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Nabokov’s Dark Treasures

The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction

by Michael Wood
Princeton University Press, 252 pp., $24.95

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 as irritated as the rest of us by, for instance, Nabokov’s “fastidious cleverness which is his besetting limit,” and is ready to acknowledge the tiresomeness of the crossword-puzzle aspects of the work. He recognizes both the triumphs and the failures—and there are failures—and he is never afraid to weigh in the critical scales matters that the rest of us thought had been agreed on long ago. For example, at the heart of the book he tackles anew the delicate issue of Humbert Humbert’s quasi-miraculous renunciation of perversion and discovery of True Love in the closing scenes of Lolita, and although I do not agree with his judgment (“I think [Nabokov] triumphs”), I applaud the clarity and common sense with which he addresses the question.

The preface, “Tricks of Loss,” though only some seven pages long, is the finest and most lucid short summation of Nabokov’s art that I have ever read. Here Wood follows up Nabokov’s admission of the painful bifurcation that he suffered (and was lucky enough to suffer) as a writer following, but not entirely caused by, his loss, or renunciation, of Russian as the language of his art. “He became a phantom in his own prose, as if, he said, he had created the person who wrote in English but was not himself doing the writing.” This ghostly dualism is, I believe, one of the things that made Nabokov the unique writer he was. His brand of English is entirely his own (that he had no ear for music surely explains the peculiar and strangely effective dullness of the rhythms of his prose); indeed, strictly speaking, what Nabokov writes in is not even English but a species of private language which yet is, mysteriously, comprehensible to English-speaking readers. He is not like Conrad (“Conrad knew how to handle readymade English better than I; but I know better the other kind”), and not like Beckett either, who, I am convinced, only wrote in French as a preliminary to writing, or rewriting, the same text in English.

When Nabokov had finished fashioning the new, English-language, version of himself, the word-drunk Golem took over and quietly strangled the Russian writer that the young, émigré Nabokov had been; Wood mentions “the ghostly twin a writer has in Henry James’s story ‘The Private Life,’ scribbling away in the man’s room while the chap himself dines in society, chats, takes walks, plays billiards.” Something of the sort explains Nabokov’s ability, in prefaces, interviews, etc., to speak of his own work with such benign, complacent, and frequently infuriating detachment. Hence also his shocked discovery, when he came to translate Lolita, that he had effectively lost his mastery of the “marvellous Russian language” of his youth. Here Wood appositely quotes an apparently puzzling phrase from a letter by Nabokov to his wife on the subject of the loss of his mother-tongue: “I myself don’t fully register all the grief and bitterness of my situation.”

Every reader of Nabokov is aware of that sense of the uncanny which haunts even the most glorious and glowing of his pages. There is here, we understand, something not quite right. We have a feeling of mingled pleasure and unease of the kind we experience when, for instance, we contemplate Seurat’s last masterpiece, Le cirque. The artistry is superb, more than superb, yet some part of us flinches from a brilliance that is almost unearthly. Nabokov’s books compel us, at some deep level of our reading selves, to search constantly for an author who is for the most part not to be found anywhere. These fictions have the density of the world of everyday experience (and has there ever been a writer who could catch with such precision and relish and heartbreaking tenderness the very texture and taste of the commonplace?), yet they are so light they seem to float in midair. As Michael Wood beautifully puts it, “The very lightness of [Nabokov’s] novels conceals mountains of weighty preparation; the slightest glance or joke often depends on hours of pedantry, summoned, worked through, and abolished, as if Ariel needed Prospero’s books, but also needed to let them go.”

This method of working is not unique to Nabokov. Flaubert and Joyce were famously pedantic in the preparation of minute effects, and both also sought to absent themselves from the finished product. Flaubert, as Wood reminds us, held that “the author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere, and visible nowhere,” and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, echoing his French exemplar, ruled that the artist must be “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” However, as Michael Wood astutely observes, Flaubert and Joyce (and T.S. Eliot, and Barthes, and Derrida) are “talking strategy, considering ways of seeming to be absent, but only seeming.” This form of suppression of the personality “is an ethic for writers, not a description of writing.” And the absence that Flaubert and the rest are speaking of is not really absence, either: “To write is not to be absent but to become absent; to be someone and then go away, leaving traces.” The traces that Nabokov left behind are, like Shakespeare’s, some of the most deeply incised that we have, and yet, insofar as authorship is concerned, also some of the most enigmatic.

Wood is both perceptive and provocative in his consideration of what it is exactly that we mean when we speak of Nabokov’s work, or the work of any writer.

What would it mean to write the story of a writer’s style rather than the record of a writer’s adventures? Whose story would this be? What does it mean to separate, for whatever reason, the person and the writer, or as Eliot lugubriously puts it, “the man who suffers and the mind which creates”? Who is Nabokov, and how many Nabokovs do we need?

These are questions with which postwar literary criticism has made us familiar. Wood acknowledges the Derridean emphasis on the supremacy of text, and Barthes’s and Foucault’s obsequies for the dead author, but brings to the wake a dash of English skepticism (“The author is not dead in Barthes’ sense: just crazy, or conspiratorial”). He makes an important distinction, for instance, between what he terms a writer’s “style” and his “signature.” Signature, he says,

is how we recognize and verify the identity of writers; other things about them too. A literary signature would then be the visible shorthand for a literary person; a style would be a more complex but still legible trace of that person’s interaction with the world. Writers usually have more signature than style, I think. Signature is their habit and their practice, their mark; style is something more secretive, more thoroughly dispersed among the words, a reflection of luck and grace, or of a moment when signature overcomes or forgets itself.

Nabokov’s work, Wood says, is “strikingly signed,” in the sense that we cannot mistake it for anyone else’s, but he goes on to argue that this can in places be a fault: “In Nabokov’s case the style is intricate and haunting and powerful, while the signature can be dazzling to the point of weakness.” This is shrewd and, I believe, true. In support of this assertion he adduces a number of key passages from Lolita—the first appearance of Lolita’s mother (“a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich”), the view of the valley town with “the melody of children at play.”

So limpid was the air that within this vapour of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

Wood is at his most acute in his reading of this passage:

The flashes of cries are evocative, and the noises of the valley are beautifully exact, but the soft-spoken, Edwardian diction of the passage (melody, vapour, limpid air, magically, divinely, demure murmur, and the sickly concord) suggests two minds, Humbert’s and Nabokov’s, trying hard for a tone to which they are not accustomed: Humbert because he is seeking, sincerely or not, to sound contrite, Nabokov because he is allowing the moralist in himself to have one of his rare canters in the open. This elegant, slightly over-beautified language is Nabokov’s signature when he takes a break from irony; as if in compensation, sardonic control gives way to a maudlin recommendation.

At the other extreme, as an example of style without signature he turns to one of Nabokov’s simplest and most moving stories, “Signs and Symbols,” about an elderly couple trying but failing to visit their mentally troubled son in hospital, and quotes a very beautiful and subtle but, for Nabokov, uncharacteristically unfussy passage.

That Friday everything went wrong. The underground train lost its life current between two stations, and for a quarter of an hour one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart and the rustling of the newspapers. The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous school children. It was raining hard as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again; and instead of their boy shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face blotched with acne, ill-shaven, sullen, and confused), a nurse they knew, and did not care for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit might disturb him.

Here Wood comments:

This is style because it does so many things at once, and isn’t signature. It works largely through syntax and small words, and is so subtle that it reflects not a meticulous control of a fictional world but a disciplined vulnerability to the shocks of a historical one. Of course, the control and the vulnerability are related to each other, the first presumably an answer to the second. When the answer is difficult, scarcely manageable, only style will allow the writer to continue to write, and may produce some of his or her most powerful work. When the answer is too easily had, the writing accumulates excesses of signature.

The fact is—and it is an odd one—that Nabokov is the only great writer I know of (I suspect Dostoyevsky is another, but I do not read Russian) whose work it is perfectly possible to find at once repulsive and captivating. There are passages, especially in Ada, which come close to turning my stomach; in that late, vast, and intricate novel (Nabokov’s own favorite, I suspect) the human being gives way almost completely (almost completely) to the Golem, who goes brilliantly, horribly berserk.

The faults, as I see them, of Ada are foreshadowed in Pale Fire, the other of Nabokov’s books on which I find myself in disagreement with most commentators. Pale Fire is a mixture of, on the one hand, chortling contempt (a deep and nasty strain of homophobia runs through the narrative), and, on the other, sentimentality. It is loftily cruel in its treatment of poor, deluded, lonely Charles Kinbote, the Gogolian madman who desperately seeks to find—or, if he must, plant—references to himself and his (imagined) loss of kingship in the long poem by his friend John Shade that lies at the center of the novel; and it is sentimental in its presentation of what I think we are expected to take as the pivotal event of the narrative, the suicide of Shade’s homely daughter when she is stood up on a date. For all Nabokov’s disclaimers, the note of Schadenfreude detectable in the authorial voice is too thoroughly prevalent throughout the oeuvre to be accepted as nothing more than a fictional device. Twin streaks of cruelty and sentimentality are ever present in Nabokov the writer. (Of the man I can say nothing in this regard, despite having read the two thick biographles that have so far appeared; and his own Speak, Memory strikes me as the most thoroughly imagined of his inventions.)

Here again Wood is perceptive, as he teases out the peculiar and sometimes creepy merging and separating that constantly go on between the author, or at least the narrator, and his characters. Kinbote, the crazed critic in Pale Fire, is the doppelgänger of the Nabokov of the Eugene Onegin translation and commentary, which in its way is as loony and obsessive as Kinbote’s demented notes to the poem “Pale Fire.” And in Pnin, one of Nabokov’s gentlest and most tender works, the narrator, to whom Nabokov gives much of his own history and status, is a very dodgy fellow indeed. Where does the joke begin and, more significantly, where does it end? And who exactly is it that is laughing? In Speak, Memory Nabokov writes carefully, with pursed lips, as it were, of his younger brother Sergey, who Wood surmises was a homosexual, and who died of starvation (or, as Nabokov puts it, “of inanition”) in a German concentration camp in 1945. Sergey, Nabokov says, was “quiet and listless,” while he himself was “rowdy, adventurous and something of a bully,” which is a fair description of at least one, not unimportant, side of Vladimir Nabokov as writer.

Perhaps the finest, and certainly the most exciting, chapter in Wood’s book is, not surprisingly, I suppose, the one devoted to Lolita. Wood writes with keen insight of other works, in particular The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Speak, Memory (though I wish he had given some space to The Defense, one of my own favorites), but it is to Lolita that he devotes his most passionate and closest reading. It is extraordinary that any critic should find new things to say about Nabokov’s masterpiece, but Wood manages to do so by treating the book as if it had just been published, and were still unencumbered by the academic coral reef that has grown up around it in the (not all that many) years since it first appeared.

Looking back through The Magician’s Doubts, I discover that, even after two readings, I have not marked a single passage, or made a single note, in this chapter—not because it is not stimulating or challenging, but simply because it is so beautifully written that one is loath to pause in the midst of the flow. Certain passages here afford almost as keen an aesthetic gratification as does Lolita itself. Here is Wood writing of the perfect placing of the word “honey” in the final refusal Lolita addresses to Humbert (“No, honey, no”) when he asks her to come away with him:

For a moment Humbert seems to glimpse the attraction of the acceptable and the familiar, of the way other people daily talk and live—the realm of shared feeling which inhabits cliché, and which cliché serves. Of course he can only recognise the feeling because he is excluded from it, but the recognition is something, since it matters that even this tiny and perfunctory brand of tenderness was missing from his relation with Lolita. Missing on both sides, we might add, in spite of Humbert’s liking for tenderness as a word; as kindness is often missing from romantic love.

Wood’s book is so thronged with pleasures, so acute in its insights, so replete with clear thoughts limpidly expressed, that one could follow Walter Benjamin’s ambition and write a review of it consisting entirely of quotations from the text. There are places, on every other page, where one pauses in soft startlement (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is compared to “Debussy’s string quartet, for which, if I had to, I would give away all Beethoven”; “…even Shakespeare can be seen to nod, if you don’t know she’s Shakespeare”), and frequently the wit attains Nabokovian heights: one of Humbert Humbert’s turns of phrase “is like some stealthy irony out of Jane Austen (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’) which has gone wild and taken to the trees,” while in a description of “a kind of ramshackle wooden château,” “the ambitions of the last word [are] ruined by the sorry state of the verbal path leading up to it.” But above and beyond these fine, incidental pleasures, what The Magician’s Doubts offers us is an entirely new set of insights into the work of a modern master. Michael Wood has not only written a work of lasting critical worth; he has composed a lover’s discourse.

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