The Novel as Target Practice: Vladimir Nabokov's the Gift and the "New Malady of the Century"

Article excerpt

On July 24, 1934, hard at work on what would be his ultimate Russian novel, The Gift (Dar, 1937), Vladimir Nabokov wrote from Berlin to Vladislav Khodasevich in Paris:

   One should avoid the terrible odor of the emigre milieu (sure, it is easy 
   for me to say, since I live far from it all, in almost idyllic backwoods), 
   the best thing--applicable, by the way, to all times and smells--is to lock 
   oneself up in a room [...] and do one's meaningless, innocent, intoxicating 
   job [...] I find unbearable both intelligent and stupid speeches about 
   "modern times," "inquietude," "religious renaissance" and, really, any 
   phrase containing the word "post-war" [...] I wish neither to be "anxious" 
   nor to be "reborn." (1) 

To appreciate the import of this letter in the story of Nabokov's magnum opus, one must review the intellectual atmosphere which haunted the writer in his artistic hermitage. The notions he derides in the letter entered emigre Paris by way of interbellum French literature. His removal is deceptive: in the same letter he discusses Numbers (Chisla), the mouthpiece of the Paris School of emigre literature, while his scathing diatribe shows familiarity with Parisian critical debates. Nabokov's advertised disengagement from the issues ravaging the capital of emigre and French literatures seems to be an artistic stance dictated by the writer's strong opinions about these issues, which could not but mark his novel in progress.

In this article I argue that, heeding the life of literary Paris, Nabokov used Andre Gide's novel The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs, 1925) as a springboard for refining his novelistic aesthetics and as a war manual for launching an attack on his literary foes in The Gift. Gide in the 1920s and Nabokov in the 1930s found themselves in similar positions. Discarding dominant aesthetic trends, they strove to save previous novelistic experience from attacks of the post-war writers and to provide a matrix for modern novels in contrast to 19th-century realism. Using "literature as a safe-conduct," they attempted to preserve threatened aesthetic norms by codifying them in fiction. (2) Like Gaito Gazdanov, Iurii Fel'zen, and Boris Poplavskii, Nabokov creatively reworked his French model; but unlike his Parisian peers, he did not use it as a conspicuous textual marker. (3) Gide's legacy contained traits unacceptable to Nabokov-aestheticization of homosexuality, infatuation with Dostoevskii, and communist sympathies. Drawing on Gide's poetics, The Gift exorcised its hostile features from Nabokov's art of the novel.

In the wake of the Great War, French literati described their cultural situation as a crisis that transformed the post-war intellectual into a "European Hamlet" tortured by existential anxiety-inquietude (Valery 988-1014). In 1924, the novelist Marcel Arland argued that contemporary intellectual atmosphere was a "new malady of the century" akin to the malady engendered by the French revolution. Young French writers, having matured in the time of social turmoil, were overcome by anxiety, metaphysical solitude, and despair, because the culture of positivism, which "killed God," perished in the war. Now literature had to become a "sincere," "documentary" study of the psychological and intellectual vicissitudes of its creators, an "exact painting of reality" that gave up the vanity of imagination for the sake of producing new "existential protection" and helping "European Hamlets" cope with the crisis ("Sur un Nouveau mal du siecle" 11-37). The "new malady" and its attributes quickly became critical commonplaces. (4) Among the answers to the "new malady" was Jacques Maritain's neo-Thomistic movement of "Catholic renewal," which attracted a number of artists thanks to its modernist spirit and saw the salvation from crisis in the individual's "rebirth" through Christianity (Cremieux, Inquietude et reconstruction 157). …