Nabokov: His Life in Part
Andrew Field’s critical book, Nabokov, His Life in Art, published ten years ago, still stands out as an inquisitive, catholic, and satisfying study of a macabre and lyrical grammarian of genius, the pages of whose novels blister the hands as one turns them. His intellect has the fever of the classic Russian gambler. The game is sometimes cards—he writes his books on index cards, and even talks by them in formal interviews—but mostly chess, played to prosecute and win.
Now, in attempting a portrait or a “Life in Part,” as he rather nervously calls it, Mr. Field has discreetly joined in Nabokov’s game. He arrives at the famous hotel in Montreux with tape recorder, pencil, and notebook, to work on a “first biography” of the novelist whose charming wife looks on as the players sit opposite each other. Curious that a novelist who has put on autobiographical masks in his writing, who strongly believes that a writer’s intimate life is in his works, and who has exposed a persona in Speak Memory, should want his biography to be done now. Perhaps Speak Memory has left him with the irritating sensation—which all autobiographers know—that the memoir has the half-vacant stare of a premature tombstone; perhaps he is tired of the gaps and the flattening, telescoping tricks of recollection, and can’t bear to think of things he forgot at the time.
But, as Mr. Field says, Nabokov is above all a professional. Both husband and wife, for all their deep privacy, are aware that a first biography of any famous person sets a tone for its successors. The odd thing is that Nabokov, who is something of an actor and intensely aware of projected selves and double natures, who knows that one lives in other people’s lives as well as in one’s own, showed alarm when, for example, Field revealed that he had questioned others already, including Nabokov’s sister. The large Nabokov family is an empire and thinks of its anecdotage as a closed shop. One really does not want to become an anecdote outside the circle, but fears that this is what biography means. There is no special vanity in this: one is entitled to contradict one’s brother, sister, aunts and uncles. One is not even necessarily vain: an imaginative man hates to see his “pleasing, anxious being” wasted in mere family gossip.
What about Field, the competitor (as he calls himself) in the game of biographical chess? The opening chapters are really a defensive examination of the biographical maneuver and in this are highly Nabokovian. There is even a comic incident. Arriving one Sunday for lunch at the perfectly out-of-date and grand hotel in Montreux, Field wore an open-necked shirt and no jacket, thinking that he was going to eat in the Nabokovs’ vast apartment. But on Sundays they eat “hotel food” in the restaurant and Mme Nabokov tactfully suggests that he wear one of Nabokov’s jackets …