In 2009, the remains of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished last novel, The Original of Laura, were published, more than three decades after the dying author had asked his son Dmitri to destroy them. In 2012, Nabokov’s first large literary work, a play entitled The Tragedy of Mister Morn, appeared in English translation, nearly nine decades after the author had set the Russian text aside. Both releases were occasions of some excitement even though, to be honest, neither work was an especially astonishing performance. The novel, even in its fragmentary form, amply confirms that the late decline in Nabokov’s literary powers—flickeringly evident in Ada (1969), blazingly obvious in Transparent Things (1972) and Look at the Harlequins! (1974)—was both inexorable and steep. The play, on the other hand, is full of glints and glimmers of the literary triumphs to come, and it contains certain motifs—an exiled king incognito, for instance—that would flower magnificently in more mature works; but in itself it is inconsequential. Nabokov is something of an addictive substance to the susceptible, however, and his admirers tend to be grateful for even the meagerest scraps of “new” material (even his lepidopterological papers have enthusiasts who, I think it fair to guess, have little real interest in entomology).
What is really significant about these two most recent releases, it seems to me, is that taken together they afford us privileged glimpses of, respectively, the somber dusk and rosy dawn of a literary career that during its long golden day was among the most mysteriously captivating of the twentieth century. First as a Russian émigré in Western Europe writing in his native tongue and then as an American writing in English, Nabokov produced a number of books that, simply as feats of narrative enchantment, came perilously close to perfection. His greatest works—a category that unquestionably comprises The Defense (1930), The Gift (1938), Speak, Memory (1951), Lolita (1955), and Pale Fire (1962), and that arguably also includes Despair (1934), Invitation to a Beheading (1936), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), and Pnin (1957)—bear witness to their author’s almost uncanny ability to make his own delight in the act of creation immediately felt by his reader. But precisely how he achieved his effects is not always entirely clear.
In part, this is because, as an artist, Nabokov was about as sui generis as they come. He may not have been quite the parthenogenetic marvel he seemed to imagine he was (to hear him, he had never been influenced by anyone at all as a writer, but had sprung fully formed from Zeus’ brow with a pen in one hand and a butterfly net in the other), but it is certainly true that his sensibility and his craft were so distinctively his own that he cannot be classed in any school or tradition.
He can be compared to other writers, of course, but the analogies always seem oblique at best. Perhaps, in one way or another, he is “like” Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Musil, Svevo, Walser, Gombrowicz, Krúdy, Beckett, Cortázar, Borges, or Robbe-Grillet—or Flaubert, Pushkin, Sterne, Lewis Carroll, or Gogol—or Bruno Schulz, Boris Vian, Mikhail Bulgakov, Norman Douglas, Sadegh Hedayat, or Machado de Assis—or Platonov and the Odessa school of Olesha, Babel, Krzhizhanovsky, and Ilf and Petrov—or . . . (and so on). But, really, he is much more unlike them, and unlike anyone else too, and all attempts at plausible homology quickly dissolve, having provided no real insight into the strange power of his art.
This is not to say that it is wholly unaccountable. The formal mastery of Nabokov’s best work is obvious. A great part of the pleasure his books afford comes from his prose, which in English often seems all the more beguiling for its ever so slightly foreign accent. There is also his gift for exquisitely rendered details, astonishing concrete images, and unexpected metaphors. He was also a brilliant humorist. And one can scarcely exaggerate the elegant complexity of which he was capable, or the unerring sense of order (for instance, in the way he beautifully linked together the glittering miniatures that constitute Pnin, a novel so charming that one hardly notices how brilliant it is).
Yet, all that being granted, there remains something more. It is not solely the formal ingenuity of his writing that enchants us, but also an element present in the text that seems to exceed the form of the text altogether. Or perhaps it is not so much present as enticingly hinted at: something always out of sight, just beyond the boundaries of the book. At its most absorbing, his is an art of the palpably withheld, of a story truer than the one he is telling, constantly adumbrated but never quite disclosed, hiding below the surface of the words on the page, or far below many layers of narrative involution.
This impression of some mysterious surfeit—of an answer or a secret at once delightfully and infuriatingly elusive, or of an invisible context within which the book must mean something more than it seems to mean on the surface—reaches its consummation in that labyrinth of mirrors that is Pale Fire, a work of such exuberant intricacy that no satisfactory solution to all its enigmas will ever be produced (though Nabokov clearly had one in mind). But it is a sense imparted in some measure by almost all of his books.
And in recent years many critics, who on the whole had been reluctant to address Nabokov’s more “spiritual” preoccupations, have come around at last to the realization that a rather crucial ingredient of his art’s peculiar power over our imaginations is what is often called his “metaphysics.” That is not really the right word, though. Nabokov had no metaphysics in the strictly technical sense, since he had neither the patience nor the aptitude for abstractions. It is better to say, still somewhat vaguely, that the “secret” concealed in Nabokov’s texts, of which the reader catches only occasional, fleeting, and obscure glimpses, is a supernatural one.
Nabokov saw patterns everywhere, and in everything: art, nature, history, individual and collective fates . . . chess (at which he was a master, but in which he took his principal pleasure by devising exquisitely delicate problems to be solved on paper). His whole experience of reality was shaped by pervasive teleological intuitions, and his response to those intuitions was one of delight and curiosity, as well as a happy conviction that beyond all the patterns he could see lay more extensive and deeper and more wonderful patterns, which he could only sense.
And, the greater the complexity, subtlety, and grace of the patterns he perceived, the more certain he was of the presence of creative intelligence in the fabric of things, a dimension of intentional meaning at once communicating itself and yet concealing itself from direct scrutiny. One might almost say that, for him, there really was no ultimate formal distinction to be made between nature and art: Practically everything is, if approached with a sufficiently responsive sensibility, a poetic achievement.
I suspect that this explains his distaste, as a lepidopterist, for any purely genetic, molecular taxonomy of the creatures he studied so lovingly. He remained to the last defiantly faithful to an essentially morphological approach to his butterflies not because, as is often said, he was the last old-fashioned autodidactic gentleman naturalist, but because he believed that one could not penetrate the mysteries of nature without cultivating in oneself a feel for nature’s endlessly ingenious artistry.
If that seems a little quaint, I would point out that it was his fastidious, fatiguingly microscopic attentiveness to morphology that allowed him to postulate back in 1945 not only that the group of lepidoptera known as Polyommatus blues was not quite the cohesive biological family it was thought to be, but that the blues had, over millions of years, arrived in the Americas in five successive waves from Asia, over the Bering Strait. It seemed an extravagant hypothesis at the time, but the newest techniques in gene sequencing have, in just the past few years, confirmed it in every detail, right down to the order of the separate migrations. (Perhaps his own vindication by geneticists would have improved Nabokov’s opinion of molecular biology.)
More to the point, this fascination with form accounts for Nabokov’s sense that the natural world everywhere exhibited signs of conscious artistry, of the most elegant—and sometimes whimsical—kind. He was captivated by instances of mimicry, for example, especially when the result seemed to be far more accomplished than evolutionary imperatives could possibly warrant: the appearance of oozing poisons imitated “by bubble like macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction),” or a moth resembling a certain kind of wasp so exactly as to walk and move its antennae in ways alien to moths, or a butterfly in whose shape and color “not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in,” and so on. For him, concepts like “natural selection” and “the struggle for life” were simply explanatorily inadequate “when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation.”
It was chiefly here, in what seemed to him a constant victory of the beautiful over the needful in nature, and in the specular harmonies and morphological allusions that passed between species, that he believed he had found signs of something like a conjuror’s pleasure in complex illusions. “I discovered in nature,” he wrote, “the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” And where there is artistry, surely, there must be consciousness.
But what does that mean? What sort of consciousness was it, precisely, whose workings Nabokov thought he could discern in all the glorious and devious patterns by which he found himself surrounded? One answer—not particularly satisfying, perhaps, and certainly not final, but correct nonetheless—is “spirits.” There was perhaps more than a hint of Russian silver-age spiritualism in Nabokov’s thinking, a propensity inherited from his mother (who, he said, always possessed a powerful sense of the reality of the other world); but, more to the point, there was also a tendency toward a kind of idealism, a conceptually vague but imaginatively rich picture of all of reality as a communion of minds. He believed not only in the immortality of the soul but in the soul’s participation in the design of things; and he suspected that those souls who have passed beyond this life have been set free to take a more deliberate part, from the other side of the loom (so to speak), in weaving the larger pattern of reality.
Nabokov’s belief in fate, which ran very deep indeed, was of a piece with this peculiar view of things. No less than in nature and in art, he thought he could see the weavers’ hands in the destinies of individual lives. He seemed to believe, for instance, that his father and a certain foreordained bullet had been circling one another in a kind of grim dance for many years—with occasional premonitory near approaches—until at last they converged in Berlin in 1922, where Nabokov’s father was killed by an assassin.
And, frankly, Nabokov’s own private history was so extravagantly improbable and yet so eerily symmetrical that it would have been very odd indeed had he not felt that the whole course of his experiences had been elaborately orchestrated for him. His life unfolded as a kind of chiasm, with four distinct phases of roughly two decades each: an Edenic youth of vast wealth, idyllic estates, and pure imaginative and aesthetic delight; an anxious young adulthood of penury, exile, and finally grave danger; a stable but only moderately comfortable middle age in a new homeland, where his reputation slowly began to take root and blossom; and then, unexpectedly, a last period of vast wealth, idyllic mountain meadows, and pure imaginative and aesthetic delight once more. It was no mere figure of speech when, in Speak, Memory, Nabokov spoke of those moments when he could contemplate the “magic carpet” of his memories, as though outside of time, and feel a “thrill of gratitude . . . to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”
This, at any rate, is one very large part of that secret—that seeming surfeit of meaning in Nabokov’s works—of which I spoke above. His are in a significant sense haunted books. Far more often than one might suspect, especially on a first reading, there are ghosts hovering just beyond the margins of the page. They are not the phantoms of horror fiction, and they rarely if ever intrude too forcibly upon the action of the tale. Rather, they are subtle beings, possessed of enchanting powers, quiet presences mysteriously and winsomely insinuating themselves into the narrative, and even on occasion into the very form of the text.
In the short story “The Vane Sisters” (1959), for instance, only the most alert of readers is likely to notice that the tale’s two eponymous ladies (both deceased) have playfully invaded its final paragraph, quite unbeknownst to its putative author, with an acrostic message. And, unless one is paying close attention, one will fail to see that the narrator of Transparent Things is in fact a dead man, and that in the book’s final sentence he is gently ushering the soul of his protagonist into the next life.
Even when the ghosts are somewhat more recessive presences in the text, though, they are often vital to the action, and the reader who is wholly unaware of them will inevitably miss something of the largely invisible design that expresses itself, however circuitously or ambiguously, in the visible design of the narrative. Again and again, Nabokov’s books prove to be, if not transparencies, at least translucencies, luminous veils through whose secondary patterns the primary patterns of the other world can be descried.
I agree with Brian Boyd, for instance, in principle if not in every detail, that Pale Fire is as much a story about the threshold between this life and the next, and about those who cross that threshold in either direction, as it is a brilliantly hilarious fantasy about a poet writing his final masterpiece and a lunatic who fantasizes that he is an exiled king. Specifically, I agree that a pervasive but unseen presence throughout the book is John Shade’s dead daughter Hazel, and that the Vanessa atalanta butterfly that briefly plucks at her father’s sleeve just a few moments before his death is quite likely her revenant.
Whatever the case, all of these hauntings—all the silent disembodied presences, all the faint spectral whispers and gleams and vibrations at the edges and in the interstices of the texts—are expressions of Nabokov’s convictions that consciousness is something like the ground or essence of all reality and that the soul, being pure consciousness, is indestructible. If, though, these convictions possessed any more precise theoretical content than that, there is no record of precisely what it was.
The nearest thing we have is a tantalizingly promising sentence in his most “metaphysically” suggestive piece, the lecture “The Art of Literature and Commonsense”: “That human life is but a first installment of the serial soul and that one’s individual secret is not lost in the process of earthly dissolution, becomes something more than an optimistic conjecture, and even more than a matter of religious faith, when we remember that only commonsense rules immortality out.” But just here, poised on what appears to be the brink of Nabokov’s most explicit pronouncement upon the soul, two pages have disappeared from the sole surviving typescript of the text; when the argument resumes on the far side of the caesura it has already moved on to another topic (which irresistibly suggests, at least to me, some sort of mischievous posthumous editing on Nabokov’s part).
Perhaps the missing pages would only have reinforced the enigma. As I have noted, precise philosophical formulations were not in Nabokov’s line. What we can say with near certainty is that he spoke for himself in the epigraph he set at the beginning of Invitation to a Beheading (attributed there to the wholly fictional Pierre Delaland): “Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels.” We can also reasonably assert that he thought of the passage from this life to the next as—at least, for most souls—a wonderful transformation, in which consciousness achieves a richer existence, a far greater fullness than it enjoys within the enclosures of embodied life: To die is to awaken into an incomparably more expansive reality, a vaster dimension of thought and sensibility. He may even have regarded this metamorphosis as something like a necessary phase within the soul’s “natural cycle.”
Nabokov was quite adamant in rejecting the suggestion that his lepidoptery was anything but a purely scientific passion; it was, as far as he was concerned, wholly uncorrupted by the pathetic need to see butterflies as symbols of the spiritual within nature, or as trite metaphors for the immortal soul. But I only half-believe him. For instance, an Atlas moth breaking from its cocoon at the end of his early short story “Christmas” serves as a fairly straightforward image of life beyond death. As stridently as Nabokov the artist proclaimed his repugnance for facile symbolisms, the butterflies that throng his fictions often appear to be more than incidentally associated with moments where the partition between worlds seems particularly thin. And certainly he could not have been insensible to what is so deeply evocative about a holometabolous species whose transfiguration from a humbly earthbound larva into a winged and gloriously lovely imago is achieved by way of a kind of death, entombment, and resurrection.
The most Orphic or gnostic expression among Nabokov’s works of his belief in the soul’s immortality is found in Invitation to a Beheading, which is also the nearest thing to a purely surreal novel that he ever wrote. There, as nowhere else in his writings, the metaphysical atmosphere is one of stark dualism. The book’s protagonist, Cincinnatus C., is clearly imprisoned in a reality to which he does not properly belong, and which in fact is far less real than he. The world around him is repeatedly revealed to be little more than hastily assembled collections of canvas, pasteboard, painted wood, and plaster, ringed about by crudely daubed theater scenery, cluttered with poorly constructed props, and populated by secondary characters whose identities are so fluid that they themselves are scarcely more than masks or stage puppets. At one point, Cincinnatus briefly removes his own body, disassembling it like an articulated armor and setting it aside; at another, he imagines his soul as a pearl ring swallowed by a shark and now deeply embedded in its fat; at yet another, he recalls once inadvertently taking a stroll high up in midair, to the angry consternation of the onlookers below. At the end of the novel, just as he is being put to death by the miserable imps among whom he has lived his entire life, but who find his “gnostical turpitude” and impenetrable spiritual “opacity” intolerable, he realizes that he believes neither in them nor in death, and so he rises from the executioner’s block like a giant, breaks the false world into fragments, scatters its now tiny and transparent inhabitants in terrified flight, and strides off in a direction from which he thinks he hears the voices of other beings like himself.
The note of spiritually aristocratic gnosticism, however, is far more muted in Nabokov’s other books. For one thing, despite his well-deserved reputation for personal hauteur and his ill-deserved reputation for “coldness” as an author, his writings betray a fiercer sense of justice and a deeper reserve of compassion than he is usually given credit for. For another, his love of nature was too intense for him ever to imagine it to be in any sense illusory; as much as persons of a cruel or unimaginative cast of mind might have the power to create an artificial hell for others here on earth, the true world of the senses and of the sensitive mind is intrinsically benign, and at times paradisal.
That said, the sensible realm also remained for him, however ineffably, a fabrication: not in the sense of something false, but in the sense of something born from rational imagination and artistic elation. In the end, one could say, everything is a manifestation of soul. One of the tenderest and perhaps most revealing moments in all of Nabokov’s fiction is the scene in Bend Sinister (1947) in which Adam Krug reflects on the marvelous depth of his love for his own son: “a little creature, formed in some mysterious fashion . . . by the fusion of two mysteries, or rather two sets of a trillion mysteries each . . . and then permitted to accumulate trillions of its own mysteries; the whole suffused with consciousness, which is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.”
When trying to make sense of Nabokov’s conception of reality, and of his belief in a creative collaboration of souls shaping the world of experience—a kind of collective Dreamtime, I am almost tempted to say—one sooner or later must ask what Nabokov believed the essential origin or ground of consciousness to be. It seems clear to me (if only because of the cumulative impression left on me by various veiled intimations scattered throughout his works) that he imagined all souls as belonging to a hierarchy of intelligence, the consummation of which is a single source of creative consciousness: the supreme enchanter, the ultimate artist.
He was utterly indifferent to religion, true. The one Divine Liturgy he attended as a boy so bored him that his father told him he need never attend again. He was pleased that his mother’s conversion late in life to Christian Science afforded her such happiness, but he was not even mildly tempted to investigate her beliefs. Creeds, rituals, devotions, and dogmas were to him all little more than specimens of local folk custom, which was something he found unbearably tedious.
Still, in the end, his is a vision of reality that is all but unintelligible apart from some concept of God. Yet he seems to have found the very word distastefully indiscreet, and perhaps too commonplace to describe his own intuitions. On the one occasion when he made any sort of public declaration on whether he believed in God, in a 1964 interview with Alvin Toffler, he pulled off the impressive trick of affirming that he did, precisely by affirming nothing whatsoever: “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.”
This may be Nabokov’s sole known contribution to apophatic theology. Everything else he had to say on the matter he expressed with exquisite evasiveness, and principally by making himself, in his role as author, a kind of allegory of the divine. Often, he accomplished this simply by allowing the designer’s hand to be glimpsed at unguarded breaches in the walls of the text. In Pnin he did it simply by occupying the roles both of an omniscient observer and of a character within the story.
He did it most unambiguously at the end of Bend Sinister, where he unexpectedly enters his own novel from above, as a kind of omnipotent deus ex machina. Adam Krug, lying in a prison cell not long after learning of the brutal murder of his young son, awakes from “the bottom of a confused dream,” dimly perceives something ominously meaningful in the patterns of light and shadow around him, and is just on the verge of recalling the horrible truth; but “then,” writes Nabokov, “I felt a pang of pity for Adam and slid towards him along an inclined beam of pale light—causing instantaneous madness, but at least saving him from the senseless agony of his logical fate.”
A few pages later, at the moment of Krug’s death, the narrative shifts midsentence from Krug’s world to the world of his creator, who at that point rises from his writing desk, attracted by the sound of a moth striking the screen of his window. As Nabokov stares out into the night, he reflects upon the fate he has devised for his creature, and momentarily takes note of “an oblong puddle invariably acquiring the same form after every shower because of the constant spatulate shape of a depression in the ground”—a puddle, he tells us, that “Krug had somehow perceived through the layer of his own life.” And this, of course, makes one wonder whether Nabokov too might at that moment be glimpsing a trace of a yet fuller reality, through the layer of his own life.
Beyond that, Nabokov disclosed nothing about his ultimate beliefs. We simply cannot give a proper name to his “spiritual” or “theological” convictions. But, then again, neither could he. He was, I think one can say, a sort of visionary of the aesthetic realm. His perspective upon reality as a whole was not that of the mystics, the philosophers, or the religiously devout; and yet it was one that allowed him to see—through the mystery of consciousness and of the beautiful intricacy of the world of experience—the primordial and final reality of spirit in all things. What he recognized above all, and what he was able occasionally to describe with incomparable artistry, was the mind’s essential and original ecstasy toward form and complexity and beauty, and the way in which the world answers that ecstasy with its ever-deepening patterns and enigmas and signs of creative intelligence.
It was, for him, a recognition most fully expressed in the dauntless curiosity of science and in the irrepressible inventiveness of art, but not one that could be reduced to an argument or a logical demonstration. One either sees or does not; and, for those who do not, there may be no remedy for their defect of sensibility. And that, as it happens, may be a lesson well worth taking from Nabokov’s works, along with whatever else one might or might not be able to take as well: that the materialist is not simply someone who lacks the mystic’s immediate insight into the transcendent, or the philosopher’s grasp of the ontology of the absolute and the dependent, or the religious devotee’s experience of the rationality of faith, but is also—and perhaps much more essentially—a pitiable philistine.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer for First Things. His most recent book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.