Transparent Things is Nabokov’s sixteenth novel, his seventh in English. In an odd sense it is a fresh start, since Nabokov’s English novels, at least since Lolita (1955), have all been published in counterpoint or crossweave with the English versions of his earlier Russian novels: Invitation to a Beheading between Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962); five Russian novels (The Gift, The Defense, The Eye, Despair, and King, Queen, Knave) between Pale Fire and Ada (1969); two more since Ada (Mary, Glory) to close the series of nine Russian novels—Laughter in the Dark was translated in 1938. The other two English novels, since I seem to find myself listing the whole oeuvre, are The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947).
Transparent Things, then, is Nabokov’s first work in English to have no Russian novel peering over its shoulder, waiting for its chance, and this seems to make a large difference in the writing. The novel is brief, terse, oblique, abstract, almost penitent, almost awkward, as if the glitter of earlier works had to be atoned for, or as if the re-creation of all the Russian novels in English had ended a cycle and the author had to begin again, groping for a new style.
The voice here is not the intricate, flippant, aesthetic, or aristocratic voice of Van Veen, Humbert Humbert, Professor Botkin, or the Russian Nabokov, indeed is not really a voice at all but rather a set of rapid shifts of tone, imitations of the tones of various commonplace pretexts and occasions for stories: the television talk show, the letter of acknowledgment, the dim, clinical essay on a vast subject, the interview with the prison psychiatrist. “More in a moment,” we read at a chapter’s end. Or: “Let us now illustrate our difficulties.” A chapter opens: “We shall now discuss love” and closes: “We must end now our discussion of love.” Now and again a breezy, hopeful note intrudes, of the kind that usually appears in Nabokov’s fiction only in the mouths of murderous fools like the M’sieur Pierre of Invitation to a Beheading. “It might be fun,” the novel says archly, and its last words are: “Easy, you know, does it, son.”
The narrative excuse for this manner is not hard to find, although I don’t think it matters much whether we find it or not. There is in Transparent Things a minor but eminent novelist who talks in this way, and we can, if we wish, see him as the unseen author of the book, which is the story of the ungainly life and transfiguring death of a man called Hugh Person, who works for the novelist’s publisher. The novelist has written about this man, perhaps invented him, and has then disappeared into his own text, where we learn that he writes English (he is German) with a “shapeliness, a richness, an ostensible dash, that caused some of the less demanding reviewers …