Look at the Harlequins!

"Look At the Harlequins!" is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov, first published in 1974. The work was Nabokov's final published novel before his death in 1977.

Plot summary

"Look At The Harlequins!" is a fictional autobiography narrated by Vadim Vadimovich N. (VV), a Russian-American writer with uncanny biographical likenesses to the novel's author, Vladimir (Vladimirovich) Nabokov.VV is born in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and raised by his aunt who advises him to "look at the harlequins" "Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!". After the revolution, VV moves to Western Europe. Count Nikifor Nikodimovich Starov become his patron (is he his father?). He meets Iris Black who becomes his first wife. After her death - she is killed by a Russian émigré -, he marries Annette (Anna Ivanovna Blagovo), his long-necked typist. They have a daughter, Isabel, and emigrate to the United States. The marriage fails, and, after Annette's death, VV takes care of the now pubescent Bel, formerly Isabel. They travel from motel to motel. To counter ugly rumors VV marries Louise Adamson while Bel elopes with an American to Soviet Russia. After the third marriage fails, VV marries again, a Bel look-a-like (same birthdate, too), referred to as "you", his final love.

VV is an unreliable narrator giving sometimes conflicting information (i.e. death of his father), and indicates to suffer from some form of peculiar mental affliction: When making a full turn while walking - mentally that is - and tracing his steps back, he is unable to execute the reversion of the surrounding vista in his imagination. He also has the notion that he is a double of another Nabokovian persona.


Doppelgänger vs. Parody

Literary criticism has weighed in on both sides of this debate, some even claiming that Vadim is both a parody "and" a double (or Doppelgänger) of Nabokov. For example, Nabokov’s Lolita is acted out by the narrator of "Look at the Harlequins!" through his fondling of the nymphet Dolly VonBorg. The attribution to a string of wives to the narrator must be understood in the context of Nabokov's life: After the publication of "Lolita" the wider public and many critics thought that its author must be some "sexual daredevil". With the serial polygamy related in "LATH", Nabokov is poking fun at these perceptions. V.V.'s final wife is simply adressed as "You", which parallels Nabokov’s addressing his wife, Véra, simply as "you" in his autobiography Speak Memory. The fact that V.V.'s final love is a spitting image of her predecessor "Bel" must be understood in the light of Humbert Humbert, the main character of Lolita, searching a nymphet just like his first love "Anna"bel", his first love when he himself was aged 12.If V.V. is afflicted by feelings of being the double of another Nabokovian persona, this is because he bears in fact significant resemblances to the main character of the novel "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" from 1941.

Herbert Grabes is among the critics who believe that Vadim is Nabokov’s “parodic double” (151). Pekka Tammi agrees: “any fictive [narrator] can be, even at best, only a ‘parody’ of the artist who is responsible for the ultimate fiction” (289). Lucy Maddox calls "Look at the Harlequins!" “an oblique, satiric self-portrait” (144). But these are only signs of how cunningly V.N. was having them all on.

Bungled Biography

One popular explanation for Vadim’s personal and literary similarity to Nabokov is that Vadim is a parody of bungled biographical renderings of the author. The composition of "Look at the Harlequins!" followed on the heels of Andrew Field’s biography "Nabokov: His Life in Part", a biography that eventually resulted in the termination of Nabokov’s relations with Field and in the novelist’s failed attempt at legal suppression of the biography. Nabokov felt that Field had created a character named Vladimir Nabokov in his biography—a character whom the real author could not recognize (Johnson, 330). Nabokov “had already perfected the role of his own biographer—in a series of mock biographies that began with a game he invented in adolescence, and that continued in his memoir "Speak, Memory" (1966) and his fiction. The encounter with Field, his first real-life biographer, produced. . . [the] parodic text. . ."Look at the Harlequins!" (1974). . .” (Sweeney 295-6).

The book begins with a list of "Other Books by the Narrator" (that is, Vadim rather than Vladimir Nabokov). Many (if not all) of these titles appear to be doppelgangers of Nabokov’s real novels.

* "Tamara" (1925), relates to "Mary"
* "Pawn Takes Queen" (1927), relates to "King, Queen, Knave" combined with "The Defense" [http://everything2.com/e2node/Look%2520at%2520the%2520Harlequins%2521]
* "Plenilune" (1929), relates to "The Defense"
* "Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun)", relates to "Laughter in the Dark" (UK title, "Camera Obscura")
* "The Red Top Hat" (1934), relates to "Invitation to a Beheading"
* "The Dare" (1950), relates to "The Gift" ("Dar", in Russian)

* "See under Real" (1939), relates to "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight", combined with "Pale Fire" [http://everything2.com/e2node/Look%2520at%2520the%2520Harlequins%2521]
* "Esmeralda and Her Parandrus" (1941)
* "Dr. Olga Repnin" (1946), relates to "Pnin"
* "Exile from Mayda" (1947), a short story collection, could relate to "Spring in Fialta and Other Stories"
* "A Kingdom by the Sea" (1962), relates to "Lolita"
* "Ardis" (1970), relates to "Ada or Ardor"


  • Johnson, D. Barton. “The Ambidextrous Universe of Nabokov’s Look At the Harlequins!” "Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov." Ed. Phyllis A. Roth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. 202-215.
  • Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. “Playing Nabokov: Performances By Himself and Others.” "Studies in 20th Century Literature" 22:2 (1977): 295-318.
  • Grabes, Herbert. “The Deconstruction of Autobiography: Look at the Harlequins!” "Cycnos" 10:1 (1993): 151-158.
  • Maddox, Lucy. "Nabokov’s Novels in English." Athens, Georgia: U of Georgia P, 1983.
  • Tammi, Pekka. "Problems of Nabokov’s Poetics: A Narratological Analysis." Helsinki, Finland: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1985.

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