Slavic Languages and Literature
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Nabokov's Watermarks

The Significance of Perceptual Time and Memory in Three Selected Novels

  • Faculty Advisor

    Clare Cavanagh

Published On

May 2013

Originally Published

NURJ 2013-14
Honors Thesis

Alexis Orloff | Photo

I. “The Texture of Time”

Vladimir Nabokov initially planned to begin Ada, or Ardor with an essay on Time, which was then to develop into a concrete story. He later reconsidered and placed the philosophical essay immediately preceding Van’s and Ada’s final reunion in Part Five, the novel’s last chapter. The result is Part Four, a long and meandering treatise on Time, in which Van sets forth to refute the traditional view of Time with its three partitions of Past, Present, and Future in favor of individualized, perceived time. For Van, the Past is “a constant accumulation of images. It can be easily contemplated and listened to, tested and tasted at random, so that it ceases to mean the orderly alternation of linked events that it does in the large theoretical sense” (545). Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd writes that “despite all these complications of expression… the essay’s ideas are quite straightforward” (NA 166). By renouncing the visualization of Time as a succession of events in material Space and only concerning himself with time that is “stopped” and “closely attended to,” Van defends his recollections as his own, individual reality. His theory of perceived time allows for a highly individualistic construction and interpretation of the past, essentially making the past and one’s recollection of the past the same thing. The past only exists, according to Van, in the individual’s memory.

This argument for perceptual time as pertaining to the past and memory acts as the philosophical basis of Van’s family chronicle. There are two main parts to Van’s argument. The first is Time’s motionlessness, which disposes with the horizontal line model of Time in favor of vertical layers or an upward spiral. The present then incorporates and builds on the past, and one is able to live in both the present and the past. The second part of Van’s argument involves individualized time and recollection. “The Time I am concerned with is only the Time stopped by me and closely attended to by my tense-willed mind,” he writes, a statement that justifies in one bold stroke Ada, or Ardor as Van’s version of the past, as well as any unreliable narration that comes attached. It recalls a disagreement in the marginal notes between Van and Ada over Van’s account of the first time they make love: “I wonder, Van, why you are doing your best to transform our poetical and unique past into a dirty farce?” “Oh, I am honest, that’s how it went… if people remembered the same they would not be different people. That’s-how-it-went” (120):

The Past, then, is a constant accumulation of images. It can be easily contemplated and listened to, tested and tasted at random, so that it ceases to mean the orderly alternation of linked events that it does in the large theoretical sense. It is now a generous chaos out of which the genius of total recall, summoned on this summer morning in 1922, can pick anything he pleases: diamonds scattered all over the parquet in 1888; a russet black-hatted beauty at a Parisian bar in 1901; a humid red rose among artificial ones in 1883; the pensive half-smile of a young English governess, in 1880, neatly reclosing her charge’s prepuce after the bedtime treat; a little girl, in 1884, licking the breakfast honey off the badly bitten nails of her spread fingers; the same, at thirty-three, confessing, rather late in the day, that she did not like flowers in vases; the awful pain striking him in the side while two children with a basket of mushrooms looked on in the merrily burning pine forest; and the startled quonk of a Belgian car, which he had overtaken and passed yesterday on a blind bend of the alpine highway. (545-6)

This passage exemplifies Van’s approach to his memoir. He hits upon an absolute fact: recollection rarely, if ever, takes a linear form. The sight of the two children and the burning forest immediately and reflexively brings to Van’s mind the childhood memory of the Burning Barn, a memory so vivid that it causes that “awful pain striking him in the side” (546). It is a sign of the past emerging through the present. Van regards the Past as “an accumulation of sensa, not as the dissolution of Time” (544). If the Past is an accumulation, then the Present includes everything one currently sees and thinks, as well as elements of the Past that come to mind.

Having defined the Past and Present, Van moves on to the Future and dismisses it as “the idea of a hypothetical present based on our experience of succession, on our faith in logic and habit. Actually, of course, our hopes can no more bring it into existence than our regrets change the Past… the future remains aloof from our fancies and feelings. At every moment it is an infinity of branching possibilities” (560-1). It should be noted that this dismissal of the “popular triptych” (559) of Time comes after Van’s and Ada’s disappointing reunion in Mont Roux. They have not seen each other for seventeen years, and each is surprised and disappointed to find that the other has aged significantly. Unlike their previous meetings, this time there is no sexual desire between Van and Ada. This desire, which had allowed “life to pick up by and by,” is no longer available to smooth over the most recent separation, and “now they were on their own” (557). Van’s disappointment is likely intensified by the fact that the reunion with Ada does not follow the expected pattern.

Nabokov himself was fond of seeking these kinds of patterns. His disregard for where a series of recalled images stands on the traditional time continuum allows for superimposed time, and the result is the extraordinary feeling of living simultaneously in the present and the past. Nabokov recounts in his memoir Speak, Memory an incident in childhood of seeing a rare butterfly, which the Nabokovs’ janitor managed to catch for him. The butterfly escaped, but Nabokov came across this exact species again forty years later, in Colorado. Similar instances abound in Nabokov’s memoir. The sight of identical butterflies across a forty-year span is pure coincidence, an example of the “negation of time” that Nabokov considers imagination and memory to be (SO 78). In other cases, Nabokov intentionally seeks out coincidences that are less noticeable. His fondness for patterns and belief that “the following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be… the true purpose of autobiography” (27) cause him to be extra aware of coincidences. The memory of playing with matches with a family friend becomes remarkable for Nabokov due to its “special sequel,” in which fifteen years later, the same family friend runs into Nabokov’s father and asks him for a light (27). It is a weak coincidence, but still delightful enough for Nabokov to recount in his memoir.

Van’s “The Texture of Time” incorporates many of Nabokov’s own views on the topic. But the author and his fictional character do not share one set of views, as Nancy Anne Zeller claims, writing in an essay that “since Van Veen (V.V. = V.V. Nabokov) is clearly meant to be Nabokov’s spokesman in Ada, we can take his views on time as presented in the essay to be those of Nabokov himself” (283). It is crucial to differentiate between the two. What Part Four of Ada conspicuously lacks is a conclusive statement on the nature of Time. Van explains what Time is not but never explicitly states what it is. Nabokov’s interest in Time is obvious, and his anecdotes from Speak, Memory show that he delights in minor time manipulations—but Van lives by his philosophy of perceived time. Therefore a more plausible relationship between Nabokov’s views and Van’s is that the latter takes Nabokov’s lighthearted games to an extreme, raising ethical questions that do not encumber Nabokov’s butterflies and matches.

Benjamin Hilts | NURJ

II. Nabokov’s Time Spiral

In Ada, time is closely associated with patterns, as it is through patterns that the present is able to build on the past. The spiral of time is one of the patterns Van labors the most in preserving and emphasizing. Nabokov himself expounds on this spiral in Speak, Memory, describing it as a “spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious: it has been set free” (203). The spiral is really an idealized form of Time. With each passing time cycle or coil of the spiral, the Present builds on corresponding points in the Past and evolves to a higher plane.

Zeller notes that save for one, all of Van and Ada’s separations span a period of four years or a multiple of four (287). Their affair begins in the summer of 1884 and resumes four years later, in 1888. Van is informed of Ada’s infidelity, and they do not reunite until the winter of 1892-1893, another four years later. The next reunion comes in 1905, after a twelve-year separation. This pattern is broken only when Van and Ada reunite, seventeen years later, following the death of Ada’s husband, Andrey Vinelander. Just prior to this final reunion in 1922, Van speaks on the phone to Ada, whose “telephone voice, by resurrecting the past and linking it up with the present… formed the centerpiece in his deepest perception of tangible time, the glittering ‘now’ that was the only reality of Time’s texture” (556).

Their first face-to-face meeting turns out to be a disappointment. Both have changed significantly in appearance, and even their conversation lacks natural flow. Their shared birthmark, which “had got lost among the freckles of age” (558), and Ada’s new hair color and other various details all add up to an impression of things being out of place. Van blames the duration of the separation, stating that “had they lived together these seventeen wretched years, they would have been spared the shock and the humiliation; their aging would have been a gradual adjustment, as imperceptible as Time itself” (558). However, Zeller makes the convincing argument that the problem is not duration but neglect of the established pattern of duration. This is further supported by the scene that takes place the following morning, when Van sees Ada standing on the hotel balcony one floor below him. He then leaves his balcony and runs down a “short spiral staircase to the fourth floor” (562). By “retreating back down the spiral,” Zeller writes, “the seventeen-year separation is turned into sixteen; rhythm is restored” (289).

In contrast, a downward spiral of time is portrayed in Mary, Nabokov’s first novel. Lev Glebovich Ganin, a Russian émigré in Berlin, mentally relives a love affair he had in his youth. The events of the novel take place in 1924, from Sunday, March 30 to Saturday, April 5. Ganin’s prolonged reverie, which lasts four days, is triggered by chance, after Alfyorov, Ganin’s neighbor at the pension, shows him a photo of his wife, who is the same Mary with whom Ganin had fallen in love and out of love when both lived in Russia. Surrounded by fellow displaced dreamers, Ganin begins to ignore his physical surroundings completely and live within his recollections of Mary.

The danger of Ganin’s predilection for dreaming comes into sharper focus when compared to the elderly pensioner Podtyagin, who laments that he “put everything into [his] poetry that [he] should have put into [his] life” (41). Interestingly, Nabokov chooses to make Podtyagin and Alfyorov fringe players in Mary’s and Ganin’s love affair, providing weak but nevertheless existing ties between Ganin’s past and present. Though Ganin’s present existence in Berlin is not completely cut off from his past, these links do not enrich the present. In fact, they cast a shadow on Ganin’s romanticized memories by suggesting that the past was not as idyllic as he remembers.

In one of Mary’s letters to Ganin, she tells him about the attention paid to her by “a very amusing man with a little yellow beard” (92). This man is likely Alfyorov, who is described in the beginning of the novel as having a “little golden beard” (4). Podtyagin’s presence is clearer. In the same letter, Mary quotes two lines of Podtyagin’s verse. When Ganin recites the lines back to the poet, Podtyagin asks if he had found it in an old calendar, explaining that “they were very fond of printing my poetry on calendar leaves. On the underside, above the recipe of the day” (98).

Podtyagin’s descent from poet to involuntary émigré and prisoner of bureaucracy is emblematic of the general downward spiral of time experienced by the pensioners. Far from evolving to a higher plane, Ganin’s love affair with Mary shows the symptoms of deterioration to meaninglessness. Hana Pichová suggests that Mary’s letters to Ganin, in which she laments that “today it’s so boring, boring” (92), show “a lack of intellect, emotional depth, and even close affinity to Alfyorov through the misuse of the same word” (27). Mary’s letters are in effect mistaken by Podtyagin to be an old calendar, as that is where he is accustomed to finding his poetry. In this novel, old calendars carry somewhat ominous connotations, as they are associated with stagnation and with elements of the past that have no purpose in the present. The pension doors, numbered April 1-6 with leaves torn from a year-old calendar, underscore the sluggishness of time for the émigrés. The passing of time has become meaningless, and the émigrés find themselves trapped in a sinister timelessness. The same lack of purpose can be said of Mary’s letters and Ganin’s recollections of their affair. For Ganin, the loss of Mary becomes synonymous with the losses of his youth and of Russia.

III. Perceptual Time, Solipsism, and Ethics

In the introduction to Worlds in Regression, D. Barton Johnson writes, “Nabokov’s work does, of course, have a moral dimension, although it is happily latent rather than explicit” (3). That moral dimension is closely related to perceptual time in the three novels I discuss. Van’s practice of perceptual time extends to reproducing Ada in Lucette, an act that is solipsistic in nature. In some ways, Lucette becomes reduced to Van’s perception of her. On the carriage ride back after the picnic on Ada’s sixteenth birthday, Lucette sits on Van’s lap and Ada sits next to Van. Lucette is four years younger than Ada. During this second Ardis summer, Lucette is the age Ada was during the first summer of Van’s and Ada’s romance. During the carriage ride from that first summer’s picnic, Ada sits on Van’s lap. The set-up is perfect for Van to live both summers simultaneously, and “it was Ada’s soft haunches which he now held as if she were present in duplicate, in two different color prints” (280). Van, who has successfully solipsized Lucette, “closed his eyes in order better to concentrate on the golden flood of swelling joy” (281). This joy, however, is not shared by either Lucette or Ada. Ada hides her jealousy by pretending to read, and Lucette, confused and on edge, is immobile and “glistening with sweat” (281).

Whereas Van uses philosophy as justification of solipsism, Humbert’s time manipulations arise from practical and artistic motives, not from any particular philosophical belief. Whereas Van uses his memory to superimpose time, Humbert seeks to freeze time altogether in order to defeat it and put himself in a god-like role. Humbert spends much of the novel deliberately ignoring the impossibility of a flesh-and-blood person acting according to his artistic ideal. At the end of the novel, however, Humbert at last admits to the futility of his efforts at solipsizing Lolita.

An important aspect of Humbert’s treatment of time is his various mental reincarnations of one girl into another, willing these links into existence if only in the imagination. The reason Humbert gives for his infatuation with Lolita is the existence of a “precursor,” and he seems to insinuate that his love of nymphets is also rooted in “a certain initial girl-child,” (9) whom Humbert loved in his youth. The prototype of Humbert’s nymphet is Annabel Leigh, whose name immediately recalls Annabel Lee, the dead, beloved subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. By having a literary counterpart, Humbert’s Annabel already achieves some sort of artistic immortality. Humbert does not have a clear memory of Annabel’s physical features, describing her in “general terms as: ‘honey-colored skin,’ ‘thin arms,’ ‘brown bobbed hair,’ ‘long lashes,’ ‘big bright mouth’” (11). Thus, we readers also see Annabel as a vague and distant memory. She is endowed with the mysteriousness and frailty that are hallmarks of Humbert’s definition of a nymphet.

Nymphets are young girls between the ages of nine and fourteen who are not necessarily conventionally pretty but have “certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm” (17). They are wholly Humbert’s creation. The true nature of these girls, Humbert writes, is “not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’” (16). Humbert begins to seek Annabel’s likeliness in subsequent girls. He finally finds her in Lolita, who, upon first sight, appeared to be “the same child—the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair.” Overjoyed, Humbert declares that “the twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished” (39). Here we see Van’s concept of Perceptual Time experienced by Humbert, who does not simply link Lolita with the Annabel Leigh from his memory but views her as a continuation of the earlier girl. In the very first chapter, Humbert stresses the three syllables of Lolita’s name, spelling it as “Lo-lee-ta” (9) and suggesting an intrinsic likeliness to Poe’s heroine. Later in the novel, when Humbert and Lolita are on their first long road trip, Humbert looks for a proper beach to reenact, or rectify, his interrupted tryst with Annabel. Lolita and Annabel Leigh are lyrically morphed by Humbert into one, into “Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta” (167).

Renouncing his earlier solipsistic views is Humbert’s only chance at any kind of moral redemption. That Humbert has realized his greatest crime was disregarding Lolita’s personhood is most believable at the end of the novel when he writes: “I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head, of course, but my soul. In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita” (308).

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