Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reader and the Author: Michael Wood on Nabokov

"The author cannot do without the reader, but the reverse is also true - however shadowy and marginal the author's role may seem to have become. When Barthes says it 'will always be impossible', to know who speaks in a Balzac text, he means impossible to know in old-fashioned metaphysical sense: to know for sure and in only one way. On a more modest view, it is possible to name quite precisely the voices we hear in a Balzac text, and Barthes himself, in S/Z, 1970, spends a lot of time doing just that. There is no reason why these voices in their sheer plurality should not be 'Balzac'; indeed it is hard to see how they could not be. We can have as many Balzacs as we like; what we cannot really want is the entire absence of any sort of Balzac, and Barthes, in spite of his polemical flourishes, is not asking us to want it. If there is no imputable direction to a text, no chance of an encounter with a mind other than ours, we cannot read, we can only make private mental doodles on the script in front of us. Even when we assume a mind in the text, we can of course read wrongly; we can get lost. But if there is no imaginable mind in question, no set of needs or specified context, we can't even read wrongly. Or: we might be able to read in a very modest, functional sense, to unscramble a basic meaning, but not be able to act on it or take the meaning any further."

- Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts


Nabokov, like Flaubert before him, was very aware of ideas of authorship in a work of literature. Flaubert famously held that, "the author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere, and visible nowhere," and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, as Wood reminds in the book, mockingly takes it further saying, "the artist must be within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." Wood later observes that these writers and thinkers (not just Flaubert and Joyce but also Eliot, Barthes and Derrida) are "talking strategy, considering ways of seeming to be absent, but only seeming." This form of suppression of the personality "is an ethic for writers, not a description of writing." And the absence that Flaubert and the rest are speaking of is not really absence, either: "To write is not to be absent but to become absent; to be someone and then go away, leaving traces." In other, simpler, words writing not as self-expression but as self-creation. It is not surprising that for his autobiography Nabokov (initially for the first edition) chose the title "Conclusive Evidence" i.e. conclusive evidence of having existed. It is like only in writing the author of the text can come into being, even when the text in question is his autobiography (One of the reasons actually that makes it a great work of art).

Rather disappointingly Wood doesn't discuss these ideas in his chapter on Pale Fire which to me, among other things, is like a case study, a problem statement for testing out these theories of authorship and of writing and reading. May be its because it has already been done to death by so many critics and scholars. He is actually quite good, if a bit conventional, in his elucidation of the various complexities and mysteries of the book. Pale Fire reminds that Eliot's ethic for poets (about escaping from their personality) is equally applicable to readers as well. A self-obsessed narcissistic reader appropriates the text and meaning for his own selfish purposes, which is not much different from stealing. In the novel of course Kinbote literally runs away with the manuscript of the poem! It is Nabokov's skill and artistry that he turns him into a pitiable figure at the same time heaping mockery and scorn for his self-delusions.

1 comment:

DROP said...

Please help find Nabokov "Conclusive Evidence" electronic text books in English.
Thank you for your article.