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The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works. Edited by Marie Bouchet, Julie Loison-Charles, and Isabelle Poulin. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 367 p.

Juan José Arroyo Paniagua
p. 339-341
Bibliographical reference

The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works. Edited by Marie Bouchet, Julie Loison-Charles, and Isabelle Poulin. London: Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-3-030-45405-0, 367 p.

Editor's notes

Index Nominum Marie Bouchet, Brian Boyd, Yannicke Chupin, Julian W. Connolly, Maurice Courtier, Lilla Farmasi, Jean-Michel Hupé, Julie Loison-Charles, Kiyoko Magome, Sabrine Metzger, Damien Mollaret, Vladimir Nabokov, Isabelle Poulin, Michael Rodgers, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Anastasia Tolstoy

Full text

1When it comes to a canonical author like Vladimir Nabokov, it might seem that everything that could be studied has been studied; fortunately, that is not the case. The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works is an ambitious collection of essays resulting from the 2016 International Conference of the French Vladimir Nabokov Society. and offering a “first large-scale reflection upon the importance and significance of the five senses in Nabokov’s work, poetics, and aesthetics” (2). Editors Marie Bouchet, Julie Loison-Charles, and Isabelle Poulin, are aware of the staggering amount of scholarly work dedicated to the analysis of sight and the visual arts in Nabokov’s work, as well as how the film industry has dealt with Nabokov’s oeuvre, which might have led other scholars to attempt no further analysis. However, this collection of essays succeeds in dealing with each of the five senses present in the literary works of the Russian-American writer. The editors’ reason for embarking on their monumental project is justified in the essay collection by the fact that Nabokov “was a man gifted with a spectacular visual, but also auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and kinetic memory” (3). The treatment of each of the five senses in Nabokov’s works is, therefore, worthy of further study.

2Nabokov’s sense-related giftedness, as is pointed out by the collection’s editors in the book’s preface, was employed by Nabokov in his life and in his works. He incorporated “many sensorial elements within the flow of his memories, and even muses upon the sensorial education his mother was especially attentive to develop” (2). For Nabokov, memory and the senses are interlinked (3). To demonstrate more clearly this latter point and examine how each of the five senses is present in his works, the volume gathers twenty essays divided into four parts. Although not all the parts contain the same number of essays, the collection is divided in a reasonable fashion and is well-balanced. In the collection, Nabokovian novels such as King, Queen, Knave (1928), Laughter in the Dark (1932), Invitation to a Beheading (1935), Dar (The Gift) (1938), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), Ada (1969), The Enchanter (1986), and The Original of Laura (2009) are analyzed in conjunction with other works such as Nabokov’s famous autobiography Speak, Memory (1951).

3The book’s first section includes four essays dealing with the senses in conjunction with Nabokov’s aesthetics and metaphysics. It explores the link between the senses of vision and hearing (and their connection to perception and memory), the various modes present in the processes of sense perceptions, and sensorial experiences as they relate to the body and consciousness. Brian Boyd concludes that the senses in Nabokov’s literary work serve “as only one of many aspects of the mind’s sensemaking” (26). It is a conclusion shared by Lilla Farmasi, who—through an interesting employment of second-generation cognitive theories (a.k.a. 4E cognition)—claims that Nabokov’s text Invitation to a Beheading, as a story “built around a consciousness,” shares “the nature of its perceptions” (49). Besides being an enjoyable read, Michael Rodgers’s analysis on Invitation to a Beheading explores how Nabokov plays with words to create an “interplay between the visceral and cerebral senses [which] engenders aesthetic sense, with the universal desire to puzzle-solve at the heart of our reading experience” (54).

4The five essays in the second part focus more on Nabokov himself. In this part entitled “Crossing Sensations and Languages: Multilingualism, Memory and Intermediality,” Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory features prominently and serves to organize the section. Damien Mollaret’s essay focuses on “the development of Nabokov’s childhood sensitiveness and how [Nabokov] learned at an early age to hoard all kinds of sensitive memories” (90). Mollaret reaches the compelling conclusion that Nabokov’s sensitiveness was developed by Nabokov’s own writings on various sensations (102). Yannicke Chupin, on the one hand, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, on the other, deal with “the ‘spectropoetics’ of photographic references” (108), and prosopagnosia (a.k.a. face blindness), in Nabokov’s Lolita and other texts. Through their predominately vision-related analysis, Chupin and Sweeney offer unique takes on sensorial problems present in Nabokov’s work. Furthermore, this second part focuses on Nabokov as a translator of his own work. Exploring Ada, Lolita, and Speak, Memory, Julie Loison-Charles analyzes Nabokov’s translations of his own texts from English into Russian, and from Russian into English, in addition to his French translations. Loison-Charles’s contribution pays special attention to flavor and the sense of taste because, as she concludes, “the tongue is the locus of both taste and language, and one could almost take the idea of translation as switching tongues in a literal way” (154). Additionally, Isabelle Poulin’s compelling chapter deals with “the craft of the translator” as a tool which enables “to understand how the subject invents itself through deploying language in a close relationship with its original environment” (162).

5Part three offers an effective analysis of the role of the senses in Nabokov’s works in relation to different body parts. Maurice Couturier and Julian W. Connolly’s enjoyable chapters focus on the sense of sight because, as Connolly explains, this sense “plays an immensely significant role in Nabokov’s work” (191). They both deal with the “subject of sex” (176), desire, and pleasure derived from scopophilic behaviors. Connolly points out that “in the realm of sight, as well as in the realms of the other senses, Nabokov displays a spirit of engagement, wit, and command that is truly fascinating” (203). Finally, taste is dealt with in Anastasia Tolstoy’s essay. Tolstoy presents an interesting analysis of taste from an unexpected point of view. Through her analysis, Tolstoy succeeds in showing “the way in which issues of distaste and disgust are central to Nabokov’s writing” (224), and how, through his works, Nabokov investigates “the literal ins and outs of which became a central aspect of his quest for artistic truth” (237).

6The last part of The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works is the book’s most technical and demanding section, and challenges readers unfamiliar with terminology related to synesthesia. Be that as it may, the editors’ decision to open part four with Jean-Michel Hupé’s thorough explanation of studies on different types of synesthesia helps us better understand Marie Bouchet’s analysis of several sensual and sexual Nabokovian scenes. These chapters help illustrate the use of synesthesia in Nabokov’s Ada and Lolita. Moreover, the book’s fourth part serves to address the senses of hearing and touch—senses unanalyzed in parts one to three. Sabrine Metzger’s argument is that Nabokov “enquires into the physical and physiological aspects of sound and sound transmission” (288). As for Kiyoko Magome, she analyses Nabokov’s amusia, whilst arguing that, in fact, Nabokov could understand music and sounds. Magome argues that, through his writings, Nabokov “expose[s] us to new, stimulating ways to understand” music and sounds through his literary works (304).

7In sum, The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works is a compelling volume that avid Nabokov scholars will enjoy as well as readers unfamiliar with Nabokov’s works. Taken together, these essays offer the reader insight to the fascinating world of the senses in general and the senses’ role in Nabokovian texts in particular.

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Bibliographical reference

Juan José Arroyo Paniagua, The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works. Edited by Marie Bouchet, Julie Loison-Charles, and Isabelle Poulin. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 367 p.Caliban, 65-66 | 2021, 339-341.

Electronic reference

Juan José Arroyo Paniagua, The Five Senses in Nabokov’s Works. Edited by Marie Bouchet, Julie Loison-Charles, and Isabelle Poulin. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 367 p.Caliban [Online], 65-66 | 2021, Online since 20 October 2021, connection on 09 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Juan José Arroyo Paniagua

Complutense University of Madrid

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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