On a cold October afternoon, I once stood outside the apartment-house in St Petersburg where, about a hundred years ago, an eighteen-year-old Vladimir Nabokov, then a fledgling poet, looked down from his window at the revolution happening below. There, where a plaque now bears the great author’s name, an injured man was born past on a stretcher, as another ran alongside, trying to beat the supine voyager even as he lay unconscious.
Within a decade, Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, had been assassinated in Berlin; his mother and sister had fled to Prague; and Nabokov himself, having completed his studies at Cambridge, a time of anguish, romance and heartbreak as recounted in his memoir Speak, Memory, resided in the city where his father was killed, and where he and his wife, Vera, would spend the next fifteen years. In these turbulent times, Nabokov wrote poetry and short stories, even a play, and translated (among other works) two choice Shakespearean sonnets: 17 and 27.
In the latter sonnet, a ‘tired’ Shakespeare climbs into bed, having travelled far from home. His thoughts intend a ‘zealous pilgrimage’ to his loved one, who in the dark of his own imagination hangs ‘like a jewel in ghastly night’. It is not implausible to suggest that Nabokov selected this sonnet because he identified with the speaker, as a man in exile. Nabokov would, in later years, tell an interviewer that ‘the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is’. Like a jewel in the night…
We can also hear the voice of Nabokov in Sonnet 17, in which Shakespeare promises that, despite ‘old men of less truth than tongue’, the lovely boy of his addresses will live on in his ‘rhyme’. Or, rather, we hear the voice of Humbert Humbert, the arch-predator of underage girls who, towards the close of the Lolita, promises Lolita ‘aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art’.
The translations were published in a Russain émigré magazine in 1927; but Nabokov had completed them three years before, back when he also wrote his own poem, ‘Shakespeare,’ addressed to the ‘unthinkably great bard!’ and confirming a lifelong idolatry rarely found in Nabokov’s opinions of other authors. As a mature and distinguished – and grizzled – American author, Nabokov would later say that ‘the verbal poetic texture of Shakespeare is the greatest the world has ever known’.
To be sure, an avowed love of Shakespeare is neither curious nor unusual for a writer of any stature. Plenty of Russian authors would concur with Nabokov (Alexander Pushkin called the English playwright ‘Father Shakespeare’). What makes Nabokov’s bardolatry interesting is how the playwright’s works appeared with more and more frequency during that fraught and dangerous time in Nabokov’s life when he made the transition from a Russian author to an American one.
What becomes clear – and what I shall come to argue – is that this is not merely one author’s untiring affection for another, but that Shakespeare, as an idea, as a text, as a man, was the source of comfort and anxiety for Nabokov; of consolation and dread.
Shakespeare, through time, through hundreds of years of trashed papers, fires, silence, faulty memory, fading parchments, premature deaths and belated biographers (let alone the seeming-absence of the author in his own plays), has acquired an aura of mystery. We either know nothing about him, or there is nothing to know.
Nabokov saw this as desirable in an era of mass readership and ‘human interest’ in celebrated figures. He was not the only one. W.H. Auden wrote that genuine authors prefer to be all but anonymous, in order that their art to be the reader’s concern, not their private lives.
But Nabokov also opposed other kinds of interest in the author’s art. Namely, he loathed Sigmund Freud and all his works (and all his disciples). ‘Freudism’, as Nabokov put it in Pale Fire, operates like a dictatorship, but without the need for state apparatus: instead, the Freudian critic’s theoretical framework policies the mind (‘the bedside of my mind’) and determines its clockwork operations through textual analysis.
Nabokov feared – not without cause but also not without paranoia and a certain degree of disingenuousness – that the Freudian will do to his art what the Bolshevik did to Russia. The Freudian distort the artist’s work through the application of a phony system of sexual symbols, with its authority descended from primitive mythology. The Freudian will claim to have discovered the source of the author’s creative mind; he will claim to know more than the author knew.
I may have departed somewhat from paraphrasing the man. Although Nabokov was clearly anxious in this matter (he issued warnings to Freudian critics in almost all the forewords he wrote for his novels), he expressed his opposition with cheerful gusto, sardonic one-liners, and playfulness.
And with the aid of Shakespeare’s ghost. ‘It would be fun to hear Shakespeare roar with ribald laughter,’ said Nabokov to an interviewer regarding what he’d like to see in heaven, ‘on being told what Freud (roasting in the other place) made of his plays’. The presumptions here (his own place in heaven with Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s opinion of Freud) reveal the Russian author’s sense that he is a literary kinsmen of Shakespeare’s, pitted against psychoanalysis.
In Speak, Memory, ‘the medieval world’ of Freud is once again denounced, with Shakespeare close at hand. Nabokov compares psychoanalysis to ‘searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works’. Together these remarks seem to show how Nabokov projected onto Shakespeare (and, to be sure, Nabokov would disdain my use here of the psychanalytical word ‘projected’) his own supreme confidence, as well as his nervous disposition about the vulnerability of art in clumsy (or sinister) hands.
Let us return to a young Vladimir Nabokov, as he scribbled Russian verse in Berlin. ‘Unthinkably great bard!’ he wrote to Shakespeare, the ‘hundred-mouthed’ playwright, the ‘monstrous genius,’ creator of Lear, Falstaff and Othello, ‘still among us’ like an omniscient god.
Shakespeare’s identity is in the eye of the beholder. Like Matthew Arnold’s tributary sonnet of 1849, Nabokov’s poem imagines its subject as a smiling enigma. But Arnold’s Shakespeare is, in a democratic fashion, an autodidact, ‘self-taught, self-scann’d, self-honoured’. Nabokov on the other hand suggests, outrageously, that the true author of the works gave over his plays as a form of debt payment to a talentless ‘usurer’ and a drunkard from Stratford.
This allows Nabokov to imagine the true author as an aristocratic man, a European man, strutting at once ‘amid grandees Elizabethan’ in sumptuous fashion, and then making a grand tour of the continent. In Italy, Shakespeare meets the prototype of Juliet; in Spain, he meets the creator of Don Quixote. This is not Shakespeare as we know him, but more like Lord Byron, or perhaps a young Nabokov, finding his place in what Goethe called Weltliteratur. Nabokov needed world literature because he lived in exile.
‘Banished by God from your existence,’ writes Nabokov about Shakespeare: you have no other identity left behind, now, except those manuscripts that will ensure your ‘supremacy’. For the young, romantic Russian genius, exile is a kind of death, and a threat to a writer’s existence. At that age, Nabokov’s future was uncertain. Thanks to a turbulent century, and an age of extremes, his future would be uncertain on more than one occasion. Shakespeare would orientate his fundamental sense of artistic identity as he left Russia further and further behind. In the next part of this essay, we will look at the manifestations of Shakespeare in Nabokov’s American novels.