Saturday, January 16, 2010

Anyone Reading "Cloud, Castle, Lake" as an Allegory?

Vasily is identified only as "my representative" and a refugee. Seems likely Vasily and narrator are the same person, or perhaps a symbol for the artist or writer, the seeker of beauty and freedom, Nobokov himself. Seems all the more likely considering narrator does not remember Vasily's name in the beginning, but does know the names of everyone else in the party, who are, oddly, almost all named Schultz or Greta. Narrator is perhaps using the device of speaking about oneself under the guise of "a friend of mine."

Narrator has detailed knowlege of intricate sightings on the tour, details so intimate it seems unlikely that VI would have related them to anyone else: "But still his precious, experienced eyes noted what was necessary. Against the background of fir-tree gloom a dry needle was hanging vertically on an invisible thread."

And finally, there are the weird changes between first person and third person narrator: "Vasiliy Ivanovich, as the least burdened, was given an enormous round loaf of bread to carry under his arm. How I hate you, our daily!" [and allegorically speaking, wouldn't the artist (who, when at work, often "appears" to be doing nothing) have contempt for the quotidian burdens when beauty is just out of his reach?]

Their journey to the place of beauty takes around three days, first by train, then by car, then on foot (each a step closer to nature). And yet the person in charge at the end of the story says they are to return in one day. Implies there is some dreamlike quality to this excursion, because they could not possibly make a three day trip home in one day. (It's difficult to reach a place of enlightenment, but it is not difficult to fall from it).

The beauty is always more desirable to VI when it is viewed through windows. He loves it on the train, and in the car, viewed from a distance. When the beauty is inaccessible he calls it, "My love! My obedient one!" But when they are on foot, VI becomes hot and exhausted and falls asleep. He could almost access the beauty on foot, and yet somehow, he fails to make contact. The artistic quest, perhaps? We just want the final product, the cloud, the castle, the lake in perfect array, but we don’t want to work to get there.

The artist’s final product should contain all the anticipation of the journey and all the nostalgia of the past, in perfect harmony with the present: “there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one -in the inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had, my love! my obedient one!-was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long-promised, and it so understood the beholder that Vasiliy Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away.”

But the vision is fleeting, maybe even unattainable. When the mind wants to stay there, in some place of enlightenment, it’s the carnal nature of the person, or perhaps the religious nature, (those dirty mean Germans according to Nobokov), that drags it back to reality, scourging it and crucifying it with corkscrews (“It occurred to them, among other things, to use a corkscrew on his palms; then on his feet. The post-office clerk, who had been to Russia, fashioned a knout out of a stick and a belt, and began to use it with devilish dexterity. Atta boy!”).

And after this terrible journey, glimpsing enlightenment, and not being able to remain there, the artist is unfit for humanity: “After returning to Berlin, he called on me, was much changed, sat down quietly, putting his hands on his knees, told his story; kept on repeating that he must resign his position, begged me to let him go, insisted that he could not continue, that he had not the strength to belong to mankind any longer. Of course, I let him go.”

Not sure if I'm interpreting this correctly. Thoughts?


BettyDuffy said...

Almost forgot, the famous line about the "invitation to a beheading": going back after seeing this is like a death, or the loss of one's upper faculties.

Pentimento said...

What beautiful observations. I think you may be right that V.I. is really, in some way, the narrator, and that his journey is a metaphor for the quest for beauty itself.

Enbrethiliel said...


It look as if I'll have to reread the story again, Betty!

Having read your interpretation, the first thing I did was look up the meanings of "Vasily" and "Ivanovich." I learned that Vasily is the Russian form of Basil, which means "kingly;" and "Ivan" is another form of John. Yet it was the "-ovich" suffix which I found the most interesting because it was reserved for the surnames of the aristocracy.

So the refugee Vasily was once an aristocrat and has a name that proclaims him kingly. (Yet I can't imagine a less kingly character!) I think working class bullies would take extra pleasure in putting a former aristocrat in his place, whether they are making him lie in the dust or beating him mercilessly.