"Twirl of Mirror Darkness": Nabokov and Visual Poetics of the Text

Yuri Leving, University of Southern California

In his 1928 poem, "Kinematofgraf," Vladimir Nabokov enigmatically describes the "twirl of mirror darkness" of the movie screen. Alfred Appel, Jr. laid the groundwork for the study of Nabokov and film in his stimulating book of 1974, Nabokov's Dark Cinema. However, important advances have been made since then in Nabokov and film criticism, and recent years have witnessed a boom in Nabokov film adaptations, including a second movie version of Lolita (Director: A. Lyne (USA, 1997; the first was staged by Stanley Kubrick in 1962) and a production of The Luzhin Defense (Director: M. Gorris (UK/France, 2000).

My paper will focus first on the question, what actually makes Nabokov's texts attractive for film adaptation? I will discuss the recent developments in Nabokoviana on cinema and their relevance to our understanding of the original literary text. As I will argue, it is not only the vivid imagery of the author's fiction, but certain narrative mechanisms that make the text amenable to film language. Moreover, the text itself may be seen as constructed in a "cinematic" manner in Nabokov's case. Further, these mechanisms cannot be fully understood without taking into account the theoretical and practical innovations of Nabokov's contemporaries working in the USSR. The argument presented here elaborates studies by Russian Formalists, such as Ejxenbaum and Shklovskij, as well as ideas of montage as put forward by Pudovkin, Vertov, and Ejzenshtejn. Nabokov, although skeptical towards the Soviets, always kept an eye on what took place on the other side of the border (his readings of poems on cinema by Osip Mandel'shtam can serve an example of such attention and rivalry). As a result we can see some affinity between Nabokov's prose and concepts of his Russian colleagues devoted to cinema, as well as the general intersection between the languages of literature and film in 1920–1930s.

The paper's further exploration of the "cinematic language" of Nabokov's prose will focus on modern film adaptations' deviations from the actual texts of Nabokov's novels. A recent instance is the final scene of The Luzhin Defence, showing a chess tournament at an Italian resort in the 1920s. According to the original ending by Nabokov, after having a nervous breakdown and losing the most important game of his career by forfeit, Luzhin jumps out of a window. However, in the film, after Luzhin's suicide his fiancée wins the game for him by consulting his notes. As Larry Evans, five-time U.S. chess champion, observes, "This is flatly against the rules, of course, and a preview audience of chess experts in New York burst out laughing." "Unfortunately," says another critic, "the last 10 minutes presented a farfetched, totally contrived ending that nearly destroyed the previous hard-earned credibility of the movie." (In contrast, the final game played in the film, devised by British grandmaster Jonathan Speelman, is technically correct.)

In conclusion I will discuss the significance of such deviations, showing that the Hollywood-izing of Nabokov's text is more than a simple turning highbrow art into low. The presentation will be accompanied by illustrations from other rare adaptations of Nabokov, such as Despair (Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Germany, 1978), King, Queen, Knave (Director: Jerzy Skolimowski; UK, 1972), and Maschenka (Director: John Goldschmidt; France, 1986).