Late Night Thoughts on Chasing Nabokov
After an aborted attempt at reading a listless novel, I picked up something which was sure to make my spine tingle: Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. I first read it several years ago but this time I got stuck in the delightfully mystifying foreword which he wrote in 1959, a quarter century after the novel’s publication, for its English translation. I decided to spend the night chasing some threads which, for unknowable reasons, intrigued me.
(Caveat lector: I am not a scholar and my Russian is best described as taciturn. But I do have the internet and, in this case, I would rather be armed with Google than Gogol.)
The major quandary is the question of Kafka’s influence on Nabokov’s novel, though I don’t ask this for pure sport (more on that later). From the time of its serialization in 1935 in the Russian émigré magazine Sovremennïya Zapiski, it has been compared to Kafka’s works. Nabokov seems to have been annoyed enough by this to protest the Kafka connection:
…reviewers, who were puzzled but liked it, thought they distinguished in it a “Kafkaesque” strain, not knowing that I had no German, was completely ignorant of modern German literature, and had not yet read any French or English translations of Kafka’s works. No doubt, there do exist certain stylistic links between this book and, say, my earlier stories (or my later Bend Sinister); but there are none between it and Le chateau or The Trial.
Okay. I was prepared to take him at his word in my previous reading. Many critics seem to be willing to do so as well, despite the obvious connections between precisely the two novels he names, both thematically and nominally (Kafka’s protagonists go by Josef K. and K. while Nabokov’s goes by the more farcical Cincinnatus C.). He continues:
Incidentally, I could never understand why every book of mine invariably sends reviewers scurrying in search of more or less celebrated names for the purpose of passionate comparison. During the last three decades they have hurled at me (to list but a few of these harmless missiles) Gogol, Tolstoevski, Joyce, Voltaire, Sade, Stendhal, Balzac, Byron, Bierbohm, Proust, Kleist, Makar Mariniski, Mary McCarthy, Meredith (!), Cervantes, Charlie Chaplin, Baroness Murasaki, Pushkin, Ruskin, and even Sebastian Knight. One author, however, has never been mentioned in this connection—the only author whom I must gratefully recognize as an influence upon me at the time of writing this book; namely, the melancholy, extravagant, wise, witty, magical, and altogether delightful Pierre Delalande, whom I invented.
Now I’m intrigued. This is a tantalizing list containing some names to which he was probably compared and some to which he almost certainly was not. There are also some flights of fantasy, though Nabokov only admits to Pierre Delalande: there is also Sebastian Knight, from his first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; Tolstoevski, the amusing amalgam of Tolstoy and Dostoyevski; and the enigmatic Makar Mariniski, who has managed to evade my Googling.
This is partly Nabokov just being funny, but something he says on the next page caught my eye:
My favorite author (1768-1849) once said of a novel now utterly forgotten “Il a tout pour tous. Il fait rire l’enfant et frissonner la femme. Il donne à l’homme du monde un vertige salutaire et fait rêver ceux qui ne rêvent jamais.”
Anyone familiar with Nabokov should be immediately suspicious on two counts: first, the concept of a “favorite” author is too philistine for him; second, he who wrote that one must “fondle the details” is being transparently vague here regarding his favorite author on a forgotten novel. My BS senses tingling, I took to Google to find viable candidates for those dates.
The first was Maria Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish writer of adults’ and children’s literature. A brief survey of her Wikipedia page disqualified her. The other was Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison. Again, this didn’t seem right. These people sound too boring for Nabokov to even feign interest in them. I tried another approach: instead of matching dates, I went to search authors for whom Nabokov has expressed admiration. The more obscure, the better, for if Nabokov were to state a “favorite author,” it would be one worthy of his erudition.
At last, I found him: Franćois-René de Chateaubriand. He lived from 1768-1848, so the dates don’t quite match up, but it’s just year off of his death. In the pre-Google days, that’s what I call a match. I knew of Chateaubriand—and of Nabokov’s regard for him—before this expedition, so I was fully expecting to locate the quote when I purchased his complete works on Kindle. I felt the peculiar thrill of getting the better of a late night rabbit hole.
Alas, it was not to be. The quote was nowhere to be found.
I now think that Nabokov probably made up that quote. In fact, it was probably written by Pierre Delalande, author of Discours sur les ombres, whom he invented. Delalande also wrote the novel’s epigraph: “Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels.” (As a madman believes himself to be God, we believe ourselves to be mortal.)
Back to Kafka. There are conflicting reports on Nabokov’s knowledge of German: he lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1937, but seems to have disliked it, staying largely within the Russian émigré community. But he taught lessons in tennis, boxing, French, English, and Russian. He also translated poems by Heine and Goethe into Russian. Despite (perhaps) never having mastered German, he claims to have read “Goethe and Kafka en regard.”
Whether he is misremembering—or fabricating—his readership of Kafka in the early 1930s is not the point here. I am more concerned with why he feels such a strong need to distance himself from all influences except that of an author invented by himself. There is a tyranny of influence in the world of literary criticism, and it is terribly banal. One can expect to publish a review in a respected literary magazine simply by stating that x reminds one of y. One doesn’t need to supply any substantive criticism of the work as a product of an individual imagination if one can make claims as to the artist’s influences. I think that this kind of weak criticism is what Nabokov was railing against; I don’t think that his claim of being totally uninfluenced by Kafka (or Joyce, in a later interview) is to be taken at face value.
While researching Nabokov’s mystifications, I am reminded of my comrade-in-arms, the arch-mystifier, Werner Herzog. He is (in)famous for fabricating some things in his documentaries—and for including many facts in his fictions, though that is not as often remarked upon—in his search for the ecstatic truth over the accountant’s fact. One of my favorites is the epigraph to his film Lessons of Darkness, from Blaise Pascal: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.” The quote is totally fabricated by Herzog. But it may as well have been written by Pascal.