"It appears,"' says Mr. Rowe* in his Introduction, "that
Nabokov-- partially by means of the mechanisms revealed below--
will continue to flutter the pulses of his readers for some
"The mechanisms revealed below" is a pretty phrase,
suggesting perhaps more than its author intends, but it does
not quite apply to me. The purpose of the present review is not
to answer a critic but to ask him to remove his belongings. The
book consists of three parts. Whilst I have no great quarrel
with the first two, entitled "A Touch of Russian" and "N. as
Stage Manager," I must protest vehemently against a number of
indecent absurdities contained in the third part, entitled
One may wonder if it was worth Mr. Rowe's time to exhibit
erotic bits picked out of Lolita and Ada-- a
process rather like looking for allusions to aquatic mammals in
Moby Dick. But that is his own choice and concern. What
I object to is Mr. Rowe's manipulating my most innocent words
so as to introduce sexual "symbols" into them. The notion of
symbol itself has always been abhorrent to me, and I never tire
of retelling how I once failed a student-- the dupe, alas, of
an earlier teacher-- for writing that Jane Austen describes
leaves as "green" because Fanny is hopeful, and "green" is the
color of hope. The symbolism racket in schools attracts
computerized minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as
poetical sense. It bleaches the soul. It numbs all capacity to
enjoy the fun and enchantment of art. Who the hell cares, as
Mr. Rowe wants us to care, that there is, according to his
italics, a "man" in the sentence about a homosexual Swede who
"had embarrassing manners" (p. 148), and another "man"
in "manipulate" (passim)? "Wickedly folded moth"
suggests "wick" to Mr. Rowe, and "wick," as we Freudians know,
is the Male Organ. "I" stands for "eye," and "eye" stands for
the Female Organ. Pencil licking is always a reference to you
know what. A soccer goal hints at the vulval orifice (which Mr.
Rowe evidently sees as square).
I wish to share with him the following secret: In the case
of a certain type of writer it often happens that a whole
paragraph or sinuous sentence exists as a discrete organism,
with its own imagery, its own invocations, its own bloom, and
then it is especially precious, and also vulnerable, so that if
an outsider, immune to poetry and common sense, injects
spurious symbols into it, or actually tampers with its wording
(see Mr. Rowe's crass attempt on his page 113), its magic is
replaced by maggots. The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes
for the "symbols" of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an
idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not
labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a
Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description,
rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The
fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe's treatment of recurrent words, such as
"garden" or "water," is his regarding them as abstractions, and
not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in
the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from
the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the
Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in
Lolita. If every "come" and "part" on the pages of
my books is supposedly used by me to represent "climax"
and "genitals," one can well imagine the naughty treasures Mr.
Rowe might find in any French novel where the prefix
"con"' occurs so frequently as to make every chapter a
veritable compote of female organs. I do not think, however,
that his French is sufficient for such feasts; nor is his
Russian good enough for his manipulations if he believes that
"'otblesk" (confused apparently with otliv) means
"low tide" (page III) or that the nonexistent "triazh"
stands for "tyranny" (page 41) when actually the word that I
used (and that he wrongly transcribed), tirazh, is
merely a publisher's term for "circulation."
One can excuse a critic for not finding "stillicide" and
"ganch" in his abridged dictionary and concluding that I
invented those words; one can understand a dull reader of
Invitation to a Beheading thinking that the executioner
develops a homosexual tenderness for his victim when actually
that affectionate look reflects only the lust of a glutton
coveting a live chicken; but what I find unpardonable, and
indeed unworthy of a scholar, is Mr. Rowe's twisting my
discussion of prosody (as appended to my translation of
Eugene Onegin) into a torrent of Freudian drivel, which
allows him to construe "metrical length" as an erection and
"rhyme" as a sexual climax. No less ludicrous is his
examination of Lolita's tennis and his claim that the tennis
balls represent testicles (those of a giant albino, no doubt).
Passing on to my reference to chess problems in Speak,
Memory Mr. Rowe finds "sexual analogies" in such phrases as
"mating devices" and "groping for a pawn in the box"-- all of
which is as much an insult to chess as to the problemist.
The jacket of Mr. Rowe's book depicts a butterfly
incongruously flying around a candle. Moths, not butterflies,
are attracted to light but the designer's blunder neatly
illustrates the quality of Mr. Rowe's preposterous and nasty
interpretations. And he will be read, he will be quoted, he
will be filed in great libraries, next to my arbors and mists!
* William Woodin Rowe: Nabokov's Deceptive World.
New York University Press, 1971, 193 pp.
Written at Gstaad, Bernese Oberland, on August 28, 1971,
and published in The New York Review on October 7 of the
Vladimir Nabokov. Rowe's symbols
Last-modified: Fri, 07 Aug 1998 19:31:05 GMT