Skip to main content

Nabokov and coincidence


Nabokov translated Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time in collaboration with his son. It was the father, however, who wrote the preface. In it, he remarked on the mechanisms that Lermontov uses to move the story of Pechorin forward, in a matter of speaking.

“A special feature of the structure of our book is the monstrous but perfectly organic pat that eavesdroppiing plays in it. Now Eavesdropping is only one form of a more general device which can be classified under the heading of Coincidence, to which belongs, for instance, the Coincidental Meeting – another variety. It is pretty clear that when a novelist desires to combine the traditional tale of romantic adventure (amorous intrigue, jealousy, revenge, etc.) with a narrative in the first person, and has no desire to invent new techniques, he is somewhat limited in his choice of devices.”
Although Nabokov was famously anti-bolshie and refused even to meet Andrei Bely because Bely was “squishy”, the notion of the device is exported straight from Skhlovsky. But Nabokov could rightly claim, I suppose, that it had become part of the repertoire of slavic literary criticism. What it shows, here, is that Nabokov is making a formalist analysis of the text, viewing the text’s coincidence as evidence of a choice among a range of devises that would unite the plot.
One might wonder as well as, however, whether the plot, that ueber-device, is not itself, necessarily, a coincidence-making machine. In any case, for Nabokov, the coincidence must have been chosen because Lermontov was eager to move his total story along:
… our author was more eager to have his story move than to vary, elaborate and conceal the methods of its propulsion, [and thus] he emplyed the convenient device of having his Maksim Masimich and Pechorin overhear, spy upon, and witness any such scene as was needed for the elucidation or the promotion of the plot. Indeed, the author’s use of this devise is so consistent thoughout the book that it ceases to strike the reader as a marvelous vagary of chance and becomes, as it were, the barely noticeable routine of fate.”
I am reminded here of the physicist E.T. Jaynes’ remark that “entropy is an anthropomorphic concept. For it is a property not of the physical system but of the particular experiments you or I choose to perform on it.”
It is striking that many protagonists in novels are, in a sense, experimenters in coincidence. That is, they take coincidences as signs, and follow them so that they produce more coincidences. In a sense, what Nabokov says about Lermontov, the writer of the novel in which Pechorin is the chief protagonist, could be said, as well, of Pechorin, in as much as he makes a plot out of his life, or a portion of his life. To do such a thing, to incorporate the adventure form into a life, turns coincidence into the “routine of fate.”
Nabokov is right to mention the adventure form as that in which coincidence plays the greatest role. The adventure form, of course, has fissioned into many forms today – the crime novel, sci fi, and, often, the modern and po mo variants of the novel. I think, for instance, of Patricia Highsmith, who wrote a number of novels in which the motive force that moves the plot is the impression that the appearance of a character is coincidentally like that of another character. For instance, in The Faces of Janus, the entire motive for the engagement of the poet, Rydal Keener, with the crooked businessman, Chester McFarland, and his wife Colette, is that Chester vaguely looks like Rydal’s father and wife like the cousin that Rydal had a crush on when he was a teen. Even before Rydal is involved with the couple, the author presents Rydal’s habit of looking a little too long in the eyes of strangers, seeking Adventure. In a variation on this theme, in Strangers on the Train, the architect, Guy Haines, meets a rich playboy type named Bruno, and the two recognize that they are in similar situations: Guy is frustrated by his wife’s refusal to divorce him so he can marry his girlfriend, and Bruno is frustrated by his father, who is keeping him from enjoying the family fortune. They jokingly trade “murders”, except that Bruno actually commits one, the murder of Guy’s wife. This is a particularly vivid instance of how the device of coincidence is not something that is confined to a single accident, but extends into an adventure that is much like a previous state of order becoming a more and more pronounced disorder.
It is the relation between adventure, coincidence and disorder that makes coincidence loom so large in crime novels. The very activity of “looking for clues” is a way of scripting an adventure – a thematically connected series of social events, in which the social can, unexpectedly, slip away (which is the fright is meant to be evoked by the lone person entering into some isolated space, the isolation being defined by the fact that the criminal doesn’t risk being seen by anyone but the victim. At this point, the criminal operates as the writer’s surrogate, even if the writer demonizes him or her, for both are engaged in the scripting of coincidence.
Nabokov played around with this motif himself, in Despair. There, the coincidence motif is not so much a trap, but a meta-trap – a trap made out of delusions that, by springing into action, undoes itself, or traps itself untrapping. Despair is not a major novel, but it might be the key to the Nabokovian mythologies – dealing with the libidinous unconscious of the novel, its fairy tale level of wishes, by making them come true, and thus exposing them as false. Nabokov’s own favorite among his Russian novels, the Gift, by contrast, is an un-Nabokovian novel – the heart of it, the attack on the positive hero tradition from Chernyshevsky onward, makes it Nabokov’s most Thomas Mann-like novel. Those who know Nabokov know that he detested Thomas Mann (although there is little evidence he read him) just as he detested Freud (ditto). But such was the pool in which Nabokov played.
Simon During