Art in Doubt
Tolstoy, Nabokov, and the Problem of Other Minds
Imprint: Northwestern University Press
Leo Tolstoy’s and Vladimir Nabokov’s radically opposed aesthetic worldviews emanate from a shared intuition—that approaching a text skeptically is easy, but trusting it is hard
Two figures central to the Russian literary tradition—Tolstoy, the moralist, and Nabokov, the aesthete—seem to have sharply conflicting ideas about the purpose of literature. Tatyana Gershkovich undermines this familiar opposition by identifying a shared fear at the root of their seemingly antithetical aesthetics: that one’s experience of the world might be entirely one’s own, private and impossible to share through art.
Art in Doubt: Tolstoy, Nabokov, and the Problem of Other Minds reconceives the pair’s celebrated fiction and contentious theorizing as coherent, lifelong efforts to reckon with the problem of other people’s minds. Gershkovich demonstrates how the authors’ shared yearning for an impossibly intimate knowledge of others formed and deformed their fiction and brought them through parallel logic to their rival late styles: Tolstoy’s rustic simplicity and Nabokov’s baroque complexity. Unlike those authors for whom the skeptical predicament ends in absurdity or despair, Tolstoy and Nabokov both hold out hope that skepticism can be overcome, not by force of will but with the right kind of text, one designed to withstand our impulse to doubt it. Through close readings of key canonical works—Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murat, The Gift, Pale Fire—this book brings the twin titans of Russian fiction to bear on contemporary debates about how we read now, and how we ought to.
List of Abbreviations & Note on Transliteration and Citation
Introduction: “Some Better Brick than the Cartesian One”
Chapter One: Tolstoy’s Uncertain Artist
Chapter Two: Nabokov’s Moderate Multiplication of the Self
Chapter Three: Atrophied Aesthetic Sense
Chapter Four: Suspicion on Trial
Afterword: The Artful and the Artless
“Art in Doubt is a deeply sophisticated, subtle, and compelling study of the dilemmas of authorship in the era of transition from realism to modernism.” —Thomas Seifrid, author of The Word Made Self: Russian Writings on Language, 1860–1930
“Art in Doubt makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of individualism in the art of modernity. Tolstoy and Nabokov, seemingly so different, are presented as reluctant skeptics of the reality they step outside of in Cartesian fashion in order to recreate. Through new readings of key works by the two authors, Tatyana Gershkovich traces their struggles, both positive and negative, with skepticism. Despite pessimism at times mounting to despair, each one is determined to make art a conduit to truth and shared experience.” —Donna Tussing Orwin, author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy
"There are many moments while reading this book when a sentence is so finely wrought as to cause you to stop in order to appreciate it. An established specialist in Tolstoy studies, Tatyana Gershkovich will now also draw readers of Nabokov, bringing these two authors into productive dialogue and giving us a better sense of how they might meet on common ground." —William Nickell, University of Chicago