Vladimir Nabokov and the Ideological Aesthetic

A Study of his Novels and Plays, 1926–1939

by Udith Dematagoda (Author)
©2017 Monographs XIV, 210 Pages


This book argues that ideology is a prism through which the work of Vladimir Nabokov needs to be considered. It is thus the first attempt to foreground questions of ideology and politics within a field that has historically been resistant to such readings.
The perception of Nabokov as an apolitical writer is one which the author encouraged throughout the latter part of his career in his non-fictional writings and in the small number of well-rehearsed interviews that he gave. When questions of ideology and politics have arisen in scholarship, they have only been featured in passing or have merely re-confirmed the author’s self-designation as an «old-fashioned liberal». When we consider that Nabokov lived through some of the most traumatic historical ruptures of the past century then this lack of reference to ideology in the critical literature appears quite revealing.
Through the analysis of works which have previously received little attention as well as new perspectives on better known works, this book demonstrates how ideology and politics were ever-present and had an indelible effect on Nabokov's literary aesthetics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Transliteration and Translation
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Ideology and the Ideological Aesthetic
  • Chapter 1: The Ruthless Schemers of Tomsk and Atomsk: The Man from the USSR and The Waltz Invention
  • Chapter 2: Bits of My Past Litter the Floor: Ideology, Epistemology, and the ‘Modernism of Underdevelopment’ in The Eye and Despair
  • Chapter 3: ‘Violin in a Void’: Totalitarianism on Trial in Invitation to a Beheading
  • Chapter 4: My Kingdom: The Formation of the Ideological Aesthetic in The Gift
  • Chapter 5: The Absolute Solution: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and the Ideology of Aesthetic Autonomy
  • Conclusion: Ideology as Aesthetic: The Aesthetic as Ideology
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


This book derives from my doctoral research into Vladimir Nabokov, completed at the University of Glasgow. Thus, it is incumbent on me to first express my gratitude to my academic mentors John Coyle, Andrei Rogatchevski, and above all to Laurence Davies – who not only imparted to me his boundless wealth of knowledge and expertise on literary and philosophical matters, but with whom I shared so many infinitely stimulating and engaging conversations. Without his patience, encouragement, and guidance this book would have been impossible. I would also like to thank the many people I have encountered during my years in academia who have, in their various ways, contributed to my intellectual development. First among them is Elwira Grossman, who so readily gave me encouragement and support in too many ways to count.

To my dear parents, Harry and Manel Dematagoda, and my brothers Susith and Supitha, I owe an immense debt of love and gratitude. During the course of writing this study, my work and research has taken me to St Petersburg, London, Paris, Nice, New York, Strasbourg and Vienna. I am grateful to the vibrant community of international scholars within Nabokov studies who I met at various points in time, and who responded to my work with so much enthusiasm and critical curiosity. Among them are Will Norman, Thomas Karshan, David Rampton, Marijeta Bozovic, Michael Rogers, Leland de la Durantaye, Michael Wood, Eric Naiman, Brian Boyd, Maurice Couturier, whose splendid anecdote about Roland Barthes I shall be recounting for a long time, Jacqueline Hamritt, Sophie Bernard-Leger, Lara Delage-Toriel, Elsa Court, Agnès Edel-Roy, Michael Federspiel, Nathalia Saliba, Julie Loison-Charles, the director of the Nabokov Museum Tatiana Ponomareva, Stephen Blackwell and Roy Groen with whom I experienced the cuisine of St Petersburg for the first time. Special thanks must go to James Bottriell and Genevieve Chevalier who made my time teaching at the University of Nice so enjoyable. I would also like to thank all of the staff at The Berg Collection of English and American ← vii | viii → Literature at the New York Public Library and the Bakhmeteff Collection at Columbia University for assisting me in my archival research, the late Catherine Nepomnyashchy for her correspondence and support, and all of my friends in New York who made me so welcome in their wonderful city.

Throughout these years, my sanity has often been maintained by my close friends who have supported and encouraged my intellectual efforts in countless ways, and with excellent humour. My enduring gratitude goes to Stewart McCarthy, Adam Campbell, Joseph Harris, Andrew Grimes, Jamie Sunderland, Euan McCaulay and Christos Asomatos for all of the laughter they have provided through the years, and for the countless good times which are still forthcoming; and also to Augustin Cambau, whose friendship and intellectual stimulation kept me in high spirits during two years of a sometimes tedious self-imposed exile on the French Riviera.

To paraphrase Nabokov, the course of one’s life is rarely pre-determined in a world which is often a too rapid succession of funerals and fireworks, and just as the ink was beginning to dry on this work, as the dark clouds of uncertainty were beginning to form – a beam of luminous sunlight could be glimpsed on the horizon. For my darling Sarah Bildstein, whose pictures and stones have given me so much hope for the future.

← viii | ix →

Note on Transliteration and Translation

For translations of Russian texts, I have adhered mostly to the Library of Congress system without diacritical remarks. To aid readability, I have reverted to the common anglicized spellings of certain Russian names: for example, Dostoevsky and Stanislavsky (instead of Dostoevskii and Stanislavskii) and Meyerhold (instead of Meierkhol’d). In places, the text is given in the original Cyrillic.

For English translations of Nabokov’s own works, I have followed the Standard English translations which the author made or authorized himself. All translations from the Russian and from the French which are my own are indicated as such. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


Works by Vladimir Nabokov

BSBend Sinister (London: Penguin, 2001).
DarDar (New York: Chekov, 1952).
DesDespair, trans. Vladimir Nabokov (London: Penguin, 2000).
GiftThe Gift, trans. Michael Scammell and Dmitri Nabokov (London: Penguin, 2001).
IBInvitation to a Beheading, trans. Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author (London: Penguin, 2001).
LLLectures on Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980).
LRLLectures on Russian Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt, 1981).
LTVLetters to Véra, trans. Olga Voronina, edited by Brian Boyd (London: Penguin, 2014).
MUSSRThe Man from the USSR and Other Plays, trans. Dmitri Nabokov (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985).
NGNikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1961).
NWLVladimir Nabokov & Edmund Wilson, Nabokov-Wilson Letters, edited by Simon Karlinsky (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
PW‘Playwriting’, The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, trans. Dmitri Nabokov (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985).
RLSKThe Real Life of Sebastian Knight (London: Penguin, 1964).
SLSelected Letters 1940–1977, edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989). ← xi | xii →
SMSpeak, Memory (London: Vintage International, 1989).
SOStrong Opinions (London: Penguin, 1973).
TEThe Eye (London: Penguin, 2010).
ToT‘The Tragedy of Tragedy’, in The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, trans. Dmitri Nabokov (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985).
VNPThe Vladimir Nabokov Papers. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library. Extract from ‘Neskol’ko slov ob ubozhestve sovetskoy bellestristiki i popitka ustanovit’ prichinu onogo’ by Vladimir Nabokov, from the archive of Vladimir Nabokov. Copyright © Vladimir Nabokov, 1926, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.
WIThe Waltz Invention, trans. Dmitri Nabokov (New York: Phaedra, 1966).

Works by Other Authors

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XIV, 210
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
Ideology Aesthetics Politics Russian Literature Critical Theory Philosophy Vladimir Nabokov
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XIV, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Udith Dematagoda (Author)

Udith Dematagoda is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Zukunftskolleg, University of Konstanz. He received his PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow in 2016. He taught English and comparative literature at the University of Glasgow and the University of Nice and he was visiting researcher at The Butler Library at Columbia University and The Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. He has written and presented extensively on Vladimir Nabokov in Russia, Europe and North America and is a member of the Société Française Vladimir Nabokov. His wider research focuses on ideology and aesthetics in relation to works of twentieth-century English and European modernist literature, masculinity and fascism, and the emergence and evolution of digital ideologies.


Title: Vladimir Nabokov and the Ideological Aesthetic