Unspeakability

John Lanchester

  • The Magician’s Doubts by Michael Wood
    Chatto, 252 pp, £18.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6197 3

Musing over Don Juan, Byron asked his banker and agent Douglas Kinnaird a rhetorical question: ‘Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world? – and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis à vis? – on a table – and under it?’

Byron was onto something. He was intuiting that his most important character – the one chiefly responsible for his pan-European fame, a celebrity probably unrivalled by that of any other poet before or since – was neither the dark Childe Harold, nor the sexy Don Juan, but their even darker, even sexier author. The Hellespont-swimming, freedom-fighting, countess-shagging Byron, hurtling around Europe with contrails of scandal streaming in his wake, was a more Byronic character than any he had created on the page. This personality, perceived by the reader in and through Byron’s fictions, is still the most appealing thing about his work. It’s hard, in reading him, not to feel your attention wandering from the puppets to the puppeteer; from Childe Harold and Don Juan to the unmatchedly lively letters and journals, the funniest and most consistently readable extended self-portrait in the English language.

Byron’s case, however, is exceptional. Perhaps no other project of authorial self-invention has been as successful – though there is a paradox here, because these self-inventions are often undertaken in response to a degree of external success. Fame seems to bring with it an increased sense of exposure, which in turn induces a hardening of the carapace that protects the writer from the world. Traits coarsen and characteristics are exaggerated; the writer turns into a second-rate figment of his own imagination, as much the victim of himself as a mad scientist in a horror movie. This is the process that turned Hemingway into the ‘arrogant, belligerent and boastful’ caricature whom Edmund Wilson believed to be ‘certainly the worst-invented character to be found in the author’s work’; it is the process that turned Evelyn Waugh into Gilbert Pinfold. Though of course, the transformation is never complete, and never succeeds in fully abolishing the old, vestigial, shyer and more likeable self – if it did, it would be less painful. (Gilbert Pinfold could not have written The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Discuss.)

With most writers who are, in that sense, ‘characters’, the case is less extreme; the constructed self is neither an outright disaster, nor is it the most interesting thing about the writer in question. Often, though, this invented self is a problem. Michael Wood’s oustandingly brilliant new book is in part a corrective to the public persona adopted by his subject. Wood calls this persona ‘Nabokov the mandarin’, and robustly describes it as ‘a set ... of attitudes, prejudices, habits, remarks, performances which is highly visibly, highly stylised, and has almost nothing to do with the writing I admire’. This is the Nabokov we encounter most often in the collection of bits and pieces Strong Opinions, and also here and there in his lectures, interviews and edition of Eugene Onegin; the Nabokov who wrote that Dostoevsky was ‘a much overrated, sentimental and gothic novelist’, or who described Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin as a ‘silly’ opera, or who unconvincingly hung so much political and aesthetic disdain on the idea of poshlost or kitsch; the Nabokov who boasted that ‘the twinkle in the author’s eye as he notes the imbecile drooping of a murderer’s under-lip, or watches the stumpy forefinger of a professional tyrant exploring a profitable nostril in the solitude of his sumptuous bedroom, this twinkle is what punishes your man more surely than the pistol of a tiptoeing conspirator.’ This is the Nabokov we recognise in the descriptions of Nabokophobe critics; a writer who could seem in love with his own cleverness, whose critical manner affects ‘a patiently patrician calm’, with a ‘coolness’ which ‘can easily become the condescending heartlessness which so attenuates [his] fiction’ (Christopher Ricks); who is ‘rich in what is given to few writers and poor in what is given to most men’ (D.J. Enright). We may sneakily feel it appropriate that Nabokov the mandarin spent the last two decades of his life in a hotel suite in Montreux – after all, this lofty, cold, smug, politically neutral figure is himself a kind of one-man Switzerland.

The trouble with this image of Nabokov is that it is a travesty, both of the oeuvre and of the life. Brian Boyd’s two-volume biography established a convincing (or, indeed, irrefutable) case for Nabokov the man, and made his story seem almost dismayingly exemplary; I can’t offhand remember a single incident from which Nabokov comes out badly, once we discount a certain permissible thin-skinnedness and a single extra-marital affair. (Edmund Wilson, by contrast, doesn’t emerge at all well. There’s an especially unattractive moment of game-playing when, some time after an elated, panicking Nabokov had sent him the newly-finished Lolita, Wilson rang at 11 p.m. in order to ask Nabokov to identify a moth he had found – and didn’t say a word about the novel.) Wood’s book does a comparable job on Nabokov’s work, separating Nabokov the mandarin from Nabokov the writer, and then reading the books with a thrilling combination of close attention and broad reference. Here, for instance, is Wood on the moment near the end of Lolita when the now-older Lolita is begged to come away by a desperate Humbert, and she says: ‘No, honey, no.’

Humbert reflects: ‘She had never called me honey before.’ She couldn’t call him honey because she didn’t think of him fondly enough or casually enough: banality was outlawed from their life, which was only romance and torture (for him), drudgery and quarantine (for her). For a moment Humbert seems to glimpse the attraction of the acceptable, of the way other people daily talk and live – the realm of shared feeling which inhabits cliché, and which cliché serves. Of course he can only recognise the feeling because he is excluded from it, but the recognition is something, since it matters that even this tiny and perfunctory brand of tenderness was missing from his relation with Lolita. Missing on both sides, we might add, in spite of Humbert’s liking for tenderness as a word; as kindness is often missing from romantic love.

Wood has an attractive openness to ambivalence and a willingness not to force closure or simulate certainty. (Conclusions in literary criticism, unlike beachheads in wartime, don’t have to be secured at all costs.) He employs a home-built distinction between ‘style’ and ‘signature’ in order to emphasise the qualities peculiar to the Nabokov who interests him. Signature

is how we recognise and verify the identity of writers; other things about them too. A literary signature would then be the visible shorthand for a literary person; a style would be a more complex but still legible trace of that person’s interaction with the world ... Signature is their habit and their practice, their mark; style is something more secretive, more thoroughly dispersed among the words, a reflection of luck or grace, or of a moment when signature overcomes or forgets itself.

It isn’t hard to see how the idea of signature applies to Nabokov; or, for that matter, to Bellow, Updike, Compton-Burnett, Iain Sinclair, Cormac McCarthy, Roth, Ozick, etc. (Lurking in Wood’s idea is the implication that modern critics and readers make too much of signature.) Nabokov’s signature is often both what initially attracts readers to his work, and what puts them off it, or causes them to regard him as a crucially flawed talent – a great pianist who refuses to play anything other than scales. There is, however, another music in Nabokov’s work, and it is this that mostly interests Wood, a prose that is ‘richer and more subtle’, more elusive and also more powerful than the ‘signed’ work. To make his point, Wood discusses a passage from ‘Signs and Symbols’, a story Nabokov wrote in 1948, describing a couple’s visit to their mentally ill son on his birthday.

That Friday everything went wrong. The underground train lost its life current between two stations, and for a quarter of an hour one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart and the rustling of the newspapers. The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous schoolchildren. It was raining hard as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanatorium. There they waited again; and instead of their boy shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face blotched with acne, ill-shaven, sullen, and confused), a nurse they knew, and did not care for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.

Wood’s commentary:

I can’t see anything here that looks like Nabokov’s signature; yet I can’t think of another writer who could have managed the casual, brilliant and quietly angry complexities of the fifth sentence in this paragraph. The old couple have to wait ‘again’, and the boy has ‘again attempted to take his life’ – this second ‘again’ is the first hint we have that the son is dangerous to himself, and suddenly illuminates and expands our sense of the parents’ sorrow. The ‘bright’ explanation of the nurse makes her either heartless or unable to be brisk and compassionate at the same time, and helps us to understand why the old couple don’t care for her – no doubt they have had bright explanations from her in the past. This is all discreet and strong, but the most dazzling, half-concealed effect in the passage is the conjuring up on the page of the son who doesn’t appear in the hospital, with his acne and his shuffle and his confusion. We see the person the parents are unable to see; see with the eyes of their waiting minds .... This is style because it does so many things at once, and isn’t signature. It works largely through syntax and small words, and is so subtle that it reflects not a meticulous control of a fictional world but a disciplined vulnerability to the shocks of a historical one.

Nabokov isn’t famous for his responsiveness to the historical world; he is more usually discussed as if he didn’t know that such a thing existed, and wasn’t interested in it if it did; but it is this ‘disciplined vulnerability’ to which The Magician’s Doubts is fascinatingly attuned. The chapter on The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first novel in English, centres on the theme of loss, a recurrent motif in Wood’s account of Nabokov. The loss is partly that of language, what Nabokov elsewhere called ‘my private tragedy’: ‘I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions – which the native illusionist, coat-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.’ In Sebastian Knight this is figured in what Wood calls an ‘intense equation between language and unhappy love’; but the book deals in other kinds of loss too, failures and misapprehensions and mistakes.

As Wood points out on the first page of his book, ‘by the age of 23’ Nabokov ‘had lost most of what anyone can lose: his country (renamed, repossessed), his father (murdered) most of his family dispersed into various exiles’. Nabokov was the only major writer of the century to have fled both Communism and Nazism; his life had its share of dispossessions and close escapes. Bolshevik machine guns were strafing the harbour in Sebastopol when the Nabokovs left Russia for the last time. Twenty-one years later, as if to testify to how real the danger was, death took two determined nips at the Nabokovs’ heels: their last Paris address, 59 rue Boileau, was destroyed by German bombs three weeks after their departure; the ship on which they escaped to America, the Champlain, was sunk by U-boats on its next crossing. Nabokov’s brother Sergey, who had been away and who ‘learned of our departure only after we had left’, died in a concentration camp.

Wood makes all this seem far more important to Nabokov’s work than any other critic has ever managed to do. The first, and perhaps the crudest, way in which loss appears in Nabokov’s fiction is through the emphasis on patterns which deny it – something especially apparent in Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. ‘I confess I do not believe in time,’ Nabokov grandly declares at the outset, before proceeding to put that non-belief into practice in a book which emphasises pattern and repetition as recurring themes which structure a life exactly as if it were a work of art. Almost every sentence of the book is permeated by a denial of time and an assertion of pattern, and of memory; it’s this which the book’s admirers enjoy but which strikes some readers as unconvincing, even hysterical. (Saul Bellow, that other great Russo-American writer, observes somewhere that memory can be a form of hysteria.) These ideas about the paramountcy of structure dominate Nabokov’s explicit aesthetics, to an extent that can make his writings about writing, notwithstanding their multiple brilliancies, rather tiresome. Wood, who likes the autobiography more than I do, asks himself whether Nabokov is saying ‘that pattern – any pattern – is meaning,’ and answers:

He is saying, I think, and may himself half-believe it, that pattern is a redemption of loss, and perhaps the only redemption of loss there is, however frail and unlikely and insignificant the pattern may be. But he is also saying, or his text is saying, that loss is irredeemable, that loss goes on and on, an endlessly discomposed face in the mirror.

Wood goes on to apply these ideas to the great novels – Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire, and maybe Ada or maybe not. His emphasis is on an ethical reading of these works; a tricky thing to focus on, given that ‘this is the realm of the unspeakable for Nabokov’ – the unspeakable in the Wittgensteinian sense. An interest in these areas has become more widespread in Nabokov studies recently, thanks in large part I suspect to Richard Rorty’s work on the writer in his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, and in his excellent introduction to the Everyman edition of Pale Fire. (In the case of the Everyman Lolita, incidentally, somebody seems to have had a rush of blood to the head: in my copy Martin Amis’s Introduction doesn’t precede but actually replaces the Foreword by John Ray Jr, PhD, Nabokov’s taunting impersonation of a suavely clueless psychiatrist. It’s as if an editor looked at the book and thought, we don’t need this John Ray geezer – Martin Amis is much more famous ...) Rorty’s essay and Wood’s book together constitute a fulfilment of Nabokov’s half-mocking prophecy that ‘one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from being a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist’; though of course there is nothing rigid about the subtle music of Nabokov’s ethical presence. In Pale Fire Rorty diagnoses a kind of systematic moral misdirection, in which Nabokov repeatedly incites us to forget the central tragedy of the book, the death of John Shade’s daughter Hazel. Our forgetting calls our own morality into question: ‘we emerge from the novel rubbing our heads, worrying about whether we are all right, worrying whether we like ourselves.’

The problem with this is that, by discussing Nabokov in these terms, we are using a vocabulary that Nabokov went to great lengths to deny himself, and using it with a degree of explicitness which would probably have appalled him. Unspeakability is not so easily wished away. One of the great strengths of The Magician’s Doubts is its understanding of the fact that these subjects are difficult to write about; the book should be force-read to those critics and reviewers who use words such as ‘compassionate’ and ‘humane’ as unthinking terms of praise, ecstatically heedless of the canting self-celebration they embody.

Wood’s reading of Pnin makes the book a novel about these difficulties (among others). ‘Philosophy,’ Wittgenstein wrote, ‘is the struggle against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us.’ Insofar as I understand that, it seems to me to be close to (or analogous to) the kinds of struggle undertaken in Nabokov’s fiction. In Pnin the struggle is to do with the ways in which we allow ourselves to feel superior to the characters in fiction, especially by being aware of patterns – irony, comedy, pity – of which they are unaware. Wood discusses a passage, ‘central not only to this novel but to Nabokov’s whole work’, in which Pnin thinks about the love of his youth, Mira Beclochkin, who died in Buchenwald.

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind ... but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart.

Mira Belochkin is a victim of, as Wood puts it, ‘raw, murderous, ungraspable circumstance, the cruelty of chance’ – a member of that group described in Sebastian Knight, ‘the set of kindly, well-meaning, gentle-mannered people driven to death or exile for the sole crime of their existing’. That was written in 1938, when Mira Belochkin and millions of others like her were still alive. Wood:

Here are none of the patterns Nabokov and his characters love, not even failed patterns, which at least are a bid for meaning: just the mindless procession of what lies beyond the mind. The implication of this scene for the rest of Nabokov’s work is that all his symmetries and shape and coincidences are perhaps not a primary taste – an aspect of his temperament, a straightforward liking – but a response to an insight like Pnin’s about the brutal meaninglessness of history .... Can we really imagine or tolerate the undesigned world – the world which has no particular designs for us – which is probably the world that we have?

Nabokov’s aesthetics can be seen to include his ethics; though the fact that the inclusion happens that way around is determined by ethical arguments. (In other words, Nabokov’s ethics make him subordinate ethics to aesthetics.) The idea of pattern – the deliberate overvaluation of pattern – which is the centrepiece of those aesthetics, is grounded in a resistance to randomness and historicity. So far so good (so far so Wood). Perhaps, though, it is also true that the emphasis on pattern is designed to incorporate a resistance to the whole business of interpretation and explanation; the meaning of any one gesture or moment is explained by reference to another gesture or moment, and so on in a movement which would be paradigmatically Derridean if it hadn’t been paradigmatically Nabokovian first. Thus, while Nabokov is constantly pointing out and pointing up, alluding and eluding and zooming around on his magic carpet, nothing is ever explained. At university, I had a tutor who, every now and then, would stop the discussion and say: ‘Let’s cash out the meaning of this.’ Nabokov goes to great lengths not to do that. This is particularly apparent in the lectures and the edition of Eugene Onegin, where we find a thriving menagerie of insights and detail – disquisitions on ‘Emma Bovary’s mistranslated hairdo’, the exact species of Kafka’s cockroach, the importance of the Moscow-Leningrad train timetable to Anna Karenina, the history of duelling, whether Tolstoy would have beaten Pushkin at chess – but no explanation, no interpretation, and in a sense (a strong sense) no meaning.

We can perhaps get some purchase on this absence by examining the case of Nabokov and Freud. This is an area of unease to us Nabokophiles. Nabokov returned to the subject of Freud again and again, invariably with an admixture of abusive characterisations and a strange absence of intellectual weight – after all, calling Freud ‘the Viennese quack’ is hardly going to cause the New York Institute of Psychoanalysis to quit the fray and switch to aromatherapy. (The best of Nabokov’s jokes on the subject came in the last letter he wrote to the New York Times on the occasion of his falling-out with Edmund Wilson: ‘Schadenfreude, as used by Mr Wilson, really means hatred of Freud.’) John Updike has said that Nabokov-on-Freud is impressive but unconvincing, like a witch doctor in full tribal regalia attempting to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine in terms of mana and sympathetic magic. Martin Amis, more modestly, has suggested that ‘Freud must have been some good, one suspects, in order to have bedevilled the great Nabokov so.’ Michael Wood shows how Humbert Humbert seems to want it both ways in his account of outsmarting psychiatrists; and it is typical of Humbert to mock the idea that he would attempt to repeat an early sexual experience with Lolita, but then to admit that he has tried to do so, while downplaying the attempt as ‘the rational pursuit of a purely theoretical thrill’. Nabokov, Wood suggests, makes Humbert ‘a sort of Freudian malgré lui’. ‘Freud is more of a rival than he looks, and needs to be caricatured as the fool who rushes in where Nabokov plans delicately to tread.’

It seems to me that this rivalry goes further than a shared interest in puns, dreams, sexual deviancy and mania; in some moods I’m able to persuade myself that two of Nabokov’s books have anti-Freudian jokes built into their very structure. Nabokov deeply distrusted the idea of the unconscious – a good indication, maybe, that he understood and took the full measure of what its existence implied; he even saw memory (all memory) as an act of will. Lolita can be read as an extended attack on the idea of the unconscious – since Humbert’s desires are fully, monstrously conscious; if he knows one thing about himself with absolute certainty, it is that he wants to have sex with very young girls. More tentatively, I would suggest that Despair plays a deep game with Freud’s contention that Oedipus murdered his father because he unconsciously recognised him. In Freud’s reading, Oedipus was acting on an insight he didn’t know he had, and on an impulse of which he was unaware. In the novel, Herman Herman murders someone who he thinks looks identical to himself, only to discover that no one else can detect any resemblance between them; which is, perhaps, a ludicrous and disturbing inversion of Freud’s account of the Oedipal legend: Oedipus’s unconscious recognition of a truth (which leads to murder) is replaced by Herman’s conscious mis-recognition of an error (which leads to murder). But perhaps I’m making this up.

The question that remains unanswered is why Nabokov was so exercised about Freud. Perhaps it comes down to Nabokov’s belief that explanations of human behaviour, as of artistic motive and intention, are inherently reductive. This makes them a source of error and danger – especially when the explanatory systems are as powerful and as potentially all-pervasive as Freud’s. There is a subtle moment in Sebastian Knight where V., the narrator, dismisses the idea that sex has been a primary factor in Sebastian’s life, and then goes on to quote from one of Sebastian’s books.

I believe that granting ‘sex’ a special situation when tackling a human problem, or worse still, letting the ‘sexual idea’, if such a thing exists pervade and ‘explain’ all the rest is a grave error of reasoning. ‘The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea, from its moon to its serpent; but a pool in the cup of a rock and the diamond-rippled road to Cathay are both water.’

But as we read we find that sex has indeed been an important factor in Sebastian’s life, and is about to become one in V.’s too. I take this to be a kind of parable for the idea that just as sex ‘explains’ nothing, so the attempt to wish sex away also ‘explains’ nothing; things just aren’t that simple. We aren’t to look for answers or explanations, only patterns, such as the parallels between V.’s story and Sebastian’s. ‘Nabokov’s morality, a subtle, almost invisible, quirky, but curiously sturdy affair, is the magician’s best act, a scene of refusal which is also a scene of recognition ... The magician’s doubts are inseparable from his successes. They are his successes, they sustain the magic that seems to make them vanish.’