The Impact of the Italian Commedia dell’arte on Nabokov’s Last Novel, Look at the Harlequins!

This paper will focus on the impact of the Italian commedia dell’arte (often called the Harlequinade) and its aesthetic principles on Vladimir Nabokov’s last novel Look at the Harlequins!, or LATH (1974). I reinterpret the novel by following Nabokov’s exhortation in the title, and suggest that the ancient Harlequinade is a lath that, like the lath used by builders, helps structure the entire novel. By writing such a work at the end of his creative career, Nabokov was defining his work and artistic philosophy as being part of the Western and Russian tradition of “Harlequinized art and literature” (this term is defined in the paper).

LATH is a novel-game, traditionally defined as a “mock-biography” or a “self-parody” of a master who, at the end of his career, tricks his readers and critics by creating a double of himself, called Vadim Vadimovič, to “confuse art and life, imagination and reality” (D. Barton Johnson). There is a tendency in Nabokovian criticism to decode the enigmatic meaning of LATH by focusing on the parallelism between the fictional world of the novel and Nabokov’s real life and art (Boyd, Field, Grabes, Fraysse and others). I am not the first researcher to notice the constant apparition of commedia dell’arte motifs within the novel. In their large study, The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’arte and the Modern Imagination, Green and Swan discussed the influence of the Italian commedia dell’arte on LATH. Nevertheless, while Green and Swan point out that “Harlequins, and other commedia figures, appear throughout the book,” they do not conduct a detailed textual analysis of the commedia’s influence on the novel or explore the broad range of ways that the commedia shapes the novel.

My approach will be interdisciplinary, as I trace and analyze the links between the commedia as a theatrical form, and the literary text of LATH. First, I will discuss Nabokov’s textual allusions to the Harlequinade that are spread throughout the novel yet have largely been ignored by literary scholars. For example, the narrator calls his beloved women inamoratas, and his daughter’s name is Isabelle—both names belong to the Harlequinade, suggesting a certain scenario of destiny and certain norms of behavior. The narrator refers to his Russian and English novels as harlequins, and the audience of a writer is compared to the theatrical audience of a performer. The word lath is used within the novel not only as an acronym, but also refers to the stick of a clown or mime. Several scenes within the novel are described as pantomimes such as those often used in the Harlequinade. Vadim, the narrator, is described as a theatrical character with extravagant gestures and bizarre intonation, like Harlequin. Second, I will discuss the role that key devices of the commedia dell’arte play within the novel. These devices include improvisation within a stable scenario or plot, playing the mask, the interweaving of tragic and comic, extensive use of grotesque or farce, self-parody, and the presence of doubles and mistaken identities.