The works of Vladimir Nabokov—full of games, puns, parodies, literary allusions, and mad or otherwise untrustworthy narrators—have long been a hunting ground for literary scholars. Robert Roper wants to reclaim them for civilians. The best, he thinks, are products—in whole or part—of Nabokov’s two American decades: the novels Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire, and the memoir Speak, Memory (my favorites, as it happens). Nabokov in America asks, engagingly, how they arose from a love affair with America.

Roper writes well and, mercifully, makes no attempt to mimic Nabokov’s don’t-try-this-at-home prose style. (Symptoms of the mimicry syndrome afflicting many commentators include obsessive alliteration and fondness for the word “palpate.”) He acknowledges debts to “foundational” biographies—Brian Boyd’s of...

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