Ana Bumber

Mnemonic Literary Portraits and Ghosts in Exile in Three Novels by Nabokov

Ana Bumber

Interactions Culturelles et Discursives (ICD), University of Tours, Tours, France


Abstract: This paper explores the influence of Nabokov’s exile on his art of portraiture through a comparative study of the novels: Mary (1926), The Gift (1935), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974). The focus of this comparative study is a mnemonic portrait, which is one particular type of literary portrait peculiar to the author. The mnemonic literary portrait is a literary term used for the purpose of a research made on literary portraits in Nabokov’s novels in the context of a PhD doctoral project “Vladimir Nabokov: L’Art du Portrait” and owes its name to the adjective ‘mnemogenic[1]’ dubbed by the author to define a peculiar type of literary persons or characters which are easy or pleasant to recall of. According to our hypothesis, Nabokov’s quest to find new ways of creating portraits stems from the author’s constant encounters with the ghosts in his memories. At the same time, mnemonic portraits could be the artist’s response to the challenges launched by the Russian avant-garde movement called Suprematism and, more precisely, UNOVIS, the sub branch of the movement that sought to break away from the representations of the past in the context of the October Revolution. For that purpose, we shall refer to philosophers who have theorized the art of portraiture in its visual and not literary form, namely Hervé Guibert, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Jean-Luc Nancy.

Keywords: Nabokov, mnemonic portraits, visual arts, exile

1. Introduction

Vladimir Nabokov named the pogroms of the twentieth century the “modern atrocity[2]”, which the others saw in the work of modern artists such as Picasso or Schiele. Our hypothesis is that Nabokov’s first-hand experience of exterminations during the October Revolution triggered this exiled artist’s need to give shape to his living memories of the dead or missing through his literary portraits. This hypothesis is reinforced by the international artistic context of Nabokov’s exile. The 1922 suprematist exhibition in Berlin affirms an internationally new, non-objective conception of modern art in post-revolutionary Russia carried by the Bolshevik Revolution. As Malevich writes in 1919: “We need to be intransigent with the past, and more than ever, bury it in a cemetery. Every resemblance to it has to be wiped from our face[3]”, Nabokov writes his poem “Remembrance” (1920) and later on “Execution” (1927) in which the author sees himself as a survivor of an imagined execution ending with “the fortunate protection // of my exile I reposses”. The insistence on the visual representation of characters in his literary portraits characterized by the cross-fertilization of arts triggers the following questioning. What if Nabokov’s literary portraits were his silent responses to modern art? To Malevich. To Lissetzky. To Nikolai Souietine. In short, to UNOVIS[4]. A comparative study of literary portraits from different periods[5] of his literary work, Mary[6] (1926), The Gift[7] (1935), and Look at the Harlequins![8] (1974), will attempt to question the validity of our hypotheses through time by addressing to the above question. Addressing to it will allow us to see that seeing UNOVIS as a movement that breaks with the memory of past times and at the same time leaves the exiled Russians out of memory is perhaps necessary to understand Nabokov’s attitude towards abstract art[9] and the importance of figurative art in his literary portraits stemming from different historical contexts as testified by De Vries[10]. At the same time, it will prove that Nabokov’s literary portraits are the vehicles for memory, his own and that of human figures in art history – that they are mnemonic[11]. This implies that his literary portraits exceed the classical definition of a literary portrait such as given by Pierre Arnaud as a break in a narrative of a varied length with a goal to make a physical description of a character (prosopography) and/or moral aspect of a character be it real or imaginary (ethopoeia)[12].

In this paper we intend to provide a study of literary portraits from an art history perspective, which has not been done in two recent broad studies[13] dealing with the art of painting in his literary work. Additionally, our analysis will differ from another recent work[14] that focalizes on the authorial self-portraits stressing the self-referential and postmodernist aspect of Nabokov’s writing. Our analysis of the hidden meanings in his portraits in the third part will follow the line of research done elsewhere by Brian Boyd[15].

In order to answer to the above question we will confront Warburg’s definition of a portrait as a ghost that survives to an after death[16] with suprematist theory in Nabokov’s literary portrait. We will start this paper by tackling photography with a focus on the family photographs depicted in Gift as the objective form of expression in contrast to Suprematism, which is characterized by non-objective expression of pure artistic feeling. For this section we will refer to Jean-Luc Nancy’s reflections on the difference between the identification portrait and the art of portraiture, but also on the photograph as a material object, in Le Regard du portrait[17]. Then, in the second part, we will deal with ghosts in exile. That is to say, portraits stemming from mental images, which compete with photography in Mary in as much as they are capable of conveying the memory of an emotion. The examples from the Look at the Harlequins! and Gift will support our remarks. We will end this part by demonstrating the deliberately spectral quality of minor portraits in the latter novel. We will refer to Guibert’s discrimination between the mental image and photography in L’Image fantôme[18] and oppose our findings to suprematist definition of art, which “does not depend on any aesthetic beauty, emotion or state of mind” (Malévitch, p. 28). We will end this paper by the synthesis of Nabokov’s modernist portraits found in all three novels, the portraits composed of references to other works of art, predominantly modernist, gravitating around the Russian avant-garde The World of Art[19] movement that preceded UNOVIS. In order to tackle the prominence of art history references in this part, we will refer to Aby Warburg’s notion of phatos as theorized in George Didi-Huberman’s Image survivante: histoire de l’art et le temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg[20].

This paper is written in the context of a broader doctoral research project on the art of portraiture in Nabokov’s fictional work.

2. Family photographs in Gift

The use of photography in various narratives under scrutiny seems to be the antithesis to suprematist definition of art that must be “free[d] from the dead weight of objectivity […]” (Malévitch, p. 26). Photography appears in all three novels in the form of family photographs whose purpose and object are to make the family members immemorial. The photographs appear as the objective representations of those persons “[i]n those photos Mary had been exactly as he remembered her” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 53), “[j]udging by her words and judging also by the photographs of him, he had been a refined, noble, intelligent and kindly man” (Nabokov, Gift, p. 185). The medium, in other words the camera, takes images through the lens - objective in French - and makes that an image itself becomes a personal object, which in the context of exile becomes a precious “photograph unsuitable even for copying, had alone been saved by a miracle and had become priceless” (Nabokov, Gift, p.84). In Gift, photographs of dead young poet Yasha, the snapshots of Fyodor’s missing father, the group photograph with the dead cousin on it - “Fyodor’s cousins: one in a school cap, the other without - the one without to be killed seven years later in the battle of Melitopol” (Nabokov, Gift, p.84) - the snapshot of an unknown actress living in Paris and the photo of Zina’s dead father, feature at least one person, who is either dead or missing, or geographically displaced, and as such fit Nancy’s definition of a portrait as an object to be kept in the absence of a person be it by remoteness or death[21].

The family photographs, the products of the camera that Kossi Efoui calls “the memory machine[22]” create the proofs of one’s existence. Following Aby Warburg’s definition of a portrait, the persons of these photos are to be looked at as the ghosts that survive after death. They have been immortalized. In the context of the revolution occasioning damnatio memoriae[23], the damnation of one’s memory, the choice of including family photographs as ekphrases in a work of art illustrates the process of transsubstantiation of a personal memory to a collective one as one finds in Arshile Gorky’s portrait The Artist and his Mother[24] (1926-1936), or Serge Lask’s canvases featuring photographs of family members, who perished during the Holocaust. The family photographs above quoted are not artistic photographs, but true to nature - the saved relics taken out of family albums. They are amateurish: “higher up - Yvonna Ivanovna, who for some reason has not come out, her features blurred but her slim waist, her belt and her watch chain clearly visible” (Nabokov, Gift, p.84). They follow the distinction between an identifying photograph and a work of art which, according to Nancy, lies in inventiveness[25]. The contrast with Suprematism lies in Malevich’s vision of art: “it is not our job to photograph traces; that is the photographer’s job. Rather than collect any old relics, what is needed is to establish laboratories of global construction, from whose axes will emerge painters of new forms, not dead object-type representations” (Malévitch, p. 56).

3. Ghosts in exile

Nabokov’s literary portraits feature two types of literary portraits that we named ghosts in exile. The first type is the mental image, which according to Guibert has ghostlike qualities. The second type is a portrait of the present that according to Warburg are the ghosts of the future.

3.1. Mental images

In contrast to actual photographs, mental images are endowed with what Guibert calls emotional memory[26] which photography as an encompassing and forgetful practice cannot convey. This differs from the suprematist vision of art “which does not depend on any aesthetic beauty, emotion or the state of mind” (Malévitch, p. 28). In Mary, Mary’s snapshots are laid aside in order to convey the memory of a first love emotion. “But her image, her presence, the shadow of her memory demanded that in the end he must resurrect her too - and he intentionally thrust away her image, as he wanted to approach it gradually, step by step, just as he had done nine years before” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 33). The description of minute details of her face together with the mobility of her facial expression reveal the aesthetic beauty and list all peculiarities that he found so endearing about her: “her rapid smiling glances […] a strong color in her cheek, the corner of a flashing, Tartar eye, the delicate curve of her nostril alternately stretching and tightening as she laughed” (Nabokov, Mary, p.47), “[s]he had adorable mobile eyebrows, a dark complexion with a covering of very fine, lustrous down which gave a specially warm tinge to her lustrous cheeks; her nostrils flared as she talked […] and a dimple quivered at her open neck” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 58). Mary is also described as a butterfly and as such endowed with supernatural mythologized features that photographs are not supposed to convey “he saw only the folds of the stuff stretching and rippling across her back, and the black silk bow like two outstretched wings” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 49), “her black bow looking in flight like a huge Camberwell Beauty [a butterfly]” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 61).

In Look at the Harlequins!, the narrator’s mental image of underage Bel is linked with the memory of their past rapture. The narrator says: “[…] she has changed very slightly in the medium of memory, where blood does not course through immobile time as fast as it does in the perceptual present. Especially unaffected by linear growth is my vision of her pertaining to 1953-1955, the three years in which she was totally and uniquely mine” (Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! p.142).

In Gift, such emotion is intentionally kept at bay in Zina’s portrait. Fyodor’s fighting against his infatuation with Zina is depicted through her portrait in which her image disintegrates into something resembling abstract painting “the automatic repetitions of the disintegrating image to a mere sketch broken and blurred, in which nothing of the original life subsisted” and recomposed every time he meets her again “and beauty again flared forth - her nearness, her frightening accessibility to his gaze, the reconstituted union of all the details” (Nabokov, Gift, p. 175-176).

3.2. Future ghosts

Other portraits in Gift remain spectral. The idea of imagining his missing father alive scares Fyodor. Fyodor’s first love appears as an antithesis to Ganine’s first love for she has remained a specter to him.

“In the gloom of the small public garden crossed obliquely by the faint light of a streetlamp, the beautiful girl who for the last eight years had kept refusing to be incarnated (so vivid was the memory of his first love), was sitting on a cinder-grey bench, but when he got closer he saw that only the shadow of the poplar trunk was sitting there” (Nabokov, Gift, p. 51).

Fyodor imagines the dead poet Yasha as a ghost wandering through his father’s apartment. At the same time, these portraits alternate with short portraits of exiled characters that the protagonist meets in his everyday life. They consist in the short descriptions of characters which seem to encompass the most striking features of these persons “a good-naturedly gloomy Muscovite whose carriage and aspect were somewhat reminiscent of the Napoleon of the island period, and a satirical poet from the Berlin Russian-émigré paper, a frail little man with a kindly wit and a quiet, hoarse voice” (Nabokov, Gift, p. 164). While the mental images in Mary and Gift focus on the absent and endows the characters with ghostlike qualities, the exiled Russians in Berlin that are part of the protagonist’s present are seen also as ghosts due to their geographical displacement.

“These two, like their predecessors, invariably turned up in this region, which they used for leisurely walks, rich in encounters, so that it seemed as if on this German street there had encroached the vagabond phantom of a Russian boulevard, or as if on the contrary a street in Russia, with several natives taking air, swarmed with the pale ghosts of innumerable foreigners flickering among those natives like a familiar and barely noticeable hallucination” (Nabokov, Gift, p. 164).

4. Portraits as traces of The World of Art movement

The leading figure of The World of Art movement Serge Diaghilev “played a magisterial role in familiarizing Russians with Western art, from Old Masters to contemporary, as well as with past and future trends in art of their own country” (Shapiro, 2009, p. 98). In all three novels, but in Mary and Look at the Harlequins! especially, there are many references to Old Masters and modern art in painting as well as in literature, but also through allusions to emblematic figures from the world of Theatre. In Mary, the exiled Russians whose literary portraits encode many references to the modern art inhabit the protagonist’s pension. Some portraits are conveyed through poems such as Paul Verlaine’s “Pierrot” (1884) or Vladimir Mayakovski’s “The Cloud in Trousers” (1915). The description of characters resemble the archetypal figures of some painters such as the red-haired prostitutes of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec or Egon Schiele’s nudes and some of his self-portraits. They are direct references to The World of Art movement through ballet dancers, which to the émigré Russian reader of the twenties evoke the roles of Petrouchka by Vaslav Nijnsky and the artistic world formed around the figure of Serge Diaghilev both in Russia and in Diaspora. In all three novels, portraits are conveyed through the specific figurative paintings. Some examples are: The Landlady by Nina Hamnett in Mary, Femme nue allongée by Lautrec, Demon by Vrubel, Lessons on Anatomy by Rembrandt in the Look at the Harlequins! and in the Gift The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt. In all three novels, the memory of shapes as thought by Aby Warburg is used to convey pathos that repeats itself through all of history and calls into mind so many paintings at once. Finally, a hint of a detail in a specific portrait, such as “Lilithan eyes” calls to mind the representation of Lilith in art history.

4.1. Poems of Mayakovski and Verlaine and their encoded meanings

The reference to the poem “The Cloud in Trousers” (1915) by Mayakowski, found in a truncated form “‘The Trousered Cloud’ “Great big clouded cretin, that’s what I am” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 8), encodes the authorial self-portrait. The poem was written for Maria Denisova, Vladimir Mayakovski’s unrequited love. While this poem does not give us information about the physical appearance of Mary, it informs the reader on the nature of the relation between poet and novelist, both carrying the name of Vladimir, and their loved Maria and Mary. The reference to this poem foreshadows the missed encounters. Ganin will not go to the station to meet Mary, the same as Maria has missed the rendezvous with Mayakovski. There is to it an autobiographical reference in the line “It happened in Odessa”, the place of the missed encounter for Mayakovski and the place where Tamara’s trace, the supposedly real name of Nabokov’s first love, is lost in the tumult of the October Revolution. Our reading of this encoded autobiographical portrait is in line with Shapiro and Chupin’s interpretations of encoding the authorial presence in his work.

Potyagin’s portrait has as a model the poem “Pierrot” by Paul Verlaine[27] (Figure 1.). His portrait matches the physical description of Pierrot’s eyes and carnation. It foreshadows the death of the poet. The “old dying poet” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 116) in the last page of Mary meets up with the final lines of the poem “of the one who dies”.

“In front of him, leaning his head against the wall and gasping for air with his mouth open, stood old Podtyagin, barefoot, wearing a long nightshirt open at his grizzled chest. His eyes, bare and wild without their pince-nez, were unblinking, his face was the color of dry clay, the large mound of his stomach heaved beneath the taut cotton of his nightshirt” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 62).

4.2. Figures of the avant-garde movements in Mary

The literary portraits of other lodgers are evocative of the figures in paintings belonging to the avantgarde movements. Frau Dorn’s cook is a red-haired prostitute evoking Toulouse Lautrec’s prostitutes (Figure 2.): “a cook - the terror of the local market, a vast red-haired virago who on Fridays donned a crimson hat and sailed off for the northern quarters where she traded her blowsy charms” (Nabokov, Mary, p.7). The double portrait in the mirror of Ganin and Lyudmila, the portrait of Lyudmila dressing both call Schiele’s portraits (Figure 3.). The portrait of Frau Dorn, whom the narrator refers to as “the landlady” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 7), could also be a reference to the painting (Figure 4.) The Landlady (1918) by the avantgarde woman painter Nina Hamnett belonging to the circle of Diaghilev. The portraits of two dancers, Kolin and Gornotsvetov, echo the real ballet dancers such as Vaslav Nijnsky in the role of Petrouchka (1913), to portraits of Arthur Rimbaud (Figure 5.) and to the portrait drawing of the librettist Boris Kochno (1921) by Sergei Soudeikine (Figure 6.), who also worked with Sergei Diaghilev. These works of art here date from 1872 to 1921, the period which corresponds to the World of Art movement. They could be analysed as the allegories of the artistic world in which the author was immersed at the time when he was in love with Tamara. The reconstruction of this ideal artistic world through literary portraits could be interpreted as the reconstruction of a mindscape necessary to invite Mary back into memory. Ganin invites her into “the house of ghosts” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 116), as the pension is referred to, which functions as the asylum, the inviolable place, in which characters bear traces of art. “He was a god, re-creating a world that had perished. Gradually he resurrected that world, to please the girl whom he did not dare to place in it until it was absolutely complete” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 33).

4.3. The paintings in Mary, Gift and Look at the Harlequins!

The figure Hamnett paints (Figure 4.) is a landlady sitting at the head of the table while at the same time being in retreat. It seems to correspond in position, expression and color to the reference of a single hand to the following portrait: “Frau Dorn’s prim and sad little back figure looked very out of place and forlorn at the head of the table […]. Like a dry leaf her tiny little hand would flit up to the dangling bell knob and then yellow, and faded would flutter back again” (Mary, p. 13). In Look at the Harlequins! there is a portrait which is even more detailed description of a tableau by Toulouse Lautrec, Femme nue allongée (Figure 7.)

“She was naked, save for her black-stockinged legs (which was strange but at the same time recalled something from a parallel world, for my mind stood astride on two circus horses). In an erotic footnote, I reminded myself for the ten thousandth time to mention somewhere that there is nothing more seductive than a girl’s back with the profiled rise of the haunch accentuated by her lying sidelong, one leg slightly bent” (Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! p.62).

In the textual environment of this portrait, the author gives clues in his parentheses with “two circus horses” hinting at an another work by Lautrec The Circus Riders, (Figure 8.) and with his remark “which was strange but at the same time recalled something from a parallel world”. This helps us to link this description to Femme nue allongée by Toulouse Lautrec.

4.4. Pathos

Pathos[28] according to Didi-Huberman’s mise en forme of Aby Warburg’s research embodies a shape, gives to it life and movement, and is at the same time the memory of that shape which resurges through time. Pathosformel[29] is a trace in motion of anthropologic images of classical and modern Western Culture from which the suprematists wanted to break away. The portrait of Alfyorov is endowed with life and movement in “the turn of the scraggy neck” which calls so many religious works of art or, as the narrator states, “a religious oleograph” (Mary, p. 3). The same kind of descriptive figure is present in Gift in Chernychevski’s portraits which resembles Christ’s descent from the cross as depicted by Rembrandt or Annette’s portrait in Look at the Harlequins!

“Annette’s emotional health caused me anxiety: her graceful neck seemed even longer and thinner. An expression of mild melancholy lent a new, unwelcome, beauty to her Botticellian face: its hollowed outline below the zygoma was accentuated by her increasing habit of sucking in her cheeks when hesitative or pensive” (Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! p. 110).

Phatos in pictorial literary portraits encodes pity for a particular character (see Boyd 1985), which otherwise is never expressed in words. For instance, representing Alfyorov as a religious figure at the beginning of the novel compensates the negative image of Alfyorov depicted by the protagonist.

As we can see, there is an emphasis on the figurative representation in portraits here from which the Suprematists wanted to depart: “Only after the disappearance of the habit whereby consciousness regards paintings as representing small corners of nature, or Madonnas, or immodest Venuses, will we see pictorial work” (Malévich, p.48). In the last example, “Botticellian face”, the most famous of which is precisely an immodest Venus in The Birth of Venus, reaffirms Nabokov’s opposite view regarding art to Malevich and Suprematists.

5. Conclusion

This paper answers positively to our initial question and with it confirms that Nabokov’s literary portraits are his silent response to Suprematism. While, on the one hand, Suprematists’ “task is to continue advancing towards something new” (Malévitch, p. 8), Nabokov’s literary portraits are composed of past recollections, photographs, art history figures and of the present portraits that the author sees as ghosts in the anticipation of a future reader of the futures times. “We are not going to live in the museums” (Malévitch, p. 8), Malevich proclaims. As for Nabokov, literary portraits constitute an imaginary museum capable of bringing to life, of a renaissance in Aby Warburg’s sense of this word, the ghosts from the past that belong to his own recollections or to our collective memory of art history figures.

6. References

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6. Appendix

Figure 1. “Pierrot” in Jadis et naguère, Paul Verlaine, 1884.

This is no moonstruck dreamer of tales

Mocking ancestral portraits overhead;

His gaiety, alas, is, like his candle, dead –

And his specter haunts us now, thin as a rail.

There, in the terror of endless lightning,

His pale blouse, a cold wind blows, takes shape

Like a winding sheet, and his mouth agape

Seems to howl at the blind worms’ gnawing.

With the sound of a night-bird’s passing grace,

His white sleeves mark out vaguely in space

Wild foolish signs to which no one replies.

His eyes are vast holes where phosphorus burns,

And his make-up renders more frightful in turn

The bloodless face, the sharp nose, of one who dies.

Figure 2: Woman before a mirror by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, 1897 is an oil on cardboard (63x48cm private collection, New York) depicting a red-haired prostitute. It is just one among so many red-haired prostitutes that the painter painted. In the text, the cook is at the same time a prostitute, depicted as “red-haired”, “blowsy” and “vast Erika”, like Lautrec’s models. Another prostitute in the novel is referred to as “Foxy-looking little thing [a prostitute] - such filth - and yet delicious” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 109).

Figure 3: Egon Schiele, Blond Girl in Underwear, 1913, gouache and pencil on paper, 46.5x31, private collection. This gouache looks like the description of Lyudmila dressing. “Everything about Lyudmila he now found repulsive: her yellow locks, fashionably bobbed, the two streaks of unshaven black hairs down the nape of her neck, her dark, languid eyelids, and above all her lips, glossy with purple-red lipstick. He was bored and repelled when as she dressed, after a bout of mechanical lovemaking, she would narrow her eyes, which at once gave them an unpleasantly shaggy look [...]” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 11).

Figure 4: Nina Hamnett, The Landlady, 1918, oil on canvas. This painting depicts a landlady sitting at the head of the table while at the same time being in retreat. It seems to correspond in the position, expression and the color as well as the reference to a single hand to the following portrait: “Frau Dorn prim and sad little back figure looked very out of place and forlorn at the head of the table […]. Like a dry leaf her tiny little hand would flit up to the dangling bell knob and then yellow, and faded would flutter back again” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 13).

Figure 5: Arthur Rimbaud by Jean-Louis Forain, 1872, ink wash painting (on the left) could be a model for Kolin’s portrait. He is depicted as “he saw himself as Verlaine’s ‘half Pierrot and half Gavroche’” (Mary, p. 65). Gavroche was the nickname given to Rimbaud by Verlaine. Both in Verlaine’s poem “Pierrot” and in the portrait by Forain the eyes are depicted as the holes “His eyes are vast holes where phosphorus burns”. At the same time, this clue could also mean that he saw himself as “Verlaine’s […] Gavroche” homosexual. The rest of the portrait looks very much like Rimbaud’s physical appearance. We selected a detail depicting Rimbaud out of the painting Un coin de table by Henri Fantin-Latour 1872 (oil on canvass, 160x225 cm, Musée d’Orsay) for illustration (on the right): ‘His [Kolin] round, unintelligent, very Russian face with its snub nose and languorous blue eyes […] was puffy and shiny, his uncombed blond hair fell across his forehead […]” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 65).

Figure 6: Sergei Soudeikine, The Portrait of Boris Kochno, 1921, drawing, 27.5x22.5. Boris Kochno a Russian librettist could be the inspiration for Gornostvetov: “Gornotsvetov was finishing dressing: he putted on his polka-dotted bow tie, and lost his temper over a pimple which was now oozing pus and blood through a thick layer of powder. His features were dark and very regular, and long curled eyelashes gave his brown eyes a clear, innocent expression. He had short, black, slightly frizzled; he shaved the black of his neck like a Russian coachman and had grown sideburns which curved past his ears in two dark strips” (Nabokov, Mary, p. 65).

Figure 7: Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Femme nue allongée, (19th century, 22x30cm, oil on cardboard, private collection) seems to correspond to the following portrait: “She was naked, save for her black-stockinged legs (which was strange but at the same time recalled something from a parallel world, for my mind stood astride on two circus horses). In an erotic footnote, I reminded myself for the ten thousandth time to mention somewhere that there is nothing more seductive than a girl’s back with the profiled rise of the haunch accentuated by her lying sidelong, one leg slightly bent” (Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! p. 62).

Figure 8. Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, The Circus Riders, 1889, lithograph.


[1] The adjective ‘mnemogenic’ occurs in Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. (1941; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2011) 71. “People liked her because she was quietly attractive with her charming dim face and husky voice, somehow remaining in one’s memory as if she were subtly endowed with the gift of being remembered: she came out well in one’s mind, she was mnemogenic”. And in Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister. (1947; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2010) 46. “No doubt, too, there is something wrong about the position of the door, and some of Krug’s students, vague supes (Danes today, Romans tomorrow), have been hurriedly rounded up to fill the gaps left by those of his schoolmates who proved less mnemogenic than others.” Our emphasis.

[2] Pnin in the eponymous novel says to Hagen: “‘You and I will give next year some splendid new courses which I have planned long ago. On Tyranny. On the Boot. On Nicholas the First. On all the precursors of modern atrocity. Hagen, when we speak of injustice, we forget Armenian massacres, tortures which Tibet invented, colonists in Africa… The history of man is the history of pain!’” Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin. (1957; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2010) 148. (My emphasis).

[3] Paroles d’artiste : Kasimir Malévitch. (Lyon: Éditions bilingue Fage, 2018) 46.

[4] UNOVIS is the abbreviation of Utverditeli Novogo Iskusstva, which in Russian means, Champions of New Art as the continuation of Mir Iskusstva, the first Russian modern art internationally known under name The World of Art.

[5] The corpus has been chosen chronologically, not thematically. We chose his first and last antehumous novel, Mary (1926) and Look at the Harlequins! (1974). For the intermediary sample, we chose his last novel written in Russian, The Gift (1935).

[6] Vladimir Nabokov, Mary. (1926; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009).

[7] Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift. (1935; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000).

[8] Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! (1974; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2011).

[9] “But if we accept for a moment the general notion of ‘modern art,’ then we must admit that the trouble with it is that it is so commonplace, imitative and academic. Blurs and blotches have merely replaced the mass prettiness of a hundred years ago, pictures of Italian girls, handsome beggars, romantic ruins, and so forth. But just as among those corny oils there might occur the work of a true artist with a richer play of light and shade, with some original streak of violence and tenderness, so among the corn of primitive and abstract art one may come across a flash of great talent. Only talent interests me in paintings and books. Not general ideas, but the individual contribution.” Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions. (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2012).

[10] Gerard de Vries and D. Barton Johnson, Nabokov and the Art of Painting. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).

[11] The adjective mnemonic means “assisting or indented to assist the memory” and “of or relating to memory Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (1993; Springfield: Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 1996) 746.

[12] In the original : « Les dictionnaires de rhétorique et les spécialistes du genre s’accordent pour qualifier de « portrait » une pause plus au moins longue dont le but est de décrire l’aspect physique (prosopgraphie) et/ou l’aspect moral d’un individu réel ou fictif (éthopée). » Pierre Arnaud, Le Portrait. (Paris : Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 1999) 61. Our translation.

[13] De Vries Gerard and D. Barton Johnson, Nabokov and the Art of Painting. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006) and Gavriel Shapiro, The Sublime Artist’s Studio: Nabokov and Painting. (Evanson: Northwestern University Press, 2009).

[14] See Yannicke Chupin, Vladimir Nabokov: Fictions d’écrivains. (Paris : Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2009) with an emphasis on the second part entitled “Autoportraits” which regroups chapters “Le titre et son double”, “Écriture de soi et discours indirect” and “Écriture de l’ailleurs” ; Shapiro 2009 and especially chapter two “Old Master’s : the Authorial Presence.”

[15] Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness. (1985; Christchurch: Cybereditions, 2001).

[16] In the original : « Les admirables textes de Warburg sur le portrait - leur mélange de précision archéologique et d’empathie mélancolique - induisent d’abord l’idée que ces fantômes concernent l’insistance, la survivance d’une après-mort. » p. 88-89

[17] Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Regard du portrait. (Paris : Éditions Gallilé, 1999).

[18] Hervé Guibert, L’Image fantôme. (Paris : Les Éditions de minuit, 1982).

[19] “The group [The World of Art] left an indelible mark on the Russian culture of the early twentieth century, specifically on painting, book graphics, and stage design. As the journal’s editor and group’s leader and manager, Diaghilev played a magisterial role in familiarizing Russians with Western art, from Old Masters to contemporary, as well with the past and current trends of art in their own country” (Shapiro, 2009, p. 96).

[20] Georges Didi-Huberman, Image survivante: histoire de l’art et le temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg. (Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit, 2002).

[21] In the original : « Le portrait est fait pour garder l’image en absence de la personne, que cette absence soit un éloignement ou la mort » (Nancy, Le Regard du portrait, p.53).

[22] In the original : « La machine à souvenir, c’était ainsi qu’il présentait l’appareil photographique à ceux qui le voyaient pour la première fois, émerveillés et moqueurs, qui trouvait que dormir avec une image de soi accroché au mur était chose souverainement absurde », Kossi Efoui, Cantique de l’acacia. (Paris : Seuil, 2017) 171. (My emphasis).

[23] Damnatio memoriæ literary means the “damnation of one’s memory”. It was the Roman punishment consisting in the destruction of a disgraced person memory including the destruction of his or her effigies. This definition comes from Elisabetta Gigante, L’Art du Portrait: histoire, évolution et technique. (2011 ; Paris : Éditions Hazan, 2012) 302.

[24] Gorky’s painting was painted after a family photograph.

[25] In the original: “On peut tirer aussitôt de là une imitation vouée à une vrai reproduction et une mise en valeur dans inventivité de laquelle le modèle prend son importance au profit de l’image. Nous connaissons toujours très bien ce contraste : c’est celui qui oppose, par exemple, la photo d’identité et le portrait photographique” (Nancy, Le Plaisir au dessin, p. 76)

[26] In the original: «Si je l’avais photographiée immédiatement, et si la photo s’était révélée « bonne » (c’est-à-dire assez fidèle au souvenir de l’émotion), elle m’appartiendrait, mais l’acte photographique aurait oblitéré, justement, tout souvenir de l’émotion, car la photographie est une pratique englobeuse et oublieuse, tandis que l’écriture, qu’elle ne peut que bloquer, est une pratique mélancolique, et la vision m’aurait été « retourné » sous forme de photographie, comme un objet égaré qui pourrait porter mon nom, que je pourrais m’attribuer mais qui me resterait à jamais étranger (comme l’objet, autrefois intime, d’un amnésique) » (Guibert, p. 24).

[27] Paul Verlaine, “Pierrot” in Jadis et naguère. Transl. A.S. Kline. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/French/Verlaine.php#anchor_Toc263756549 [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].

[28] In the original: “Non seulement le pathos ne s’oppose pas à la forme, mais il l’engendre. Non seulement il l’engendre, mais il la porte à son degré de plus haute incandescence : en l’intensifiant, il lui donne vie et mouvement. Moyennant quoi, il délivre son moment d’efficacité” (Didi-Huberman, 2002, p.211).

[29] In the original: “Le Pathosformel serait donc un trait signifiant, un tracé en acte des images anthropomorphes de l’Occident antique et moderne : ce par quoi, ce par où l’image bat, se meut, se débat dans la polarité des choses” (Ibid. p.199).