, and the questioner has no reason to go beyond the nominal. The gist of the question is therefore right, and Ada is chiefly indulging her passionate pedantry of the specific. But it is good to know an elm is not an oak; it may even be practice for knowing when a father is not a father.


Like the rest of us, authors die at least twice. Once physically, once notionally; when the heart stops and when forgetting begins. The lucky ones, the great ones, are those whose second death is decently, perhaps indefinitely postponed. But there is another death of the author, most famously chronicled by Roland Barthes ln an essay of 1968 and modelled on the death of God. To die in this sense is to be unmasked as a fiction, as a figment of faith. `Death' reveals that there has been no life, only a dream of life. The historical fact that both dreams - of God and author- have been real for so long and for so many people, and indeed are in several respects the same dream, is what makes the metaphor so powerful. This late lapse in critical or religious belief can only seem like a violent event, a death or murder rather than a defection or a discovery. For Nietzsche the `immense event' of God's death is so sudden that even the murderers have not realized what they have done. The occurrence, Nietzsche says, is `still on the way' to them, further off than the furthest stars.

The death of the author, similarly, has not caught on in publishing circles, and certainly it is tactless, when living writers are present, to insist on their absence. Even dead authors can be frisky, leaving letters, interviews, articles and autobiographical memoirs all over the place. But these persistences should not obscure the interest of Barthes' scenario. We can see the death of the author as a recent entry in a long series of modern metaphors for the difference that writing makes, a series that begins, or at least comes to emphatic consciousness, in Flaubert. `No lyricism,' was his prescription for Madame Bovary, `no reflections, personality of the author absent.' `The artist must so arrange things that posterity will not believe he ever lived.' This not a death but an apparent abdication; a swerve or erasure. Flaubert was also interested in ostensible absence as a step to omnipotence or a proper hauteur, a form of rhetorical hygiene.

The author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere, and visible nowhere... The effect, for the spectator, must be a kind of astonishment. `How has that been done?' they must say, and they will feel crushed without knowing why.

Joyce's Stephen Dedalus fastidiously prolongs and parodies this view: `The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.'

But Flaubert and Joyce are talking strategy, considering ways of seeming to be absent, but only seeming. So was Mallarme, when he said the `pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields the initiative to the words...' We are still a long way from Barthes, and from the echoing absences explored by Jacques Derrida in his work on difference and deferment and dissemination. T S Eliot too, the most famous and most strenuous of the apostles of impersonality, was talking strategy rather than theory, only his strategy was moral rather than technical, a school of abstinence.

The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality... Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Impersonality, as becomes clear in the cautious middle of that last sentence (`know what it means to want to'), is a desperate dream, a sort of cleansing of the merely personal. It happens, by miracle or some extraordinary feat of asceticism (in Macbeth and Coriolanus, Eliot says, not in Hamlet or the Sonnets), but it doesn't happen often, and scarcely at all, Eliot's tone suggests, to us. It is an ethic for writers, not a description of writing.

The modern writers who do bring us close to Barthes and Derrida, and to the form of authorial death which mainly concerns me here, are Yeats and Proust. `The poet,' Yeats said, `is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast'. Proust said the same more generally for the writer: `a book is the product of another self (un autre moi) than the one we display in our habits, in society, in our vices'. These are metaphors too, of course, but psychological and critical rather than technical or moral. They project second, writing personalities, like the ghostly twin a writer has in Henry James' story 'The Private Life', scribbling away in the man's room while the chap himself dines in society, chats, takes walks, plays billiards.

Effectively, such metaphors identify the writer with the text, with the labour rather than the labourer, and they declare the text's independence from its often messy origins. The text for Eliot is an achievement, an abnegation, it is where we see the (nearly) vanished author on the way out. For Yeats and Proust the text secedes makes such struggles irrelevant or forgettable. It is where writers learn, retroactively, who they were as writers, what else they were apart from the persons having breakfast. In the material, historical world, the separation can hardly be so neat or dramatic, although the illustration is vivid and helpful. The author who suffers, is amused, has intentions, second thoughts, makes mistakes, patiently lines words up one after another, cannot actually be sacked or severed in this way - or not unless we allow a radical shift in our notion of what a ghost-writer is. Even the strictest of the American New Critics of the 1940s, pursuing what they called the intentional fallacy to its various lairs, acknowledge the historical author as a cause of a work's existence. Equally, a text cannot be reduced to or equted with an author's project, the weight of desire and need, the mere will to work, independent of effect and achievement. The question is not whether the metaphors are metaphors, but what force and application they have, how we are to use them or reject them.

Nabokov's practice in fiction aligns him with Flaubert and Joyce, but hls work in criticism and translation bring him closer to Yeats and Proust. We are not, he says, to 'search for "real life" in the dead ends of art', where 'dead ends' is a compliment, a tribute, a perverse pointer to the finished object. 'In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the result counts. We are concerned only with the structure of a published work'. 'Structure' is a word Nabokov often uses to mask and distance the questions we are looking at; a figure for the writtenness of writing. He distinguishes categorically, not between the person and the writer but between their precise shadows: two kinds of reader/commentator. 'As Pushkin's historian,' he says, he gloats over all the verses omitted from the final version of Eugene Onegin. 'As a fellow writer, I deplore the existence of many trivial scribblings, stillborn drafts, and vague variants that Pushkin should have destroyed.' The same person, Nabokov is suggesting, can be historian and judge, biographer and critic - and in this he is following the purest New Critical orthodoxy with regard to authorial intention - but he or she can't do both jobs at the same time. And we can't edit texts to suit our own sense of the author, 'republish a dead author's works in the form we think he might have wished them to appear and endure' (Nabokov's italics). In one sense this argument confirms the author's death as a creature apart from the work. But it also means that the text is where the author triumphantly revives.

Introducing his translation of Eugene Onegin, 1964, Nabokov proposes an august and strenuous ideal of readership: 'Unless these and other mechanisms and every other detail of the text are consciously assimilated, Eugene Onegin cannot be said to exist in the reader's mind.' Every other detail; consciously assimilated; cannot be said to exist. These despotic phrases call for a long commentary, and in one sense this book is such a commentary. For the moment it will be enough to note that the textual result is assumed to be active in all its parts and moments, to leave no residue, or slack; that Nabokov makes no allowance for an unconscious effect on the reader, of the kind that Eliot and William Empson, in all their criticism, take to be very important; and that for Nabokov there is only one kind of reader, only one kind of 'existence' for a text,; or at least for his text. Pushkin would be a name fo'r what we are reading, for the achieved design, if Eugene Onegin were not the name we wanted; but the historical Pushkin doesn't appear at all in this formulation - he belongs only to his historian. When Nabokov speaks of Pushkin as a figure in his own poem, he is emphatically clear that the autobiographical effect is stylized, a literary effect not a confession. The author is ubiquitous and absent, as in Flaubert; a cancellation of accident, as in Yeats; and a demand for meticulous attention, as in most modern writing.


It is possible to see the author as neither dead nor alive, neither a second self nor a textual performance, but as mere paper. Swift has a very good joke along these lines in The Battle of the Books. I have suggested that modern dreams of impersonality begin with Flaubert, but modernity, here as elsewhere, is not so much a fresh start as a jogged memory, new only because all second and later chances are new in their way. 'I must warn the reader,' Swift says in an ostensible note from the Bookseller,

to beware of applying to persons what is here meant only of books in the most literal sense. So, when Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the person of a famous poet called by that name, but only certain sheets of paper, bound up in leather, containing in print the works of the said poet, and so of the rest.

'The most literal sense' is exact and limited, since the books here have been physically fighting, waging the war of the Ancients and Moderns: 'the Books In St James's Library, looking upon themselves as parties principally concerned, took up the controversy, and came to a decisive battle...' But the poker-faced assertion illustrates an important usage. Sheets of paper are often what we mean by an author, and all we mean, or in many cases, can mean. The joke also glances at the life of books, their independent career in the world, their ability to stand up for themselves, cause trouble; and it also reminds us of our muddle, of our eagerness to leap from text to writer, to forget the works for the person, thereby courting a kind of death of the text, as if only the personal mattered to us There is probably another, swirling level to the joke too, which suggests that being a book is a form of grandeur, and if Homer and the classics are 'only' books, that;is preciely what an Ancient is; the Moderns haven't yet got beyond being persons.

It is also possible to get thoroughly bewildered about authors, tumble from text to intention without quite knowing what we are doing.

Student explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages 'so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced by the author'.

This is a note discarded during the writing of Pale Fire; a marvellously funny thought, but I'm curious about our amusement, about possible divergences within it. If we share the joke, do we share it like a ride, all of us in the same car, or like a cake, each of us taking a different piece? Does our (my) amusement have the same shape as Nabokov's? Is it a joke, for example, about the self-evident silliness of the student's plan, and therefore of certain famous tenets of the New Criticism, of the I940S and after? How could we not be influenced by the author? What is reading if not submitting to such influence, to whatever authority we find in the words, even if we do have to find it rather than passively receive it? Whose could it be if not the author's? The joke then is not on the student but on the teachers, a whole school of criticism, confused from the start, confused in its deepest assumptions. Of course the New Criticism in no sense recommended skipping passages. On the contrary: it was emphatically committed to the whole text, and thereby to the textual, implied author; saw no one else. It was the supposedly extraneous biographical author, the hazy inferences lurking in known names, which were to be excluded from consideration; mere intention or reputation. We might intend a masterpiece and achieve a flop; even Shakespeare can be seen to nod, if you don't know she's Shakespeare. Nabokov's joke would then be on a dim idea of reader liberation, a parody in advance of Barthes' dismissal of the Author ('The birth of the reader must be at the cost of [doit sepayer de] the death of the Author').

Or is the joke about getting the wrong end of an interesting idea? The student would be right not to want to be influenced by the separable or sermonizing author, by an author's meaning pictured as somehow distinct from the text, behind the text; only ludicrously mistaken in thinking skipping would help. Skipping in fact, Barthes would say, might well increase the author's influence, leave the reader without defence against presuppositions and preudices. Qr it might abolish the author's and all other influence, scrap the very act of imaginative reading. The fault though would lie not with a school of criticism but with a loopy misunderstanding of an important principle. One wouldn't have to be a New Critic to feel this way. When the American critic Lionel Trilling said in rg47 that Hamlet is 'not merely the product of Shakespeare's thought, it is the very instrument of 3iis thought', and that 'if meaning is intention, Shakespeare did not intend...anything less than Hamlet', he was perhaps expressing precisely the idea the student mangled. The student's wish not to be influenced by the (textual) author is incoherent, merely comical; but it may be a muddled version of an attractive desire not to be bullied by teachers or gossip or duty; to attend (only not enough) to the text; to see reading as a form of creation.

Beyond these two interpretations there is a faint, offbeat comedy in the very wording of the student's thought, in the notion of a reader's being influenced by an author: it's too much and too little, a mlxture of boast and tautology, as if we were to say we were influenced by our education. The author is not dead here but somehow both mislaid and inflated, and if we put the two jokes together, Swift's and Nabokov's, we get an interesting composite image of a genuine difficulty about sheets of paper and the persons we find or fail to find in them. Reading is a material act, a retracing of a moment of writing, the author's influence is inescapable: we don't make a move without him or her. But the sheets of paper are also currency, forms of social behaviour, and their reach and effect will often go beyond anything we can call influence. Once words are in motion they cannot be revoked and won't always mean what we thought they meant, or wanted them to mean. Anyone who has ever quarrelled knows this; let alone anyone who has ever written, even a letter or a shopping list.


Vladimir Nabokov can't have been much of a bundle of accident and incoherence even at breakfast, and he certainly endorsed Yeats' view of the artist as 'something intended, complete'. He appears to have treated much of his life as art in this sense, not out of a desire to deceive or hide but out of discretion and a belief that style begins at home. His privacy itself seems poised, a work of discipline. Even moments of horror come across as virtaully unruffled. The night his father was assassinated 1n Berlin in I922 Nabokov remembers as 'something outside life, monstrously slow, like those mathematical puzzles that torment us in feverish half-sleep'. This is an entry in a diary, not meant for publication. The torment must have been terrible, must have remained terrible, but this private language already holds it at bay, subordinates it to an imagery of distance and unreality. Nabokovs 'coldness in novels and interviews is among other things a continuing act of courage, a refusal to be bullied by the rages and accidents of history, or by the possible pity of others. His fictional character Pnin, a comic Russian exile who is everything Nabokov was not, teaches himself 'never to remember' a girl he loved and who later died in Buchenwald, 'because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible.' Nabokov always remembered such events, but his writing construed them obliquely, as a form of duelling with history: his art was an answer to what Pnin couldn't bear to think of.

There is therefore something comic in the recent attempts of Nabokov's son and others to redeem the writer for conventional kindness; the death of the author scored for muzak. Dmitri Nabokov is amazed that this lovable fellow could ever have been perceived as 'austere, cold, somehow inhuman', and John Updike, who should know better, says 'And, really, what a basically reasonable and decent man'. I don't doubt for a minute that Nabokov was reasonable and decent, and as kindly as the next great writer - kind-lier than many, surely. But that isn't why we read him, and he himself spent a lifetime building an austere, cold and unreachable public persona, as immune as could possibly be from such soggy apologies. In a letter of 1954 he remarks that what others see as an "`unpleasant" quality' in a particular chapter of Pnin is actually `a special trait of my work in general'. He doesn't mean his work is unpleasant, only that it doesn't shy from unpleasantness, perhaps even that it specializes in unpleasant matters; and by implication that being `basically reasonable and decent', while charming for one's friends and family, can hardly be a serious part of the artist's business.

Nabokov insisted that 'the best part of a writer's biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style'. The biography is still paramount in this claim. The author is not dead or intending to die, he is seeking a perpetual controlling share in the interest his work arouses. But who would be the subject of this biography? The old, dead author after all? Is there an alternative? What are all the names littered about the above paragraphs if not the names of authors? Do `style' and `adventures', in spite of what Yeats and Proust say, simply belong to the same person? What does it mean to say they do or they don't? Is Nabokov, in these pages, in the title of this book, an implied historical person or the name of a performance, certain sheets of paper? How many Nabokovs are there, or how many do we need? could. ask these questions about any writer, of course, and probably should. About Marguerite Duras, for example, or Italo Calvino; about Milan Kundera or Jean Rhys. We shall get different answers in different cases, feel the need variously to narrow or widen the gap between author and text. But we can't make the gap go away, and in each case we shall get a whole deck of answers. The deck is what's interesting, I think. It gives us choices, and it may clear our heads about what it is we are choosing. If the death of the Author really is the birth of the reader, then the birth of the reader is the start of a whole family of (lowercase) authors. That is one way of saying what reading is.


To write is not to be absent but to become absent; to be someone and then go away, leaving traces. 'Writing', Barthes says, 'is the destruction of every voice, of every origin.' Well, writing is stealthier than this; it doesn't destroy, even at its most dramatic it only discreetly ruins our various dreams of immediacy, converts them to fragments, vestiges, questions. It replaces or rejects voice, abandons origin and moves on, it shakes off all secure, firmly guaranteed connection to its beginnings. It has to do this, can do no other; that is what writing is. It is important to see how simple, even pedestrian this idea can be. To speak of death or destruction is to express an amazement that we should still keep stumbling over it. All metaphorical absences are preceded, when we write, by the most literal absence possible. We can't be there when our friends read the message saying 'Back in a minute'. Or if we are there, the message is cancelled, not only untrue, but unwritten - unwritten, undone (as distinct from not done). Literary texts differ from this message in all kinds of ways, but resemble it in this crucial respect. Indeed the message is already literary in this sense: it needs reading, it can be misread or hesitated over. This is one of the things Jacques Derrida means by his intricate evocation of absence, and the idea is none the less deep' and difficult for being so familiar. 'Every piece of writing is in essence a testament' (Tout grapheme est d'essence testamentaire). Derrida's essence' seems a bit hazy, but I would settle for' the memorable metonymy. The text, any text, is a will, we are present at its reading. The will, as every nineteenth century novelist knew, is where the dead are most alive; a functional autobiography, immortality secured in the quarrels of others.

Authors can be, and routinely are, constructed and reconstructed, but construction in different from revelation or assumption. We know (we hope) what we are doing, the process can be inspected, and the breaking of the orthodoxy of the automatic link between presumed writer and interpreted text will have served its purpose. Barthes himself writes of the possible, perhaps inevitable resurrection of the author, a dusty but not unattractive revenant among the glittering new techniques. The author is dead as an institution, he says (still no doubt prematurely) in The Pleasure of the Text, 1973, although as a person he is merely 'dispossessed'. 'But in the text, in a certain way, I desire the author: I need his image (sa figure), as he needs mine.' If we think of authors as desired and reconstructed, we are reminding ourselves of thelr human history, avoiding the familiar and tempting thought that they are just 'there', like mountains or weather, fallen from the hand of God.

Michel Foucault writes of an 'author function', which is a way of classifying certain practices of language. Letters, contracts, anonymous texts, for instance, have persons who sign and write them, but not 'authors'; what we need to understand are the 'rules of construction' for what we call an author, how we arrive at such an idea, and what use we make of it. Foucault reverts interestingly to St Jerome's four criteria for establishing authorship in an age when several writers might use the same (traditional) name. They are: consistency of value (is this work good enough to be regarded as written by Brother William?); conceptual or theoretical coherence (does it accord with our general sense of Brother William's doctrine?); stylistic unity (do we recognize Brother William's characteristic vocabulary and turns of phrase?); historical moment (does this work refer to people or events we know to belong to a time later than that of Brother William's death?). It is easy to see how these criteria can be adapted for a variety of texts, and how strongly they are still in force. As Foucault wryly says, 'modern literary criticism...scarcely defines the author otherwise'.

Now an author in St Jerome's sense plainly is some sort of 'construction': we (or our culture or our history) have put the pieces together, they could have been assembled. differenly - and in fact often are. But we have not made or just found the pieces. They were left for us to find, and they were put together when we got to them. We are perhaps the city planners here, or the demolition experts, but we are not the architects. Or not the first or only architects. We can of course ignore the first architect, or dismiss the very idea of such a figure, and build a whole city of our own out of the disassembled stones. This is what Barthes seems to invite us to do, and what all kinds of readers do anyway, whether this is what they intend or not. But Barthes only seems to invite this. What he wants is to rob the first architect (Author or God) of His undivided theological authority and get to know the firm's partners on more democratic terms.

The author cannot do without the reader, but the reverse is also true - however shadowy and marginal the author's role may seem to have become. When Barthes says it 'will always be impossible', a tout jamais impossible, to know who speaks in a Balzac text, he means impossible to know in an old-fashioned, metaphysical sense: to know for sure and in only one way. On a more modest view, it is possible to name quite precisely the voices we hear in a Balzac text, and Barthes himself, in S/Z, 1970, spends a lot of time doing just that. There is no reason why these voices, in their sheer plurality, shouId not be 'Balzac'; indeed it is hard to see how they could not be. We can have as many Balzacs as we like; what we cannot really want is the entire absence of any sort of Balzac, and Barthes, in spite of his polemical flourishes, is not asking us to want it. If there is no imputable direction to a text, no chance of an encounter with a mind other than ours, we cannot read, we can only make private mental doodles on the script in front of us. Even when we assume a mind ln a text, we can of course read wrongly; and we can get lost. But lf there is no imaginable mind in question, no set of needs or specifiable context, we can't even read wrongly. Or: we might be able to read in a very modest, functional sense, to unscramble a basic meanlng - say the meaning of the phrase 'Back in a minute' - but not be able to act on it, or take the meaning any further. If we didn't know what time it was, or who had left the message, or where 'back' was, there would be very little we could do with the words, in spite of our knowing quite clearly what they meant. Our ordinary use of 'reading' covers both of these rather different activities: being able to spell out and pronounce the name Humbert Humbert, for instance, and being able and willing to imagine him, as he cries out to us to do.

We can return, I think, to the flutter of questions I asked earlier. What would it mean to write the story of a writer's style rather than the record of a writer's adventures? Whose story would this be? What does it mean to separate, for whatever reason, the person and the writer, or as Eliot lugubriously puts it, 'the man who suffers and the mind which creates'? Who is Nabokov, and how many Nabokovs do we need?

Style in most cases is going to be an act, a perceived public performance. So the subject of a biography even in Nabokov's sense would be the writer we create from our reading of the texts, a critical fiction although not (we hope) a falsehood. More precisely, the writlng sublect is a critical fiction erratically haunted by our guesses at the character of the person behind the performance; guesses we may welcome as insights or deplore as methodological muddle, but which we can hardly resist anyway. Even the most austere New Critics have moments when they must believe that the cautiously constructed 'Nabokov' or 'Marvell' or 'Dickinson' just is Nabokov, or Marvell, or Dickinson, the person behind all the masks. The very notion of the mask implies a face. The metaphor of the second self is an attempt to take us away from all this, to bury the writing self in mystery, and leave us only with the words. I think this is laudable if you're not a conventional biographer, and might be an interesting place to start even if you were; and this is a book about Nabokov's words and how they are arranged. But I also think we have to be prepared for the ghosts, for the unruliness of the mystery. No lively self will stay buried merely for our critical or conceptual comfort, and there will be times when even the most divided or hypothetical of writers will look undeniably solid and whole.

So how many Nabokovs? Four or five, perhaps, but that's being economical. The man is several persons, and the writer perhaps even more. I have used the name Nabokov to mean a number of quite different things, but I haven't lingered or agonized over this, and I think the context usually makes the meaning clear. Where it doesn't, I have stopped to say what I mean, but it may help if I describe what I take to be the four major or most frequent meanings of the name. They are:

1) the historical person whose life has been impeccably told by his biographer Brian Boyd, and whom I glance at occasionally here, but who is not my principal subject.

2) a set (also historical) of attitudes, prejudices, habits, remarks, performances which is highly visible, highly stylized, and which I find dull and narrow, and having almost nothing to do with the writing I admire: Nabokov the mandarin.

3) a (real) person I guess at but who keeps himself pretty well hidden: he is not only tender and observant but also diffident, even scared, worried about almost everything the mandarin so airily dismisses. I would think this person was a sentimental invention of my own if Nabokov's texts were not demonstrably so full of him, and if I had any reason to invent him. Given the choice I would prefer another Nabokov in his place - someone less predictably the obverse of the haughty public presence. This diffident, doubting person is the one I think of most often as the author in Barthes' later sense: the textual revenant rather than the face on the dustjacket.

4) identifiable habits of writing and narrating: mannered, intricate, alliterative, allusive, perverse, hilarious, lyrical, sombre, nostalgic, kindly, frivolous, passionate, cruel, cold, stupid, magical, precise, philosophical and unforgettable. Particular clusters of these characteristics are what we identify as Nabokov the author in Swift's sense the performance on the sheets of paper.

All of these meanings keep shifting, of course, particularly the last set, but I have tried throughout the book to mark out and explore a specific distinction which I have found helpful, and which may also be useful to readers. It is the distinction between style and signature.

One meaning of signature, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 'a distinctive mark, a peculiarity in form or colouring etc on a plant or other natural object formerly supposed to be an indication of its qualities, especially for medical purposes'. This is a sense Ben Jonson seems to be using metaphorically when he evokes the signature of the stars ('You shall be/Principall Secretarie to the Starres:/Know all their signatures'). But the idea of a signature on a note or cheque is relevant too. It is how we recognize and verify the identity of writers; other things about them too. A literary signature would then be the visible shorthand for a literary person; a style would be a more complex but still legible trace of that person's interaction with the world. Writers usually have more signature than style, I think. Signature is their habit and their practice, their mark; style is something more secretive, more thoroughly dispersed among the words, a reflection of luck or grace, or of a moment when signature overcomes or forgets itself.

Much of Nabokov's work is strikingly signed, immediately identifiable as his. This work is intelligent and amusing, but often elegantly impatient, anxious to cut off questions which threaten to become too messy or difficult. We can't mistake it for anyone else's, but we can't always admire it. And then there is richer and more subtle work which is not signed in this sense, which doesn't have the distinctive mark or name in its words. But it is Nabokov's, and I think more intimately so than work which more obviously evokes him, or our image of him, or his image of himself. No one else could have written it; if it is not at once unmistakable, it is at length irreplaceable, untransferable. While we could parody Nabokov's signature, although not easily, since most of us don't have anything like the necessary linguistic agility, his style is beyond any parody we could imagine, let alone produce.

It's not that style is always or simply better than signature. The signature may be wonderful and the style quite modest. But the style will always be stealthier, and in Nabokov's case the style is intricate and haunting and powerful, while the signature can be dazzling to the point of weakness. So I think the distinction does have a certain critical and theoretical force - it is, if you like, an amalgamation and resplitting of St Jerome's first and third criteria for authorship, the notions of value and of stylistic unity - and sparingly and flexibly used, it may help us to understand the shape and behaviour and force of language, Nabokov's or anyone else's. I don't wish to beat the distinction into the ground, to suggest that we need a manic classifying spree, turning every piece of writing into style or signature, as if there were no other territory, or no combinations or crossovers were possible. Obviously what is signature for one reader could well be style for another. That wouldn't matter as long as we could talk about our decisions. What does matter is that style and signature seem to engage us differently, to involve a different relationship between textual author and consenting reader. Style is more impersonal in Eliot's and Flaubert's sense: we think about the writing before we think about who wrote it.

Here is a famous, strongly signed passage from Lolita:

The front hall was graced with door chimes, a white-eyed wooden thingamabob of commercial Mexican origin, and that banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh's 'Arlesienne'. A door ajar to the right afforded a glimpse of a living-room, with some more Mexican trash in a corner cabinet and a striped sofa along the wall. There was a staircase at the end of the hallway, and as I stood mopping my brow (only now did I realize how hot it had been out of doors) and staring, to stare at something, at an old grey tennis ball that lay on an oak chest, there came from the upper landing the contralto voice of Mrs Haze, who leaning over the banisters inquired melodiously, 'Is that Monsieur Humbert?' A bit of cigarette ash dropped from there in addition. Presently, the lady herself- sandals, maroon slacks yellow silk blouse, squarish face, in that order - came down the steps, her index finger still tapping upon her cigarette.

I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of a type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich.

The writer here, within the fiction, is the snooty and devious Humbert Humbert, but that kind of indirection is also part of Nabokov's signature. Humbert's eye is observant but weary; both he and Nabokov enjoy the play of different linguistic registers ('graced', 'thingumabob', 'afforded a glimpse', 'Mexican trash'), and both are dedicated to the meticulous control of images and timing. Nothing left to chance here, and no space for mistakes. It's not just that we see Charlotte Haze through Humbert's seeing her, we see her in sections, in a sardonic reconstruction of his first view. The 'weak solution' is a brilliant and dismissive metaphor, since it manages to turn both Charlotte and Marlene Dietrich into chemical concoctions.

Here's another famous passage from the same book, equally strongly signed, I think, but more sentimental:

What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapour of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic - one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

The flashes of cries are evocative, and the noises of the valley are beautifully exact, but the soft-spoken, Edwardian diction of the passage (melody, vapour, limpid air, magically, divinely, demure murmur, and the sickly concord) suggests two minds, Humbert's and Nabokov's, trying hard for a tone to which they are not accustomed: Humbert because he is seeking, sincerely or not, to sound contrite, Nabokov because he is allowing the moralist in himself to have one of his rare canters in the open. This elegant, slightly over-beautified language is Nabokov's signature when he takes a break from irony; as if in compensation, sardonic control gives way to a maudlin recommendation.

A little earlier in the book, Humbert drives to Clare Quilty's house to kill him. He finds the place, and decides to return in the morning.

Gently I rolled back to town, in that old faithful car of mine which was serenely, almost cheerfully working for me. My Lolita! There was still a three-year-old bobby pin of hers in the depths of the glove compartment. There was still that stream of pale moths siphoned out of the night by my headlights. Dark barns still propped themselves up here and there by the roadside. People were still going to the movies. While searching for night lodgings, I passed a drive-in. In a selenian glow, truly mystical in its contrast with the moonless and massive night, on a gigantlc screen slanting away among dark drowsy fields, a thin phantom raised a gun, both he and his arm reduced to tremulous dishwater by the oblique angle of that receding world - and the next moment a row of trees shut off the gesticulation.

There is a great deal of Nabokov's signature here: the alliteration, the invocation of Lolita, the implicit parallel between the movie and Humbert's projected murder of Quilty. 'Selenian' and 'mystical' are reminders of Humbert's fussy learning. But there is also something I want to call style in this passage. Overall, it is the desolate, terminal effect of the completed image; in detail, the effect's chief ingredients, in so far as I can identify them, are the recurring word 'still', with its delicate suggestion of solipsistic surprise that the world could go on when Humbert and Lolita were separated; the barns which prop themselves up; the astonishing but not fanciful 'siphoned' and 'dishwater'; the slant of the screen and its relation to the moving car; the double meaning of the thinness of the phantom raising a gun; and the peculiar helplessness of the word 'gesticulation', a sadly latinate miming of the plight of those reduced to mere gesture. The passage is clearly Nabokov's, and a wonderful piece of writing; but it is not, if I am right, as visibly and typically Nabokov's as the others.

For a last example of style, I'd like to turn to 'Signs and Symbols', 1948, a story I consider in a later chapter. This is a work which is rich in style and signature, and in style and signature together. Here is a passage of what I am calling style. An old couple are on their way to visit their mentally ill son on his birthday, taking him a present:

That Friday everything went wrong. The underground train lost its life current between two stations, and for a quarter of an hour one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one's heart and the rustling of the newspapers. The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous school children. It was raining hard as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again; and instead of their boy shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face blotched with acne, ill-shaven, sullen, and confused), a nurse they knew, and did not care for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.

I can't see anything here that looks like Nabokov's signature; yet I can't think of another writer who could have managed the casual, brilliant and quietly angry complexities of the fifth sentence in this paragraph. The old couple have to wait 'again', and the boy has 'again attempted to take his life' - this second 'again' is the first hint we have that the son is dangerous to himself, and suddenly illuminates and expands our sense of the parents' sorrow. The 'bright' explanation of the nurse makes her either heartless or unable to be brisk and compassionate at the same time, and helps us to understand why the old couple don't care for her - no doubt they have had bright explanations from her in the past. This is all discreet and strong, but the most dazzling, half-concealed effect in the passage is the conjuring up on the page of the son who doesn't appear at the hospital, with his acne and his shuffle and his confusion. We see the person the parents are unable to see; see with the eyes of their waiting minds. We are not disappointed as they are, but we come close to their disappointment, and their continuing sadness, through our own glimpse of the boy. Instead of their sullen boy, they get the nurse and her explanation, her news of worse than sullenness. This is style because it does so many things at once, and isn't signature. It works largely through syntax and small words, and is so subtle that it reflects not a meticulous control of a fictional world but a disciplined vulnerability to the shocks of a historical one. Of course, the control and the vulnerability are related to each other, the first presumably an answer to the second. When the answer is difficult, scarcely manageable, only style will allow the writer to continue to write, and may produce some of his or her most powerful work. When the answer is too easily had, the writing accumulates excesses of signature.


Some deaths of the author are mere slips or illusions. Nabokov appears on a published photograph in the 1930S, but is identified as Jacques Audiberti. Rectification, or resurrection, is relatively easy. However, when Nabokov writes of Conclusive Evidence (the first title in America of the book called Speak, Memory in England and later in both countries; in Russia and France the book was called Other Shores), he glosses the phrase as meaning 'conclusive evidence of my having existed'. Why should such evidence be needed, conclusive or not? Nabokov doesn't doubt his own sense of his existence, but he clearly feels he needs to prove his past to others, since his earlier life, his spectacular loss of family, home and two refuges in exile, must seem unreal to them, a fancy, a legend. The evidence for this past's reality is the fondness and specificity of the text itself, the gleam and shimmer of the writing: conclusive. But the near-death of the author's old self, his rescue at the hands of memory and patience, are alarming brushes with the brutal violence of history, reminders of the appalling variety of ways in which lives can be lost. The murder of an author, even a metaphorical murder, is quite different from a composed theoretical death.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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