The Scorpion God
The early Nabokov novels, written during the late Twenties and Thirties and published in the Russian émigré journals at the time, are now being carefully translated with the expected minute care by the master and his son. Glory has the prickly worded yet nonchalant detachment of the best young European writing of that period; one can think at once of half a dozen novels of that time, excellent in themselves, but vulgarly knocked out by fashion and history. Henry Green, for example, or the early Anthony Powell. It was a genre standoffish to outsiders, affectionately malicious to those within small, happy circles. For a decade or two the artist was to know himself as an exile and not a journalistic joiner, and, to exiles, language and a few friends are the sacred country. The dictionary is the one holy book; as in another exile-creating period, there will be a turn to Stendhal’s requirement of “exact chemistry” in the description of places, feeling, and people. This rejuvenates a stale world.
When the young man in Nabokov’s fifth Russian novel takes one of the trying girls of the time to the piny and reedy outskirts of Berlin these are, they must be, “lacustrine.” The sensations of being young lie between the rituals of being offhand and the hourly torment of pedantry. As for recording the general experience of growing a will and imposing it on the sensibility, the sense of inner exile has been indispensable to decent writing and has nothing to do with being an aesthete. A youth like Nabokov’s Martin is, in fact, a genuine Russian émigré and his only advantage is that he is a cosmopolitan—Swiss father, Russian mother, holidays at Biarritz before the revolution, flight, English, education, and Wanderjahre afterward—but these accidental things do not explain why he knows in what way waves come in on any shore or why he grows, from day to day, by traveling back, forth, and crisscross in reverie. He may have had the luck to come from Yalta to London and Cambridge via Constantinople and Lausanne, in happy puberty, but his exotic journey will contain an inner one of greater interest.
In his Introduction to Glory Nabokov fires off a cheering shot or two at “the now discredited” Freudians and their “womby wonder” before Martin’s final gesture in secretly getting back into Russia at the end of the novel. The author’s difficulty in finding a title for the novel really contains the key. It was first to be called Romanticheskiy vek (“romantic times”) but was changed to Podvig:
…chosen partly because I had had enough of hearing Western journalists call our era “materialistic,” “practical,” “utilitarian,” etc., but mainly because the purpose of my novel, my only one with a purpose, lay in stressing the thrill and glamour that my young expatriate finds in the most ordinary pleasures as well as in the seemingly meaningless adventure of a lonely life.
Podvig, it seems, literally means “gallant …