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tricks & tones in some VN novels

September 6, 2011

Before you begin to read this little essay, let me warn you that it is one-third of my junior qualifying exam, and let me beg you to please recall the demands, limitations, and conventions of that genre. It was written in one sweaty day. I long to expand and improve upon it– the Chernyshevskii stuff wants more thorough research; Plato wants a say– and your job, kids, is to point out all the places I can do that. Well, have at it…

In the 1962 Foreword to the English translation of his novel The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov writes that it was published serially in 1937-38, “omitting, however, Chapter Four, which was rejected for the same reasons that the biography it contains was rejected by Vasiliev in Chapter Three (p. 219): a pretty example of life finding itself obliged to imitate the very art it condemns” (Gift, Foreword). There is a certain kind of reader who will flip at once to the indicated page upon encountering this sentence, but he will not find any Vasiliev there: page 219 is in the middle of Chapter Four, and consists of a rather lyrical, almost tender, uncomfortably intimate, and certainly disrespectful description of the young Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevskii’s eating habits, spending habits, and personal hygiene, written by protagonist Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev. We have not yet sated our curiosity; we shall now look for Chapter Three, where the elusive Vasiliev and his “reasons” may reside. We find him on page 207. He does not want to publish the Chernyshevskii biography because he “assumed that this was a serious work, and it turns out to be a reckless, antisocial, mischievous improvisation” (Gift, 207). Perhaps we were miffed when we first discovered that Nabokov had provided the “wrong” page number in his citation of Vasiliev’s whereabouts; however, having accidentally read a paragraph or two of the “antisocial” work, now we are in a better position to judge the aspersions cast on Fyodor’s monograph. Nabokov has played a trick, but it is not a trick without meaning. He has simply chosen to indicate the biography and the criticism simultaneously, as well as the order in which he thinks they should be read, and in an admirable economy of words: the innocuous string of characters “Vasiliev in Chapter Three (p. 219)” suffices to send the reader scrambling. It may be considered an example of art’s influence on life.

In his novel Invitation to a Beheading, written in a two-week interim between chapters of The Gift, Nabokov portrays the final (?) days of a convict sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude” (Invitation, 72), a crime whose nature is alluded to but left frustratingly unclear. Cincinnatus’s true sin among the idiots that populate the novel, however, seems to be an overabundance of what Nabokov’s narrator calls opacity, or a failure to achieve transparency. Through a discussion of Nabokov’s treatment of Chernyshevskii and the relationship between “life” and “art” in The Gift, I wish to explore the terms “transparent” and “opaque” in Invitation. In the dialogue between these two co-temporaneously written novels, Nabokov establishes an ethics of memory and privacy, rather than a sham honesty or a system of pseudo-justice. A reading of The Gift unlocks that ethics in Invitation.

This opacity, the tragic “flaw” in Cincinnatus’s character, is described early in the novel, interblent with a series of his memories:

From his earliest years Cincinnatus, by some strange and happy chance comprehending his danger, carefully managed to conceal a certain peculiarity. He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another… Cincinnatus, who seemed pitch-black to them, as though he had been cut out of a cord-sized block of night, opaque Cincinnatus… (Invitation, 24-25)

The logic of Cincinnatus’s world is different from ours by at least a couple of degrees; we could even say that Invitation takes place in an alternate universe. It is therefore not immediately clear—nor does this ever quite clarify as the novel unfolds—whether we should read these words “transparent” and “opaque” metaphorically or not. Nabokov’s language is sometimes qualified; we see that Cincinnatus produces an impression “as of a lone dark obstacle” (italics mine), or that he “seemed pitch-black to them, as though he had been cut out of a cord-sized block of night” (italics mine), and these we might read as clues to ask, as those characters surely should have asked themselves, what it means for him to seem pitch-black to them. However, there are no qualifications immediately preceding our key terms: the other souls in his world are simply “transparent to one another,” and Cincinnatus is simply “impervious” and “opaque.” These words describe the characters absolutely. Cincinnatus is objectively opaque on the same level that he is “very small for a full-grown man” (Invitation, 13). Within the fiction, there is no wondering what it means for him to be small, just as we do not wonder what it means for our next-door neighbor to be short. And while his fellow characters are transparent “to” one another, a quality which apparently requires the subjectivity of another to perceive, this information is also presented by an omniscient narrator. Rodion the jailer is transparent in the same sense that he “smelled of sweat, garlic, and tobacco” (Invitation, 13). If this mix of odors and Cincinnatus’s height, if a given character’s opacity or transparency have any symbolic significance, it is for the reader and not for the characters to interpret.

In his biography of Nabokov, critic Brian Boyd, discussing the Chernyshevskii biography embedded in The Gift, points out that

In his thesis “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality” Chernyshevsky advanced the claim that art is only an inferior imitation of a prior reality, material and obvious and commonplace. Fyodor proposes instead to reverse priorities, to show that life follows art. He believes things cannot be understood only in material terms: those who really attend to life discover that the play of consciousness they must exercise to apprehend their world seems to correspond in some mysterious way to a force of conscious playfulness somehow concealed behind life (Boyd, 458).

Obviously Nabokov is referring to the claim that “art is only an inferior imitation of a prior reality” in his scornful Foreword to The Gift, hence his smug comment about life imitating the art it condemns. However, what interests me most in Boyd’s description of this polemic between Chernyshevskii and Fyodor is the word “concealed,” from the “force of conscious playfulness somehow concealed behind life” found in the poetics of Fyodor’s monograph and Nabokov’s novel. The crux of Nabokov’s argument with Chernyshevskii is that art or artifice can gesture towards that concealed force which cannot be seen either in mundane life or in an “artistic” reflection of it. In this sense, we can read “opacity” as the site at which human experience and the murky sacred forces governing it converge “behind life.” And “transparency,” its converse, describes a system of ethics and aesthetics that correlates to Chernyshevskii’s project: transparent art forces the viewer to see through to the “reality” behind it. These transparent characters in Invitation are transparent in the sense that they are simply imitations. They wear their ideologies on their sleeves.

There is no moral benefit in the “honest” component of this “transparency”: Nabokov is uninterested both in the ideology that “honestly” expresses itself through any art abiding by a Chernyshevskian model, and in the unexamined formal statement that art should strive for honesty at all, as though for honesty’s sake. Indeed, it seems to be another horrible quirk of Cincinnatus’s world that language is not considered arbitrary, that it transparently corresponds to the things it names. Just after the description of the visual component of young opaque Cincinnatus’s travails with his transparent cohorts, we learn of the same phenomenon on a linguistic level:

Those around him understood each other at the first word, since they had no words that would end in an unexpected way, perhaps in some archaic letter, an upsilamba, becoming a bird or a catapult with wondrous consequences. In the dusty little museum on Second Boulevard, where they used to take him as a child, and where he himself would later take his charges, there was a collection of rare, marvelous objects, but all the townsmen except Cincinnatus found them just as limited and transparent as they did each other. That which does not have a name does not exist. Unfortunately everything had a name (Invitation, 13, Nabokov’s italics).

Cincinnatus lives in a world where things are validated by their names, and each name in return is faithfully bound to refer only to its thing and nothing else. A world without wordplay or linguistic nuance. A world where language can do nothing “unexpected,” cannot gesture at the concealed thing behind life. The nausea evoked by those last two sentences is palpable. And absurd, absurd to search through things for the nameless one, in hopes of violating the law of name and thing, in hopes of finding the thing that does not exist. And yet what else can Cincinnatus do but search? He knows the law is wrong. The absurdity of this bad transparency, this wrong idea about how language works or should, is furthered by the presence of the “upsilamba” in this passage, a Greek-looking entity which breaks the name-thing law because it has a name and yet does not exist. It is in the passage, but Cincinnatus cannot see it, because it is floating on a narrative level just above his head, and Cincinnatus lives in a world without narrative levels. He is confined to this “limited and transparent” plane of description where the reader and characters are granted access to him but he cannot escape.

In fact, one of the ways in which Invitation is a successful portrait of injustice is that Cincinnatus’s confinement and his total lack of privacy are two sides of the same coin. It is not just his physical life and body but his internal life and self which are under attack. His opacity is an occasion for confusion and fear in his interlocutors; his attempts at “concealment” of his opacity are thwarted. As he tries to keep a personal space—if not in his cell, then in his mind—clear and clean in order to commune, through memory and writing, with the forces behind his life, he is mocked by jokes about last cigarettes and abstractions of documents which do not communicate any information. These reactions to Cincinnatus’s innate instinct towards privacy—towards unreadability—correspond to the multiple occasions of strangers invading his cell and his days. Even the date of his death, the most personal of information, is fixed, is known to others, but he is not privy to it. The punishment fits the crime: the circumstances of Cincinnatus’s death remain excruciatingly opaque to him throughout the novel.

The punishment fits the crime, and yet this quid-pro-quo justice is anything but ethical. Nabokov has shown us a man found guilty of linguistic curiosity, guilty of the desire to understand how and why he lives and when he must die, guilty of the notion that reading and writing will point him in the right direction, guilty of the impulse to keep that notion private. He pays for these crimes not, it seems, with death, but rather with his life: a life among mock people, unreal people, ghostly people who only represent ideas and who use a flat, predictable tongue. The upsilamba, hovering around Cincinnatus’s consciousness but impossible for him to find, recalls “Vasiliev in Chapter Three (p. 219)” from the Prologue to The Gift: it may send the reader “fruitlessly” paging through the dictionary, but to Nabokov’s characters, it remains entirely opaque.

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