28 May 2005

Beyond negative irony

In Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Brian Boyd comes to some very interesting conclusions regarding the seemingly inexplicable cohesion between the poem ("Pale Fire") and the commentary. It's a fascinating piece of close reading, and although I still have some reservations as to his evidence (which probably says more about my comprehension of his detailed account), I can't argue with his main point:
The confidence that through one's art one can understand the design hidden behind life and death might be completely misplaced, or true in a richer way than one could possibly imagine. Nabokov admits that his own confidence, even more robust than Shade's, could be as misplaced as Shade's appears to be at the moment he is killed. Yet the very possibility of design as concealed, as complex and as confounding as all that he packs into the small compass of Pale Fire suggests it might well be possible that there is deliberate design behind our world that we cannot yet see.

Some readers still read Nabokov only as far as his negative irony, his trenchant ability to deflate, to register disappointments, humiliations and horrors, the kind of thing that they think demonstrates his scorn and Schadenfreude. As his Hermanns and his Humberts and his Paduks and his Graduses indicate, Nabokov is anything but blind to the darkness in life. But readers who stop there, and think that he stops there, in modernist irony or in a postmodernist abîme, miss altogether his positive irony, his attempt to encompass all the negatives, as he suspects life itself does, and reverse their direction in the mirror of death. The search for that possibility is what makes Nabokov different, and what makes him write.
Bud at Chekhov's Mistress has some great info on the upcoming Cambridge Companion to Nabokov (which includes Brian Boyd's "Nabokov as storyteller"). There's even a PDF of the "introductory chapter that summarizes each of the essays."

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