The Challenge of Interpreting and Decoding Nabokov: Strategies and Suggestions
Julian W. Connolly
Every writer's work poses certain challenges to the reader. When the writer speaks three languages fluently, has a vast knowledge of European literature, is an accomplished lepidopterist, and compares the relationship between the author and the reader to that between the composer of chess problems and the solver of those problems, this challenge takes on unusual dimensions. This paper will examine the kinds of challenges presented by Nabokov's work, and it will offer strategies and suggestions for surmounting them. While general observations on how to read Nabokov are well-known (beginning with Nabokov's own “one cannot read a book, one can only reread it”;), specific guidelines are still lacking. To map out a workable blueprint for the interpretation for Nabokov's art, this paper will look at several individual components of his art, from the smallest building blocks to the largest questions of interpretation. In discussing these elements, we shall analyze ways to increase the likelihood of arriving at plausible interpretations and to minimize the chances of erroneous or overreaching speculation. Among the elements to be considered are Nabokov's use of anagrams and coded messages; the multiple roles played by literary allusion; the presence of traps set by the author for the unwary reader; the thorny issue of intentionality and authorial control; and finally, the issue of ultimate interpretation: are certain of Nabokov's texts genuinely open-ended, or do all the puzzles he sets have one, and only one, “correct”; interpretation. If time permits, we will discuss how one might approach The Real Life of Sebastian Knight using the principles outlined in this paper.
Published : 2008-03-20