Sightseeing Tour to a Modern Writer’s Palace

Review on Márta Pellérdi’s book: Nabokov’s Palace: The American Novels

Beholding the cover of this not too bulky, yet very well-structured volume the future reader may marvel at the peculiar pink-white mist which deepens into a noble dark purple towards the back cover. No mistake, he is about to enter a mysterious world. When he opens the book and starts reading a fascinating palace comes into existence before his eyes. This palace is Vladimir Nabokov’s literary universe. However, the reader is not supposed to discover the whole of this most eclectic building: his ticket is only valid for the observation of a single floor, the one dedicated to the Anglo-American tradition. The aim of the tour is therefore, to cast light upon the secrets of this particular floor as well as to observe its position in relation to the other parts of the palace.



Márta Pellérdi, the guide the reader receives to explore the wonders of this palace, is someone who is well-trained in the little secrets of this magnificent place. She received her PhD degree in American Literature from Eötvös Loránd University and her articles on Nabokov’s American fiction have been published in various Hungarian and international academic journals. Currently, she teaches English and American Literature at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba, where she manages to guide many students through the labyrinths of different authors’ palaces.

In her book on Nabokov, she adopts a technique with which she manages to open up further perspectives rather than sticking to one particular understanding. In her presentation of the Anglo-American floor the reader perceives the American novels of Nabokov (those which he wrote after his emigration to the States in 1940: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins!, The Original of Laura) in museum cases on one wall of the corridor, but on the opposite wall there are works of other American and English authors’ paired with them. Thus, each chapter of the book deals with one of these pairs, analysing how the Anglo-American predecessors were incorporated into the texts of their Russian-born heir.

The comparative analysis is many-folded. Firstly, the reader is given an overview of Nabokov’s conscious attempts to become an English writer. For instance, he recognized that Shakespeare’s blood ‘runs through’ English literary tradition and studied Shakespearean plays with the intention of using them in his own works. Secondly, the reader is informed how Nabokov made use of his knowledge of the Anglo-American tradition and resurrected themes, motifs and even characters in his novels. Márta Pellérdi reveals to the palace’s visitors a collection of such secrets: how Hawthorne’s faun (in his novel The Marble Faun) is resurrected in Humbert Humbert in Lolita, how some characters of Twelfth Night are reborn in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight or how Nabokov made use of the nineteenth century Romantic dilemma of “reality”. Thirdly, the reader is provided with a wide horizon and instead of dealing exclusively with the literary aspects that might have affected Nabokov’s works the whole artistic world is open to analysis, let it be visual arts, ballet or music.



However, the reader should not ignore the fact that his guide, though in this particular tour her task is limited to the presentation of a single floor, is a knower of the whole building. Therefore, her aim is not merely to cast light upon the dark corners of this part of the palace, but rather to prepare the reader for visiting and understanding the other wings of it, and later on to create his own interpretation of the whole. Pellérdi’s aim is “to open possibilities for future analyses and interpretations” and “not to «bind» Nabokov to various English poets and American writers”.

Nabokov’s Palace mostly expects visitors who have a special interest in Nabokov’s fiction and are eager to make further discoveries in the secrets of this world. However, even those who are only on the verge of entering this universe and have no deep knowledge of American literature will find their way through the corridors with the guidance of Márta Pellérdi. Scholar or student, devotee or beginner are equally welcome on the tour.

On the whole, there has and will always be several explorers who venture to reveal the secrets of Nabokov’s many-towered and hundred-coloured palace. Pellérdi is nor the first neither the last to guide the reader through the floor devoted to the Anglo-American tradition. However, it cannot be denied that she succeeds in providing a thorough analysis of this layer of Nabokov’s texts and is capable of opening possibilities for new understandings of them. Moreover, the logical structure and her thought-provoking and enjoyable style can make her volume a frequently used item on any American literature loving intellectual’s bookshelf.

Márta Pellérdi: Nabokov’s Palace: The American Novels. Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2010.