Look at the Harlequins! by Vladimir Nabokov

Beginning with a list of the author’s “other” books, which don’t exist outside the distorted mirror world of what Nabokov calls “LATH” (as he acronymically pegs Look At The Harlequins! [Vintage, 272 pages] within that book’s own text) is a wildly inventive metafiction in the bilingually verbose hyper-alliterative Nabokovian mold. We get splendid sentences here on the jeweled gift of selfhood giving reason to resist suicide from whatever facet, cranky meditations on the author’s pederastic proclivities and ego, and, most brilliantly, strange slips down the semiotic slope into madness. In two or three places in this book we find ourselves in a meticulously rendered literary reality and then, through a process of what one might call overdescription as exquisite as it is subtle, we find that our narrator has lost contact with the very rich world he has created for us; there is also a (to me) fascinating motif of the author’s self-analysis of a strange spatial or geographical malady: he cannot mentally reverse himself and return after picturing a scene in his mind’s eye. (This perhaps is meant as a sly parallel to time’s one-way flow: time, which via the magic of the book, as opposed to the temporal incarceration of life, can be reversed–a hint of a kind of “law of nature” that might apply to a “real” metafictional character.) And despite the hefty overlap of the life of the protagonist with that of Nabokov (e.g., he has English tutors, Russian aristocratic blood, contempt for psychoanalysts, and the like), this book is clearly metafiction. The protagonist here, as with the protagonists in Transparent Things and Lolita, is fascinated by butterflies but not an entomologist of Nabokov’s caliber. What makes LATH different from the work of other authors of metafiction’s alluringly magical, “self”-indulgent mode, depends on the previous richness Nabokov has built up in his fictions which, from the Russian-drafted Gift to Humbert Humbert in Lolita, *already* deal with a protagonist much like the author. Thus the slippage here is not dual, between the author and his protagonist, but “trial” (as one might say), between the author, his protagonist, and the lives of his other protagonists, memorably Humbert Humbert of Lolita. Nabokov is having sly taunts: not only at America’s image of him as author of Lolita, but at himself for being too quick to disidentify from that potent catcher of words and nymphs,and finally perhas, at the ontological conceit of a fixed self that could be wholly either one or another. The protagonist here is a dialectical monster flitting between Nabokov and Humbert Humbert, a monster Nabokov himself capture’s like a moth between LATH‘s pages. The last, and in some ways perhaps richest novel from a modern master.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).

excerpt:

I met the first of my three or four successive wives in somewhat odd circumstances, the development of which resembled a clumsy conspiracy, with nonsensical details and a main plotter who not only knew nothing of its real object but insisted on making inept moves that seemed to preclude the slightest possibility of success. Yet out of those very mistakes he unwittingly wove a web, in which a set of reciprocal blunders on my part caused me to get involved and fulfill the destiny that was the only aim of the plot.

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