Nabokov Online Journal 2013 Best Scholarly Contribution in the area of Nabokov Studies

The Quill and the Scalpel

Nabokov’s Art and the Worlds of Science

Stephen H. Blackwell


Jul 2009
Literary Criticism/Russian & Former Soviet Union
276pp. 6x9

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Table of Contents 

“Stephen Blackwell’s book, exploring the multi-level connections between Nabokov’s artistic practice and twentieth-century scientific developments, offers thought-provoking material for literary scholars and scientists alike.” —Slavic and East Europe Review

“Blackwell has undertaken a serious, conscientious, thoughtful attempt to understand how a scientist, as Nabokov was, could also be an artist and a metaphysician, and how each interest has inflected the others. . . . [H]e offers excellent apercus on individual Nabokov works.” —Russian Review

“Blackwell is the first scholar to focus on the broad impact of [biology, psychology, and physics] on Nabokov’s fiction. Following a general consideration of the topic, the author devotes chapters to the three sciences with discussions of relevant material from the novels. The last chapter and the conclusion . . . are tours de force.” —Choice

“full of interesting observations and insights” —Slavic and East European Journal

“Scrupulously oriented to prior scholarship, Stephen H. Blackwell’s brilliant study breaks new ground in Nabokov criticism. The Quill and the Scalpel strikes me as truly a first-rate contribution to our understanding of this author.” —David Cowart, Louise Fry Scudder Professor of English, University of South Carolina

The Quill and the Scalpel has all the marks of being the definitive work on Nabokov and science, a topic that had previously only been addressed in isolated comments and specialized essays. At a time when science writing has become a major genre in its own right, this is a book that promises to enlarge the minds of literary scholars and awaken in scientists a new interest in modern literature.” —John Burt Foster, Jr., University Professor in English and Cultural Studies, George Mason University

Most famous as a literary artist, Vladimir Nabokov was also a professional biologist and a lifelong student of science. By exploring the refractions of physics, psychology, and biology within his art and thought, The Quill and the Scalpel: Nabokov’s Art and the Worlds of Science, by Stephen H. Blackwell, demonstrates how aesthetic sensibilities contributed to Nabokov’s scientific work, and how his scientific passions shape, inform, and permeate his fictions.

Nabokov’s attention to holistic study and inductive empirical work gradually reinforced his underlying suspicion of mechanistic explanations of nature. He perceived chilling parallels between the overconfidence of scientific progress and the dogmatic certainty of the Soviet regime. His scientific work and his artistic transfigurations of science underscore the limitations of human knowledge as a defining element of life. In provocative novels like Lolita, Pale Fire, The Gift, Ada, and others, Nabokov advances a surprisingly modest epistemology, urging skepticism toward all portrayals of nature, artistic and scientific. Simultaneously, he challenges his readers to recognize in the arts a vital branch of human discovery, one that both complements and informs traditional scientific research.

Stephen H. Blackwell is associate professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.