Deaths of the Authors

The publication of an unfinished novel by Vladimir Nabokov prompts a reflection on the aesthetic possibilities of the literary vanishing act


Vladimir Nabokov hunting butterflies in Switzerland, c.1975. Courtesy: Getty Images

Vladimir Nabokov hunting butterflies in Switzerland, c.1975. Courtesy: Getty Images

This November, Vladimir Nabokov will have a new novel out. It’s quite an achievement, you might have thought, for someone who died 32 years ago. But then Nabokov died and reinvented himself many times, and one could be forgiven for wondering if he just staged his death in 1977, and slipped off into another identity, like Elvis in the popular imagination; or like Sebastian Knight, John Shade, or any of the other escape artists who populate Nabokov’s own novels. And perhaps The Original of Laura, the novel that he left unfinished, when his heart supposedly gave out, is not really unfinished at all, but a non finito, that is, an art work that feigns incompletion. And so, perhaps to justify its aesthetic, Nabokov had to pretend to die. After all, … Laura is subtitled ‘Dying is Fun’, and tells the story of an ageing novelist, Philip Wild, who is trying to erase himself, using the rubber at the end of his pencil, starting from his toes and working upwards. To call … Laura, as Penguin are doing, A novel in fragments may be to do more than state the dull fact that it is unfinished.

Such thoughts are absurd, but no less attractive for that – and considerably more Nabokovian than the boring old ethical debate provoked by the decision made by Nabokov’s son Dmitri to publish …Laura’s dying fragments, against his father’s explicit wish that they should be burned. The interesting issue, to my mind, is not ethical, but theoretical. As every humanities undergraduate now knows, Roland Barthes, in his famous 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, declared that writing is a kind of self-annihilation or death – not an act of self-discovery or self-expression, not a covenant with immortality. ‘Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. […] the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.’ Or to put it in Nabokov’s terms, one writes oneself not with the graphite at the nub of one’s pencil, but with the eraser at the other end.

For Nabokov, being a writer involved many deaths. He had died once, in the late 1930s, when he killed off Sirin, the pen-name under which he had written his Russian works. But the death of Sirin is only the apex of a long series of authorial deaths in Nabokov’s writing of the late 1930s and early ‘40s. In ‘The Paris Poem’ (1943), for instance, Nabokov imagines how ‘now and then / one’s heart starts clamouring: Author! Author!’, only to receive the reply, ‘He is not in the house, gentlemen.’ In the 1939 story ‘Vasiliy Shishkov’, Nabokov imagines meeting an author who wants to compose ‘A Survey of Pain and Vulgarity’, only to leave a manuscript in the author’s hands and vanish. In the accompanying poem, ‘The Poets’, signed Vasiliy Shishkov, the Russian poets announce their departure from the world: ‘into a region – name it as you please: / wilderness, death, disavowal of language, / or maybe simpler: the silence of love’. The death of the author is here one link in a chain of metaphors, a point Nabokov develops at the end of his 1947 novel Bend Sinister, where the author, having saved the hero Krug, concedes that ‘the immortality I had conferred on the poor fellow was a slippery sophism, a play upon words’, adding, ‘But the very last lap of his life has been happy and it had been proven to him that death was but a question of style.’

Marcel Duchamp at home, New York, 1966. Courtesy: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Marcel Duchamp at home, New York, 1966. Courtesy: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Nabokov was only one of several great Modernists who in the late ‘30s were thinking about the question of style embodied by the death of the author. In Jorge Luis Borges’ 1939 story, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, the title character decides to copy out several chapters of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605–15). Word for word, Menard’s Quixote is identical to the original, but it is a different book, since the same phrases mean something completely different when written in the 1930s to what they meant when written in the Spanish Golden Age; or also to someone who reads them while bearing their original linguistic context in mind. The meaning of a text is given neither by author nor words alone, but by both in enigmatic combination with the reader’s expectations and the assumptions of the linguistic context in which one reads it. In Finnegans Wake (1939), James Joyce repeatedly imagines the author as a mere forger, claiming authority for words not his own, and the book as ‘an epical forged cheque on the public’.

Barthes, Michel Foucault and other French post-Structuralist thinkers the late 1960s, were, then, reporting on a death that had taken place 30 years earlier – a death first foreseen in the 19th century by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who wrote in ‘Crisis in Poetry’ (1895), ‘if the poem is to be pure, the poet’s voice must be stilled and the initiative taken by the words themselves, which will be set in motion as they meet unequally in collision’, so that ‘the poet will be absent’. Barthes is clear about Mallarmé’s importance; Borges’ Menard is a devotee of Mallarmé and his Symbolist followers; Joyce and Nabokov were both Mallarméans.

Both Duchamp and Nabokov loved chess. It was the perfect model for an art whose appeal, as Duchamp liked to say, would no longer be retinal but intellectual.

So was Marcel Duchamp, whose apparent disavowal of art-making for chess must rank as the most famous disappearing act of 20th-century art. Duchamp’s ready-mades take to its limit Mallarmé’s principle that the poet or artist should withdraw from the scene. Art no longer inheres in the will and craft of the deep-souled artist but in the multihued flow of possible thoughts that the infinity of possible viewers can bring to the piece – just as in chess an almost unlimited number of games can be played on the fixed system of 64 squares and 32 pieces. That is why Duchamp, like Nabokov, loved chess. It was the perfect model for an art whose appeal, as Duchamp liked to say, would be no longer ‘retinal’, but intellectual. ‘I am sick’ he said, ‘of the expression “bête comme un peintre” – stupid as a painter.’ Duchamp meant his most famous work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), to consist not only of the Large Glass, the art-object, but also of the accompanying notes, entitled The Green Box.

The road from here to Conceptualism and high theory seems clear. As Kazimir Malevich said, ‘The artist who wants to develop art beyond its painting possibilities is forced to theory and logic’, a comment the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth liked to quote. Still, a view of Duchamp’s legacy which understands its roots in Mallarmé’s poetry and which sees how that poetry developed into Modernist literature might see a different path out of Duchamp to the no-exit motorway that finishes with Conceptualism. Yes, the craft-object evanesces in Duchamp. Painting or etching on glass, as he does in The Bride Stripped Bare…, Duchamp lets in air, light, emptiness, like Mallarmé, who wanted a ‘matchless nothingness’, and said that the poet ‘writes upon our minds or upon pure space’ so that it is not ‘the paper-knife’ but ‘our consciousness alone’ which ‘gives us possession’ of the poem. Yet in a magnificently double-edged passage of his magnum opus, A Throw of the Dice (1897), Mallarmé wrote that ‘RIEN […] N’AURA EU LIEU […] QUE LE LIEU’ (Nothing will have taken place but the place). His verse is nothingness. But that nothingness is a something, not an absence. ‘The “blanks”’, Mallarmé said, ‘in effect, assume importance and are what is immediately most striking’. It is those blank spaces between words which are the material of Mallarméan art, the art that follows the death of the author. They are hard to see, and we need theories, whether Mallarmé’s or Barthes’, which, like night-vision goggles, can make them perceptible. It is the blanks which assume importance, like the line which runs across the middle of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare…, or the white space between the poem and commentary of Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire.

Thomas Karshan is a research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. His book, Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Issue 125

First published in Issue 125

September 2009

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