2011 Theses Doctoral
From Onegin to Ada: Nabokov's Canon and the Texture of Time
The library of existing scholarship on Vladimir Nabokov circles uncomfortably around his annotated translation Eugene Onegin (1964) and late English-language novel Ada, or Ardor (1969). This dissertation juxtaposes Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin (1825-32) with Nabokov's two most controversial monuments and investigates Nabokov's ambitions to enter a canon of Western masterpieces, re-imagined with Russian literature as a central strain. I interrogate the implied trajectory for Russian belles lettres, culminating unexpectedly in a novel written in English and after fifty years of emigration. My subject is Nabokov, but I use this hermetic author to raise broader questions of cultural borrowing, transnational literatures, and struggles with rival canons and media. Chapter One examines Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin, the foundation stone of the Russian canon and a meta-literary fable. Untimely characters pursue one another and the latest Paris and London fashions in a text that performs and portrays anxieties of cultural borrowing and Russia's position vis-à-vis the West. Fears of marginalization are often expressed in terms of time: I use Pascale Casanova's World Republic of Letters to suggest a global context for the "belated" provinces and fashion-setting centers of cultural capital. Chapter Two argues that Nabokov's Eugene Onegin, three-quarters provocation to one-quarter translation, focuses on the Russian poet and his European sources. Nabokov reads Onegin as a masterpiece of theft and adaptation: the lengthy notes painstakingly examine precedents, especially in Byron and Chateaubriand, and evaluate for originality by comparison. When does Pushkin engage in derivative "native" imitations, and when in subtle and brilliant parody? Chapter Three concludes that Nabokov attempts his own timeless masterpiece with Ada, or Ardor. Planet Antiterra, Nabokov's personal "world republic of letters," transplants and conflates his beloved literatures. To create this Russo-Franco-Anglophone world, Ada lifts lines, characters, and fabula from Onegin but also from works by Byron and Chateaubriand. A pattern emerges of great English, French, and Russian triads; it repeats more faintly with Dickens, Flaubert, and Tolstoy (Nabokov hoped one day to translate Anna Karenina); but the most fraught iteration is Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov himself. Chapter Four looks at traces of Joyce and Proust in Ada. The two modernists serve as signs by which great readers recognize one another, as indexes to the "real" and the beautiful, and as carriers of tradition; but Ada subsumes its rivals through imitation and parody. However, the incestuous lovers Ada and Van Veen, heirs to the greatest literary traditions in the world, die childless. Is Ada a dead end, Nabokov's Finnegans Wake? Or can masterpieces interbreed indefinitely? Chapter Five examines Ada in the context of its working title, The Texture of Time. Van is a scholar of Henri Bergson, of the duration of the past into the present, and of spatial metaphors for time. Van aspires to an eternal present, but the one-way time of ordinary mortality threatens to take over the narrative. The structure of the novel mimics Zeno's paradox, famously refuted by the French philosopher: Part Two is roughly half the size of Part One, and so on. The arrow (Ardis in Greek, the name of the Veens' lost paradise) speeds towards the final target, but the Veens aim for immortality and to die into their book. Chapter Six turns to the visual arts. Nabokov's novel reads like a gallery, with Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights in pride of place. Ada animates the Old Masters, but there are also no fewer than three film adaptations depicted in the novel, betraying an ongoing struggle between the media (and echoing Stanley Kubrick and Nabokov's skirmishes over Lolita the film). If it is to survive beyond inbreeding with diminishing results, the novel form must subsume more than its own recent greats. I conclude with Nabokov as an image in the work of contemporary novelists, a source and a transcultural precursor to a new generation of international writers.
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More About This Work
- Academic Units
- Slavic Languages and Literatures
- Thesis Advisors
- Izmirlieva, Valentina B.
- Ph.D., Columbia University
- Published Here
- August 21, 2013