Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Eye”

ImageWhat may escape many readers, given the subject matter of the Russian master Vladimir Nabokov, is the fact that his fourth novel: “The Eye,” is a supremely funny as well as haunting work.

Following the self-shooting of the narrator: a low émigré sort who consorts with married women and babysits three bratty children for his wages, the reader is doused in approximately one hundred pages of the narrator’s post-suicidal observations. The suicide occurs when, in a fit of self-indulgence following his beating-up by one of the husbands whose wife he had been cheating with, the narrator decides to put a bullet through (or rather, near) his heart.

This really isn’t too relevant, though.

The body may be dead, the narrator concedes, and yet the mind continues to outpour its hoarded thoughts, or as we are told: “a sinner’s torment in the afterworld consists precisely in that his tenacious mind cannot find peace until it manages to unravel the complex consequences of his reckless terrestrial actions.”

Convinced that, post-suicide, his mind has achieved a sort of super-imagination, the narrator continues on with his life with a laughing gayety. Convinced that he must humor the demands of his own imagination, he rents a room at a house on 5 Peacock Street, where he begins to observe the goings-on of a family living near him.

Chief among these observable characters is Smurov, a notoriously shy young man, everything about whom, even his entrance into the story, is completely lackluster. He is the occasional houseguest of a Russian family: the sisters Vanya (a masculine name) and Evgenia. What the reader gets after this is a pathetic love story between Smurov and the soon-to-be-we Vanya, all told through the eyes of the narrator.

However, it becomes apparent sooner rather than later that the Smurov the narrator obsesses over is no other personage than that of the narrator himself, regarded through a bird’s-eye view with an objectionable fascination.

What the reader then gets is a hopeless love story told from the eyes of one who holds a connection to the victim he cannot name by anything other than mere curiosity. It sounds tragic but it’s more humorous than anything else. My favourite scene involves the narrator, hungry to dig up anything he can find on Smurov and his relationships, finding instead a letter expressing pity that Smurov is a probable homosexual.

When it comes down to things, Nabokov’s novel, or novella rather, is not a work of genius any more than it is simply a handful of questions without answers: Have we ever dared to look at our lives through objective observation? Is the possibility of being dead the only thing that will allow us to review clearly the actions of our own self?

The narrator’s suggestions at his contentment at the end, when the he recounts on the observations he has made of his own self, are too fervid to not suggest at least a degree of doubt: “I have realized the only happiness in this world is to observe, to spy, to watch, to scrutinize oneself and others, to be nothing but a big, slightly vitreous, somewhat bloodshot, unblinking eye.”

Doubt, then, is the mainstay that the reader will hold throughout his reading: doubt in the characters’ happiness; doubt in marriageable contentment; doubt even to the narrator’s own suicide. How can there be doubt, though, when we are seeing events unfold from the gaze of the staunch, unblinking eye? That could only be a question for the author.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Eye. 1965. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.   

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