Vladimir Nabokov was eighteen when the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 made his wealthy family’s continued residence in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was renamed at the start of World War I) impossible. They fled first to the Crimea and then, in 1919, to London. The following year they settled in Berlin, where in 1922 Nabokov’s father was assassinated, more by accident than design, by extreme right-wing Russian monarchists: they were attempting to kill another Russian émigré politician, Paul Milyukov. V.D. Nabokov bravely seized and disarmed one of the gunmen, and pinned him down, but was then shot three times by the second.
In a poem called “Easter” published just a few weeks after this disaster, the twenty-two-year-old Nabokov interprets the arrival of spring as portending some kind of resurrection of his father: “Rise again,” each “golden thaw-drop” seems to sing, “blossom”; “you are in this refrain,/you’re in this splendor, you’re alive!…” Some forty years later he would allude to the ghastly manner of his father’s demise in a more characteristically Nabokovian way: the day on which Pale Fire’s John Shade is killed by mistake in another botched assassination attempt is July 21, Nabokov senior’s birthday.
V.D. Nabokov was not the only member of the family to fall victim to the chaos of the times. Vladimir’s brother Sergey Nabokov was one year younger than him, but of a very different temperament; shy, stuttering, gay, musically gifted, a Catholic convert, Sergey spent much of his exile in Paris, where he got to know Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and Pavel Tchelitchew, with whom he shared an apartment for a while. His long-term partner was a wealthy Austrian called Hermann Thieme. While the rise of the Nazis drove Vladimir, whose wife Véra was Jewish, to embark for America with their young son Dimitri in May 1940, shortly before the fall of Paris, Sergey and Hermann Thieme responded, somewhat bizarrely, by moving east to Berlin. There they were arrested for homosexual offenses; Hermann was freed but forced to join the German army in Africa, while Sergey spent five months in jail. On his release he moved to Prague, where he set about openly denouncing the Nazis and Hitler; he was soon informed upon, arrested again, and in the spring of 1944 dispatched to Neuengamme concentration camp, on the outskirts of Hamburg. He did well there, in that he lasted ten months, whereas the average life expectancy was twelve weeks. Sergey was forty-four when he died, the age of Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote, another awkward homosexual exile, who is also hounded and harried, or so he’d have us believe, by a ruthless totalitarian regime that has come violently to power.
Why, Andrea Pitzer asks in her provocatively titled The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, did the great novelist allude only in such oblique, ludic terms both to his own personal losses and to the historical cataclysms that caused them? Cataclysms that also meant that he could never return to a country he missed acutely, and forced upon him a precarious émigré life in England, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and then America, where at last he struck gold with Lolita, so much gold indeed that he was able to spend the last fifteen years of his life in the luxurious Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland.
There are numerous ways of approaching this question. The most reassuring response might pivot around Nabokov’s famous definition of his art in his afterword to the all-conquering Lolita, which has steadily sold at the average rate of a million copies a year, and is surely the most indisputably canonical novel in English of the postwar era:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash….
Any attempt to write directly about political events or the “sweep of history,” to borrow a phrase from the jacket copy of any number of blockbuster epics, will be mired in the cliché and sentiment that Nabokov deplored in novels such as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (one of his many bêtes noires); the artist’s truest and most valuable way of resisting totalitarian modes of thought is to assert his or her independence as thoroughly and, in Nabokov’s case, as spectacularly as possible. He conceived of writing as a chess match with a razor-keen opponent always looking to predict his next move, and joy and triumph lay in outwitting that reader’s assumptions, and thereby stimulating “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.”
The comprehensive cleverness of such a relation with the reader, both in theory and on the page—in his best fiction anyway—means that one can’t even begin to formulate the less reassuring answers without finding oneself in the role of John Ray Jr., the gloriously crass psychologist who introduces Humbert Humbert’s memoir, and pronounces its author “a shining example of moral leprosy.” “Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” Humbert plangently declares after some bravura puns and rhymes (“Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty”) at the end of Chapter 8 of Part I of Lolita; but in a book, as both he and his creator know, words are everything.
In the same afterword, Nabokov described how the “initial shiver of inspiration” that grew into Lolita was “prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Humbert, this anecdote seems to be cautioning us, sees and presents only the bars of his pedophilia, an aspect of which is his need to confide it to us in the infinitely cunning apologia pro sua vita that he writes in his prison cell while awaiting trial for the murder of Quilty; therefore even the startling and heartrending glimpses into Lolita’s experience—his recording her “sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep”—should be read as carefully orchestrated bids for the sympathy of the reader, rather than moments when Humbert “sincerely” (and how Nabokov loathed the concept of sincerity in fiction!) sees beyond the bars of his cage.
Hence his every instance of self-criticism—as when he tells us he chose the pseudonym Humbert Humbert because it “expresses the nastiness best,” or laments as the “hopelessly poignant thing” not the absence of Lolita from his side, but the absence of her voice from the musical hubbub of voices he overhears in a playground—extends the fiction of repentance, and encourages us to forgive his monstrousness. The golden-tongued Humbert, one must always remember, is possibly the greatest rhetorician since Milton’s equally persuasive and dangerous Satan.
Nabokov’s conception of the artist as quasi-divine inventor means that—as is the case with one of his great heroes, James Joyce—critics tend to find themselves in the role of enchanted hunters looking for clues and connections, spotting recondite allusions, praising the novels’ elaborate artistry, or elucidating labyrinthine patterns. It would take a bold critic to read such a dazzling, seemingly omniscient, and utterly self-conscious oeuvre as depicting the bars of Nabokov’s own cage. Andrea Pitzer doesn’t, perhaps, go quite that far, but she does invite us to step back a little and ponder the oddness of the relationship Nabokov’s writings create between the fictive and the historical.
She does this by contrasting him with another Russian writer much lauded in the West, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Shortly after Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974, he arranged to meet Nabokov and his wife for lunch at the Montreux Palace Hotel. Pitzer’s opening chapter describes the Nabokovs awaiting the arrival of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissident in a private dining room of their hotel. While their personalities and experiences could hardly have been more different, the two writers’ shared hatred of communism would surely have created plenty of common ground for discussion. In the event, Solzhenitsyn never showed up, possibly fearing a put-down from the aristocratic Nabokovs, who indeed thought little of Solzhenitsyn as a writer. Pitzer, however, makes deft use of this aborted encounter, tracing the different paths each had taken to literary stardom: Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, Nabokov in Cambridge, Berlin, and Paris, then at Wellesley and Cornell; the one compiling a vast and irrefutable indictment of Soviet abuses, the other studiously avoiding direct treatment of this harrowing topic in his fiction.
Animating Pitzer’s retelling of Nabokov’s life, however, is her contention that Nabokov did in fact weave various explicit references to historical events into his fiction, and indeed that “behind the art-for-art’s sake façade that Nabokov both cultivated and rejected, he was busy detailing the horrors of his era and attending to the destructive power of the Gulag and the Holocaust in one way or another across four decades of his career.” Dazzled by Nabokov’s “linguistic pyrotechnics,” readers and critics have simply overlooked these details. “This is a story,” she proclaims, “as much about the world around the writer as the writer himself, and a look at how epic events and family history made their way, unseen, into extraordinary literature.” As such quotations demonstrate, Pitzer has a tendency to write in a manner that would make her fastidious subject’s toes curl, but then why should Nabokovians attempt to emulate the master? Although Pitzer often rather overstates her case, she has done much exemplary primary research, and this book forces one to consider several fascinating quandaries presented by Lolita and Pale Fire.
The first of these is: Is Humbert Humbert Jewish? The word “Jew” and its cognates never occur in Lolita, but it is almost said on a number of occasions. Several characters assume Humbert is Jewish. John Farlow, at the end of Chapter 18, Part I, complains of the fact that Ramsdale has too many Italian tradespeople, adding, “but on the other hand we are still spared—,” at which his wife Jean, suspecting that Humbert is Jewish and not wanting him to be offended, tactfully interrupts her blundering spouse. (In the Russian translation that Nabokov made of the book, John clearly begins to say the word “kikes.”)
A classmate of Lolita’s, Irving Flashman—originally Fleischman?—is pitied by Humbert for reasons initially obscure, but explained by Nabokov to the book’s annotator, Alfred Appel Jr.: “Poor Irving, he is the only Jew among all those Gentiles. Humbert identifies with the persecuted.” Humbert, and Nabokov, have much grim fun with the anti-Semitic policy of the hotel the Enchanted Hunters, whose notepaper declares, NEAR CHURCHES and NO DOGS, code for “Gentiles only”: perhaps, Humbert muses, the “silky cocker spaniel” Lolita had petted on their visit to the hotel had been “a baptized one.” And when Humbert’s name on a postcard requesting a room at the hotel is misread as the Jewish-sounding Professor Hamburg, he receives a “prompt expression of regret in reply. They were full up.”