Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years
Outsize literary biographies have been appearing for a long time now; they used to carry a rider like “The Life of So-and-So Narrated in Connection with the History of His Times,” which allowed ample space for divagation. Nowadays the bare bones of a biography are likely to be covered with critical analysis. Brian Boyd in his immense new biography of Vladimir Nabokov has struck a balance, emphasizing the critical without occluding the historical circumstances, of which Nabokov himself was sometimes disdainful. The biographer has had a spacious and complex career to deal with; his two volumes are packed full of incidents and insights, enough to provide a feast for the leisurely, inquisitive reader.
Nabokov’s career spanned three continents and as many historical epochs; the man was not just a writer of fiction, but a poet, a playwright, a scholar, a controversialist, a teacher, translator, and entomologist. He experienced the extremes of neglect and acclaim, considerable wealth and wretched poverty. Having established himself, while in exile, as an admired author in his native Russian, he turned in midlife to the very different resources of English, and with hardly a moment of transition won acclaim as a superb stylist in his second tongue. The life alone constitutes a panorama in the grand style; the literary works are extraordinary for their variety and complexity. Brian Boyd has been granted a subject at once spacious and colorful; he has gone at it with zest and vitality. To be sure, the most ardent Nabokovite may on occasion lose heart as the sheer weight of pages mounts up; a few biographical formulas may start to ring hollow as a result of iteration. The civilized way to approach a biography as immense as this one is gradually, reflectively, leaving behind in one’s slow progress a furrow of marginal notes and questions, and perhaps unresolved doubts.
For Nabokov’s writing, whether in Russian or English, presents enough perplexities and open possibilities to keep a critically minded biographer constantly on the hop. Boyd’s subject is a joker who liked on occasion to hide one set of jokes behind a couple of other sets; he was fascinated by translucency, irridescence, duplicity, cruelty. It’s not to be expected that Mr. Boyd’s biography will explore, let alone resolve, such an arabesque of complexities; but it’s a great advantage to have them aligned, interrelated, and available for the reader’s private animation. One may disagree with a number of Boyd’s particular judgments and yet feel, again and again, gratitude for the scope and detail of his backgrounds, the exemplary energy of his analyses.
Though the first of the volumes is subtitled “The Russian Years,”1 and the second “The American Years,” neither formula is beyond reach of a quibble. The “Russian” years included two decades of exile, mostly in Berlin, while the “American” years include almost as much time spent in Europe, mostly Switzerland. Still, however we label them, the two periods are decisively different, and pose special problems for the biographer. In recounting the earlier period, Boyd meets difficult competition from Nabokov’s own memoir, Speak, Memory (a k a Conclusive Evidence). If he is not to cause offense he can hardly venture to contradict or correct the words of his own subject; yet, with a writer of Nabokov’s active and elusive imagination, he can hardly just repeat. Speak, Memory is by no means a contemporary document; more than sixty years elapsed between the events described in its first chapter and its publication—after many revisions, many corrections—in 1966. (An earlier version appeared in 1951.) A thoroughly sophisticated artist composed those scenes which are presented as the musings of a child of four or five. Of course, the important thing is not crude “reality” but the radiant vision that Nabokov preserved of his youth; that, however, poses delicate problems for a biographer whose enterprise requires him to distinguish fact from fantasy.
The pressures of biographical literalism lie heavier on Boyd’s second volume than on his first. In Berlin particularly the social underbrush was less thick, Nabokov’s imaginative strategies were just being worked out, and many of the writings for which the biographer must account are relatively unfamiliar; a certain amount of elementary paraphrase is practically essential. Writing for an émigré audience, Nabokov (or Sirin, as he then was) produced, for severely practical reasons, a great many sketches, short stories, and articles. Most of us will be permanently in Boyd’s debt for having recovered so much of this early work from the files of émigré magazines and from collections of unpublished papers. But few of them call for extended analysis. Even the finished novels, such as Laughter in the Dark or Invitation to a Beheading, do not have the deep lacquered finish that leaves a reader artfully suspended between surfaces, between definitions of imaginative identity. The Gift includes a set of polished equivocations. Though the very long novel he conceived was never completed, it is, as Boyd argues convincingly, rich in intimations and implications that were fulfilled in Nabokov’s later works in English.
But with the later novels, we find ourselves in deeper waters, and here the biographical approach constrains Boyd to a frequent literal univocality that I’m sure doesn’t answer to his better knowledge. To take one example of many, he discusses Clare Quilty (that curiously named “heavy” of Lolita) as if he were an everyday, three-dimensional person and not in some major way a phantom of Humbert Humbert’s insanely guilty, insanely jealous, imagination. The provocative macaronic puns that Quilty scatters across the ledgers of American hotels show his figure actually being created by Humbert’s obsession. His taunting and tantalizing, like his debauching Lolita into an actress in a skin flick, are as much Humbert’s invention as those of a literal person. Naturally, a biographer has many fish to fry besides the intricacies of a paper chase like this; but passing them over leaves the novel more stolid and less diaphanous than it really is.
Again, Boyd hardly gives voice to the suspicion that behind the figure of Humbert’s first youthful infatuation, Annabel Leigh, a reader should be aware of Poe’s child-bride Annabel Lee. (The biographer refers to her familiarly as “Annabel,” i.e., the girl next door.) The difficulty is not by any means the biographer’s imperception—the Poe element was stitched into the Lolita story since its first twitchings, when its title was “The Kingdom by the Sea.” Boyd knows all about it, but it doesn’t fit conveniently into his narrative.
The biography of the Russian years is rich in bibliographical information and in images of the Russian exile community in Berlin; the American years, livened by a pair of monumental quarrels, one with Edmund Wilson over the translation of Eugene Onegin and the other with Andrew Field the irritating biographer, are replete with academic routines, royalty statistics, and public relations interviews. None of this necessary biographical material is or pretends to be a substitute for the particular pleasures of reading the novels themselves—to which Boyd presents a set of more or less successful introductions. Lolita, apart from the literalness I have mentioned, is admirably handled; Pnin, though less challenging, is given a sympathetic reading; Ada provides Boyd with an exercise in tact, since he clearly has little sympathy with Ada or Van Veen, and must concentrate instead on the magically synthetic landscapes. But the central critical exercise of this part of the book concerns Pale Fire.
For some reason, this most opalescent and slippery of fictions is subject to the most dogmatic treatment. “In sheer beauty of form,” Boyd begins, “Pale Fire may well be the most perfect novel ever written.” More perfect or less perfect, one would like to hear the matter disputed at length. Boyd, however, moves on to argue in two directions, first that Kinbote, the ostensible author of the commentary on John Shade’s poem, is not Kinbote at all but a fantasy of John Shade himself, and second that he is the fantasy of a mad Russian named Vseslav Botkin. These are not very compatible alternatives, and it is hard to say which does more damage to a reading of the fiction. Shade is a bumbling academic of indigenous Appalachian stock and character—provincial, literal-minded, distinguished by only one quality, his sensitivity to the possibility of life after death. Boyd says,
Nabokov has built up Shade in such a way as to leave no doubt that the poet could have conceived the idea of hiding behind his commentator’s mad mind.
But Shade has no notion at any point that there is to be a commentary. Least of all could he have conceived that Kinbote, whom he had known so briefly and casually, would be the commentator. Besides, not even the author can be supposed to have written a commentary, loony or not, on a poem before it was created. But Shade does not survive by more than a few minutes the creation of his poem. When, then, can he be supposed to have invented Kinbote and his wacky commentary?
As for the second supposition, that Kinbote is just a mask for, or fantasy of, the mad Russian scholar Botkin, it is based on a phrase in a diary Nabokov prepared for use in possible interviews—whether to inform interviewers or bewilder them we cannot know. But if “Kinbote and his whole Zemblan past” are nothing but a demented fantasy of Botkin, what hinders Shade, his poem, Goldsworth Wordsmith, Appalachia, and New Wye itself from being equally fantasies in the mind of Botkin? Indeed, why may not Botkin himself be merely a fantasy in the mind of an unknown third, or fifth, party?2 Unraveling the book in this way seems a futile pastime.
Some part of Boyd’s problems with Pale Fire (as I see them) may stem from a basic and not easily sustained literary judgment. Exceptionally (though not, it must be said, eccentrically), Boyd takes the poem of John Shade as a work of serious literary art. It is “a brilliant achievement in its own right…. Tender, brave, wise, and witty, the poem builds its lucid lines into the shapeliest of structures with all the assurance of a master-piece.” How this applies to the professor’s description of himself shaving in the bathtub, or to his account of the goings-on at IPH need not be argued in detail. It certainly is remote from the common judgment of these often lumpy and digressive couplets.
Shade the poet seems to me as much a joke as Kinbote the critic; the pedestrian ordinariness of the one combines with the egomaniacal looniness of the other to create a gulf of mutual incomprehension. In some wild way, I don’t doubt, this incorporates feelings that grew out of Nabokov’s experience with the uncontrollably expanding annotation to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, on which the novelist was steadily at work. But it has much more to do with the ultimate isolation of human beings and with the cold, astral distances between their individual orbits. Only pale reflections of partial light pass between them, out of which people try to strain only half-decipherable messages. Open spaces and splintered reflections are the materials of this novel; a reader’s main task must be to keep it from deteriorating into complete indeterminacy. As for formal perfection, it will be time to think of that when we feel able to say with some assurance what the shape of Pale Fire actually is.