The Wizard of Lake Cayuga

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

by Brian Boyd
Princeton University Press, 783 pp., $35.00

Outsize literary biographies have been appearing for a long time now; they used to carry a rider like “The Life of So-and-So Narrated in Connection with the History of His Times,” which allowed ample space for divagation. Nowadays the bare bones of a biography are likely to be covered with critical analysis. Brian Boyd in his immense new biography of Vladimir Nabokov has struck a balance, emphasizing the critical without occluding the historical circumstances, of which Nabokov himself was sometimes disdainful. The biographer has had a spacious and complex career to deal with; his two volumes are packed full of incidents and insights, enough to provide a feast for the leisurely, inquisitive reader.

Nabokov’s career spanned three continents and as many historical epochs; the man was not just a writer of fiction, but a poet, a playwright, a scholar, a controversialist, a teacher, translator, and entomologist. He experienced the extremes of neglect and acclaim, considerable wealth and wretched poverty. Having established himself, while in exile, as an admired author in his native Russian, he turned in midlife to the very different resources of English, and with hardly a moment of transition won acclaim as a superb stylist in his second tongue. The life alone constitutes a panorama in the grand style; the literary works are extraordinary for their variety and complexity. Brian Boyd has been granted a subject at once spacious and colorful; he has gone at it with zest and vitality. To be sure, the most ardent Nabokovite may on occasion lose heart as the sheer weight of pages mounts up; a few biographical formulas may start to ring hollow as a result of iteration. The civilized way to approach a biography as immense as this one is gradually, reflectively, leaving behind in one’s slow progress a furrow of marginal notes and questions, and perhaps unresolved doubts.

For Nabokov’s writing, whether in Russian or English, presents enough perplexities and open possibilities to keep a critically minded biographer constantly on the hop. Boyd’s subject is a joker who liked on occasion to hide one set of jokes behind a couple of other sets; he was fascinated by translucency, irridescence, duplicity, cruelty. It’s not to be expected that Mr. Boyd’s biography will explore, let alone resolve, such an arabesque of complexities; but it’s a great advantage to have them aligned, interrelated, and available for the reader’s private animation. One may disagree with a number of Boyd’s particular judgments and yet feel, again and again, gratitude for the scope and detail of his backgrounds, the exemplary energy of his analyses.

Though the first of the volumes is subtitled “The Russian Years,”1 and the second “The American Years,” neither formula is beyond reach of a quibble. The “Russian” years included two decades of exile, mostly in Berlin, while the “American” years include almost as much time spent in Europe, mostly Switzerland. Still, however we label them, the two periods are decisively different, and pose special problems for the biographer. In recounting…

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