In the Intro to English Studies course that I teach each fall, we talk about underreading and overreading, the lamentable, though to some degree inevitable, twin poles of interpretive folly. Either pole tends to leave one isolated, outside the circle of interpretive communities that privilege certain readings over others. I wonder, though, if Nabokov’s puzzling nature—that is, his puzzle-making approach to his fictions—requires more than other authors a singular, expert solver, a Sherlock, who must go it alone and find the clues that others have missed. If we look at the history of Nabokov criticism, most of the major figures—Mary McCarthy, Alfred Appel, Jr., Carl Proffer, Andrew Field, Donald Barton Johnson, Brian Boyd, et. al.—have spent considerable energy, and placed great value, on the task of deciphering VN’s fictions. And despite the legitimate insight that Nabokov’s works are, of course, much more than just puzzles, contemporary criticism—Eric Naiman’s Nabokov, Perversely and Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, among the better examples—continues to employ a hermeneutic that requires the reader to scan the text for hidden keys that open the door to the implied author’s ultimate intentions. This can be an isolating experience for the critic, since many may not agree that the key is, in fact, a key, or that the door it opens leads anywhere worth going. Surely many Nabokovians have felt, along with the exhilaration of finding a new interpretation, an equal share of disappointment upon discovering that the transformative emotional experience of the quest is largely non-transferable. While others may be more or less grateful for the key, they have missed a great part of the point by not finding it for themselves. This is the double-edged sword, especially, of Appel’s Annotated Lolita. It is a tremendous scholarly accomplishment and a wonderful tool (especially for those who can’t read French), but it also pre-empts the experience that I think Nabokov himself wanted for his readers, the experience of looking for, and then finding, the secrets embedded in the book.
This is all preamble for my next post, in which I will have the hubris to argue that readers have been underreading one of Nabokov’s stories for the past eight decades (but I have found the key!).