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Some Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov

by James A. Davidson

It is a tendency of criticism to try to shed light on the work of one artist by comparing and contrasting that artist's work to that of another. Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, is usually mentioned in the same breath with Cornell Woolrich, the literary 'master of suspense,' at least partly due to the fact that Hitchcock did such a memorable job bringing Woolrich's novella to the screen as Rear Window (1954). 1 I have found Hitchcock's work to, in fact, share a much greater affinity with that of the Russian émigré writer Vladimir Nabokov, with whom he is not typically associated since there is no apparent connection (as there is, for example, between Nabokov and Stanley Kubrick, who made a film version of Lolita in 1962 based on Nabokov's screenplay).

Alfred Appel, Jr. has described the world of Nabokov's novels as "Nabokov's Puppet Show," emphasizing the author's masterful control of artifice and imagination2; so too has recent Hitchcock criticism focused the director's uncanny ability to assert a strong authorial voice throughout virtually all of his films.3 Thus, it is not surprising that Hitchcock envisioned himself playing the emotions of his audience in a movie theater on a giant organ just as Nabokov, the puppet master, pulled the strings in his novels so brilliantly. I believe Nabokov's complex word play, parodic self-references and manipulation of language is the literary equivalent to Hitchcock's well-known mastery of "the language of cinematic images," which he discussed frequently in interviews.4

While there were vast differences between the lives of Hitchcock and Nabokov, there were also some profound similarities that I feel shed some light on their careers and work. To begin with, Hitchcock and Nabokov came from substantially different backgrounds. Hitchcock's father was a London wholesale grocer and young Alfred grew up in a stable but distinctly middle class home. Nabokov's father was an intellectual, a member of Russia's ruling class and part of the provisional government first established after the revolution. Vladimir Nabokov grew up in a privileged environment that stressed academics (a colleague of Nabokov's father wrote of the baby Vladimir: "I had the impression that this would be an extremely abnormal upbringing in fatally over-abundant circumstances")5 and Nabokov was a life long academic and teacher, in addition to being a writer. Hitchcock, by the mid-1950's was a world wide celebrity and a member of the Hollywood film community, living in an environment far removed from Nabokov's academia. But both men appear to have been kindred spirits in their youth; Hitchcock in particular was shy and bookworm-ish and read extensively. Even as adults, despite their outward differences, they lived remarkably similar lifestyles.

Both men were born in the same year, 1899, began their 'artistic lives' at the same time (the mid 1920's) and died within three years of each other. Both men had long marriages and depended on their wives for both professional, as well as personal, support. Both had but one child, Nabokov a son and Hitchcock a daughter, and the children of each was involved in their father's work (Dimitri Nabokov translated some of his father's novels and Pat Hitchcock acted in three of her father's films).

Alfred Hitchcock with his daughter.

Vladimir Nabokov with his son.

In addition to these similarities, Hitchcock and Nabokov both emigrated to the United States within about a year of each other, where each accomplished his most popular and celebrated works. Both men can be considered to have two careers, the first in their original homelands (Hitchcock's British films and Nabokov's writings in Russian while living abroad in Europe) and the second in the United States (Hitchcock's Hollywood films made beginning with Rebecca in 1940 and Nabokov's writings in English, beginning with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight published also in 1940). Most importantly for our purposes, Hitchcock and Nabokov were both certainly influenced by many of the same artistic sources: 19th century writers such as Poe and Stevenson, whom they read while growing up. In addition, they nearly collaborated at one point; according to Donald Spoto, Hitchcock asked Nabokov to work on the screenplay to the film that was eventually made as Frenzy (1972).6 Nabokov had to decline due to his own work schedule, but one can only imagine what kind of a film these two men would have made together. No wonder, then, that Nabokov, having recalled seeing The Trouble with Harry (1955), said of Hitchcock "his humor noir is akin to my humor noir, if that's what it should be called."

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