Look at the Harlequins!
Look At the Harlequins! is a fictional autobiography narrated by Vadim Vadimovich N. (VV), a Russian-American writer with uncanny biographical likenesses to the novel's author, Vladimir (Vladimirovich) Nabokov. The novel itself has seven parts.
VV is born in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg to two parents who divorce and remarry "at such a rapid rate" that VV's custody is transferred to his grand-aunt, Baroness Bredow. It is VV's grand-aunt who advises him to "look at the harlequins." "Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!" she tells him. At eighteen years old, after the Bolshevik Revolution-- and after VV spends time in an Imperial Sanatorium-- he flees the country, via a fairy-tale path, on which he kills a Red Guard with a pistol. After his escape, VV makes his way to London, where he finds Count Nikifor Nikodimovich Starov. Count Starov is a great admirer of VV's "beautiful and bizarre" mother, and possibly VV's actual father. With Count Starov's patronage, VV attends Cambridge, where in the spring term of his final year (1922), he is invited to spend the summer with a classmate, Ivor Black.
During his summer with Ivor Black, VV meets Black's twenty-one year old sister, Iris Black. Iris pretends to be deaf upon meeting VV, but is quickly discovered. The two then spend the summer becoming closer, Iris inspiring VV to write poems. On one beach outing, VV discloses to the reader that he cannot swim in open water without his whole body at risk of paralyzation, an anomaly that has occurred several times in his youth. Dovetailing this confession to the reader is VV's confession to Iris that he cannot imagine walking down a street or path, and then imagine turning around again and walking back; while VV can do this in reality, it is an impossible task in his mind. VV apparently must confess this before he is able to ask a woman to marry him.
Iris and VV then become married and move to Paris, where VV's literary career takes off. He publishes Tamara (1925), Pawn Takes Queen (1927), and Plenilune (1929), each novel in Russian. Iris also begins to write during this time, and is not considered to be accomplished by VV. She continually writes, and then rewrites, and then quits various writing projects. As Iris does not speak Russian, and VV is particularly private about his writing, Iris begins taking Russian classes from a tutor.
Part one ends with Iris being shot and killed by Lieutenant Wladimir Starov-Blagidze, the husband of Iris's Russian language tutor. Starov-Blagidze is believed to have been having an affair with Iris, and passionate, and possibly mad, the Lieutenant kills Iris in the street (April 23rd, 1930). VV and Iris's brother cover up the affair and make the shooting look accidental, by misinforming the police about the shooting.
Part two begins with VV beginning to write his fourth novel (Camera Lucida) and his fifth novel (The Red Top Hat): both in Russian. While working on these novels, he stays with friends called Mr. and Mrs Stepanov. This couple has a daughter referred to as Dolly, and it is strongly suggested that VV molests her.
To aid him in typing up the manuscripts for these works, he hires an immaculate typist, Lyubov Serafimovna, who falls in love with him. VV, however, has no affection for her and dismisses her. VV then sets out to hire another typist, and calls the Stepanovs for aid. After VV hears Mrs. Stepanov call him an "predictable madman" on the phone, she directs him to a Russian bookstore (Byron Bookshop) to look up a typist called Anna Ivanovna Blagovo.
VV makes his way to Byron Bookshop, where he meets Oks (or Oksman), "a tall, bony, elderly man with a Shakespearean pate," looking to give a message to Anna Blagovo. Through VV's interactions with Oks, the reader learns that VV is a respectable Russian author, whose books are lent often to readers, though bought less often. Oks misidentifies VV's book Camera Lucida, as Camera Obscura, and VV takes offense to this. Oks also states that VV is known as being unusual to his peers, alluding to his madness. Oks leaves VV after stating that he remembers VV's father, which VV points out as an impossibility, as his father, he claims, was dead before he was born (which contradicts VV's account of his father in Part One). That very night VV has the sensation that he is the lesser version of a parallel person, destined to be less great.
VV eventually meets Anna Blagovo on May 2nd, 1934. She arrives late and proves herself to be a far less typist than VV's first. When she informs VV that she does not know his work, he takes offense, and she states that she will look up all his work, including his most famous to that point. Despite VV's dislike for several facets of Anna, he becomes smitten with her. He then marries her, and the two move to Quirn University (thought to be Cornell University), in the United States.
Part three starts with VV stating he's accepted a position to teach at Quirn University, to teach Ulysses, because his previous books didn't sell well. At Quirn, VV continues to write, but in English. Having already written See under Real, he writes Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1942) and Dr. Olga Repnin (1946), as well as a short story collection called Exile from Mayda (1947).
At Quirn, amid a cold romance with Anna (now referred to as Annette), VV sires a child called Isabel, on new years day, 1942. At this point Anna makes a friend of a Soviet woman named Ninel (an anagram of Lenin), and she quickly becomes corrupted with the idea that Soviet Russia is superior to the United States, an outlook VV does not share.
VV then meets, surreptitiously, Dolly, strikes up an affair with her (who says she can easily get him charged with rape), and then, while at a party with Dolly, discovers that Anna has left him, taking Isabel with her. This sends VV into a shock which sends him to the hospital. When VV awakens, he finds that Anna has left a note, which VV believes Ninel has written, and asked VV to not contact her again.
Taking a surprise sabbatical, VV abandons his post at Quirn and takes a year long car trek across the united states. During this time, VV attempts to write The Invisible Lath, a "book similar to this [Look at the Harlequins!]," but cannot finish. When in Los Angeles, looking for Ivor Black, his first wife's brother, VV discovers that Black has died. By 1947, VV makes his way back to Quirn where he again takes up teaching, though in a new home.
At Quirn, VV makes the acquaintance of Louise Adamson. Louise, through a friend, informs VV that "Bel" (VV's daughter) is well. At one point, VV's, on returning from a lecture, sees Anna peering into a baby's carriage, and attempts to rush towards her, but she rebuffs him, and he does not speak with her.
As VV's narrative moves forward, it becomes clear that Louise is having an affair with VV. Before Louise becomes VV's third wife, he learns that Anna and Ninel have been killed in a flood. This makes it so Bel, his daughter, is now in his custody. Bel is precious and gets attention, some negative, at school, for her quick wit. Bel stays with VV for two years, which is a happy time for VV. This arrangement draws attention from others, and to avoid "ugly rumors," likely suggestive of VV molesting his daughter, VV marries Louise. Bel remains living with VV for several years after.
Louise and Bel do not exist happily in the same home, however. Louise sends Bel off to a Swiss finishing school, called Chбteau Vignedor, wherein Bel begins to resent her father. At this institution, Bel loses her interest in poetry, and becomes interested in Albert Camus, an absurd philosopher. To cope with the loss of his daughter, VV begins to write The Kingdom by the Sea, his most famous novel.
Part four ends with VV learning that Bel has married a young man, and that they intend to flee to the Soviet Union. At their parting, VV accidentally calls Bel "Dolly" and Bel becomes very angry.
Part five focuses on the events of VV attempting to retrieve Bel from Soviet Russia. By this time, Louise has left VV, and he spends most of his time, when not teaching at Quirn or working on novels, spending amorous time with "Brown Rose," his new housekeeper.
One day, VV receives a letter from a friend of Bel, and VV finds that she is ill in Soviet Russia, and that her husband is nowhere to be found. Seeking to retrieve Bel from Soviet Russia, he obtains a false passport and makes his way to Russia. Once there, he discovers that Bel's husband has just returned, and she has fled. He quickly leaves Soviet Russia, and makes his way back to the United States.
VV decides to stop teaching at Quirn University. Due to the success of A Kingdom by the Sea, he no longer needs to teach. He quits, rather suddenly, and on his way to quitting discovers a young woman he calls "You." This woman helps VV pick up some papers he drops while on his way to quit. This You can speak fluent Russian and has studied Turgenev at Oxford. She also knows Bel, and inquires about her. When VV meets her, it is September 1969.
When Louise wishes to divorce VV, seeking monetary gain, he curbs her demand for money by informing his lawyer of all the liaisons she has had while married to him, proven because VV hired a private detective to track her. As she wishes to marry another, and realizes how the publicity of these charges would look on her, she agrees to be divorced without much monetary gain.
VV then begins a relationship with the woman he calls You. The chapter ends with VV taking a walk down a path, as You reads a part of his newest novel. VV makes it to the end of his walk, and when trying to turn around, he is unable to. When attempting to turn, he becomes paralyzed, and collapses.
VV wakes in the hospital. Slowly, he recovers from his paralysis, in symmetrical patches, like the pattern of a harlequin. When he wakes, he is not able to recall his last name, although he believes that it begins with N. He is also not sure if his name is Vadim, or Vladimir. The novel ends with VV confessing to You that he is unable to walk down a path in his imagination, and then turn around and walk back.
Doppelgänger vs. Parody
Literary criticism has weighed in on both sides of this debate, some even claiming that Vadim is both a parody and a double or Doppelgänger of Nabokov. For example, Nabokov’s Lolita is acted out by the narrator of Look at the Harlequins! through his fondling of the nymphet, Dolly von Borg. The attribution of a string of wives to the narrator may be understood in the context of Nabokov's strictly monogamous life. After the publication of Lolita the wider public and many critics thought that its author must be a "sexual daredevil". With the serial polygamy related in Look At The Harlequins!, Nabokov can be seen to be poking fun at these perceptions. V.V.'s final wife is simply addressed as "You", which parallels Nabokov’s addressing his wife, Véra, simply as "you" in his autobiography Speak, Memory. The fact that the final object of V.V.'s love is a perfect image of V.V.'s daughter, "Bel," parallels the search by Humbert Humbert, the main character of Lolita, for a girl-child just like "Annabel", his first love when he himself was aged 12.
If V.V. is afflicted by feelings of being the double of another Nabokovian persona, this is because he bears in fact significant resemblances to the main character of the novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight from 1941.
Herbert Grabes is among the critics who believe that Vadim is Nabokov’s “parodic double” (151). Pekka Tammi agrees: “any fictive [narrator] can be, even at best, only a ‘parody’ of the artist who is responsible for the ultimate fiction” (289). Lucy Maddox calls Look at the Harlequins! “an oblique, satiric self-portrait” (144). In Speak, Memory, Nabokov had written that much of his own life had appeared in his fictional works in the past, and that he felt as though he had lost these memories as they were crystallized into text, abstracted into fictions. His thoughts on the inevitably autobiographical nature of fiction seem to manifest, playfully, here.
Biographical reading of the novel
One popular explanation for Vadim’s personal and literary similarity to Nabokov is that Vadim is a parody of bungled biographical renderings of the author. The composition of Look at the Harlequins! followed on the heels of Andrew Field’s biography Nabokov: His Life in Part, a biography that eventually resulted in the termination of Nabokov’s relations with Field and in the novelist’s failed attempt at legal suppression of the biography. Nabokov felt that Field had created a character named Vladimir Nabokov in his biography—a character whom the real author could not recognize (Johnson, 330). Nabokov “had already perfected the role of his own biographer—in a series of mock biographies that began with a game he invented in adolescence, and that continued in his memoir Speak, Memory (1966) and his fiction. The encounter with Field, his first real-life biographer, produced. . .[the] parodic text. . .Look at the Harlequins! (1974). . .” (Sweeney 295-6).
The book begins with a list of "Other Books by the Narrator" (that is, Vadim rather than Vladimir Nabokov). Many (if not all) of these titles appear to be doppelgangers of Nabokov’s real novels.
- Tamara (1925), relates to Mary
- Pawn Takes Queen (1927), relates to King, Queen, Knave combined with The Defense
- Plenilune (1929), relates to The Defense
- Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun), relates to Laughter in the Dark (UK title, "Camera Obscura")
- The Red Top Hat (1934), relates to Invitation to a Beheading
- The Dare (1950), relates to The Gift ("Dar", in Russian) and Glory. There is also mention of the protagonist of this novel writing a book similar to that of Despair
- See under Real (1939), relates to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, combined with Pale Fire
- Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1941)
- Dr. Olga Repnin (1946), relates to Pnin
- Exile from Mayda (1947), a short story collection, relates to Pale Fire or Spring in Fialta and Other Stories
- A Kingdom by the Sea (1962), relates to Lolita
- Ardis (1970), relates to Ada or Ardor
- Johnson, D. Barton. “The Ambidextrous Universe of Nabokov’s Look At the Harlequins!” Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Phyllis A. Roth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. 202-215.
- Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. “Playing Nabokov: Performances By Himself and Others.” Studies in 20th Century Literature 22:2 (1977): 295-318.
- Grabes, Herbert. “The Deconstruction of Autobiography: Look at the Harlequins!” Cycnos 10:1 (1993): 151-158.
- Maddox, Lucy. Nabokov’s Novels in English. Athens, Georgia: U of Georgia P, 1983.
- Tammi, Pekka. Problems of Nabokov’s Poetics: A Narratological Analysis. Helsinki, Finland: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1985.
- Johnson, D. Barton (1984), "The Ambidextrous Universe of Nabakov's Look at the Harlequins!"; In: Roth, Phyllis (ed.), Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov; G.K. Hall.
- Hayles, N. Katherine (1984), "Ambivalence: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and the Physics of Time Reversal in Nabokov's Ada", in the same author's The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century, Cornell University Press.