If stories teach us what it means to be human, then it’s no surprise that chess crops up again and again in literature. After all, people from all over the world have been playing this game for thousands of years. The game has a profound hold on our collective imagination. What about chess commands our respect as “the immortal game” or “the royal game,” whereas most of its peers are seen as harmless time-wasters?
The most obvious explanation why fiction is so replete with chess players is that, at their core, chess and stories are about the same thing—conflict. And it is a particular kind of conflict that is utterly devoid of chance. Whether a king is playing against a beggar or a nuclear physicist against a kindergartener, all that matters are the choices you make.
Chess is somewhat underserved by artistic mediums outside of literature. Often, it is used as a blunt metaphor for a literal conflict, like when Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty discuss the moves they’ve made in the battle on and off the board, or when Professor X and Magneto play chess in at least three X-Men films, all the while discussing the real conflict at hand. It probably doesn’t get more overt than Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where a man plays a game of chess in which his life is on the line, and his opponent is Death.
Fiction, on the other hand, has the unparalleled ability to grant us insight into a character’s psyche. It is therefore uniquely qualified to explore the nature of chess itself. And while not every story that involves chess does this successfully, there are a select few that triumph in a way that works of another medium never could.
That’s because the greatest chess stories understand that trying to master chess is like trying to master the infinite, and the psychological consequences can be transcendent or terrifying.
Chess is often associated with reason and, by extension, with intelligence, especially of the mathematical variety. Flip through any chess book, with symbols like O-O and Qxa1, and it certainly seems that chess has the same sharp, crystalline beauty of mathematical proofs. The standard way of writing out chess moves currently used is even called algebraic notation. On top of all this, machines have been able to play chess since the ’90s, beating world champions along the way. So where does emotion fit in?
Chess itself might be nothing but logic and order, but it can invite a kind of madness. The painter Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp grew obsessed with the game, writing in a 1919 letter that, “I play day and night, and nothing interests me more than finding the right move…I like painting less and less.” During his honeymoon, he spent almost all his time playing chess (shockingly, the marriage didn’t last). Later, he called himself a “victim of chess.” He also said that “it has all the beauty of art—and much more,” and that chess was not only a sport, but “a violent” one. In a similar vein, Albert Einstein famously said, “chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” Vladimir Nabokov was deeply intrigued by the game, publishing his own chess problems in the aptly named Poems and Problems. He also wrote his famous The Luzhin Defense. And given that the story meticulously details how chess drives his protagonist insane, Nabokov clearly understood that chess could have its…downsides.
The mental strain, of these and so many other players, professional and amateur alike, is a direct consequence of the infinite aspect of chess. Consider, for a moment, what it takes for someone to become a great chess player, how he or she must memorize and master a stupendous number of strategies and learn to recognize innumerable patterns, all while knowing that it’s impossible to ever learn every possibility. Perfection is forever out of reach.
Stefan Zweig understood the vast spectrum of effects chess could have on players, from the ennobling to the destructive. Nowhere is the full range of chess’s impact on individual minds better explored than in his final work, Chess Story.
One of the reasons Chess Story can be enjoyed by any reader, regardless of whether they love chess or have never played a single game, is that the story itself sees the game through three distinct perspectives—that of an outsider, a genius, and an amateur. The outsider is the narrator, who knows how to play and is intrigued by the game, but doesn’t play often and only for fun when he does. The real heart of the novella is the conflict between the genius and the amateur, the world champion Mirko Czentovic and the mysterious Dr. B.
Czentovic is unstoppable, easily dispatching all opponents. Yet he is also, bluntly, an idiot. He has little education and behaves in a childish, even boorish way around others. There is something supernatural, even magical about how Czentovic absorbs the game as a child after simply watching others play.
In contrast, Dr. B.’s skill is won through nearly a year of studying and playing the game every single day. This is only possible because Dr. B. is one of the many victims of the Nazis who, rather than being condemned to a concentration camp, was instead condemned to total isolation. As a number of real people were under the Third Reich, he is locked in a hotel room and kept there with nothing to do and no one to talk to. He is totally alone, unable to even tell whether it is night or day. He is kept alive through food and drinks provided by a guard, but the guard never communicates with him. Now and then Nazi soldiers drag him out of his room to interrogate him with the questions to which he has no answers.
Then, just when this inhuman isolation is starting to destroy him, Dr. B manages to steal a book from a soldier’s coat. He is initially disappointed when he sees it’s a book of chess games, but with nothing else to do, he quickly throws himself into studying the game purely as a way of escaping his small, unchanging, torturous world. But the world inside his mind grows torturous as well, as he succumbs to what he calls “chess poisoning.” Like an intellectual virus, chess eats away at him. He’s driven to a mental breakdown after, having mastered all the games notated in his book, he begins to play against himself. The effort it takes to divide his consciousness as he plays games purely in his mind is too much, and it almost drives him into permanent madness.
Almost. Luckily, Dr. B is released from the hotel thanks to the efforts of a compassionate doctor. He wisely stays away from the game until he feels compelled to help the narrator, who is playing against Czentovic on a cruise. The unbearably tense climax occurs when Dr. B plays against Czentovic one-on-one, the amateur who studied the game purely as a way of keeping sane—although eventually it drove him mad—and the genius whose ability seems otherworldly, a result of intuition or instinct.
Zweig makes chess absolutely absorbing and thrilling for any reader. But it is undeniable that Chess Story doesn’t paint an altogether positive view of the game, considering that one character is essentially a victim of the game, to again borrow Duchamp’s words.
While there are multiple novels in the vein of Zweig’s novella, one story provides an opposite view. In Ah Cheng’s The Chess Master, a player’s experience with the infinite doesn’t plunge him into madness; rather, it raises him to the sublime.
In the introduction to the bilingual edition, Professor Ngai Ling-tun of the East Asian Languages and Literature Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison relates the story of how The Chess Master supposedly came to be. Apparently, Cheng—a painter and autodidact—loved to tell stories and people loved to listen to them. One of those stories so enthralled them that they urged him to write it down. Cheng didn’t think the written version was as good as the oral one, but it was good enough to earn it a prominent and beloved place in the canon of Chinese literature.
At first, The Chess Master seems similar to Zweig’s Chess Story. Both are concise stories that begin with a traveling narrator who is only mildly interested in chess and who meets a character who is uneducated yet highly skilled at the game. In Zweig’s story, that person is Czentovic. In Cheng’s story, it is Wang Yisheng, a young orphan who is able to temporarily escape the poverty and desperation of his life through chess. In Cheng’s novel, the backdrop is Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—the narrator and Yisheng meet because they are both high school students compelled to go to work at a state farm in the countryside.
The differences end there. Chinese chess—called Xiangqi—is actually played differently than the chess familiar to most Americans and Europeans, with different pieces, different rules, and a different board. Second, while chess in Zweig’s novella is isolating, chess in Cheng’s novella allows the lonely Yisheng to form deep friendships.
At the end of Cheng’s novella, Yisheng plays nine players simultaneously. He has no board in front of him. He doesn’t even look at the players. They merely tell him their moves and he tells them his. One by one he defeats his opponents until the only person left is the winner of an important chess tournament. Yisheng is certainly strained mentally by the games, but he does not careen toward a breakdown like Dr. B. Instead, chess raises him to a higher spiritual plane (Taoism is brought up a number of times; Cheng frequently injects his stories with Taoist elements). In the end, the game does not conclude with a winner or loser; Yisheng graciously agrees to a draw so that his elderly opponent—who says he has renewed hope for the future of chess in China because of Yisheng—can save face.
Aside from the story being more uplifting—basically an underdog story—the fact that it ends in a draw is crucial. It illustrates that Cheng does not see chess as a metaphor for war. Far from it—chess is presented as a harmonious collaboration composed of moves and pieces, reason and imagination. The game is a work of art, not of conflict.
It’s useful to see Zweig’s and Cheng’s stories at opposite ends of a spectrum of chess literature, with madness at one extreme, and serenity on the other. Perhaps the rewards of chess mirror those of literature, with infinite possibilities, and infinite rewards.
Image Credit: Pexels/sk.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Imagine a man introducing himself to you, repeatedly. The man is a novelist, and he tells you that he is going to fill you in about his novels. This he does, in part — but he also frequently digresses, informing you about some particular of lepidoptery — the collecting and studying of butterflies — or else waxes lyrical about the game of chess. In the course of telling you about his writings, he regularly seems to be insulting your own ability to read. He is certainly insulting towards readers by profession — critics, academics — and he also has many unkind words for some of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Yet despite the condescension, there is some residual warmth in his words.
This man is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire and well over a dozen other novels. At least, this is Nabokov as you might read him across the many forewords and introductions that he wrote for his own works. It is a strange thing that an author should find himself in the position of introducing his own writing as thoroughly and as many times as was Nabokov, and it might be equally as strange, too, that any author should want to do so. But the fact remains that, after the enormous and explosive success of Lolita in 1955, and as he and his son Dmitri Nabokov were beginning the process of translating the first of his Russian novels into English in 1959, Nabokov, aged 60, took it upon himself to acquaint properly his English-speaking readers with his works.
Nearly all of the nine forewords to the translations, beginning with Invitation to a Beheading (first published in Russian in 1936), address the fact that the novels are the products of an artist in exile. The wealthy aristocratic Nabokov family was, when the writer was young, forced to flee Russia during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. They took up in London at first (and Vladimir and his brother attended university in Cambridge) before they settled in Berlin. During the Berlin years, Nabokov lost his father to a political assassination, and gained a wife, the love of his life, Véra Nabokov. Nabokov spent 15 years in Berlin, the city where he published the majority of his Russian-language novels — novels that feature the haunting cityscapes of Nabokov’s Berlin, but which were also part of the author’s ongoing long-distance relationship with the Russia he had left behind. “What joy!” he wrote in a letter of the period, on the occasion of remembering his home country; “What agony, what heart-rending, provoking, inexpressible agony.” But with mounting political tensions in Berlin at the end of the ’30s, the Nabokovs were once more forced to emigrate — first to France, and then, in 1940, to the United States. From that point on, he wrote all his novels in English.
What do the manifold forewords to his translated works tell us about reading Nabokov’s novels? One of their most striking and most consistent features is not that they are an exercise in how to read, but rather that they instruct in how not to misread. That is to say, Nabokov’s phrasing is often extremely negative. Take his remarks upon himself in the foreword to Bend Sinister:
I am not ‘sincere,’ I am not ‘provocative,’ I am not ‘satirical.’ I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of ‘thaw’ in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent.
This litany of “am nots” is extraordinary, but not unique in the forewords. Nabokov elsewhere repeatedly insists, as he does in Bend Sinister, that his books “are not carriers of this or that ‘idea.’” “Despair,” for instance, “in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth.” Nabokov’s warning: do not hunt for truth! You will only come away disappointed, or (more importantly for him) with the wrong idea about the author.
Not content with turning the reader away from social and political truth, Nabokov also wants to dissuade us from drawing comparison between himself and other writers. “Spiritual affinities,” he writes, in the foreword to Invitation to a Beheading, “have no place in my conception of literary criticism.” And it is just as well that Nabokov is unlike other writers, because the majority of the so-called “greats” are anything but great in his eyes. For him, “Literature of Ideas,” is nothing other than “topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster” (he has in mind Honoré de Balzac, Maxim Gorky, and Thomas Mann). Franz Kafka and George Orwell are repeatedly presented as opposites: Kafka the “great German writer,” Orwell “the mediocre English one.” Kafka “that great artist,” Orwell a purveyor of “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction.” Some of Nabokov’s best, most barbed comments in the forewords relate to his fellow writers:
I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called ‘powerful’ and ‘stark’ by the reviewing hack. (Lolita)
This is an especially cutting statement. Not content with assaulting the Literature of Ideas, Nabokov has turned his gaze to the judgment of reviewers and readers. It is this kind of outrageous comment that, in the forewords, bleeds into Nabokov’s actual and direct insults to the intellect of his readers. Here, for example, is how Nabokov introduces hints about the coded imagery of The Luzhin Defense in its foreword: “I would like to spare the time and effort of hack reviewers — and, generally, persons who move their lips when reading and cannot be expected to tackle a dialogueless novel.” This is cutting, to be sure, and it is also very funny. But there is a more significant feature here, which is that the hints and tips he is about to share with us, the things we might have missed in the novel, are not real. He describes things that are simply not in the novel. We must, by necessity, all join the ranks of lip-moving readers, because there is no way we could have caught Nabokov’s uncatchable details.
If, therefore, we are expecting the forewords to be some safe space, untainted by the lies and mistruths of the novel form, we should clearly think twice. The foreword is, for Nabokov, a place in which to play as much as any of his more properly fictitious works — at times more so — and Nabokov delights in blurring the line between the inside and the outside of a text. Consider Pale Fire, a 999-line poem that only becomes anything like a “novel” once it is read within the frame of the preceding (fictional) foreword and the subsequent (fictional, and greatly substantial) commentary text. Or consider Lolita, in which the fate of the novel’s male and female leads is only revealed, subtly and in an off-hand manner, within its own fictional foreword. This foreword, an academic pastiche penned by one “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.,” has got the better of at least one major publisher to date — Penguin had thousands of copies of its deluxe hardback reissue of Lolita pulped after the publishing house discovered that the foreword — which it had mistaken for an academic yawn from yesteryear and had chosen to discount — was in fact a vital part of the novel. Major online booksellers still, confusingly, list “John Ray” as a secondary author of the Penguin edition.
But perhaps we should have a little pity on the wayward printers of Nabokov’s novels. After all, he hardly made it easy to determine text from paratext in his works, and he made it all the more difficult with his later fore/aftword “Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita” (it would surely have been a foreword had it not interfered with the fictional one already in place). The essay, tucked at the back of reprints of the novel, begins: “After doing my impersonation of suave John Ray…any comments coming straight from me may strike one == may strike me, in fact — as an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” Vladimir Nabokov: author, narrator, object, reader (“may strike me, in fact!”). Nabokov’s presence is, at such moments, discernible at every layer of his book, and this ensures that we can never be certain where he really is — or isn’t. He toys with this a lot. Here is, for instance, the amusing table of “Other Books by the Narrator” from the first pages of Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the last novel published before his death:
Pawn Takes Queen (1927)
Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun) 1931
The Red Top Hat (1934)
The Dare (1950)
See Under Real (1939)
Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1941)
Dr. Olga Repnin (1946)
Exile from Mayda (1947)
A Kingdom by the Sea (1962)
You don’t need a depth of knowledge about Nabokov to recognise that those are all transformations of his own novels, and that his narrator (Vadim) is a sort of Dostoevskian doubling of the author himself. Lolita becomes A Kingdom by the Sea, lifted from the second line of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (Humbert Humbert claims that the precursor to Lolita was an “Annabel Leigh”). Some are Russian puns — Nabokov’s The Gift was Dar in Russian, here The Dare of 1950. My favorite is Camera Obscura, which went under the title of Laughter in the Dark in the U.K, and is here receives the subtitle Slaughter in the Sun. The point of such paratextual fancies is to have us question whether a book really begins on its title page, whether it really ends on the words “THE END.”
And what about Nabokov’s “hack reviewers” and critics? It might seem surprising, to anyone with an academic background at least, that there exists no work of “Collected Prose” with all his introductions, nor “Nabokov: The Forewords.” But perhaps his academic readers are shamed into inactivity by the forewords themselves; they are, after all, an attempt to get in the last word in an ongoing dispute between author and critic. And critics, academics, and reviewers take a beating in Nabokov’s pre- and post-ambles. The essay on Lolita tuts over the “careless” approach of reviewers; after noting a few niceties in his own book that critics appear to have missed, Nabokov grumbles “It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself.” The essay itself is a warning against tiresome interrogation by academics: “Teachers of literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is this guy trying to say?’” It is worth remembering that both Nabokov and Humbert Humbert were teachers of literature at universities — “English literature, where so many poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” Perhaps the most damning anti-critical comment of this kind, though, is found in the surprisingly self-reflexive foreword to Bend Sinister:
Well-wishers will bring their own symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to my little party; ironists will point out the fatal fatuity of my explications in this foreword, and advise me to have footnotes next time (footnotes always seem comic to a certain kind of mind). In the long run, however, it is only the author’s private satisfaction that counts.
Is it indeed! We are on the threshold of a novel, and here is its author telling us pre-emptively that our response to it will not count. We can do all the symbol-hunting we want, but this book remains Nabokov’s party.
Amongst the schools of literary criticism, psychoanalysis is uniquely singled out for a stern thrashing by Nabokov. In fact, Sigmund Freud’s name appears in almost every one of the forewords, and where he is not named he is alluded to. Let’s savour just a few choice dismissals:
The Viennese delegation has not been invited. If, however, a resolute Freudian manages to slip in, he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there in the novel. (King, Queen, Knave)
My books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but they are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach with itching oviducts, stop, sniff and recoil. (The Eye)
The disciples of the Viennese witch-doctor will snigger over it in their grotesque world of communal guilt and progresivnoe education. (Invitation to a Beheading)
The attractively shaped object or Wiener-schnitzel dream that the eager Freudian may think he distinguishes in the remoteness of my wastes will turn out to be on closer inspection a derisive mirage organized by my agents. (Despair)
The little Freudian who mistakes a Pixlok set for the key to a novel will no doubt continue to identify my characters with his comic-book notion of my parents, sweethearts and serial selves. (The Luzhin Defense)
At the close of the catalogue, we have a portrait of a man who loathed the idea that some autonomous scholar with training in psychoanalysis might rummage around in his works and discover, against the author’s wishes, some unplanned truth or other. Part of the grumble relates to method. As Nabokov writes in the essay on Lolita:
Everybody should know that I detest symbol and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian Voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists.
Actually, Freudian Voodooism and literary critical generalizations amount to much the same thing in Nabokov. In his famous lecture on “Good Readers and Good Writers,” he tells us that “In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.” For Nabokov, Freud and his ilk were getting it the wrong way round, by hurling ideas at the human mind or at a book, and trying to make them stick.
But ultimately, Nabokov’s contempt for psychoanalysis seems less a critique of the validity of the psychoanalytic method (though it is in part that), but more a real anxiety on his part. By attacking Freud so thoroughly and so consistently, he expresses a real fear that his works might be misinterpreted or wrongly appropriated (surely Freud would have plenty to say about the surfacing and resurfacing of this very anxiety?). Nabokov is also clearly and deeply concerned about his own reputation, and that, above all, is what the forewords are: a steady and consistent retroactive effort to save face. After the storms of Lolita, Nabokov’s name would forever be associated with the themes of his novel, and commentators would routinely suggest that Humbert Humbert and his author were closer in nature than Nabokov would have liked people to know (Nabokov recalls in a letter a suspicious sea captain who wanted to know why the author had chosen such a salacious subject — “he was rather calé on Freud; he had not read Lolita”). Nabokov knows as well as any follower of Freud that there is plenty to be read into the often outrageous content of his works — perhaps the best he can do is resignedly play games with readers who are interested in analyzing his psyche through his prose. Consider the foreword to his own “literalist” translation of Eugene Onegin, in which he takes to task reviewers who praise above all else “readability: “’Readable,’ indeed! A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization.” Whatever we think of the criticism, this is an intrusion rendered hilarious through its lack of necessity, and one might well wonder what Freud would have said.
Beyond baiting psychoanalysts, what did Nabokov want to achieve with his various forewords? The further bafflement of his readers? The presentation of the “right sort” of truth? Probably he wanted precisely the proliferation of questions I am now asking, and not to provide answers. The forewords are, at any rate, a sort of literary mask — the “impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov” — and it is one that extends well beyond Nabokov’s writings and into his life. It is well known that Nabokov meticulously prepared answers to television interviews; he explains, in a foreword to the collection of his essays and interviews Strong Opinions, that “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” He would prepare a “typescript to be presented as direct speech” for his in-print interviewers. In the film Nabokov: My Most Difficult Book, the author, and close friend of Nabokov, Edmund White incisively remarks upon the character of these masks as a product of the fall from aristocratic dignity into the double exile of Germany and then America: “a lot of the aloofness that you see in Nabokov is a kind of wounded pride.”
The wounded pride is that of an émigré writer. After all the humorous huffing and puffing, all the tricks and traps and underhand maneuvers on the author’s part, the forewords exist, after all, to locate the English-language versions of Nabokov’s books within the context of a person in exile. In his essay on Lolita, before he had taken up the task of translating and introducing his previous works, he writes that the best of his Russian novels “are not translated into English, and all are prohibited for political reasons in Russia.” Nabokov believed, at this point, that the readers of his best works didn’t live in Russia, but also that they weren’t native English speakers. They were émigrés. They were the “tremendous outflow of intellectuals that formed such a prominent part of the general exodus from Soviet Russia” that he writes about in the foreword to Bend Sinister. They are outsider readers for an outsider writer, one who, perhaps, never quite managed to come to terms with his own celebrity. He built masks to be playful, yes; but he built masks to stay where he felt comfortable: on the outside.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.