In his renowned work of literary philosophy titled Mythologies, Rolad Barthes coins the phrase “blind and dumb criticism” to apply to critics who admit they do not understand what they read, thus they “elevate one’s blindness or dumbness to a universal rule,” that is, by saying they don’t understand something, the reader will not either. To try and avoid this pratfall, let me just say that while I didn’t understand much of The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov, that doesn’t mean you won’t. In fact, I openly acknowledge that many readers or movie fans are more astute than me in understanding the story of a book or film. Sometimes I’m so overtaken by the imagery I don’t follow the story much at all, which is definitely easy to do while reading Vladimir Nabokov.
The first half of The Eye is enthralling and curious. It begins witha familiar Nabokovian archetype: the maladjusted emigre. Such characters dominate his writing, from The Gift to Glory and some extent to Humbert Humbert of Lolita (the Englishman abroad). He passes through life with a benumbed detachment, taking on odd jobs to keep himself fed, and engages in affairs that hardly please him. Then, not to far into the novel, he shoots himself.
In most novels, you’d expect the story to switch perspectives at this point, but The Eye isn’t like most novels. Instead, shortly after putting a bullet through his chest, the main character gets up and walks about town, apparently feeling no pain. He’s in the same position as the reader: he doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. He originally assumes he’s some sort of ghost, then decides instead of finding a place to haunt he’ll be a voyeur.
It was at this point that I lost the thread of the story. The main character starts following a civilized set of stuffy individuals, and becomes particularly fascinated with a man named Smurov. I erroneously thought the scenes involvin Smurov were tangential to the story–not the story itself.
I may one day re-read The Eye, knowing what I do now, and I might have a greater sense of its power if I actually take greater pains following the plot. Simply because I didn’t get it, doesn’t mean the reading was fruitless. As usual, Vladimir Nabokov dishes out some delicious descriptions, like “A wretched, shivering, vulgar little man in a bowler hat stood in the center of the room, for some reason rubbing his hands,” and “She had a married sister, Evgenia, a young woman with a nice squarish face that made you think of an amiable and quite handsome bulldog.” Very few writers have such a weirdly discerning eye for detail as Nabokov, and those who do are most likely indebted to him (such as Martin Amis and Thomas Pynchon). For instance, why should we know that the vulgar little man wears a bowler, or that his hands are shaking for no apparent reason, and why is a woman’s face nice if it resembles a bulldog? Why not? Such descriptions catch the reader off-guard by being the antitheses of cliches. The cliched approach would be to say the woman would have had a nice face if it were not so square, or that there was a short man in the center of the room.
I’d like to take a time out for a moment and simply criticize the cover of this book. I happened to find this in a used book store. It was published in 1966. Notice how shamelessly it’s marketed? First off, the word “Lolita” is positioned where the eye will first be drawn. It isn’t until looking down that we see the title of this novel. The tagline reads “A haunting and brilliant novel by the author of the erotic masterpiece Lolita.” So it tells us it’s by the same Vladimir Nabokov that wrote Lolita, as if there were an abundance of Vladimir Nabokovs. By invoking Lolita in the phrase “erotic masterpiece,” it seems to suggest that The Eye too is an erotic masterpiece, which it most decidedly isn’t. Readers hoping to find salacious bits of lustiness will be let down here. The narrator does have an affair with a married woman, but there’s no scandalous pleasure in their romance, as he freely admits the woman bores him. My last complaint about this cover is that the image looks to be taken at random from a beginner’s guide to graphic design. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the cover to show, I don’t know, a stylized eye?
The Eye is definitely worth reading, and since the novel runs only 111 pages, it shouldn’t take you all that long, but if you haven’t read Vladimir Nabokov’s novels before, I’d much sooner recommend you check out The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Laughter in the Dark, or Despair first.
——–If you’re looking for something new and different to read, why not give my books a shot? I’ve self published two books this past year, A Rapturous Occasion and The Madness of Art: Short Stories. A Rapturous Occasion is about a wealthy middle-aged couple who let their fear of the Apocalypse take over their lives, with oddly humorous results. The Madness of Art: Short Stories is a collection of 8 diverse tales where each one relates to the strange lives artists lead. Both are available as paperbacks and as inexpensive ebooks.
If you like books like Vladimir Nabokov’s The Eye that deal with protagonists who don’t know if they’re alive or dead, make sure to check out the Philip K. Dick sci-fi classic Ubik.