Unlike the modernists, save Joyce, Nabokov was steadfastly self-conscious. His rhetorical bent and bookishness made a pair propitious for pastiche. With literature as his terrain, he invaded other turfs without apologizing. In Nausea, Sartre’s first novel, Antoine Roquentin keeps a diary as a confessional, charting the painful individualization of his self from the human herd. For Sartre, the advantage of the diary resided in consciousness unmediated by an external narrator, reducing the gap between the reader and Roquentin’s “authentic” existence. But the last pages of Despair turn into Hermann’s diary, a jest’s final turn crowned by the complaint about a cliché: “Alas, my tale degenerates into a diary. There is nothing to be done, though; for I have grown so used to writing, that now I am unable to desist. A diary, I admit, is the lowest form of literature.” Any genre pulled into Hermann’s orbit becomes untrustworthy, so a genre that for Sartre soared to the apex of authenticity, of narration free of an author peering over his creature’s actions, in Nabokov’s hands became another prop in his elaborate magic trick.
In fact, Nabokov couldn’t play his closing trick without sowing doubts about the diary form: “April 1st”. By making this the last date in the diary, he’s coerced this confession booth into abetting an ambiguous tale that leaves the reader wondering to what extent the book isn’t playing a prank on him. Has anything previously narrated by Hermann really happened? Is Hermann a hallucinating madman, a prankster, or – a growing, terrifying new possibility for the reader in 1937 – just a made-up creature invented by an author called Vladimir Nabokov, the real puppeteer? Whatever the answer, it is implied that the reader should treat this novel as a game, regardless of whether the game’s being played by Hermann or Nabokov.
An important clue shows up early on; we know that Nabokov wrote for re-readers, or readers with a strong capacity to retain details, or, in my less superhuman case, readers who like to underline references to game, play and trickery. So, when I turned to page 162 to find “April 1st”, it wasn’t hard to remember page 18:
“Tum-tee-tum. And once more – TUM! No, I have not gone mad. I am merely producing gleeful little sounds. The kind of glee one experiences upon making an April fool of someone. And a damned good fool I have made of someone. Who is he? Gentle reader, look at yourself in the mirror, as you seem to like mirrors so much.”
The joyful japery of spelling out to the reader that he’s being played for a fool would be lost on joyless killjoys like Henry James and Sartre, who would have literature remain a somber jail where a lot of soul-searching went on. I presume that Sartre found Despair so menacing to his project because it exposes Existentialism as the man-made ideology that it is, another “idea” to add to the ever-growing stock of “ideas” that claim to be the definitive answer to life’s problems. Like so many would-be mystic gurus, Sartre can’t sell his snake-oil without duping buyers that he, of all the human thinkers of the past 2500 years, has found the elixir for authentic, autonomous individuality – provided you follow his instructions. Despair is problematic for proselytizers of solve-all systems because it puts pressure on them to prove that they’re not just misguided, self-deluded cranks, as lost in the darkness and confusion they promise to liberate their fellow men from.
Generations of readers of Nausea have been instructed to give tremendous importance to Roquentin’s a near-mystical vision in a park when he finally understands what “existence” mean. It provides absolutely no new insight that couldn’t be replaced by a few books about the Gnostic tradition or Eastern spirituality:
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.
It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of "existence." I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, "The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull," but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an "existing seagull"; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word "to be." Or else I was thinking… how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, 1 foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.
So generic a telling of an experience of “true existence” that melts indistinguishably into the writings of Catholic desert hermits, Sufi mystics, 19th-century theosophists, modern-day magicians, of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and of the lovely bullshit of Carlos Castaneda, should warn us about the unremarkability of Roquentin’s tryst with the ineffable. Like his many predecessors, Roquentin struggles with words to verbalize his experience; they fail him, they run short of describing what direct experience is. Descending into incoherence is the most popular trope of the “I pierced the veil of illusion” literature. Lovecraft did it much better, and his cosmic gods made it more gripping.
Anti-language writers like Sartre will never understand what motivates a rhetorician like Nabokov. Sartre thought that language should subside and subdue itself in the presence of “true existence”, that there are things too reverential for language to sully. Living in the expectancy of communing with real existence at a higher plane than mere language, he thus behaves like the medieval Christian monk who waxed poetically about God but paid no attention to his physical surroundings. Such is the world described by Roquentin, made up of bland word combinations, colorless adjectives, short, direct statements barren of detail:
The little man stirs and sighs. He is all wrapped in his overcoat but from time to time he straightens up and puts on a haughty look. He has no past either. Looking closely, you would undoubtedly find in a cousin's house a photograph showing him at a wedding, with a wing collar, stiff shirt and a slight, young man's moustache. Of myself I don't think that even that is left.
Such a describer better have a higher, truer reality to look forward to because the world around him must appear continuously dull. In contrast, for Nabokov it was irrelevant whether there’s a higher reality beyond language or not because the rhetorician only treats as real what he can turn into amazing verbal patterns. His goal is to suffuse the surface of concrete reality with as much coquillage as possible, to heighten the vividness of our experiencing of surroundings that everyday routine and automatization have rendered boring, banausic, invisible, unmysterious, disenchanted. The rhetorician is aware that we must trick ourselves through language into feeling awe at a quotidian that seeks to numb us; but in that case he’s also aware that language is a spell that cheats perception. A good rhetorician will teach the reader to love and be suspicious of words at the same time. Anyone under such an influence can’t but read Nausea wondering if Roquentin isn’t also a compulsive liar, a deluded madman like Hermann. That’s the danger Despair posed to Sartre’s Existentialist literature recipe, it threatened to spread a contagion of uncertainty into the field of “authentic literature”, problematic only for those who think literature and authenticity have anything in common, which in 1939 was about… 99% of writers?
Hermann, having been discovered by the police in the townlet he’s hiding in, knows that the game’s up, the cops will arrive at any moment to arrest. His plan to evade them is to convince the mob gathered outside that he’s a filmmaker and that they’re about to watch a scene being filmed: “How about opening the window and making a little speech…” This reiterates the depressing but likely truthful tenet that, rather than life being lived authentically, it is a performance we put on. We are performers, whether it be Gorgias cheerleading Helen or narcissist Hermann embellishing his own life. This annoyed Sartre down to the fundaments of his philosophy. In Being and Nothingness, he used the waiter as an allegory of inauthentic life: the waiter puts on a role, he seamlessly slips into the routine and mannerisms of his job, embodying it with too much gusto and willingness without realizing it. To this slumbering state he called “bad-faith”. Existentialism presumed to provide the toolkit to educate man to break free of the social pressure to be an automaton. But Nabokov shows that freedom is relative: there is the author’s freedom over the creatures he’s invented; and Herman mirrors the author for he too controls the narrative and mediates our understanding of him and of those who enter his narrative; however we also come to realize that bits of what he narrates may be outside his control owing to his likely insanity, meaning he’s not an impartial, authentic observer. More than making fun of Dusty’s devotion to detective novel trappings, this is what must have upset Sartre. In an essay titled “Francois Mauriac and Freedom”, he roasted Mauriac for not giving his characters freedom (in Situations I, this essay comes right before his skewering of Despair). Dusty was the solemn example of a novelist who brought characters to life without bothering to explain or control them, letting them play out their busy spiritual dramas unfetteredly. Sartre used The Possessed and The Idiot as illustrations:
“It is not a matter of defining passions and unpredictable acts, still less of explaining them (in novels, even the best psychological analyses have a mouldy smell), but rather of presenting them. Neither you nor I know what Rogogine is going to do. I know that he is going to see his guilty mistress again, but I cannot tell whether he will control himself or whether his anger will drive him to murder; he is free. I slip into his skin, and there he is, awaiting himself with my waiting. He is afraid of himself, inside me; he is alive.”
He made no concessions on this point: “If I suspect that the hero's future actions are determined in advance by heredity, social influence or some other mechanism, my own time ebbs back into me; there remains only myself, reading and persisting, confronted by a static book. Do you want your characters to live? See to it that they are free.” Like Ford Madox Ford years before, and Henry James even earlier, Sartre believed that the author or narrator must be absent from a narrative that ought to strive to be as transparent and direct as a play on a stage. The creature is thrust into the world and then it’s his problem: he acts, we merely watch. For the average modernist, this wasn’t a hard creed to acquiesce to. For generations brought up on James’ The Art of the Novel, action was the goal: “Character, in any sense in which we can get at it, is action, and action is plot, and any plot which hangs together, even if it pretend to interest us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle, plays upon our emotion, our suspense, by means of personal references.” True courage was to suggest, as Nabokov does, that there is no static, fully-made world the creature is thrust into, since that creature was given creative powers and is constantly remaking the world in his mind. A brilliant exemplum happens in one of those “amateurish” moments when Hermann feigns ignorance of how to tell his story:
“How shall we begin this chapter? I offer several variations to choose from. Number one (readily adopted in novels where the narrative is conducted in the first person by the real or substitute author):
It is fine today, but cold, with the wind’s violence unabated; under my window the evergreen foliage rocks and rolls, and the postman on the Pignan road walks backwards, clutching at his cap. My restlessness grows.…
The distinctive features of this variation are rather obvious: it is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page. While he muses and writes, there is something or other going on around him; there is, for instance, this wind, this whirl of dust on the road which I see from my window (now the postman has swerved round and, bent double, still fighting, walks forward). A nice refreshing variation, this number one; it allows a breather and helps to bring in the personal note; thus lending life to the story—especially when the first person is as fictitious as all the rest. Well, that is just the point: a trick of the trade, a poor thing worn to shreds by literary fiction-mongers, does not suit me, for I have become strictly truthful. So we may turn to the second variation which consists of at once letting loose a new character, starting the chapter thus:
Orlovius was displeased.
When he happened to be displeased or worried, or merely ignorant of the right answer, he used to pull at the long lobe of his left ear, fringed with grey down; then he would pull at the long lobe of his right ear too, so as to avoid jealousies, and look at you over his plain, honest spectacles and take his time and then at last answer: “It is heavy to say, but I—”
“Heavy” with him meant “hard,” as in German; and there was a Teutonic thickness in the solemn Russian he spoke.
Now this second variation of a chapter’s beginning is a popular and sound method—but there is something too polished about it; nor do I think it becoming for shy, mournful Orlovius to fling open, spryly, the gates of a new chapter. I submit to your attention my third variation.
In the meantime … (the inviting gesture of dots, dots, dots).
Of old, this dodge was the darling of the Kinematograph, alias Cinematograph, alias Moving Pictures. You saw the hero doing this or that, and in the meantime … Dots—and the action switched to the country. In the meantime … A new paragraph, please.”
By enumerating the three different ways he could have started Chapter Three, Hermann proves that narrative and by extension our telling of our own life is fluid and subjected to editing. If this passage was in the version Sartre read, it must have been nightmarish. Nabokov threw a heavy gauntlet at novelists obsessed with authenticity. How can fiction be authentic if it’s a series of artificial choices for making a montage called “life”, the most artificial tale we tell ourselves and others? Trollope, to James’ disgust, was right: the narrator “can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best.” Or the one in accordance to his faulty mind. The creator is not mirroring, he’s creating something new, adding it to the world; he’s returning to the root of “poet”, a maker, when once it meant any writer of prose or verse, a meaning lost when novelists decided that the novel reports reality. For Nabokov, it’s idle to talk about authenticity, there’s no original by which we can evaluate the novel’s level of authenticity; each novel is unique unto itself. None of three possibilities is less or more authentic than the other, they’re just different literary choices, and yet they’re upsetting because they imply that living itself resembles making a book, except that book will be more like a chivalry romance full of nonsense and whimsy and aimless wandering instead of a tightly-edited confessional diary. Ironically, Nabokov thus endorsed more than Sartre ever did the freedom man has at his disposal to recreate himself and the world anew. But Nabokov doesn’t make it sound like a point in a moral philosophical system, but as an inevitable feature of our limited senses. The philosophical term for this, by the way, is acatalepsy, the doctrine from the Skeptic school of Pyrrho of Elis, according to which human perception is limited and can never fully understand something, or be certain of something, but lies in probabilities and tentative hypotheses. “Man is condemned to be free”, Sartre would go on saying; “because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” But for Nabokov man was condemned to keep duping himself with faulty senses, to put on roles not only to make a living, or to join a social milieu, or obtain advantage, but because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. If literature could teach man something, it was to trust his senses less, to examine his certainties more, basically how not to end up like a selfish solipsist like Herman, Humbert Humbert, and Charles Kinbote.
Another way Nabokov has of showing our sensorial interference over our grasp of reality resides in his mockery of Herman’s memory and observation skills. “An artist’s memory—what a curious thing! Beats all other kinds, I imagine.” This view bears similarities to the point Gorgias allegedly made in his lost treatise, On Nature. At one point Hermann gloats that “it is not everyone who is so observant” as him. He also has a nasty habit of thinking others are inferior. Of his wife Lydia he says: “She is little educated and little observant.” He notices things, he pierces deeper than her; she sticks to surfaces like cellophane. Likewise, he mocks Orlovius, “with whom shortsightedness was a form of stupidity”, wondering why he bothers to wear spectacles: “They were only a hindrance.”
However, Hermann is the least observant of all: his perfect crime hinges on the fact that he’s going to kill a lookalike to claim the insurance money, but no one but himself sees any resemblance between the two. This is a telltale sign of his madness. Furthermore, he’s so unobservant that he doesn’t realize Lydia and her cousin Ardalion are having an affair right in front of his eye; at one point he even goes to Ardalion’s place, suspecting nothing when he literally finds her naked there. But when, as part of his scheme, he confides in Orlovius that Lydia is having an affair, Orlovius replies knowingly: “Certain things I have long observed,” without Hermann wondering what he means. Another part of his plan involves forging a letter blackmailing himself and showing it to Orlovius: “Orlovius stopped and scrutinized the letter closely.” But more closely than Hermann thinks, for although he’s convinced he’s dupped him with a perfect forgery, it turns out that Orlovius informs the police “that I used to write letters to myself (rather unexpected).” Hermann is not the mastermind he thinks he is; the people he so dismissively considers beneath his genius are in fact more perceptive and observant of their surroundings.
Sometimes Nabokov bestows scientific vocabulary upon Hermann’s palaver; he likes to consider himself scientific, rational. “I now had no difficulty in working back and was satisfied to find everything in order. Q.E.D.” Q.E.D, or quod erat demonstrandum, “what was to be shown”, is placed at the end of mathematical proofs in indication that they are complete. Elsewhere he uses the adjective “equiradical rhyme”. The incurious reader may speed on thinking it’s one of those abstruse terms for verse feet inherited from the Ancients like antispast, anapest and other pests, but it actually comes from mathematics: two or more surds are said to be equiradical if they’re of the same order, like √5 and √7. Hermann believes also in the Soviet Revolution, which purported to organize society scientifically. In view of Nabokov’s known hatred of the Soviets, giving such political outlook to his protagonist allows him to poke fun at the belief human life can be reduced like base matter to matters of logistics or bureaucracy.
Nabokov dumps clues that Hermann’s mental state is wobbly. He talks about the conflict between his “rational memory” and “the irrational memory of my senses”. Bad memory plagues him, he leaves out lacunae. He’s also a pathological liar, although Nabokov relishes in pointing out that, literarily speaking, there’s no way of telling a false utterance from a true one unless the author says so, which of course creates a paradox: “A slight digression: that bit about my mother was a deliberate lie. In reality, she was a woman of the people, simple and coarse, sordidly dressed in a kind of blouse hanging loose at the waist. I could, of course, have crossed it out, but I purposely leave it there as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted, inspired lying.” For a long time, analytical philosophy was concerned with the validity of statements. In 1936, the philosophical rage in Europe was Logical Positivism; members of the Vienna Circle believed that there were only two types of propositions with cognitive meaning: scientific propositions (empiricism) and logical-mathematic propositions (rationalism). It wasn’t until after WWII that Logical Positivism suffered several blows to its reputation. In his essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), the philosopher Willard tried to show what was wrong with what he called “radical reductionism”, the doctrine that “Every meaningful statement is held to be translatable into a statement (true or false) about immediate experience.” Another important landmark in opposing this reductive view of language was J. L. Austin’s book How To Do Things With Words. As Austin says in the first lecture: “It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a 'statement' can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to 'state some fact', which it must do either truly or falsely.”
Since the Enlightenment and a long time before Logical Positivism, novelists had been drawing validity from science and philosophy; because of that they were subtly constrained to create novels out of propositions that ought to have the appearance of said characteristics, marring them in realist stories and objective, omniscient, third-person narrators. After all, a work of literature is literally a set of statements; if the only available options to the novelist are to be true or false, since no one wants to be willfully false there’s really no choice. That’s why James compared the novelist to the historian, as we saw in Part 2. That’s why the novel since Daniel Defoe vied to resemble linguistic genres that seem to have truth inscribed in their matrix: diaries, reports, newspapers. private letters which, being privately shared, were certainly not written with a voyeur in mind, and thus seemed more authentic.
However, literature was ahead of philosophy, because the business of writers is not only to do things with words, but also to make things with them. Nabokov is an early example of a novelist who showed the meaninglessness of the opposition between true and false statements in the realm of literature, since “true” facts in the course of a narrative that aren’t subject to doubt – Isabella Archer marries Gilbert Osmond, Count Dracula comes from Transylvania, Dr. Moreau dies on an Island, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” – are false in the sense that they’re fictitious statements. And yet we ascribed meaning to them; we feel shocked, upset, swindled after emotionally investing in a character’s drama only to find out it was a “dream” all along. It’s because of this fascinating psychological phenomenon, this emotional investment in figments of imagination, that kept and keeps readers so resistant to metafiction. Mischievous novelists like Nabokov understood this attachment well and upset it to cause major jolts in readers to renew their engagement with fiction. I’m not particularly crazy about metafiction myself, but it’s often ignored why and how it was an essential step in liberating the novelist’s creative energies into other venues free of metafictional tropes. Austin noticed that
“one of the things that has been happening lately in philosophy is that close attention has been given even to ‘statements’ which, though not false exactly nor yet ‘contradictory’, are yet outrageous. For instance, statements which refer to something which does not exist as, for example, ‘The present King of France is bald’. There might be a temptation to assimilate this to purporting to bequeath something which you do not own. Is there not a presupposition of existence in each? Is not a statement which refers to something which does not exist not so much false as void? And the more we consider a statement not as a sentence (or proposition) but as an act of speech (out of which the others are logical constructions) the more we are studying the whole thing as an act.”
He had a word for these speech acts outside true and false dichotomy: performative. As we’ve seen, narrators like Hermann were putting on rhetorical performances long before philosophers felt a need to give this a name. In the beginning, anti-realist novelists emphasized this neglected aspect of language by giving voice to liars, pranksters and the “amateur novelist”. In due time, after the reader had gone through a period of education, novelists realized they didn’t need a treacherous narrator to obfuscate the line between true and false; they could simply insert fantastical elements into the story narrated by an objective narrator and trust the reader not to care anymore about content being logically “untrue”.
I have long been fascinated by how the novel moved on not just from realism, but from modernism. Why at some point the novel became self-conscious, or what we call metafictional, and why the postwar period witnessed a glut of fictions that emphasized game, play, performance, forgeries; why of all the occasions Wayne C. Booth had to coin the term “unreliable narrator”, he did so in 1961, amidst a sea of unreliable narrators in contemporary novels. Why postwar fiction and pastiche go hand in hand, and why novels began being filled more and more with what Austin calls statements that although not false or contradictory are “outrageous”, or, as we readers call it nowadays, magical realism. Suddenly everyone was thinking about self-conscious art. You couldn’t even open an art history book like Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion without being subjected to metapainting, or how “realist” painting throughout history and until recently was not realistic at all but highly schematic and copied from manuals, that is, paintings made out of paintings, like the novels of novelists who read too many books. Personally, I love the fact that Gombrich’s and Austin’s books derive from public lectures given in the same year of 1955. It was also the year of that great unreliable narrator, Humbert Humbert, who’d launch a thousand imitators in American po-mo.
The “amateur novelist” novel never imposed itself, but it did play a prominent role in setting the stage for so many good postwar novelistic trends. Some people see modernism versus postmodernism as a contest and pull out the big guns. But far as what I’m trying to explain is concerned, a little-known novel like Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist contains more of the novel’s future than heavyweights like Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway or Time Lost do. Unamuno had the crazy idea of putting his protagonist talking with his creator. Mist has the gamey feeling missing from modernists but prevalent in postwar fiction; his countryman José Ortega y Gasset put all his chips on Time Lost being the big novel of his time. But whereas Time Lost is just a wordier 19th-century realist novel, Mist points toward Felipe Alfau’s Locos and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, two novels wherein characters escape the creator’s control. Since Alfau was Spanish, I wonder if he was aware of his countryman’s novel.
The “amateur novelist” novel also has a tradition, but after Sterne, Garrett, and Machado de Assis there’s a gap in modernism. It’s reactivated by Nabokov and soon it starts gaining traction. However, it was a decentralized tendency. In the 1940s, Tomaz de Figueiredo published a novella whose metafictional narrator pauses at one point to choose between two ways of setting a scene, like Hermann does. In 1956, John Barth made an “amateur” novel, The Floating Opera, openly inspired by the “amateur” novel Brás Cubas. Interestingly, practitioners of the “amateur” novel would go on to make deeply irrealist novels, giving rise to names like “magical realism” and “fabulism” to describe new trends. Despair arrived to heal the crisis of imagination that was killing the novel. The effect of realism, whether of the reporting or the knowing kind, is to decoct the imagination. One can say many nice things about Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Time Lost, but not that they’re riveting reads. (Franz Kafka is Stephen King with a more profound understanding of human condition but lazier work ethics: he deploys weird situations, keeps you turning the pages after a mystery, keeps you wondering what’s coming next, gives a sense of impending doom. He’s too entertaining and addictive for me to place him with other modernists; I can’t quite pinpoint what he was doing, but whatever it was it had nothing to do with whatever drove Joyce, Woolf, Broch, Gide, Proust, Faulkner, etc.) The novel, on an arms race to improve the technology of realism, gave up plot, suspense, fantasy, twists; modernists insulated themselves from anything that reeked of popular taste. In its final stages, realism even attempted to get rid of characters, psychology, style, and finally as much language as possible. Imagination in narrative fiction was unwanted by either side. For the “knowing” ilk, fiction drew its legitimacy from autobiography, circumscribing action to general experience, per force keeping out the strange, the singular, the surprising. For the “reporting” crowd, imagination imperiled the objective rendering of sociopolitical reality. A Portuguese proponent of socialist realism said as late as 1946 that its opponents, the knowingists, were correct in describing the socialist realist novel as “a monotonous, critical literature, without imagination or fantasy. And an arid, shredding, without ‘humility’, narrow criticism. Summing up, what they mean is that nowadays one’s less naïve, acts less gratuitously, wears one’s heart less on one’s sleeve and that that represents a sort of disenchantment of life.” You’d think that after this damning litany he’d counterpose, “Come on, we’re not that awful!” But, nope, he proudly owned it – yep, the purpose of the novel is to impart such dull and desiccated vision of life! Had either of these two worldviews won no one would ever have wanted to write the novels of Nabokov, Italo Calvino, John Barth, Raymond Queneau, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Gabriel García Márquez, Anthony Burgess. It’s a miracle how awesome postwar fiction turned out to be given the tremendous ill-will against it!
In Part 1, I quoted Hermann complaining that he’s without the calm, serene temperament for narrating. As the abovementioned example shows, proponents of socialist realism in fact thought that roughness, seriousness, was justifiable, even necessary in the evolution of the novel towards its real purpose. Hermann does pride himself on his active imagination, part of the super-senses he thinks inferiors like Lydia are lacking in: “Odd, she had no imagination whatever.” Like Casais Monteiro who deplored “art for game”, socialist realists required that the novel get rid of imagination and fantasy lest it failed to achieve didactic maturity. Nabokov makes a point of mocking this goal when he makes Hermann think of how his writings can benefit others: “Therefore I do think that Soviet youths of today should derive considerable benefit from a study of my book under the supervision of an experienced Marxist who would help them to follow through its pages the rudimentary wriggles of the social message it contains.”
Scraping the novel of its didactic gangue, Nabokov shuts himself off to the lure of the outside world and turns the “amateur novelist” into an encyclopedist who treats fiction as a self-enclosed system. He’ll worry less about what good his novels are for, and more about whether clichés are good for novels:
What amazed me was the absence of title on the first leaf: for assuredly I had at one time invented a title, something beginning with “Memoirs of a —” of a what? I could not remember; and, anyway, “Memoirs” seemed dreadfully dull and commonplace. What should I call my book then? “The Double”? But Russian literature possessed one already. “Crime and Pun”? Not bad—a little crude, though. “The Mirror”? “Portrait of the Artist in a Mirror”? Too jejune, too à la mode… what about “The Likeness”? “The Unrecognized Likeness”? “Justification of a Likeness”? No—dryish, with a touch of the philosophical. Something on the lines of “Only the Blind Do Not Kill”? Too long. Maybe: “An Answer to Critics”? or “The Poet and the Rabble”? Must think it over… but first let us read the book, said I aloud, the title will come afterwards.
He’ll treat fiction not as a mirror of reality but as a choice of schemata: “Here another literary device has crept in: the imitation of foreign novels, themselves imitations, which depict the ways of merry vagabonds, good hearty fellows. (My devices seem to have got mixed up a little, I am afraid.)”
Without a mandate to teach readers and save the world, the amateur novelist can afford to be humorous, a common trait of this marginal genre. Laughs are scant in Joyce, Proust, Woolf (Kafka’s the odd man out). But Nabokov’s humor isn’t situational so much as literary; his narrating buffoons produce humor from the discrepancy between their faulty but stubborn perceptions and the unruly reality beyond their control. Nothing could be more different than the tenderness Woolf shows to Septimus Warren Smith, the suicidal shellshocked war veteran who thinks sparrows chirp in Greek. If Nabokov had written him, instead of a pitiful figure on the sidelines of Clarissa’s life, he’d hogg the book with his boisterous monomania.
Such a novelist, thinking humor and entertainment are his business too, will eventually start blending popular genres with artistic ambition in parodic ways. Detective novels were the fastest-growing genre when Despair aped its tropes. Since Nabokov was a formalist and the detective novel follow a rigid scheme, it was the perfect vehicle to explore the similarity between narrative and life. He didn’t mock Dusty just to be mean. For an author concerned with how deceptive reality is, the detective novel’s reliance on the steady accretion of empirical data to build a picture of a past event is the perfect launching pad of a philosophical parody of the tenets of Logical Positivism. Nabokov wasn’t the first to see the potential of the detective novel to disrupt the certainties of philosophical realism. Alfau wrote Locos in 1928 but only found it an editor in 1936. Mary McCarthy reviewed it favorably in The Nation on June 27, 1936, but reception was lukewarm and it quickly disappeared and was forgotten to no one’s regret. The public wasn’t yet receptive to what it was trying to do. Since the stock of the English translation of Despair was lost in a bombing, we’ll never know how it would have been received in England; but modernism was already on the wane there and anyway the British had never much liked their modernists, who nevertheless were still more palatable to people who though a “good” novel was what George Elliot and Joseph Conrad made. Sartre’s review allows us to speculate what a fiasco it would have been with fellow novelists weaned on Henry James and André Gide.
Afterwards, timidly but firmly writers of artistic inclination started mixing detective novel tropes with metafiction or starting using the genre as a springboard for inquiries about the elusive nature of reality. Tomaz’ aforementioned novella qualifies as detective fiction. Carlo Emilio Gadda started a postwar detective novel called That Awful Mess in Via Merulana. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers borrows a lot from the genre. At first, artistic writers who tackled popular fiction had to keep a parodic distance so as to signal to their peers that their brains hadn’t turned to mush. But give it a few decades and they were making genre fiction as serious as anything by Agatha Christie but ostensibly more ambitious. One example is The Name of the Rose.
To get an idea of how bold Despair was, keep in mind that around the same time Graham Greene was needlessly dividing his work in two groups: serious work, labeled “novels”; and thrillers, spy novels, suspense novels, generically labeled “entertainments”. Although parodic, Nabokov saw no reason to make such distinction throughout his career: a bookish novelist knows of Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, and knows that narrative fiction can be simultaneously popular, serious, comical, erudite and artistic. It was only the invention of the “novel” as a separate genre that quarantined the old “romance” in the artificial category of low entertainment. The serious “novel” dealt with real things and drew its respectability from that exclusively; it logically followed that what wasn’t realistic wasn’t respectable. Once again, Nabokov showed how ahead of his contemporaries he was.
It’s remarkable the hostility the inclusion of popular genres in artistic novels met. I once came across an old review of Richard Wright’s Native Son complaining of its reliance on detective novel tropes. In A Sinking Island, Hugh Kenner spent a few pages deriding W. H. Auden for bringing a “secretive” world of cheap popular novels into hallowed poetry, requiring readers to be familiar with the pulp fiction “of the missed rendezvous, of the spy.” Auden’s sixth decade of life was marked by “big spy-novel gestures”. His shtick, said Kenner, was to make easy poems seem hard by encoding them with baroque-era-like enigmas and twisted syntax. Kenner murdered him with bonhomie: “Yet he’s nearly always entertaining, brisk, and bright, and not muffled, however encoded.” How ghastly, he’s entertaining! “Nor were needful clues inaccessible. Central attitudes, first of all, were widely shared, from idle sort-of-communist headshaking over middle-class idleness to crime-fiction hints that something ominous was going on somewhere.” This waft of the popular was enough for him to be the “Graham Greene of literature.” Kenner was also not a fan of Nabokov. Mind you, he was distilling his contempt for genre in 1987, when such elitism was becoming too dinosaurish, for by then it wasn’t only Nabokov who was challenging and changing perception of what an artistic novel could contain. In 1987 Paul Auster put out The New York Trilogy. The next year Umberto Eco released Foucault’s Pendulum. This was the culmination of a long, arduous process.
Besides Nabokov, some thinkers argued that the detective novel might add spice to a dying genre. Jean Paulhan defended the detective novel in his insightful essay, The Flowers of Tarbes, or Terror in Literature (1941):
“Yet we are also witnessing in our time the triumph and global appeal of the only genre that obeys rules stricter than Voltaire’s tragedies and Malherbe’s odes. I am thinking of that type of novel which proscribes from its range of emotions dreams, reveries, premonitions; from its choice of characters, metaphysicians, occultists, members of secret societies, Hindus, Chinese, Malaysians, twins; from its explanations, myths, allusions, symbols; from its figures of style, metaphors and ellipses – and which follows so rigorous an order in its narrative progression that it gives us in the very first chapter all the elements (characters, places, objects) of a problem that will not be resolved until the final pages.
We can now extend to all of literature this gesture toward reconciliation offered to us by the detective novel.”
Paulhan, addressing a problem in French literature regarding stylists whose pursuit of a singular, recherche, pure language bordered on an illegibility that alienated readers, also believed that one way of invigorating fiction was to embrace the use of clichés in a self-conscious manner; this is akin to the techniques of the “amateur novelist”:
“All that we have discovered, then, is that a cliché needs – if it is to avoid becoming a sign of defeat and cowardliness – to be constantly rethought, put into question, cleansed. As if we needed to respond to this excess of meaning with an excess of language: to this excess of spirit with an excess of matter. We might indeed name the Terrorists’ error angelism, insofar as expression is for them reduced to thought. But Rhetoric demonstrates that it is concerned instead with maintaining balance and stability.”
In 1942, Tomaz de Figueiredo named a novella “A Casa da Cobra – narrativa fora de moda”, the subtitle being “an out of fashion narrative”. What was self-ironically out of fashion about it was Tomaz’ mixture of many of the amateur novelist tropes from Sterne, Garrett and Machado with the 19th-century sensational feuilleton (Eugène Sue is mentioned), to haphazardly narrate a crime from its inception to its resolution in the voice of a digressive narrator who constantly breaks the fourth wall. Twelve years later he developed it into a full book, Procissão dos Defuntos. In the preface to the 1967 edition, Tomaz, claimed his “right to play seriously, my ludic right”.
As far theorizing went, the French were ahead of everyone else. Besides Paulhan, there was Roger Caillois’s 1941 essay The Mystery Novel. Weirdly, although written in French, it was published in Buenos Aires, thus attracting the attention of Caillois’ friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Reviewing it for Sur magazine, he wrote: “Mediocre or horrible, the police tale never dispenses with a beginning, a plot and a resolution. Interjections and opinions, incoherencies and confidences, wear out the literature of our time; the crime novel represents an order and the obligation to invent. Roger Caillois analyses very well its condition of rational game, of lucid game.” Like Nabokov, Borges saw fiction not as the psychological novel, but as game, artifice. Borges was a big lover the detective novel, and he and his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares even created a detective in 1942: Don Isidro Parodi. As the name indicates, it was parodical as per custom when artistic writers dabbled in the genre. They even used pseudonyms. But Borges’ love for the genre was true and his heartfelt defenses dated back to the “Narrative Art and Magic”. In “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton”, he again reiterated his belief that art is intrinsically artifice: “The settings for the crimes are remarkable, as in all of Chesterton's books, and carefully and sensationally false.” His manifesto was the prologue to Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. Borges was thrilled to see a work “of reasoned imagination” in Argentina, Bioy Casares “brings a new genre to our land and our language.” Written in 1940 when his major short-story books hadn’t been yet published, he used the occasion to reply to José Ortega y Gasset, who in The Dehumanization of Art had famously argued that the 20c novel no longer knew how to invent plots and didn’t need to know since the novel’s readership had grown up and didn’t read for story anymore anyway. As Borges remembered it: “On other pages, on almost all the other pages, he upheld the cause of the ‘psychological’ novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile.” But Borges disagreed; although he liked Dusty more than Nabokov did, he wasn’t fond of psychological novels either. In fact, he blamed the Russians for the modern novel’s sad storyless state:
“The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible: happy suicides, benevolent murderers, lovers who adore each other to the point of separation, informers who act out of fervor or humility… In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a "realistic" novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of verisimilitude. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day.”
Borges much preferred the orderliness of old-fashioned storytellers: “The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the seven voyages of Sin bad, or the Quixote.” For him, the growingly popular detective story refuted the claim that their century “cannot invent plots”. In a few years, Borges himself would usher in astonishing tales of their lucid imagination, blending philosophy and fantasy, mathematic and myth, magic and science. Around this time in Spain, a nearly anonymous Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was trying to get published novels we’d now call “magical realist”. One of them was La Princesa Durmiente Va A La Escuela, Sleeping Beauty Goes to School, a fantastic story about Sleeping Beauty waking up in modern times. Finished in 1951, it took 32 years to find an editor. Like Despair, it’s fiction about fiction, building on popular fairy-tales to make a new book. In the meanwhile, GTB despaired of publishing his fantastic novels since the climate in Spain favored only realism. In fact, the European artistic fantasy novel was plagued by bad luck for a long time. Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman were both written in the 1930s, they only came out in 1967. How different history could have been; for starters scholars would probably stop insisting that “magical realism” is a Latin-American specialty when it was clearly a world novel phenomenon born from a reaction against late-stage realism. Poor GTB, who all his life only wanted to write brainy fantasy novels, finally found success with La Saga/Fuga de J. B., but by 1972 it was too late and he never managed to shake off the nonsensical claims that he was cashing in on the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
And so it went, the ever-growing fund of phantasists eventually displacing the monopoly of realists. In America, as Nabokov became an idol and then a lighthouse to novelists wanting to leave the sea of realism, traces of his style started popping up everywhere. His contempt for “realism” would generate a popular industry of essays: at times it looks like all William H. Gass the essayist did his whole life was rewrite, augment, elaborate on a couple of throwaway lines from Nabokov’s “On a book called Lolita”. Gass invented the word “metafiction” when he realized that many contemporaries were writing about what they knew best, namely the act of reading other books. They were deeply conscious of literary history. This bookish attitude, detested by Sartre, echoes Hermann’s memories of childhood: “And speaking of literature, there is not a thing about it that I do not know. It has always been quite a hobby of mine. As a child I composed verse and elaborate stories.” As postwar society saw education as a priority, literacy grew worldwide, the rise of paperbacks made books – especially collections of classics – more available to the masses, and more students enrolled in literature classes and creative writing courses, a different breed of novelist emerged that was deeply knowledgeable about different genres, voices, styles, plus came from a working- or middle-class background that had a very informal, hardly reverential relationship with the past. Nabokov simply showed the way sooner.
His idea that fiction was a game was picked up and developed by Ronald Sukenick, who added an important distinction between game and play:
“That difference between play and game is an important distinction. Game is like a ritual acting out a fear of death. When you play a game, somebody always wins and somebody loses, so it's like dying. Play is a more creative activity that has no end point; it exists purely on a level of fun and even celebration. Play is literally endless: you can play forever.”
In his first novel, Up, Sukenick sabotages both the novel of “reporting” and the novel of “knowing”. Although Up’s filled to the brim with soundbites that encapsulate the outrageous ‘60s, it’s too subjective, too hyperbolic, too madcap to be of help as a rigorous document of an era the way Erskine Caldwell intended his Georgia stories be; on the other hand, although the narrator is one Ronald Sukenick, he, like Hermann, often pauses to inform the reader that he’s written lies and made details up about his life, rendering it useless as an “autobiographical” novel of “authenticity”. Says Hermann: “Not a day passed without my telling some lie. I lied as a nightingale sings, ecstatically, self-obliviously; reveling in the new life-harmony which I was creating.”
Nabokov taught writers the importance of pastiche and metafiction. He was a paradigm of style for stylists looking to get away from the sparseness of Hemingway and and the shapeless torrents of Faulkner. He set many on the path of rhetoric. After him, more and more protagonists come imbued with awesome rhetorical powers; many are paranoid, others are solipsistic narcissists who believe only in their made-up worlds. You see such turn, for instance, in Gass’ first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, whose most interesting character is a preacher, Jethro Furber, a man whose rhetorical gifts can persuade his congregation of things he’s stopped believing in. Gass later realized what was wrong with Omensetter’s Luck and emended it by writing The Tunnel, in which the rhetorical genius isn’t a minor character in one section but the overwhelming voice for 600 pages. No one made characters of this type better than Stanley Elkin, whose hustlers, radio hosts and salesmen crackle with verbal wit. Elkin, whose father was a traveling salesman, loved shoptalk and absorbed the idiolects of his characters. In his first novel, Boswell, a character William Long (a play on Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman), demonstrates his ability to sell anything using only words when he convinces passersby to buy worthless pieces of clay from a stranger. Again we find echoes in Hermann: “How I long to convince you! And I will, I will convince you! I will force you all, you rogues, to believe…” he says. He sure did convince a few novelists to be more like him, and fiction became much better thanks to it.
The Tainist in me hopes that this series of posts has been helpful to explain why historically Despair was such an important, innovative, audacious novel for its time. I hope I’ve made more palpable the forces he had to wrestle with to share his vision. Despair showcased the same greatness that would make him famous in America and a major influence on postwar fiction. As his first novel in English, it initiated a new phase, a third way for the novel stagnating at a crossroads. By the time his influence had settled, the novel as whole was much richer since, besides the novel of reporting and the novel of knowing, it had another mode to operate in, if the writer so chose. I don’t mean that he extinguished his predecessors, who are just as valid; my point is not to argue that that his way is better or that it superseded the others. In fact, I doubt it’ll ever be anything other than a minority, an oddity that can no longer be expurgated but isn’t much beloved either. So be it. What matters is that it’s yet another available way. Nabokov’s role was to amplify the freedom of the novelist; his prowess and patience led to profits for fiction. His mix of formalism, classic rhetoric devices, intertextuality, humor and genre appeal has proven a robust form. Nabokov once said: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” His goal, in lectures to students at Cornell and in novels, was to remember readers that the power of the three members of this triad had become unequal due to excess of realism. Thanks to him, the novel returned to the enchantment of life through language.