CATHARINE THEIMER NEPOMNYASHCHY NABOKOV AND THE DETECTIVE NOVEL
atharine Theimer Nepomnyash- was left unfinished at her death. Cathy chy, Ann Whitney Olin Profes- proposed to investigate more thoroughly sor of Russian Literature and and inventively Nabokov’s enemies (Freud, C Culture, Barnard College, and Pasternak, the detective novel) to see former director of the Harriman Institute, whether his blistering invective obfuscated died on March 21 of this year. (An obitu- a deeper engagement with said enemies. ary is printed at the end of the magazine.) Although we can only guess at the work’s Cathy first taught the Nabokov survey at final shape, conference papers from 2010 Columbia in the fall of 2007 (I remember onwards offer glimpses of a potential table because I taught the second class), and the of contents: Nabokov and Pasternak; following year she published her first arti- Pale Fire and Doctor Zhivago: A Case of cle on Nabokov, “King, Queen, Sui-mate: Intertextual Envy; Ada and Bleak House ; Nabokov’s Defense Against Freud’s Un- Nabokov and Austen; Nabokov and the canny” (Intertexts, Spring 2008), the first Art of Attack. brick of what was planned to be “Nabokov The essay that follows is what we and His Enemies,” which unfortunately have of the second brick of Cathy’s
48 | HARRIMAN FEATURED
INTRODUCTION BY RONALD MEYER
work-in-progress, “Revising Nabokov needs to keep in mind that what follows is Revising the Detective Novel: Vladimir, a conference presentation and that Cathy Agatha, and the Terms of Engagement,” was writing within the constraints of time which Cathy presented at the 2010 Inter- and length, but one cannot but regret its national Nabokov Conference, sponsored preliminary state and wonder what was to by the Nabokov Society of Japan and the come in a fully expanded version. Japan Foundation, Kyoto. The detective The essay appears in the volume novel was a natural point of departure and Revising Nabokov Revising. The Proceedings comparison for Cathy (as was Pasternak, of the International Nabokov Conference, one of the authors she wrote about in her March 24–27, 2010, Kyoto, Japan, edited dissertation and a figure to whom she by Mitsuyoshi Numano and Tadashi Véra and Vladimir would return regularly throughout her Wakashima, and published by the Nabokov play chess career). An avid reader of detective novels Nabokov Society of Japan. We gratefully on the balcony of the Montreux Palace both classic and contemporary, Cathy thank the editors and James Theimer, Hotel (1966) had once taught a first-year seminar on Cathy’s brother, for permission to detective fiction at Barnard. The reader reprint this essay.
HARRIMAN | 49 Revising Nabokov Revising the Detective Novel: Vladimir, Agatha, and the Terms of Engagement By Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy
There are some varieties of fiction that I reclaim literature from them. The “terms never touch—mystery stories, for instance, of engagement” were far from superficial which I abhor...1 or frivolous, but complex “combinations” through which Nabokov worked out The present paper forms part of a larger in his own terms the question of what Shot of project, now in its early stages, which literature is. In this installment I will test Nepomnyashchy I have tentatively titled “Nabokov and this hypothesis against a writer, as the His Enemies.” As we all know, Nabokov foremost representative of a genre, whom, was far from reticent about expressing as my epigraph reads, Nabokov professed his evaluations of other writers, many of to “abhor”—Agatha Christie. them distinctly and repeatedly negative. While Nabokov may have claimed In this context we may concede that even that he “never touch[ed]” mystery professional critics and literary theorists stories, attentive readers of Lolita (or when they broach the issue of influence of Alfred Apfel’s Annotated Lolita) will or intertextuality tend to presuppose have remarked that one of the few books Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy that texts “interact” with works their listed among the holdings of the library of authors like—or at least profess to like. the prison in which Humbert Humbert Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” is incarcerated is Agatha Christie’s A most readily comes to mind. In contrast, Murder Is Announced. This detail has I contend that we can learn a great deal been noted among the many “clues” about Nabokov specifically and about the Nabokov plants in the early pages of the complicated interactions among texts in novel to what is to come, bait for readers general by studying the terms in which and delectation for rereaders who delight Nabokov engages in his fictions the in catching the hints missed on a first writings of authors he claims vehemently read. Yet upon due consideration there is to detest. (In this context, you will hardly every reason to believe that, despite his find it surprising that my first chapter is denial, Nabokov did in fact read Christie’s devoted to the “Viennese witchdoctor” Miss Marple novel, which came out in Freud.) The book will ultimately be 1950 as Nabokov was working on Lolita. made up of a series of case studies, based In the simplest terms, A Murder Is on which I argue that Nabokov, acutely Announced rests on a clever deception, a aware that the sophisticated pleasures he confusion of identities that, when unrav- ascribed to literature were threatened by eled at the end, reveals that the victim is the fabric of twentieth-century culture, in fact the murderer. What then if we go confronted in his writings precisely those past the sly joke of planting “a murder is cultural products for which he expressed announced” toward the beginning of the most profound contempt in order to Lolita, announcing that a murder will take
50 | HARRIMAN FEATURED
place, and assume that Nabokov’s own a certain G. Abeson, artdealer, is gradually wiped out and the boarding plot, in which the identities of murderer found murdered in his room. The house motif is painlessly and smoothly and victim are confounded, resonates local police officer … rings up a replaced by that of a country-house, significantly with Christie’s? London detective, asking him to with all its natural implications. And Before attempting to answer this ques- come at once … In the meantime the here the tale takes on a strange beauty. tion, let us look at yet another instance inhabitants of the boarding house plus [...] Here the lives of the characters in which Nabokov clearly incorporates a a chance passer-by, old Nosebag, who shine forth with a real and human Christie plot into his own text—belying happened to be in the lobby when significance and G. Abeson’s sealed his claim never to touch the stuff. In the crime was committed, are thor- door is but that of a forgotten lum- Nabokov’s first novel composed directly oughly examined. All of them except ber-room. A new plot, a new drama in English, The Real Life of Sebastian the last-named, a mild old gentleman utterly unconnected with the opening Knight, Nabokov not only toys with the with a white beard yellowish about of the story, which is thus thrust back basic mechanisms of the detective novel, the mouth, and a harmless passion for into the region of dreams, seems to but again appears to invoke a specific collecting snuffboxes, are more or less struggle for existence and break into Christie text (or even texts). Here let me open to suspicion; [...] Then, with a light. But at the very moment when repeat with judicious cuts the narrator’s quick sliding motion, something in the reader feels quite safe in an paraphrase of Sebastian Knight’s first the story begins to shift (the detective, atmosphere of pleasurable reality novel, The Prismatic Bezel: it must be remembered, is still on the and the grace and glory of the author’s way and G. Abeson’s stiff corpse lying prose seems to indicate some lofty Twelve persons are staying at a board- on the carpet). It gradually transpires and rich intention, there is a gro- ing house; the house is very carefully that all the lodgers are in various ways tesque knocking on the door and the depicted but in order to stress the connected with one another. [...] detective enters.[...] The lodgers are “island” note, … One of the lodgers, then the numbers on the doors are examined afresh. [...] Old Nosebag
HARRIMAN | 51 Left to right : Louis Hayward, C. Aubrey Smith, Barry Fitzgerald, Richard Haydn, Mischa Auer and Walter Huston in the filmAnd Then There Were None (1945), based on the novel by Agatha Christie
potters about [...]. The old gag of novel, the narrator of The Real Life tainly reflect “strong opinions” worthy making the most innocent looking of Sebastian Knight, V., observes that of the author himself): person turn out to be the master-villain The Prismatic Bezel conflates “a seems to be on the point of being rollicking parody of the setting of a With something akin to fanatical exploited. The sleuth suddenly gets detective tale” with the modern novel’s hate Sebastian Knight was ever interested in snuffboxes. [...] There “fashionable trick of grouping a medley hunting out the things which had was a moment of ridiculous suspense. of people in a limited space (a hotel, once been fresh and bright but “I think,” said Old Nosebag quietly, an island, a street).”4 In his remarks which were now worn to a thread, “that I can explain.” Slowly and very following his summary, the narrator dead things among living ones; dead carefully he removes his beard, his concludes that his half-brother’s novel things shamming life, painted and gray wig, his dark spectacles, and is a “new” book rather than a “nice repainted, continuing to be accepted the face of G. Abeson is disclosed. book,” that “the heroes of the book are by lazy minds serenely unaware of “You see,” says Mr. Abeson, with a what can be loosely called ‘methods of the fraud. The decayed idea might in self-deprecating smile, “one dislikes composition.’ […] By putting to the itself be quite innocent and it may be being murdered.”2 ad absurdum test this or that literary argued that there is not much sin in manner and then dismissing them one continually exploiting this or that thor- While, as I will presently discuss, after the other, he deduced his own oughly worn subject or style if it still Sebastian Knight’s novel takes a hack- manner […].”5 Whether or not we pleases and amuses. But for Sebastian neyed (hence generally used) device imagine that this is, in some sense, Knight, the merest trifle, as, say, the of the detective novel as its frame, it a gloss on Nabokov’s own process of adopted method of a detective story, nonetheless seems to invoke two of the creation in The Real Life of Sebastian became a bloated and malodorous most famous examples of the genre: Knight, the following comments by the corpse. He did not mind in the least Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient narrator, again from the text preceding “penny dreadfuls” because he wasn’t Express and And Then There Were None.3 his retelling of The Prismatic Bezel, are concerned with ordinary morals; In his preface to his summary of the salient to my larger argument (and cer- what annoyed him invariably was the
52 | HARRIMAN FEATURED
second rate, not the third or N-th novel. I will return to this point apace.) rate, because here, at the readable Despair’s opening scene, in tried and stage, the shamming began, and this true detective novel fashion, invokes was, in an artistic sense, immoral.6 precisely the finding of the corpse that sets the conventional plot in motion, The “bloated and malodorous corpse,” for, when Hermann first spies Felix which Sebastian Knight resurrects in The lying on the hill outside of Prague, he Prismatic Bezel (dare I say in Old Nosebag’s takes him for a corpse and it is precisely transformation into G. Abeson), becomes because of his death-like immobility essential to the author’s self-discovery, that Hermann professes to recognize in so, just as Nabokov deploys conventions Felix his double: “That man, especially of the detective novel in his masterwork when he slept, when his features were Lolita in order to transfigure them, so also motionless, showed me my own face, does Nabokov incorporate motifs of that my mask, the flawlessly pure image of genre into the very structure of The Real my corpse—I use the latter term merely Life of Sebastian Knight, which is likewise because I wish to express with the utmost a pursuit of the true perpetrator which clarity—express what? Namely this: that Nabokov in 1939, the year he finished begins (and ends) with a corpse. Like we had identical features, and that, in a The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Lolita and The Prismatic Bezel, moreover, state of perfect repose, this resemblance The Real Life of Sebastian Knight employs was strikingly evident, and what is the “methods of composition” of a Chris- death, if not a face at peace—its artistic tie novel in a sort of parodic inversion, perfection?”7 As we learn in due course, In Nabokov’s first novel glossed by the anagram of Nosebag as G. Hermann equates the perfect crime Abeson written backwards, in a “through with the exemplary work of fiction he is composed directly in the looking glass” fashion. Just as creating, and he situates this equation in English, The Real Life Humbert the Hunter becomes Humbert the tradition of the mystery: the Hunted, the murderer who murders of Sebastian Knight, the detective who pursues him (and who Let us discuss crime, crime as an art; Nabokov not only is, in a sense, his double), so the narrator and card tricks. I am greatly worked toys with the basic seeks his half-brother’s identity and up just at present. Oh, Conan Doyle! finds only himself. How marvelously you could have mechanisms of the This leads me inevitably to the third crowned your creation when your two detective novel, but work I wish to adduce here, the Nabokov heroes began boring you! What an again appears to invoke novel that most obviously and centrally opportunity, what a subject you plays on the convention of the detec- missed! For you could have written a specific Christie text tive novel in general and, I believe, on one last tale concluding the whole (or even texts). a well-known Agatha Christie novel Sherlock Holmes epic; one last in particular—Despair. (Here I would episode beautifully setting off the rest; note in passing that the three novels I the murderer in that tale should have find most relevant to my topic are all turned out to be not the one-legged pivotal to Nabokov’s transformation bookkeeper, not the Chinaman Ching into an English-language writer—The and not the woman in crimson, Real Life of Sebastian Knight as the first but the very chronicler of the crime novel Nabokov wrote in English, Despair stories, Dr. Watson himself—Watson, as the first of his novels he himself who, so to speak, knew what was translated into English, and Lolita, of Whatson. A staggering surprise for course, as his breakthrough American the reader.8
HARRIMAN | 53 While Hermann gives his fiction a Surveying what he deems to be among the better recent more respectable genealogy,9 invoking the Sherlock Holmes stories which so works of detective fiction, Wilson is “surprised and appealed to Nabokov himself in child- disappointed” to find “simply the old Sherlock Holmes hood, there would seem to be a more formula reproduced.” obvious contemporary source here: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.10 Of course, as a number of critics have pointed out, Hermann has department has to have a special editor to suspected in turn, and the streets are a complex literary genealogy in Russian deal with its weekly production.”14 Sur- full of lurking agents whose alle- literature as well, ranging from Pushkin’s veying what he deems to be among the giances we cannot know. Nobody protagonist of the same name in “The better recent works of detective fiction, seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; Queen of Spades” to Dostoevsky’s Wilson is “surprised and disappointed” and then, suddenly, the murderer is 11 Raskolnikov. Yet we should bear in to find “simply the old Sherlock Holmes spotted, and—relief!—he is not, after mind that Christie’s 1926 novel enjoyed formula reproduced.” He concludes the all, a person like you or me. He is a enormous popular success and was, in its article with an explanation of the genre’s villain—known to the trade as George own right, something of a literary event. growing popularity: Gruesome—and he has been caught Moreover, Nabokov’s tour de force in by an infallible Power, the supercilious Despair lies in no small measure in the Yet the detective story has kept its and omniscient detective, who knows fact that he takes as his narrator a bad hold; had even, in the two decades exactly how to fix the guilt.15 writer whose own plot cannot escape between the great wars, become the conventions of the trashy fiction more popular than ever before; and In an October 11, 1944, letter to which his wife Lydia reads and for which there is, I believe, reason for this. Wilson, Nabokov gave his own, positive Hermann expresses the utmost contempt. The world during those years was response to the article: And yet Lydia clearly recognizes tired ridden by an all-pervasive feeling conventions of the fiction she reads in of guilt and by a fear of impending I liked very much your article on Hermann’s murder plot: ‘“Oh, stop say- disaster which it seemed hopeless to detective stories. Of course, Agatha ing such horrors,’ cried Lydia, scrambling try to avert because it never seemed is unreadable—but Sayers, whom up from the carpet. ‘I’ve just been reading conclusively possible to pin down you do not mention, writes well. Try 12 a story like that. Oh, do please stop—.” the responsibility. Who had commit- Crime Advertises. Your attitude towards In 1944 Edmund Wilson published ted the original crime and who was detective writing is curiously like my the article, “Why Do People Read going to commit the next one?—that attitude towards Soviet literature, so Detective Stories?” in the New Yorker. murder which always, in the novels, that you are on the whole absolutely He opens the article with the lament, occurs at an unexpected moment, right. I hope that one day you will “For years I have been hearing about when the investigation is well under tackle the quarter of a century–old detective stories. Almost everybody I way, which may happen, as in one of literature sovetskovo molodnyaka—and know seems to read them, and they the Nero Wolfe stories, right in the then I shall have the exquisite pleasure have long conversations about them in great detective’s office. Everybody is of seeing you reel and vomit—instead which I am unable to take part.”13 After expressing his own lack of attraction to the genre, Wilson gives his motivation for writing the article: “In my present line of duty, however, I have decided that I ought to take a look at some specimens of this school of writing, which has grown so prodigiously popular and of which the output is now so immense that this
54 | HARRIMAN FEATURED
of the slight nausea you experienced rivalry.” While Nabokov might not have with [here follows a list of hackneyed shared Wilson’s explanation of the reasons phrases drawn from detective fiction].16 for the genre’s popularity, he certainly recognized that the immense success of As Wilson’s article and Nabokov’s the detective novel made it a force to response to it indicate, the detective reckon with—especially as he was making story was such a popular genre that it his transition to writing in English, a was impossible to ignore. In fact, I would language in which the detective novel argue, it is precisely its popularity that particularly flourished. Judging by the made the genre a fair and necessary examples I have adduced briefly in this target for both Wilson and Nabokov. paper, it would seem that Nabokov did Here we should note the analogy not merely view the detective novel as a Nabokov tacitly posits between Soviet hackneyed genre for lazy readers, but per- Agatha Christie, best known for her literature and the detective novel—how haps as a source of potentially powerful 66 detective novels are we to understand that? I would devices which had become automatized, suggest here a variation on the old adage but—renovated along the lines outlined “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” in the description of Sebastian Knight’s In this case, we might modify it to Prismatic Bezel—might yet serve as a rich read, “imitation is the sincerest form of impetus to the Nabokovian text.
1 Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: Vintage, 1973), 43. I would view Pale Fire as invoking the thriller rather than the classical British 2 Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New York: New Direc- detective novel, I certainly agree with her assertion that, “The difference between tions, 2008), 92–95. the classic detective story and Nabokov’s inversion of it can be linked to Barthes’ 3 There is a difficulty here in that Christie’s novel, originally published under the contrast between the ‘text of pleasure,’ which is identified with ‘acomfortable title Ten Little Niggers, first appeared in November 1939, while Nabokov claimed practice of reading,’ and the text of ‘bliss’ which ‘unsettles the reader’s histori- to have completed The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by the end of January of the cal, cultural, psychological assumptions [...] brings to a crisis his relation with same year in time to submit the manuscript for a literary prize. Still, since The language” (493). Real Life of Sebastian Knight was not published until 1941, the possibility that 11 See, for example, Julian W. Connolly, “The Function of Literary Allusion in Nabokov was responding to that Christie novel in particular is not precluded. Nabokov’s Despair,” Slavic and East European Journal (Madison, MD), 26, 1982, 4 Ibid., 92. 302–13; and Alexander Dolinin, “Nabokov, Dostoevsky, and ‘Dostoevskyness’,” 5 Ibid., 95. Russian Studies in Literature: A Journal of Translations (Fall 1999), vol. 35, no. 4: 6 Ibid., 91–92. 42–60. 7 Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (New York: Vintage, 1989), 15. 12 Ibid., 141. 8 Ibid.,121–22. 13 Edmund Wilson, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” New Yorker 9 The passage following this begins: “But what are they—Doyle, Dostoevsky, (October 14, 1944). Leblanc, Wallace—what are all the great novelists who wrote of nimble criminals, 14 Ibid. [...]” (122). 15 Ibid. 10 Helen Oakley compares Despair with Christie’s novel at some length in her 16 Simon Karlinsky, ed., The Nabokov-Wilson Letters 1940–1971 (New York: “Disturbing Designs: Nabokov’s Manipulation of the Detective Fiction Genre in Harper & Row, 1979), 144. The title of Sayers’s novel is Murder Must Pale Fire and Despair,” Journal of Popular Culture (Winter 2003), 480–96. While Advertise [RM].
HARRIMAN | 55