Time Before and Time After in Nabokov’s novels

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Jansy Berndt de Souza Mello


“I hesitated for a while if I should start these memoirs from the beginning or from the end, if I should first describe my birth or my demise (…) Properly speaking, I am not a deceased author (…) my tomb was my second cradle. Moses, who also wrote about his death, did not commence with it (…): a radical distinction between this book and the Pentateuch.”

–  Machado de Assis, “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas” (Chapter One, 1881).

                   The first chapter of Speak Memory ends with the abrupt transition from how young Nabokov watched his father´s mien during a session of “levitation” to the moment when he looks at that same face in an open coffin. He had started his essay by a statement: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for” (SM,19).

                    In a special note for John Shade´s opening lines in Pale Fire, Brian
[Nabokov´s Pale Fire, the Magic of Artistic Discovery (178;281), 1999] brings up the double blackness of Nabokov´s sentence. He adds that when Shade wrote: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,” he was thinking about his origin and that of his ornithologist father because he had “in mind the void before him as well as the void after.” As Brian Boyd observes, this “image, ultimately derived from Lucretius, had already featured in The Gift (11); and in Bend Sinister (192-99)”.

                 The picture of a cradle bracketed by time is linked to VN´s remembrance of his father who, like his character, was shot by mistake. Nevertheless these thoughts,Nabokov´s own and his character´s, do not directly suggest an identification between Nabokov and Shade, although Brian Boyd´s association between the first line of Pale Fire and the “two voids” makes such a connection inevitable (whatever meaning we ascribe to these “two eternities of darkness” or to their transformation into “voids”). Priscilla Meyer [ Find What the Sailor Has Hidden,Vladimir Nabokov´s ‘Pale Fire’(46)] considers that “the connection between V.D. Nabokov and Shade is forged indirectly through Judge Goldsworth, the killer´s true target“. Later she will illustrate how V.D.Nabokov´s murder is also represented by the English historical case of regicide and restoration in VN´s poem ‘Restoration’, whose themes “point to the transcendence of murder through poetry”(101), and by “Hamlet”( 113-122).

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