A word so fraught as “queer” is – fraught with so many social and personal histories of exclusion, violence, defiance, excitement – never can only denote; nor even can it only connote; a part of its experimental force as a speech act is the way in which it dramatizes locutionary position itself. … A hypothesis worth making explicit: that there are important senses in which “queer” can signify only when attached to the first person. One possible corollary: that what it takes – all it takes – to make the description “queer” a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now” (1993)
As Sedgwick suggests, queerness perhaps more than any other hermeneutic, requires one to respect the subjectivity of its procedures and encourages one to see the knowledge it produces as self-knowledge, wholly or in part. Although Nabokov’s Russian works are vital for considering queer content, I will focus on his American period. This is when Nabokov gave his readers instructions on how to read him—instructions we are still taught, and teach others, to follow.
In these instructions, Nabokov often seems to deliberately keep the reader from pursuing queer kind of self-knowledge. I want to push back on Nabokov’s reading of his own work. What can we gain by not engaging in the author’s demands of self-deprivation? What can we, as readers, do about it?
Eric Naiman’s work on Nabokov’s hermophobia—his fear of being wrongly interpreted —is one of the inspirations for what follows. Yet, when Naiman says that “a generalizing ideological force obscures everything that makes Nabokov worth reading,” (Nabokov, Perversely 106) I take it as an invitation, not only to probe the limits of the generalizing momentum of the ideological weight behind the word “queer” when applied to Nabokov today, but also to look closely at the tacit assumption that Nabokov is “worth reading” at all: by whom, when, how? To ground these questions in observable evidence, I will focus on the word “queer” itself.
Slang Meaning of “Queer” in English
“Queer” as a descriptor for “homosexual” or “gender-non-conforming” dates to the early 20th century. Richard Ellmann in his biography of Oscar Wilde cites an 1894 letter where “queer” occurs in a related sense. The OED lists chronologically later examples for both adjective and noun from 1930s, 50s, 60s. The various editions I checked of Nabokov’s favorite Webster’s Second from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s don’t list this meaning of “queer,” but its 1977 version defines “queer” as slang for “sexually deviate; homosexual.”
Our contemporary reclaimed use dates to the late 1980s. The appearance of a direct-action, militant campaigning group Queer Nation in 1990 in New York City marked that pivotal moment, which overlapped with the end of the Cold War. Importantly, unlike “gay,” as a self-descriptor “queer” retained the echo of the original literal meaning, “twisted, odd, abnormal.” This meaning foregrounded the shared experience of difference as exclusion, persecution, and victimization.
Overcoming the exclusion related to sexuality and gender expression is queer theory’s immediate political goal, but philosophically queerness goes further and extends into usefully raising questions about the epistemic value of sameness and difference themselves. “Reading queerly” is a double-edged reminder that the sameness of such embodied characteristics as sexuality between reader and author can’t be a prerequisite for the legitimacy of the reader’s relation to the text. At the same time, a difference of such characteristics can’t guarantee interpretive ascendancy either. “Queer” in this broad sense could mean moving beyond epistemologies predicated on perceptions of sameness and difference, and ultimately, creating possibilities of understanding and valuation across difference.
A queer reading of Nabokov would therefore require clarity about Nabokov’s position and the position of today’s reader on the one hand, and historicizing (de-naturalizing) this difference between them on the other in hopes of finding grounds for congruency, actionable, ethical, or intellectual, if not political or ideological.
Scholars tried to find a place for Nabokov within queer epistemologies as soon as those epistemologies came into being in the 1990s. It makes sense to claim Nabokov as a potentially queer author since so much of his work explores themes of sexuality and difference. Eric Naiman and Leland de la Durantaye, among others, have noted a significant overlap between the semantic networks of the word “queer” and concepts central to Nabokov’s poetics: puzzles, unconventionality, eccentricity, mild insanity, comical or surprising mistakes – but also, false or counterfeit values, fakeness, hard-to-detect difference from normative ostensibility. This combined with the fact that the slang meaning of “queer” was entering everyday parlance when Nabokov was presumably paying attention to such changes in the language prompt the question: How did Nabokov himself use the word?
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) 24
Bend Sinister (1946) 9
Pnin (1957) 0
Lolita (1958) 9
Invitation to a Beheading (Engl. tr., 1959) 0
Pale Fire (1962) 1
Speak, Memory (rev. 1965) 4
Laughter in the Dark (Engl. tr., 1965) 12
Despair (Engl. tr., 1965) 12
Ada (1969) 6
Transparent Things (1972) 1
Look at the Harlequins! (1974) 0
From the instances I counted in his major English-language works, Nabokov didn’t seem to use the word in the slang sense at all. But he did use it in suggestive and sexual contexts.
Not surprisingly, the word occurs most frequently in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Along with the frequency, the novel also allows for the most positive connotations and applies directly to the hero. Sebastian has queer ways, makes queer mistakes, even looks queer, and his The Funny Mountain is a “beautifully queer tale” (6). There’s a “queer effeminate” man who leaves his fiancée (96) which suggests a sexual meaning, but overall “queer” is “odd” in an exciting, cognitively powerful way, rather than dangerous or suspect. Curiously, the first three instances of the word, all clustered together on the first 7 pages of the novel, occur in conjunction with childhood and memory. Today’s reader almost wants to take these first instances as invocations of Proustian motifs and biographical references to Vladimir Nabokov’s gay brother.
There is a marked change in the emotional quality of the word when we turn to the chronologically close but ideologically distant Bend Sinister. The title itself could illustrate the change: twisting left is suspect, politically and sexually (recall the term “sexual lefty” from The Eye). If The Real Life had been about an anxiety over the positive potential of “queerness” being overlooked or unrecognized, Bend Sinister was about an anxiety over the dangerous aspects of “queerness,” “queerness” as a threat from outside.
In his first American novel, and in sharp contrast to The Real Life, Nabokov uses the word “queer” in contexts of panic-inducing, and now more explicitly sexualized, situations between men. Most notable of these is the “queer incident” of the Kiss of the Toad, when a schoolboy Paduk, soon to be the powerful quasi-communist villain of the novel, kisses the hand of the hero. At the same time, the politically assimilationist, panicked quality of Nabokov’s first American novel doesn’t preclude him from trying to reclaim the positive connotations of difference, so precious to him in The Real Life. At one point, Nabokov memorably describes Adam Krug as a “pleasantly queer boy” compared to Paduk, who, the reader is meant to assume, is unpleasantly queer. “Pleasantly queer” seems to mean non-sexually and non-politically queer, that is, exhibiting difference but not where it counts, not from the expected heterosexual and capitalist “norm.”
Similarly, in Lolita, the closest Nabokov came to using the word in a sexual sense was when he made Humbert mention Gaston Godin, whose Beardsley existence “had such a queer bearing on my case.” Humbert goes on to say that he needs the story of a homosexual pedophile Gaston “for my defense.” He doesn’t articulate how exactly it could be used for his defense but presumably, in the logic of homophobic panic, being a homosexual pedophile is so much worse than being a heterosexual one that Humbert could seem acceptable by comparison. Finding a more ostracizable “queer” is part of Humbert’s pedophiliac apology – and it’s hard to say here to what extent the rejectability of Gaston Godin is the result of Nabokov’s homophobia after he learned the slang meaning of the word and to what extent it is an expression of a generalized assimilationist anxiety in 1950s America on his part.
Queer as Political and Sexual Outsider
Steven Bruhm identified the common denominator between political and sexual queerness in Nabokov, and more broadly in Cold-War America, as a well-hidden threat of co-optation, or unwanted assimilation ("Queer, Queer Vladimir," 281-306). With Freud linking homosexuality to narcissism, or sameness between subject and object of attraction, and Havelock Ellis understanding homosexuality as a desire to reduce difference to sameness, both homosexuality and homophobia acquired a political dimension. Cold-War paranoia cast sexual queers, like political lefties, as outsiders to be feared and outed precisely for their desire and intention to reduce our individual difference to their sameness, making “us” like “them,” not letting “us” exercise our difference from “them.” Both communism and homosexuality are about everybody being forcibly, unnaturally reduced to indistinguishable sameness.
Nabokov certainly knew of this political understanding of homosexuality but didn’t always agree with it. In Pale Fire, he dramatized the opposite assumption, played with the expectation of political risks of homosexuality by making it stand opposite Soviet-style violent political homogeneity in the novel. The narrator’s narcissism in it does not preclude leaps of individualizing speciation either. If we add to this Nabokov’s surprised semi-acceptance of his brother’s gay partner in the 1930s, we will find what Bruhm calls “the epistemology of the closet that is both homophobic and queer” ("Queer, Queer Vladimir," 295). When trying to find a political synonym that would clarify the author’s motivation for the “queer” part, Bruhm lands on the word “liberal.”
And yet, after the liberal queerness of Pale Fire, in the 1965 revised English translation of Despair, Nabokov returned to the paranoid equation between queerness, narcissism, and communism. And by the end of that radical decade, as we can see from a 1968 interview, he lumped minorities, homosexuals, and communists all in the one group whose presence in literature he “hated on first sight” (Strong Opinions, 116)
I suggest moving away from purely ideological terminologies of “liberalism” and “conservatism” in analyzing these historical fluctuations on Nabokov’s part. I believe that when we see acceptance, curiosity, ambivalence, or rejection in relation to “queerness” in Nabokov’s works, we see political, artistic, and epistemological maneuvering in relation to difference, of which “queer” serves as an index. In his first English work, the word stood for difference as a rich, intriguing secret. But, over time, it began to signal suspect difference, vigilance, even alarm, to the reader.
In the 1950s and 60s America galvanized by Cold-War paranoia during the Red and Lavender Scares, Nabokov gradually learned to use the word “queer” to signal a threat to normative cohesiveness—the ever-present enemy at the gates. From a Sebastian Knight who wrote “beautifully queer tales” he moved on to an awkward “pleasantly queer” Adam Krug and tentatively turned to a doomed outsider Charles Kinbote, only to return to an unambiguously dangerous “queer” Hermann and panicked public performances of disdain for communists and homosexuals.
The historical circumstances of Nabokov’s assimilation in America, his success, and probably his reputation as the author of a deviant sex book all seem to have made him gradually displace the meaning of “queerness” as cognitively rich difference in favor of the meaning of “queerness” as a threat to the “norm.” From a normative, assimilationist standpoint, “queerness” is a threat. The writer seems to have learned to deprioritize the positive connotations of this specific word the way today’s reader has learned to prioritize them. The political shifts of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s thus constitute not just a lexical but ultimately epistemological watershed, and not just between Nabokov and today’s reader, but also, more importantly perhaps, between an outsider Nabokov and a successful Nabokov. The outsider Nabokov is there, hidden in plain sight, eclipsed by his assimilated twin and a few generations’ worth of critical, scholarly confirmations of assimilation as the norm.
Nabokov, Utopia, and Queer Futurity
Historicizing can provide grounds for congruency, but it requires an exercise in what Sedgwick calls a reparative epistemology to counterbalance the paranoid epistemology of a controlled, assimilationist, self-normativized Nabokov of the late 1960s. The one remaining question would be: Why should anyone care to exercise this kind of reparative imagination? Who needs this congruency across difference? Who needs an outsider Nabokov?
We may find an answer to these questions if we return to Sedgwick and her definition of performativity, or attending to the uses of knowledge. By attending to how we respond to the truth we uncover, we become critically self-aware, include our own motives in our analysis, emerge as interpretive agents.
When we’re asking whether Nabokov, queer or otherwise, is “worth reading,” we’re also asking whether Nabokov is “worth writing about.” We break down that global question into arguably more relevant local ones: “Whom does the genre of critical writing about queerness in Nabokov serve? The author? The critic? The reader? And which of the historically divergent avatars of the author, critic, and reader does my critical writing about queerness in Nabokov serve?”
I want to finish by invoking José Esteban Muñoz’s idea that queerness finds a positive dimension, not so much in liberalism with its gentrifying assimilationism and its ambivalence towards difference at best, as in the more radical concept of utopia. Today’s reader duly acknowledges Nabokov’s fear of utopias, Nabokov’s American Cold-War avatar as anti-utopian, but they don’t have to predicate their understanding and appreciation of the writer on imitating him in that respect. A queer, outsider, future, utopian Nabokov is a surprising Nabokov that might have been, giving sustenance to a reader who is or may still be.
Nabokov’s writing—complicated, conflicted, historically juicy—remains a worthy locus of attention and a source of immense hermeneutic joy, for the reader, critic, teacher, student. And critical writing about queerness in Nabokov, while remaining historically honest, can “promise” or “smuggle” or “distill” a surprising, hopeful, nourishing future even from the past whose avowed desire was not to nourish it.