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28 october 2013
A young Russian emigré in Berlin, c.1930, has an affair with a married woman. Her husband beats him. The young emigré decides to kill himself, but fails miserably. Mortified, he rents new lodgings and finds himself in a social circle of White Russian emigrés, where dubious stories and paranoid fears circulate. He falls in love with a young woman in his set, and watches desperately as other suitors surround her. Watching, in fact, becomes his character note. In Georges Magnane's French translation, the narrator is "le guetteur," the observer, the spyer-upon.
Magnane's French derives not from Nabokov's original Russian, but from the English translation (The Eye) of the 1930 novel Soglyadatay. At the heart of Le guetteur is a very Nabokovian sleight-of-narrative-hand. We learn that the first-person narrator is the same person as a character he's described minutely (indeed, become somewhat obsessed with) in the third person. At one point, the narrator is desperate to know how yet another third-person narrator, the corresponding diarist Bogdanovitch, has described this Smourov, the mystery man who turns out to be the novel's "I" (an aural pun on "Eye" that doesn't transfer to the French translation).
Several scenes in the novel foreshadow moves that Nabokov would make in his more "mature" fiction (though Le guetteur is hardly juvenilia; it was published when the author was 31). The relentless unheroic pursuit of a cuckolder by the cuckolded, in the novel's opening scenes, foreshadows the elaborate killing of Quilty by Humbert in the late chapters of Lolita. The unmasking of the neutral "I" as more central than he seems foreshadows Pnin. And a sudden ironic exposé or reversal of a dynamic is something Nabokov would do over and over passim, as when Smourov is caught out embellishing his escape from the Bolsheviks (81), or wearing a tie that one of his servant lovers has obviously stolen from his host (114).
Above all, we get a feeling that runs throughout most of Nabokov's fiction, especially in Pnin but really everywhere: the sense of someone gruesomely, ironically not-at-home in the world; the terrible embarrassment of that; the terrible sympathy that binds all of us together in that same uncomfortable situation. It's farce, but it's a deeply humanist farce that mocks nobody and exonerates us all.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Le guetteur. [Soglyadatay, 1930; The Eye, 1965.] Translated from the English by Georges Magnane. 1968. Paris: Gallimard, 2004.