The Poet in the Prose: Nabokov’s Metaphorical Thinking

Viktoria Ivleva, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Nabokov has a system of central images and motifs at the core of the world he creates. My goal is to identify several of these elements related to both form and content in his prose to reveal an integral, conceptual core that is inherent in his artistic universe. I will examine central images of Nabokov’s poetical world and their evolution on several levels (narratological, metaphysical, metaliterary and intertextual), using a syncretic approach. I will analyze them in relation to the tradition of Russian classical literature.

I base my argument on a new hypothesis concerning Nabokov’s poetics and artistic vision of the world. I believe that the writer, who started as a poet, transplanted into his prose structural principles inherent to classical and modernistic poetry; thus his prose can be defined as “poetic” (Schmid). In this type of prose it is not a syntagmatic (linear) sequence of plot development, but rather paradigmatic connections between images, metaphors, and motifs that generate meaning. Recurrent metaphors and motifs create a system of leitmotifs. They generate rhythms and networks of paradigmatic connections, unaffected by any causal or provisional relations.

Using precepts of contemporary narratology (Schmid and others), I will argue that paradigmatic links between metaphors, motifs and themes, alliterations, and rhythm, as well as a high degree of intertextuality, make Nabokov’s prose quasi-poetical.

I will focus on several central motifs that constitute Nabokov’s conceptual core: man-made objects and natural phenomena. An object can bring in multiple figurative associations without losing its specific meaning, display some anthropomorphic or zoomorphic features or become emotionally colored in Nabokov’s prose (Dolinin). In some contexts images function as double tropes – metaphors and metonyms simultaneously -- which, on the one hand, represent the world of their creator, and, on the other, show similarities to other objects of this world. I will concentrate on Nabokov’s representation of several recurrent objects such as buildings, clothing, and natural phenomena. In his prose such metaphors can reflect different approaches to writing (ideological versus aesthetic), indirectly mirror designs of his works, play crucial roles in the development of plots, and also form little subplots, influencing the development of main plots. I will show how architectural, natural and sartorial metaphors are interconnected in the context of Nabokov’s prose and how they are linked with the theme of putting on and removing clothing, and also with metaphorical concealing and revealing of authorial truth.

In Nabokov scholarship some of these images have been discussed separately, and a number of insightful observations have been made in connection with Nabokov’s texts (Alexandrov, Boyd, Connolly, Davydov, Dolinin, Johnson, Tammi, Pekka, and others). Yet, these images have not been studied with regard to their integrity and correlations, and the principle of poetic use of these topoi has not been revealed.

In sum, one can find a set of poetical principles at the core of Nabokov’s prose works. He writes his prose according to the laws of poetry.