As you may have learned from my sonnet on The Eye, relatively early on in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novella The Eye, the narrator attempts to kill himself shortly after losing his position as a tutor. He hasn’t exactly lost his position; someone has come into the house where he is employed and unceremoniously beaten him for undefined crimes. But he leaves the children he’s been teaching as soon as the beating is over, returns to his former residence, and shoots himself.
Shortly afterward, he “dreams” that he is waking up in a hospital, with doctors and nurses explaining what’s gone wrong, that he missed a vital organ. He continues to dream that he goes home, finds a new place to live, and meets a new group of people including Vanya, a young lady who appeals to the narrators fondness for chubby women. Smurov, an unsuccessful suitor of Vanya’s, is also a member of this group, and the narrator develops an obsession with him.
The obsessions that will haunt the narrator later in the novel are set out even before his beating. When he explains who “that Matilda” is, he describes how he would leave their trysts “inspect[ing] my puny little bliss…and feel[ing] despondent and afraid”:
The summit of lovemaking was for me but a bleak knoll with a relentless view. After all, in order to live happily, a man must know now and then a few moments of perfect blankness. Yet I was always exposed, always wide-eyed; even in sleep I did not cease to watch over myself, understanding nothing of my existence, growing crazy at the thought of not being able to stop being aware of myself, and envying all those simple people—clerks, revolutionaries, shopkeepers—who, with confidence and concentration, go about their little jobs. I had no shell of that kind….
After the narrator’s failed suicide—which we are reminded at intervals he still believes was successful—this unceasing self-watching takes on a new form. The narrator instead watches Smurov, living and dying, for unknown reasons, with Smurov’s chances with Vanya. He also keeps a close enough eye on Smurov to know about his affair with Vanya’s maid. And he wants to know so badly how Smurov is perceived by others in the house that he steals letters to find out what they write about him. Why not simply ask? Well, why assume that the Smurov-obsession is any different than the self-obsession—any different at all?
In his 1965 introduction to the novella, Nabokov wrote that “the theme of The Eye is the pursuit of an investigation which leads the protagonist through a hell of mirrors and ends in the merging of twin images,” and that he took great pleasure in “adjusting in a certain mysterious pattern the various phases of the narrator’s quest.” That pattern is something not clear to me; perhaps my fellow readers will come to my assistance here. I know I need them desperately to deal with VN. It stops me, I fear, from seeing much more here beyond a cute exercise, complete of course with the usual Nabokovisms, any number of which I surely do not understand—yet.