In his or her one or two or possibly three successful novels, the really great novelist manages to place before us the simultaneous horror and absurdity of the world, balancing pity and judgment, revulsion and laughter. Nabokov makes a curious exception to this; there are two or maybe three successful novels, it is clear, and the greatness of powers is rarely in doubt when reading them, but it is not the world per se that preoccupies those powers; instead, it is the distillation and transmutation of the world—of how the distillation of the world into art can be itself absurd and terrible at once.
Everywhere presenting himself as an ideologue against ideas in art, as a lover of the pattern and puzzle on the page, and as a devotee to the alchemy that converts the senses to the semantic and the semantic to the sensory, he would have us find him a true aesthete, and a dogmatic one.
He yearned not for an art that would perfect the world’s ways, but for an art that would not purport to direct or expose them. And this because art depends on an order that is absent from the world: for a novel to diagnose the fictive world it imagines and to pass it off as a genuine diagnosis is a gross misunderstanding of the difference between the imaginary and the real; the order that makes a novel a work of art in the first place gets in the way of genuine sociological and psychological theorizing. Not that he believed such theorizing to be genuine even when carried out on realer subjects, in realer surroundings: such theorizing depends on finding patterns and extrapolating, but for Nabokov, most of the world’s matter, with rare exceptions of butterflies, flowers, and those great works of art themselves, irrevocably, impossibly chaotic.
Art, for Nabokov, brings a new patterned world into being; but the patterning of art is fundamentally misunderstood when it is taken as an equivalent or substitute for life. Art is essential because history, desire, love, social courtesies and cruelties, the influence we hold on one another, cannot be patterned; because the world of thought, feeling, and language in which we live lacks the careful order that the world’s geology, flora and fauna possess; we turn to games, to refined sports, and to literature, painting and music in order to gain a respite in something that shares draws on the same energies and resources and matter as the rest of life, but which does something distinct with it, bringing it nearer to occasional perfection, seemingly divine, of refraction, reflection and variation perceived in the natural world. The novel opens onto an expanse of human life that can be described and classified, as life that we live cannot be.
But there is something cold and inadequate in such a view–and it infects Nabokov’s lesser novels. If life is too messy for the patterns of social and psychological theorizing, and if art’s intricate patterning is an alternative to that mess, then art fails not for reducing but for turning away. And in the lesser novels, he is nearly incapable of character, reduced in his awareness of feeling, and guarded against a great deal of experience: the terror and the absurdity of the world is excluded, rather than revealed. That he could admire Tolstoy as much as he did is, when reading these novels, perplexing.
But this is why the success of the great novels, Lolita, Pale Fire, and maybe Pnin is even more astonishing. For in them, he makes art of the limitations of his own professed views of art. They are not novels about novels—not art about art—but they are records of what happens when his own doctrines about art are held by those who care only for art in the world, who would see all of life transmuted to the ordered art that he valued—-Nabokov, I suspect, would have had us see that they reveal what goes wrong when the desire for art is improperly extended so as to smother all of life; but we could also say that they show what goes wrong when the desire for art of a certain sort is extended so as to smother all of life.
In these works, he is moved to pity and judgment of aesthete totalitarians: pitying their yearning for order, terrified at the cost and consequences of it. The desire for the order of art is revealed as absurd and horrific.
For these great novels consciously and self-consciously reveal that there are intractable aspects of life that cannot be set among the sort of patterned art that Nabokov professed to love and admire. Their moving effects are revealed when, through the haze, on the other side of the shadowed commentary, the life of another is felt moving, pressing, crying. Lolita is most stunning for effecting it; but even in Pale Fire, especially during the extended fantasies of the palace in Zembla, there is something similar, where the narrators’ art fails to do justice to the life that the patterning cannot contain or exclude. On such occasions, the narrators are still trapped by compulsion to order—but we can see the order failing, we can see the narrators desperate to maintain it, and the novels are liberated from Nabokov’s doctrines.