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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….”1 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.2 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 what he thinks of Knight’s novels, which from internal evidence bear a suggestive resemblance to Nabokov’s own:

I asked him whether he had liked them. He said he had in a way, but the author seemed to him a terrible snob, intellectually, at least. Asked to explain, he added that Knight seemed to him to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules. He said he preferred books that made one think, and Knight’s books didn’t,—they left you puzzled and cross.

The world that Nabokov’s fiction presents for our inspection is a contrivance of language, necessarily. Although he reveres above all others the high priest of modernism, James Joyce, Nabokov himself is no modernist—he is, rather, a nineteenth-century Flaubertian—yet in his insistence on the importance of style above all else he might be classed an ultra- or even post-modernist; after all, one of the very few of his contemporaries whose work he admired unreservedly was Alain Robbe-Grillet. Kuzmanovich in his essay quotes John Updike’s famous and famously clever formulation that Nabokov was “the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship,” yet there are other readers who find his prose domineering and disdainful, like the man himself, or like, at least, the man he pretended in public to be. Indeed, the argument could be made that stylists of the high, Nabokovian variety—of which, it should be observed, there are not many, and almost all of them male—are literary bullies in their insistence that we accept exclusively their highly polished and rigidly fixed accounts of how things are within the little rounds that their fictions create.

What some deplore in Nabokov is the denial of imaginative maneuver, of that dreamy and delightful freedom of the reader to imagine through an author’s style and make a world of his or her own out of the materials the writer offers. The uncanny version of things that Na-bokov presents us with is, for such unenchanted readers, a willful chloroforming and pinning down of that brightly fluttering spontaneity that is the essence of reality, or at least of that version of reality to be met with in prose fiction.

The theme of the uncanny, of the sudden transfiguration of the familiar, is raised early on in Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov. Maar, one of the finest of the younger generation of German critics—he is, an awed biographical note informs us, a member of two German academies—is a literary detective who knows where very many bodies are buried. In Bluebeard’s Chamber he conducted a forensic investigation into the sources of Thomas Mann’s lifelong and traumatic sense of guilt, while in The Two Lolitas he did a triumphant piece of sleuthing when he unearthed a tawdry but, in hindsight, highly significant short story published in Germany in 1916 by a young writer, Heinz von Lichberg, later to become a journalist and Nazi sympathizer. When on the first page of Lolita Humbert Humbert writes, “Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did,” he is admitting more of the literal truth than he knows, for Lichberg’s story, entitled “Lolita,” tells of a cultured middle-aged man’s hopeless infatuation with a preteenage girl, the daughter of a house in Spain where he comes to lodge.

Maar was not so crass as to accuse Nabokov of plagiarism, but it is a fact that Nabokov lived for fifteen years, between 1922 and 1937, in Berlin, years when Lichberg still had a considerable reputation in Germany. He was known mainly as a journalist and not a fiction writer, it is true. But Maar raises the question: Did Nabokov read Lichberg’s story, and did it and the name in its title lodge within the umbrage of his memory, and supply him subconsciously, many years later, with the title and the matter of a plot for his own masterpiece? And if so, does it tell us anything significant about Nabokov? The reader must decide.

People in Nabokov’s work, particularly narrators, repeatedly stumble through the looking-glass of quotidian reality into a world where all that had been known is transformed in an instant of ecstatic divination or, on occasion, overpowering terror. In Speak, Nabokov, Maar designates this phenomenon the “medusa experience,” taking his lead from the 1935 story “Torpid Smoke” in which the central character, a dreamy young émigré living in Berlin, feels that “in the same way as the luminosity of the water and its every throb pass through a medusa, so everything traversed his inner being, and that sense of fluidity became transfigured into something like second sight.” In this version of it, Maar writes, “the medusa experience is one of harmony with the universe and pantheistic bliss.”

There is another mode, however, one described in a story from 1926, “Terror.” Here the narrator, a poet, on a visit to “an incidental city” steps out of his hotel one morning after a series of sleepless nights and suddenly sees the world “such as it really is“:

My line of communication with the world snapped, I was on my own and the world was on its own, and that world was devoid of sense. I saw the actual essence of all things. I looked at houses and they had lost their usual meaning—that is, all that we think when looking at a house: a certain architectural style, the sort of rooms inside, ugly house, comfortable house—all this had evaporated, leaving nothing but an absurd shell, the same way an absurd sound is left after one has repeated sufficiently long the commonest word without heeding its meaning…. I understood the horror of a human face. Anatomy, sexual distinctions, the notion of “legs,” “arms,” “clothes”—all that was abolished, and there remained in front of me a mere something—not even a creature, for that too is a human concept, but merely something moving past.

The fact that “Terror” is written in an uncharacteristically plain style with “virtually no contrivance” suggests to Maar an “autobiographical flavor.” Its obvious model is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter (1902)—“My case, in short, is this: that I have lost entirely the ability to think or speak coherently about anything at all”—and it is, as Maar writes, “a key to the horror behind the shimmer—the other pole of the medusa experience.”

The central thesis of Speak, Nabokov3 is that the philosophical basis of Nabokov’s work is Gnosticism, arrived at via a sympathetic reading of Schopenhauer:

The classic defining feature of [the] Gnostic view is the answer to the question of evil in Creation. How can there be such monstrousness in the world if a good God created it? The Gnostic answer is that there is not one Creator, but two…. The true God is concealed in his realm of light. The affairs of the material world are handled by the secondary Creator God, the Demiurge…. The Demiurge is powerful and bars humanity’s way to its true purpose…. In Gnostic imagery he is the jailer who holds us captive in the prison of matter…. Only the escape from the prison of the body leads the soul into the otherworldly realm of light. At most, sparks of this light are scattered in the material world.

If we accept the notion that Nabokov as artist, and possibly as man, too, believed that our world is the handiwork of an all-powerful and monstrous deceiver, then we shall recognize that much in his fiction that seems contrived and irritatingly fanciful is in fact perfectly realistic and deeply serious, and that the Nabokovian universe is a teeming battleground where the artist-creator is a kind of Jacob locked in an unending struggle with the demon- creator who rules over us. Maar quotes a telling passage from Pnin, apparently Nabokov’s most lighthearted novel but one that Maar—and, before him, Michael Wood in his superb 1994 study The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction—regards as a subtle masterpiece to be set beside Lolita and Pale Fire:

If the evil designer—the destroyer of minds, the friend of fever—had concealed the key of the pattern with such monstrous care, that key must be as precious as life itself and, when found, would regain for Timofey Pnin his everyday health, his everyday world; and this lucid—alas, too lucid—thought forced him to persevere in the struggle.

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Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
Vladimir Nabokov, 1968

All of Nabokov’s leading characters are tormented—although in many cases their torment is a torment of delight—by the sense that the solution to the great mystery of things is just, just beyond their reach. The reader of Nabokov, too, according to Maar, suffers something of the same tantalizing conviction “that there, somewhere between the lines, the great truth is hidden. It has rolled under the sofa, and if we could only extend our fingertips a little bit farther, we would have it in our hands.” This accounts for the curious sensation of inward fizzing we experience when reading these strange, entrancing, and frequently infuriating fictions—they are always on the point of telling us something momentous; the magician’s hand is always about to open and release into the air a scintillation of glittering wings that will at first seem random but then will suddenly coalesce into a pattern, the pattern, of reality itself.

There is a pattern also to the arc of Nabokov’s artistic endeavor, and, sad to say, it is not entirely a pretty one. First of all there is the frailty of the arc itself, which in its fall is steep and wavering. In an essay in The Cambridge Companion Michael Wood makes a strong case for Nabokov’s late work—the three novels Ada, Transparent Things, and Look at the Harlequins!—writing that “lateness in the work of distinguished artists often has another, qualitative meaning, far from negative but indicating, nonetheless, a certain quirkiness, hinting not merely at maturity but also at something beyond maturity,” and calls on Adorno for support: “The late works of significant artists…lack all the harmony that classical aesthetics is accustomed to demand from the work of art.” Wood is endearingly loyal to a writer for whom he has boundless admiration and sympathy, but is there not clearly audible the sound of a man whistling in the dark?

Ada when it first appeared in 1969 was greeted with a great clamor—the author’s portrait appeared on the cover of Time, which still counted for something in those days—but there was the sense too of the broad smiles of welcome congealing somewhat on the faces of even the most committed Nabokovians as they waded their way through this fairy tale of otherworldly incestuous love and much, much more. The book has the stickily grainy texture of a gigantic pot of honey that has crystallized, and the authorial voice is that of a lip-smacking roué, or of those “two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother,” who interrupt “with exclamations or ribald encouragement” young Humbert Humbert as he is about to possess Lolita’s precursor Annabel Leigh on a Riviera beach in a misted and never to be regained lost time. When Ada was published Nabokov was living in gilded splendor in a hotel in Montreux and had allowed himself to become a reactionary old buffer, a part he had been rehearsing through long years of want and drudgery, before the success of Lolita brought him bounding onto the public stage in frock coat and top hat and wielding an ebony cane that doubled as magician’s wand.

As Maar observes, “Nabokov owed his mainstream breakthrough to a misunderstanding”—the great reading public thought Lolita would be a dirty book—but when the novel appeared at last in America critics such as Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy were led to acknowledge him as a modern master. After that, there was no stopping him. Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins! continued in the same vein as Ada—a vein coursing with blood that was much too rich, a royal purple, as Humbert would say. Along with the arch self-consciousness and self-satisfaction that marred these books there was an increasing and often startling, indeed shocking, strain of coarseness. Lolita was a masterpiece of obliqueness when it came to the physical manifestations of Humbert’s grand péché radieux, but Nabokov’s later narrators take on the explicit tone of a dirty old man—an aristocratic dirty old man, it is true, a more hesitant Baron Ochs who yet has not quite the full courage of his raw convictions. And this brings us, our heels dragging, into a very delicate area indeed.

There is never sexuality in Nabokov’s work,” Maar writes, “without demonic shadows and guilt.” And in the last three novels there is an overriding preoccupation with sex—one might almost say an obsession—and with a particular kind of sex at that. More than thirty years after Nabokov’s death, with the basilisk’s mesmeric glare no longer fixed so compellingly upon us—the narrator of Lolita tells us that one of the pseudonyms he thought of choosing for himself was “Mesmer Mesmer”—we are free to acknowledge the extraordinary perseverance of the nymphet theme in the work from first to last. In a chapter he calls “Lilith,” Maar quotes in full a poem of the same title from 1928, one that Nabokov regarded highly enough to republish in the volume Poems and Problems (1971). The poem recounts an erotic dream in which the dreamer has died and finds himself posthumously in an Attic landscape where “in every faun/god Pan I seemed to recognize,” and where he meets a “naked little girl” who seduces him. The encounter is described with impressive frankness but in the faux-archaic style that in his earlier work Nabokov tended to adopt when it came to sexual matters:

And with a wild
lunge of my loins I penetrated
into an unforgotten child.
Snake within snake, vessel in vessel,
smooth-fitting part, I moved in her,
through the ascending itch forefeeling
unutterable pleasure stir.

Throughout Nabokov’s long working life this child certainly remained “unforgotten,” and Maar with his usual Holmesian beadiness traces her elfin appearances from the earliest stories right up to The Original of Laura, the novel that Nabokov was working on when he died and the surviving fragments of which were published late last year.4 Maar writes: “First Nabokov makes women into girls only metaphorically. Then he gradually lets the veil of camouflage fall, until he suddenly tears it away completely in The Enchanter“—a long short story, Lolita‘s true “precursor,” written in the 1930s and abandoned, but which Nabokov’s son Dmitri translated and published in 1986.

What is going on here? Who is this ghostly girl-woman and what does she signify in the work, if not in the life, of her creator and, it sometimes seems, her creature? The author of Lolita professes to loathe and despise Humbert Humbert, yet if Humbert is the Devil he certainly has the best tunes. What reader of Lolita will not come away from the book without at least a lingering twinge of sympathy for the “pentapod monster” who is its golden-tongued narrator? Humbert sets out to seduce us, and does so, as surely as little Dolores Haze seduced him. Michael Wood speaks of Ada being set in a kind of hell, but a whiff of brimstone seeps out of all of Nabokov’s works, even the most seemingly paradisal of them. Behind the gleam and sparkle there are dark doings. Nymphets skip blithely through these poisoned playgrounds where, as Humbert observes, panting nympholepts crouch in wait:

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

What is most striking,” Maar writes, “is not even that Lolita has forerunners—it’s that she has successors.” The young girl posing as a grown woman, or vice versa, is a frequently recurring phenomenon in the Nabokov canon. “There is, there was, only one girl in my life, an object of terror and tenderness…. I say ‘girl’ and not woman, not wife nor wench.” Thus Phillip Wild, “Lecturer in Experimental Psychology, University of Ganglia,” stoutly confesses in The Original of Laura, a book in which, Maar observes, “much that was only faintly hinted at [in Lolita] becomes drastic and explicit.” In fact, very much more—who would have thought to hear a character in Nabokov offer a “quickie”? And what about this passage, in which Wild in a dream encounters Aurora Lee, a revenant from Poe via Lolita?

I lifted the hem of your dress—something I never had done in the past—and stroked, moulded, pinched ever so softly your pale prominent nates, while you stood perfectly still as if considering new possibilities of power and pleasure and interior decoration. At the height of your guarded ecstasy I thrust my cupped hand from behind between your consenting thighs and felt the sweat-stuck folds of a long scrotum and then, further in front, the droop of a short member.

Nabokov would have responded with howls of contemptuous wrath to anyone who made the grievous error, as he would have seen it, of imputing to the author himself even a hint of the dark desires under which his characters squirm and sweat. Yet even the sternest adherent to Eliot’s differentiation between the person that suffers and the mind that creates will surely wonder at the persistent seam of sexual obsession, guilt, and terror in Nabokov’s work. What familiar things are suffering the torments of transfiguration here? Michael Maar offers not an answer, but a positive question:

If ghosts are not pressed between the covers of a book, they are hard to contain—and perhaps that is precisely why they must be pressed between the covers. Perhaps something is exorcized in literature that threatens to take root in life. Perhaps that is in fact the goal: to rid life of its demons through fiction.

In the end, of course, it is hardly our business what personal demons, what daemonic longings, Nabokov the man may have been entertaining or exorcising in his work. We are human, and cannot help our prurient fascination with the private lives of artists—why did Shakespeare will his second-best bed to his widow? was Hemingway really the heterosexual he-man he pretended to be? did Joyce suffer from syphilis?—but we would delude ourselves to think it is pure literary enlightenment we are after. Perhaps even an eminent writer should be allowed to take his personal secrets with him down into the dark of the grave. In considering the life of Vladimir Nabokov, all that should really count, for us, is the books, breathtaking in their loveliness, light and playful and deeply serious, the magical fashionings of a mysterious and great enchanter.

  1. 1

    See The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, edited by Julian W. Connolly (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 31.

  2. 2

    In the otherworld of Ada he places Russia and America on the same continent.

  3. 3

    What an awful title; the German original is so much better: Solus Rex: Die schöne böse Welt des Vladimir Nabokov (Solus Rex: The Lovely Wicked World of VN).

  4. 4

    On the vexed question of whether Dmitri Nabokov should have allowed the fragments that make up The Original of Laura to be published, this telling passage from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight:

    [Sebastian Knight] belonged to that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except the perfect achievement: the printed book; that its actual existence is inconsistent with that of its spectre, the uncouth manuscript flaunting its imperfections like a revengeful ghost carrying its own head under its arm; and that for this reason the litter of the workshop, no matter its sentimental or commercial value, must never subsist.
    For John Lanchester’s review of The Original of Laura, see The New York Review, December 17, 2009.

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