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The Case of the Domesticated Aesthete

ISSUE:  Summer 1984

What one man invents another can discover.
Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, though of recent invention, is one of the most popular characters in English literature. After Hamlet, some would say, he is the most famous of them all. He has been called a version of the epic hero, a sort of Socrates, Sir Galahad, Hamlet, and even Superman. Sherlockphiliacs, and they are legion, have written about every facet of his life—his schooling, his medical education, his studies of chemistry, his literary taste, his love of music, his athletic skills, his religious beliefs, his philosophy, and his attitude toward women. They have traced his every step; in fact or fancy they have revisited every place that he went. 221B Baker Street has become a shrine, all the objects in it relics, Holmes himself a cult figure.

Curiously enough, however, Holmes stands outside the history of literature. Scholars and biographers have written extensively about the impact romantic fiction had on Conan Doyle’s imagination, but students of Victorian and Edwardian literature have not placed Holmes squarely in a literary context. This is probably the case because, although he is indisputably a great character, the stories in which he appears are not what we consider to be major fiction. These writings thus remain marginal to the history of literature as it is currently written.

Holmes is nonetheless a typical figure of the fin de siècle. Flourishing in the 1890’s, he has much in common with the aesthetes and decadents of his day, both real and fictional. In recent years critics have occasionally made this point in passing, but, perhaps because it runs counter to the conventional view of Holmes, its implications have not been fully explored. Granted, Holmes is neither so precious as Walter Pater nor so artificial as Oscar Wilde; but in many ways he is like them, like Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Huysmans’ Symbolist aesthete Des Esseintes, and the exquisite young connoisseur of art Bernard Berenson as well. A central figure in the history of aestheticism—that current of modern art and literature concerned with aesthetic experience and pleasure, with the cultivation of art for its own sake—Holmes is a closet aesthete. If he is never mentioned in the histories of aestheticism that treat both actual and fictional aesthetes, this is because his creator disguised or domesticated the detective’s aesthetic propensities, making them palatable to a vast, popular audience. Although Holmes flouts conventions, he is never scandalous in the manner of a Dorian Gray; rather, his aestheticism is tempered and mitigated. His domus or domicile is 221B Baker Street, his major-domo, the sympathetic and legendary Watson, who plays the bourgeois fool, so to speak, to the refined and redoubtable “amateur” of crime.

Let us briefly consider the evidence for the theory linking Holmes to the notorious aestheticism of his day. Such data are amply furnished to us by Dr. Watson—”Good, old Watson, ” as Holmes calls him with affectionate condescension. Whereas Watson is conventional in his manner of thinking, Holmes is an eccentric, a “Bohemian,” as Watson describes him; and Watson should know, for he has read Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Bohème. Watson often pictures for us the “languid, lounging figure” of Holmes, ensconced in his “snug” quarters, seeking like all the distinguished aesthetes of his century—like Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray, like Poe, Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Pater—to escape from the “commonplace,” to free himself from what Baudelaire denominates “les noirs ennuis.” Holmes’s existence is spent primarily in “impassioned contemplation,” as Pater would call it, or in “reverie” a la Gautier. A recluse, like Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray in his essentially Esseintian ascendancy, he does not, for the most part, receive visitors other than his clients or his Boswellian companion. True, Holmes often ventures out and can be extremely active; but this activity is limited to the solution of mysteries, which depend, au fond, on “meditation.”

As an aesthete, Holmes is obsessive, consumed by his “art” in the manner of a Flaubert. Just as the great French writer, whom Holmes quotes on one occasion, reads prodigiously in the service of his art, absorbing hundreds of books necessary to the plausibility of his own writing, Holmes reads extensively to achieve an impressive technical knowledge essential to his work of detection. If Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet comically echo their author’s own encyclopedic aspirations in their quest for knowledge, Holmes, in his technical studies, becomes a sort of Bouvard or Pécuchet, writing or planning treatises on cigar ashes, typewriters, handwriting, footprints, and tattoos—thus eliciting a smile of pleasure and bemusement from the reader at such singular compulsion. Flaubert once remarked that in writing Madame Bovary he steered a precarious course between the vulgar and the lyrical. The same can be said of Holmes, who finds a sort of poetry in crime. Newspaper reporters and the police see only the vulgarity of crime, as Holmes remarks, because they fail to be selective in their analysis of the facts; such selectivity depends on aesthetic sensibility.

For Holmes, brilliant crime is “art.” Great crimes he considers “masterpieces,” great criminals “artists.” His point of view descends from that of Thomas De Quincey, who regarded murder among the “fine arts,” who belonged to the society known as the “Connoisseurs of Murder.” Holmes indeed speaks of himself as a “connoisseur of crime,” and just as cognoscenti lament the decline of art in their own times, Holmes deplores the decline of the art of crime in his day, the lack of criminal “audacity” ad “romance.” An exception is the notorious criminal Professor Moriarty, the greatest “master” of Holmes’s epoch and thus his greatest rival; Holmes respects him more than any of his contemporaries. This admiration can be likened to Wilde’s celebration in “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” of Thomas Griffiths Wainwright—”a subtle and secret poisoner without rival in this or any age,” Holmes would have agreed with Swinburne, who deplored the unaesthetic murders committed by Henry Wainwright: “Having chanced on a grim subject I must express to you the deep grief with which I see the honoured name of Wainwright associated with a vulgar and clumsy murder utterly inartistic and discreditable to the merest amateur. It is as though William Shakespeare were charged with the authorship (pace Laureati) of “Queen Mary.”” Holmes would also have understood the Baudelairean aesthetic of Degas’ remark that “one has to commit a painting the way one commits a crime.” It is not surprising that an illicitly acquired painting by Greuze hangs behind the desk of Moriarty, for he is himself a connoisseur; nor is it unexpected that Holmes knows all about this work, its provenance, and the painter’s place in the history of art.

The comparison of Holmes to the other aesthetes of his day, both real and invented, might appear strained were it not sound. For all his posturing, Wilde has a moral sense no less than does Holmes; and although he is never so preposterous as Wilde, Holmes himself, in his quiet way, rejects contemporary mores, as when he deems it necessary to commit burglary or withhold information from the police. Holmes’ sense of justice also barely conceals the fact that the principal interest of his work is aesthetic. He refers to a murder as “charming” for the clues it affords, and he gives the impression that his love of crime even exceeds his commitment to justice. After all, as Holmes frequently asserts in the manner of Gautier, he practices his art “for its own sake.” With his romantic forebears, from De Quincey to Pater, he is also attracted by what he calls the “bizarre.” Holmes is an amateur of “caprice,” “whimsy,” the “queer,” and what Pater describes in the wake of Baudelaire and Swinburne as “a life of brilliant sins.” Blood bespattered corpses and perverse instruments of crime are what arouse or excite him. He is, one might almost say, intoxicated or drugged by crime, carried to a feverish pitch of excitement by a challenging mystery, just as Des Esseintes is transported by perfumes or Symbolist pictures or as Dorian Gray is uplifted by the sight of embroideries, tapestries, and jewels. When Holmes is not stimulated by his work, he succumbs to boredom and ultimately depression. He escapes from this tedium through the use of cocaine, and in this respect he belongs to the long and distinguished line of aesthetic users of drugs, including De Quincey and Coleridge, Poe and Baudelaire. When Watson finally cures Holmes of his habit, the detective becomes less of an outsider to the bourgeois world of Victorian England but only somewhat less so.

As if reacting to the idea of Holmes as aesthete, the author of a recent monograph on Conan Doyle began a chapter by contrasting the virile author with the effete Oscar Wilde. Yet Sherlock Holmes is never described in words as purple or flowery as those used by Huysmans and Wilde to portray Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray, and Holmes appears to be very different from the arch-aesthete Thaddeus Sholto whom he encounters in his London home, a sumptuous “shrine,” an “oasis of art,” filled with orientalia. Recalling the description of the entranced Holmes seated “like some strange Buddha” or of Holmes employing a piece of “real eggshell pottery of the Ming Dynasty” to entrap an aesthetic adversary, we realize, however, that there is more than a little of Sholto in Holmes himself. Indeed, like Sholto, Holmes is something of a dandy, for Watson remarks on his “primness of dress,” “debonair manner,” “suavity,” and “nonchalance.” He may not, like Des Esseintes, possess a gold turtle or, like Dorian Gray, a collection of precious objets, but he does display exquisite objects—his bejeweled turquoise snuffbox and emerald tiepin. Like Wilde, but not to the same degree, his speech is graced by witticisms and epigrams: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” or “. . .there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.” When he receives an invitation, he remarks to Watson that he can attend and be “bored or lie,” recalling Wilde’s more ironic telegram of regret: “I cannot come. Lie follows.” Holmes even sends a message to Watson in the manner of Wilde: “Come at once if convenient—if not convenient come all the same.” At times the tone of Holmes’ speech approaches Wilde’s sharp patronizing tone, as when he mocks his plodding companion, “Watson! you scintillate today.” Indeed, his air of superiority is strikingly like that of Gilbert toward his naive interlocutor Ernest, in Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.” Holmes also sounds like Wilde or Wilde’s Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, objecting to the philistine or “popular taste” which Watson appeals to in the “meretricious finales” of his accounts of Holmes’s exploits. Watson is a kind of foil to Holmes’ more “finely adjusted temperament,” and the good doctor’s literal-mindedness throws into relief the very “delicacy” and “finesse” of the detective, which are described in terms reminiscent of Walter Pater’s critical vocabulary.

No less than Wilde and his literary heroes is Holmes a man of broad culture. A scintillating conversationalist, he discourses on Buddhism, violins, and warships. His speech is ornamented with choice phrases or words in German, French, and Latin, conveying an air of culture. He compares Horace to Hafiz, carries a copy of Petrarch with him on a case, quotes from Shakespeare, Goethe, Richter, and refers to De Quincey (not surprisingly!), Meredith, and Flaubert. His taste for the latter two writers especially reflects his highly developed aesthetic sensibility. Holmes is also an amateur of music, a violinist, a connoisseur of violins, and the author of a treatise on the motets of Orlando De Lassus. Sometimes, while pondering a crime, he plays strange melodies—on his violin—suggesting that his very meditations, like all art, as Pater says, aspire to the condition of music. Working on a case, he plays Mendelssohn for Watson; and, with marvelous aplomb, indeed sprezzatura, he interrupts his investigations to visit Prince Albert Hall or other concert houses to hear Chopin or German lieder. These breaks are like those disarming pauses when Holmes invites Watson to partake of the “epicurean” delights of fine food and wines. There is ample evidence that Holmes has a refined palate and is something of a gourmet; for example, he orders “a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pate de foie gras with a group of ancient cobwebby bottles.” These “luxuries” were delivered by two visitors who “vanished away, like the genii of the Arabian Nights.”

In like fashion, despite Watson’s claims to the contrary, Holmes is also something of a connoisseur of paintings. As such, he attributes paintings in the Baskerville collection: “I know what is good when I see it, and I see it now. That’s a Kneller, I’ll swear, that lady in the blue silk over yonder; and the stout gentleman with the wig ought to be a Reynolds.” While working on the Baskerville case, Holmes stops off to see an exhibition of modern Belgian paintings in a gallery on Bond Street. Not inconceivably he saw works by the Belgian Symbolist Ferdinand Khnopff, who, much admired by Oscar Wilde, exhibited in London toward the end of the century. Holmes might very well have enjoyed the fantasy and morbidity of Khnopff, just as Des Esseintes admired the macabre Baudelairean works of the symbolist Gustave Moreau. Even the language of art criticism tinges Holmes’s description of a case. He suggests to Watson, adapting “art jargon,” that they refer to a bloody murder as a “Study in Scarlet.” Scarlet is the color par excellence of the 1890’s, and his adaptation of Whistler’s symbolist titles of paintings (as studies in various colors) appositely aestheticizes murder in the very mots justes of the day. Calling one of his Intentions, ” Pen, Poison, and Pencil,” a “study in green,” Oscar Wilde adapted a similar description, and it is suggestive to observe that Holmes’ Whistlerian usage predates Wilde’s use of the similar subtitle and Conan Doyle’s first encounter with Wilde. “A curious conjunction in the history of English letters,” as it has been called, Doyle’s meeting with Wilde occurred in 1889 at a dinner party to which they had been invited by an agent of Lippincott’s Magazine. The creators of Sherlock Holmes and Dorian Gray had much to talk about, and they both offered works to the magazine: Doyle’s The Sign of Four and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, both published the following year.


Holmes, it is well known, insists that the investigator must be attentive to “details.” He should go beyond mere “impressions” by careful observation to analyze the important data of a case. This is precisely what Pater says of the “aesthetic critic,” who having experienced impressions strongly, “drives directly at the discrimination and analysis of them.” Just as Pater delves into the “mystery” of Leonardo’s personality, for example, analyzing its expression in art, Holmes carefully analyzes the “mind” of the criminal. Holmes’s studies of criminal personality are, in fact, akin to Pater’s investigations of artistic temperament. The Paterian critic has a finely developed sense of temperament, enabling him to extract the essence of artistic personality from a poem or painting; and in a similar way Sherlock Holmes intuits the “master” behind a crime. Insisting that the detective relies on “imagination” and “intuition,” Holmes refers to qualities essential to aesthetic criticism; and when Watson mentions Holmes’s “acute set of senses,” he marks attributes fundamental to the aesthetic critic. Holmes repeatedly insists to Watson that it is not simply knowledge of facts that enables him to solve mysteries but his understanding of their significance. He has what Pater calls a “sense of fact;” and it is this intuitive power that makes of him, as Pater would say, “an artist, his work fine art.” Holmes’ attitude toward his art is also decidedly like Pater’s. When Watson calls him “a benefactor of the race,” Holmes modestly quotes Flaubert’s letter to George Sand: “L’homme c’est rienl’oeuvre c’est tout.” In his Miscellaneous Studies Pater had also quoted Flaubert, implicitly voicing a similar ideal of impersonality: “It has always been a rule to put nothing of myself into my works.”

There is one other curious way in which Holmes resembles Pater. The detective claims to be descended from the sister of the French painter Emile Jean Horace Vernet, insisting, therefore, that art is in his blood. In this respect he recalls Pater, who more than half-believed that he was a descendant of the French 18th-century painter and follower of Watteau, Jean Baptiste Pater. Holmes was a master of disguises (more about which below), and in this regard we might say that Pater disguised himself as Jean Baptiste Pater’s sister, whose fictitious journal, “A Prince of Court Painters” in Imaginary Portraits, gives voice to some of Pater’s own beliefs and desires.

Even to a greater degree than he resembles Pater does Holmes have affinities with Bernard Berenson, who was a follower of Pater. The American art critic never met Pater, but in his youth he regarded him as one of his “gods,” and Pater’s writings had a profound impact on his own. Like Pater and Holmes, Berenson had a fine sensitivity to artistic temperament; he objected, however, to the lack of precision, of exact science, in Pater’s work, faulting him for his acceptance of countless inaccurate attributions. Relying on the more “scientific” methods of morphology, of the new connoisseurship developed by Giovanni Morelli, Berenson reattributed pictures by scrutinizing their precise structures—the ways in which draperies and anatomical forms were rendered in each. Not satisfied merely to discern the Giorgionesque or the Leonardesque, for example, Berenson, with magnifying glass in hand, examined paintings with the attention to details of a sleuth. Determining attributions on the basis of how ears, noses, fingers were painted, he more exactly identified the hands of Giorgione’s and Leonardo’s followers. Berenson thus became a detective of art, just as Holmes had become a “connoisseur of crime.”

In numerous respects, Holmes’s professional procedures are akin to Berenson’s. Both of them, the detective and the connoisseur, rely on anatomical classification in their work. Invoking the example of the great zoologist Cuvier, Holmes remarks that from the smallest detail the entire case can be reconstructed: “As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after.” In the case of the cardboard box, Holmes recognizes, as Watson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard do not, the significance of two severed ears received in the box—that they are the result of murder. Berenson also closely attends to anatomical details in pictures, even earlobes, insisting that the way in which they are painted affords clues to the artists who painted them. The connoisseur and the detective also both apply a system of typology or classification to their investigations. Holmes is often able to attribute crimes to their perpetrators because he immediately recognizes the pattern of the crime through its relation to previous cases of which he has a prodigious knowledge. Similarly, Berenson can detect the author of a painting by referring to his comparably vast knowledge of related works of art. Berenson maintained a vast file of notes and photographs from his work of detection, similar in purpose to Holmes’ extensive “collection” of cases necessary to his connoisseurship. Both of them sought to publish their observations on method for future detective work and connoisseurship. Berenson published lists of attributions and essays exhibiting the results of his connoisseurship, much in the way that Holmes wrote treatises on cigar ashes, handwriting, and footprints, useful in detective work. Holmes’ studies of handwriting especially recall the work of the connoisseur, for as Holmes observes, the criminal will betray himself in the very “mannerism” of his script; Berenson might well have added that, similarly, the artist reveals himself through his characteristic stroke of the brush or pen.

Like Holmes, Berenson was a dandy and epicurean, a man of-broad cultural interests, exquisite taste, and refined sensibility. Were Holmes to have come to life, he would surely have found his way to Berenson’s famous salon of writers, scholars, artists, and politicians at his villa outside Florence, I Tatti, where they would have discoursed on art, music, language, and, not in the least, connoisseurship. Each would have admired the accomplished detective work of the other, bemused at the similarities between their apparently disparate professions. Berenson would eagerly have shown his collection to such a keen observer as Holmes, and they would have discussed Buddhism while standing before Berenson’s splendid collection of oriental works. Holmes’ sharpness of observation would have charmed Berenson, as Berenson’s inquiring mind and sharp wit would have delighted his guest. Would that one might find among the countless letters to Berenson from distinguished correspondents still preserved at I Tatti just a few from Baker Street!

Holmes’s “method” also has affinities with the critical principles espoused by Oscar Wilde—protégé of Pater and friend of Berenson. Exaggerating the principles of Pater’s criticism, stiffening them into caricature, as Pater might have said, Wilde focuses on the “critic as artist.” He finds such “art” in the criticism of Ruskin and Pater, and he recognizes the critical virtues of Rossetti’s poems about painting. In Wilde’s terms, Holmes is a type of critic as artist. If the work of art is, as Wilde observes, a “starting-point for a new creation,” so too is a crime a point of departure for the creative detective, who must, in a sense, “re-create” it in order to penetrate its mystery. Just as the great criminal is a “master,” so too is the detective-critic. No less than great crimes are Holmes’ solutions “masterpieces,” and what we admire in them is the “delicacy” and “refinement” of their art. For Watson, and for us as well, Holmes, the critic-detective, is one of “the greatest artists.”

We have postponed to the very last consideration of perhaps the single most significant likeness between Holmes and Wilde—that is, their shared theatrical gifts. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw pointed out that, above all, Wilde was an “actor.” As a fin de siècle Pierrot, he made his entire life into a stage performance, highlighted by brilliant theatrical soliloquies. Holmes, who regarded cases as “tragic” or “comic,” was also a great performer, As Watson remarks, the stage lost a “great actor” when Holmes decided to become a detective; and throughout his career he exploited these dramatic gifts, adapting numerous brilliant disguises or feigning illness to achieve his ends—sometimes fooling and stunning Watson and the reader, both, with such splendid performances. “Encore,” his audience cried, and Conan Doyle brought his great actor back for performance after performance, decade after decade. Even though Watson detects and hints at Holmes’s feelings and sympathies, we never come to know the Holmes behind the mask. Forever “play-acting,” Holmes suggestively asserts: “The best way of successfully acting a part is to be it.” He could be speaking as well for Wilde, whose ironic identity is similarly inseparable from the part he played upon the stage of Victorian life.


T. S. Eliot once remarked that “every writer owes something to Holmes.” Although exaggerated, this claim nevertheless reminds us that one of the greatest writers of our century, Vladimir Nabokov, owed more than a little to the great detective. The connection is significant in light of our present theme because, after Proust and Joyce, to whom he was much indebted, Nabokov is one of the most distinguished writers of our time in the direct line of descent from 19th-century aestheticism. As one of his finest scholars has observed, allusions to Sherlock Holmes abound in Nabokov’s novels. In The Defense, Luzhin loves the book about Holmes, “who endowes logic with the glamour of a daydream”; in Despair, Hermann imagines the perfect ending of the Holmes stories—Watson committing a murder. The narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight employs a “Holmes stratagem” in his own investigation, and the narrator of Pnin, speaking for Nabokov himself, finds by his bedside in a furnished room an omnibus edition of Sherlock Holmes which had “pursued” him for years. Nabokov plays on the detective’s name in Lolita, speaking of Shirley Holmes, and in Pale Fire Holmes is mentioned in Canto I of John Shade’s poem, a reference glossed by Charles Kinbote in his commentary.

The influence of the Holmes stories is evident in the very structure of Nabokov’s novels as detective stories or mysteries—notably in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lolita, and Pale Fire. For Watson, Holmes is a conjuror, a “magician”; and Nabokov, himself an amateur magician when he began to read Doyle as a child, aspired to Holmesian enchantments. Doyle spoke of his tales as belonging to “the fairy kingdom of romance,” and in this way Nabokov understood all fiction, including his own, to be “fairy tales.” Holmes could have been speaking for Nabokov when he commented on the strangeness of the commonplace, for Lolita is the sublime example of how the magical is found in the quotidian world. Speaking of himself as a “chess player,” Holmes regards his profession as a “game” that he plays “for the game’s sake,” and in this way Nabokov creates gamelike fictions, filled with allusions to chess. The protagonist of The Defense is, in fact, a chess player who turns his entire life into a chess game—the exaggeration, we might almost say, of a Holmesian obsession. It may even be no coincidence that just as the Holmes stones seem to have ended with the image of the detective hanging over the Reichenbach Fall, stalemated as it were in the grasp of Moriarty, The Defense concludes with Luzhin last described suspended above the chessboard-like “chasm” divided into “dark and pale squares.”

On account of the very playfulness of his art, Nabokov has been called a type of homo ludens. The reference is to Johan Huizinga’s classic study, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Like Doyle’s stories before him and Nabokov’s fiction in his own time, Huizinga’s study was influenced by the playfulness of 19th-century aestheticism. The affinities between the highly playful aestheticism in court rituals, described by Huizinga, and the modern aesthetic rituals of Huysmans and Wilde, for example, are especially striking. Nabokov’s childhood hero, Holmes, is also decidedly a sort of homo ludens, as we have observed already. Always smiling, jesting, laughing, and performing “practical jokes,” with a “mischievous twinkle” in his eyes, as Watson observes, Holmes “plays” out each case, inspired by the quality of the competition or the degree of mystery involved. Among his greatest assets are his above-mentioned “disguises,” playfully employed to deceive his adversaries and admirers alike. Indeed, the uses he and his adversary Irene Adler make of disguises in the case of the scandal in Bohemia carry the story into the realm of farce. Such Holmesian disguises are the staple of Nabokov’s fictions as well. Disguised as the narrator V. in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov is also, in a sense, Sebastian Knight himself, creating a fiction which dissolves the apparent reality of the narrative into a more vertiginous realm of fiction. In other words, if it had appeared throughout that Sebastian Knight was the subject of Nabokov’s book, at the end it almost seems that, having posed as the narrator, Sebastian Knight could have actually written it.

In their deceptions, the Holmes stories ultimately raise the very questions about identity and reality which were to be embellished with far more nuance by Nabokov. Watson is always accusing Holmes of holding back pertinent facts as a case unfolds, and Holmes in turn perpetually complains of Watson’s misleading, overly dramatic recounting of his cases. Whom do we believe? Or are they accusing each other of the same artistic vice? Playing on this ambiguity in the final volume of tales, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle has Holmes tell two of the stories—as if to correct the false impressions given by Watson. And, as if Holmes himself were not to be trusted either, one of these tales is told by an impersonal narrator. The situation here is almost Nabokovian, approaching that in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in which Nabokov is writing about the narrator correcting the account of the critic Goodman, who is writing an account of Sebastian Knight and his writings.

Holmes once observed that “it is the first quality of a criminal investigator that he should see through a disguise.” Nabokov’s fictions are filled with such disguises which we, as playful readers or investigators of his fictions, are asked to see through, though as master-deceiver Nabokov is always one step ahead of us, beyond our Watson-like grasp. Nabokov implicitly suggested how we should read his own work when he called his course in European literature at Cornell a “detective investigation of the mysteries of literary structure.” The numerous ground plans of the settings of novels that he drew on the blackboard for his students and his close attention to “details”—for example, his famous, scrupulous “anatomy” of Gregor Samsa—bespeak the Holmesian approach to criticism that informs his own fictions as well. In an age of prodigious literary theories, Nabokov’s criticism is the supreme, possibly unique example of the subtle and clearheaded Holmesian kind of literary criticism, just as his fictions, elaborate criminal investigations, are the perfection of Sherlockian methods. Of all Nabokov’s contrived, aestheticized literary games, perhaps Despair stands most clearly in the tradition of “murder considered as one of the fine arts” that we have sketched from De Quincey and Swinburne to Wilde and Holmes., Here the narrator, Hermann, having committed a murder, transforms his crime into art in his very narration—an artistic reenactment of the murder of his doppelgänger Felix. If Holmes’s doppelgänger Moriarty was the “Napoleon of crime” in his own day, Nabokov is both the Moriarty and the Holmes of art of our own time. Through Nabokov’s craft, we come to see more clearly than before the aesthetic implications of Sherlock Holmes; and, following his clues, we discover in a way what Holmes, or Doyle if you like, invented.


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