Another Code of Nabokov

Andrea Pitzer, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, Pegasus Books 2013

When many years ago my first translation of a novel by Vladimir Nabokov was published in Poland and I mentioned the subject of totalitarianism in the introduction, a Polish critic objected, arguing that when I wrote about Nabokov’s criticism of oppressive regimes, I was succumbing to fashion (it happened shortly after the political transformation in Poland), that the book was definitely about something else. The book under discussion was Invitation to a Beheading (1938), widely known as one of the most overtly anti-totalitarian novels of the Russian-American writer; you can even call it a dystopia—albeit a unique dystopia, unlike any other, extremely artistically sophisticated and concealing many different meanings, intricate patterns, as well as false clues and traps set for the reader to fall into.

In the “Foreword” to the English version of the work, which I translated from the Russian and therefore the “Foreword” was not there, the author wrote: “I composed the Russian original in Berlin… some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist régime, and just before the Nazi régime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not we are seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book should concern the good reader as little as it does me.” The good reader therefore should not be interested in that matter, but then the author obviously mentions these two totalitarianisms for some reason. He wrote about them even more directly in the “Introduction” to a slightly later novel, written in English and already in the United States, named Bend Sinister (1947). Here the author also declares that the effect of the totalitarian era on the book is “negligible” yet he adds:“There can be distinguished, no doubt, certain reflections in the glass directly caused by the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life: the worlds of tyranny and torture, of Fascists and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jackbooted baboons. No doubt, too, without those infamous models before me I could not have interlarded this fantasy with bits of Lenin’s speeches, and a chunk of the Soviet constitution, and gobs of Nazi pseudo-efficiency.” Let us note that the emblem of the new rulers of the country governed by the tyrant Paduk, where the main protagonist had to live, resembles the swastika (it shows “a remarkable resemblance to a crushed, dislocated but still writhing spider”), and its “red and black flag” resembles the flag of Nazi Germany. Nazism, with its fascination with shallow occultism, is also alluded to in the passage on the father of the dictator, which begat “a minor inventor, a vegetarian, a theosophist, a great expert in cheap Hindu lore.” And the words about the machine invented by the bullying father, called padograph, as proving that “Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity,” seem to refer to the law formulated by dialectical materialism and saying that quantitative changes turn into qualitative ones. The name Padukgrad refers to Leningrad, and the mention of “poems printed en escalier (incidentally tripling the per line honorarium) dedicated to Paduk” refers to the “steps” of Vladimir Mayakovsky and his followers. The fact that in an imaginary country a language combining elements of Slavic and Germanic is spoken and that “colloquial Russian and German is also used by representatives of all groups” (“Introduction”), may also direct the reader’s associations towards the two most murderous totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.

Knowing Nabokov’s works, as well as his meta-literary statements, it is impossible to deny the importance of the theme of totalitarianism in his work. The matter of historical and political references in Nabokov’s writings is dealt with in a recent first book by an American author Andrea Pitzer entitled The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (Pegasus Books 2013). Although it seems exaggerated that, as the author says, each of his books was “meant to fight tyranny,” it is an absolutely central theme of Nabokov’s work. The discovery of a multitude of political and historical allusions is an unmistakable achievement of Pitzer, whose investigations significantly enrich the interpretation of many texts by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Some of these references are obvious, for example exposing political tyranny in the two novels mentioned above, as well as the short stories “Leonardo” (1933), “Cloud, Castle, Lake” (1937) and “Tyrants Destroyed” (1938). Elsewhere, however, as we learn from Pitzer’s book, allusions to specific facts are hidden, we may even say that information is encrypted. You may ask why Nabokov, an immigrant who left his native Russia in 1919 and Europe in 1940, an American citizen since 1945, an artist not subjected to censorship, enjoying full freedom of speech, is using a code when talking about historical and political issues. The answer is simple. Nabokov thought that the title of authentic art, art of the highest measure, is deserved only by difficult art, not offering obvious solutions, shirking stereotypes, seeking novelty and thus strongly acting on the imagination and aesthetic sense, capable of giving the recipient a true aesthetic delight. It should be remembered that Nabokov’s aestheticism—a fact overlooked, for example, by his closest friend from the first American years, Edmund Wilson (Pitzer quotes numerous excerpts from their correspondence, which has been published) and by contemporary criticism—was by no means a repetition of the slogan l’art pour l’art. In his (most important, in my view) meta-literary speech Nabokov said: “For me a work of fiction exits only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm” (On a Book Entitled Lolita). So the reality behind the aesthetic experience is a different, higher and better reality, legitimizing the importance of this experience. In this reality tenderness and kindness are the norm, which obviously combines Nabokov’s aesthetics with ethics.

In his texts Nabokov, of course, did not hide and encrypt only political or historical allusions. It is enough to mention that references to another world, to the possibility of existence after death, remained virtually unnoticed by the critics until the end of the writer’s life, despite certain hints from him. Only when his widow, in the preface to the volume of Russian poems (published posthumously in 1979) which the poet considered worth preserving for posterity, said that his most important theme, the theme permeating the whole work of the author of Lolita, was potustoronnost’, which can be translated as the hereafter or the afterlife, only then what had been encoded became obvious and after a while people even began to wonder how they could have overlooked what the “draughtsman” had hidden among the tangled lines of the drawing.

The Secret History… is a biography of Vladimir Nabokov set against the background of twentieth-century history, the background particularly including political violence, dictatorship, ethnic and racial persecution, human rights violations, concentration camps, genocide, the two most important and bloodiest totalitarian regimes, the Soviet and Nazi ones. Pitzer interweaves biographical information about Nabokov with mentions about the life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The author claims that Solzhenitsyn was a man “with whom Vladimir Nabokov has more in common than has ever been imagined.” But she does not prove the truth of this claim. On the contrary, the picture emerging from what she writes shows clearly that these two writers and people in fact had very little in common, just that they were both Russians and they lived more or less in the same period (Solzhenitsyn was 18 years younger). Yes, they both responded to their era as people and artists, and their judgments were similar, but as artists they expressed these assessments quite differently. Nabokov admired Solzhenitsyn’s courage and appreciated his role in raising Western awareness of the enormity of the Soviet crimes. When the chronicler of the Gulag was exiled from the Soviet Union, Nabokov even wrote a note welcoming him in the free world, but he did not have the best opinion about his writings, as indeed Pitzer loyally recalls: “Nabokov… disparaged Solzhenitsyn’s literary abilities, calling him an inferior writer in an interview for The New York Times and labeling his work ‘juicy journalese’ in personal notes.” We do not know if he sensed in him a note of Russian chauvinism. “Westerners who saw Solzhenitsyn as committed to freedom—writes the author—were dismayed to watch him embrace Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who has held onto nostalgia for aspects of the Soviet past.” It is hard to say how much surprised would Nabokov be.

The hierarchy of values professed by Nabokov was unwavering and quite conservative; it was of course reflected in his work. Although the statement from one of the interviews: “I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel—and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride,”—is a little bit of a provocation, but only a little bit, because Nabokov indeed acknowledged the supreme authority of tenderness, talent and pride. Ethical hierarchies, of course, also found their reflection in the writer’s attitude to politics. He stated that he wanted to be called an“old- fashioned liberal” (Strong Opinions), because a prime example of an old-fashioned liberal was his beloved father, a lawyer and an essayist, a leading activist of the pre-revolutionary and later émigré Russian Cadet party (Constitutional Democrats), Member of the State Duma, and after the February Revolution a minister in the interim government. In an interview with Playboy Vladimir Vladimirovich said: “Since my youth… my political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture, no executions.” So no dictatorship, no tyranny. Clearly the writer was a strong supporter of Western democracy, which his father wanted to introduce in Russia.

The most valuable element of Pitzer’s work is pointing to the many still unnoticed allusions to specific events and political and historical phenomena in specific works by Nabokov. Her hypotheses are not always convincing, but some findings seem to be indisputably correct. Pitzer reconstructs the fate of Hermann, the narrator and also the hero of Despair, and then she says: “Knowing that civilians were interned in starvation conditions for years by the Tsar and then liberated by the Bolsheviks amid mass murder lends a different frame to Hermann’s faith in Communism and his willingness to kill. Nabokov’s first truly loathsome narrator, a murderer without even the recklessness of passion, on examination turns out to have spent nearly five years in a concentration camp. He is undeniably a villain, but to condemn him without acknowledging the epic real-world events that he lived through is to miss half the story.” I think not. Although the war experience of Hermann enriches him as a character, it certainly does not change the moral assessment of him; in Nabokov’s writings the responsibility of an individual cannot be erased by any circumstances. For his transgressions the writer condemns Hermann to nothing less than eternal damnation. Comparing him in the “Foreword” to the English version of Despair (1966) with Humbert Humbert from Lolita, he says: “Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.”

More important is an interpretation of the past of two figures from the excellent short story “Signs and Symbols.” Indeed, the plot contains some hints at another, hidden plot, which can be reconstructed at least in general terms (a literary ploy also used by Nabokov elsewhere). The topic of the Jewish fate is clearly signaled in the short story. Nowhere is it mentioned explicitly that the protagonists are Jews, but it is unmistakably suggested, most apparently when the heroine sees a photo of her relation: “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.” As Pitzer does not mention it, we should add that the family name of the protagonists—although we can figure that out only on the basis of some allusions— is Soloveichik, which according to dictionaries of surnames points to Ashkenazi Jews.

The protagonists are double immigrants, as they first emigrated from Belarus to Germany, and then from Germany to the United States, which allows us to guess that they had bad experiences with both the bloodiest totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. The fate of the protagonists is a streak of sorrows and pains. And now they fear that their mentally ill son will commit suicide. His condition had been defined by a man named Herman Brink, a psychiatrist, as “referential mania.” As we read, “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence… Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies… He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things.” In support of Pitzer’s claims it can also be added that Brink can be a Jewish (Ashkenazi) surname, but essentially it is a German name. The first name Herman (Hermann)—already the narrator and protagonist of Despair was called that—is composed of Old-High-German elements heri (“troops”, “the military”) and man (“a male”, “a man”, “a human”). So this name means “warrior”, “soldier”, and this meaning, as well as the sound association with Germania (the Russian form of Herman is Gierman, and the characters use Russian in private), may be not insignificant from the point of view of twentieth-century Jewish fate.

The son of the protagonists—as Pitzer writes, reconstructing the hidden plot—“was a child when his family escaped Germany, where he had learned to fear even the wallpaper (perhaps not without reason). Soon after, his terrors grew and closed him off from humanity entirely.” This seems very likely, but it is not the most important element of the story still. In the finale of the story there are three late-night phone calls. The first two alarm the characters, but it turns out that the callers dialed a wrong number, and the reader never learns what the third was about, because the story ends. The reader is willing to consider the third call (the magic number three appears here) as the announcement of the news that the mentally ill young man died, because the whole story is filled with bad omens, signs of sadness, grief, misery and death. Of course, if we decide that the third call must be the news of the suicide of the protagonists’ son—as noted by Brian Boyd—we accept “what from within the story’s world has to be defined as madness” (Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years), seeing a message about his destiny in everything that surrounds the boy. Our attitude is dictated by our reception of, among other things, literature, it is in literature that events are arranged in patterns. But, in the opinion of Nabokov, not only in literature. As one of the tasks of an author of an autobiography he regarded finding patterns in your life and in his autobiographies he did find such patterns. The presence of intricate, artistic designs in the real world is the hidden evidence of its maker’s intention. So if the eponymous signs and symbols actually are signs and symbols, the reality depicted in the story has a transcendent dimension. We can say with certainty that it indeed has such a dimension, because it is after all created by the author, who is its god. And the signs and symbols in our (the author’s and the readers’) reality would actually serve as a premise allowing us to guess that it also possesses a transcendent dimension. So a tragic ending of the short story would in fact be an optimistic ending, as you would be allowed to see in it a guarantee—albeit uncertain and ambiguous—of the existence of other worlds and immortality.

Pitzer’s comments on the novel Pale Fire are extremely interesting. What she writes about the first king of Zembla is devoid of political references. Trapped by Arctic winter in the New Land (the Russian geographical name of the territory is Novaya Zemla, traditionally it is listed on the Anglo-Saxon maps as Nova Zembla), members of the expedition of the Dutch sailor William Barents consoled themselves with going back to their native customs from the New Year period. Pitzer writes:“Soit happened that onJanuary5, 1597, for the hours up until the stroke of midnight—a span remembered for four hundred years even as his name was lost to history—the gunner on William Barents’ third expedition drew the winning lot and reigned as the first king of Nova Zembla, an imaginary monarch in a land of ice and death, and ruler over hope and despair, and the king of nothing.” Since the name of this king is unknown, the numeral “two” next to the name of the protagonist might refer to the first ruler of the land, although Charles II was to be the title of the ruler of Zembla, not Nova Zembla (other researchers have already written on his associations with authentic European Charleses IIs.).

Amazingly, the critics have forgotten about the fact that when Pale Fire was being written, Nova Zembla was present in the headlines, as the Soviet Union was conducting its nuclear tests there. Pitzer recalls these tests and concludes that “it is hardly surprising to find Nabokov seeding nuclear signs and symbols through the pages of his novel.”

She also interestingly reminds us that in the perceptions of prisoners of the Gulag Nova Zembla was the seat of the harshest concentration camp, from which virtually no one could escape. But the hypothesis that the imaginary Zembla denizen Charles II Beloved aka Charles Kinbote, and in fact, a Russian Vseslav Botkin, is an escapee from this camp, seems difficult to prove. More convincing is the reconstruction of the history of this character made by Brian Boyd in his book Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery.

Pitzer also writes about the most famous work by Nabokov, asking at the beginning of her work: “What if Lolita is the story of global anti-Semitism as much as it is Humbert Humbert’s molestation of a twelve-year-old girl?”Well, it is not, although it is true that anti-Semitism is an important theme in this novel, which, as Pitzer loyally acknowledges, was already established by Alfred Appel, Jr. in his commentary on the novel. Also other comments about Lolita are not always convincing. Pitzer believes that Humbert Humbert is lying about his participation in a secret Arctic expedition, and that in fact he was deported to northern Canada and placed in a camp for foreign suspects, using the infrastructure of a camp from World War I, where they already had sent uncertain people. Such camps did exist, and Humbert is an unreliable narrator, but it is completely unclear what reason he would have to lie about that period of his life.

Many of the claims in Pitzer’s book go way too far, but her work is an obligatory reading for all experts, researchers and enthusiasts of the Russian-American writer.

Leszek Engelking

Translator of Russian, American and Czech literature, a prominent expert on the works of Vladimir Nabokov.

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