The Waltz Invention
Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
Escape Into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov has written quite a lot about Vladimir Nabokov, and now Page Stegner has written about him too. It must be said that Mr. Stegner’s approach is a good deal less sophisticated than Nabokov’s. For one thing, in a slightly uneasy way Mr. Stegner offers to justify Nabokov, to show that he possesses not only a brilliant style but also (though he “tries to obfuscate that emotion by means of a brilliant style”) a deeply compassionate nature. In a somewhat similar spirit Mr. Stegner presents Humbert Humbert as a poor, compassion-worthy gentleman who was simply trying to recover his childhood by peeking at young girls. Unhappily he was seduced by Lolita, which spoiled everything. For Humbert, at least, though not for those readers “who are able to trancend their socially conditioned response to sexual perversion.”
I wonder if anyone has written a book about Peter de Vries? Nabokov and De Vries are both considerable wits and word-boys, but whereas De Vries despairs of his fellow beings without ceasing to love them altogether and finds the human condition pretty rough but still the only one we have, Nabokov loves memories, chiefly memories of his family, feels a large and fairly comprehensive distaste for the real, and seems to believe that “words alone are certain good.” Nabokov, of course, is much more amenable to high-level discussion. The riddler always is, with the practically illimitable scope he offers for pattern-tracing, the pursuit of maybe allusions and might-be correspondences, which in the work of Nabokov amounts to a rich and welcome substitute for the old bone of symbolology that time and scholarly dentures have worn away. Unhappy about “evaluation,” an activity as tedious or as hazardous as grading examination papers, our critics turn to free commentary and explication, art grows increasing aesthetic, criticism becomes a paperchase, and never mind what is actually written on the paper…
I WOULD SAY that Pnin is Nabokov’s best book to date. Mr. Stegner opts for Lolita, but his section on Pnin is the most warmly written, and I suspect that only his sense that Pnin is insufficiently Nabokovian and that the admirer of Nabokov is in honor bound to elevate Lolita has prevented him from coming out in favor of Pnin. He goes so far as to acknowledge that
perhaps because the composition is more straightforward and the author’s controlling hand less apparent, Pnin is the most moving and real of Nabokov’s characters. It seems as if both composer and solver, being less involved with intellectual gymnastics, are able to concentrate on the depiction and understanding of a truly human being and his redemptive response to the painfulness of exile.
“Most moving and real…a truly human being…” Yet “Lolita is the greatest novel that Nabokov has yet written.” Few indeed of Nabokov’s fans have questioned the implications of his obsession with the superman hero, arrogant and (except where he himself is concerned) callous, lording it over his “natural” inferiors. That …