Mr. Nabokov, sweeten my ear!

One of my favourite works of literary analysis is the first page and a half of Mikhail Epstein’s “Good-bye to Objects, or the Nabokovian in Nabokov”.

Epstein begins by proposing the study of literature, not under the common categories related more to structure than to content, but in search of traits of a worldview, aesthetic and sentimental makeup most strongly and purely developed by a certain author. This author’s name should be the label assigned to each set of traits.

Most categories of literary criticism are expressed in common notions such as “poetry”, “novel”, “plot”, or “metaphor”. I believe that more important categories are designated by proper names: the Pushkinian, the Gogolian, the Dostoevskian, or the Tolstoian. Although these categories refer to individual qualities, they have general significance and cannot be reduced to their namesakes. The Pushkinian (pushkinskoe) is not identical to Pushkin, its meaning is broader and narrower at the same time. The phenomenon of Pushkin is broader than the Pushkinian because one can find in Pushkin something Derzhavian or Zhukovskian. But the Pushkinian is also broader than Pushkin and can be found in Mandelstam or Nabokov.

These theoretical categories derived from proper names have some advantage before the abstract concepts when they are applied to concrete authors. The discrepancy between general concepts and individual works is an inevitable evil of literary criticism; this gap between the theory and its subject, however, can be bridged by using the concepts immanent to the authors’ names. These middle categories, semi-terms and semi-names, do not impose a general concept on an author’s creation, but derive this concept from the uniqueness of his personality.

Basically, Nabokov is not purely Nabokovian, but no one is as Nabokovian as Nabokov.

A few paragraphs on, dedicated now to the definition of the Nabokovian, Epstein presents an example sentence that, while not a spectacular display of style, exhibits one of the most interesting Nabokovian traits. The sentence in question is the starter to “Spring in Fialta” (“Vesna v Fial’te”).

Actually, it is rare to find someone who possesses as many Nabokovian pearls as Nabokov himself, even in the most commonplace phrases where no claim is laid to any specific imagery. For example, witness the beginning of “Spring in Fialta,” both the story and the collection: “Spring in Fialta is cloudy and boring.” (“Vesna v Fial’te oblachna I skuchna”) What appears to be Nabokovian here, aside from the fact that it was emitted from Nabokov’s pen?

First, Nabokov presents “Spring in Fialta.” Epstein proposes that Fialta is an exotic name that heightens the colorful image that “spring” triggers in the reader’s mind. Spring, one doesn’t relate to cloudiness and boredom, but to the contrary. Nabokov sets expectations and then disappoints them. This crumpling of expectations has a melodic narrative.

“Vesna v Fial’te” is ample and relaxed,“oblachna I skuchna” is tight, it’s pronunciation requires that the mouth shrinks and teeth rows meet. What Nabokov does conceptually, he also does sonorously.  Nabokovian imagery has a musical correlate, the sentences’ musicality has conceptual content.

In his American work, Nabokov takes advantage of the very cacophonic, onomatopoeia-like quality of many English words.

A lovely example comes from Lolita, from the heavily descriptive last apparition of Jean Farlow, a neighbor and friend of Charlotte Haze who was enamored of Humbert Humbert at a certain distance:

Her lips were like large crimson polyps, and when she emitted her special barking laugh, she showed large dull teeth and pale gums.

The largeness of the lips comes via short words with grave Os, and barking has a bark-like quality.

After the lips and the laughter, and the teeth and gums, it continues as so:

She was very tall, wore either slacks with sandals or billowing skirts with ballet
slippers, drank any strong liquor in any amount, had had two miscarriages, wrote
stories about animals, painted, as the reader knows, lakescapes, was already nursing
the cancer that was to kill her at thirty-three, and was hopelessly unattractive to me.
Judge then of my alarm when a few seconds before I left (she and I stood in the hallway), Jean, with her always trembling fingers, took me by the temples, and, tears in her bright blue eyes, attempted, unsuccessfully, to glue herself to my lips.
“Take care of yourself,” she said, “kiss your daughter for me.”
A clap of thunder reverberated throughout the house, and she added:
“Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see each other
again” ( Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).

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