What If Nabokov Had Written "Dvojnik": Reading Dostoevskij Preposterously

Eric Naiman, University of California, Berkeley

My paper brings together two different narrative strategies from the worlds of narratology and history. In Pnin Nabokov uses the phrase "preposterous oversight." In its superficial context, the phrase is used to refer to Pnin's fear of forgetting something that will, as a result, have a catastrophic influence on his life. Yet the phrase has larger, metafictive implications, for preposterous oversight is a fine description of the various stories other characters --and the narrator--tell about him. Finally, preposterous oversight refers to the duty of the ideal Nabokovian reader. As originally used, "preposterous" meant backwards, placing the end before the beginning. And that is precisely how Nabokov's novels must always be read--you can't grasp the beginning until you have read the end. Recently historians have appropriated a term originally developed in philosophy and cognitive psychology: counterfactual analysis. They use it to engage in creative speculation about what would have happened had a specific historical event not occurred (or if it had occurred differently). Much recent work has focused on the end of World War II, but counterfactual articles have also been written about the end of the Cold War and the Decembrist "uprising."

I want to bring these two modes of reading together to envision a "preposterous" model for intertextual studies. This paper will be resolutely anachronistic, asking how we would read Dostoevskij's "Dvojnik" if Nabokov had written it, or--more precisely--how we would read it if we believed it to have issued from Nabokov's pen. I believe that this approach will have a number of pay-offs.

First, it treats literary history as if it were not only about fiction but were fiction, fiction that is best read preposterously (in the etymological sense of the word). We should remember that those of us who read novels pretend to segregate our reading of fiction from our reading (and writing) about fiction's history, but this segregation is not hermetic. Moreover, our reading of a particular work of fiction is often preposterous, colored by works written after it but which we readers have already read. Second, the paper will raise questions about what Nabokov might have learned from Dostoevskij, how his own, anachronistic understanding of Dostoevskij might have affected his approach to his own fiction.

Third, in its chronologically perverse reading of Dostoevskij, the paper will attempt to shake new meaning from an old work through temporal defamiliarization. More specifically, I want to see if I can make a convincing case for Dostoevskij as the precursor of modern metafiction. It is no discovery that Dostoevskij wrote about fiction, but I want to portray him--and "Dvojnik" in particular--as a text in which author and hero are adversaries within the text. (A glance at Baxtin's early essay "Author and Hero" will also be included and read (a bit less) preposterously--as if it were already informed by his study of Dostoevskij's poetics.)