Matt Evans's Reviews > The Enchanter

The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov
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Mar 22, 2009

really liked it
Read in March, 2009

If you've read and loved Nabokov's /Lolita/, you'll enjoy /The Enchanter/, the novella. Otherwise, I'd probably direct you first to /Lolita/, which, unsavory subject matter aside, is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. (/L/ also fleshes out the protagonist's motives and psychosis far better than does /E/.)

For Nabokovians: /E/'s real charms are as /L/'s 1939 prototype. Only in comparing the earlier mini-work to the latter meister-work do you see how amazingly well VN succeeded in shoring up Humbert's motives, rounding out his personality, as well as making Delores Hayes a living, breathing, complexly alive little girl. /E/ is black-and-white Kansas to /L/'s Oz. Another equally important and enjoyable aspect of /E/ is Dmitri Nabokov's 28-page essay on translating the work from its original Russian. Not only does DN clarify certain of the work's oddities and obfuscations, but he offers a primer of sorts on how to read VN. Indispensable reading for any serious student of writing or reading.

For Non-Nabokovians: You can't avoid the obvious question: why would I want to spend time reading about a pedophile? This question also goes for /Lolita/. The answer is complicated but important. Rather than take time to formulate my own thoughts and reasons, I will instead blatantly violate copyright law and post DN's own answer to that question (from the essay "On a Book Entitled /The Enchanter/" appended to the titular novella). What follows is somewhat lengthy, but each paragraph is an important component in the argument's chain. At most, this will take 5 minutes to read.

1) Intro:

"Like certain of [VN's:] other works, /The Enchanter/ is the study of madness seen through the madman's mind. Aberrations in general, both physical and psychological, were among the diverse sources of raw material that nurtured Nabokov's artistic fancy. The criminal pedophilia of the protagonist...was one among many themes Nabokov selected for the creative process of fictional recombination.

"...Nabokov writes in the concluding sentence of his 1925 short story 'The Fight,' 'Perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all but, rather, the play of shadow and light on a live body, the harmony of trifles assembled...in a unique and inimitable way.' This earlier expression, forthright yet undogmatic, of what was to remain an enduring aspect of his aesthetic approach, is, I suspect, destined to be quoted often, and not always in context.

"'Perhaps,' the word with which Nabokov introduced the thought, is an important qualifier. As a creative writer rather than a journalist, social commentator, or psychoanalyst, Nabokov chose to examine the phenomena of his surroundings through the refractive lens of artistry; at the same time his codex for literary creation is no less precise than the scientific purity of his lepidopterological investigations. But even if his emphasis is on the 'combinational delights' in which an artist is privileged to indulge, by no means does it follow that Nabokov was indifferent to the horrors of tyranny, murder, and child molestation; to the tragedy of social or personal injustice; or to the plight of those who have somehow been shortchanged by Fate.

2) Quick Goodreads Reviewer Interpolation:

Nabokov is often characterized as an "art for art's sake" type of writer. And indeed he was. Nabokov felt that religion and politics had absolutely no place in fiction. You'll either agree with that assertion or you won't. I agree with it, and I'm a religious person. I'll adduce one example of the foregoing and then move on: N. Gogol's /Dead Souls/ is a funny and highly original and at times oddly moving novel. Gogol's sequel to /Dead Souls/, written after he converted to some Christo-catholic variant religion is dull and pedantic and offensively preachy and, oddly enough, patently un-profound. Anti-profound. Trite.

3) Moving Swiftly On:

"It is not indispensable to have known Father personally in order to understand this; it is enough to have read his books with reasonable care. For the poet in Nabokov the vehicle of choice was the concrete artistic experience rather than the abstract declaration. However, if one is in quest of quotable bits of credo, the miniature Socratic dialogue of the 1927 story 'The Passenger' concedes another rare peek into the essence of his ethos. 'Life is more talented than we,' says the character, the writer. 'How can we compete with that goddess? Her works are untranslatable, indescribable.' Hence, 'all that's left to us is to treat her crations as a film producer does a famous novel, altering it beyond recognition...for the sole purpose of having an entertaining film unfold without a hitch, punishing virtue in the beginning and vice at the end,...with an expected but all-resolving outcome....We think that Life's performance is too sweeping, too uneven, that her genius is too untidy. To indulge our readers we cut out of Life's untrammeled novels our neat little tales for the use of schoolchildren. Allow me, in this connection, to impart to you the following experience....'

"At the story's end, his interlocutor the wise critic replies: 'There is much in life that is casual, and there is also much that is unusual. The Word is given the sublime right to enhance chance and to make of the trascendental something that is not accidental.' But the writer's concluding thought expresses two further distinct, if undivorceable, considerations -- artistic curiosity and human compassion: 'The trouble is that I did not learn, and shall never learn, why the passenger cried.'"

4) Wrap Up:

So, if that last paragraph doesn't hook you, i.e., if you don't think it matters 'who' the passenger is or 'why' she cried, you probably aren't the kind of person to read fiction, or even to try writing it yourself. Therefore, the answer to the question that launched this review's word-count into the stratosphere is "empathy." Artistic empathy. You can trust Nabokov 100% in this respect.
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