The road to nowhere, a road to glory: Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Grin.
This article discusses the use of visual art as textual space in Vladimir Nabokov's and Aleksandr Grin's prose. Special attention is given to a device that both of these writers deploy: the literal transference of privileged characters between visual and verbal media. Through the use of this device, Nabokov and Grin transfer their characters to an embedded dimension of pure art that is not governed by restrictive ideology. The similarity of Nabokov's and Grin's manipulation of pictorial space, best illustrated by their novels Glory and The Road to Nowhere respectively, provides a context for considering Nabokov's oeuvre in relationship to Soviet Russian literature contemporary with him.
Time and space were to him measures of the same eternity. (Vladimir Nabokov) (1)
In the 1959 preface to the English translation of his Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabokov voiced a complaint against those readers who sought to establish literary influences on his work. He expressed unconcealed resentment towards those 'reviewers scurrying in search of more or less celebrated names for the purpose of passionate comparison'. (2) As his sole literary influence, he would acknowledge only Pierre Delalande, a fictional philosopher featured in some of Nabokov's novels. Nabokov's notorious resistance to intertextual and biographical scrutiny is perhaps the main reason that research into literary influences on his oeuvre still remains uneven. Largely because of Nabokov's special disdain for the Soviet regime, (3) research concerning his literary connections to Soviet Russian writers of the 1920s and early 1930s remains particularly sparse. (4)
Despite his alleged antipathy to Soviet Russia and the literature it produced, however, Nabokov's connection with post-Revolutionary Russia was never completely severed. Many of his early works, for instance, contain the theme of imaginative return to his homelands Moreover, his broader themes
I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Maxim D. Shrayer and Professor Christopher Wilson of Boston College for their generous contribution of guidance, time, and effort during work on this article. and interests suggest an imaginative engagement with the perplexing case of Aleksandr Grin (born Aleksandr Grinevskii, 1880-1932). Close contemporaries, Nabokov and Grin display an interest in a number of stylistic, aesthetic, and ideological principles in their prose, raising interesting questions about a parallel development of Soviet and emigre Russian literature.
Grin holds a unique place among his Soviet contemporaries. (6) The author of seven novels and over three hundred short stories, all of the former and a large part of the latter written after 1917, during the formative years of the Soviet Union, Grin remained 'one of the very rare Soviet writers who refused to deal with topical themes and to reflect current reality in his works'. (7) Throughout his life, Grin's works explored conflicts of the individual with society that transcended any specific geopolitical context. He himself remained largely aloof from the literary circles of his time. (8) His reluctance to engage with his contemporary socio-historical environment reflected his overall literary approach; in 1927, when asked to write a brief essay for a special edition of the magazine 30 dnei [30 days] dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Grin wrote a single-paragraph sketch 'Odin den' ['One day'], in which he described his daily activities without once mentioning the occasion for which he was ostensibly writing. (9) Notably, as a setting for much of his fiction, Grin invented the country of Grinlandia, (10) whose characters and places featured peculiarly un-Russian names. While most of these names are from Romance or Germanic roots, they are not of a single ethno-linguistic origin and most likely reflect Grin's interest in Western literature. In transliteration, they include Tirrei Davenant, Roena Futroz, Ort Galeran, Runa Beguem, and Aleksandr Kaur; the fictional towns of Grinlandia have names such as Zurbagan, Gel'-Giu [G'iu], Poket, and Liss.
The markedly non-referential discourse of these works drove an ever growing wedge between Grin and the Soviet literary community, especially during the latter part of the i920s. (11) While gradually falling out of favour among Soviet critics, Grin also remained practically unnoticed in the emigre circles of the time, eventually finding himself isolated from both literary worlds. He appeared in passing in Nina Berberova's The Italics Are Mine; in the 'Who is Who' section of her book, he is dismissed as an 'author of fantasy novels, mostly for teenagers'. (12) In July 1922 Poslednie novosti [The latest news] (13) featured an article 'Aleksandr Grin' by a writer with the nom de plume Arkadii Merimkin. (14) While the review describes Grin's works as 'true literature', it also expresses regret that 'only few people know him and few talk about him' (p. 2).
In itself, Grin's refusal to engage in literature of 'social demand' does not call for a comparison with Nabokov. However, Grin's detachment from a specific geopolitical reference, his characters' fragmented consciousness, and his use of self-conscious devices establish a literary kinship with his more celebrated emigre contemporary. (15) Moreover, Grin and Nabokov share an interest in incorporating visual art into their works. (16) More specifically, in a number of their short stories and novels, both authors deploy an important device: the transference of a character from textual to pictorial space. The space of the paintings which these characters access serves as the embedded dimension of pure art--'pure' because both Nabokov and Grin represent this space as if it can have no reference to the external narrative space in which these paintings exist. While, as D. Barton Johnson indicates, positing the existence of a world outside conventional reality goes back to the Russian Symbolists, (17) in Nabokov's and Grin's works the transference works on a literal rather than a symbolic or imaginary level. (18) One might best illustrate the ways in which these two authors employ the pictorial space in their works through a comparison between Grin's The Road to Nowhere (1929) and Nabokov' Glory (1931). Both novels contain a similarly positioned landscape painting that serves as a self-reflective metaphor for reading their framing texts. Through their distinctive use of pictorial space, both Grin and Nabokov create a dimension governed by art and resistant to any restrictive ideology, a world to which only select characters have access.
The entrancing world of the visual has several antecedents in Grin's oeuvre. The Shining World, (19) Grin's first long novel, displays his penchant for using fantastic elements. The protagonist of the novel, a young man named Drud, possesses the paranatural ability of flight, making him a subject of persecution that eventually lands him in prison. An influential and wealthy young woman, Runa Beguem, deeply transformed by having once witnessed Drud's flight, orchestrates his escape from prison; in exchange, she urges him to use his gift to conquer and rule the world. However, Drud has neither vanity nor ambition, and rejects her project. He flies away, and for the rest of the novel she is tormented by visions of him, understanding in retrospect the power of his gift over her. Drud continues to travel from town to town, both amazing and frightening people with his ability to fly, until he finally finds a kindred spirit in Tavi Tum, a poor young woman endowed with a rich imagination. Runa, however, remains obsessed, and conspires to capture and destroy him as the only way to regain inner peace. At the end of the novel, she believes that she recognizes Drud in a man who has committed suicide by jumping from a window; the dead man's actual identity, however, is never confirmed.
Grin explores Runa's agony through his first attempt to portray a transference between textual and pictorial spaces actually embedded in the novel. Runa, driven to the brink of insanity by her ceaseless visions of Drud, enters a small church in the concluding scene of Part 11. She kneels before an icon of the Virgin with the infant Christ in her lap: 'And here, for once in all this time without a shadow of fear, [...]--through the golden fog of the altar, she saw how Drud stepped out of the frame and sat down at the feet of the baby Christ.' (20) The interaction between the textual and pictorial dimensions is particularly interesting in this passage: though Drud seems to have stepped from the painting, he nevertheless hands a seashell to the infant Christ and invites him to listen to the sound of the waves while playing with the hand of a compass depicted in the bottom corner of the painting. The uninhibited transference of characters and objects from one world to the other and their continued interaction underscores the literality of Drud's movement from novelistic to pictorial space.
Runa believes that Drud's appearance in the church is one of the hallucinations she suffers throughout the novel. However, when she turns to her psychiatrist, Dr Grantom, for help, he asks, 'Are you sure this is a hallucination?' (p. 178). Dr Grantom explains that she must understand and embrace experiences that are not fathomable through empirical observation. His words direct our attention to the fact that certain phenomena cannot be rendered or explained within the limits of our conventional perceptions. The reader recognizes that Drud, endowed with a gift that no other man possesses, is not bound by physical limitations. He can easily transgress not only distance but also dimensionality.
A similar transference between the textual and pictorial media emerges in Nabokov's short story 'Venetsianka' ['La Veneziana'], written in the early autumn of 1924 and published for the first time only in 1995. As Maxim D. Shrayer observes, this story indicates 'Nabokov's concern with the problem of entering a space whose parameters differ from the regular space enveloping a character'. (21) However, Nabokov's treatment of the transference from textual to pictorial space operates in the opposite direction to Grin's; if Drud steps out of a painting without losing the ability to communicate with the world it depicts, the transference in Nabokov's story is reversed. This story is about a young art student named Frank who tries to teach his haughty father a lesson by using a painting entitled La Veneziana (22) which his father has bought from an art dealer by the name of McGore. Frank brings a room-mate, Simpson, for a weekend visit; the room-mate becomes mesmerized by the art dealer's wife and, in particular, her resemblance to the woman depicted in the painting. Soon, Frank will elope with the wife and Simpson will disappear. But the crucial transformations in the tale actually concern the movement to and from the visual. Over dinner Simpson observes that the Venetian woman looks poised on the verge of stepping out of the frame. In response, McGore suggests to him: 'Instead of inviting a painted figure to step out of its frame, imagine someone managing to step into the picture himself.' (23) Whether deliberately or not, McGore's suggestion evokes Grin's treatment of transference in The Shining World by inviting the reader to imagine the possibility of moving between textual and pictorial space. The next morning, Frank's father discovers Simpson's image freshly added to the painting and Simpson himself nowhere to be found. McGore then restores the painting to its original form, throwing the cleaning rags he has used out of a window where, just below, Simpson is soon discovered sleeping. Simpson then recounts a strange dream in which he entered the painting, was offered a lemon by the Venetian woman, and spent some time uncomfortably frozen on the canvas. McGore reveals that the creator of La Veneziana was, in fact, Frank, who added Simpson's image to the canvas before eloping. However, while these perplexing events relating to the painting receive a perfectly rational explanation, nothing accounts for the withered lemon discovered on the very spot where Simpson had been found sleeping.
[FIGURE 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The lemon that Simpson has received from the Venetian woman and carried with him back to the conventional three-dimensional world nullifies any rationalistic explanation we might apply to the story's ending. Rather, Simpson has actually entered the space of La Veneziana and spent an entire night inside it. Like the compass and the seashell that Drud shows to the infant Christ from the church icon, the lemon in 'La Veneziana' serves to testify to the literality of Simpson's experience. In Nabokov's and Grin's works, a character's ability to enter or step out of the pictorial space does not serve as a symbol or a fantasy. Instead, the transference between the narrative and visual space indicates the authors' treatment of the pictorial as an additional level of embedded text to which only certain characters have access.
'La Veneziana' and The Shining World represent early examples of Nabokov's and Grin's concern with pictorial space. Grin returns to the same problem in a more complicated and complete form in his story 'Fandango'(i927). (24) The protagonist of the story is Aleksandr Kaur, a destitute man who attempts to earn money by purchasing paintings for wealthy patrons. (25) Commissioned to purchase a painting for an art collector, Kaur discovers a canvas that immediately captures his imagination. He settles the price and then heads to the House of Writers, where he learns of a visiting Cuban delegation. Kaur serves as their interpreter, for which he receives a bag of gold coins. When he returns to the art dealer he visited that morning, he finds that the dimensions of his world have changed dramatically. The figures in the paintings have shifted, and Kaur realizes that he can reach inside landscapes and remove parts of them as if they were props on a stage set. He rolls a coin towards the painting he has admired so much and, to his surprise, the coin traverses the canvas and reaches the back wall of the room it depicts. He then realizes that all he has to do is simply follow the coin into the painting:
I stepped over the frame with a feeling of resistance to the contrary whirlwinds that noiselessly stunned me when I was in the dimensions of the frame; then everything became turned around. I stood on a firm floor and absent-mindedly picked up a few petals from the round lacquered table, and felt their silky moisture [...]. I sat down on the plush chair, looking in the direction from which I came. There [...] hung a small painting [...]. I saw an image [...], and it was the iron stove in the room from which I had moved over here. (26)
While it would have been impossible for Grin to read 'La Veneziana' in 1927, the similarities between Kaur's and Simpson's sensations, experiences, and responses remain intriguing. Their first impulse, for example, is physical contact with an object portrayed in the painting. Simpson accepts a lemon from the hands of the woman, immediately feeling its 'firm, roughish coolness and the dry warmth of her long fingers' ('La Veneziana', p. 111); similarly, Kaur's first reaction upon entering the painting is to reach for the flower petals lying on the table and feel 'their silky moisture'. Simpson and Kaur thus both verify the literality of their experience through physical, sensory contact with the objects inside the pictorial space they have entered. Moreover, the paintings in both stories feature an opening within the frame leading into the world that exists on the other side of the pictorial space, and both characters explore this other side of the painting they have entered. The world from which Kaur has come appears as a small frame on one of the walls of the room he has entered; similarly, Simpson sees 'instead of a fourth wall, a far, familiar hall' ('La Veneziana', p. 111). Simpson 'looked behind him toward the window' (ibid.), while Grin's protagonist 'walked over to the window and with a firm hand moved the shutter to get a good look at the town'('Fandango', p. 542). Notably, when Kaur returns from the other side of the pictorial space, he finds himself living in the year 1923 in very different circumstances. Although he attempts to explain the entire story as a dream, he discovers a bag of gold coins in his pocket--the one he has received from Bam-Gran in exchange for his interpreting services. As in 'La Veneziana', an object carried through dimensions makes impossible a rationalistic interpretation of the story's events.
In both stories, the triple layering of spaces embedded within one another--textual/pictorial/frame within pictorial--represents an example of what Barton Johnson terms 'regressive worlds'. (27) In the introduction to his book, Johnson discusses the existence of 'more than one world in varying degrees of presence'(p. 1) in most of Nabokov's novels. Moreover, as he suggests, these worlds exist in a consistently subordinate relationship to each other, creating an infinite proliferation of regressive worlds in Nabokov's works. In both 'La Veneziana' and 'Fandango' there is a moment in the text when the character (and the reader) is allowed a glimpse into all three frames simultaneously; in both stories, nevertheless, the characters' return to the original textual space denotes the continuously shifting paradigm of subordination among the existing frames. The layering in 'Fandango' works in a quite complicated way; while Simpson simply glances at the window that exists within the pictorial space, Kaur enters the second level of embedded space in the painting and only then returns to the textual space of the story.
Perhaps Nabokov's most mature and sophisticated treatment of the transference from narrative to pictorial space occurs in Glory, the novel about a Russian expatriate named Martin Edelweiss. After attending Cambridge and living in Europe for some years, Martin decides to undertake an illegal return to Russia. Immediately before his departure, he meets with his best friend from his Cambridge years, Darwin, with whom he shares his plans for the journey. Despite Darwin's feeble attempts to talk him out of this dangerous undertaking, Martin departs never to be seen again, and presumably never returns from his trip. At the beginning of the novel, Martin nostalgically recalls a watercolour 'depicting a dense forest with a winding path disappearing into its depths' (p. 4) that once hung over the bed in his old nursery. In his childhood, his mother had told him a fairy tale about a little boy who spent so much time looking at the watercolour that one day he found himself inside its landscape. By introducing the watercolour in the first chapter of the novel, Nabokov indicates its significance. The possibility of entering the painting, like the boy in the fairy tale, appears very real in Martin's imagination: 'When as a youth, he recalled the past, he would wonder if one night he had not actually hopped from bed to picture, and if this had not been the beginning of the journey, full of joy and anguish, into which his whole life had turned' (p. 5).
As a privileged character, (28) Martin, like Nabokov himself, has an awareness of the possibility of crossing over dimensions. Even earlier, immediately following Martin's childhood fantasy of leaping from his bed into the painting, Nabokov already suggests that Martin has in fact entered the pictorial space. 'Grandmother Edelweiss, nee Indrikov, worked diligently at watercolours in her youth, and as she mixed the blue paint with the yellow on her porcelain palette, she could hardly foresee that in this nascent greenery her grandson would one day wander' (p. 5). This sentence suggests that at some point in his life Martin actually finds himself in the greenery of the painting; the distinction between reality and fantasy is made problematic, as is the division between verbal and pictorial texts.
Martin's mysterious disappearance from Darwin's hotel room immediately after their final conversation further enhances the impression that Martin has actually entered a different dimension: 'It seemed impossible that Martin could have left so noiselessly' (p. 201). A few paragraphs later Darwin's efforts to find out what could have happened to his friend lead him nowhere, and Martin seemed to have dissolved into the air' (p. 202). This disappearance recalls Nabokov's earlier experiments in 'La Veneziana', transporting Simpson from one dimension into another; the dramatic difference, of course, is that Martin never returns from the space he has entered.
Several suggestive affinities to Grin, meanwhile, support the idea of Martin's disappearance into the embedded pictorial space of the novel. Like Nabokov's Glory, Grin's The Road to Nowhere (29) uses a watercolour as a starting point for the protagonist's story. The Road to Nowhere, arguably Grin's most pessimistic novel, tells the story of a young man, Tirrei Davenant, who grows up without parents in a town named Poket, working in manual jobs until one day the daughters of a wealthy local philanthropist, Futroz, persuade their father to help him. They try to make Davenant part of their circle and accept him as a friend; however, Davenant discovers that his own supposedly deceased father is an alcoholic beggar who has devised a blackmail scheme to extract money from Futroz. Davenant thus leaves his home town and re-emerges later in a different city. There, he defends a young woman against the advances of a governor's son, whose revenge drives Davenant back to Poket and leads to his incarceration. Davenant's friends attempt to rescue him, but he dies of the wounds he received during his flight to Poket, and, as it turns out, Futroz's daughters have completely forgotten him.
When, early in the novel, Davenant attends his only party at Futroz's house, he notices a series of watercolour paintings in the living room, one of which bears a striking resemblance to the one that hangs over Martin's bed in Nabokov' Glory. 'Davenant took a few steps, stopping in front of a small watercolour: a deserted road among hills in the morning light [...] "This is The Road to Nowhere", clarified the girl [Ellie] for Davenant. "For Nothing and To Nowhere, To Nobody, and For No Reason."' (30) As Grin's widow, Nina Grin, later recalled in her memoirs, the title of the novel came from a woodcut print by the British artist John Greenwood (31) (1885-1954) called The Road to Nowhere. (32) Impressed by the print which he saw in 1928 at an exhibition of English engravings in the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Grin changed the novel's working title, Na tenevoi storone [On the shadowy side], to The Road to Nowhere, remarking, according to Nina Grin, that the new title 'more deeply and accurately speaks to the theme of the novel'. (33) Nina Grin recalls that they spent the whole journey home from the museum talking about how closely the print related to the fate of the novel's protagonist. In fact, Grin found the print so illustrative of his protagonist's life that he chose to position the ominous watercolour The Road to Nowhere at the very beginning of Davenant's adventures. By doing this, he underscored the fact that the painting served as a metaphor for the novel: Davenant's journey could be neither happy nor fruitful. It is curious that in the novel Grin describes The Road to Nowhere not as a woodcut print but as a watercolour painting; thus, Nabokov's watercolour resembles not Greenwood's original print but Grin's already altered version of it.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The structural positioning of the respective paintings at the beginning of each novel also allows both Grin and Nabokov to signal the protagonists' ability to move from one dimension to another. Each painting depicts an enticing path that not only attracts Martin and Davenant, but also metaphorically represents their lives. Nabokov's Glory and Grin's The Road to Nowhere make numerous references to roads, trails, or paths which the protagonists encounter; moreover, these paths signal pivotal moments in the lives of both Martin and Davenant. When Davenant leaves the party at Futroz's house, the daughters offer to lead him out of the house along a mysterious path so as not to break the enchantment of the evening. The mysterious path is simply a back road through a garden gate, but to Davenant, enamoured of his delightful companions and the attractive Futroz household, 'the charming trail in the old garden was full of mysteriously pure excitement' (p. 398). The same night, Davenant's life changes abruptly when he returns home from the party; there he finds his scheming father and is forced to leave behind the promise of a better future.
The thematic path resurfaces in the next life-changing event to befall Davenant, during his fateful journey down a seventy-mile dusty highway from Poket to Liss. The highway disappears among the mountains, re-emerges in valleys, and traverses hills, forests, and villages; it ultimately brings Davenant to Liss, where, dehydrated and ill, he finds himself in a Red Cross hospital. In the next part of the novel Davenant (now living under the assumed name of Gravelot) has by chance inherited a road inn, 'By Land and Sea', located on a winding road that leads from Takhenbak to Gerton. Finally, in the conclusion of the novel he stands before a secret underground passageway that his friends have dug for him to escape from prison. But he is too weak and ill to move, and the escape plan fails. Every journey that Davenant has taken in his life is literally a road to nowhere: the garden path that promises to lead him to happiness takes him to his dramatic encounter with his father; the path that leads him to the theatre in Liss, where he has gone to explain himself and his father's actions to the Futroz family, also fails, as he faints within a few feet of their carriage, unnoticed by them; his successful business venture, the road inn, leads to his confrontation with Van Konet, the ensuing complications, and ultimately his death. In each of these instances the promise of the novel's title painting realizes itself.
The path depicted in the watercolour in Martin Edelweiss's nursery, like the watercolour itself, similarly takes Nabokov's protagonist through the novel into the unknown, as Martin vanishes at the end. As Pekka Tammi indicates, 'the emblematic path winds through the entire narrative, beginning with Martin's "childhood reverie" of entering the watercolour painting in his bedroom in Russia'. (34) Some of the recurrent allusions to a path in Martin's life appear at pivotal moments in the narrative and deserve special attention. The first reference occurs in connection with the death of his father:
It was then that Martin understood for the first time that human life flowed in zigzags, that now the first bend had been passed, and that his life had turned at the instant his mother summoned him from the cypress avenue to the terrace and said in a strange voice, 'I have received a letter from Zilanov' (Glory, p. 9)
Immediately after this, Martin goes out into the garden, walking 'on the dark earth of the damp path', which echoes the description of the watercolour at the beginning of the novel.
The winding path of the watercolour continues to mark Martin's life, and as he leaves Russia on a boat from Yalta, 'The moon's scintillating wake enticed one the same way as had the forest path in the nursery picture' (p. 20). Notably, in his English translation of the novel (published almost forty years after the Russian original in 1931), Nabokov replaced the phrase 'stezia v more' (lit. 'path in the sea') with' the moon's scintillating wake'; this subtle change allows him to emphasize the allusion to the forest path, which would have been obscured by the reference to the sea. Later in the novel, at what is perhaps the central turning point in Martin's life, instead of going to meet his mother as previously arranged, he 'suddenly changed direction, left the trail and started upward across the heather' (p. 84). Immediately after he decides to change direction, Martin finds himself on a ledge of a cliff, struggling to conquer his fears and stay alive. The ledge not only continues the novel's thematic engagement with the path, but also forewarns Martin of the danger of changing direction.
Of course, the ambiguous ending of Glory has invited diverse interpretations. Those who read the novel realistically suggest that Martin's undertaking has led to his tragic death in Soviet Russia; others have suggested that his disappearance marks his entrance into the fictional territory of Zoorland, his invented country, or even his actual disappearance into the watercolour itself. Martin's ominous encounter with Darwin recalls the fatalism of Grin' Road to Nowhere; moreover, it anticipates Martin's ultimate erasure from the novel. The day he is leaving Berlin he reveals his plans to Darwin, whom he asks to send postcards (which he has written in advance) to his mother every week. Taking this conversation rather lightly, Darwin repeatedly attempts to dissuade his friend from the journey; at the same time, he tries to convince himself that Martin is not serious about his plans. However, once Martin vanishes from his room, Darwin's opinion quickly changes:
He felt uneasy, a feeling he seldom experienced lately. Not only had Martin's arrival excited him as a tender echo of their university days, but it had been in itself extraordinary, everything about Martin had been extraordinary, the roughish tan, the breathless voice, the bizarre dark utterances, and that new haughty look in his eyes. (Glory, p. 201)
Darwin finds everything about Martin strange and disconcerting. His demeanour and looks suggest to Darwin a grim and dark decision, an anticipation of something strange about to happen to Martin.
Similarly, in The Road to Nowhere, in the story Futroz tells his guests about the innkeeper Piggins, (35) he has a premonition after Gent's departure: 'All day the words of the strange stoneworker would not leave the inn-keeper's head' (p. 389). Both Darwin and Piggins first respond with disbelief, then later feel compelled to take the warning they receive seriously and search for their missing friend; Darwin travels to Latvia's capital Riga to find out what has happened to Martin, while Piggins goes to see whether his strange visitor is safe. There are other structural similarities between these two scenes. Gent asks Piggins to wait for five days for a note and then go searching for him; Martin asks Darwin to send his mother a weekly postcard to keep the trip secret from her. Lastly, both Martin and Gent know in advance that they will not return from their journey. Prior to taking leave of his mother, Martin is filled with premonitions about seeing her and things that surround her for the last time: the pepper-pot, the dish at dinner, and his mother's freckles and eyebrows (Glory, p. 179).
Each of the possibilities implied by these premonitions--of death, self-destruction, or disappearance into an imaginary space--has its own plausibility. Yet as suggested, these apparent alternatives actually exist in Nabokov's work as a triple-layered and self-reflexive space of creative transference; as Pekka Tammi writes, these are 'second level embedded fictions', different dimensions of what Shrayer has called 'pure art'. (36) And once again, Grin's example provides an intertextual commentary--in particular, that this imaginative transference shuttles from one character to another, forestalling the prospect of death itself. In the case of The Shining World, Grin suggests a transfer of artistic sensibility from Drud to Runa. A few pages before the end of the novel, Drud sings a song to his wife, Tavi Tum, which Runa has never heard before; the song, however, becomes part of Runa's consciousness after she becomes convinced that Drud has committed suicide and so will no longer haunt her with his presence. Later, in the final lines of The Shining World, Grin writes:
Runa Kvinsei would try to remember something [...] but the moment would fade, and only its shadow, returning from afar in a light echo, would whisper words--overheard somewhere? created by someone else's volition?--or perhaps heard in her childhood:,
If you wouldn't forget As a wave forgets another wave.' (37)
The same possibility exists at the end of Glory, where Martin's vision of entering the painting is transferred to Darwin. Darwin travels to Switzerland to share the news of Martin's disappearance with his mother, and on the way to her house 'He was shown the shortest way--a footpath through a fir forest' (p. 205). Darwin's shortcut through the forest parallels Martin's clandestine journey to Russia through the dense woods on the border with Latvia. Nabokov underscores the transference of Martin's consciousness to Darwin in the closing sentence of the novel: 'The air was dingy, here and there tree roots traversed the trail, black fir needles now and then brushed against his shoulder, the dark path passed between the tree trunks in picturesque and mysterious windings' (ibid.). Darwin has become part of Martin's fantasy; the description of his walk through the forest indeed suggests that he may not only have stepped into the painting and disappeared into its landscape, but also entered into Darwin's own sensibility.
The transfer of Martin's consciousness to Darwin, therefore, suggests that the artistic possibility of simultaneous existence in more than one fictional realm within the novel exceeds a single character's sensibility. The ideal stasis which Nabokov's novel achieves in its last sentence returns the reader to the description of the watercolour painting in Martin's nursery: 'the dark path passed between the tree trunks in picturesque and mysterious windings' (P. 205). In effect, with its final sentence the novel becomes the watercolour painting that has remained intact throughout the text. The synthesis of the two art forms becomes especially complete because Glory successfully emulates the atemporal world of a landscape painting. The ending of Glory creates what Nabokov describes as 'a sensation of its world receding in the distance and stopping somewhere there, suspended afar like a picture in a picture: The Artist's Studio by Van Bock'. (38) Nabokov's ideal model of fiction-writing provided in this statement requires the removal of the chronological aspect of writing in a succession of regressive frames. While Nabokov attempted to achieve this effect elsewhere in his novels (for instance, in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight), the seamless fusion of verbal and pictorial texts at the end of the novel renders Glory unique in his ceuvre: it is a perfectly realized rendering of Nabokov's central theory of representation.
Comparing the manipulation of pictorial space in the works of Aleksandr Grin and Vladimir Nabokov thus not only reveals a series of intriguing similarities between them. It also allows one to understand and contextualize the treatment of this topic in their individual texts. Close contemporaries, writing in very different personal and historical circumstances, Grin and Nabokov explored the possibility of transference between textual and pictorial spaces. While nothing proves their familiarity with each other's works, both writers' short stories and novels concerned with such transference emerged parallel to each other. The works discussed in this article treat pictorial space as a form of embedded text, emphasizing the literal, as opposed to the symbolic, transference of the characters from one space to the other. The thematic and structural affinities in the works of Nabokov and Grin exemplify a link between Soviet and emigre Russian writers, demonstrating the kinship of artistic sensibility between these two bodies of literature. Nabokov, writing in exile, and Grin, marginalized from Soviet Russian mainstream literature of his period, create similarly non-referential and non-ideological artistic spaces. Further studies of Nabokov's relationship with his Soviet contemporaries will no doubt reveal more intriguing connections and insights. While this essay has focused on a specific aspect of the authors' works, a detailed study of their ceuvres would provide an unequivocal example of how writers born of the same literary tradition may grow parallel to each other despite their geographical, political, and historical differences.
(1) Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1939)(New York: Vintage International, 1992), p. 64.
(2) Invitation to a Beheading (New York: Vintage International, 1989), p. 6.
(3) See e.g. Nabokov's letter of 8 February 1944 to Mrs Theodore Sherwood Hope, Chairman of the New York Browning Society, in which Nabokov declared that he 'cannot avoid stressing the fact that Communism and its totalitarian rule have prevented the development of authentic literature in Russia during these last twenty five years' (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977, ed. by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew Bruccoli (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 48). Nabokov expressed similarly strong anti-Soviet sentiments in the interviews collected in Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw Hill, 1973), and in a number of his letters to Edmund Wilson published in Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
(4) Recent research has established connections between Nabokov and early Soviet Russian writers such as Evgenii Zamiatin, Viktor Shklovskii, Isaak Babel', and Iurii Olesha, whose works shared a resistance to official Soviet ideological positions of the 1920s and early 1930s. In Khudozhestvennyi sintez v russkoi proze XX-ogo veka [Artistic synthesis in 20th-century Russian prose] (Sofia: Biblioteka 48, 1994), Irina Zakharieva comments on the similarities between Nabokov's early novels and Zamiatin's My [We] (1920); in 'The Perfect Glory of Nabokov's Exploit' (Russian Studies in Literature, 35.4 (1999), 29-41) and 'A Dozen Notes to Nabokov's Short Stories' The Nabokovian, 40 (1998), 42-63) Maxim D. Shrayer discusses Nabokov's polemical response to Shklovskii; Omri Ronen examines the same connection in 'Viktor Shklovskii v Putevoditele po Berlinu' [Viktor Shklovskii in 'A Guide to Berlin'], Zvezda, 4 (1999), 164-72; while Nils like Nilsson in 'A Hall of Mirrors: Nabokov and Olesha ('Scando-Slavica, 15 (1969), 5-12) and, more recently, Jane Grayson in 'Double Bill: Nabokov and Olesha'(From Pushkin to 'Palisandriia': Essays on the Russian Novel in Honour of Richard Freeborn, ed. by Arnold McMillin (New York: St Martin's Press, 1990), 181-200), and Richard C. Borden in' H.G. Wells's "Door in the Wall" in Russian Literature'(Slavic and East European Journal, 36 (1992), 323-38) focus on the affinities between the works of Nabokov and Olesha.
(5) See e.g. Nabokov's poems 'Rasstrel' ['The Execution'] (1927) and 'K Rossii' ['To Russia'] (1939), his novel Podvig [Glory] (1931), and his short story 'Poseshchenie muzeia' ['The visit to the museum'] (1938). Glory is cited below from Nabokov's 1970 translation, in the edition published by Vintage International (New York, 1991).
(6) For a detailed account of Grin's reception by the Soviet literary community before and after his death, see Nicholas Luker, Aleksandr Grin: The Forgotten Visionary (Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners, 1980).
(7) Marc Slonim, Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 117.
(8) Grin was not well received by his contemporaries; in fact, some Soviet critics harshly criticized him for writing works that were profoundly divorced from Soviet reality. One notorious example is the infamous article by Anatolii Tarasenko 'O natsional' hykh traditsiiakh i burzhuaznom kosmopolitanizme' ['On national traditions and bourgeois cosmopolitanism'], Zamia [Banner], January 1950, pp. 152-64. The article attacks Grin's 'antinational world-view of a sick fantasy-writer, a reactionary romantic' (p. 155) and calling 'his overt cosmopolitanism' 'the most repulsive trait of Grin's work'(p. 156). In the same article, Tarasenko also denounces such brilliant Russian writers as Paustovskii, Olesha, and Borisov for 'attempting to create an idealized image of Grin' and his dangerously antinational writing. (Throughout, translations are mine (and literal) unless otherwise specified.)
(9) Aleksandr Verkhman and Iuliia Pervova, 'Grin i ego otnosheniia s epokhoi' ['Grin and his relationship with the epoch'], in Aleksandr Grin: chelovek i khudozhnik [Aleksandr Grin: man and artist], Proceedings of XIV Mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsiia, 8-12 September 1998, Feodosia Crimea (Simferopol': Krymskii Arkhiv, 2000), pp. 27-41 (p. 37).
(10) Grin never actually invented a name for his fictional country. In 1934, in the preface to Grin's Fantasticheskie novelly [Fantastic novels] (Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel'), the critic and former ideologist of Constructivism, Kornelii Zelinskii, coined the term' Grinlandia' for Grin's imaginary country, drawing on the phonetic similarity between 'grin' and' green' of Greenland (Grinlandia in Russian). Literally, 'Grinlandia' signifies Grin's country. For further explanation and the significance of the phonetic similarity between 'grin' and 'green', see n. 31.
(11) Interestingly, the writers of the period between the 1920s and the early 1930s who admired Grin's works included Viktor Shklovskii, Yevgenii Zamiatin, and Iurii Olesha. See e.g. Shklovskii's 'Tri vstrechi s Grinom. K 100-letiu so dnia rozhdeniia Aleksandra Grina' ['Three meetings with Grin: on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aleksandr Grin'], Soviet Studies in Literature, 7.2 (Spring 1981), 97-101, Olesha's memoirs 'Ni dnia bez strochki' [No day without a line], Zavist', Tri tolstiaka, Ni dnia bez strochki [Envy, Three fat men, No day without a line] (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1989), pp. 223-494, and Nina Grin, Vospominaniia o Grine [Recollections about Grin] (Simferopol': Krymuchpedgiz, 2000). In 1921 Grin sheltered Shklovskii and his family at his rented house in Toksovo during the arrests in St Petersburg; there is speculation that he provided Shklovskii with maps and contact names of trustworthy people when Shklovskii was leaving Russia: see I u. A. Pervova, 'Griny v Toksovo' [The Grins in Toksovo], in Aleksandr Grin: chelovek i khudozhnik, pp. 87-97 (p. 93).
(12)English translation by Philippe Radley of Kursiv moi (repr. New York: Knopf, 1992), pp. 55, 130.
(13) Russian emigre newspaper published in Paris, 1920-40.
(14) The true identity of Arkadii Merimkin, 'a famous Russian critic who for understandable reasons is forced to hide behind a nom de plume' (Poslednie novosti, 14 July 1922, p. 2), remains unclear; Gleb Struve speculates that it may be Vladislav Khodasevich (Russkaia literature v izgnanii: kratkii biograficheskii slovar' russkogo zarubezhia [Russian literature in exile] (Paris: Russkii Put', 1996), p. 337) but nothing proves this theory beyond doubt. Another likely candidate is Shklovskii, who lived in Berlin for two years before his return to the Soviet Union in 1923.
(15) A complete assessment of kinship in their oeuvres exceeds the scope of the current project, and would include other interests shared by Nabokov and Grin, such as the limiting function of artificially created spaces (prison motif), invention of fictional communities, distinctly Western literary connections, and many others. While the extent of the connection between Nabokov and Grin has never been studied, in Realisty i romantiki [The Realists and the Romantics] (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990) Vadim Kovskii briefly remarks on the similarity between these two authors: 'I will undertake to draw, perhaps, only one parallel, a purely subjective one, formed, of course, based on separate characteristics, not the model of the artistic world overall between Grin and V. Nabokov. V. Nabokov's novel King, Queen, Knave (1927) in some parts looks surprisingly like a work by Grin'(pp. 305-06). Kovskii finds that Grin and Nabokov display a similar detachment from their socio-political reality; however, as he says, his claim is subjective and he provides no further substantiation for it.
(16) In Mir i chelovek v tvorchestve A. S. Grina [The world and the man in the works of A. S. Grin] (Rostov-on-Don: Izdatel'stvo Rostovskogo universiteta, 1993), P. 36, Elena Ivanitskaia provides a comprehensive list of references to other art forms in Grin's works. Among these she lists the statue of Frezi Grant in Begushchaia po volnam [She who runs on the waves], the painting that appears at the beginning of Doroga nikuda [The road to nowhere], and a few paintings and sculptures in some of his short stories, such as the painting and sculpture composition in 'Belyi ogon' ['White fire'], the 'mysterious painting and music' in 'Fandango', and so on. To these, one should add the misnamed paintings of the four seasons on the first page of The Road to Nowhere, as well as the icon of the Madonna and child that appears in Blistaiushchii mir [The shining world] (1923: for publication details seen. n. 19).
(17) See Worlds In Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985), P. 3.
(18) An early example of transference from pictorial to textual space in Russian literature is Gogol's 'Portret' ['The portrait'] (1836). In this story, a man depicted in a portrait makes a mystical appearance in the protagonist's dream; the transference, however, is ambiguous enough to remain on a purely imaginative level. (I would like to thank Professor Vladimir Alexandrov for bringing this to my attention.)
(19) The novel was completed in March 1923 and serialized in issues 20-30 of Krasnaia niva [The red cornfield] the same year. In 1924 Zemlia i fabrika [Land and factory] published the novel in book form. (See Aleksandr Grin, Sobranie sochinenii [Collected works], 5 vols (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1991), IV, 522, introduction and commentary by V. Kovsky.)
(20) Aleksandr Grin, Blistaiushchii mir, in Sobranie sochinenii, 1v, 75-226 (p. 186; emphasis original).
(21) The World of Nabokov's Stories (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), P. 29.
(22) For the genealogy of the painting La Veneziana, see Neil Cornwell, 'Paintings, Governesses and "Publishing Scoundrels": Nabokov and Henry James', in Nabokov's World ed. by Jane Grayson, Arnold McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer, z vols (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 11, 96-116; also Shrayer, The World of Nabokov Stories, pp. 28-29.
(23) Vladimir Nabokov, 'La Veneziana', in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Knopf, 1995). Quoted here from the paperback edition (New York: Vintage International, 1997), pp. 90-115 (p. 100).
(24) First published in the almanac Voina zolotom: al'manakh prikliuchenii [War with gold: adventure almanacs] (Moscow, 1927) (Grin, Sobranie sochinenii III, 717, commentary by V. Kovsky).
(25) The poverty of Kaur's existence in post-Revolutionary St Petersburg parallels Leonid Borisov's account of Grin's own life in Volshebnik iz Gel'-G'iu [The wizard of Gel'-G'iu] (1945).
(26) Grin, 'Fandango', Sobranie sochinenii, III, 497-550 (P. 542; emphasis original).
(27) Johnson, Worlds in Regression, p. 2.
(28) In his 1970 foreword to the English edition of Glory, reprinted in the i99i edition cited in n. 5, Nabokov distinguishes Martin as one of his privileged characters and speaks of him in very affectionate terms, calling him' the kindest, uprightest, most touching of [his] young men' (p. xi).
(29) First published in book form by Federatsiia in Moscow in 1930 (Grin, Sobranie sochinenii, v, 584). Parts of the novel were serialized in Ogonek in the summer of 1929.
(30) Grin, Doroga nikuda, in Sobranie sochinenii, v, 345-570 (P. 386).
(31) The phonetic likeness between his nom de plume and the artist's last name also struck Grin. Grin's nom de plume is an abbreviation of his Polish surname Grinevskii (possibly of Jewish descent), derived either from English green or German grun. The similarity between the last names Grin and Greenwood is more apparent in Russian, which, unlike English, does not distinguish between the short [i] in grin and the long [i:] in green.
(32) Now part of the permanent collection at Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont, CA. See Figure 1.
(33) Vospominaniia o Grine, p. 77.
(34) 'Glory', in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by Vladimir Alexandrov (New York: Garland, 1995), PP. 169-78 (PP. 174-75).
(35) At Futroz's house party, the host tells his guests this story associated with the painting The Road to Nowhere. A man by the name of Sailas Gent stops at a road inn to ask the innkeeper, Piggins, for directions to Zurbagan. Piggins tells him that there is a long but safe highway and a shortcut through the woods. Gent chooses the shortcut and, before his departure, asks Piggins to come looking for him in five days if he does not hear from him. After Gent's departure, his strange words continue to haunt Piggins, who rides his horse along the forest path the next morning and finds Gent hanging from a tree. Near the body Piggins discovers a strange suicide note that reads: 'Let anyone who decides to ride or walk on this road remember Gent. Many things do and will happen on this road. Beware' (Doroga nikuda, pp. 388-qo).
(36) The Perfect Glory of Nabokov's Exploit', p. 37. Grin's 'Fandango' and The Road to Nowhere also fit Tammi's discussion of second-level embedded fiction. Notably, in 'Fandango' the world contained in the painting is Zurbagan, one of Grin's invented towns. Kaur's movement from the referential world of St Petersburg into Zurbagan creates a regression of the fictional world, where each frame underscores the fictional status of the others. In this story Grin also manipulates the temporal dimension; Kaur spends very little time inside the painting, but upon leaving it finds that two years have passed since the beginning of his adventure.
(37) Blistaiushchii mir, p. 226.
(38) Strong Opinions, pp. 72-73.
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2005|
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