Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016

"Strong Memories: Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Autobiography" by Elsa Court

Elsa Court is a writer and academic who works on transatlantic cultural studies and human geography. She is currently working on her first monograph on representations of the American roadside in émigré fiction, film, and photography. She lives, works and teaches in London. Email:

There are few published works of comparative studies focusing on the works of Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James. One of them, published in The Henry James Review in 1984, attempts to solve the riddle of Nabokov’s passionate dislike of James by looking at the double-entendre and cross-references in the sum of his dismissive private and public comments about James through his career. Leading the article is a study of an alliterative jibe, “pale porpoise,” which Nabokov once used to refer to James in such a way as to allude to the lack of purpose of its prose, its meandering, inconclusive nature (Gregory 55-56). The article concludes that Nabokov’s consistent vehemence against the author he elsewhere called a “complete fake” betrays what one could call an anxiety of influence with regard to James. The article suggests, in other words, that Nabokov’s obstinate and often petty expressions dismissal of James imply his need to wrestle, through the American years of his career, against a found rival (54). James is one of the greatest stylists of American literature before him, Gregory suggests, and the letters show he was strongly on Nabokov’s mind in the late 1940s when the latter was beginning to write Lolita (1955), a novel whose narrative plot culminates in a parodic battle between two writers of peculiar sensitivities.

Another article, published nearly twenty years after Gregory’s, considers the importance of memory and imagination to both writers’ depiction of lucid consciousness. Taking its cue from a 1964 interview in which Nabokov, quite unexpectedly, praised the style of James’ work, Nassim Balestrini goes beyond Nabokov’s many-times-expressed contempt for James’ short fiction and examines the importance of memory and day-dream to the characters of selected stories. This, he argues, is the stylistic thread which connects both authors: both are interested in a morality of subjectivity as a condition of a fulfilled human existence, and both portray human subjectivities that have to find a balance between “a joyous perception of the physical world and inklings of a limitless metaphysical existence” in past or dream experiences (357).

Considering that these two articles present sparse and contrasted approaches to a comparative understanding of James and Nabokov, the present paper will propose to further the core argument of stylistic resonance by using the theme and treatment of memory in order to inform Gregory’s theory centring on pace and authorial self-awareness. This, I argue, can be achieved by comparing the authors’ respective approaches to autobiography in both concept and practice, which brings together both the notion of authorial self-awareness and that of the importance of memory and transcendence to the writing of subjectivity. In order for this study to answer to the existing historical rationale behind this comparison of the two authors, I will first get back to the written pronouncements Nabokov made about Henry James which seem to have sparked all existing scholarly comparisons between them. At the heart of these — contrasting — statements seems to be the main question of authorial self-awareness which Gregory mentions, yet the present article will try to interrogate and reframe this notion further by considering similitudes between narratives of artistic coming-of-age in James’ and Nabokov’s comparatively neglected autobiographies.

Bearing in mind the wealth of scholarly material having focused on travel, expatriation and the memory of visited places in the context of James’ works of fiction and non-fiction (Coghlan, Martinez, Righter, Wood) and the comparatively more eclectic scholarly approaches to Nabokov’s treatment of memory, which have focused on either the context of his own exile (Píchová), his views on psychoanalytic theory (Kwon), or influent literary traditions in which memory holds a key role, such as romantic love (Hardy) and Modernism (Foster), the present article will propose that new perspectives can be drawn from a comparative study of James’ and Nabokov’s artistic interests in the perception and consciousness of time in the — relatively — receptive moment of childhood, a moment where memories and cultural impressions are yet in the making. Taking its cue from what Mirosława Buchholtz, in the context of James’ childhood, identifies as a fruitful context for the making of impressions, in a family life which, in her words, “did not revolve around work, which left all the more room for contemplation, and for the miracle of consciousness” (100), this article will investigate James’ memories of childhood meanderings through which, I will argue, can be pursued the author’s fondness for “absence rather than presence; shadow rather than substance; broken eloquence esteemed more than confidently than replete utterance” (Tanner, cited in Poirier). Having established thus that a great deal of James criticism centring on the exercise of memory has focused on place and the visual perception of material and/or institutional culture, such as in perceptions of pictorial representations of Florence or in the Louvre hallucination recounted in the first volume of the autobiography (Kovács), this paper will finally seek to pay attention to the more abstract, inward experience of time and time-bound sensation which both James and Nabokov describe, in their respective autobiographies, as one of the founding conditions of artistic creativity.

Context: Nabokov’s Strong — and Conflicted— Opinions

The place where Nabokov put most of his opinions of Henry James to paper was his correspondence with literary critic Edmund Wilson, from which Gregory sources the playful — and somewhat obscure — allusion to James as a “pale porpoise.” In the early 1940s, when the subject of James first comes up in their letters, the correspondence is already fostering a close friendship between the two men and presents a space where both seem eager to discuss literary topics openly. The letters which interest us presently were exchanged over a period of time of more than ten years and give evidence of Nabokov having come back to reading James again and again after Wilson’s recommendations and to seemingly little satisfaction. There is a tone of gentle competition in these exchanges when Nabokov takes vindictive pleasure in stating his controversial opinions of not only James but several celebrated authors of the American canon, including William Faulkner and T. S. Eliot (240). Though Wilson can himself be a ruthless critic, his opinions regarding American literature are not quite so radical or unforgiving as Nabokov’s.

During this period of their correspondence the letters show that Wilson prompted his friend to sample a comprehensive portion of James’ work. In a letter dating from January 1947, he concedes that “it’s possible, as Ezra Pound says, to get no impression of [Henry James] at all if you begin by reading the wrong things” (207). Maybe, he suggested, Nabokov should turn to James’ shorter fictions, for instance What Maisie Knew. Nabokov’s reply came less than a week later with the following declaration: “I have read (or rather re-read) What Maisie Knew. It is terrible. Perhaps there is some other Henry James and I am continuously hitting upon the wrong one?” (209)

A few days later Wilson suggested that, before giving up on Henry James, his friend should perhaps turn to the first volume of James’ autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (1913), which represented, he thought, “a department of his work which [he] may not yet have sampled” (211). Wilson’s recommendations, exchanged over the last few years of the 1940s, coincide not only with the inception of Lolita but with the period through which Nabokov composed and serialised his own autobiographical work, the last instalment of which was issued in the New Yorker in 1951. That same year the autobiographical pieces would appear in the first edition of a collected volume titled Conclusive Evidence, of which Nabokov would publish several revised editions over time under the title Speak, Memory.

The subject of their readings of Henry James was not picked up again until a letter dated from August 1952 in which Nabokov laments that he hasn’t read anything all summer, apart from a collection of James’ stories which he thought to be “miserable stuff,” a collection of “plush vulgarities” written by a “complete fake” (308). Wilson offered no further comment, and the subject did not appear again in their written correspondence. Surprisingly, fifteen years after penning this letter, when asked by Alfred Appel Jr. which American writers he most admired, Nabokov listed Henry James along with Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe. “My feelings towards James,” he said, “are rather complicated. I really dislike him intensely but now and then the figure in the phrase, the turn of the epithet, the screw of an absurd adverb, cause me a kind of electric tingle, as if some current of his was also passing through my own blood” (Strong Opinions 55). This declaration comes as a shock considering how consistently negative Nabokov’s pronouncements on Henry James had been until this point, and how much wit and care he had put in the exercise of criticising him. Both Gregory and Balestrini, the critics whom I cited in the opening paragraphs of this paper’s introduction, identify in this quote a prime reason for investigating the complexity of Nabokov’s intellectual relationship to James. But if Gregory’s choice of interpretation goes for the somewhat obvious or easy option — anxiety of influence — Balestrini’s offer to identify the similar “current” uniting the two authors’ prose style is informative but ultimately summative and broad.

It remains intriguing that James should go from being, in Nabokov’s opinion, “a complete fake” in the August 1952 letter to being worthy of standing alongside Poe and Melville, writers to whom Nabokov held in esteem, and with allusions to whom Lolita, for example, is ripe. Even more unexpected is the way James comes to be presented in this statement as an artistic and spiritual peer to Nabokov, someone in whom a stylistic “current” ran that Nabokov recognised as not only authentic but kin. One might be tempted to argue that, had he been prey to the anxiety of James’ influence on his work, Nabokov might have guarded himself from making such a statement publicly. The expression of Nabokov’s self-assurance in interviews is almost as consistent as his debunking of James is in letters, and in this and other contexts throughout his career the author of Lolita simply denied the influence of other writers on his work. Asked what he had learned from James Joyce, for example, whose Ulysses (1922) he taught at university as one of the most significant works of twentieth-century European literature, he replied: “Nothing” (Strong Opinions 88). With regard to his previous correspondence with Wilson, this new assessment of James’ style suggests either that Nabokov had previously spoken in bad faith, for the pleasure of arguing with a friend, or that his opinion of James had radically changed since the early 1950s. Could the reading of the first volume of James’ autobiography, which Wilson recommended and was likely to raise interest at a time he was preoccupied with writing his own memoirs, have altered Nabokov’s opinion in favour of James?

Of course his allusion to the “screw” of adverbs and the “turn” of the epithet is a playful but pointed reference to James’ Turn of the Screw (1898), a ghost story which Edmund Wilson had analysed in his 1938 essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Ambiguity is one of the features of James’ style which, according to Gregory, is most likely to have fuelled Nabokov’s impatience with him (56). Assuming that it is possible that Nabokov could have read A Small Boy and Others presents a good opportunity to compare the two authors’ works in terms of direction and pace as these topics relate not only to the construction of prose writing but to the building of the artistic persona, on which both autobiographical texts focus. Further, I will suggest that their respective autobiographical treatment of memory — a topic which also features prominently in their works of fiction — might be a clue to uncovering the similar “current” underlying both their sensibilities, one which would make sense of Nabokov’s latter admission of kinship.

Autobiographical Approaches

It is clear that James and Nabokov’s initial approaches to the exercise of autobiographical writing are contrasted. James, critics have suggested, wished to recollect the past freely, as an enjoyable and perhaps also soothing experiment after the passing of his elder brother William (Mitchell 3). Other critics more recently have suggested that it was William’s death that granted Henry James the freedom to write the family’s history in the first instance, and without having to fear his persistent critical judgement. On this note Buchhlotz argues that it is a sense of passivity, directionlessness and comparative inadequacy that Henry then becomes free to recover from his childhood years as the lesser James brother, and that this ambiguous sense of passivity and freedom inspires the autobiographical enterprise (102). Nabokov, as he wrote in the added chapter of the final edition of Speak, Memory, consciously wished to convey his intimate sense of the recollected past through an ordered and meaningful tale of self-composition (238), which suggests that for him the autobiography was not so much an experiment as an active work of — personal — edification. This primary difference in their respective treatments of the notion of a past narrative, I will argue, hides a deeper kinship between both authors’ notions of a past self, because for each of their child-selves the sensuous consciousness of time passing is presented as formative, while the mental exploration of past moments of “narrative” suspension is in both cases fruitful and actively desired.

Nabokov’s “method,” such as he exposes it in his afterword to the autobiography, is to explore the “remotest regions of [his] past” looking for what he calls “thematic trails or currents” to show, in keeping with one of the conventions of autobiographical writing, the evolution of his character into a lucid artistic persona (328). Nabokov may indulge in self-reflexive exploration when treating his past, but he choses to demonstrate an authoritative approach to his own life history. He argues that the purpose of his mental exploration is to uncover the structure which already exists amidst the chaos of facts and that it belongs to the artistic sensitivity — his own — to recognise it.

In contrast, the first volume of James’ autobiography seems unconcerned with structure and largely characterised by an attitude of passive reception of the past and a sense of indirection in the mental exploration of the retrieved material. As Lee Clark Mitchell notes, A Small Boy seems to do away with the convention of literary biographies which would give retrospective sense to an artistic destiny in the making (2). From his opening paragraph, James assumes an open, somewhat experimental approach to the treatment of his material. “To recover anything like the full measure of scattered, wasted circumstance,” he writes,

was at the same time to live over the spent experience itself, so deep and rich and rare, with whatever sadder and sorer intensities, even with whatever thinner and poorer passages, after the manner of every one’s experience; and the effect of this in turn was to find discrimination among the parts of my subject again and again difficult. (5)

James suggests here that his effort to retrieve the memory of past events was in him independent from a desire to see form and impose structure on his composition. The very minutiae with which he wants to absorb the essence of the past seems to forbid the limitation of structure. Even discriminating between recollections, he implies later in this passage, would be “mutilating” the natural consistency of his memory. As Ágnes Zsófia Kovács points out in her recent interpretation of James’ “scenic perspective” in the autobiography, the lack of factual clarity noticeable in A Small Boy can be put on the account that:

It is the emergence of a general sensibility that is shown to be important, a sensibility that is also named variously as ‘style’ and ‘taste’ later on. At the outset, the education is only of sensibility in general: a ‘quickened sensibility’ (James 2001, 149) that comes from walking, dawdling and watching, from activities seemingly useless for the outsider.

The first volume of James’ autobiography had initially and for a long time bemused critics in its erratic progress and its periodic embrace of passive contemplation. “Circumstance,” in James’ words, is “scattered”: so is his autobiographical quest to retrieve the material of memory. Commenting on the fact that the book takes the liberty to jump from one recollection to the other and often fails to lead the given anecdotes to an end, Mitchell writes that A Small Boy appears as a “polished but incoherent set of memories” (3). Yet to his opinion the failure to produce a “cohesive drama” our of “isolated perception” is actually the most exciting aspect of James’ autobiography, one which few critics have picked up on, having failed to appreciate that James’ effort resided in “revisiting his life rather than explaining it” (3). As Mitchell observes, this narrative attitude feeds from and is directly illustrated by the figure of the little boy James remembers having been in his New York childhood. Through him, the voice of his autobiography directly assumes the contemplative mood that marked his childhood days in New York, about which he recollects flâneries — in the sense of wanderings without distinct purpose — more fondly than events or activities.

James looks for this distant picture of himself, that of a child who would relish in his passive observation of surrounding scenes and situations, taking comfort mostly in inwardness, and in the assurance of his own perceptiveness to the surrounding order. As a boy, James writes, he would “dawdle and gape” at what he saw and heard in the streets of New York or among the social scene on what he describes as the “exhibition stage” (24-25) of a hotel piazza. It is the state of childhood which, in both cases, permits and favours this lack of involvement in the scene to the benefit of its passive and fond observation. Over the space of four consecutive paragraphs — five pages — overlapping the end of chapter two and the beginning of chapter three of A Small Boy, the same expression — “dawdle and gape” — is repeated four times, establishing the rhythm of the autobiographic quest. This repeated phrase is finally a confession of the author’s attachment to what he identifies as a peculiar state of mind, one which he can retrieve from varied and otherwise loosely interconnected scenes, and one which he is now trying to not only define but embrace once again.

It is thus implied that James, now a mature artist, “dawdles and gapes” as he contemplates the past, that is, relishes in the mental image of the dawdling and gaping boy he once was and who, dawdling and gaping, collected the impressions which would feed the writer’s imagination and creativity. Nabokov’s autobiographical project too is exploration-driven, but in comparison with James’ seems far from open, directionless experimentation. In the preface to the final revised edition, Nabokov claims that he had considered a full chapter structure for the book before beginning to write it (Speak, Memory x). It seems plausible that such a different genetic approach to the task of autobiography would lead the two works to operate with different claims and their respective prose to proceed with a different sense of direction and consequently also at a different pace. I will argue in what follows, however, that the initial awareness of time-bound sensation is portrayed in both instances as absolute, timeless, and in this sense crucially directionless. It is this sense of directionless sensory discovery in childhood which, in Nabokov as in James, is described as formative for the artistic sensitivity and, for this reason, worth remembering and recovering.

Playing for Time: In Search of Wasted Circumstance

Critics who have tried to decipher what specific objections Nabokov may have had about James seem to have isolated the question of style and within it, this particular issue of pace. Gregory reads, for instance, a hardly-veiled phonetic reference to pace and purpose in Nabokov calling Henry James a “pale porpoise” in one of his letters to Wilson (56). As he explains further, the only intertextual allusion to Henry James’ style to be found in Nabokov’s fiction is in his 1951 short story “The Vane Sisters,” in which a character explains her belief that the spirits of the dead may be communicating with the living in imperceptible ways, and another character reads her assumptions as “Jamesian meanderings.” As Gregory points out, the phrase refers not only to the content of these ideas but to their expression: both are seen as lacking grounding and determination (56). Yet among the personal recollections which Nabokov cherishes in Speak, Memory and which he uses to illustrate the birth of his subjective and artistic consciousness, are privileged moments of “dawdling” which could stand a comparison with James’ childhood “meanderings” as they are narrated in A Small Boy: moments, for example, when the young Nabokov purposefully meanders and embraces a state of contemplative trance that is quite in tune with young Henry James’ “gaping.”

One such moment seems particularly in tune with the delighted aimlessness of Henry James as a boy. In chapter four of Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls the combination of “rituals” he would indulge in as a child so as to delay the moment of his being put to bed. As his mother led him towards the upper floor’s staircase after dinner, he would “lag back and shuffle and slide a little on the smooth stone floor of the hall,” and subsequently insist on being led upstairs with his eyes closed, relying on his guide to alert him on the moment of taking each new step (56-57). “It is surprising,” he writes, “what method there was in my bedtime dawdling. True, the whole going-up-the-stairs business now reveals certain transcendental values. Actually, however, I was merely playing for time by extending every second to its utmost” (57). The methodical “dawdling,” delaying bedtime, is seen as a “transcendental” moment in the author’s childhood because it allowed Nabokov to savour time and enjoy the feel of everyday items — the floor, the stairs — in a way that regular time, daily business, did not allow.

Nabokov confesses to surrendering to his sensory perception of the house and its furniture in these moments of strategic aimlessness, losing himself, once upstairs, to the sound pattern of a dripping faucet, experienced conjointly with the labyrinth-like pattern on the linoleum where he would fix his eyes from his seated position on the chamber pot. This recollection prompts the author to enjoin parents, at the close of the section, “never, never [to] say ‘Hurry up’ to a child” (58). It would seem fair to assume, drawing on this passage, that as Julie Campbell argues, Nabokov focuses on the awakening of consciousness in childhood from the offset of Speak, Memory because what is at stake, to him, is to recover the child’s ability to transcend time and bring it to a halt (199). The author of autobiography, as she suggests, is involved not only in the retrieving of the past sensation but in performing a “negation of time” which, to Nabokov, lies at the very heart of artistic creation (201).

Both authors claim their childhood impressions from the past in an effort to contemplate the formation of lucid consciousness, the latter being an object of sustained interest in their respective fictions. In his introductory chapter, Nabokov writes that trying to get a hold of one’s childhood again is “the next best thing to probing one’s eternity” (6-7). This last phrase suggests that, in spite of Nabokov’s romantic belief in meaning, unity and structure, a desire to “probe” the darkness of the boundless, formless, infinite nature of the living experience is at the core of his impulse to write the autobiography. At the end of the book, he considers the birth and infancy of his son Dmitri as they renew his interest in the formation of subjective consciousness. Dmitri’s nascent awareness of the physical world reminds his father that poetic inspiration requires a deep engagement with the present moment and a suspension of activity. “There is keen pleasure,” he writes, “[…] in meeting the riddle of the initial blossoming of a man’s mind by postulating a voluptuous pause in the growth of the rest of nature, a lolling and loafing which allowed first of all the formation of Homo poeticus — without which sapiens could not have been evolved” (226).

Nabokov suggests that time was suspended in the moments he spent alone with his child as a baby, as he witnessed the boy’s first impressions of the surrounding world and shared in his complete absorption in sensory perception. The capacity to pause, feel, contemplate beyond childhood is the quality which he, like Henry James, isolates as the condition to literary creation. This juxtaposition of gerunds, “lolling and loafing,” evokes a state of being rather than an activity, and is very similar to James’ “dawdling and gaping,” to which the author has returned, it is suggested, many times over, in order to create fictional worlds and sentient characters within them.

Following this passage Nabokov evokes, by way of contrast, the morbid purposiveness of what he calls the “struggle for life,” describing as a “curse” the battle for social ascension which defines a conventionally active adult life in the developed capitalist countries of the West (226-27). The essence of artistic creation, he suggests, presupposes a capacity to embrace contemplation without purpose, experiment without end. Such a definition of the poetic activity is of course close to James’, who praised his “freedom” of movement as a child in New York, for whom the artist is a mind on whom “nothing is lost” (“Art of Fiction” 390), least of all “scattered circumstance.”

It is striking in this context that Nabokov’s autobiography should have changed title over the first of its subsequent revisions and thus have gone from the assertive Conclusive Evidence to the more diplomatic title of Speak, Memory, which suggests conversation, openness, the “scattered” delivery of memory’s material rather than the fixation of satisfactory narrative meaning. It is fair to say that there are two impulses in Nabokov’s memoir: one is supremely authoritative, determined, if not arrogant, while the other is passive, patient, mesmerised. Against earlier critical reception of the Jamesian autobiographic project, Mitchell argues that there is room for seeing James’ autobiography not as a failure to realise what he has achieved in fiction but a conscious “experiment” (12) in language, recollection and narration. Perhaps Nabokov would have recognised a coeval, rather than a rival, in this particular fragment of James’ writing, had he read A Small Boy after Wilson’s suggestion. Perhaps is it fair, after turning to his 1967 interview with Alfred Appel Jr., to make a supposition that he did.


By all means, the autobiographies reveal that both authors thought formative and necessary to surrender to moments of contemplative abstraction from time and time-bound rewards, and that such an experience was emotionally salutary and artistically fruitful for both of them. For all his impatience with Henry James, therefore, Nabokov had a fondness for the activity of retrieving memory which characterizes him as an author and inscribes him in James’ literary lineage.

Works Cited

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