The Cinematography of Nabokov's Creative Vision

Copyright 1988, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Developments in technology frequently have profound effects upon literature, and not merely in the sense that technological hardware appears in fictional works. Even the structure and style of literary work is reformed by the effect of the new technology upon the society of which writer and reader are part. A major case for this theory can be made by examining the effect of the development of cinematography upon literature. Many narrative techniques commonly associated with modern literature were first pioneered by early movie directors. Such effects include time distortion effects such as flashbacks, flashforwards and time compression, pacing effects such as rapid splices, and descriptive effects, which include panoramic views and the photographic approach to nature. All these various effects may be found in the works of Vladimir Nabokov.

Because Nabokov is an extremely visual writer, his works are quite rich in movie technique. When one reads any Nabokovian fiction, it quickly becomes noticable that many of Nabokov's works seem almost like movies in prose. His heavy emphasis on visual description creates a colorful image very much like the effect of a movie. Thus it comes as a small surprise that Nabokov himself wrote the screenplay for Lolita. Such a writer well practiced in the creation and manipulation of the visual image through the written word would be quite well suited to the task of creating a screenplay, which is in essence the guideline for creating a work of art which is appreciated primarily through the visual medium.

By examining Nabokov's novels, we can thus see how his highly visual imagery blends almost perfectly with his understanding of cinematographic technique to produce works of art which capture the readers imagination with extremely vivid, pictoral works. But while some writers would be satisfied with that, Nabokov carries the cinematographical image through to the thematic level in many of his works. In this manner Nabokov uses the movie as a symbol of the ability of illusion to masquerate as reality and entrap the unwary. Thus Nabokov incorperates cinematographic concepts both at the structural and the thematic levels, making for deep and very complex works.

In Invitation to a Beheading, one of Nabokov's early novels originally written in Russian under his pseudonym of V. Sirin, the cinematographic technique is already beginning to make its appearance in his style. In this novel, Nabokov's lavish hand for pictoral detail creates a very vivid yet terrifying image of the almost surreal totalitarian state in which the hero, Cincinatus, is to be put to death for the unpardonable crime of possessing a soul.

In a sense this novel is a farce on the theme of the prison. Nabokov shows the absurdity of the police state, which seeks to control every aspect of the lives of its citizens, but which can never gain control of their innermost thoughts, no matter how many spies and informers it may possess.1 In the prison where Cincinatus is held is posted a most outrageous list of rules which include several which attempt to forbid flights of fancy and even dreams of freedom. Naturally such regulations are quite utterly unenforcable, and Cincinatus freely ignores them to dream of the Tamarra Gardens, which to him represent the beauty which he desires and has now lost.

Yet the prison is also unreal at yet another level, in addition to being unable to contain Cincinatus' spirit. The prison has a certain feel of being nothing more than a set which has been hastily put together to provide someplace where the plot can be carried out.2 Although the fortress is supposed to be quite old, the walls have been freshly painted as if they had been prepared especially for him. Also, Cincinatus is the only prisoner in this entire prison, as if everything were nothing more than a production of some sort directed at intimidating Cincinatus into acquiescing and relinquishing his grasp upon his own private individuality.

Even the platform upon which Cincinatus is to be decapitated is still being finished when Cincinatus is being taken from the prison to make his final trip, the one that is to take him to his doom. And when Cincinatus finally does arrive, all the people act as if they were playing roles that had been written out in advance, roles that are grotesquely overdone and ridiculous to the point of being downright horrifying.

Throughout the novel most of the characters act as though they were nothing more than actors playing interchangable roles. Roman and Rodion exchange functions as readily as they can change their clothes, and many of the other characters show this same remarkable ability to switch from one role to another as though they were nothing more than interchangable cogs in some infernal machine. In this way Invitation to a Beheading bears a certain resemblance to films such as Dr. Strangelove, in which Peter Sellers plays a number of different parts with equal ease and thus implys that they are all merely parts in one great dehumanizing system which is taking the world inexorably towards the brink of self-destruction.

Nabokov conveys other images of the dehumanizing effect of the totalitarian state upon society through movie-like images. One of the finest examples of this can be found in Marthe's visit to Cincinatus in the prison. Nabokov describes her arrival, accompanied by family, furniture and even entire walls which then come together to reconstruct their living room, in a style fit to be compared with any of a dozen films in which similarly outrageous events occur. But unlike many writers and film directors, Nabokov does not do it merely for the effect. No, for Nabokov this entire grotesque image has a profound significance. Poor Marthe has become so dehumanized that her identity rests not within herself but in her possessions, and thus all these things come along with her in order to preserve her identity. Perhaps the most telling thing about this entire scene is the way in which Marthe continually looks into her mirror as though reassuring herself of her own identity. Thus what in the hands of any lesser writer might be nothing more than a hilarious farce becomes through Nabokov's genius a vehicle for some profound reflections on the destructiveness of the totalitarian regime.

Although most of the characters in Invitation to a Beheading have become dehumanized, Cincinatus has retained his soul, a state which is significated by his ability to recreate his past at will from memory and thus escape the prison. This was the reason for his doom, but ironically it also proves to be his salvation. When he finally does get to the platform and is lying ready for the headsman's ax, he sees everything for the farce that it is. And when he sees through everything, the whole setting simply crumbles. In a very strange and dramatic scene, the whole grotesque world collapses around him. The sets break apart, and all the characters wither away to tiny wormlike creatures, reflecting their true spiritual emptiness. The illusion has finally broken, and the triumphant Cincinatus then seeks the company of others like himself, those who still possess souls.

In Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov uses the imagery of the farcaical movie to show the spiritual emptiness and ultimate unreality of the totalitarian state. Everything turns out at the end to be nothing but an illusion, although it had seemed to be quite real, much the way a movie does while it is showing.

Laughter in the Dark, Nabokov's English version of his Russian novel Kamera Obscura, revolves around the cinematic motif. All three principal characters are in some way or another involved in the moviemaking industry. In the very beginning Albinus has come up with a plan to create animated movies from famous paintings and has asked Axel Rex, who has some expertise in animation, to help him with this project. Margot wants desperately to become a movie star, although at first the closest she seems able to achieve is working as an usher in a moviehouse. But it is here that she meets Albinus, thus setting into motion the central action of the story -- his affair with her. Once Margot has Albinus quite firmly snared, she manipulates him into funding a movie in which she plays the second female lead.

However Nabokov carries the movie image to even deeper layers of meaning in this work, tying it in with the theme of madness which he had explored in some of his other works. In Laughter in the Dark, Albinus' obsession with Margot reduces him to the level of an actor in a film, bound to follow a script that someone else has laid out for him and thus no longer able to control his own destiny.3 And Albinus becomes trapped in a most terrible and pathetic way as he loses his sight in an automobile accident. He is then confined to a Swiss chalet, where Margot devotedly cares for him. Or so he is let to believe, for all the time, quite unbeknownst to Albinus, the malicious Axel Rex is sharing Margot's affections. To compound the image of horror, Axel Rex takes great pleasure in tormenting Albinus, who is utterly helpless to cope with this invisible adversary. Thus he has become truly entrapped by the fruits of his obsession with Margot.

In this novel Nabokov uses the movie as a symbol of the ability of illusion to appear as reality. Albinus thinks that his obsession with Margot is love, and thus becomes entrapped in the illusion created by that obsession, an illusion which can be escaped only through death. Thus Albinus destroys himself by allowing himself to become entrapped in the illusion created by his own obsession.

Lolita, which is perhaps Nabokov's most famous novel, and certainly the most controversial, has very much of the feel of a movie. Lolita is not at all the pornographic novel that many have taken it to be, but instead centers around the theme of obsession that masquerades as love, much like Laughter in the Dark. Humbert, consumed by his nympholepsy and his obsessive desire to recreate his youthful romance with Annabell Leigh on the French Riviera, finds in young Dolores Haze, his Lolita, the nymphet that he seeks. Having discovered her, he then determines to have her, but dreads the possibility that he may be interrupted by her mother, who would be quite upset by the thought of a grown man being involved with her daughter.

But when Charlotte Haze is killed by an automobile, Humbert finally has his chance to fulfil his gnawing obsession with Lolita-as-nymphet. Taking Lolita from the camp where she had been spending the summer, Humbert then goes to the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where he plans to drug Lolita and fondle her, but ends up being seduced by her instead. After that, Humbert takes Lolita on an extraordinary journey across America, supposedly to visit all the landmarks, but really to keep Lolita as Humbert's prisoner so that he can continue to indulge his nympholepsy without having to worry that someone will discover the true nature of his relationship with Lolita and bring it to a halt. As Humbert and Lolita travel across America, seeing the scenery during the day and stopping at a succession of sleasy roadside motels each night, Nabokov concentrates very strongly on constructing the visual image, thus creating a lasting and extremely vivid image of the American landscape. However Nabokov also allows all this extremely vivid description to become somehow rather flat and grotesque, making everything seem more like a series of movie sets instead of real places. For instance, during Humbert and Lolita's visit to the South, they see the majestic mansions of the antebellum plantations through the filter of the movie version of Gone with the Wind.4 With this Nabokov shows the way in which the movies filter and distort our perceptions of the world around us.

In the end of Lolita, when Humbert shoots Quilty and then comes down to be greeted by a collection of people behaving in the most grotesque fashion, Nabokov twists the movie into a grotesque farce, a sick parody of the comedy of the slapstick artists. Everything about this sequence has a certain warped quality about it which is exceedingly disturbing. The people are actually congratulating Humbert on murdering Quilty but in the manner in which they might congratulate someone who had just won a game. Nabokov is showing how a person's obsession twists everything out of perspective and can ultimately destroy all sense of balance and appropriateness.

Nabokov also carries the movie theme to yet another level in Lolita In a sense Humbert's true crime was in seeking to take control of Lolita's life, as though he were making her the main character in a movie that he himself was directing. Movie directors, like other artists, may rightly exercise godlike power over their creations. But when a person tries to exert that sort of power over another human being, then it is no longer but a crime, plain and simple.

Thus in Lolita Nabokov uses the movie theme at several levels to illustrate both the manner in which modern "pop- culture" destroys true culture and the way in which the obsessive desire for an illusion can destroy a person's mind. This ties in with the great theme that runs throughout all Nabokov's works, that of the necessity of not becoming entrapped in poshlost' while at the same time not becoming entirely lost in one's own mind.

And then there is Pale Fire, that masterpiece of Nabokovia which stands alone and unique in the annals of literature. (And probably will for all time, for any artist who were to attempt to create a similar work would be accused of having merely written a poor rip-off of that excellent novel.) This novel actually consists of a poem supposedly written by one John Shade, plus a Foreward, Commentaries and Index which is supposedly written by the second major character of the novel, Charles Kinbote. However the commentaries do not at all explain the poem, as they purport to do. Instead they tell an entirely different story, Kinbote's fantastic tale of the beautiful lost land of Zembla and its deposed last king, Charles the Beloved.

These "commentaries," instead of offerring explanations of the meaning of Shade's poem, are actually vivid little narratives of various incidents, some in the life of Shade, but most of them concerning the last years of the reign of King Charles the Beloved in that almost-magical kingdom of Zembla, or of Gradus, the killer sent by the Zemblan revolutionaries to assassinate the escaped king. Put together and read like a single narrative, the commentaries have the effect of a brilliant yet somehow rather disjointed adventure movie made by some mad director and an equally lunatic producer.

In fact the entire story of the escape of King Charles the Beloved from revolutionary Zembla looks very much like Nabokov's send-up of the entire genre of the spy-action-adventure movie as typified by the adventures of that redoubtable British agent, James Bond. In a very exciting and suspenseful sequence, King Charles makes his way through the tunnel from the tower in which he was imprisoned and then, with the help of friends who dressed identically to him in order to foil the revolutionary police, fled the country and made his way to America, where he descended by parachute upon the sleepy town of New Wye. And then there are the two Soviet experts, Andronikov and Niagrin, who are searching for the Crown Jewels and manage to demolish a good portion of the palace in the process, but never manage to turn up the missing jewels which King Charles has managed to hide away somewhere they will never think to guess, and where this may be, the reader is never told. And finally there is Gradus, the bumbling secret agent who is sent to kill the king who is now in hiding but only manages to kill the innocent poet Shade by mistake. Gradus can be seen as a sort of anti-Bond, a parody of the super-agent who always gets his man. The cinematographic roots of the character of Gradus can be found in the bumbling gangsters that were found in so many of the grade-B gangster films which were very popular in the 1940's and were a favorite of at least one member of the Nabokov family.5

Kinbote's descriptions of Zembla are extremely vivid and pictorial, like the distant and romantic settings of so many of the action and spy movies. This is especially true in Pale Fire's unfinished percursor, Solus Rex. In this novel Nabokov draws a very vivid picture of a lost land where the king, who is referred to only as K, lives surrounded by a decaying palace and ministers who are utter fools. Amidst all this a revolution is brewing, promising some very vivid and violent action.6 But in Pale Fire, the descriptions of Zembla given by Kinbote, even in all their lush vividness which seems to almost draw the reader into believing into the reality of that fantastic land, there is a certain feeling of unreality, of some certain excess or lack which reduces all this magnificence to unbelievability, reminding us that this is all nothing but a set for the fantasy, albeit a briliant one, of a madman.

Perhaps even Kinbote realizes that he has gone insane and imagined all this, for in the last commentary he openly speaks of starring in a movie, Escape from Zembla, which will tell this tale of the escape of King Charles the Beloved, and which will contain all those standard cliches of the spy-adventure movie. 7 This seems almost like a recognition on Kinbote's part that he created this whole glorious tale out of his own imagination. Nabokov appears to be saying that the illusions of madness are somehow like the illusions created by movies.

Thus, in Pale Fire Nabokov uses the movie yet again as a symbol of illusion, but in a slightly different way. Here Kinbote, unable to deal with his own unhappy past, has instead created for himself a fantasy past that would seem to come straight out of the movies. But in the end he fails to convince even himself of this story of Zembla which in a certain sense is the saddest thing about the entire work.

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which is Nabokov's largest work and his greatest use of the imagery and technique of science fiction, into which he did slightly dip in his distopias, Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, is also rich in movie technique. In fact Ada reads very much like a wide-screen technicolor extravaganza of the sort that makes millions for Hollywood producers. To produce this "kind of technicolor gorgeousness," Nabokov concentrates and expands extensively upon every detail which he provides the reader.8 In fact, the whole first part of Ada has an extremely visual quality, with images pouring out in such profusion that the reader's mind is almost overloaded with the effort of following all of them. The images of the natural settings of the Veen estate, Ardis, are extremely detailed and realistic, very much like a movie in their pictoral quality.

Ada also contains all the sex that Lolita seemed to promise but failed to deliver, and the emphasis on sex of the Hollywood that the Fundamentalists are forever blasting as decadent and Satanic. Sex is everywhere in this work, and almost every character is involved in torrid sexual escapades.9 The characters of Van and Ada, with their almost inexhaustable capacity for sexual indulgence, have their roots in the fabulous passions of the ancient pagan gods and goddesses. The family tree which Nabokov provides for us at the opening of the novel recalls the elaborate geneologies developed in the ancient myths, of water deities coming one from the other.10 Van's prodigious sexual capacity is very reminiscient of certain rather lecherous pagan deities which Christian theologians have for ages pointed to when decrying the supposed immoralities of the ancient pagans. But his father, Demon Veen, is the greatest of all these libertines, being consumed by his inhuman sexual energy. 11 But in this world of sexual license, many of the people are destroyed through their indulgences. All of Ada's lovers, save Van alone, die in terrible ways, and many other lovers in the book share similar fates. It would seem that Nabokov is saying that the casual "love" portrayed in the movies is just as illusory as the movies in which it is seen, and those who go after it will be destroyed by it.

Here again in Ada Nabokov incorperates cinematographic concepts at two levels in his work. His exquizite pictoral details create the atmosphere of a Hollywood production while all the time pointing to the falseness of the whole Hollywood view of things, particularly in the realm of sex and love.

By examining several of Nabokov's novels, we have seen how he incorperated cinematographic narrative techniques into his works and thus made them more vivid and project to the reader the imagery which is Nabokov's greatest masterstroke. Also we have seen how Nabokov would carry out this movie image on the thematic level in order to treat the power of falsehood and illusion to masquerade as reality and thus deceive the unwary. The power to deceive is a concept that Nabokov enjoyed playing with, and many critics have called him the creator of a deceptive world, a master deceiver. However Nabokov was not so much interested in merely tricking the reader, but rather in creating a system of illusions in order to show them for what they are and to warn of the danger of allowing oneself to become lost in illusions, whether they be the propagandistic brainwashing of a totalitarian state, the false glamor of media and cinema, or the delusory fantasies of one's own madness. In this sense Nabokov can be seen as one of literature's greatest moral visionaries and humanists. Because Nabokov did not use literature as a pulpit to preach about morality in the manner of the more familiar Russian writer-prophets, many people have said that Nabokov is uninterested in questions of morality. But that is not true, for Nabokov did indeed deal with moral questions, although not in a didactic manner, but rather from an asthetic view.


  1. Ellen Pifer, Nabokov and the Novel, P. 52
  2. ibid, PP. 56-57
  3. Dabney Stuart, Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody, P. 92
  4. Alfred Appel Jr., "Tristam in Movielove: Lolita at the Movies", P. 149
  5. Appel, Nabokov's Dark Cinema, P. 157
  6. Nina Berberova, "The Mechanics of Pale Fire", P. 156
  7. Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Pale Fire, commentary to Line 1000 (P. 212)
  8. Douglas Fowler, Reading Nabokov, P. 191
  9. Ellen Pifer, Nabokov and the Novel, P. 141
  10. ibid, P. 134
  11. ibid, P. 142


Primary Sources

Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, New York: McGraw Hill, 1969

_________, Invitation to a Beheading, tr. by Dmitri Nabokov, New York: Capricorn Books, 1959

_________, Laughter in the Dark, New York: New Directions Books, 1955

_________, Lolita, New York: McGraw Hill, 1963

_________, Pale Fire, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962

Secondary Sources

Appel, Alfred: Nabokov's Dark Cinema New York: Oxford University Press, 1974

_________, "Tristam in Movielove: Lolita at the Movies", in A Book of Things about Vladimir Nabokov, ed by Carl R. Proffer, Ann Arbor: Ardis, Inc. 1974, PP. 123-170

Berberova, Nina, "The Mechanics of Pale Fire", in Nabokov: Criticism, Reminisciences, Translations and Tributes, ed by Alfred Appel Jr. and Charles Newman, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970 PP. 147- 159

Fowler, Douglas, Reading Nabokov, Ithica: Corness University Press, 1974

Pifer, Ellen, Nabokov and the Novel, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980

Stuart, Dabney, Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979

Copyright 1988, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Originally written for a course in Nabokov and the Emigra Writers taught by Professor Temira Pachmuss, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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