Gavriel Shapiro’s (Cornell University) study “Robert Burness — Vladimir Nabokov’s English Tutor” casts light on the life of Robert Burness (1873–1927), Vladimir Nabokov’s English tutor in St. Petersburg in 1907–1908. A native of Edinburgh and a graduate of Fettes College and of Oxford University, Burness made a name for himself as a prolific translator of Russian poetry. The article explores some biographical and literary parallels and affinities between the Scottish man of letters and the Russian-American writer of world renown.
Lida Zeitlin Wu’s (University of California, Berkeley) article, “Nabokov’s Optical Paintbox: Color in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” focuses on world building and chromatic structure, as opposed to the more traditional task of literary interpretation, an approach that has been largely neglected in Nabokov studies. This article presents a newly discovered drawing of a color wheel by Nabokov himself which points to his interests in color theory and motivates a visual methodology for reading his prose. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Nabokov’s first English language novel, represents a uniquely transitional moment in which he first attempted to convey visual impressions in his non-native tongue. In Sebastian Knight, color and light serve as the building blocks of the novel’s nested narratives and can thus be seen as a mode of world-building. Nabokov’s application of color theory to his prose, as well as his interests in lepidoptery and painting, have significant ramifications for both narrative identity and the construction of “reality” in his work as a whole.
Michael Gluck’s (Columbia University) essay “Peeping at Possibilities: Wordplay and the Mirror of Nature in Pnin,” examines the repetition and transformation of certain syllables in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957) in order to show that what has been identified by Julian Connolly as the “spiral” structure of the novel also exists at the level of the word and even the syllable. I argue that this instrumentalization of language constitutes an attempt by Nabokov to forego linguistic convention and realist fiction in favor of the author’s unique conception of artistic mimesis. The essay begins with a discussion of Nabokov’s idiosyncratic use of language and its relevance to Pnin. Pnin foregrounds the question of linguistic comprehension, relating it to the workings of the imagination, dreams, painting, and nature in the novel. These practices hinge on fragmentation and reconstitution (i.e. transformation) and, the essay argues, Pnin encourages the reader to treat the work of art in his/her hands to trace such transformations in language in imitation of Victor’s painter’s perception. The last section of the essay undertakes such a reading, building on the work of Eric Naiman to show how morphemes linked to the root vertere point to a reading of the novel that turns the narrator’s language against itself to reflect Pnin’s transcendence of the story and the narrator’s return to its beginning.
Tetyana Müller-Lyaskovets’ (Dortmund Technical University) essay “Rendering of Sensuous Details in Nabokov’s Translation of Eugene Onegin” explores Nabokov’s ways of rendering the fullness of perception that Eugene Onegin calls for and presents Nabokov’s project as creating a new open-ended literary space. By analyzing the translation of the scenes that recreate the settings such as, for example, a theater, a ballroom or a dinner table or describe the Russian winter landscape, the author argues that Nabokov goes beyond his proposed literalism. Guided by the ethical concern to preserve the exact associative auras of the words, including those evoking color, sound, taste, or texture, Nabokov extends their translation into the commentary. The comments offer the vignettes of the influential people of the time, describe the dishes, visualize the costume, or refer the good reader to paintings and artistic techniques. In doing so, these comments become the metonymical extension of the main text and inform its reading with open-endedness. Not only this exegetical technique illustrates Nabokov’s gift of scholarly and scientific observation, but it also becomes a compositional mechanism that binds together Pushkin’s text and its translation and makes them cohere in one literary space. In addition to the preservation of the vibrant detail of Eugene Onegin, Nabokov’s technique of translation opens up Pushkin’s novel in verse to the delight of scientific exploration and artistic discovery.
In “Musical Counterpoint in Thematic and Analytical Application in Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” Isabella Healy Oppen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) analyzes the processes of reading and understanding in the text through the model of musical counterpoint. Following the work of Brian Boyd and Gerard de Vries in her analysis she takes into account the intrinsic differences between a musical composition and a textual work. Oppen shows how the use of musical counterpoint functions as an illustration of the texture of the text in the structural interpretation of Pale Fire and allows one to see centers and crossings of plot “melodies,” characters, and leitmotivs.
Gerard de Vries contributes an article, “Hazel Shade’s ‘Pale Spectres’ and ‘Purple Fires’,” where he considers Hazel Shade’s fate as the main event of Pale Fire turning Zembla as “a land of reflections” from a mirroring to a censuring counterpart of Appalachia. The streak of Puritanism that marks the Zemblan Revolution and ends the leniency and tolerance prevailing in Kinbote’s kingdom, signifies the narrow-mindedness that caused Aunt Maud to point to moral failings in her rhapsodomancy that prophesies Hazel’s death. These failings result from what Michael Wood in his The Magician’s Doubts calls an “addiction to conventions” that Shade’s lines in Canto III evince. The conventions in the Shades’ household are related to religious, cultural, societal, racial and sexual matters, and are at times so pronounced that they approximate prejudices strong enough to infringe on the empathy that some situations, out of necessity, require. The Shades’ traditionalism is obvious from John Shade’s unreceptiveness of the moral lessons in Alexander Pope’s poetry and Sybil Shade’s inaccuracies in her French translation of Andrew Marvell’s poem about the complaining nymph, and this contrasts distinctly with the ease with which Kinbote manages to advance, quite unobtrusively, the major elegies of English literature, which all celebrate same-sex affinities.
Michail Bezrodnyj’s (Heidelberg University) “Around Sirin’s ‘The Circle’” explores Nabokov’s short story and offers a new insightful commentary to this “satellite” (as the author called it himself) to The Gift.
Mikhail Efimov’s (Institute of Russian Literature, St. Petersburg) article “In the Museum It Was not so Good” offers two interpretations of Nabokov’s short story “The Visit to the Museum”. While one links the literary text of Nabokov with his biography, another suggests an intertextual reading. These two different (if not the opposite) methods of reading are designed to demonstrate the understudied potential of Nabokov’s “minor” legacy as a writer, i.e. his short prose. The main vector of the proposed interpretations is to subject Nabokov’s texts to questions rather than to supply the unconditional “final” answers.
In his paper José Vergara (Swarthmore College) is taking up Vladimir Nabokov’s advice to literary critics to place the “‘how’ above the ‘what,’” while not mistaking it for the “‘so what’.” The present study entitled “Conceptual Blending, Ambiguous Conclusions, and Nabokov’s ‘Signs and Symbols’,” examines Nabokov’s notoriously ambiguous short story “Signs and Symbols” through the lens of conceptual blending theory. Such an approach draws attention to the ways in which Nabokov tasks the reader with creative potential. By deemphasizing narrative “solutions” and instead focusing on how blends are constructed as three different levels, from the characters to the reader, Nabokov’s story likewise champions the pleasures of riddle-making and riddle-solving. To do so, Nabokov crafts a story about a character with a neurological disorder, even as it demonstrates how the healthy human mind functions to create meaning through conceptual blending. Re-conceptualizing the elusive “how,” the ways Nabokov manipulates readers’ expectations and constructs a text that draws attention to how the imagination construes and continually re-construes a fictional world, opens up new vistas. At its core, Nabokov’s story may be seen to be about the various possibilities engendered by its vague ending paradoxically coming to fruition all at once, and conceptual blending theory helps foreground both the pleasures of interpretation.
Alexander Dolinin’s (University of Wisconsin-Madison) article, “Clippings and Excerpts as the Elements of Fiction: Nabokov—Vaginov—Tynianov,” collates quotations from newspapers, journals and other documentary sources in Nabokov’s novels (The Gift, Lolita, Pale Fire) and similar devices in Tynianov’s Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar and Vaginov’s Works and Days of Svistonov. Following Vaginov, whose protagonist, like Aunt Maud in Pale Fire, collects farcical newspaper clippings, Nabokov parodies and disparages Tynianov’s technique of deforming or deliberately misquoting sources. In contrast to Tynianov’s biographies, his “Life of Chernyshevsky” never goes against the documented historical facts but only adds some plausible vivid details to descriptions filling up lacunae. If Tynianov deforms his material in order to show that human fates are determined by invincible historical forces, Nabokov rejects historicism and interprets the individual fate as a kind of artistic creation.
Frances Peltz Assa found herself in Telluride, Colorado and took the opportunity to follow in Humbert Humbert’s footsteps to photograph the route that led to Humbert’s mountainside epiphany in which he poignantly realizes that he has robbed Lolita of her childhood. Standing where Humbert and Nabokov stood, Assa discovered that Nabokov fictionalized his description of this location.
Barbara McLeod, a lifelong Nabokov fan, proposes that she has identified a previously undeciphered reference in the opening pages of Lolita. She believes the reference is to a 1919 magazine called The Lyceum which contains an article about a cat and a canary that fits the cited description in Lolita, as well as being an apt analogy for Humbert and Lolita’s relationship.