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Mary, p. 9: Nabokov and cinema

October 18, 2009

N’s career-long fascination with film and cinematic imagery begins here, in Mary, with this amazing description of Ganin working as a film extra: “Nothing was beneath his dignity; more than once he even sold his shadow, as many of us have.  In other words he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to deathly brightness.  They would fire a barrage of murderous brilliance, illuminating the painted wax of motionless faces, then expiring with a click—but for a  long time yet there would glow, in those elaborate crystals, dying red sunsets—our human shame.  The deal was clinched, and our anonymous shadows sent out all over the world.”  The self as shadowy and extraneous, illuminated by artificial light, recurs throughout N’s fiction.

On p. 21, Ganin goes with his current girlfriend, Lyudmilla, to see a film that, mid-way through the viewing, he recognizes as one in which he is an extra, “the cold barn . . . now transformed into a comfortable auditorium, sacking become velvet, and a mob of paupers a theatre audience.  Straining his eyes, with a deep shudder of shame he recognized himself among all those poeple clapping to order . . .”  This is an early example of inverted doubling and transformation in N:  the film depicting an audience watching a film in a scene from the novel depicting its protagonist watcing a film, this “Quaker Oats” effect illuminating the false transformation of actors into audience which illuminates “our human shame.”

THE book on Nabokov and film is Alfred Appel’s Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1975.  Yes, published over 30 years ago, but still one of the best books on N and certainly definitive if one wishes to understand the relation between Nabokov and film.

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One comment

  1. Nabokov actually worked as a film extra in Berlin in the early 1920’s. And I was actually his student at Cornell in 1958.



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