Opinions about all writers are divided; even Shakespeare has had his detractors, from Voltaire to Tolstoy. But on few writers are they as widely and evenly divided as on Vladimir Nabokov. From some, he commands a vassal’s fealty; from others, he elicits shudders of revulsion. Philip Rahv, no flighty hothead in his mature years, kept passionately urging me to perform radical surgery on Nabokov’s reputation, which he considered as hypertrophic as the man’s ego. And Rahv, who flatteringly but mistakenly considered me the man for the demolition job, could simply not understand my hesitation.
From some, Nabokov commands a vassal’s fealty; from others, he elicits shudders of revulsion.
Partly, I was daunted by the magnitude of the task; even then there was too much material, both primary and secondary, for a less than rabid nonbeliever to slog through. And although I had, and continue to have, grave doubts about Nabokov’s greatness, I balked at being handed a ready-made conclusion to which I only had to fit a beginning and middle. Moreover, I have the merest smattering of the language in which Nabokov began to make his literary career, and though I have made feeble stabs at comprehending Andrey Bely’s theory of versification, which at one time preoccupied Nabokov, I have no grounding in Russian poetry and could never even battle my way through Nabokov’s venerable four-volume translation-cum-elucidation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Besides, there are works by Nabokov that I enjoy and respect, even though these do not include that gargantuan rodomontade, Pale Fire, or that tiresome bid to out-Joyce Joyce, Ada, to name only the two most hallowed masterpieces. Sadly, I had to tell Rahv that the person with the stomach and stamina for his suggested undertaking was less likely to be a fastidious skeptic than the sort of true believer Brian Boyd proves himself to be with his vast two-volume critical biography. Its first installment—some six hundred capacious pages—has just come out under the title Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years.1 What Boyd, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Auckland in New Zealand (or is it Nova Zembla?) who was clearly inspired to learn Russian by his passion for Nabokov, has produced is not, to do him justice, out and out hagiography. Indeed, he prides himself on his “independence and . . . right to . . . sometimes severe judgments.” True enough, there are reservations, and Boyd is manifestly a serious scholar who has done stunning research while manfully endeavoring to keep his worshipfulness under control.
Do, however, consider some of the judgments scattered throughout this book, and bear in mind that this is only the first volume; later works by the master are likely to call forth even greater outbursts of adulation. Already we learn, though, that even if Nabokov admired Shakespeare’s way of mixing comedy and tragedy, “he wanted them more radically confounded,” and did so confound them, putting him, in one respect at least, ahead of Shakespeare. One of Nabokov’s stories, “Terror,” may have influenced Sartre’s Nausea, though, as Boyd approvingly quotes Nabokov himself, “without sharing any of that novel’s fatal defects.” And when it comes to dialogue, Nabokov’s can be “barer and more realistic than Pinter’s.” Nabokov, then, is more existential than Sartre, more absurdist than Pinter.
In Nabokov’s first novel, Mary, “Ganin’s memories do not depend on the accident of tasting a madeleine from the patisserie Proust”; we are, I assume, to conclude that Ganin is a finer hero than Marcel, and, since he does not stuff himself with French pastries, a trimmer one as well. “Already as a schoolboy, Nabokov had reinterpreted the Hegelian dialectic of history,” Boyd reveals, though he neglects to tell us whether this occurred in homework or in class recitation. Nabokov, moreover, is more economical than Balzac, substituting as he does “rapid shifts of focus” for more ponderous “Balzacian amassment of information.” These shifts allow Nabokov to “mix the exact detail of a Van Eyck with the casually unfilled space of a Hokusai"; plainly, Balzac never moved in such fast—or, at any rate, rapidly shifting —company.
Nabokov, then, is more existential than Sartre, more absurdist than Pinter.
It is true that “Nature was one rival Nabokov knew he could not outdo at its own game,” Boyd tells us; but not to worry, there are plenty of other games in town. One of them is surprise. Poor Tolstoy, “at the top of a page [of his] we know the mood at the foot of the page,” even as on “a page of Ulysses, we can expect in advance the style of the coming paragraph.” Too bad for the defending Russian champion and the Irish contender; they may slug as hard as anyone, but they lack Nabokov’s fancy footwork.
“Nothing could be further” from Nabokov’s characters “than the automata of Beckett” or Faulkner’s “communities of quarter-wits, half-wits, and three-quarter-wits.” Tick off one more Hibernian heavyweight and a challenger from the New World: “Nabokov, the first entomologist to count under the microscope the scale-rows on a butterfly’s wing marking, insisted as an artist too on a new precision of the senses.” But Nabokov outboxes (he was, in fact, quite a good amateur boxer) not only fellow writers; he can as easily take on champions from other fields: “The patterns of The Defense” which Boyd considers Nabokov’s first incontestable masterpiece, “have Bach’s melodic beauty and bracing vigor of design, but to this exhilarating combination Nabokov adds more.” Indeed, the characters based on himself and his real-life spouse “are among the warmest and most touching . . . in fiction.” Put that in your harpsichord, Johann Sebastian!
Nabokov’s story “Terra Incognita,” we are told, “might have been merely a Borgesian conundrum, had not Nabokov’s passion for exploration and for nature made it something more,” and down goes the sight-impaired lariateer of the pampas. So few writers can lay a glove on Vlad(imir) the Im-paler that, once again, challengers from other areas must be pressed into service. Completed, The Gift would be Nabokov’s “ninth Russian novel, and like Beethoven’s Ninth it would be immensely more massive and more formally daring” than his previous efforts. Well, at least the deaf German fares better than the purblind Argentine: this fight seems to be a draw.
So back to literature for a return bout with Gentleman Jim Joyce: The Gift offers us not a mere capital, Dublin, but “a capital and a continent, Berlin and Eurasia,” as well as—among many other things—“a portrait of the artist as a young man”: the poor Dubliner has clearly lost his title. And again, Nabokov proves more daring than Joyce, who impressed Hugh Kenner by presenting Stephen Dedalus “with lice in his hair.” That’s nothing: “Nabokov introduces Zina, heroine of a novel of genuine romance, through the sound of her flushing the toilet.”
Anyone holding such a royal flush (if I may change my trope) can easily outplay a mere lumbering Swede; accordingly, Nabokov in his drama “avoids the ponderous symbolism of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.” Nabokov even surpasses his own beloved master: in the opening of The Gift, “he goes one further than Gogol” in the opening of Dead Souls. After that, Boyd pulls out all the stops: Nabokov has “perfected a . . . sinewy suppleness [of language] and discovered fictional forms unprecedented even in the great tradition of Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, that allowed him to express new kinds of literary truth.” In his belief in literary perfectibility, Boyd is clearly the Auguste Comte of lit crit.
But he is cannier. Nowhere does he spell out in so many words Nabokov’s eternal, universal supremacy. This is merely—discreetly, tactfully—implied. More concise than X, more imaginative than Y, more rapid than Z, Nabokov emerges the undefeated, not-to-be-dislodged champion without any need for blunt statements. Well, something does slip out in one place: “By the mid-1950s, and even more by the 1950s, he had developed in his fiction an uncanny freedom of part from consecutive part, and at the same time more complex relations of part to part than perhaps any writer before him.” That “even more by the 1950s” is especially ominous: Will the second volume bring even greater revelations? Will the master of part song be confirmed also as the master of cantus firmus?
The critical biographer, after all, has three tasks: to tell the story of his subject’s life, to elucidate his works, and to evaluate his ultimate stature. Broadly speaking, this corresponds to being a historian, a teacher, and a critic. Though Boyd fails in the last category, he does impressive work in the first two. And what a life Vladimir Nabokov had for a biographer to sink his teeth into! Born in 1899 into a family of fabulous wealth and fabled distinction—powerful statesmen and publicists on his father’s side, verst-rich landowners on his mother’s—young Volodya was the favorite among several siblings. “I was born . . . a precocious genius, a Wunderkind” who disported himself in the best quarter of St. Petersburg and on the grand family estates, such as his statesman journalist father’s Vyra, and his uncle Ivan Rukavishnikov’s Rozhdestveno not far away. There was the added prestige of Papa V. D. Nabokov’s being the leading liberal in the Czar’s government, with a jail sentence and other scars to show for it.
And what a life Vladimir Nabokov had for a biographer to sink his teeth into!
Already as a small child Volodya has “an almost pathological ability to conjure up the past,” and exercises his imagination by projecting himself into others, “trying to follow the contours of their thoughts and sensations,” as Boyd, somewhat orotundly, puts it. He sprouts an extra tooth in the middle of his palate, and, at the age of five, falls precociously in love with a coeval sub-Lolita and fancies the prettiest of his governesses, Miss Norcott, “whose sudden dismissal (she was found to be a lesbian) left him inconsolable.” Significantly, the child’s favorite toys are matreshki, the hollow wooden peasant-woman dolls, each containing a smaller one within it—a foreshadowing of the games with reality the grown novelist was to play. By age eleven, Nabokov’s “butterfly passion had fully taken wing,” and Volodya had become a Vladimir in parvo.
So, too, in his love of nature around Vyra and in his love of luxury. The love of nature culminates in butterfly collecting; as Boyd has it, Nabokov’s lepidopterology “would help fix the contours of his mature epistemology, his metaphysics, even his politics"—an interesting statement that is not sufficiently elaborated on. He was to impart “to his fiction the delights he found in entomology. . . . Having learned through his butterflies that the world is much less to be taken for granted, much realer and much more mysterious than it seems, he made his worlds to match.”
But the spoiled-rich-boy side develops pari passu. Whereas his sisters begged their chauffeur to deposit them somewhere behind their school to avoid envious attention, Vladimir insists on being conspicuously driven to the school doorstep and helped out of the car by a chauffeur doffing his cap. Boyd comments: “It was not a parade of wealth but a refusal to suppress differences,” a splendid euphemism for what starts revolutions: if only the Czar could have suppressed a few differences! At age thirteen, Volodya would “lean back in his chair for his valet to remove his shoes for him,” but that difference at least his sternly democratic father made him suppress. The boy was severe and unforgiving with the teachers he disliked, teasing and humiliating them. He hated school and derived most of his education from private tutors and his own reading and pursuits.
The great artist Dobuzhinsky vainly tried to teach him to paint in private lessons, but at least conveyed a sense of visual exactitude to the future writer. Rejecting his father’s orthodox religion, the boy espoused his mother’s nonreligious mysticism, as well as her heavy smoking. He had his first two important love affairs, and began to publish his verse, which earned him the contempt of the famous poet Zinaida Gippius and the eulogies of a sycophantic journalist; this, he was to claim, cured him permanently of all interest in literary fame and the reading of reviews. Hmm?
By age seventeen, Nabokov inherited from homosexual Uncle Ivan the manor and two-thousand-acre estate of Rozhdestveno; by next year, alas, he was an exile in the Crimea, never to see any of his old homes and haunts again. Crimea was exciting in those early revolutionary days, and, in recounting them, Boyd, as usual, keeps Russia’s history and that of the Nabokovs and their friends in perfect equipoise. Vladimir has numerous entomological and erotic adventures, but none to compare with the chancy, perilous escape of the family by boat to the West. Crimea also inspired Nabokov’s first chess problems (later he was to publish them along with his prose and verse), and in that “intensity of cerebration” he evolved, as Boyd radiantly expresses it, “a concentration of mental rays sufficient to burn a hole through time itself.”
Nabokov’s notebooks of this period reveal, along with careful studies of Russian versification, the metaphysical speculations that were to accompany him everywhere; Boyd Nabokovizes about his subject’s “phonic patter and cryptic pattern.” Here, too, Nabokov’s lifelong enemy, poshlost (philistine vulgarity), begins to become an object of scorn and satire.
Nabokov issued similar challenges, but, unlike Pushkin and Lermontov, he never had to face a duelist’s pistol.
By 1920, Vladimir Nabokov the Elder has moved his family to Berlin, though Volodya is mosdy at Cambridge University, where, it seems, he never learned the whereabouts of the main library, or whether his college, Trinity, had an undergraduate reading room. An English poem by Vladimir appears in The Trinity Magazine. As his father is now active in emigre journalism in Berlin, young Vladimir begins to be published in Russian newspapers and journals all over Western Europe; in years to come, under the pen-name Sirin, he’ll become the brightest star of émigré literature. A knockout in the ring at Cambridge leaves his right nostril permanently S-shaped, which does not stop his amatory conquests or impede his looking down his nose at as many people and things as before. He does well on his Cambridge tripos, obtaining second-class honors; one question especially delights him: describing Plyushkin’s garden in Dead Souls, “which perfectly suited his preference for exact knowledge, precise visualizations, detailed recall.”
Back in Berlin, he supports himself by tutoring in French, English, tennis, and boxing. He also does translations into Russian; his version of Alice in Wonderland, we’re told, is rated the best rendering of that work into any language. He gets engaged to Svetiana Siewert, a sweet seventeen-year-old, but when his promised steady job fails to materialize, her parents break off the engagement. When a former colleague publishes a “vile” review of Sirin’s second volume of verse, the poet challenges him to a duel, but receives no reply. There are at least a couple other occasions on which Nabokov issued similar challenges, but, unlike Pushkin and Lermontov, he never had to face a duelist’s pistol.
And now Nabokov meets Vera Slonim, the young Russian Jewess whom he will eventually marry. She preferred to spell her name “Véra,” to avoid its being pronounced so as to rhyme with “queerer,” was a crack shot with a pistol, and had a fine literary sensibility. Boyd lists the roles she was to perform for Nabokov: wife, muse, ideal reader, secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator, biographer, agent, business manager, legal counsel, chauffeur (driving was one of the few things Nabokov could not master; the German language one of those he refused to), research assistant, professorial understudy. What he doesn't mention is that she also cut up his meat into bite-sized morsels at table. But this woman with the best sense of humor Nabokov had ever encountered was never his model; as she says, “he had the good taste to keep me out of his books.” And yet Boyd repeatedly tells us such things as “Look at the Harlequins! pays grateful homage to a woman modeled upon Véra. . . .” But, for all that, throughout their marriage except for a brief period of near-poverty in a one-room apartment, Nabokov, “a solitary sleeper by principle and inclination,” slept in a separate bedroom.
By now Nabokov, who called himself a poet in prose—not just for his style but also for his way of looking at the world—was writing plays as well, and publishing both stories and verbal riddles; in private, he was not above reciting “unprintably licentious poems.” Needing money, he appeared as an extra in movies, wowing starlets with his English-prince look. He tries unsuccessfully to get screenwriting jobs; his father is assassinated by a right-wing fanatic. His widowed mother and sisters are now living in Prague, and he writes them that not a day passes without heads turning in the street and whispering “Sirin!” He visits his mother in Prague and dislikes that most beautiful of cities. What he likes about living in Berlin is that, by not learning German, he can keep his Russian “vacuum-sealed.” He writes his mother that they’ll see his murdered father in “a completely natural heaven.” Does he believe this? Boyd doesn’t tell.
Already a secure storyteller, Nabokov turns to writing novels. He “still had to reinvent the arts of narrative, of character, of structure,” Boyd declares, “but he was well on his way.” Vladimir describes the novelist’s role to his mother: “We are translators of God’s creation . . . we dress up what he wrote, as a charmed commentator sometimes gives an extra grace to a line of genius.” It seems that he always carried an entire evolving novel in his head, and could at will write down large chunks of it—in this respect, too, falling scarcely behind God.
Boyd likes to indulge in the stylistic grandeur handed down to him by his master: “Not a thick cement of fact under each step of the story,” he tells us about Nabokov’s style, “but a sharp stone here or there to jolt the soul.” (A pun on “sole,” I assume.) Again: “He thought he was simply taking up handy tools to rob the grave of its secrets, but it looked as if he were stocking a tomb with propitiatory images.” Sometimes Boyd slips up, not surprising from one whose souls keep walking on sharp stones. He tells us in one sentence about a rare moth Nabokov catches in Charlottenburg; in the next, about the “moth-eaten” couch in his rented room. Surely, rare-moth-eaten.
Concerning the story “The Fight,” Boyd wonders whether it is critical of its narrator or backs up his “inhuman indulgence in living as if others’ pain and joy were merely for his own artistic delectation.” It strikes me that Schadenfreude is a major component of Nabokov’s make-up. Whether he writes in a 1948 letter to Edmund Wilson, “Your having taken up chess is good news, I hope you will soon be playing well enough for me to beat you,” or whether he has the blind hero of Laughter in the Dark tortured by his wife and her lover, whom he can hear carrying on but cannot lay a hand on, sadistic glee is frequent in his repertoire. It is all over Lolita, for example; but I cannot deny that something in the reader’s nature responds to this. And Nabokov may even exhibit a complementary masochistic streak when he writes about “the pleasant sensation of being knocked out on the chin.”
Sometimes Boyd’s adulation races way ahead of him. He describes a scene in a Nabokov play wherein “a newspaper sheet hangs halfway off the top of the wardrobe, a sign that a suitcase stored there has been removed. Nabokovian detail at its most suggestive.” Why a suitcase, necessarily? Why not a pile of newspapers removed in haste? There is always the nose-thumbing, had-you-there-didn't-I? aspect to Nabokov. Contracting to write a Russian grammar, he begins the first exercise with “Madam, I am the doctor, here is a banana.” Then he dumps the assignment on Véra.
Boyd assures us, “metaphysics will not die until humanity does.”
Interestingly, Boyd points out that Nabokov’s best novels were almost always those he set aside to write another before resuming work on the first. The reactivated novel would then, by some strange cross-fertilization, emerge more complex, richer than originally envisioned. Boyd matches such sound, but infrequent, critical observation with staggeringly industrious research. We learn that once, in London, Vladimir danced the foxtrot with Pavlova; or that, another time in Berlin, he was on the panel to select the six women to vie for the title Miss Russian Colony of 1928.
His memory, especially the visual one, was exceptional; at times he complained of its overtaxing him. It is memory that helps us out of one of our two prisons—that of the present, which forbids the past; it is love, especially married love, that springs us from the second, the prison of self, which forbids access to other people. And in death, it seems, both these constraints are transcended. Such, at any rate, is the philosophy Boyd reads out of Nabokov’s early novels, Mary and King, Queen, Knave. Whereupon, midway into this first volume of his biography, and about to accost what he calls Nabokov’s first masterpiece, The Defense, Boyd launches on a sizable and not uncomplicated chapter, “Nabokov the Writer.”
Here all pretense at biography is abandoned and we get nearly thirty pages of straight critical analysis. This is structurally unsettling—not only because it comes at this point, but also because it comes at all. A critical biography should be able to—as Boyd’s does before and after this chapter—slip in the criticism amid the biography without noticeable loss in narrative momentum. What happened here? Did Boyd’s conscience, or his publisher, or Nabokov’s ghost (the biographer never met the biographee) remonstrate that, as the biography was extremely long, some claim for absolute greatness had to be made early on— preferably in the first volume, so that readers would be encouraged to buy the second?
So we get, among other things, a statement about Nabokov’s compulsion, in order to map human consciousness in the round, “to collapse the world into one or two dimensions or to expand it into four or five” which “imparts the characteristic wobble to [Nabokov’s] universe. . . .” That, apparently, is what angers readers who feel metaphysics to be passé, even though, Boyd assures us, “metaphysics will not die until humanity does.” I, too, believe that; what I don’t believe is that all kinds of metaphysics are equally good. Though I myself don’t buy any, I am particularly put off by the collapsible and expansible kind.
“Nabokov finds the past alive with patterns,” we learn, “to a degree no one before him has ever imagined.” Whereupon Boyd sensibly wonders whether these patterns are perceived or created, and whether they have meanings. To this, I'm afraid, he has no answer, but he does praise Nabokov’s proffering certain patterns so slight “that no reader could even notice these matching clusters until a careful re-rereading [sic]. Even then they may be overlooked as mere incidental decoration—until we discover how they take their place in a larger design that insists on an urgent explanation.”
Yes, I know that Joyce made equally intemperate demands on his reader, but that excuses neither him nor Nabokov in my view. I am especially riled by that “insists on an urgent explanation”; if it’s so urgent, why is it so artfully hidden as to be overlookable even on a third reading? Worse yet, what may then emerge is still only the question, not even a tentative explanation. All this brings out the worst in Boyd as well: “Between the tick we have heard and the tock we can expect, Nabokov shows us, our minds can make any choice they want”; and “Nabokov wants to test thought at its highest . . . thought anything but spontaneous, but boiling all around the event with a heat the instant alone could never generate.” And so on and on.
I am reminded of two statements about Vladimir by his cousin and friend, the composer Nicolas Nabokov, in the latter’s autobiography, Bagazh. First, “Volodya always did everything with une superbe sans égal”; second, a reference to Vladimir’s “bottomless, punctiliously precise memory.” Un-equaled haughtiness and inexhaustible memory may indulge themselves in the novel as chess problem or verbal puzzle; but must the damage be compounded by the biographer’s making similarly inordinate demands in basing many of his arguments on works by Nabokov he does not discuss until the second, as yet unpublished, volume?
Presently Boyd pulls out one of the grandest rabbits—almost an elephant—from his, or his master’s, hat: “Only those who decide on art’s indirection, its plexed ways and reversed images, seem almost to peer through the periscope into something beyond.” (Italics mine.) After all that plexing of rays and flexing of muscles, not even to peer—only almost to peer? Such almost-peering is far too peerless for me. And when Boyd tries to forestall and disarm the opposition that may find Nabokov “too cerebral, romantic, or sensual,” he is rather off the mark; the main opposition would address the smugness, the superciliousness, the arrogance that so often remove him from humaneness—sometimes even from humanity. This, after all, is the man who—from the Palace Hotel, Montreux, where his last years more or less recapitulated the luxuries of his first ones—wrote to Andrew Field: “It really is remarkable how many poets of our day, including Blok, Annenski, Mandelshtam, Hodasevich, Gumilyov, Shishkov, Bunin, and of course Pasternak, allowed vulgarisms and downright blunders to disfigure their best verse. One day I’ll list and discuss the examples.” That day, apparently, never came; meanwhile, we cannot fail to notice whose name does not figure on that list.
This, too, is the man who, as Boyd reminds us, began to refuse interviews in the 1960s unless the questions were supplied in writing and well in advance. In which case, why bother with the interview at all? Again, Boyd leaps to the defense: “It isn’t that Nabokov was vain, but that, as he said, ‘I speak like a child.’” And should the child in man not be heard? Boyd concludes his defense with what he seems to consider a pellucid algebraical schema for Nabokov’s craft:
Just as in nature one discovery may precipitate others or upset old orthodoxies, so Nabokov linked solution to solution, so that each answer could trigger or inhibit another: b becomes problematic only when a has been solved; c and d suddenly seem clear, though until now we had not even thought them obscure, only after e has been answered; f and g and v we recognize in a flash are related to each other [correctiy “one another"] and to the old puzzle of m and n.
Every nightmare has an end, and we finally emerge from the chapter on writing into the chapter on The Defense, only to be hit with “this time his novel sheds all the ungainliness of definition to become poetry and drama and much more.” One is reminded of Voltaire’s comment on Pico della Mirandola’s proclaiming himself master of all things knowable: “And several others.” “Sheds the ungainliness of definition,” at any rate, is a phrase that should make its way in today’s world. Further, we are told that Nabokov “pays us the supreme compliment of assuming we can play like champions” and “so allows us—and this is the secret of his art—to experience the exhilaration of outperforming ourselves.” Quite aside from the fact that this must be (I have lost count) the eighth or ninth secret of his art, the trouble with such a challenge is that once people start outperforming themselves, there’s no stopping them. Pretty soon they have left the text and author behind and are floating somewhere in the stratosphere and shedding the ungainliness of the last shred of common sense.
In The Defense, it seems, we find Nabokov putting together parts of the world “with a speed, economy, fluidity, and harmony fiction has rarely attained.” But Nabokov tells us about Luzhin’s (the hero’s) grandfather that he was “susceptible . . . to the doubtful splendors of virtuosity,” a word of warning the author himself might have pondered. And forthwith there is Boyd instructing us, “Even after several rereadings, the participation in Luzhin’s life of his dead grandfather, his dead father, and a force beyond them orchestrating their counterpoint might well seem a preposterous idea.” Well, no; after sufficient rereadings, even the participation of unborn grandchildren will remain uncontested by the browbeaten and mesmerized mind.
Yet these critical extravagances do not vitiate Boyd’s remarkable biographical research, his inspired detective work. Even in periods that are poorly documented, Boyd is able to reconstruct Nabokov’s daily rounds, literary and lecturing activities, chores and struggles, and assorted experiences in love, friendship, and enmity. It is all there, laid out perspicuously and compellingly told, eliciting our admiration both for Nabokov’s talent for survival and for Boyd’s herculean spadework and skillful organization.
Soon, however, we are back to criticism and heading for trouble. Concerning the story “Pilgram,” we are told: “Best of all, perhaps—and one cannot read Nabokov without grasping such facts—is that for all Pilgram’s gloom at his drab street, his shop, his dingy apartment, his uncomprehending wife, the story somehow turns every one of these into a prize as rare and strange as any treasure in his shop or on the jungle slopes of Surinam.” Let’s see now: We can't read Nabokov without grasping certain elusive, paradoxical facts proving that constraint and shabbiness can be as glorious and rewarding as nature’s most prodigally lavished bounties —indeed, more so. How? Somehow. “The story somehow turns . . .”
What is this Somehow—what are all these Nabokovian Somehows—really about? They are about authorial authority: It is so because I, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, say so. This authorial, authoritarian say-so dictates how a story or novel is to be read. In the case of “Pilgram,” the point is to vindicate the author’s straitened circumstances, his emigre existence: hand-to-mouth, if you will, but head-in-the-stars. As Dabney Stuart put it in an essay in TriQuarterly’s famed Nabokov issue, “an important part of reading [Laughter in the Dark] is the reader’s consciousness of . . . the authorial presence, the controlling intelligence that is at work in every facet of the book. Things happen because the author makes them happen . . .”
Though not so wonderful as Stuart, Boyd, and their likes seem to think, this is not contemptible. All fiction is a conscious or unconscious attempt to remold reality in some personal, special way. The true question is how skillful and valid this special kneading or pleading is—how stimulating, revelatory, and also self-effacing. If Nabokov does not pass this test with flying colors it is because writing for him is the restoration, or restitution, of the seignorial rights the revolution stripped him of, which, all too often, spells sneering, sniggering intellectual superiority. Or else it becomes, no more appealingly, a slightly self-pitying benignity—the avuncularly lecherous prologue to Lolita, for example.
The archenemy, needless to say, is Freud, who would deny supremacy to the Nabokov superego and make it share billing with some obscure id: the dark, undifferentiated need common to all the unwashed, rather than the fully conscious creation ex nihilo by the godlike author. “Nabokov,” Boyd informs us, “did not see Freud in literature except for fashionable vulgarians like Stefen Zweig,” who are not literature. And, parroting his master, Boyd tells us that love of William James “helped shield Nabokov against the archaic mythmaking and witchcraft of Freud.” Yet Nabokov himself has been called (not displeasingly to him) The Enchanter, and there is nothing like the murderous fury of rival magicians, competing mythmakers.
It is the condescending smile of the Supreme Enchanter that ruins much of Nabokov’s fiction. It shows up even in the unlikeliest places, such as Nabokov’s movie-going. Sirin had scant use for serious films (in a letter, he even refers to Eisenstein as “Eisenstadt"), but he adored any inept American movie. “The more casually stupid it was, the more he would . . . shake with laughter,” sometimes to the point of having to leave the hall. Schadenfreude and patronization are the principal types of tone in Nabokov. Devout followers, to be sure, don’t notice such things; it’s marvelous to find Boyd speaking of “Lolita’s pain—for the sake of which Nabokov wrote the whole novel,” and, apropos Despair, of “a sympathy for others perhaps even richer than life allows.”
Just how does one get this message from Despair? By proclaiming it—and other Nabokoviana—the gleeful inversion of values Nabokov holds dear: a parody, full of gusto, of one’s own sense of art. Nothing, I think, could be further from the truth. But Boyd can even find affinities between Nabokov and Chekhov—in that they both on occasion released mice caught in traps. Can you imagine Anton writing to his mother as Volodya does to his from Paris: “Already my bon mots are coming back to me”? He hobnobs with the poet Khodasovich, the novelist Aldanov, and the newspaper editor Ilya Fondaminsky, and enjoys the company of the other literary and political lights of the emigration, but is saddened by his brother Sergey’s homosexual lifestyle. Staying with the Fondaminskys, he is treated like a king:
. . . he slept thirteen hours, and Fondaminsky was waiting . . . to run a bath for him when he awoke. Amalia Fondaminsky . . . provided him with a special dressing table with his own talc and eau-de-cologne and soap. She typed up the thirty-odd pages of Despair—its revision just completed—that he planned to read [in public]. She even said nothing when his constant smoking badly affected her lungs.
As he dressed for his reading, Sirin found [his friend] Kyandzhuntsev’s tuxedo jacket too short, leaving exposed both the cuffs of his silk shirt (which Kyandzhuntsev had also lent him) and the belt of his trousers. Amalia . . . quickly made some elastic armbands, Zenzinov gave him his braces, though his own trousers kept falling down, and when Sirin could at last be pronounced elegant, all three of them took a taxi . . . to the Musée Sociale [sic].
At the reading (Nabokov was to give many such over the years), “a dreadful woman reeking unbearably of sweat approached him and said something he did not catch”; it was a former mistress “who later in the week sent him two scolding letters.” Shamelessly, Nabokov gave a three-hour reading. Back in Berlin, he started work on The Gift, and came down with excruciating neuralgia intercostalis: “It is a rare illness, as is everything about me.” Ungrammatical, but inadvertently honest.
Problems with English translations prompted Nabokov to start writing in English. “To translate oneself is a frightful business,” he writes at a time when looking after his little boy, Dmitri, was quite a chore, too: “looking over one’s insides and trying them on like a glove, and discovering the best dictionary to be not a friend but the enemy camp.” Still, even in Nabokov’s own translation, Despair does not make Boyd’s hit parade; the masterpieces, he tells us, are The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, Speak, Memory, Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. Meanwhile the Nabokovs are living in straitened circumstances but, as Vladimir puts it, they “always had enough for clean, comfortable quarters [a proud prevarication, see below] and good food, including as much fresh orange juice as baby could imbibe.”
All fiction is a conscious or unconscious attempt to remold reality in some personal, special way.
In Paris again, Nabokov, at age thirty-seven, has what seems to have been his one extramarital affair. It was Irina Guadanini’s mother who, rather farcically, set it up; but the affair with Irina became a serious, bittersweet story that made him break out with psoriasis and drove him to the verge of suicide. Boyd notes that “Nabokov was never a person who knew how to take love lightly,” and even after he rejoined his wife and son in Prague, he and Irina conducted a clandestine correspondence, in which, however, “there was never a hint of criticism of his wife.” When an anonymous letter from Paris alerted Véra, Vladimir had to lie; later he confessed, but refused Véra’s offer to set him free. Still, the letters continued, Véra found out, and there were many stormy scenes.
By the time the Nabokovs moved to France, the affair was over. Nevertheless, defying Vladimir’s wishes, Irina came to Cannes, and there was a sad confrontation and altercation with her lover. For hours, she stayed on the beach to watch him disport himself with Vera and Dmitri; finally she left, never to see Nabokov again. He, meanwhile, had finished The Gift, “in the eyes of many, the greatest Russian novel of the century,” a statement that strikes me as criticism by Gallup poll. Owing to the timidity of emigre publishers, it took fifteen years for the work to be published in full. Marital peace, however, was fully restored: “Ahead lay another forty years of serenely happy marriage.”
The thirty pages that Boyd devotes to The Gift, though excessive, are intelligent, thorough, generally persuasive criticism even for those less enamored of the book than he is. Still, his writing does at times become a Nabokov pastiche: “. . . almost every sinuous sentence bulges with parentheses, like a snake rendered sluggish after swallowing too many plump, irresistible mice.” Unlike Boyd’s or Nabokov’s, Chekhov’s sentences would have set those mice free.
Nineteen thirty-eight and 1939 were to be years of near-destitution. But Nabokov, undeterred, kept writing, often in top form. Not so Boyd, when he describes Nabokov’s play The Event as moving “like a Chekhov drama played at 78 r.p.m., with all the gestures jerkier and the voices either more squeakily comic or more gratingly shrill.” This trope is doubly unfortunate: first, because a Chekhov drama is not an LP record; second, because jerkier gestures have to do with film projection, not sound reproduction. It is, however, nice to learn, speaking of music, that Rachmaninov so admired Sirin that, hearing of his financial woes, he sent him, sight unseen, twenty-five hundred francs.
For a while, the three Nabokovs lived in a one-room Paris flat where, what with Dmitri’s needs coming first, Vladimir wrote on a suitcase placed across the bidet until, after sundown in the unheated bathroom, his fingers turned numb. With presumably unimpaired fingers, Boyd writes: “More than any other Nabokov work, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight bares its devices, like an X-ray of a grinning conjurer.” But you don’t detect conjuring tricks by X-ray, except in the unlikely case of a magician’s using his own bones to conjure with. Altogether Boyd’s diction, never flawless, gets sloppier toward the end of the book; we read of “a brush near death,” of “V.’s dissolving into Sebastian and Sebastian [sic] into Nabokov,” and so on.
It is one of literary history’s piquancies that Nabokov worked on his first English novel with Lucie Léon Noel on the same table on which her husband had worked with Joyce on Finnegans Wake for twelve years. Nabokov did in fact meet Joyce at a party, without anecdotal results. Modestly, he admits, “I am always a disappointing guest, neither inclined nor able to shine socially.” Though home life with the spoiled and obstreperous Dmitri is hard in cramped quarters, Nabokov writes away busily, turning out, among other things, his last Russian works: an unsuccessful early version of Lolita, and an equally misfired first shot at Pale Fire. As the first volume of Boyd’s book ends, Nabokov has pretty much mastered writing in English, and, just a jump ahead of the rapidly advancing Germans, embarks with wife and child for America. “Their worries,” Boyd concludes, “were over.”
Not, however, the reader’s. Will the concluding volume be even longer? Will Nabokov be declared in it the second—nay, first—Shakespeare? Will Boyd, so good at resurrecting vanished places and people, run amok when confronted with surviving persons and settings? Will we be treated to descriptions of every Cornell University brick Nabokov’s gaze glided over? The true name and location of every motel that figures in Lolita? Interviews with every waiter at the Palace Hotel in Montreux?
What we are unlikely to get is a full treatment of Nabokov’s narcissistic gamesmanship and Olympian arrogance—what Sartre put his finger on when he said that Nabokov “never writes without seeing himself write, as others listen to themselves speak.” True, this observation comes from a hostile critique, but one may come away with identical strictures from even the most reverential tributes. For example, William Woodin Rowe, in Nabokov’s Deceptive World, writes: “Elusive inter-echoes from line to line, from book to book, subtly expand. . . . [Nabokov] writes from a grandly isolated pinnacle.” And Julia Bader, in Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov’s English Novels, observes: “The search for pattern is both chronicled by and projected onto the made-up world of self-conscious literary games. Since this world is an interior mirror of the artist’s imagination as filtered through his manipulation of novelistic tools, the surface texture is the most telling reflection of a personal vision.”
Nabokov “never writes without seeing himself write, as others listen to themselves speak.”
Do we really want a fiction full of such “inter-echoes” that requires reading and rereading the master’s every self-serving word? Might we not be tempted to let him play his literary solitaire by himself on his “grandly isolated pinnacle"? Are too much “manipulation,” too many “interior mirrors,” more than we can use outside a megalomaniacal magician’s fun house? Could “surface texture” have been elevated to heights where non-Sherpa readers cannot follow?
I think that three books constitute Nabokov’s not inconsiderable legacy: Lolita, Pnin, and Speak, Memory. In them, Nabokov’s forte, playful self-pity leavened with mocking humor, is at its strongest, as is the evocation of lost worlds. Onanistic word-games and patronizing ostentation are kept in relative check, in contrast to, say, Pale Fire and its nonfiction counterpart, the Onegin translation and commentaries, or in Ada or ardor to outdo everyone from Proust to Borges.
And whatever one may think of Nabokov, Boyd’s book will be, in the eyes of many, the greatest Russian-novelist’s-biography of the century. It is certainly minutious and monumental, splendid at rendering the details of Nabokov’s life, thorough in interpreting his works, and evocative in conveying family background, historical panoramas, and personal relations. From Wunderkind to wanderer in exile, from enfant terrible to enchanter, from lepidopterist to lover, from dilettante to diligent writer, from Vyra to Véra, everything and everyone is copiously here. The evaluations may overshoot the mark, the style may fall short; but the loving scrutiny does not miss a single pattern on this rare butterfly’s wings.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 6, on page 35
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