The Wizard of Lake Cayuga

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

by Brian Boyd
Princeton University Press, 783 pp., $35.00

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.

The critical analyses in Boyd’s biography are most likely to cause dissatisfaction; but they do not interfere with the solid foundations of biographical fact and intellectual background that he has laid down. Like many deft writers, Nabokov has often been accused of mere cleverness, of “having nothing to say.” At least the seriousness that Boyd has brought to the study of his texts should lay that facile canard to rest. He has read the books, he has visited the places—has visited them, moreover, with his eyes open and his senses alert.

From his earliest years, Nabokov had a passion for the specific, particular fact; his biographer has something of the same preference for what is unique and distinctive. He has read liberally in the nineteenth-century novels, French and English particularly, on which Nabokov’s imagination was nourished; he has read in the secondary literature as well. He has learned enough entomology to follow Nabokov’s classificatory enterprises—though I have heard that up-to-date entomologists now deal with genetic subtleties far more intricate than the large anatomical distinctions of an earlier day. Evidently some special pleading enters into Boyd’s defense of Nabokov’s ruthless literalisms in the translations of Eugene Onegin; but he has compared the other versions, and has reasons to justify all but the most ungainly distortions of Nabokov’s English idiom. There is no reason to doubt his verdict that Nabokov’s Russian version of Alice in Wonderland is the best of those that have been attempted; it is reassuring to know that he has made the necessary comparisons. In short, the two volumes contain a wealth of detail not only about the man himself but about his range of interests and opinions.

It is Boyd’s good fortune that the range of Nabokov’s mind was wide, bold, and original without being more than occasionally idiosyncratic. Nabokov was an independent-minded and emphatic thinker, whose ideas about Dostoevsky, Mann, and Eliot, about translation, tsarism, and the Vietnam War (he strongly supported it) verged frequently on the cranky. Long before he retired to the sixth floor of the Montreux Palace, he was an isolated, intricately introspective person. Yet the hermit was only one streak of his personality; he could be genial, generous, jocose. Across the spectrum of Boyd’s two volumes, one little scene stands out as revealing. Attending the half-spoof, half-macabre movie Beat the Devil, Nabokov laughed so uproariously as to disturb the audience and prompt discreet whispers from his wife: “Volodya… Volodya….” That was just one indication of the effervescent life in the man; the new biography contains many such incidents.

Not in the hope of qualifying or correcting Boyd’s account of the Cornell years, it has occurred to me to add a few details. At the time, I was an untenured assistant professor in the English department, with a particular interest in the Division of Literature, which brought me into occasional contact with Nabokov. I liked and admired him as I did few of the senior humanities professors.

Cornell in Nabokov’s time (I have not taught there in nearly a quarter of a century) was a distinctive university in a very distinctive setting. Hidden behind the Adirondacks, halfway between the two major highways crossing New York State, it was near the center of a district ominously known as the “Snow Belt.” The railroad connection was slow and sporadic: the Lehigh Valley Line. There was an airline called Mohawk; legend explained its splendid safety record by the fact that its planes never took off so long as there was a cloud in the sky.

As a land-grant university in the middle of a solidly agricultural countryside, Cornell devoted itself in good part to training farmers. That was the “Ag School,” and its blessings were widely diffused. One could buy apples or cider in season from the university orchards, milk and cheese from the university dairy operations, and dog food allusively labeled “Big Red,” from the local feed-and-grain outlet. One could visit the model pig farm, look into the university fish hatcheries, or wander the model forests, the spacious experimental gardens. At this level there were parts of the university that might fairly have been labeled “Tompkins County A & M”; yet at the same time, within the same administrative framework, there were eminent physicists, famous professors of Greek, distinguished musicologists, philosophers and historians of international reputation.

Because they were on different budgets (one “state,” the other “endowed”) the two parts of the university did not clash directly very often, but comic misunderstandings could easily arise. After I had been persuaded to break my personal rule against administering anything, I served briefly as chairman of the Division of Literature. (It was not a department, for it had no faculty and no budget; it was a cooperative enterprise to which the various humanities departments contributed a few interested volunteers to teach a few interdisciplinary courses). To me, then, in my momentary noncapacity as “chairman,” there came a brief letter from the outback, addressed to the Department of Literature:

Dear Sir,

Would you kindly send me some literature on how to construct a sceptic tank?

After a couple of fantasy answers, mostly warning the inquirer against building a sceptic tank too big for his intellectual endowments, the letter had to be forwarded to the Agricultural Extension Service for a more sober reply.

Whatever it may have been when the Erie Canal was being dug, upstate New York during the Nabokov years included a lot of scrawny and marginal countryside. A few big dairy farms flourished, there were vineyards yielding white wine that I thought pale and bitter; but many of the little homestead farms were being overgrown with brush or abandoned outright.

One crop, though, continued to flourish—a rich harvest of spiritual seers and religious visionaries. That had been true for a long time. Cornell itself was nonsectarian to the point of having once enjoyed the name of “the godless university.” But the green slopes and valleys around it were alive with spiritual influences. Just down Highway 20 stands the Hill of Cumorah, where the angel Moroni revealed to Joseph Smith the golden tablets (sorry, no sampling allowed) on which were inscribed the teachings of Mormonism. From the machicolated battlements of their watchtower in North Lansing, a band of Jehovah’s Witnesses kept vigilant watch for the approach of Armageddon. On at least one occasion the Millerites of Syracuse had turned out in their night-gowns amid the snowdrifts to await the Second Coming. And less than fifty years before, the university itself had been visited by a spectral figure from Russia—none other than H.P.B. herself, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who spent some four years on and around the campus.

Her mission was double, to do the research for Isis Unveiled, which bears many marks of having been composed in the Cornell Library, and to bring solace to the life of Hiram Corson, the professor of English, who was grieving the loss of a cherished daughter. How Madame Blavatsky put the professor in touch with the pneuma of his adored lost child we should not ask too closely; but for the years in which she made up part of his family, she cannot have failed to leave a mark. That Nabokov knew this story, hardly less colorful than that of Pale Fire, is only a guess; but his best friend in Ithaca was the poet Morris Bishop, who knew so much about the university that in his last years he was named official Cornell historian.

Because it was relatively small and very remote from any big cities, Cornell in Nabokov’s day had many administrative hideaways and cubbyholes, where people could cultivate private gifts or special interests in almost complete isolation. The main medical school was, of course, in New York City; the Ithaca campus devoted itself very largely to premedical training of undergraduates. But the professor of anatomy nurtured a private passion for Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694), and after decades of study published in four immense volumes a Life narrated in connection with a history of the University of Padua and the general history of embryology. (Among other things, the biography reports the results of reduplicating every single experimental observation made by Malpighi in the course of his life. One single footnote in this gigantic opus—so similar to Nabokov’s outsize annotations of Eugene Onegin—covered a thousand pages.)

Not all these private ventures ended triumphantly. The professor of astronomy—another one-man department in those distant days—developed reclusive habits, to the point that all the astronomical journals had to be kept under lock and key in his private office. Perhaps he was sheltering the slowly developing line of calculation which led him gradually and then explicitly to reaffirm a geocentric design for the universe. A professor of architecture developed, half seriously, the model of an imaginary civilization, Vulcania; out of broken farm machinery, sculch from junk shops, and miscellaneous familiar objects, he assembled a mock-archaeological excavation in which (as I know) it was all too easy to get lost.

Cornell was a wonderful place to do one’s own work if one distanced oneself, as one must do in most universities, from the housekeeping, book-keeping, and disciplinary machinery, and brought to one’s desk a store of ideas, impulses, and projects from somewhere else. During the long snowy winters it resembled my idea of North Verona, in Henry James’s short story; during the summer, when the foolish students were away, it was idyllic. Nabokov observed it with his usual passionate devotion to precise detail, but he observed it also from the perspective of a wholly different life, rich and wild far beyond the range of Ithaca’s bland complacencies.

Wherever he went, he did not simply recolor the common world, he often reshaped it. On an occasion described by Brian Boyd, he was asked to deliver a lecture for the “Festival of Contemporary Arts.” As someone on good terms with him, I was asked to convey the invitation. It was indeed a complimentary appointment, and I made the terms as lavish as possible. He might speak on any topic he chose, it would be the central event of the festival, the president of the university would attend. Our intention was to honor the most distinguished of our faculty. Yet he remained cautious, suspicious. At last he confided that on one occasion he had been asked to address the parents of the children assembled for graduation ceremonies; and at that point he had been directed, as the high point of his address, to warn his audience against stubbing out cigarette butts on the lawn. Would anything of the sort, he asked, be expected of him here?

I reassured him, of course, and the event came off, as Boyd describes it, with triumphant success. The hall was packed, the lecture was brilliant and funny, there was a standing ovation. But where did he get the idea that a humiliating condition might be attached to the invitation? He never addressed a graduation gathering at Cornell, or anywhere else to my knowledge. Cornell, with its open, unmanicured spaces, its interwoven gorges, plantations, and lakes, never cared a damn about cigarette butts. The story was clearly a private Nabokov fantasy. Some streak of Appalachian parochialism had caught his attention, had been modified and exaggerated, until for just a moment I seemed to sit in the presence of Charles Xavier Kinbote himself.

Brian Boyd’s biography shouldn’t be cheapened with the premature, careless adjective “definitive.” It is a very fine biography and with a few corrections,3 supplemented by some critical reconsiderations, will do very well for our time, may even become something close to the “last word.” For the concerns of the present generation of students don’t seem to allow much room for consideration of Nabokov, of imaginative fiction, or of what used to be called polite culture. The academic world which offered Nabokov brief shelter until Hurricane Lolita whisked him away from Cayuga’s waters to Lake Leman was itself blown away by the events of 1968. Like Nabokov fleeing Europe at the last possible moment, I left Cornell after eighteen years when the fuse of something very like civil war was already sizzling. Looking back on that decade of the Fifties, I feel as if it was a different world entirely. Such, such were the joys on the echoing green. They still echo, but every day more faintly.


Reading Nabokov April 23, 1992

  1. 1

    Princeton University Press, 1990.

  2. 2

    Botkin is neither seen, heard, nor mentioned in the text, except as a blind entry in the index; the line to which we are referred under his name contains no allusion to Botkin, Kinbote, Zembla, or any other relevant concept.

  3. 3

    For example, Pete Seeger never taught a course at Cornell (p. 172), though doubtless he was a visiting performer in the folk-literature course of Professor Harold Thompson; the English professor whose sons Nabokov co-opted to socialize with his son Dmitri (p. 130) was not named Robert but William M. Sale, junior.