Inverted Reality in Nabokov's Look at the Harlequins!

D. Barton Johnson
1984 Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature  
Look at the Harlequins! presents itself as the autobiography of a famed Anglo-Russian writer who suffers from bouts of insanity that are connected with his feeling that he is the inferior copy of another, much better writer. The autobiography is devoted mainly to his four great loves and to his books. Close analysis suggests that the narrator's account is false and is essentially a record of his delusive life during periods of insanity. LATH is seen as an example of those of Nabokov's novels
more » ... t have schizoid narrators, such as The Eye, Despair, and Pale Fire, and is set in opposition to another group of novels (Invitation to a Beheqding, Bend Sinister, and Ada) in which the fictional worlds themselves are twinned. 's last novel, Look at the Harlequins!, is cast in the form of the autobiography of the distinguised Anglo-Russian writer Vadim Vadimovich N. (b. 1899).' Composed in the aftermath of a mysterious paralytic stroke, VV's memoir is no ordinary one and is perhaps best described in the words of the narrator himself: In this memoir my wives and my books are interlaced monogrammatically like some sort of watermark or ex libris design; and in writing this oblique autobiography-oblique, because dealing mainly not with pedestrian history but with the mirages of romantic and literary matters-I consistently try to dwell as lightly as inhumanly possible on the evolution of my mental illness. Yet Dementia is one of the characters in my story. (p. 85) We shall see that Dementia is not merely "one of the characters" in the story but that she is the leading lady. The narrator's works and women (apart from the last) are solely the offspring of his Dementia, who is both Mistress and Muse. The autobiography deals quite literally with "mirages of romantic and literary matters." The narrator, Prince VV, is the putative son of an aristocratic Russian couple who abandon him to the care of relatives in consequence of the frenetic pace of their divorces, remarriages, re-divorces, and so on. Their neurasthenic, dreamy son is left in the custody of a grand-aunt, who resides on one of the family estates called Marevo, a Russian word appropriately meaning "mirage." It is this aunt (apparently fictive) who advises her morose seven-or eight-year-old charge 293
doi:10.4148/2334-4415.1146 fatcat:lwolm65ckrhv5owtonpjtiayfy