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«Anatomizing V. Nabokov`s genre, composition, stylistic virtuosity in creating a myth of the personality in «The Vane Sisters»

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«Anatomizing V. Nabokov`s genre, composition, stylistic virtuosity in creating a myth of the personality in «The Vane Sisters»


  1. INTRODUCTION………………………………………………………………стр.3-4



1. Myth of the personality of V. Nabokov………………………………………стр.5-7

2. The plot. The genre, composition peculiarities of

«The Vane sisters»……………………………………………………………….стр.8-9

  1. V. Nabokov's virtuosity in creating a myth of the personality ……………...стр.9-12

3.1 Mythological personalities in «The Vane sisters»...………………………стр.10-12

3. 1. a. The personality of D……………………………………………….стр.10

3. 1. b. The personality of Sybil……………………………………………стр.10

3. 1. c. The personality of Cynthia…………………………………………стр.11-12

  1. CONCLUSION………………………………………………………………….стр.13


The theme of our research work is «Anatomizing V. Nabokov`s genre, composition, stylistic virtuosity in creating a myth of the personality in «The Vane Sisters». We have chosen this theme for a number of reasons.

We should stress, that V. Nabokov is famous all over the world as a winner of Nobel Prize. No doubt, this fact attracted our attention, but it wasn't crucial in choosing a theme for our research. First of all, the uniqueness of his personality and talent won our hearts and minds. In his biography we can find some enigmas, contradictory facts, strange coincidences that contributed to creating a myth of the personality of the writer. V. Nabokov himself admitted this fact. His pen-name «Sirin» that means «a mythological bird» is sound evidence to this fact. (1) We came to a conclusion that such a writer who always «had more in mind» (2) could but create a series of mythological characters.

It's worth noticing that V. Nabokov himself wanted his readers to pay great attention to style and structure to understand the characters.(3) As a modernist and post-modernist he invented a great spectrum of different artistic devices. His virtuosity in experimenting with them allowed him to become «the most original writer and stylist since Joyce». (4) Nowadays there is a lot of special literature whose authors emphasize formal and problem aspects of V. Nabokov's texts. But numerous blank spots in the field of investigating technical masterfulness of V. Nabokov's literary works are found in recent findings of Russian and American researchers. «...необходимо учесть, что при всём обилии публикаций количество фундаментальных работ, в которых акцент сделан на формально техническую сторону его творчества отнюдь не столь впечатляющее». (5) That's why we made up our mind to resort to anatomizing his artistry, find out what kernel of his linguistic virtuosity is. It is the purpose of our research work.

The question is: Why have we chosen «The Vane Sisters»? It is characterized as «Nabokov's farewell to the short story as a literary form». (6) It means that it is a work of a mature writer, and anatomizing genre, compositional and stylistic virtuosity is grounded in it. Besides, we haven't managed to find some investigation concerning V. Nabokov's literary technique in «The Vane Sisters» in «Nabokovian», «Nabokov's Studies» that are publishing different materials devoting to V. Nabokov's literary work nowadays. The materials of the Internet only give some information about the plot and focus on few details of characterizing the main characters. That is the reason why we


(1) http://invitation.to.a.beheading.ilpensatoio.infolen/

(2) Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык № 22/1999. стр. 7

(3) Nation Master-Encyclopedia: Vladimir Nabokov. http://nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Vladimir-Nabokov

(4) Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык № 22/1999. стр. 7

(5) Рахимкулова Г.Ф. «Языковая игра в прозе Владимира Набокова» (диссертация)

(6) Nabokov Tutorials – ‘The Vane Sisters’ http://www.mantrex.co.uk.ou/a319/nab-048.htm

narrowed the investigation to «The Vane Sisters».

We used different ways of research work. First of all, we read and translated «The Vane Sisters» by V. Nabokov. Besides, we got to know different critical essays, analyzed different versions trying to find some evidence or refutation and coming to some conclusion. Before analyzing the text we made up the list of literary devices V. Nabokov used, gave definition to them. After that, we made our own independent analysis according to the contents of our research work, trying to find the literary devices already having been used by the critics and discovering something new. The newness of our research work is that analysis of the characters is сarring out on the two levels microlevel (analysis of concrete example: passage, sentence, word) and macrolevel (analysis of the text on the whole). Besides, we should mention V. Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. In fact, Nabokov could read and write English before he could Russian. He translated many of his early works into English. G. Rakhimkulova asserts that the majority of western scientists analyzed the English texts, because of it the Russian variant hasn`t been explored enough. (1) As for «The Vane Sisters» it was written in English and wasn`t translated into Russian by V. Nabokov, but by G. Barabtarlo. That`s why we decided to analyze the English text.

The continuous interest in V. Nabokov's literary works makes our research actual.

While doing the research we used different sources of information such as dictionaries, critical essays from the Internet, the article from the newspaper «The 1st of September» and, certainly, the literary work «The Vane Sisters» by V. Nabokov.


(1) Рахимкулова Г.Ф. «Языковая игра в прозе Владимира Набокова» (диссертация)


1. Myth of the personality of V. Nabokov. The living flesh is full of shadows

or spectres ....

....it is the sweetest of all

to leave them all, remembering nothing.

Olga Sedakova. In memory of Nabokov. (1 )

In fact V. Nabokov, the greatest Russian-American novelist, who was admitted the most original stylist, modernist and post-modernist of the 20th century, is considered to be one of the most controversial figures in the world literature. Recent studies of his biographers reveal numerous attempts to find contradictory facts that contribute to creating some myth around the personality of the writer. The majority of researchers focus on a whole series of tragic events in his biography that followed his life from his childhood. He was born in a noble family. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a leader among liberal politicians and advocated democratic principles as a statesman and journalist. His mother, Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova, was a cultured and intellectual woman. (2) The family spoke Russian, English and French. After the Great October Revolution the Nabokovs left Russia for exile, they lived in England, in 1930 when the intentions of Nazi Germany became evident, Nabokov was desperate to escape the Continent with his Jewish wife (3), in 1940 they had to flee to the United States of America from the advancing German troops. Then he lived in Switzerland where he died. The necessity to disappear from some places in some periods of life influenced greatly on his life and creative work. He was «the man who had triumphantly survived this century of the refugee, a man who had lost everything, yet transformed his losses through art...». (4) He had managed to create some disappearing characters so masterfully that he was admitted a genius of disappearances. (5) Emigration was a tragedy of his life. We can assert that he had the feeling of nostalgia, though researchers don't

(hello_html_m14bedbb7.gif1) http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/e.rl.nabokovian.html. , page 1 (2) http://invitation.to.a.beheading.en.ilpensatoio.info/en/ (3) http://invitation.to.a.beheading.en.ilpensatoio.info/en/ (4) Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык. № 22/1999. стр. 7 (5) http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/e.rl.nabokovian.html

mention it. But, the fact that « he beloved summer haunt on his parents' country estate, which he lovingly preserved in several of his novels and in Speak, Memory, the autobiography he published in three versions over the course of 15 years» (1) supports our supposition. Besides, Rodney Phillips, Sarah Funke in their research notice that V. Nabokov « incorporates a wealth of autobiographical material..., from nostalgia to very specific and realistic of Vera, Nabokov's summer's home».

But the most tragic event in the life of V. Nabokov was his father's violent, mistaken death. The biographers attach a great importance to this fact. For example, 'Beheading', the most respectable journal of the Russian emigration, says that «this episode....would echo again and again in the author's fiction, where characters would meet the deaths under mistaken terms».

The fate of refugee, his father's unexpected and unnatural death made him think about the influence of the Providence and some mystic things on his life. He started searching some details of his origin that could shed a light on his misfortunes. Many years later the researchers started learning the phenomenon of V. Nabokov and tried to find some explanations to his dealing with metaphysics, symbolism, mysticism.

After having analyzed their findings we came to conclusion that researchers had followed the parallel that V. Nabokov used. He applied phonetic parallel to himself: «Over the years he has repeatedly complained about the damage inflicted on Nabokov name in its passage through foreign port articulation. Nab-o-kov, Nab-o-kov, Nah-bokov, are frequent errors. Rare mutations, he reports, include Nahba-cocoa and Na-«bob»-kopf. The correct sound, says the man who made the name famous, is

Nahboakoff. Slipping on the mask of a strange name for an instant, he continues: «Vladimir, as 'redeemer'». (2) The researchers assert that V. Nabokov borrowed this point from Nikolai Gogol (pronounced Gawgol) (3).The use of «redeemer» is worth analyzing. In fact, the origin of the name Vladimir is different. It means «Great Ruler». (4) The question is: Why did V. Nabokov choose the word «redeemer» for his experiments? According to «The All Nations English Dictionary» the word «redeemer» means l. One redeems or ransoms 2.The Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, who paid for all our sins with his own blood. We can suppose that V. Nabokov was tending to think that redemption caused his dramatic life. We can also support another version as well: it was only V. Nabokov's playfulness with words which was characteristic for his literary style. In parallel with V. Nabokov's investigation of his first name Mikhail Epstein took his surname into consideration. Moreover, he reveals the influence of its magical nature on his modernist style: « The Russian name Nabokov means


(1) Rodney Phillips, Sarah Funke. http://www.fathom.com/course/10701032/session1.html

(2) Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык. № 22/1999. стр. 7

(3) Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык. № 22/1999. стр. 7

(4) Rodney Phillips, Sarah Funke. http://www.fathom.com/course/10701032/session1.html

«leaning sideways» or «on one side» (perhaps the closest English approximation would be «Sideman»). It seems that this name itself contains the formula of his style and conveys the magic of this bending, this slanting movement of all things: not straight but skewed on its side like a ray of light at sunset. Thus, the sum of all Nabokovian works turn out to be the justification of this magical surname, which is the first and most important word uttered about the writer, earmaking him, and setting the path of his own words.» Parallelism of these investigations doesn't only concerns different things (the first name and the surname) but different approaches to analyzing. In difference with Mikhail Epstein V. Nabokov used not lexical meaning of the word but a religious background as well. Certainly, these approaches can't be framed as scientific ones but they focus on the uniqueness of his personality and accepting the phenomenon of V. Nabokov which is a key to understanding the mysticism of his literary works. It's also worth mentioning the fact that V. Nabokov « was fond of insisting that, with minor adjustments for Julian and Gregorian dating systems, he shared an April 23 birth date with W. Shakespeare». (1) But the researchers only consider it a little charade. They find comparisons between Anglo-Saxon writers (W. Shakespeare) and Slavic writers (V. Nabokov) impossible. (2) It was noticing that V. Nabokov's references to N. Gogol and W. Shakespeare weren't unexpected ones: there was some mystery about both personalities. For example, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, there was outspoken disbelief in his having been the author of Shakespeare's work. As for N. Gogol, there were a lot rumours about some mystic things connected with his death. The description of fabulous creatures in his literary works could cause it.

The consciousness of the phenomenon of V. Nabokov is impossible without taking his unusual abilities into consideration. Rodney Phillips, Sarah Funke mention such a fact that V. Nabokov was fluent in Russian, English and French by the age of 7. When he entered school at 11, he had already read all of Shakespeare in English, all Tolstoy in Russian and all of Flaubert in French. (3) Besides, V. Nabokov was a synaethesia and described aspects of synaethesia in several of his works. (4)

To sum up, we should stress that the results of investigating the personality of V. Nabokov helped us in understanding the cause of creating mythological characters by V. Nabokov and set priorities for further analysis.


  1. Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык. № 22/1999. стр. 7

  2. Приложение к газете «1 сентября». Английский язык. № 22/1999. стр. 7

  3. Rodney Phillips, Sarah Funke. http://www.fathom.com/course/10701032/session1.html

  4. Nation Master-Encyclopedia: Vladimir Nabokov. http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Vladimir-Nabokov

2. The plot. The genre, composition peculiarities of «The Vane sisters».

The «Vane Sisters» was written by V. Nabokov in 1951 after Nabokov had finished the first version of his autobiographical Speak, Memory. The story provides one of the most extreme examples of an unreliable narrator. This modernist narrative approach was unnoticed, and the New Yorker rejected the story. It was only revealed when Nabokov wrote a letter to the chief editor of The New Yorker Katherine A. explaining the foundation of the story. He himself described the uniqueness of a new device as something that «can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction». It was first published only in 1959.

After publishing, «The Vane Sisters» received quite considerable critical attention. Brian Boyd asserts that «The Vane Sisters» ranks as «one of Nabokov`s finest stories». (1) Other critics define it as «Nabokov`s farewell to the short story as a literary form». (2) Nabokov himself characterizes it ambiguously: «a novel or a short story». Judging by its volume it`s a short story.

We can suppose that for Nabokov it was more than a short story. This story is not only «a secret communication between author and reader» (3) but it`s a literary work aimed at the reader «who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense....». Thanks to the sophisticated literary techniques «The Vane Sisters» is full of deep notion, underlying, that`s why it`s for a good reader.

It is a well-known fact that V. Nabokov was a master of a campus novel. While analyzing the text we found some features that are characteristic for a campus novel. The action takes place in the college which is a microcosm of the large world «where the factors that motivate human behaviour can be anatomized». (4) The main characters are the professor and his students. Maybe, these features give some explanation to the definition «a novel or a short story». In fact, Nabokov doesn`t define the genre of his literary works exactly. For example, while speaking about «Lolita» he says: «...it`s a novel or collected stories». It`s worth noticing that the translator of «Vane Sisters» G. Barabtarlo considers «The Vane Sisters» to be the most difficult short story. Analyzing above mentioned, we should stress that on general theoretical grounds «The Vane Sisters» must be defined as a short story.

The composition of «The Vane Sisters» is not a complicated one. The story, which is less than twenty pages long, has seven sections. At the beginning of the first section the author intrigues the reader by the news of Cynthia`s death. In fact, it is the main event of the story. Nabokov creates a mysterious atmosphere around it using different artistic devices. First of all, he masterfully applies the device of unreliable author. The story is told from the name of the narrator, a college professor. That


(1) Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American years, p.194

(2) http://www.mantex.co.uk/ou/a319/nab-048.htm

(3) http://www.mantex.co.uk/ou/a319/nab-048.htm

(4) David Lodge: Nabokov and the campus Novel. http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/document.html?id=1081

evening he meets a former colleague, D., who enlightens about the death of Cynthia Vane, in fact, knowing little about it. The structure of the section is interesting. Only the first and the last sentence inform the readers about Cynthia`s death: « I might never have heard of Cynthia`s death...», «Say, I never thought there was anything wrong with Cynthia Vane`s heart. My lawyer tells me she died last week» There is a dramatic background between these two sentences. It creates the atmosphere of disappearing of the person .It is a well-known fact that Nabokov was a master of creating different symbols. In «The Vane Sisters» we can find a lot of images symbolizing death. For example, «icicles melting in the sunlight» symbolize the death of two young sisters and «the shadows of falling drops» - their turning into mirage. The use of the metaphors «dead snow» and «dying sky» is expressive as well. With the help of these devices the author makes the readers percept the reality in different ways and, think about afterlife and surround his characters with some mystic aura.

In the second section we found out a real reason of Cynthia`s death. Besides it reveals that D. had a relationship with one of his students, Sybil Vane. Cynthia had asked the narrator to force D. to stop the affair but it was too late. After learning about the separation, Sybil commits suicide.

Over the next three parts, the professor relates his subsequent meetings with Cynthia. Although he despises her social gatherings and has some nasty comments about Cynthia appearance, he admires her art, as Cynthia is an accomplished painter. Most attention is devoted to Cynthia`s «theory of intervening auras» (1), her conviction that life is constantly encroached on by the dead.

The two final sections resume the narrative of the first one, when the professor learns of Cynthia death. After a night of insomnia, he finally «slipped into sleep» and had a dream «that somehow was full of Cynthia».

3. V. Nabokov`s virtuosity in creating a myth of the personality.

It is a well-known fact that Nabokov was a proponent of individualism. It influenced his artistry greatly. While characterizing his main characters he uses different approaches and techniques. One of his innovate devices is using cryptography (secret communication with readers). The author talks to readers with the help of two narrators. One of them, the professor, is unnamed. He is a professor at a girl`s college in America. On the one hand he knows the Vane sisters well; on the other hand he uses the information got from another person. We have the feeling that «Sideman» - V. Nabokov himself is watching the disappearance of two myths, Cynthia and Sybil. He sees what ordinary people can`t see. Nabokov shows it with the help of synaethesia: «Through peacocked lashes I saw...». The combination of words «dazzling diamond» and «low sun»also characterize him as the person with another kind of


  1. V. Nabokov ‘The Vane Sisters’. Chapter

vision and helps in percepting him as some illusory person.

3.1 Mythological personalities in «The Vane sisters».

3. 1. а. The personality of D.

The personality of D. is mysterious as well. From the story we learn that he was having «disastrous affair with Sybil who commits suicide. Nabokov condemns him by playing with words: «still young, still brash, still shifty, still married». The word «still» travels from one notion to another one intensifying the feeling of injustice: he still lives but two sisters are dead. It's symbolic that ne tells the professor about Cynthia's death, in fact he causes both deaths and personifies death in the narration. That`s why he is unnamed. The author gave only the first letter of his name- «D.» which is associated with death.

3. 1. b. The personality of Sybil.

The second section is devoted to the mythological personality of Sybil. Taking into consideration the fact that V. Nabokov was interested in the origin of his name, we decided to find out the origin of the names of the main characters. They both have religious origin. In fact, two dead sisters form a small microcosm within a larger one, the world of «shadows» The meaning of the name Sybil is Prophetess .At the beginning of the text Nabokov characterizes her negatively: « Cynthia's hysterical young sister».She is having a disastrous affair with a married man. The situation «that threatened to become one of those hopelessly entangled situation that drag over for years and ....came to an abrupt end». With the help of repetition of the word «nothing» the author stresses that the role of Sybil in D.'s life was not great. The choice of the words «corner», «abrupt end» also stresses hopelessness of the situation and, in fact has a reverse effect. In the narration D. is cornered but, in fact, Sybil is cornered as D. finds the way out of the situation but Sybil's life comes to fatal end.

The personality of Sybil is a real enigma for readers. The description of her appearance creates the image of mysterious person. The author uses the device of contrasting ideas .The metaphor «blue ink of her eyes under darkened lids» helps in creating a tragic personage. The epithet «dark» intensifies it. It's interesting that we can find the only phrase that hints at Sybil's beauty: «visible openings into her beauty».

The author uses contradictory ideas while telling about Sybil's work: «She had begun very pale, very hard pencil». The words 'pale', « hard» that depict different qualities, the repetition of the word «very» create some kind of word play. This linguistic playfulness together with the metaphor: «Sybil's work displayed her usual combination of several demon hands» helps in creating the personality from other world that deals with metaphysics, mystics.

3. 1. c. The personality of Cynthia.

The personality of Cynthia is rather complicated. Nabokov`s description of Cynthia's appearance is something of misogynist. The choice of words « masculine, handsomely' tells about the man's appearance of Cynthia. He also stresses that 'her fingernails were gaudily painted, but badly bitten and not clean». He mentions «pores of her thirty-two-year-old face», «the coarse texture of her epiderm», «hairy legs». Though the overall tone of the story is tragic, the author uses satire. He mocks at Cynthia mentioning «so called good figure».

Cynthia is also characterized through her attitude to art and politics: «...after a way I obscure associated with left-wing enthusiasms in politics and «advanced banalities in art, although, actually, she cared for nothing». It also reflects her contradictory inner world.

The description of her origin is a mixture of different facts «Her father had gambled away the great part of a comfortable fortune and her mother's first husband had been of Slav origin, but otherwise Cynthia Vane belonged to good, respectable family..., it may have gone back to kings and soothsayers in the mists of ultimate islands». Her ancestors were an imposing array of townsmen engaged in mercantile pursuit and learned men.

It's worth noticing that for the author Cynthia is «rather primitive type of sacrificial offering». He disapproves her behaviour «…began to send to D.`s address, at deliberately unfixed dates, such trifles as snapshots of Sybil's tomb in appropriate light».The interesting points that the author reveals her link with dead world. He also mentions that her theory of metaphysics is rather contradictory. In fact what Cynthia called « a usual day» might be itself a week solution of mixed auras or simply the routine shift of a humdrum guardian angel. The phrase «Cynthia was above generalities as she was beyond logic»also proves mythological nature of her personality. The metaphor «Sybil's personality, she said, had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus' tells about her complicated inner world. The author himself mocks at Cynthia's theories: «speaking of old men, one should add that sometimes these posthumous auspices and interventions were in the nature of parody».

The fifth section shows Cynthia's interest for life after death through her fondness for spiritualism. The author describes some spiritual sittings he visited. An assortment of ghosts was not under-stable to him: Oscar Wild, Cynthia's dead parents, John Moore, his brother Bill, Leo Tolstoy as for the narrator a spiritual sitting is only a game. That's why he uses a simile « some Russian type of architectural work», and the repetition of figures on boards - man, horse, cock witnesses about primitiveness of this game, besides the author coded the description of a chess set that he isn't able to understand. So was his attitude to Cynthia: «hard to understand, impossible to verify». In fact, Nabokov realizes his potential of a chess player here. It's a well-known fact that chess was the biggest passion in V. Nabokov's life.

In the sixth section D. informed the author about Cynthia death. Here Nabokov shows his attitude to death. He determined it as «the darkness of sleep» Cynthia's death was connected with unnatural things (« a cheap poltergeist show».) He decided to fight with Cynthia He opposed the modern era of raps and apparitions to Cynthia.

In the final section the author tells about his fear of Cynthia's phantom. Number things are associated with this character: conjurations, acrostics, unravel, stereotypes – everything forms ripple of mysterious meanings. The image of phantom shows his attitude to the personality of Cynthia as a myth.

To sum up, we should stress that «a singer of the Other World» V. Nabokov created so many pearls in his literary style as nobody else. His virtuosity was achieved in different innovative devices such as: cryptography, playfulness of words, the device of unreliable author, abundant use of metaphors, synaethesia.


In conclusion, we should stress that the results of our research work can be useful for a wide range of people who are really interested in Nabokovian, a unique concept in literature. We managed not only to analyze his short story « The Vane Sisters» but guess some enigmas of his controversial personality, plunge into a very interesting world dealing with metaphysics and symbolism and discover the genius of V. Nabokov not only for ourselves but for those who will read our research work.

Список литературы:

  1. Vladimir Nabokov, ‘The Vane Sisters’.

  2. Brian Boyd, ‘Vladimir Nabokov: The American years’

  3. Приложение к газете «1 сентября» Английский язык. №22/1999

  4. Рахимкулова Г.Ф. «Языковая игра в прозе Владимира Набокова» (диссертация)


  1. http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/e.rl.nabokovian.html

  2. http://www.fathom.com/course/10701032/session1.html

  3. http://www.invitation.to.a.beheading.en.ilpensatoio.info/en/

  4. http://www.mantex.co.uk/ou/a319/nab-048.htm

  5. http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Vladimir-Nabokov

  6. http://www.revel.unice.fr/cycnos/document.html?id=1081

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