Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism

Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism

Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism

Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism

Synopsis

Despite Vladimir Nabokov's hostility toward literary labels, he clearly recognized his own place in cultural history. In a fresh approach stressing Nabokov's European context, John Foster shows how this writer's art of memory intersects with early twentieth-century modernism. Tracing his interests in temporal perspective and the mnemonic image, in intertextual reminiscences, and in individuality amid cultural multiplicity, the book begins with such early Russian novels as Mary, then treats his emerging art of memory from Laughter in the Dark to The Gift. After discussing the author's cultural repositioning in his first English novels, Foster turns to Nabokov's masterpiece as an artist of memory, the autobiography Speak, Memory, and ends with an epilogue on Pale Fire. As a cross-cultural overview of modernism, this book examines how Nabokov navigated among Proust and Bergson, Freud and Mann, and Joyce and Eliot. It also explores his response to Baudelaire and Nietzsche as theorists of modernity, and his sense of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin as modernist precursors. As an approach to Nabokov, the book reflects the heightened importance of autobiography in current literary study. Other critical issues addressed include Bakhtin's theory of intertextuality, deconstructive views of memory, Benjamin's modernism of memory, and Nabokov's assumptions about modernism as a concept.

Excerpt

“How did it begin with you?” This invitation to describe the sources of one's creativity appears in Nabokov's last Russian novel, the Gift, written in the mid-1930s. It is directed at the artist-hero Fyodor, during an imaginary dialogue with Koncheyev, another aspiring writer he admires but barely knows. the following discussion opens up a crucial problematic in Nabokov's own career. For again and again, as Nabokov weighs his basic motives as an author, he senses both the strong desire to be modern and an irresistible urge to remember his past. As we shall see, the Gift is pivotal for Nabokov's exploration of this problematic. On the one hand, it looks ahead to more elaborate explanations of his art of memory from the late 1940s to the 1960s, when Nabokov probes his past in various versions of his autobiography. On the other, it refers obliquely to a development that had already occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, when Nabokov linked his emerging art of memory to two key theorists and practitioners of aesthetic modernity, Nietzsche and Baudelaire. This chapter will consider in turn each of these efforts at authorial self-analysis, beginning with the dialogue in the Gift and its later repercussions.

From synesthesia to the two
master narratives

In the Gift Koncheyev and Fyodor meet in a burst of excited shoptalk. the two young writers reassess the Russian tradition, then show their enthusiasm for “the new Russian poetry” of Blok, Bely, and Briusov in the early twentieth century. Finally, as they turn to their own aims as innovative writers, Koncheyev asks Fyodor his question about origins. the next halfpage gives a compressed and rather cryptic account of the problematic status of Nabokov's art of memory. For if Fyodor begins by insisting on his own artistic modernity, he then veers off to provide a very different definition of his authorship, in terms of personal memory and a lyrical, almost hallucinatory resurgence of images from the past.

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