Nabokov and Olesha Revisited: Inspiration? Influence? Irritation?

Molly V. Peeney, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Several scholars have written about Vladimir Nabokov and Yurii Olesha as congenial artists. In “A Hall of Mirrors: Nabokov and Olesha,” Nils Ak Nilsson discusses the writers’ use of mirrors throughout their oeuvres. Jane Grayson takes on the authors’ works more broadly in her “Double Bill: Nabokov and Olesha,” and discusses, for example, both authors’ preoccupation with visual perception and imagination. She demonstrates how these similar artistic stances manifest themselves in the works of both authors. Another approach that has been taken by Richard Borden, for example, analyzes the authors’ mutual sources of inspiration, in this case H. G. Wells’ “Door in the Wall.” Again, these articles emphasize Nabokov and Olesha’s congeniality as artists, taking their oeuvres together and discussing broad parallels. I propose that Nabokov and Olesha are not simply “congenial” but that Nabokov’s reading of Olesha’s publication of Envy in 1927 directly impacted Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave (1928). There is evidence to suggest that Nabokov’s reading of Envy spurred a change in literary style, and that King, Queen, Knave responds to Envy thematically.

The first part of my paper argues that the change in style that is evident in Nabokov’s second novel King, Queen, Knave, as opposed to his first novel, Mary (1926), occurs in part because of Nabokov’s reading of Olesha’s Envy in 1927. Kavalerov’s famous line “Veshchi menia ne liubiat” is reworked in King, Queen, Knave: “Strannoe delo: veshchi ne liubili Frantsa.” The literary use and description of “veshchi” in Nabokov’s work take on new significance after Nabokov’s reading of Envy. In Mary, humans mostly exert influence on objects, but in King, Queen, Knave, objects act on humans more predominantly. The second part of the paper deals with thematic parallels between King, Queen, Knave and Envy, specifically with regard to the respective love triangles and also in terms of the respective inventions in the texts: Ophelia in Envy and automannequins in King, Queen, Knave.

Finally, based on the evidence, I will challenge the concept of these two authors’ congeniality. If King, Queen, Knave responds to Envy, both stylistically and thematically, what does that mean in terms of Nabokov’s relationship to his Olesha? I will consider Olesha as a possible influence, inspiration and/or irritation to Nabokov.

Borden, Richard C. “H. G. Wells’ ‘Door in the Wall’ in Russian Literature” SEEJ. 1992. 36(3): 323-38.

Grayson, Jane. “Double Bill: Nabokov and Olesha,” Pushkin to Palisandriia: Essays on the Russian Novel in Honor of Richard Freeborn. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Nilsson, Nils Ak. “A Hall of Mirrors: Nabokov and Olesha,” Scando-Slavica. S-412 56 Gothenburg, Sweden. 1969. 15: 5-12.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda v piati tomakh : stoletie so dnia rozhdeniia: 1899-1999. Ed. Alexander Dolinin. Sankt-Peterburg: Simpozium, 1999.

Olesha, Iurii. Zavist’; Tri tolstiaka; Ni dnia bez strochki. Moskva: Khudozh. Literatura, 1989.