Vladimir Nabokov’s apprenticeship in Andre Gide’s “Science of Illumination”: From The Counterfeiters to The Gift
Je ne sais pas comment vous diriez cela en russe ou en anglais, mais je vous certifie qu’en francais, c’est tres bien.
Andre Gide, LesFaux-Monnayeurs
I do not know how one would put it in Russian or in English, but I assure you that in French it sounds great.
Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
IN HIS FLIGHT ACROSS the United States, the scholar of French literature Humbert Humbert finds temporary abode in the town of Beardsley, inhabited by Gaston Godin-a French professor and an “old fraud,” who is nevertheless generally admired as a “French genius.” According to Humbert, Gaston is a worthless scholar and pedophile who entertains young boys “in the privacy of an orientally furnished den.” His studio is decorated with images of famous homosexuals, among them Andre Gide and Marcel Proust. The conjunction of Oriental taste and homosexuality is emphasized by a gift that “a little lad” of Gaston’s brings to Humbert-a money box with an Oriental design of the type one finds in Algiers (183-84, 217). This geographic marker singles out Gide’s from among the other portraits in Gaston’s studio-and apparently for good reason: erotic obsession with boys permeates Gide’s story L’Immoraliste (1901), whose protagonist Michel is so enchanted by Algerian boys that he subjects his ailing wife to the unfavorable North African climate; this passion also marks Gide’s novel The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs, 1925), whose hero has an affair with his teenage nephew and buys a guide to Algeria for a still younger nephew.
It is tempting to see this fake French genius as Gide’s shadow in Lolita, especially since Gide placed the problem of false art in the center of The Counterfeiters. But the text of Nabokov’s novel provides no motivation for such an attack. As often happens in Nabokov’s oeuvre, readily available explanatory keys are misleading. Although Humbert questions Gaston’s competence as a literary scholar, his own competence is also faulty, for he fails to see that he is closer to Gide’s Michel than is his friend. Like Michel, he hurries his wife’s demise in order to pursue his interest in an underage sexual object. Furthermore, Gaston’s faulty scholarship is in fact the product of his reliance on Humbert’s textbook of French literature. Thus, it is Humbert who turns out to be an intellectual counterfeiter, and Nabokov leads his reader to this crucial conclusion by using Gide’s literary legacy as a subtext.
The evocation of Gide in Lolita is especially important in light of the striking compositional, narrative, and thematic affinities between Nabokov’s earlier novel The Gift (Dar, 1937) and Gide’s Counterfeiters. Given that Nabokov was commonly charged with “un-Russianness” by Russian emigre critics, it is not surprising that conspicuous evocations of Gide appeared in his work only after he no longer wrote in Russian. Nabokov’s habitual reluctance to admit to foreign teachers may also have been exacerbated in this instance by Nabokov’s homophobia, which has been cited (off the record) as the source of his alleged hostility to Gide. But this latter explanation contradicts Nabokov’s much advertised interest in Proust, who, in addition to being an admirable author, was also a homosexual. Considering his propensity for misleading clues, both Nabokov’s public deference to Proust’s art, which occurs for the most part in his English period, and his silence vis-a-vis Gide should not be taken at face value.
The present essay will show that Nabokov used The Counterfeiters as a springboard in refining his own esthetics of the novel, all the while dissimulating his indebtedness to Gide through the technique he laid bare in The Gift-a technique characterized by “the abundance of insidious tries [ .] and of false trails carefully prepared for the reader” (G172/D[93). Filled with allusions to Proust, The Gift, in fact, follows Gide’s way out of Proustian circularity in order to oppose esthetic notions commonly ascribed to Proust by his French and emigre interpreters.
The Counterfeiters is the story of Edouard, a writer who wishes to write a “pure novel” that describes the process of artistic creation, codifying the rules of the genre in the process (FM990, 1082-84). Edouard calls his novel The Counterfeiters and envisions it as both a project of esthetic conservation and a challenge to the naive realism and narrative limitations of the nineteenth-century novel (FM1201). The adventures of a group of teenagers furnish his novelistic material, and Edouard’s progress and esthetic theories are recorded in a diary and notebooks that are part of Gide’s text. Considering the story of the book as more important than the book itself (FMI083), Edouard does not complete his project. His last diary entry and the last words of Gide’s novel indicate Edouard’s intention to meet a new teenage subject: “Nous devons nous revoir demain soir [ …] Je suis bien curieux de connaitre Caloub” (We are supposed to get together tomorrow night [ …] I look forward to meeting Caloub, FM1248). This equivalent of “to be continued” suggests that Edouard’s story and the story of his novel transcend the physical boundary of Gide’s Counterfeiters, as in fact proved to be the case: in 1927, Gide published TheJournal of The Counterfeiters, a record, like Edouard’s, of his work on the novel and of his artistic agenda.
Nabokov’s The Gift, on the other hand, narrates the artistic maturation of an emigre poet and writer: Fedor Godunov-Cherdyntsev. Fedor’s conception of an ideal novel, “corresponding fully to the gift which he felt like a burden inside himself” (G94/D108), echoes the universalist ethos of Edouard’s project. Fedor’s novel will trace and explore the vicissitudes of fate in his everyday life, particularly their role in artistic activity; it will also summarize and convey the writer’s esthetics in a manner that will at once recall and depart from the classical Russian novel.’ Although it has no title, his novel could be entitled The Gift, because it will describe the maturation of Fedor’s creative talent in exile. Like Edouard, Fedor dreams of narrative infinity (G329, 337/D369, 378), and Nabokov’s novel likewise ends with a functional equivalent of “to be continued”-an Onegin stanza that states the unfinished nature of the narrative.2 The Gift also contains extensive samples of Fedor’s experiments in poetry and prose, which, like Edouard’s diary, illustrate the writer’s evolution. However, because in his artistic search Fedor invokes the primary narrative of Russian literary history from Pushkin to emigre writing, his preoccupation extends to codifying the Russian literary tradition as a whole, rather than, as in Edouard’s case, a single genre.
Discussing his novelistic project with Roger Martin du Gard, Gide described the difference between nineteenth-century realist esthetics and that of The Counterfeiters: 11 a pris une feuille blanche, y a trace une ligne horizontale, toute drone. Puis, saisissant ma lampe de poche, il a promene lentement le point lumineux d’un bout a l’autre de la ligne: “Voila vos Thibault […] Mais, voila comment je veux composer mes Faux-Monnayeurs” 11 Il retourne la feuille, y dessine un grand demi-cercle, pose la lampe au milieu, et, la faisant virer sur place, il promene le rayon tout au long de la courbe, en maintenant la lampe au point centrale: “Ce sont deux esthetiques [… ] Il y a une science subtile des eclairages; les varier a l’infini, c’est tout un art:’ (Martin du Gard 53-54;JFM 34-35)
He took a white sheet of paper and drew a straight horizontal line. Then, with the luminous point of my flashlight, he slowly traced the line from one end to another: “This is your Thibault […] And here is how I want to compose my Counterfeiters.” He flipped the sheet, drew a large semicircle, placed the flashlight in the middle, and keeping it in one place, spun the flashlight, leading the ray along the curve: “Those are two different esthetics [ …] There exists a subtle science of illumination; to vary illumination infinitely is an art in itself.”
This “science of illumination”was to be implemented by the compositional principle of the mise-en-abyme, a term Gide had coined some twenty years earlier, as well as by the introduction of multiple narrative voices that recount the same story from different viewpoints.
In his Diary, Gide defines the mise-en-abyme technique as a transposition of the work’s subject matter on the level of its characters More precisely, this procedure consists of placing a discourse within another discourse, whereby the incorporated text resembles or “mirrors:’ as Gide puts it, the incorporating one, emphasizing the formal structure of the work as a whole and drawing attention to the relationship between the author and his creation (Dallenbach 16, 18, 25). The Counterfeiters is a system of textual mirrors placed in front of each other and reflecting each other to infinity. Thus, Gide’s attempt to compose a pure novel, as described in The Journal of the Counterfeiters, is mirrored in the esthetic activity of The Counterfeiters’ anonymous author-narrator, who also keeps the journal of his work (FM 109). (By calling The Journal “l’histoire meme du livre” [“the very history/story of the, whereby “l’histoire” could mean both history and story, Gide endowed it with the value of fiction.) The artistic project of this narrator (and the Gide of The Journal) is mirrored in turn by Edouard’s attempt to write a pure novel, an endeavor related through Edouard’s diary and notebooks. Edouard also attributes equal value to his novel and to the record of its creation, thinking that, had they existed, the journals of L’Education Sentimentale and The Brothers Karamazov would be more interesting than the novels themselves (FM1083). Edouard’s project is itself mirrored in his ideal novel because that novel’s protagonist is also a novelist whose quest to create a pure novel will lead him to write a novel about writing a novel, which will be reflected in another novel, and so forth.
Finally, The Journal mirrors Gide’s intimate Diary, in which he first contemplated this project. The insertion of Edouard’s notebooks devoted to his novel into Edouard’s own diary thus mirrors the relationship between Gide’s Diary and Journal. In short, Edouard’s and Gide’s novels mirror each other and their respective journals, which themselves mirror the two writers’ intimate diaries. All these novels,journals, and diaries are complementary and self-perpetuating. Our progress in The Counterfeiters is not linear and unidirectional, as in Gide’s illustration of realist esthetics; rather, we are caught in a system of texts, shuttling from one to another (Brosman 541; Marty 99, 105-106).
Echoing Gide’s mise-en-abyme technique, The Gift incorporates texts that function like Edouard’s journal and diary: Fedor’s book of poetry and the stories of lasha Chernyshevskii, Fedor’s father, and Nikolai Chernyshevskii. (Furthermore, lasha, Fedor’s father, and Chernyshevskii also keep journals.) Like Edouard, who thinks that narrative infinity is contingent on the writer’s ignorance of his novel’s finale, Fedor feels that his text already exists in another dimension and can be transferred into this world only intuitively (FM1200-1; 6138,171, 194/D156, 192, 218). Both writers know that the denouement of their novels will be revealed by the same fate that provides their novelistic material (FM1082; G363/D407). Fedor’s method of trial and error is consistent with Edouard’s cult of artistic process. Neither The Counterfeiters nor The Gift presents the final product of its hero’s quest, furnishing instead a series of experiments that mirror both the future novel and the novel we hold in our hands. One might even argue that Fedor’s conviction that his text exists in another dimension furthers Edouard’s art of novel, since the French novelist is unsure whether his ideal novel could ever be written. Symptomatically, Edouard’s friend Laura suggests that he will not write his novel, while Fedor’s mother believes that her son will eventually realize his magnum opus (FM1083; G139/D157).
But if Gide makes clear the mirror relations between incorporated and incorporating texts, Nabokov obfuscates them. The story of lasha Chernyshevskii is interspersed with misleading remarks that it “remained unused by the writer” (G41/D49) and that its banal nature “would never have permitted [Fedor] to make it into a short story or novel” (G43/D51). The story of Fedor’s father is dismissed as “disjointed and inchoate extracts” (G138/156). Yet both stories are fully developed and reflect Fedor’s own story. Fedor’s father is a natural scientist, whose trips to Siberia in search of “Asiatic freedom” (G335/D375) evoke Fedor’s journey into Pushkin’s art and his experience of exile as liberating. Fedor endows his father with his own esthetics and assumes the “I” of his hero. lasha’s story also mirrors that of Fedor. They belong to the same age group, share physical traits, live in Berlin, attend the same university, and write poetry. Fedor even wears lasha’s tie. Although their resemblance is deceptive-articulating lasha’s esthetics, Fedor frees himself from its flaws (G40-41, 44/D48, 53)-Iasha’s “typical” and “classical” story does evoke Fedor’s ideal “classical novel with `types: love, fate, conversations” (G349/D392).
Moreover, these incorporated texts reflect each other. The stories of lasha (chapter 1) and Fedor’s father (chapter 2) anticipate that of Nikolai Chernyshevskii (chapter 4). lasha is related to the nineteenth-century critic Chernyshevskii through family heritage and esthetics (G43/D51). Like Fedor’s father, Chernyshevskii journeys to Siberia, although Chernyshevskii does not view this experience as liberating, even after he is released from forced labor. (Unlike Fedor’s father, Chernyshevskii has no use for “Asiatic freedom” because he has no appreciation of nature.) The incorporated texts are thus mutually reflective and complementary. Placed after the stories of lasha and Fedor’s father in The Gift, Chernyshevskii’s story precedes them chronologically. At once echoed and foreshadowed by the preceding stories, it forces the reader to return to the stories of lasha and Fedor’s father, which acquire additional significance in the rear view mirror of Chernyshevskii’s life.
Polemically paraphrasing Stendhal’s “realist” view of the novel as a mirror of life (“Un roman, c’est un miroir qui se prom&ne le long d’une route”/A novel is a mirror walking along a road), Edouard says about his own journal and diary: “C’est le miroir qu’avec moi je prom&ne. Rien de ce qui m’advient ne prend pour moi d’existence reelle, taut que je ne Fy vois pas reflete” (This is a mirror that I carry with me. Nothing that I meet becomes real to me until I see it reflected in this mirror, FM 1057). In a similar fashion, Fedor describes himself as a poet with a “mirrory heart” (G65/D76), haunted by mirrors from childhood.” He views his prose as “mirror-like” and akin to that of the emigre writer Vladimirov-Nabokov’s alter ego in The Gift (G321/D359). This detail elevates the mirror theme to the metaliterary level. Like the author and hero of The Counterfeiters, the author and hero of The Gift write “mirror” prose. Following the mise-en-abyme technique, the mirror composition of The Gift is reflected in Fedor’s texts, whose mirror composition will in turn be reflected in his future novel. Furthermore, the mirror relationship between Fedor’s writings and Nabokov’s novel forces the reader to become a (re)creator who shuttles from incorporated to incorporating texts, (re) establishing The Gift’s larger meaning.
Gide’s polemic against realism determined an important feature of his science of illumination: reality is deceptive and must be filtered through the lens of writing. But even when reflected, a life utterance cannot be trusted. Mirror surfaces both hide and reveal the true state of things, as in the case of the fake coins in The Counterfeiters, whose gold coating conceals their crystal surface. Mirror surfaces have an equally ambiguous relationship to truth in Fedor’s universe: the tobacconist who overcharges him has mother of pearl buttons; glass counters contain overpriced goods; Fedor’s new shoes are polished and shiny but do not fit correctly (G5-7, 69/D12-13, 79). Because of life’s deceptions, textual mirrors must not be faithful; rather, they should correct each other through caricature and distortion. Thus, if the surface resemblance of Fedor and Iasha conceals esthetic difference, the apparent esthetic divide between Fedor and Nikolai Chernyshevskii obscures a number of similarities.
These similarities are evoked through such details as pimple squeezing and masturbation. lasha’s father says about Fedor’s poetry: “You can be sure the critics will squeeze out your blackheads” (G34/D41). After a night of writing Fedor feels “poetic hangover, dejection, the `sad animal’. . .” (G158/DI77; cf. “Post coitum animal triste”) and studies himself in the mirror, squeezing a pimple (G158/D177). Chernyshevskii generally avoids mirrors, but when he sees one he also squeezes pimples (G219/D247). And while writing The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality, a study based on a study of women’s pictures in a store window, Chernyshevskii leads “an uneven struggle with the desires of the flesh, ending in a secret compromise” (G219/D247). Tellingly, Fedor’s association of his own asceticism with masturbation-“Take oneself in hand: a monastic pun”-is provoked by a prostitute who pretends to contemplate the window of a women’s clothing store (G325-26/D364-65).
The link between pimples, masturbation, and esthetic activity suggests that Fedor’s affinity with Chernyshevskii runs deeper than mere hygiene. Fedor conceives of Chernyshevskii’s story as a walk along the “ridge between my own truth and a caricature of it. And most essentially, there must be a single uninterrupted progression of thought. I must peel my apple in a single strip without removing the knife” (G200/D225). But instead of following the never-ending spiral of an apple peel, the story is delimited by closed circularity: it begins with the last tercets and closes with the first quatrains of a sonnet. Furthermore, Chernyshevskii’s existential and esthetic preoccupations caricature Fedor’s preoccupation with infinity by reducing what is for Fedor a kind of otherworldly transcendence to the pragmatism of a perpetuum mobile. This, in Fedor’s view, is “infinity with a minus sign” (G218/D245). This distorting mirror relationship is reflected back to Fedor’s story, when German Bush, a writer of comic esthetic blindness, provides another distorting mirror for Fedor’s ideas when he tells Fedor that he also dreams of an ideal novel that will achieve “absolute-infinity” (G210/D236).
Fedor’s use of a sonnet as a marker and device of narrative infinity recalls the narrator of The Journal of the Counterfeiters, who wants to shape his novel as a sonnet with quatrains opening the narrative and tercets closing it, and who calls on the “attentive reader” to heed this feature of his composition (‘J’aime a dormer a mes livres l’aspect du sonnet qui commence en quatrains et finit en tercets. 11 me parait toujours inutile d’expliquer tout au long ce que le lecteur attentif a compris”JFM97). By placing tercets first, Fedor “outdoes” his French counterpart by achieving narrative infinity through a circularity that encourages “attentive readers” to return to the text’s beginning. The mirroring of Fedor’s ideal by Chernyshevskii and Bush also harks back to The Counterfeiters, where Edouard’s antagonist, the count of Passavant, brags about a future novel in which he will fully realize himself (FM1044). Gide’s narrator is unequivocal about their distorting but revelatory mirror relationship, whereby Passavant’s brilliance recalls fake coins:
Le regard ironique d’Edouard coupa le reste de sa phrase. Habile a seduire et habitue a plaire, Passavant avait besoin de sentir en face de lui un miroir complaisant, pour briller. (FM 1167) Edouard’s ironic gaze cut short the rest of his [Passavant’s] phrase. An able seducer and used to being liked, Passavant needed to feel in front of himself a complaisant mirror in order to appear brilliant.
The distorted mirroring of Edouard’s and Fedor’s artistic quests bears directly on both characters’ esthetics. Antagonists are shadows that give an additional dimension to the heroes’ personae. While Fedor thinks that any genuinely new trend is “a change of shadows, shift that displaces the mirror,” Chernyshevskii writes about the mathematician Lobachevskii: “All Kazan was of the unanimous opinion that the man was a complete fool [… ] What on earth is ‘the curvature of a ray or ‘curved space’? What is ‘geometry without the axiom of parallel lines’?” (G239/D268-69). This passage recalls Gide’s description of his science of illumination, in which the chronological line of events, illuminated by a light source that moves parallel to it, yields to an oblique line illuminated unevenly by a stationary source. Elaborating on this point, Gide wrote in TheJournal:
Je reprocherais a Martin du Gard l’allure discursive de son recit [. . .] Sa lanterne de romancier eclaire toujours de face les evenements qu’il considere [ ….] jamais leurs lignes ne se melent [cf. “geometry without the axiom of parallel lines”] et, pas plus qu’il n’y a d’ombre, il n’y a de perspective [cf. “curved space”]. Etudier d’abord le point d’ou doit affluer la lumiere; toutes les ombres en dependent. Chaque figure repose et s’appuie sur son ombre [cf. “change of shadows”]. (JFM34-35) I could criticize Martin du Gard for the discursive stride of his narrative [ …] His novelistic lantern always illuminates the contemplated events from the front [ …] Their lines never mix and there is neither shadow nor perspective. One must first study the source of light; all shadows depend on it. Each figure is based upon and relies on its shadow.
For Fedor, a glimpse into the otherworldly dimension, whose angle is tilted, requires a tilted mirror and a play of shadows; direct reflection produces a (vicious) circle, a multiplication of deceitful appearances (G328, 341-343/D368, 382-384). That is why, despite “the circular nature of everything in existence” (G204/D230), Fedor sees circularity as “a diabolical semblance of space” (G17/D24). “In our straining toward asymmetry, toward inequality,” says Koncheev in Fedor’s imaginary dialogue, “I can detect a howl for genuine freedom, an urge to break out of the circle” (G343/D384). When Fedor finds himself in a stairwell with a glass door, the automatic light switch helps him momentarily transcend everyday existence. It is dark outside, the light is on, and the glass reflects life on the insideFedor’s meeting with Zina. When the light goes out, the glass reveals the outside world, transforming the light of a street lamp into a prismatic rainbow on the wall. As a result, Fedor “felt-in this glassy darkness-the strangeness of life, the strangeness of its magic, as if a corner of it had been turned back for an instant and he had glimpsed its unusual lining” (G183/13205). It is precisely this “strangeness of life” that Fedor will attempt to convey by giving his ideal novel the spiral structure of an apple peel, whose twists reveal both its inside and outside surface.
However, the marked difference between Fedor’s conception of Chernyshevskii’s story (as a spiral apple peel) and its realization (as a circle) is a trap for the reader. Fooled by the distorting mirror relationship between the incorporating and incorporated texts, one might even project the circular narrative of the story upon The Gift itself, which also ends with a poem that suggests narrative infinity, and reread The Gift as Fedor’s ideal novel and autobiography. But unlike Fedor’s sonnet, the Onegin stanza at the end of The Gift does not explicitly send the reader to the novel’s beginning. The Gift cannot be Fedor’s autobiography without contradicting his cult of imagination (“To fiction be as to your country true” G156/D176) and his intention to transform life creatively until “nothing remains of the autobiography but dust” (G364/D409). Nabokov learned this compositional trap from Gide, who in The Journal of the Counterfeiters misleadingly suggests that a sonnet-like narrative requires the “attentive reader” to become a re-reader: “Je n’ecris que pour etre relu” (I write only to be reread,JFM 47). But a re-reader soon realizes that The Counterfeiters’ composition is not circular. Shuttling in a system of textual mirrors, the reader is engaged in a spiral rather than a circle, moving among mutually reflective texts in The Counterfeiters proper as well as among different textual levels-the novel, its Journal, and Gide’s Diary. Instead of becoming a re-reader, the reader must rise above the existing levels by creating Edouard’s unwritten novel, which, as a never-ending spiral, continually engenders new texts.
The temptation of symmetry and circularity is also conveyed in both novels by recurring numbers. In The Counterfeiters it is number thirteen, which alludes to the supreme tempter. There are thirteen letters in the batch stolen by Bernard Profitendieu, and there are thirteen letters written by the novel’s characters, each punctuating the development of the plots In The Gift the symbolic number is five. The novel has five chapters; there are five texts conceived by Fedor-the book of poetry, lasha’s story, the story of Fedor’s father, the life of Chernyshevskii, and Fedor’s ideal novel; Fedor passes five lines of rails on his way to a park (G328/ D367); in the park he sees five nuns (G344/D386); and Koncheev exposes five weak points in Fedor’s art (G339-340/D380-81). Capitalizing on Gide’s praxis, Nabokov sets up an additional snare. It is not enough to notice the recurring number and link it to the compositional trap of circularity, because the symmetry of recurring numbers is also deceptive. Fedor intends to buy five pirozhki, but has no money for the fifth (G30/D37); he thinks of five critics who could review his book, but the fifth is imaginary (G30/D37); the editor Vasil’ev speaks about five Kremlin bosses who have only four Western antipodes (G36/D43); Zina announces that there are five reasons not to kiss Fedor, but kisses him after the fourth (G183-184/D206). The break in symmetry, whereby five becomes four, suggests that of the five texts conceived by Fedor only four are materialized. But if the pattern of deception goes unnoticed, the reader may assume, by analogy with the novel’s five chapters, that Fedor’s fifth text has been realized and that it is The Gift itself.
The second major device of Gide’s science of illumination is the use of multiple narrative voices, which, like the mirror composition, simultaneously makes the reader a co-creator and channels reading in a direction projected by the author. Gide’s reader sorts out multiple narrative voices, evaluates their credibility, and decides how faithfully each voice conveys a given event (JFM33). A case in point is the affair of Vincent Molinier and Laura Douviers. We first learn about it from Vincent’s brother Olivier, who eavesdropped on Vincent and Laura. The same story is related differently by Vincent to his new lover Lilian Griffith, who reinterprets it for her confidant Robert de Passavant. We then learn more contradictory information from Laura’s letter to Edouard. Next comes Edouard’s own interpretation in his diary, stolen and read by Bernard. Bernard reinterprets Edouard’s and Olivier’s versions and tells his own directly to Laura, later proposing another view of the events in his letter to Olivier. The narrator also gives his take on Vincent’s affair “for the edification of the reader” (FM1045). Finally, Laura’s husband provides his understanding of the situation. This technique echoes the novel’s composition: numerous versions of the same event function as mutually reflecting and distorting mirrors.
The multiple exposition of events is reinforced by the obfuscation of the relationship between the narrator and his narrative. Gide’s reader is led to believe that the narrative “I” belongs to the omniscient author-narrator, who places the discourse of his characters in quotation marks to distinguish it from his own. The narrator emphasizes his control of the text, commenting on the novel’s stylistic and compositional aspects Yet a tension between the narrator’s presumed omniscience and his actual lack thereof runs through the book. Signs of the latter range from remarks that pass for stylistic idiosyncrasies, to his ignorance regarding key details, to statements implying that characters act independently from the author.7 The narrative “I” vacillates between being the property of an omniscient author-narrator and that of a subjective observer, whose exposition of events holds no more truth than the viewpoints of the novel’s characters.
Nabokov radicalizes Gide’s device by removing quotation marks from Fedor’s discourse. Fedor imagines the inner life of others, assumes their identities, and speaks for them in the first person. The Gift’s narrator blurs the lines between narrative voices, mixing “I” and “we,” as in the description of Fedor’s trip home: “He was walking along streets [… ] Here at last is the square where we dined” (G53/D62). Although previous alternations in narrative voices may encourage readers to think that it is Fedor who says “we,” this assumption is proved wrong several lines later: “Accustomed to subjection we everywhere appoint over ourselves the shadow of supervision. Fedor understood perfectly well, etc” (G54/ D63). Thus the pronoun zue may include Fedor, but it is uttered by the authornarrator. Pronominal alternation sets a trap for the reader. For example, within the context of The Gift’s closing scene (Fedor and Zina dine in a restaurant on a square) the remark in chapter 1 that Fedor passed “the square where we dined” might be interpreted as an allusion to the book’s finale and so as proof that all the narrative voices in The Gift belong to Fedor. This interpretation suggests that Fedor is indeed the anonymous author-narrator of The Gift. But the novel’s rereader will surely notice that the square Fedor passes in chapter 1-“the square where we dined”-in fact differs markedly from the square where he and Zina dine in chapter 5 (Dolinin 164).
Setting up The Gift’s traps, Nabokov also played on the esthetic expectations of readers familiar with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (A la Recherche du temps perdu), a novel with a circular narrative and a protagonist-narrator who is also its author. Nabokov’s manipulation of the Proustian legacy may have been stimulated by emigre literary feuds, during which Nabokov’s foes compared him unfavorably to Russian prustiantsy. Most emigre literati treated Remembrance as the acme of French literature. The review Numbers (Chisla) started its existence in 1930 by soliciting the opinions of expatriate writers about Proust’s art and its possible influence. Besides the conservative Ivan Shmelev, Nabokov was the only respondent who doubted the possibility of such an influence, albeit not for Shmelev’s “patriotic” reasons; rather, Nabokov argued that literary influence was a “dark and vague thing” (“temnaia i smutnaia veshch’,” .Anketa o Pruste” 274). Furthermore, as if to confirm Numbers’ suggestion of Proust’s potential influence, the publication of two novels pronounced “neo-Proustian” by emigre critics-Gaito Gazdanov’s An Evening at Claire’s (Vecher u Kler) and Iurii Fel’zen’s Deceit (Oh,man) -coincided with the appearance of its questionnaire.
Gazdanov’s novel has a circular composition and is the autobiography of a young emigre writer. However, Gazdanov’s long-that is to say, “Proustian”period does not evolve by approximating parenthetical clauses, as is the case with its French model: it combines syntactically autonomous sentences that break each other’s semantic structure?’ If the maitre links parenthetical clauses grammatically and syntactically, Gazdanov eschews cohesion for the sake of semantic shock. Fel’zen’s novel is also the autobiography of an aspiring emigre writer. Its style is closer to that of Proust, because Fel’zen shares Proust’s view of language as an imperfect tool, whose imprecision requires steadfast approximating articulation of human experience. Fel’zen’s syntax is giddily tangled and his sentences often attain shocking proportions,” but, like Proust’s, his longer periods cannot be broken up without semantic loss. Nabokov was often unfavorably compared to Gazdanov and Fel’zen?2 For example, the same issue of Numbers that contained the Proust questionnaire also featured Georgii Ivanov’s attack on Nabokov. Ivanov’s list of grievances included Nabokov’s bad use of foreign models, which the reviewer contrasted to Fel’zen’s and Gazdanov’s adaptations (235). Echoing Ivanov, Vladimir Varshavskii scolded Nabokov for a “smooth” style that concealed spiritual emptiness, a fault especially evident against the backdrop of the “obscure tongue-tie” (“temnoe kosnoiazychie”) of his peers-a reference, among others, to prustiantsy. Nabokov did not live up to the formula Varshavskii attributed to Proust: “One is fond of those writers in whom he recognizes himself” (267).
Nabokov’s first answer both to emigre “Proustianism” and to his critics came even as he was researching the Chernyshevskii chapter of The Gift. His novel Kamera obskura (1933) contains a parody in which prustiantsy could recognize themselves. The novel’s protagonist, art critic Bruno Krechmar, gets involved with Magda Peters and takes her to France in the company of a business partner, Robert Gorn. He is ignorant of Magda’s affair with Gorn. In France, Krechmar runs into Zegel’kran ts, a German expatriate and a “Proustian.” Unaware of Magda’s link to Krechmar, Zegel’krants eavesdrops on her conversation with Gorn and uses what he hears in his new novel, which then reveals Magda’s affair to Krechmar. Zegel’krants writes “complicated and ductile” prose in order to record experience “with absolute precision” (354, 360)-in this case, producing a 300-page novel about an impressionable man’s visit to a dentist. The psychological discursivity of Proust’s disciple is thus akin to pulling teeth, and Zegel’krants’s long periods contrast markedly with the economical style of Kamera obskura itself. John Foster’s interpretation of this episode as a “pastiche of Proust’s style, which perhaps betrays an anxiety of influence or at least some initial hostility toward Proust” (76) is clearly inadequate because it does not explain why Nabokov eliminated allusions to Proust in the English version of Kamera obskura (Laughter in the Dark) and changed Zegel’krants’s name to Udo Conrad. Indeed, what an English-speaking reader is likely to have perceived as a spoof of Proust, an emigre reader is likely to have seen as mockery of expatriate prustiantsy.” Zegel’krants’s style evokes not Remembrance but Gazdanov’s linguistic “Proustianism”:
V priemnoi, gde German sel u pletenogo stolika, na kotorom lezhali, svesiv kholodnye plavniki, mert-ye, belobriukhie zhurnaly i gde na kamine stoiali zolotye chasy pod stekliannym kolpakom, v kotorom izognutyn priamougol’nikom otrazhalos’ okno, za kotorym byli seichas dushnoe solntse, blesk Sredizemnogo moria, shagi, shurshashchie po graviiu,-zhdalo uzhe shestero liudei. (358)
In the waiting room, where German sat down at a wicker table, on which lay dead white-bellied magazines, having lowered their cold fins, and where a gold clock stood on a mantelpiece in the glass case, which reflected the bent rectangle of the window, beyond which there were now the stuffy sun, the glitter of the Mediterranean, steps rustling in the gravel,-six people were already waiting.
Furthermore, Zegel’krants’s German-sounding name alludes to Fel’zen, who signed articles and was mentioned in reviews by his Germanic surname: Freidenshtein]4 “Zegel”‘ also evokes “Fel’zen” thanks to three shared phonemes: /ef,/z/, and palatalized /1/ “Krants” recalls the name of Hamlet’s friend “Rosenkrantz,” which Magda uses instead of “Zegel’krants” in an episode that also mentions Shakespeare (362, 364). Usually pronounced together, the names “Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern” likewise recall “Zegel’krants and Freidenshtein;’ especially since in Russian “stern” becomes “shtern.’
All of the characters in this episode are connected with art (Krechmar as a critic, Magda as a cinema employee, Gorn as a cartoonist), but Zegel’krants is the only true artist among them. Nabokov does pay tribute to his attention to details: unlike Krechmar, Zegel’krants is not “blind.’ However, his artistic method lacks the compositional rigor of Kamera obskura. This flaw undermines both Zegel’kran&s method and that of his French teacher, Marcel Proust, for in Nabokov’s esthetics the meaning of details is fully conveyed only by a rigorously organized narrative. Surprised by Krechmar’s reaction to his book, Zegel’krants thus sees that his method lacks insight because he does not fully control his material.
Transporting his debate with literary “Proustianism” from Kamera obskura to The Gift, Nabokov makes Proust an interpretive decoy. The novel’s apparentbut false-indebtedness to a Proustian circularity encourages the reader to go back to the beginning of The Gift and reread it-only to discover that Fedor, unlike Proust’s Marcel, is not the author of the novel.” The review of Fedor’s book of poetry, which Fedor himself imagines, also brings up Proust’s art of memory through its high concentration of long sentences with multiple subordinate clauses and parenthetic digressions. The complexity of these periods was remarked by the emigre critics of The Gift (Pil’skii 3), and similar “Proustian” periods resurface in chapter 2, once Fedor starts reminiscing about his father (G79-80/D91-92). However, these Proustian references are self-subversive, for Fedor realizes the impossibility of recapturing faithfully the lost time of childhood. Objects, sounds, and smells that are pregnant with suggestion for Proust’s Marcel refuse to yield their secrets to Fedor (G5/DI). He finds recollections suspiciously “wax-like” and “pretty” (G17/D24). Proust’s steadfast linguistic articulation of experience encounters Fedor’s hostility: “What, then, compels me to compose poems about my childhood if in spite of everything my words go wide of the mark, or else slay both the pard and the hart with the exploding bullet of an ‘accurate’ epithet?” (G18/D25). Concluding that childhood cannot be recovered in art (“recollections either melt away, or else acquire a deathly gloss” GI 7/D24), Fedor concedes that it can only serve as literary material (G26/ D32). Hence his skepticism about the documentary value of the art of memory. Although the Proustian amassment of details may create the effect of “truthfulness” (G27/D33), it does not interest Fedor due to his cult of imagination. Alluding to the titles of Proust’s novels, Fedor dismisses “Proustianisni’ as a fad that threatens to overshadow the more important aspects of his poems:
Did he [the reader] simply skim over them, like them and praise them, calling attention to the significance of their sequence, a feature fashionable in our time, when time is in fashion: if a collection opens with a poem about “A Lost Ball,” it must close with “The Found Ball.” (G28/D35)
Fedor’s skepticism regarding Proust’s art of memory echoes Edouard’s rejection in The Counterfeiters of Proustian analysis and its contemporary satellite-Freudian psychoanalysis”-as imaginative creations that strive to pass for “truth” Thus Edouard doubts the effectiveness of Mme Sophroniska’s psychoanalytical treatment of Boris de La Perouse and discards the boy’s confessions as pure fiction (FM 1074-75):
L’anayse psychologique a perdu pour moi tout interet du jour of je me suis avise que l’homme eprouve ce qu’il s’imagine eprouver. De la A penser qu’il s’imagine eprouver ce qu’il eprouve. (FM988) I lost all interest in psychological analysis ever since I realized that one feels what he imagines that he feels. Consequently, it is possible that one imagines that he feels what he feels.
Gide supported his criticism of Proustian analysis by refusing to follow Proust’s model of narrative Specifically, Gide avoided Proustian circularity by excluding Edouard’s novel from the text of The Counterfeiters, freeing the reader from the hegemony of one narrative voice, and offering three texts (The Counterfeiters, The Journal, and The Diary) that could not be reduced to such a narrative model, even though one of them-The fournal-suggests that a sonnet-like circular narrative is in fact the author’s ideal and that rereading is the only possible key to the correct reading of The Counterfeiters. The description of fake currency in The Counterfeiters provides a metaphor for the game Gide plays with the reader. Rereading The Counterfeiters resembles the multiple use of a coin whose gold coating is worn away by each touch, until only a piece of crystal remains. Upon rereading the novel, in other words, the reader understands that he has been swindled.
The fact that Edouard does not realize his novel in The Counterfeiters establishes such a realization as an ideal horizon: the impossible becomes a paradoxical figure of the possible. Here again, Nabokov follows Gide while throwing in red herrings pointing in Proust’s direction. Leading an ascetic life, Fedor at once fantasizes about sexual encounters and is aware of the gap between fantasy and reality. Since the charm and richness of hopeless desire are rooted in its unquenchability, Fedor extends his wariness of realized dreams to his relationship with Zina (G329, 360/D369, 404). Although Fedor in this regard seems to recall Marcel and Swann, who are plagued by the same Quixotic conflict, this similarity is deceptive: even if Zina seems intent on casting her late father as Swann (G187/ D210) and herself as Swann’s daughter Gilberte (Marcel’s first love), Fedor disassociates himself from Marcel and his art of memory. During his infatuation with Gilberte, Marcel believed in the objective existence of love “outside oneself” only to be disillusioned by this romantic notion (Proust, Swann 393). Fedor’s love for Zina is, on the contrary, internalized in his esthetic activity. Zina is his Muse, and Fedor declares his love by sharing with her the conception of his future novel (G364/D409).
This divergence leads Fedor and Marcel to different conclusions about their respective Quixotic complexes. Marcel distinguishes between art and life, giving priority to the former. He completes his novel as a “true” alternative to a deceptive reality (Proust, Temps retrouve 202). Fedor, on the other hand, prefers to view artistic activity through the prism of his quixotic conflict. Playing on the polysemy of the Russian word “roman” as both a romantic liaison and a novel (this double entendre is lost in translation: “obraz romana” means both a “romantic image” and “the image of a novel”), The Gift’s narrator says:
Kogda on zagliadyvalsia na prokhozbuiu, on kupno perezhival i potriasaiushchuiti vozmozhnost’ schast’ia, i otvraslichenie k ego neizbczlinornu ncsovershenstvu,-vkladwaia v eto odno mgnovenie obraz romana, no na sredniuiu chast’ sokrashchaia ego triptikh. (DI86)
When he looked at a passing girl, he imagined simultaneously both the Stupendous possibility of happiness and repugnance for its inevitable imperfection-charging this one instant with a romantic image, but diminishing its triptych by the middle section. (G165)
Like the consummation of erotic passion, the fulfillment of ail artistic ideal leads to disappointment (cf. Fedor’s postcoital syndrome after a night of writing). A written text does not correspond to its ideal because, as Fedor puts it, “definition is always finite, but I keep straining for the faraway; I search beyond the barricades (of words, of senses, of the world) for infinity, where all, all the lines meet” (G329/D369). Fedor does not finish the book about his father, for his emotional investment in it is frustrated by artistic realization: “I am so much afraid I might dirty it with a flashy phrase, or wear it out in the course of transfer onto paper, that I already doubt whether the book will be written at all” (GI38/DI56). Likewise, the life of Chernyshevskii can be completed only because Fedor has little empathy for its hero. Thus, unlike Marcel, Fedor does not realize his ideal novel in The Gift, having learnt from Edouard (who also fails to write his ideal novel in The Counterfeiters) that the impossible can be a paradoxical figure of the possible.
The traps and false clues underlying Gide’s and Nabokov’s science of illumination are laid bare in the leitmotif of a key that is either hidden, or lost, or opens the wrong doors. As Bernard breaks into a locked chest, he claims that lifting a marble plaque is not the same as breaking a lock for which he has no key (FM9 77). When he steals Edouard’s suitcase, whose key has been lost, Bernard does not break the lock-“otherwise he would be a thief”-because the suitcase turns out to be unlocked. Olivier has a secret duplicate of the key with which he is locked up at night. Lilian Griffith surreptitiously gives Vincent her house key, which he uses to betray Laura (FM974). Armand Vedel locks up his sister Sarah in a room with Bernard. When Bernard finally gets out, he must hide until the front door of the Azais pension is unlocked. Likewise, the narrator of The, journal, punning on the expression “clef de voute” (keystone), claims to have keys to the structure (vault) of The Counterfeiters (“cles de voute du livre,’JFM37), but, as we have seen, his keys are false.
In this context, the words of Fedor’s mother after her move to Paris acquire additional meaning: “She had written that she just could not get used to being liberated from the perpetual fetters that chain a Berliner to the door lock” (G29/ D36). In Paris people do not forgo keys because of the omnipresence of a concierge; rather, they merely have other, if less honest, ways of getting in. A number of scholars have also observed that the key leitmotif punctuates Fedor’s physical and mental journey, and so alludes to his artistic method and to the novel’s structure (see Dolinin 139-40, 149;Johnson; Waite). Since Fedor’s apartment keys are more often than not misplaced, stolen or wrong, it seems unlikely that the keys to the novel would prove to be more reliable. Indeed, Fedor lays bare his (and Nabokov’s) technique of false clues in the discussion of a chess puzzle, whose key was disguised in “the fine fabric of deceit” and “false trails carefully prepared for the reader” (G172/D193). As Georgii Adamovich wrote in 1937: “The author tells us what he considers as true. But we do not have the key to this truth, Sirin does not give it to us” (“Russkie zapiski” 3). And although in the same year, Vladislav Khodasevich suggested that, instead of disguising his devices, Nabokov laid them bare, revealing to the audience the laboratory of his miracles and so providing “the key to Sirin” (249), these critical views are complementary. Nabokov’s keys lead the reader away from truth and subjugate him to the authorial will, a technique that had been successfully tested by Gide a decade earlier.
The webs of deception in The Counterfeiters and The Gift reveal a tension between the authors’ desire, on the one hand, to control the interpretation of their texts and, on the other, to elevate the reader to the status of an artist. If one falls into the trap of circularity, one will reread The Gift as Fedor’s novel and The Counterfeiters as Edouard’s creation. But if one heeds the suggestion that narrative infinity is a spiral, one will take over Fedor’s and Edouard’s ideal novels. The ending of The Counterfeiters is supposed to give the impression of a limitless narrative, while the lack of a plot outline of future events (“l’erosion de contours”) encourages the reader to write his own story (JFM83, 94, 96). This creative freedom confirms the text’s premise of an esthetic pluralism (“Rien nest bon pour tous”/”Nothing is good for everybody,” FM1089) that contrasts with the artistic assumptions of the nineteenth-century realist novel. The Counterfeiters appears as a “modele maximale” of novelistic narrative and one of many possible constructions of a story.” Yet The Journal and Diary also attempt to explicate the novel authoritatively. The Journal even suggests that The Counterfeiters’s composition and narrative technique help control the reading of the novel. The apparent goal is to let the reader believe
qu’il est plus intelligent que l’auteur, plus moral, plus perspicace et qu’il decouvre dans les personnages maintes choses, et dans le tours du recit maintes verites, malgre l’auteur et pour ainsi dire A son insu. (JFM72)
that he is more intelligent than the author, more moral, more perspicacious, and that he is discovering numerous things in the characters and numerous truths in the course of the narrative despite the author and, so to speak, without the author’s knowledge.
Authorial striving for control transpires with equal strength in The Gift. The novel’s narrator makes fun of an inattentive critic, who provides books “with his own ending-usually exactly opposite to the author’s intention” (G169/D190). One feels in this passage a desire to discipline all those who do not follow the author’s guidelines. There is little space for interpretive freedom in Fedor’s wish to “reach a final dictatorship over words” that cuts short unintended interpretations, since presently his words “are still trying to vote” (G364/D409). Such a dictatorial attitude reveals a desire both to organize everything in the text and to determine its reading process (Paperno 313). Adamovich saw The Gift as “ironic by its very conception” (“Sovremennye zapiski” 3), and it is indeed ironic that while casting the reader as a partner in the process of artistic creation, Nabokov ensnares him in the net of authorial control. Drawing on Gide’s example, The Gift’s mirror composition and multiple narrative voices set a series of traps in order to make the reader, in Fedor’s own words, “the author reflected in time” (G340/D381). This dialectic between the authorial desire to guard the text from unintended interpretation and the desire to offer it as material for the reader cum artist is central both to the composition and the narrative structure of The Counterfeiters and The Gift.
Copyright Comparative Literature Summer 2002
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