Christoph Henry-Thommes. Recollection, Memory and Imagination: Selected Autobiographical Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg, 2006. 392pp. ISBN 3-8253-5200-5
The thesis of this book is that the closely connected notions of recollection, memory and imagination are central to what the author here chooses to call "the autobiographical novels" of Vladimir Nabokov. These are in the main The Gift (Dar) (1936), Lolita (1955) and Ada (1969). The problem is that these simply are not autobiographical novels, if one understands autobiography as a history of one's life written by that person. The three may be seen as partial reflections of Nabokov's life: The Gift tells the story of a Russian émigré to Berlin; Lolita tells the story of a French emigrant in America; Ada is far more complex but in the main talks about a Russian citizen who lives in America. All contain narrators/characters who engage in some autobiographical telling, but these instances aim to parody the genre of autobiography in a postmodern fashion. Granted, one can say that, as sexologist Havelock Ellis puts it, "every artist writes his own autobiography;" but should one take this for granted when coming to write a scholarly book that is meant to further the field of autobiographical studies?
There are points when Henry-Thommes recognizes this problem. He writes for example in his analysis of Lolita that many critics do not "discuss Lolita as Humbert's autobiography, but as a novel predominantly authored by an omniscient third-person narrator who shrewdly manipulates both Humbert and his readers into believing it to be a life-account. They consider the narration in the first person a mask through which the discerning reader can easily see due to the many contradictions of Humbert's tale, but which the latter in his solipsistic blindness is unable to pierce" (275). There is a footnote at the end of this sentence which should point to these sources so that one can weight up the two arguments. But there is no reference to these opposing arguments. Instead the author directs us to the mere four critics that have of late taken Lolita as an autobiographical novel.
Henry-Thommes makes up his own, oppressively specific, definition of autobiography through a comparative analysis of Nabokov and St Augustine (whose Confessions were one of the very first autobiographies) in the first part of the book. He finds certain "structural analogies" (3) between Nabokov's and Augustine's techniques of representing memory. To my surprise, the author does not adequately account for the great differences between these two writers. He notices at some point that Augustine was, like many thinkers of his age, concerned with religious doctrine. The author points out that "Nabokov, on the other hand, did not subscribe to such an overtly religious approach. As a result, he lacked the eschatological security of Augustine derived from his belief in revealed religion. In this last respect Nabokov can be seen as a child of the age of modernity […] (57). Of course Nabokov's oeuvre cannot be seen through the prism of his struggle with religious belief because he is a modern writer. Isn't this obvious? If this hadn't been so obvious to the writer as well he wouldn't have dropped Augustine altogether from his lengthy analyses of the three Nabokov novels in question.
As far as I can see this book also lacks a concluding a chapter that quite simply tells us "what it all means" for Nabokov's work, for autobiographical studies and for American literature in general. Instead Henry-Thommes gives us a short conclusion that merely mirrors the introduction and in the place of an index another short summary of the argument. This is, in short, could be a much better book about one of the most inspiring writers of modern literature.
University of Cyprus