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Art in Doubt
Tolstoy, Nabokov, and the Problem of Other Minds
Tatyana Gershkovich
Northwestern University Press, 2021

Leo Tolstoy’s and Vladimir Nabokov’s radically opposed aesthetic worldviews emanate from a shared intuition—that approaching a text skeptically is easy, but trusting it is hard
Two figures central to the Russian literary tradition—Tolstoy, the moralist, and Nabokov, the aesthete—seem to have sharply conflicting ideas about the purpose of literature. Tatyana Gershkovich undermines this familiar opposition by identifying a shared fear at the root of their seemingly antithetical aesthetics: that one’s experience of the world might be entirely one’s own, private and impossible to share through art.
Art in Doubt: Tolstoy, Nabokov, and the Problem of Other Minds reconceives the pair’s celebrated fiction and contentious theorizing as coherent, lifelong efforts to reckon with the problem of other people’s minds. Gershkovich demonstrates how the authors’ shared yearning for an impossibly intimate knowledge of others formed and deformed their fiction and brought them through parallel logic to their rival late styles: Tolstoy’s rustic simplicity and Nabokov’s baroque complexity. Unlike those authors for whom the skeptical predicament ends in absurdity or despair, Tolstoy and Nabokov both hold out hope that skepticism can be overcome, not by force of will but with the right kind of text, one designed to withstand our impulse to doubt it. Through close readings of key canonical works—Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murat, The Gift, Pale Fire—this book brings the twin titans of Russian fiction to bear on contemporary debates about how we read now, and how we ought to.


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The Art of Memory in Exile
Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera
Hana Pichova
Southern Illinois University Press, 2001
In The Art of Memory in Exile, Hana Pí chová explores the themes of memory and exile in selected novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera. Both writers, Pí chová argues, stress how personal and cultural memory serves as a creative means of overcoming the artist’ s and exile’ s loss of homeland. In their virtuoso displays of literary talent, Nabokov and Kundera showcase the strategies that allow their protagonists to succeed as é migré s: a creative fusing of past and present through the prism of the imagination.
Pí chová closely analyzes two novels by each author: the first written in exile (Nabokov's Mary and Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) and a later, pivotal novel in each writer's career (Nabokov's The Gift and Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being). In all four texts, these authors explore how the kaleidoscope of personal and cultural memory confronts a fragmented and untenable present, contrasting the lives of fictional é migré s who fail to bridge the gap between past and present with those é migré s whose rich artistic vision allows them to transcend the trials of homelessness.
By juxtaposing these novels and their authors, Pí chová provides a unique perspective on each writer's vast appeal and success. She finds that in the work of Nabokov and Kundera, the most successful exiles express a vision that transcends both national and temporal boundaries.

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The Author as Hero
Self and Tradition in Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Nabokov
Justin Weir
Northwestern University Press, 2011
Justin Weir develops a persuasive analysis of the complex relationship between authorial self-reflection and literary tradition in three of the most famous Russian novels of the first half of the twentieth century: Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, and Nabokov's The Gift. With Weir's innovative interpretation, and its compelling historical, cultural, and theoretical insights, The Author as Hero offers a new view of an important moment in the evolution of Russian literature.

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Dying for Time
Proust, Woolf, Nabokov
Martin Hägglund
Harvard University Press, 2012

Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov transformed the art of the novel in order to convey the experience of time. Nevertheless, their works have been read as expressions of a desire to transcend time—whether through an epiphany of memory, an immanent moment of being, or a transcendent afterlife. Martin Hägglund takes on these themes but gives them another reading entirely. The fear of time and death does not stem from a desire to transcend time, he argues. On the contrary, it is generated by the investment in temporal life. From this vantage point, Hägglund offers in-depth analyses of Proust’s Recherche, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Nabokov’s Ada.

Through his readings of literary works, Hägglund also sheds new light on topics of broad concern in the humanities, including time consciousness and memory, trauma and survival, the technology of writing and the aesthetic power of art. Finally, he develops an original theory of the relation between time and desire through an engagement with Freud and Lacan, addressing mourning and melancholia, pleasure and pain, attachment and loss. Dying for Time opens a new way of reading the dramas of desire as they are staged in both philosophy and literature.


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Nabokov and Indeterminacy
The Case of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Priscilla Meyer
Northwestern University Press, 2018

In Nabokov and Indeterminacy, Priscilla Meyer shows how Vladimir Nabokov’s early novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight illuminates his later work. Meyer first focuses on Sebastian Knight, exploring how Nabokov associates his characters with systems of subtextual references to Russian, British, and American literary and philosophical works. She then turns to Lolita and Pale Fire, applying these insights to show that these later novels clearly differentiate the characters through subtextual references, and that Sebastian Knight’s construction models that of Pale Fire.

Meyer argues that the dialogue Nabokov constructs among subtexts explores his central concern: the continued existence of the spirit beyond bodily death. She suggests that because Nabokov’s art was a quest for an unattainable knowledge of the otherworldly, knowledge which can never be conclusive, Nabokov’s novels are never closed in plot, theme, or resolution—they take as their hidden theme the unfinalizability that Bakhtin says characterizes all novels.

The conclusions of Nabokov's novels demand a rereading, and each rereading yields a different novel. The reader can never get back to the same beginning, never attain a conclusion, and instead becomes an adept of Nabokov’s quest. Meyer emphasizes that, unlike much postmodern fiction, the contradictions created by Nabokov’s multiple paths do not imply that existence is constructed arbitrarily of pre-existing fragments, but rather that these fragments lead to an ever-deepening approach to the unknowable.


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Nabokov and the Art of Painting
Gerard de Vries and D. Barton Johnson
Amsterdam University Press, 2006
“Sounds have colors and colors have smells.” This sentence in Adais only one of the many moments in Nabokov’s work where he sought to merge the visual into his rich and sensual writing. This lavishly illustrated study is the first to examine the role of the visual arts in Nabokov’s oeuvre and to explore how art deepens the potency of the prominent themes threaded throughout his work. 

The authors trace the role of art in Nabokov’s life, from his alphabetic chromesthesia—a psychological condition in which letters evoke specific colors—to his training under Marc Chagall’s painting instructor to his deep admiration for Leonardo da Vinci and Hieronymus Bosch. They then examine over 150 references to specific works of art in such novels as Laughter in the Dark, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, Lolita, Ada, and Pale Fire and consider how such references reveal new emotional aspects of Nabokov’s fiction.

A fascinating and wholly original study, Nabokov and the Art of Painting will be invaluable reading for scholars and enthusiasts of Nabokov alike.

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Nabokov and the Novel
Ellen Pifer
Harvard University Press, 1980

Ellen Pifer challenges the widely held assumption that Nabokov is a writer more interested in literary games than in living human beings. She demonstrates how Nabokov arranges the details of his fiction to explore human psychology and moral truth, and she argues her case with style.

Focusing on the most highly wrought and aesthetically self-conscious of Nabokov’s novels, Pifer shows how he deploys artifice to bring into bold relief what is real. In her chapter on King, Queen, Knave she reveals Nabokov’s radical distinction between genuine and simulated human existence. She shows how, in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, he contrasts “grotesque design” of collective existence with the individual’s radiant internal life. In Despair, Lolita, and Pale Fire, Nabokov’s parody of the double illuminates the unique source of human consciousness. In Ada, as in the earlier Laughter in the Dark, the inhuman nature of aesthetic bliss qualifies its delights. Making clear the moral perception of reality that lies behind Nabokov’s artistic strategies, Pifer offers a new assessment of Nabokov’s fiction and of his contribution to the tradition of the novel.


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Nabokov Upside Down
Edited by Brian Boyd and Marijeta Bozovic
Northwestern University Press, 2017

Nabokov Upside Down brings together essays that explicitly diverge from conventional topics and points of reference when interpreting a writer whose influence on contemporary literature is unrivaled. Scholars from around the world here read Nabokov in terms of bodies rather than minds, belly-laughs rather than erudite wit, servants rather than master-artists, or Asian rather than Western perspectives. The first part of the volume is dedicated to surveys of Nabokov’s oeuvre that transform some long-held assumptions concerning the nature of and significance of his work.

Often thought of as among the most cerebral of artists, Nabokov comes across in these essays as profoundly aware of the physical world, as evidenced by his masterly representation of physical movement, his bawdy humor, and his attention to gustatory pleasure, among other aspects of his writing. The volume’s second half focuses on individual works or phases in Nabokov’s career, noting connections among them as well as to other fields of inquiry beyond literature. Engaged in conversation with each other and, in his editorial comments, with Brian Boyd, the essays in this volume show Nabokov scholarship continuing to renew itself.


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Nabokov's Canon
From "Onegin" to "Ada"
Marijeta Bozovic
Northwestern University Press, 2016
Nabokov's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1964) and its accompanying Commentary, along with Ada, or Ardor (1969), his densely allusive late English language novel, have appeared nearly inscrutable to many interpreters of his work. If not outright failures, they are often considered relatively unsuccessful curiosities. In Bozovic's insightful study, these key texts reveal Nabokov's ambitions to reimagine a canon of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western masterpieces with Russian literature as a central, rather than marginal, strain. Nabokov's scholarly work, translations, and lectures on literature bear resemblance to New Critical canon reformations; however, Nabokov's canon is pointedly translingual and transnational and serves to legitimize his own literary practice. The new angles and theoretical framework offered by Nabokov's Canon help us to understand why Nabokov's provocative monuments remain powerful source texts for several generations of diverse international writers, as well as richly productive material for visual, cinematic, musical, and other artistic adaptations.

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Nabokov's Fifth Arc
Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work
Edited by J. E. Rivers and Charles Nicol
University of Texas Press, 1982

In his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov compared his life to a spiral, in which “twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series.” The first four arcs of the spiral of Nabokov’s life—his youth in Russia, voluntary exile in Europe, two decades spent in the United States, and the final years of his life in Switzerland—are now followed by a fifth arc, his continuing life in literary history, which this volume both explores and symbolizes.

This is the first collection of essays to examine all five arcs of Nabokov’s creative life through close analyses of representative works. The essays cast new light on works both famous and neglected and place these works against the backgrounds of Nabokov’s career as a whole and modern literature in general. Nabokov analyzes his own artistry in his “Postscript to the Russian Edition of Lolita,” presented here in its first English translation, and in his little-known “Notes to Ada by Vivian Darkbloom,” published now for the first time in America and keyed to the standard U.S. editions of the novel. In addition to a defense of his father’s work by Dmitri Nabokov and a portrait-interview by Alfred Appel, Jr., the volume presents a vast spectrum of critical analyses covering all Nabokov’s major novels and several important short stories. The highly original structure of the book and the fresh and often startling revelations of the essays dramatize as never before the unity and richness of Nabokov’s unique literary achievement.


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Nabokov's "Invitation to a Beheading"
A Critical Companion
Julian Connolly
Northwestern University Press, 1997
Julian W. Connolly's companion to Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading includes a general introduction discussing the work in the context of Nabokov's oeuvre as well as its place within the Russian literary tradition. Also included are primary sources and other background materials, as well as discussions of the work by leading scholars and an annotated bibliography. Combining the highest order of scholarship with accessibility, this critical companion illuminates a great work of literature, and will enhance is appreciation by both teachers and students.

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Narrating Demons, Transformative Texts
Rereading Genius in Mid-Century Modern Fictional Memoir
Daniel T. O’Hara
The Ohio State University Press, 2012
Narrating Demons, Transformative Texts: Rereading Genius in Mid-Century Modern Fictional Memoir, by Daniel T. O’Hara, acknowledges that the modern conception of literary genius is probably most lucidly expressed in the criticism of Lionel Trilling. But O’Hara also demonstrates that certain important and widely read mid-century modern fictional memoirs subversively return to an earlier conception that emphasizes the demonic nature of genius, a conception that is associated with the occult and the visionary and embraces the vision of evil articulated in earlier literature. O’Hara argues that Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) all demonstrate an imagining of genius in art and in life that stands in stark and total opposition to the emerging post–World War II age of conformity. These influential works show that genius is inherently a dangerous reality, albeit a creative one. Despite its most transcendent appearances, the full immanence of this conception of demonic genius condemns the modern world to a Last Judgment that is every bit as severe as any envisioned in the Western religious traditions.

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The Quill and the Scalpel
Nabokov's Art and the Worlds of Science
Stephen H. Blackwell
The Ohio State University Press, 2009
Most famous as a literary artist, Vladimir Nabokov was also a professional biologist and a lifelong student of science. By exploring the refractions of physics, psychology, and biology within his art and thought, The Quill and the Scalpel: Nabokov’s Art and the Worlds of Science,by Stephen H. Blackwell, demonstrates how aesthetic sensibilities contributed to Nabokov’s scientific work, and how his scientific passions shape, inform, and permeate his fictions.
            Nabokov’s attention to holistic study and inductive empirical work gradually reinforced his underlying suspicion of mechanistic explanations of nature. He perceived chilling parallels between the overconfidence of scientific progress and the dogmatic certainty of the Soviet regime. His scientific work and his artistic transfigurations of science underscore the limitations of human knowledge as a defining element of life. In provocative novels like Lolita,Pale Fire,The Gift,Ada, and others, Nabokov advances a surprisingly modest epistemology, urging skepticism toward all portrayals of nature, artistic and scientific. Simultaneously, he challenges his readers to recognize in the arts a vital branch of human discovery, one that both complements and informs traditional scientific research.

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Reader as Accomplice
Narrative Ethics in Dostoevsky and Nabokov
Alexander Spektor
Northwestern University Press, 2021

Reader as Accomplice: Narrative Ethics in Dostoevsky and Nabokov argues that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov seek to affect the moral imagination of their readers by linking morally laden plots to the ethical questions raised by narrative fiction at the formal level. By doing so, these two authors ask us to consider and respond to the ethical demands that narrative acts of representation and interpretation place on authors and readers.

Using the lens of narrative ethics, Alexander Spektor brings to light the important, previously unexplored correspondences between Dostoevsky and Nabokov. Ultimately, he argues for a productive comparison of how each writer investigates the ethical costs of narrating oneself and others. He also explores the power dynamics between author, character, narrator, and reader. In his readings of such texts as “The Meek One” and The Idiot by Dostoevsky and Bend Sinister and Despair by Nabokov, Spektor demonstrates that these authors incite the reader’s sense of ethics by exposing the risks but also the possibilities of narrative fiction.


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Social Semiotics As Praxis
Text, Social Meaning Making, and Nabokov’s Ada
Paul J. Thibault
University of Minnesota Press, 1991

In Social Semiotics as Praxis, Paul J. Thibault rescues semiotics from terminal formalism by recognizing that the object of a semiotic inquiry is necessarily the way in which human beings, individually and collectively, make sense of their lives.  Focusing on Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, he develops a conception of social semiotics that is a form of both social action and political praxis.


Thibault’s principal intellectual sources are, among others, Bakhtin, Volosinov, Derrida, Foucault, Gramsci, Habermas, and Halliday.  Thibault combines the work of Halliday in particular with is own theories of semiotics to explore the dynamics of quoting and reporting speech and to develop a critique of the categories of “self” and “representation.”  Thibault accounts for the meaningful relationships constructed among texts and elaborates on the two main themes of relational levels in texts and the dynamics of contextualization to give voice to a unifying discourse for talking about social meaning making.



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The Sublime Artist's Studio
Nabokov and Painting
Gavriel Shapiro
Northwestern University Press, 2009

In his youth, Vladimir Nabokov aspired to become a landscape artist. Even though he eventually realized that his true vocation was literature, his keen sense of visual detail, nuanced perception of color, and vast knowledge of the fine arts are all manifest in his literary works, which abound with painters and paintings, real and imaginary, as well as with magnificent pictorial imagery rendered in a verbal medium. The relation of the visual arts to Nabokov’s work is the subject of The Sublime Artist’s Studio, an in-depth and detailed study of one of the most significant facets of this modern master’s oeuvre.

Gavriel Shapiro pursues his inquiry throughout Nabokov’s literary legacy—poetry, short prose, novels, plays, memoirs, lectures, essays, interviews, and letters. What is the import of Nabokov’s lifelong fascination with the Old Masters? How does landscape function in Nabokov’s writings? What was the author’s relationship to contemporary artists? By addressing these and other questions, while examining Nabokov’s references and allusions to the visual arts and to particular works and artists, Shapiro is able to reveal the centrality of painting to Nabokov’s belles lettres. His book offers a new and promising approach to one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated writers.


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The Tender Friendship and the Charm of Perfect Accord
Nabokov and His Father
Gavriel Shapiro
University of Michigan Press, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), a writer of world renown, grew up in a culturally refined family with diverse interests. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich (1870–1922), was a distinguished jurist and statesman at the turn of the twentieth century. He was also a great connoisseur and aficionado of literature, painting, theater, and music as well as a passionate butterfly collector, keen chess player, and avid athlete. This book, the first of its kind, examines Vladimir Nabokov’s life and works as impacted by his distinguished father. It demonstrates that V. D. Nabokov exerted the most fundamental influence on his son, making this examination pivotal to understanding the writer’s personality and his world perception, as well as his literary, scholarly, and athletic accomplishments. The book contains never heretofore published archival materials. It is appended with rare articles by Nabokov and his father and is accompanied by old photographs. In addition, the book constitutes a survey of sorts of Russian civilization at the turn of the twentieth century by providing a partial view of the multifaceted picture of Imperial Russia in its twilight hours. The book illumines the historical background, political struggle, juridical battles, and literary and artistic life as well as athletic activities during the epoch, rich in cultural events and fraught with sociopolitical upheavals.

Cover illustration: Vladimir Nabokov and his father, 1906. The Nabokov family photographs. Copyright © The Estate of Vladimir Nabokov, used by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC; and of The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.


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Vladimir Nabokov - American Writers 96
University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers
Julian Moynahan
University of Minnesota Press, 1971

Vladimir Nabokov - American Writers 96 was first published in 1971. Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editions.


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Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Moral Acts
Dana Dragunoiu
Northwestern University Press, 2022
Winner, 2022 Brian Boyd Prize for Best Second Book on Nabokov

This book shows how ethics and aesthetics interact in the works of one of the most celebrated literary stylists of the twentieth century: the Russian American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Dana Dragunoiu reads Nabokov’s fictional worlds as battlegrounds between an autonomous will and heteronomous passions, demonstrating Nabokov’s insistence that genuinely moral acts occur when the will triumphs over the passions by answering the call of duty.
Dragunoiu puts Nabokov’s novels into dialogue with the work of writers such as Alexander Pushkin, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and Marcel Proust; with Kantian moral philosophy; with the institution of the modern duel of honor; and with the European traditions of chivalric literature that Nabokov studied as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. This configuration of literary influences and philosophical contexts allows Dragunoiu to advance an original and provocative argument about the formation, career, and legacies of an author who viewed moral activity as an art, and for whom artistic and moral acts served as testaments to the freedom of the will.


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Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism
Dana Dragunoiu
Northwestern University Press, 2011
Alongside the puzzles contained in Nabokov’s fiction, scholars have been unable to untangle the seemingly contradictory relationship between, on one hand, the fiction and the beliefs and principles suggested by Nabokov’s biography and, on the other hand, the statements he made outside of his work. Through a close examination of Nabokov’s father’s political, moral, and aesthetic values and, more generally, Russian liberalism as it existed in the first few decades of the twentieth century, Dragunoiu provides persuasive answers to many long-standing questions in this deeply researched, innovative study. 

Showing the particular influence of the thought of Kant and Berkeley, she focuses on what she calls Nabokov’s “most deceptively apolitical novels”: The Gift, Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. In bringing to them a more extensive context than previous Nabokov scholars, Dragunoiu argues that their treatment of various moral and political subjects can be more clearly understood in the light of ideas inherited by Nabokov from his father and his father’s generation.

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