Today, we’re starting a week long focus on Cornell Open.
Cornell Open is the global open access portal for classic titles from the distinguished catalog of Cornell University Press. Funded by the newly created Humanities Open Book Program, a collaborative effort between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Cornell Open offers for the first time open access to key titles in literary criticism and theory, German studies, and Slavic studies.
As part of this focus, we’ll be offering short excerpts from a selection of the Cornell Open books, as well as some other bits and pieces to give you a little more insight into Cornell Open and open access books.
First up, Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures, by Leona Toker
Another thing we are not supposed to do is to explain the inexplicable.
Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things
Vladimir Nabokov belongs among those writers who are continually exposed to distrust during their lives, whose first steps encounter inauspicious predictions, who must struggle against the prejudices of the audience yet have admirers as ardent as the general public is unjust. When such writers die, there often follows a reversal: their works almost instantly become part of the classical canon.
The recognition of V. Sirin (Nabokov’s prewar pseudonym) by the Russian emigre readers of the twenties and thirties was slow and frequently reluctant. In the forties, having moved to the United States and adopted English as the language of his prose (and partly of his poetry), he found himself in relative obscurity once again. With the publication of Lolita in 1955, Nabokov became one of the rich and famous and then had to spend a considerable amount of energy fighting such side effects of glory as irresponsible misrepresentations of both his art and his life. The sexual thematics of Lolita, combined with its best-seller/cover-story popularity, placed him in a sort of literary demimonde, among the beautiful and damned. To this day some readers are surprised to learn about the serenely old-fashioned happiness of his monogamous private life.
The need to vindicate Nabokov, however, no longer exists. The quantity of literature about him published in recent years testifies to the growing recognition of his stature. An increasing number of scholars believe that he is our century’s foremost writer of fiction, that his works demand and reward multiple readings, and that his art is an aesthetic puzzle requiring a great deal of solving. His novels, with their countless discoveries on the way toward constantly receding bottom lines, with their moments of mirth and those other moments–of what can only be called “aesthetic bliss” (L, 3 1 6)-give one the feeling of basking in an intelligence vastly superior to one’s own. Yet the appeal of these novels is not purely cerebral: they also contain a deeply touching human reality-not a demonstrative human interest but a “personal truth” (ND, 1 4) protected from wear and tear by layers of exquisite wrapping made up oflexical and acoustic games (“contextual shades of color” and “nuances of noise”: LA TH, 1 1 8), complex allusions, triplefold reticences and circumlocutions, defamiliarizing reversals, and subtly subversive wit.
Because at least part of this wrapping must be lifted before one can approach the real thing, some of the most valuable Nabokov criticism includes a strong element of extended annotation. The work of Donald Barton Johnson, for instance, reveals astonishing subtleties of the texture and structure of Nabokov’s narrative and then cautiously (“handle with care”) relates them to themes; Dabney Stuart shows the connection between the texture and the generic features of the novels; and Brian Boyd demonstrates the links of narrative details to the central features of both the novel in which they appear and of Nabokov’s work in general. Much of the earlier criticism annotated just for the fun of the game; it was often uneasy about this self-indulgence and presented Nabokov as a cold virtuoso aesthetician whose artistic feats would, or would not, allow a grudging forgiveness of what seemed to be his doubtful ethos.
Nabokov remained undaunted. “I believe that one day a reappraiser will come,” he remarked in a 1971 interview, “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” (SO, 193). That day dawned earlier than Nabokov had expected. It was already heralded by the work of Andrew Field4 and Alfred Appel, s whose analysis of Nabokov’s themes and intricate texture proceeded from the assumption that the author’s heart was, so to say, always in the right place; however, their personal ties to Nabokov partly discredited their positions in the eyes of the their (somewhat envious) colleagues. Of greater persuasiveness, therefore, were the articles of, for instance, Robert Alter and Stanley Edgar Hyman, who revealed the seriousness of Nabokov’s moral and political concerns in Invitation to a Beheading and Bemi Sinister; and the books of Donald Morton, Julian Moynahan, and Ellen Pifer, 1 who emphasized the humanistic, ideological contents of Nabokov’s fiction. Pifer’s book, in particular, successfully accomplishes its avowed aim of redressing the injustice that Nabokov’s literary reputation suffered as a result of criticism’s earlier preoccupation with the form of his novels at the expense of their content.
The purpose of this book is not only to reinforce the camp of the readers who believe in the humanistic value of Nabokov’s work but also to reconcile the two camps by demonstrating the close connection between its moral attitudes and virtuoso techniques, the mutual adjustment of the major thematic concerns and the structure of his novels. Nabokov characterized his college lectures on literature as, among other things, “a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures” (LL, epigraph). The word “mystery” here is polysemous. Each great work has a structure of its own, to be investigated by a minute Sherlock-Holmesian attention to detail until its mystery that is, its specific relation to specific dreams, desires, and limitations of human life-begins to emerge. Yet the mystery of a literary structure can be approximated rather than solved. It lies in the quaint appropriateness of the structure to an attitude; the “aesthetic bliss” produced by this harmony retains mysteriousness even after the approaches to it have been mapped. An attempt to unravel the enigmas of Nabokov’s structure ultimately confronts one with a Mystery: “a fictional technique,” if Jean-Paul Sartre is to be believed, “always relates back to the novelist’s metaphysics.”
But what was Nabokov’s metaphysics? “Total rejection of all religions ever dreamt up by man and total composure in the face of total death,” writes a dying fictional writer in Transparent Things. “If I could explain this triple totality in one big book, that book would become no doubt a new bible and its author the founder of a new creed. fortunately for my self-esteem that book will not be written . . . because [it] would never express in one flash what can only be understood immediately” ( TT, 84). The uncertainty of the latter idea is, of course, matched by the uncertainty with which the character’s position can be ascribed to the author. Nabokov’s own voice is more mild and modest: “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more” (SO, 45). Elusive as this statement may be, it leaves no doubt of the tinge of mysticism in Nabokov’s view of the world. His mysticism was a matter of feeling, of relationship with the world, rather than of definable hypostasis: Nabokov “knew” what he could not express the way one “knows” love, or hope, or suffering. Only a few aspects of his world view can be formulated as beliefs.