Review: Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov

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Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov book cover
Transparent Things (1972) is one of Vladimir Nabokov’s final novels, and a slim volume that covers many of the author’s preoccupations in literature and beyond. Hugh Person, a somnambulant editor, is the novel’s protagonist, whose life is narrated by an ethereal presence – the ghost of a novelist known only as R. – who haunts Person as an author haunts his characters. Composed of 26 short chapters, the novel follows Person as he visits Switzerland where, on a previous visit, his father died unexpectedly, and where, on a separate occasion still, he met R. through whom he met his wife, Armande. His present trip is full of nostalgia, but as Person tries to break temporal boundaries to experiences past by closing spatial ones, the narrator exposes the thinness of reality in the present. Armande is the spark that ignites Person’s mundane life, and which pushes him beyond his comfortable existence. Out of his depth, but rooted firmly in time, unexceptional circumstances lead to exceptional actions for Hugh Person as he makes his way towards a state of ‘being’.

Transparent Things tackles some big issues: time and memory, the individual and isolation, consciousness and death, transparency and opaqueness. The frailty of human memory, with all its blind flaws, is mixed irresistibly with the sheer volatility of meaning in language, which points back to the writing of Joyce, amongst others. Person’s life folds back on itself as he attempts to re-experience his past, no longer covering new ground but trapped in his perpetual attempt to re-capture past experience. This failure to exist in the present is certainly linked with Nabokov’s criticisms of the psychiatric method, which too, focuses on a life past rather than a life present.

For Nabokov, all things are transparent, with a history that stretches out beyond the physical form in which they exist in the present, and a number of potential futures. Nabokov plays with associations, taking objects and forcing the reader to re-examine them, to question the reality in which they exist. It takes an enquiring mind to acknowledge the thinness of reality and explore the true state of things, but a more powerful mind to accept the refraction of history through the transparent things all around, while continuing to exist in the present. Person’s ache at the passing of time and the lost past, which cannot be recaptured, is symptomatic of the chronophobia present in much of Nabokov’s writing, and the notion of being able to retain the past in the present – as the narrator does – is clearly an appealing thought to anyone who mourns the passing of time.

Death – the ultimate lesion in time of any existence – abounds in the novel, but does not equate to the extinguishing of a life or a character here, but rather to the ascension to a higher level of consciousness, one equivalent to the ghostly narrator who looks down on, and beyond, creation. The narrator warns Person against the quest to re-experience his past and, in comparison to the life of the protagonist, the narratorial voice is full of life and art. An irony, perhaps, given the narrator’s lack of physical form.

If the present and all the objects that we experience in it are, ultimately, transparent: a past, even a future, stretching out in the fourth dimension, then the present is but a grain of sand on the beach of experience. The fragmented narrative, which covers flashbulb memories from Person’s life – some big, some small – represent this, and are vividly realised by Nabokov. They’re snatches of a life more mundane than extraordinary, and the disjointed way in which they are relayed can be disorienting, the novel’s focus shifting and re-focusing frequently. The minute detail of each short chapter can be beautiful, but as a whole the text can be difficult to grapple with.

The prose is efficient, not verbose, but this is far from a simple read. One has to be able to pull together the strands that Nabokov weaves throughout the text, separated but entirely interdependent, and even the best-read readers will struggle to discern all of the author’s motives and references. The copious allusions – both inter- and intra- textual – are overwhelming, and one cannot hope to identify them all in a single reading. There is a sense throughout that Nabokov is writing at a register that does not lend itself to interpretation. Indeed, much of Transparent Things feels like an in-joke with an intended audience of one.

The internal allusions, the text folding back on itself, reflect Person’s life, in which he is constantly preoccupied by his own history. It’s a clever stylistic way of expressing the solipsism of life, which affects all people. There is a lot of mirroring in the novel too, although mirrored passages are often refractions of previous ones; not identical, but blurred versions of the same reality.

The name Person – “personne” in French, which translates as both “nobody” and “anybody” – is significant in that it is only through the act of creation on the author’s part that a character gains shape, and it’s only in the mind of the reader that this reality is sustained. Without R., Person is lifeless (and without Nabokov, R. – the author’s fictionalised form – is too). It is not until R. as narrator begins narrating the protagonist’s life that he becomes Hugh Person, rather than the unnamed person that he as at the novel’s open. The name Hugh itself is also significant. Armande pronounces this “you”, broadening out the focus of the narrative. Equally, though, Hugh is the first syllable of Human; a half-formed thing.

Nabokov’s work is anything but transparent, and in trying to find the patterns that unpick the novel, the process of reading Transparent Things becomes itself a comment on reading; the need to uncover what at first appears opaque, and the willingness of readers to find patterns, as is the human need, where perhaps there are none. As with history (and memory), what is preferred is certainty; an absolute truth about a text (or event), pulled together from clues as the reader sees them. Transparent Things reminds one that as a form the novel tends towards a determinism, where everything means something, and little is arbitrary. The world, history, memory, and literature exist in the mind, the only place where events can be ordered to create reality digestible to the human consciousness. Art is just an extension of this process, a more concrete attempt to create a reality from facts, both real and imagined. Transparent Things deals with this internal process of creation (of art, memory, history, and reality). It is a strange and difficult book: a joke, a meditation, anything but transparent. Or at least, it is in my mind.

This is a funny little book - it feels, in a large part, that Nabokov is toying with critics, daring them to interpret it, to impose meaning where, perhaps, there is none. And yet there is a lot in here, a lot to digest and respond to on various levels (even if it's all an elaborate joke).


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