Tag Archives: Brian Boyd

Nabokov’s Brain

Interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald on the writer/illustrator Art Spiegelman. Chris Ware, another graphic novelist, discusses how graphic novels approximate human thought in a way that few pure novelists can manage, though he singles out Nabokov as an exception:

Ware says Spiegelman, through Maus, ushered in a visual language of expression that was both mature and exciting. “He actually knows what his wordplay, visual puns and aesthetic rhymes will provoke in the reader’s mind, and he builds on them very carefully. There are only a handful of prose writers who can manage that; Nabokov comes to mind.” In the great debate of highbrow versus lowbrow, with comics often unfairly dumped into the latter category, Ware notes that Nabokov himself criticised Joyce for relying too much on language for his simulacra of streams of consciousness in Ulysses, pointing out that humans think in pictures as well as words.

Readers interested in a fuller discussion of this topic should check out Brian Boyd’s American Scholar article, in which he too mentions Nabokov’s thoughts on Joyce:

He revered Joyce’s verbal accuracy, his precision and nuance, but he also considered that his stream-of-consciousness technique gave “too much verbal body to thoughts.” The medium of thought for Nabokov was not primarily linguistic: “We think not in words but in shadows of words,” he wrote. Thought was for him also multisensory, and at its best, multilevel. As cognitive psychologists would now say, using a computing analogy foreign to Nabokov, consciousness is parallel (indeed, “massively parallel”), rather than serial, and therefore cannot translate readily into the emphatically serial mode that a single channel of purely verbal stream of consciousness can provide.

Further reading: Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, which includes a fascinating analysis of the ways readers process Humbert’s narration in Lolita.


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Process vs. Product

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!).

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