Nabokov’s Touch

Look at the Harlequins!

by Vladimir Nabokov
McGraw-Hill, 253 pp., $7.95

Among the many prestidigitating selves inside Vladimir Nabokov is a valet who can palm himself off on readers when the master grammarian is sleeping off his skills next door. As he has said, he “has always been a conjuror: all art is deception and so is nature—see the butterfly mimicking the leaf.” So Look at the Harlequins! is the valet’s fast-talking parody. He becomes Vadim—even Vadim McNab for a while, since Americans have difficulty with the two “o” ‘s that follow—a Russian émigré aristocrat, quick to enjoy puberty, living briefly in Cambridge (Eng) and France, writing poems and novels—ghostly list of books supplied.

He is teaching Joyce and, among others, Browning and Sterne—misspelled Stern by all students—at an American college; he is a self-loving pedant, a lepidopterist, but now the valet gives him three or four successive wives. There is Iris the idyllic sunbather in France, a girl with irresistible thin arms who is eventually shot down in the street by an insane lover. The next wife is a prudish Russian, slow at typing, who frowns when embraced and is unreliable in bed: once when the back of her hand “chanced to brush against the taut front of my trousers, she uttered a chilly ‘pardon‘ (Fr)” and fell into a sulk. She leaves her professor and is drowned in her flimsy lakeside cottage during a lucky tornado, leaving, if you remember your Lolita, a very young daughter Isabel who causes gossip in academic circles by going about naked in the house where her adoring father tries to bring her up. She reminds him of lost Iris.

Isabel brings stepmother trouble when the Professor next marries a rumbustious nymphomaniac who has supposed—falsely—that the Professor is about to win “a Prestigious Prize.” An aggressive furnisher, she fills the house with the latest music-playing objects and proclaims that “all art is self-expression,” with awful Freudian overtones. Soon, when she takes to visiting eye specialists, Vadim realizes she is once more on the cheerful sexual prowl; Isabel grows up to be a dolt who goes off with a young American believer to “Sovietland.” Vadim’s marriage breaks up and he begins a long tour of motels.

These misfortunes have not helped Vadim with his chronic neuralgia. Insomnia and an acquaintance with dementia are possibly brought on by a philosophical problem: at point H he can visualize the journey to point P, but at the imaginary point P he cannot visualize the return journey to point H. This, as his next possible wife tries to tell him, is because he has confused the concepts of direction and duration: space and time—something like the dilemma that worried Tristram Shandy, for Nabokov inherits the old Russian taste for Shandyism. Sterne, more than Joyce, is his master in English literature. The dilemma is not solved until Vadim has a seizure, falls over a stone wall (point P) when he is about to return to meet his promised new wife, and we see him fighting his way forward to…

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