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“An artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind”: Vladimir Nabokov’s Literary Criticism as a Performance of Reading Practices

Introduction

All too often, readers approach a writer’s forays into literary criticism as a source of insight about that individual’s tastes, aesthetic predispositions, and theoretical assumptions about literature. This type of mindset frequently manifests itself in relation to Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction and his scholarly writings on the noted Russian short story writer Nikolai Gogol. And this variety of scholarship certainly remains vital and necessary. Yet one may also approach Nabokov’s scholarly writings as a meditation on the function of the reader. More specifically, Nabokov’s monograph on Gogol, simply entitled Nikolai Gogol, affords insight not so much on the writer’s aesthetic predilections, but rather, it offers a performance of an optimal reading of a literary text, the mindset of the ideal reader, and their assumptions about the function of literature.

Nabokov deals at great length with the proposed function of the ideal reader in such works as “Good Readers and Good Writers”; Speak, Memory; and Pale Fire. These discussions of reading practices, and how they relate to literature, frequently lack grounding in a specific text, and are rarely situated within a particular literary tradition. Indeed, the aphorisms found within Speak, Memory, the generalizations set forth in “Good Readers and Good Writers,” and the humorous parody of Pale Fire tell us a great deal about undesirable reading practices, yet provide little information about what good reading looks like in relation to a particular writer’s work. With that said, I believe that Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol exists within this extended meditation on the function of the reader, and affords insight about Nabokov’s ideal reader that remains absent from these other literary texts.

Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol offers a performance of optimal reading practices, as described in “Good Readers and Good Writers”; Speak, Memory; and Pale Fire, yet grounded in a specific writer’s work. The fact that Nabokov grounds his performance of reading practices in a particular set of texts suggests that his monograph offers a valuable counterpoint to his other writings on the function of the reader. With that in mind, I believe that Nabokov’s monograph reveals the text as a collaboration between artist and audience, in which the reader plays a crucial role in actualizing the meaning of the work. After all, Nabokov’s performance of reading underscores the role of the imagination in the reading of literary texts, suggesting that it is the reader who ultimately completes the creative task begun by the writer himself.

Nabokov’s Case Study: Why Gogol?

While Nabokov clearly needed a specific writer’s work in order to perform his notion of acceptable reading practices, one might ask why he chose Gogol in particular. Nabokov certainly saw an affinity between his own aesthetic preoccupations and those of Gogol. Indeed, reviewers of the time period noted both writers’ obsession with “the grotesque,” suggesting that Nabokov’s treatment of Gogol’s fiction bordered on “appreciation,” rather than literary criticism.[1] But perhaps more importantly, both writers eschew the literal treatments of reality, focusing instead on more subjective modes of description, as realistic treatments of the world around us often foreclose the possibility of transformative aesthetic experience. In many ways, Gogol’s work may be read as a precursor to Nabokov’s fiction. The fact that Nabokov and Gogol exhibit similar beliefs about the function of the writer suggests that Gogol’s work would prove conducive to the type of reading experience that Nabokov strived for in his own work.

These similarities with respect to the two writers’ views on the role of the author in a fictional text remain especially apparent when considering their use of distraction as a rhetorical trope in Lolita and “The Nose.” Both writers perform this kind of rhetorical trick as a way to deliver insights, aesthetic judgments, and various dictums about the function of literature. In the two authors’ work, the writer emerges as what Nabokov describes as a “combination” of “storyteller,” “teacher,” and “enchanter.”[2] This notion of enchantment is embodied in the authors’ use of distraction as they deliver lessons, dictums, and judgments to the reader. Throughout Gogol’s story, for instance, the reader is distracted from the more serious aspects of the narrative by the absurd, whether it’s an oversized nose or the intricacies of bureaucracy. For Gogol, then, the fact that the most meaningful action occurs at the margins of the story proves a source of both pathos and irony. Nabokov seems to appropriate this rhetorical device in Lolita, repurposing it in surprising ways. Indeed, Nabokov’s reader is distracted not by the absurd, but rather, by the rhetoric of emotion, which often wields a transformative influence on the world around us. It is often this display of sentiment that distracts the reader from crucial insights into the plot of the novel. By forcing factuality and truth into a less prominent rhetorical space, distracting the reader in much the same way as Gogol’s oversize nose or his intricate bureaucratic structures, Nabokov ultimately questions the extent to which literal treatments of reality deserve to occupy a place of privilege in literary fiction. What’s more, this use of distraction as a rhetorical tool ultimately underscores the importance of transformative aesthetic experience in establishing the relationship between artist and audience. These sublime distractions ultimately serve as a vehicle for the writer to deliver his beliefs on the ideal function of a literary text in a more palatable way than he otherwise would be able to.

Throughout this short story, for example, Gogol invokes Ivan Yakovlevich’s detached nose as a distraction from broader economic and social concerns. He writes, “Ivan Yakovlevich fell silent. The idea that the police might find the nose in his possession and bring a charge against him drove him into a complete frenzy. He was already visualizing the scarlet collar, beautifully embroidered with silver, the saber…”[3] Here Gogol invokes the complex hierarchy that characterized Russian society through material details of the characters’ clothing: a “scarlet collar,” silver embroidery, a saber. Indeed, the possibility of physical danger surrounding these seemingly stately and beautiful markers of social hierarchy remains disconcerting, even chilling. Yet Gogol deflects attention from this facet of the narrative, focusing instead on the character’s ridiculous dilemma surrounding the detached nose. The fact that such diversions, and stifled treatments of social and economic concerns, may have been the result of censorship (as discussed in the previous class period) proves to be a source of profound pathos on the part of the reader. For Gogol, what’s in the foreground of the narrative, and what remains in the background, becomes a vehicle for commentary on Russian society, a way of gesturing toward the discourses that his contemporaries value and those that they fail to prioritize.

Similarly, Nabokov’s Lolita places certain elements of the narrative in the foreground, and others in the background, ultimately using this trope to comment on what’s valued in contemporary fiction. This rhetorical move becomes a pedagogical device as the novel unfolds. The writer acts as “teacher,” yet renders this role more palatable through his efforts to “enchant” his audience. Indeed, Nabokov’s purposeful efforts to distract the reader present us with a normative idea of what should be valued in artistic pursuits. This quality in Nabokov’s writing seems most apparent in his discussion of Annabel, narrator Humbert Humbert’s first love. Nabokov elaborates, “Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.”[4] The fact that passages like this one are littered with references to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee” suggests that Humbert fabricates this story in its entirety. Yet Nabokov distracts the reader from noticing these allusions, which hint at deception. Instead, he foregrounds Humbert’s emotional state, which is romanticized such that these allusions to Poe hardly seem out of place. Nabokov’s decision to foreground certain elements of the narrative, while allowing others to recede into the background, often reflects his own value judgments about the various modes in which we engage with the world. Emotion, aesthetic experience, and transformation are more important for him than the literal dimensions of the events being described. Indeed, Nabokov distracts us from noticing that the facts don’t necessarily add up, prioritizing instead the aesthetic experience that arises from fictive assertions about an event.

With that in mind, facts, truth, and one’s own surroundings serve only as a starting point for transformative aesthetic experiences, which retain the most privileged position in Nabokov’s narrative. When considering the impact of these decisions on the relationship between artist and audience, it becomes clear that both Nabokov and Gogol envision similar roles for the writer. Although the reader helps to actualize the work through imagination, it is the writer who guides them, ultimately delivering insights, judgments, and artistic dictums through transformative aesthetic experience. The ideal reader is obedient, a good sport who plays along with the writer’s games, or, as Nabokov terms it, “enchantment.” With that in mind, both Nabokov and Gogol envision a comparable role for the writer, offering an ideal starting point for Nabokov to model ideal reading practices for the public at large.

Nabokov as Arbiter of Reading Practices: What Reading is Not

As mentioned earlier in this essay, Nabokov’s other writings that deal with this subject, such as Pale Fire; Speak, Memory; and “Good Readers and Good Writers,” offer a great deal of information on what undesirable reading practices look like. The good reader does not moralize or seek to dominate the literary text by assigning it a definitive “meaning,” nor does he or she “identify” with the protagonist, seeking parallels between the work and lived experience. Yet these dictums about reading leave many questions unanswered about what good reading practices look like when applied to a particular literary text.

Nabokov argues, for example, that the ideal reading of a literary text would represent “an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind.”[5] In many ways, this dictum suggests that a well-crafted literary text will offer a space for the reader to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. This seems to suggest that the reader may take interpretive liberties with the work. Yet some imaginative leaps seem more acceptable than others. For example, Nabokov precludes the possibility of the reader projecting their own lived experiences onto the text itself. He states that “the worst thing a reader can do” is to “identify himself with a character in the book.”[6] With that in mind, “Good Readers and Good Writers” raises numerous questions about the nature of readerly imagination that Nabokov desires in relation to his work: How is it possible to participate in the process of creating meaning from a literary work without drawing from one’s lived experience? Can meaning exist apart from one’s experience of the world around us? If one were to derive meaning from a text without drawing from lived experience, would such insight be relevant at all to one’s life outside of the literary work? While Nabokov articulates many of the characteristics of bad reading practices, the specific nature of good reading practices, and the interpretive liberties that he would deem acceptable, seem unclear when imagined in relation to a specific literary text.

Along these lines, Nabokov frequently depicts the reader as inhabiting a fairly active role in relation to the creation of meaning. He writes that “we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, and the manners of an author’s people.”[7] Statements like this seem to imply that the reader may take some interpretive liberties, filling in details that the author may have missed. And this implies that the reader retains a fairly egalitarian relationship to the writer, as he or she particulates in the process of actualizing the world being described. Yet many of Nabokov’s discussions of reading imply a more passive reader. By describing the author as “enchanting” his or her audience, Nabokov ultimately problematizes these descriptions of the reader as active.[8] Indeed, the reader becomes almost passive, as he or she is expected to passively receive meaning as given by the author.

Approached with these ideas in mind, Nabokov’s discussions of reading ultimately raise questions about the nature of readerly imagination, the liberties that the reader is authorized to take with a given work, and the relationship between artist and audience. With that said, I believe that Nabokov’s monograph on Gogol offers us a performance of acceptable liberties, musings, and digressions that a reader may plausibly take when dealing with a specific literary text. Scholar Christine Clegg notes that Nabokov refers to his ideal readers as “a lot of little Nabokovs,” suggesting some affinity between Nabokov’s own reading practices and the ways in which he envisioned his literary fiction being read.[9] With that in mind, Nabokov ultimately models this notion of readerly imagination for the public at large, ultimately answering many of these lingering questions about how he envisioned his own writing being appreciated by an audience.

 
Nabokov’s Monograph as Performance: The Reader as Writer

Throughout Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol, one sees several distinct reading practices, particularly with regard to the readerly imagination and its role in fiction, being lauded. First, the ideal reader is indeed an active participant in the creation of meaning from a given literary work, yet the significance that the reader finds within a piece of writing must fit the interpretive constraints set forth by the writer. For this reason, the meaning one derives from a literary text may be personal only insofar as it fits within the specifics of the text. Along these lines, Nabokov posits the ideal reader as being obedient to the hermeneutic constraints put into place by the writer, ultimately cautioning us against appropriation of the text for one’s own purposes. Indeed, Nabokov presents the limitations on meaning, interpretation, etc. set forth by the writer as being not only productive, but a catalyst for the readerly imagination.

This idea of the writer as someone setting forth productive constraints for the readerly imagination seems especially apparent in Nabokov’s reading of Gogol’s “The Nose.” Throughout his monograph, Nabokov references this story, allowing it to serve as an illustration of the many ways in which the reader may participate in the creation of meaning without infringing on the rules established by the author. Nabokov writes of Gogol’s “The Nose,” “The display of nasal allusions in a famous scene in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is nothing in comparison to the hundreds of Russian proverbs and sayings that revolve around the nose. We hang it in dejection, we lift it up in glory; slack memory is advised to make a notch in it and it is wiped for you by your victor.”[10] Here a recurring image in Gogol’s fiction becomes a point of entry both past literature and Russian culture. Indeed, Nabokov suggests that the function of the fictional text is to spark the reader’s imagination, and to initiate a seemingly endless succession of associations between the text and other phenomena. This associative logic, these forays into the world that the author hints at, represent, for Nabokov, the very essence of readerly imagination.

With that said, Gogol takes great care to distinguish readerly imagination from a readerly appropriation of the text. The world that the author creates remains, in many ways, author-centered. Nabokov’s ideal reader seeks not to render the text compatible with their life experiences, but rather, to better comprehend the intentions, and the aesthetic temperament, of the author of the text. This line of reasoning seems especially prominent in Nabokov’s presentation of Gogol’s story, “Our Mr. Chichikov.” He writes in his chapter, “Our Mr. Chichikov,” that the reader should note “this constant fooling with figures-not five hundred and not a hundred but eight hundred, for numbers themselves tend toward an individuality of sorts in Gogol’s creative atmosphere…miserable little towns built anyhow with shabby shops knocked together by means of a few boards…”[11] In passages like this one, Nabokov treats the text as a point of entry to the writer’s imagination. It is the reader’s job to recreate the fictional world that the writer imagined in creating the text with the utmost verisimilitude. For Nabokov, the fictional text is merely evidence of the writer’s imaginative process, and the reader should ultimately strive to reconstruct this moment of aesthetic vision.

For Nabokov, there is much to be gained by adhering to the writer’s rules. He writes in “Good Readers and Good Writers” that “Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously deceptive illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.”[12] In many ways, Nabokov hints that the fictional text serves as a point of entry to an imagined world. The reader ultimately serves as a kind of archeologist, whose task is to resurrect this fictive world from the fragments with which he or she is presented. Approached with these ideas in mind, Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol represents a record of a single reader’s efforts to reconstitute a past writer’s aesthetic vision. Indeed, the moments of beauty within Nabokov’s critical study seem to be intended as evidence of the benefits of playing by the author’s rules, and operating within the imaginative constraints set forth within the text itself. This impulse seems particularly visible within Nabokov’s discussion of Gogol’s development of his characters through details. He writes,

The various attributes of the characters help to expand them in a kind of spherical way to the utmost regions of the book. Chichikov’s aura is continued and symbolized by his snuffbox and his traveling case, by that ‘silver and enamel snuffbox’ which he offered generously to everybody and on the bottom of which people could notice a couple of violets delicately placed there for the sake of their additional perfume. [13]

Here Nabokov presents the details described by Gogol as a point of entry to an imagined world. Indeed, the smallest detail presented by the writer serves a catalyst for the readerly imagination. By following the prompts offered by the writer, Nabokov’s ideal reader ultimately gains access to a fictive world that he or she could not have otherwise had access to. Indeed, the writer has left fragments of their aesthetic vision, and depends upon the reader to actualize the world that they had envisioned. In much the same way, the reader relies on the writer for details, fragments, and shards of their imaginative process, which offer a point of entry to an experience that the reader could not have constructed if left to their own devices.

With that in mind, Nabokov’s monograph answers many of the questions left unaddressed within his other writings on the function of the reader. Nabokov ultimately defines the precise nature of readerly imagination, a notion that seemed rather vague within “Good Readers and Good Writers,” as well as other pieces that address this subject. By using Gogol as a kind of case study, Nabokov ultimately illustrates exactly what readerly imagination looks like in relation to a particular writer’s body of work, delineating both its limitations and its myriad proposed benefits for art appreciation.


Nabokov’s
Nikolai Gogol: A Cautionary Tale

With that said, Nabokov subtly cautions us against several common reading practices, which he reveals as counterproductive to the realization of the fiction writer’s aesthetic vision. He illustrates what readerly imagination looks like, the shape that it can take without lapsing into readerly appropriation of a given text. Nabokov has suggested in other texts the fine line between imagination and appropriation, and here he delineates these boundaries more specifically than in other texts.

One of the most contentious aspects of readerly imagination, for Nabokov, was the precise role of the reader’s lived experience in relation to a fictional text. After reading Nabokov’s writings on the function of the reader, several questions seem to linger: How might a reader find relevance in fictional text without relying on lived experience? How can a writer draw on life experience without obscuring the author’s aesthetic vision? In his monograph, Nabokov suggests that the reader’s life may, in some instances, be brought to bear on a given text without constituting appropriation. Consider Nabokov’s treatment of Gogol’s Russian heritage. He suggests that it is appropriate for him to draw on his own experience of Russian language and culture, since these things were germane to Gogol’s overall aesthetic. He writes in Nikolai Gogol,

The Russian language is able to express by means of one pitiless word the idea of a certain widespread defect for which the other three European languages I happen to know possess no special term…Various aspects of the idea which Russians concisely express by the term poshlust…are split among several English words and thus do not form a definite whole.[14]

Nabokov implies that his experience with the Russian language has helped him to reconstruct Gogol’s imagined world. Yet his presentation of lived experience, and its relationship to the fictional text, remains fundamentally author-centered. The life experiences that Nabokov relates to Gogol’s fiction seem to have parallels in Gogol’s own biography. Indeed, Nabokov’s experience serves only as a means to imagine the phenomena that inspired Gogol.

One might argue that Nabokov’s linguistic analysis of poshlust, which incorporates knowledge of European languages other than Russian, expands on Gogol’s original experience, as this is knowledge that he may not have had access to. Indeed, Mikhail S. Blinnikov describes Gogol as being influenced by various Russian dialects, which ranged from “Church Slavonic” to more colloquial speech.[15] It seems as though Nabokov superimposes experiences on the fictional text that were not germane to the author’s process. When read carefully, however, such passages introduce a crucial distinction between readerly appropriation of a fictional text and a creative expansion on the fictional text, an exploration of its potential. For Nabokov, this linguistic infrastructure remained part of Gogol’s world, whether he experienced it consciously or not. Therefore, Nabokov implies that relating such experience to a fictional text remains appropriate, as this experience was shared by the author himself (whether consciously or not). For Nabokov, it is the introduction of aesthetic experiences that are foreign to the author’s process, and his aesthetic vision, of which readers should remain wary. This distinction between readerly expansion on a given text, and readerly appropriation of that same work, is clearly demarcated in Nabokov’s discussion of poshlust. In many ways, poshlust serves as an illustration of the boundaries between reader and writer, a delineation of the limits of readerly freedom and creativity.

With that said, one observes Nabokov using specific textual examples to draw other distinctions between desirable and undesirable reading practices. Consider his discussion of Russian politics in relation to Gogol’s work. Nabokov famously states in his lectures on Russian Literature that purely political or ideological readings of texts are most often reductive. For Nabokov, the function of literature remains far more complex than this. Indeed, he writes of art during the Russian Revolution, “Sincerely and boldly they advocated freedom and equality but they contradicted their own creed by wishing to subjugate art to current politics.”[16] For Nabokov, these purely politics readings of text overlook arts many other functions. Art retains a pedagogical function, certainly, but also serves a source of contemplation and transformative aesthetic experience.

Approached with these ideas in mind, it seems puzzling that Nabokov often does read Gogol’s work as having a political function, or, perhaps more accurately, being in dialogue with political debates of the author’s day. For example, Nabokov writes in Nikolai Gogol, “The main lyrical note of Dead Souls bursts into existence when the idea of Russia as Gogol saw Russia (a peculiar landscape, a special atmosphere, a symbol, a long, long road) looms in all its strange loveliness through the tremendous dream of the book.”[17] Here one might wonder, given Nabokov’s views on literature and politics, why he invokes this idea of a nation’s character in relation to Gogol’s work. For Nabokov, Gogol’s assessment of the national character of Russia is not ideological. Rather, Nabokov portrays Gogol’s experience of Russia as being highly aestheticized. In this respect, the political is merely one facet of Gogol’s experience of Russia, its essence, and its character. Nabokov portrays this as being, for Gogol, a visual, tactile and more often sensory, experience. Russia is embodied, for Gogol, in its smallest and most idiosyncratic details: “a long road,” “a peculiar landscape.” For Nabokov, this vision of Russia escapes ideology because it remains grounded in tangible details, with an offer to a point of entry to more philosophical insights about the nation and its culture. In this sense, Nabokov cautions us against politicizing artworks when this turns into abstraction and vague generalizations. Here he delineates concrete details as the ideal catalyst for the readerly imagination, as they serve as a point of entry to more philosophical insights about the world around us.

These examples reveal the usefulness of a specific literary case study for answering many questions about Nabokov’s ideal reader for his own fiction. Indeed, one watches as Gogol’s fiction becomes a point of entry to discussing specific limitations that Nabokov wishes to place on the notion of readerly imagination that he discusses in such works as “Good Readers and Good Writers”; Pale Fire; and Speak Memory. Gogol’s fiction becomes a means to illustrate just how much freedom the reader can assume in relation to a literary text without lapsing into a readerly appropriation of that text. Indeed, Nabokov walks the reader to the periphery of acceptable readerly practice, showing us the point at which creative participation in a given work would blur into appropriation of that literary text.

Conclusion

In short, Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol affords novel insight about Nabokov’s ideal reader, particularly the ways in which he envisioned the reader engaging with his own literary texts. Although Nabokov deals with this topic in other works, the fact that his discussion of reading is grounded in a specific writer’s work helps us to understand the importance of readerly imagination and participation in the work, as well as the limits Nabokov envisioned for this kind of interpretive freedom.

With that said, Gogol’s fiction certainly provides an ideal case study as Nabokov illustrates and performs optimal reading practices. Both Gogol and Nabokov envisioned the writer as both teacher and enchanter, one who delivers insights and judgments through transformative aesthetic experiences. In many ways, one might argue that Nabokov and Gogol envisioned a similar reading experience with respect to their fiction.

From this example, Nabokov is able to clarify and articulate the limitations of readerly imagination, delineating clear boundaries for the reader’s participation in a literary text. While Nabokov clearly envisioned the reader as collaborating with the author, and participating actively in creating meaning from the text, Nabokov reveals this participation in the work as being fundamentally author-centered. Indeed, Nabokov posits, through his use of Gogol’s fiction, a model of reading in which one attempts to reproduce the writerly imagination, ultimately cautioning us against readerly appropriation of a literary text for one’s own aesthetic purposes.

 

 

 

[1] Norman Page, Vladimir Nabokov: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1997), 10.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” The University of Texas at Austin Department of English. < http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/goodre.html>

[3] Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat.” The Overcoat and Other Short Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 59.

[4] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York: Vintage, 1997), 9.

[5] Vladimir Nabokov. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” The University of Texas at Austin Department of English. < http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/goodre.html>

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Christine Clegg, Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 100.

[10] Vladimir Nabokov. Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1971), 4.

[11] Ibid, 108.

[12] Vladimir Nabokov. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” The University of Texas at Austin Department of English. < http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/goodre.html>

[13] Vladimir Nabokov. Nikolai Gogol (New York: Vintage, 1971), 89.

[14] Ibid, 63.

[15] Mikhail S. Blinnikov. A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors (New York: Guilford Press, 2010), 206.

[16] Vladimir Nabokov. Lectures on Russian Literature (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 5.

[17] Vladimir Nabokov. Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1971), 107.