Vladimir Nabokov’s Apprenticeship in André Gide’s “Science of Illumination”: From The Counterfeiters to The Gift

Leonid Livak, Davidson College

Until today, little effort has been made to confront Vladimir Nabokov and André Gide in a comparative study, despite the fact that, in Russian émigré circles, Gide was the most discussed French writer after Proust. Such a study seems pertinent in view of the striking similarities shared by The Gift (1937), Nabokov’s opus magnum and last Russian novel, and The Counterfeiters (1925), an equally pivotal landmark in Gide’s artistic career.

Searching for references to Gide in Nabokov’s oeuvre, one usually recalls only the most evident case—Lolita’s French professor Gaston Godin, whose studio is decorated with Gide’s portrait and who affects the ways of Gide’s homosexual protagonists from The Immoralist and The Counterfeiters. It is hardly accidental that this clear allusion to Gide appeared in Nabokov’s writings only after he had ceased to be a Russian writer. Nabokov’s denials of foreign influence during his Russian years disproved those who charged his works with “un-Russianness and served to distance the writer from his Paris-based émigré peers, turning the problem of literary influence into a point of aesthetic contention.”

In this paper I will argue that affinities between Nabokov’s and Gide’s novels range from their general conception and composition to narrative devices, imagery, and thematics. I content that Nabokov used the compositional and narrative techniques of The Counterfeiters, which Gide called his “science of illumination,” as a springboard in refining his own aesthetics of the novel. Like Gaito Gazdanov, Jurij Fel′zen, Vasilij Janovskij, and Boris Poplavskij, Nabokov creatively reworked his French literary source, but unlike his Parisian peers, he did not use it as a conspicuous textual marker. As it often happens in Nabokov’s works, those explanatory keys that are most readily available to the reader are also the most misleading. Thus, he dissimulated his indebtedness to Gide by providing a false key that points the reader in another direction. The Gift abounds in references to Proust, while, in fact, it follows Gide’s lead in breaking Proustian circularity and in fighting many aesthetic notions commonly ascribed to Proust by his French and émigré interpreters.

The purpose of this comparative analysis is to show that Gide in the 1920s and Nabokov in the 1930s found themselves in similar positions in their respective literary milieux. Discarding the dominant trends in contemporary literary aesthetics, they composed meta-novels, which preserved previous novelistic experience from the attacks of the post-war literary generation and provided a matrix for “modern” texts in contrast to the nineteenth-century novel espoused by literary conservatives. Their “texts about texts” differ from prior metalinguistic narratives, and first of all from that of Proust, by inciting the reader to create his own text according to the set of artistic rules articulated in the novels. If The Counterfeiters responds to the crisis of the novel in French literature, The Gift is inspired by the émigré mission of continuity, addressing the fate of Russian literature in general.