Luke Parker: Nabokov Noir. Cinematic Culture and the Art of Exile

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022, ISBN-10: ‎150176652X; ISBN-13:‎ 978-1501766527, 288 pp.‎

Yuri Leving
Vladimir Nabokov, Berlin, Weimar cinema, Russian émigrés in Europe, exile, film criticism, translation.

Luke Parker’s Nabokov Noir is a welcome addition to the fast-growing body of Nabokov scholarship. The subject of his research is ‘Nabokov and cinema’, and it joins a neat library of similar projects pursued in the past, most notably, by such authors as Alfred Appel Jr. and Barbara Wyllie. One would think that the topic in question has already been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny and yet Parker’s book proves to be a refreshing take on one of the most intriguing elements in Vladimir Nabokov’s artistic legacy.

The book consists of four chapters, and it is “structured as an investigation of the Russian emigration, taking Nabokov’s time in Berlin as a case study of a larger phenomenon: exile through cinema” (Parker 2022: 14). The author defines his goals in the introductory chapter “The Cinematic Commonplace”, mainly tracing Nabokov’s relation to cinema during the 1920s and 1930s, while situating him in the context of cultural reception of movies and the writer’s own short fiction and novels written prior to his departure for the United States. As Parker suggests in his first chapter, “The Weimar Picture Palace: From Film to Cinema in Berlin Exile (1925-1928)”, Nabokov professed his own ‘cinema theory’ and, contrary to the popular image of Nabokov-the-individualist, was prone to social interactions and actively involved in the cultural life of the Russian diaspora in Europe. Nabokov’s “noir” (hence the title of the book) blends the edifices of the Weimar era with cultural Americanism and everyday reality. Chapter 2, “The Man from the Movie Kingdom: Cinema Debates and Culture Theory (1925-1930)”, explores the Weimar cinema as part of the growing entertainment culture and demonstrates how Nabokov navigated this world of bureaucratised labor and organised leisure. In Chapter 3, “A Cinematic Genius: Camera Obscura and the European Culture Industry (1931-1936)”, Parker focuses on the process of Nabokov’s novel Camera Obscura finding its way to an international audience. Bringing into the scholarly discussion the never-before-published correspondence and various archival documents, Parker carefully reconstructs the backstage story of the writer’s and his dedicated literary agents’ concerted efforts to disseminate that novel through translation and screen adaptation in France and the United Kingdom. “America Obscura: Laughter in the Dark (1933-1940)” is the title of the fourth and final chapter of this book, and it traces the next stage of Nabokov’s attempts to promote his work, now for the American readership. To this end, Nabokov and his American agent Altagracia de Jannelli were extensively corresponding with the US publisher Bobbs-Merrill while utilising the reviews of Nabokov’s work in the American press written by benevolent critics of the Russian émigré descent. Moreover, Parker makes a bold but substantiated claim that despite their unmaterialised cooperation, “the publisher’s support was instrumental in obtaining for Nabokov the visa that allowed him to escape France with his wife and son on the eve of the Nazi invasion” (ibid.: 29).

What makes this book different from its predecessors, is that it weaves into the narrative on Nabokov and cinema numerous factual details all while considering both past and present developments in the field of European film history. Through its four chapters, the monograph provides the reader with useful data ranging from various statistics (for instance, the number of Berlin cinema palaces with exact seating capacities) to contemporary reviews accessible to Nabokov (including some telling excerpts translated into English from the original sources) and specially generated maps showing the writer’s residences between the years 1925-1932 alongside the venues frequented by his friend Georgy Gessen, a professional film reviewer. Parker legitimately raises the question about what films among those reviewed by Gessen Nabokov could actually watch and although the exact number might not be easy to establish, it does offer a sneak peek at the rich repertoire of Russian Berlin’s cinematic culture. A special appendix to this monograph enumerates Gessen’s film reviews printed in Rul’ during his seven-years tenure there.

Luke Parker’s research should be praised as a nuanced study attending to small details that are often easy to be overlooked. It also reminds us that Nabokov’s oeuvre is still far from being completely catalogued and properly translated. Just one example: as Parker notes, few English readers are even familiar with the remarkable opening of Nabokov’s Camera Obscura, because it was entirely cut from the 1938 American adaptation Laughter in the Dark (the only English version in print today) whereas the 1936 British edition cuts other passages and phrases. Of the illustrations contained in Nabokov Noir, two deserve particular mention: an advertisement for the film Waxworks (1924) that appeared in the émigré newspaper Rul’ (ibid.: 37), and the Ross-Verlag postcard of Olga Tschechowa and Mickey Mouse (1930) which most certainly served as the basis to Nabokov’s promotional picture of Dorianna Karenina and Cheepy (ibid.: 107).

A plethora of archival documents make Parker’s book an invaluable new resource for every connoisseur of Nabokov’s fiction. In the Bobbs-Merrill questionnaire titled “Publicity”, Nabokov responded to a question about whether he has any personal interest or connection with the general material, characters, or events which might explain his interest in the book, as follows: “None. All my novels are invention pure and simple. I am never interested in my characters. It is just a game and the playthings are put back into the box when I have finished” (qtd. on 156). A scholar’s task is to take out of the box what Nabokov nonchalantly threw in there; Parker judiciously puts these curiosities back on display.

Yuri Leving
Princeton University


Yuri Leving (Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University) specialises in contemporary Russian literature and film, Eastern European cinema, the visual arts, and digital humanities. Leving has published 11 monographs and 7 edited collections, including Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl and Keys to ‘The Gift’. A Guide to Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel. He is the founding editor of the Nabokov Online Journal and the Guggenheim Fellow for 2023.

Suggested Citation

Leving, Yuri. 2023. Review: “Luke Parker: Nabokov Noir. Cinematic Culture and the Art of Exile”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 16. DOI:

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