The Still Mysterious Enchanter

Speak, Nabokov

by Michael Maar, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Verso, 148 pp., $24.95
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Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, Switzerland, 1966

The most striking characteristic of the fictional works of Vladimir Nabokov is uncanniness. In one of his many pronouncements on the art of literature the author said that “there are three points of view from which a writer can be considered:…as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three….” Certainly in his own case he qualified in all categories, a fact that he was complacently aware of and ever ready to profess—as Gore Vidal tartly observed, no one enjoyed Nabokov’s books as much as Nabokov did. He does tell a wonderful story, he does teach us many subtle and intricate things, he does thoroughly enchant. Yet when we press past the surface dazzle of his work—no small feat—we find ourselves in a world as strange and yet strangely familiar as the one into which Alice stepped through the looking-glass.

Freud, the Viennese quack, as Nabokov repeatedly characterized him, conceives of the uncanny as the bringing back in changed form of things already known: as the defamiliarization of the familiar. These revenants frighten us—or, as so often in the case of Nabokov, enchant us—by being both old and new. Nabokov’s singular prose style burnishes the commonplace world so that genies jump out of it, and the reader’s response depends on whether he is willing to be magicked away into a realm that he knows well and yet feels not quite at home in. No doubt Nabokov’s literary sensibility was to some degree formed by his own forced transmigration from what seems to have been truly an idyllic childhood in prerevolutionary Russia to, first, war-torn Western Europe and then onward to America where, seemingly to his surprise, he found, for a time, a new world even more congenial than the old one he had left.

Zoran Kuzmanovich, one of Nabokov’s calmer and more measured commentators—on this subject the extremes rarely meet—writing in The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, a valuable and elegant volume, quotes his subject as glorying in his “freakish” uniqueness:

I don’t seem to belong to any clear-cut continent. I’m the shuttlecock above the Atlantic, and how bright and blue it is there, in my private sky, far from the pigeonholes and the clay pigeons.

Commenting on Nabokov’s haughty insistence that interviewers should write out their questions to which he would deliver apparently spontaneous but in reality carefully composed replies, Kuzmanovich contends that the novelist thereby “sacrificed spontaneity and simultaneity, distancing himself from his interlocutors while making sure that what he said was remembered,” a contention that with a little adjustment might be as well applied to the fiction. Nabokov himself is aware of the risks that his kind of writing entails. In the first novel he wrote in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Knight’s unnamed brother asks a “fairly well-read” Englishman …

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