PhD Candidate, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of California, Berkeley
Enrolled Fall 2009; estimated date of completion Spring 2015
Title of dissertation: “The Problematic Individual”: The Lives of Characters in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy
Supervisors: Irina Paperno (chair, Slavic), Eric Naiman (Slavic), Dorothy Hale(English)
“A Variety of Forms”: Reading Character in Nabokov
My project, an extension of my broader interest in character and the novel form, explores Nabokov’s approach to character in the novel. Nabokov’s style poses a curious dilemma: while a wealth of concrete descriptive detail tempts readers to immerse themselves in the fictional worlds of his novels, the flamboyance of their formal organization offers an equally tempting view from above or outside the frame. One of the many problems this hybrid form presents is the status of Nabokov’s characters. As a reader and teacher, Nabokov repeatedly dismissed the “lowly kind of” imagination that prompts novel-readers to identify themselves with particular heroes (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 4). This dismissal mirrors what has been called a “pronouncedly anti-polyphonic feature” in Nabokov’s own novels (Tammi, Problems of Nabokov’s Poetics, 100), a leaning toward a hieroglyphic rather than a moral view of the literary “character.” From the vivid but ephemeral interlocutors – some of them ghosts – who pass through the mind of the fictional author Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in The Gift (1938/1963), to the personified vegetables encircling Hugh Person, the weirdly abstract hero of Transparent Things (1972), the figural characters of Nabokov’s novels are both arresting in themselves, and pointedly instrumental. My project aims to illuminate the sometimes-troubled place of the embodied human figure in Nabokov – the figures of the characters, their occasionally spectral narrators, and (eventually) their implied author and readers. Working outward from the suggestion, in Transparent Things, that “human life can be compared to a person dancing in a variety of forms around his own self” (92), I argue that the function of figural character in Nabokov’s novels is intimately connected with the project of making a central, private consciousness apprehensible to an external sensory world. I concentrate on Lolita (1955) and Pnin (1955, pub. 1957) as telling examples, but expand my conclusions to the level of what might be called Nabokov’s theory of character, evidenced both in his own novels, and his approach to reading the works of the “good writers” of the 19th and 20th century. My work thus attempts to place Nabokov in a longer tradition of tension between character and form in the novel, examining him as a successor to and reader of Dickens, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and reflecting on his (post-)modernist response to the problems of character their novels pose.
Nabokov, V. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” In Lectures on Literature. Ed. F. Bowers. San Diego, New York, London: Harvest, 1980. 1-7.
——— Transparent Things. New York: Vintage Books, 1989 .
P. Tammi. Problems of Nabokov’s Poetics: A Narratological Analysis. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1985.