"Who Is This Model Reader, Anyway?"

In his book, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco describes a curious implication in Nabokov's essay "Seduction of View". Nabokov was interested in the separation of the reader and the character, the audience and the protagonist, of course -- as a general topic -- and his essay recounts an incident that had troubled him for some time.

It seems (Nabokov explains) that he (Nabokov) was hailed by a young boy on the rue du Mas, in Paris. This boy greeted him familiarly and indignantly, demanding to know if he would be arriving for dinner on time. Now, Nabokov expected to be dining alone that evening; but he knew he was expected by a friend the following evening, and moreover he knew that this friend had a son. He was immediately seized by doubt. It seemed, in that moment, that he had misremembered the date of the engagement. Nabokov turned and blurted out, without thought, "Is it tomorrow?" The child glared at him narrowly, and Nabokov suddenly perceived that it was not a boy at all, but a girl he did not recognize. She abruptly cried, "You're not my Papa!" and dashed away.

Nabokov (the essay concludes) found himself entirely unsure what had occurred. Clearly he had made a mistake. But what? Naively, he had mistaken a strange girl for a familiar boy -- his friend's son. But he did not in fact recognize his friend's son at all; he did not know the boy by face. Does it make sense to mistake one stranger for another? Or had Nabokov mistaken the girl's role, her place in his life-narrative, for another's? Does the nature of the error change if his engagement really was on that night? (Nabokov does not relate whether it was.) What if his friend had had a daughter, who had indeed accosted him to remind him of dinner? Would he then have been mistaken about the child's identity, or only its sex? Nabokov continues in this vein, concluding with the observation that since the girl had briefly recognized him, it might be equally valid for the reader to conclude that Nabokov had mistaken the girl for his own daughter -- whatever fictional person that might be.

This is dizzying enough in itself, and Eco discusses the entire passage in some depth. However, as said earlier, there are more implications than might meet the eye. As Eco explains, Nabokov's essay is not a personal anecdote at all. It is fiction. Nabokov invented it, for the purpose of exploring certain ideas about reader and character, audience and protagonist. So the real Nabokov never mistook anyone at all; everything in the incident occurred by his decision. Now, the fictional Nabokov did make a mistake. What mistake? There is no longer any error we can be certain he made. Before, we were sure that Nabokov did encounter a particular person, male or female, though we have no knowledge who. (Unless you, reading Eco's book, are yourself Nabokov's friend or his child!) But now there is no such person, only a role in a story. The protagonist of the story encountered a person, male or female, on the day of his dinner or some other day, but there is no fact of the matter which -- except that he was wrong, whatever he believed -- for that is the point of the story. A sad situation to be in; I hope you are never subjected to it.

At this point (Eco continues) the situation grows more complex. He (Eco) searched Nabokov's correspondence to try to determine the truth of the situation -- the paratextual clues he might have left, will he or no, explaining what he intended "Seduction of View" to explain. Such clues tell us nothing about the narrative, but in the life-narrative of Nabokov, they have meaning. Did he base the story on a real incident? Did he have a friend who invited him to dinner, and did this friend have a son or a daughter?

To his surprise, Eco found no mention of "Seduction of View" at all. Indeed he found no reference to the work in any of his biographies or bibliographies of Nabokov. Returning to the collection in which he had read it, Eco found nothing by Nabokov at all. In its place was a short story by Borges. With a very great shock, Eco realized he had dreamed the entire incident, complete with the unremarked dream-shift from witnessing the event to reading about it in an equally nonexistent book.

Now, where does this leave poor Nabokov? Here he is, mistaking one person for another, and even his creator has never decided which for what or whom. His creator, in fact, isn't Eco at all. Eco knows that perfectly well, for he has written books (including the very volume Six Walks which recounts this) and writing is a process of decision. Dreams are observed, not written. Eco observes Nabokov inventing Nabokov inventing a fictitious boy on top of a real girl, but the only fact of the matter is the amorphous, unobservable content of Eco's mind that might have gone into constructing such a dream. Perhaps Eco was worried about missing a dinner engagement of his own, with his publishing agent. In which case Nabokov might have mistaken a strange girl for Eco's agent's son. Or, indeed, Eco's mother for his agent's daughter. Dreams are capricious, as Nabokov had reason to know.

Can we conclude anything from this passage? What conclusions does Eco come to?

In honesty, none. This may be a dizzying, complex literary construction, but there is no brilliant conclusion to be drawn. It's merely a glib and facile mess -- layers of fiction piled upon layers in a rather pointless way. The question of who Nabokov thought he saw is trivially insoluble. So why, you may wonder, did Eco spend so much effort writing about it?

He didn't. This discussion does not occur in Six Walks at all. Eco wrote nothing about Nabokov in that book. He wanted to, but he never got the chance; I killed him first. Murdered him, via a particularly clever scheme involving wasps.

I suppose you're wondering where that leaves Nabokov. Suspended, I suppose. The essay "Seduction of View" does exist, so we could once again concern ourselves with the question of the strange child's identity. It would probably be a waste of time, however. "Seduction of View" is not about a child on the rue du Mas. I don't know what it's about; I haven't read it. The incident in question is taken from Nabokov's correspondence, where he also reveals that the girl was in fact a boy, an inmate at a nearby sanitarium who had escaped while dressed in women's clothing.

So you must conclude that I am the author. I constructed the entire incident, by selecting text from a letter, true, but a process of decision all the same. My intent is paramount in deciphering the riddle. I am the one who knows the answer.

I wish I could help, but unfortunately, I have no idea. I am not the author, after all. I don't really exist -- I am as fictional as Eco. I merely parrot the words that are written for me, and they tell me nothing about Nabokov.

Now it is written that I say that this is the end of this text, which means that a fictional world is ending.

My, aren't you in for a surprise.

-- Milan, 1999

Updated August 7, 1999.

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