Vladimir Nabokov, 1938 : the artistic response to tyranny
Nabokov is well known for writing numerous indictments of totalitarian tyranny, most notably Invitation to a Beheading (1935) and Bend Sinister (1947). However, my contention in this thesis is that Nabokov's most sustained and most significant assault on totalitarian tyranny occurred in 1938. The extent of Nabokov's response to tyranny in 1938 is not immediately obvious. Some of Nabokov's work of the year engages in an explicit assault on tyranny; however, in other cases the assault is oblique and in one instance cryptically concealed. In my thesis I examine each of the works of 1938, and set these against the political circumstances of the year, the tense atmosphere on the threshold of World War II. I find that all of the works of 1938, in one manner or another, respond to the political climate of the day; that Nabokov in 1938 made an unparalleled artistic response to tyranny in a uniquely ominous year. The thesis is divided into two parts. Part 1 contains studies of each of the lesser works of 1938: chapter 5 of The Gift, quot;Tyrants Destroyed,quot; The Waltz Invention, quot;The Visit to the Museum,quot; and quot;Lik.quot; These studies are inset into a chronological survey of the personal and political circumstances of Nabokov's life in 1938. Part 2 constitutes the most significant aspect of my thesis, an in-depth study of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov's main work of 1938. The novel has been regarded as detached from the pre-war climate of the day; however, in an extensive new reading I find that the bright appearance of the novel is only a facade. My reading reveals a triadic, chess-problem-like structure to the novel, where the innocuous surface (the thesis) gives way to a cryptically concealed level of totalitarian themes (the antithesis), before the novel finally emerges onto a notional third level (the synthesis), the novel's quot;solution.quot; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, I contend, represents the heart of Nabokov's artistic response to tyranny in 1938. Through the triadic unfolding of the novel and the reader's creative engagement with the text, Nabokov demonstrates that art itself triumphs over tyranny.
Advisor: Ackerley, Chris
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Department of English
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977); despotism in literature; politics in literature
Research Type: Thesis
The following publication has been produced by the author, drawing on the material in this thesis: Caulton, Andrew. The Absolute Solution: Nabokov's Response to Tyranny, 1938. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013.