Nabokov: The Man and His Work
Keys to Lolita
The train stands still. The world is moving. Objects shatter into points of light, reflections are observant, shadows follow us like menacing dogs. All the visual qualities of things, and these predominate, are hard and impersonal. Everything’s a mirror or an image in a mirror; depth is space upon a surface where every visual relationship is retained, though subtly inverted. A Nabokov novel is sliding by us, through our still attention, and the objects which it holds up to us are flat and disconnected: cathedral, shop sign, top hat, fish, a barber’s copper basin. The people, head to foot, are faces (knees, toes, elbows: these are also faces); faces done in glossy printers’ colors and stamped out on the covers of a million magazines, the copies of each kind the same, yet when found in different combinations, they are strangely altered (if left in the seat of a train or taken to a room, scissored up for scrapbooks, read in bed, or stacked in dusty attics to be saved), and they possess, in every place they occupy, an additional significance, as cards are changed in fresh hands, so that the two of spades on one occasion fills a flush, while on another proves to be superfluous, or as the White Queen’s puissant Knave is rendered impotent, slid to a new square. Cards and chessmen, characters and words: all are hollow powers. Ruled by rules which confine their moves, they form a world of crisp, complex, abstract, and often elegant, though finally trivial, relations.
King, Queen, Knave is Nabokov’s second Russian novel, but it’s his twelfth in English, and if Gleb Struve’s translation of a passage from the Russian edition is accurate, and a standard sample, then the text has been revised, and improved, line by line. The work seems early only in the clarity of its intentions. Nabokov’s esthetic was already formed, and this book’s written to its program. The author’s manipulations are quite obvious, even blatant, for we’re supposed to see his clever hands holding the crossed sticks, managing the strings. Smoothed (one can’t be sure how much), youthful gaucheries perhaps removed, mistakes erased: its date is now much later than it was. Each verb and noun, as though in search of something sweet, fly to their modifications, and this is because the modifications manifest the master: reveal him, praise him—glorify. The result is sometimes fussily decorative, like insistent blossoms on a length of chintz.
The man was leafing through the magazine, and the combination of his face with its enticing cover was intolerably grotesque. The ruddy egg woman sat next to the monster, her sleepy shoulder touching him. The youth’s rucksack rubbed against his slick sticker-mottled black valise. And worst of all, the old ladies ignoring their foul neighbor munched their sandwiches and sucked on fuzzy sections of orange, wrapping the peels in scraps of paper and popping them daintily under the seat. But …
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A Wrong Note August 1, 1968