The Web of Sense: Patterns of Involution in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov

By Trousdale, Rachel | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

The Web of Sense: Patterns of Involution in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov


Trousdale, Rachel, Woolf Studies Annual


The Web of Sense: Patterns of Involution in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov. Irena Ksiezopolska (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2012) 247pp.

Irena Ksiezopolska's The Web of Sense makes a daring proposal: that by reading Virginia Woolf next to Vladimir Nabokov, we can gain insight into both idiosyncratic, experimental writers' techniques in constructing their novels. When we look at Woolf and Nabokov next to each other, we see similarities in their profiles: both writers construct their novels in layers of interpenetrating narrative, the interaction of which calls into question "reality" (a word Nabokov insists must always be put in quotation marks). Both writers rely on their readers to sort through those layers. Both, even more than most novelists, build their texts around networks of repeated images which become the emotional and philosophical keys to their novels. Both return to the same images repeatedly throughout their careers. And both, influenced by Bergson, treat time as the malleable product of human perceptions. Reading Nabokov next to Woolf and Woolf next to Nabokov helps us identify the structural devices and philosophical underpinnings of each, without diminishing the originality or uniqueness of either.

Ksiezopolska catalogues Woolf and Nabokov's shared structures in detail. The first section of the book examines various patterning devices, from repeated objects like Woolf's use of brooches in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse or Nabokov's use of telephones in The Defense, to the writers' frequent use of "false doubles," paired characters whose similarities misleadingly appear to make them doppelgangers. These patterning devices, Ksiezopolska argues, center around a "pivotal point," the "centre of [the novel's] nervous system from which the lines of its subplots radiate" (74); these lines can extend still further, with a note sounded in one text echoing into the next.

The second section examines the writers' layered fictional worlds, in which incursions of the real world like sudden cameos by the author (Nabokov and his wife Vera dancing in King, Queen, Knave; the lady Bernard glimpses writing in The Waves) appear alongside apparently hallucinatory or imaginary characters. These texts foreground their narrators' unreliability and the texts' fictionality, and they cast the reader both as the detective responsible for unraveling the "truth" and as potentially yet another fictional character within a larger but still fictional universe.

The third section discusses Woolf and Nabokov's use of space and time, arguing that the apparent realism of their real-world settings (London, Berlin) is deliberately misleading, breaking down under scrutiny to reveal the essentially constructed nature of the fictional space and to call into question the linearity of time and "de-temporalize" the past (216).

Ksiezopolska's comparison of Woolf and Nabokov produces results on several different levels, from the individual novel to the field of twentieth-century literature as a whole. The sustained discussions of involuted space in the final section are particularly helpful in demonstrating both writers' blurring of boundaries between real and fictional worlds. The comparison of Woolf to Nabokov really does, as Ksiezopolska suggests, help illuminate the special features of each. (Ksiezopolska is careful to make no claims of intertextuality or influence, although, as she acknowledges, Nabokov did read Woolf. This may be a missed opportunity, but will probably help some readers accept the book's comparative argument.) The claim that both Nabokov and Woolf construct overall patterns not just in individual books but throughout their work, for example, helps show how important the techniques she identifies are for both writers, and also how unusual each writer is.

Most provocatively, while she distinguishes between Woolf's modernism and Nabokov's postmodernism, Ksiezopolska makes an implicit case for reexamining the boundaries between the periods. …

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