The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction
The Magician’s Doubts, Michael Wood declares, “is a book about Nabokov’s words and how they are arranged.” One can almost hear the old magician himself purring his approval as he looks down from Ardis or Ardor, or whatever paradise it is that he inhabits. By the close of the book, however, its subject’s eyebrows are liable to have risen, like those of the startled reader Humbert Humbert pictured, to the back of his nobly domed bald head. Michael Wood seems to me the ideal Nabokov critic—perceptive, scrupulous, elegant, well-read, witty—but I am not sure that Nabokov would have agreed. For a start, Wood does not always accept Nabokov’s version of Nabokov, a reserved sin in the Nabokovian creed: also, he dives more deeply into the work, and comes up with more dark treasures, than its secretive and obsessively evasive author would have wished. Further, he ventures into forbidden waters, exploring, for instance, questions of morality and ethics. The ethical
is the realm of the unspeakable for Nabokov, but it is none the less (or for that very reason) everywhere implicit in his work. He is neither the aesthete that he himself and his early readers kept making out he was, nor the plodding moralist that recent criticism, with an audible sigh of relief, has wheeled on to the page. Moral questions, like epistemological ones, are put to work in his fiction. Nabokov doesn’t write about them; he writes them.
This last distinction is an important one, in the work of Nabokov and in Wood’s book. Wood is a wonderfully sympathetic reader of the art of Nabokov in all its “restless and stylish insubordination,” but that does not mean that he is prepared to agree meekly with Nabokov’s magisterial dictums about the artist’s ethical detachment and the moral inutility of art. He has an acute eye, and spots with fine accuracy those moments when Nabokov is being sentimental, or pompous, or blinded by admiration for his own, admittedly consummate, skill as a verbal prestidigitator. What Wood has set out to do, he tells us, is to conduct “an intense, even intimate dialogue with provocative texts” and provide “a report on the adventure of reading.” He does this, and, as the author of Ada has it, much, much more.
Michael Wood, formerly Professor of English Literature at Exeter University and now Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English at Princeton (a post which sounds like a Nabokovian invention), is that rare phenomenon, a critic who writes with enthusiasm shading into love but who never falls into hagiography. Conversely, he is blessedly free of that ressentiment so prevalent in contemporary academic writing, which leads many critics to try to show how much more clever they are than their subjects. His work shines but does not dazzle.
Wood has deep admiration, one might say reverence, for Nabokov’s art, but at the same time sees clearly the writer’s faults and failings, and can be …