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Eric Naiman (University of California, Berkeley)

Fellow in Research Area 1: "Competing Communities" 

July 2024

The Heart of the Whole: Working Through Nabokov

Naiman’s project revolves around revising his manuscript on Nabokov and nineteenth century writers. The book has two missions. First, it is a study of Nabokov’s works and of what happens to Nabokov’s readers when they reread work written by Nabokov’s predecessors. The chapters cover explicit, conscious engagements of Nabokov with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust and Mary McCarthy. Not all of these chapters follow Nabokov’s lead; some work pointedly against him, but each chapter is rooted in a claim made by Nabokov that serves as a point of inspiration or resistance. Not surprisingly, given Nabokov’s poetic, metafictive and critical orientation, many of these chapters are situated at the intersection of interpretation and sexuality.

Nabokov is used as a fulcrum for provocative experiments in what Naiman is calling ‘eccentric criticism’. Each essay in the collection is revisionist, aimed at overturning a prevailing reading of a canonical text by introducing a fundamentally new element or critical slant. Each section aims to uncover a hitherto unexplored aspect of the work that informs it in its entirety. Yet in each of the two principal sections – one on Tolstoy and one on Dostoevsky – the chapters build in eccentricity, becoming progressively less traditional and progressively more imaginative without losing their purchase on the dynamics of the original text. The book ends with a third section that takes its themes explicitly onto the territory of the university, demonstrating, among other things, that the modern campus novel has deep Russian roots. The final chapter is an expanded version of an article Naiman published in The Times Literary Supplement,exposing an academic fraud who essentially used Nabokovian mystification to perpetuate not only a fictional meeting of Dickens and Dostoevsky but also an entire network of imaginary scholars whose chief purpose was to puff and attack – and thus promote to prominence – the work of their creator. The book ends, therefore, with an appeal to discipline and an awareness of the excesses to which untethered imagination – in this case, academic fraud – can lead

Eric Naiman teaches Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his law degree from Yale and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology (1997) and Nabokov, Perversely (2010). He is the co-editor of two collections, The Landscape of Stalinism: The Art and Ideology of Soviet Space (2003) and Everyday Life in Revolutionary Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside (2006), as well as many articles on nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature. He is currently working on two book-length projects: a series of essays about Nabokovian and anti-Nabokovian readings of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Proust, as well as a study of the life and work of Andrei Platonov. He spent the first half of 1989 and a month in 1990 in the German Democratic Republic. His interests include the intersections of literature with medicine and law.