Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

Vladimir Nabokov has written quite a lot about Vladimir Nabokov, and now Page Stegner has written about him too. It must be said that Mr. Stegner’s approach is a good deal less sophisticated than Nabokov’s. For one thing, in a slightly uneasy way Mr. Stegner offers to justify Nabokov, to show that he possesses not only a brilliant style but also (though he “tries to obfuscate that emotion by means of a brilliant style”) a deeply compassionate nature. In a somewhat similar spirit Mr. Stegner presents Humbert Humbert as a poor, compassion-worthy gentleman who was simply trying to recover his childhood by peeking at young girls. Unhappily he was seduced by Lolita, which spoiled everything. For Humbert, at least, though not for those readers “who are able to trancend their socially conditioned response to sexual perversion.”

I wonder if anyone has written a book about Peter de Vries? Nabokov and De Vries are both considerable wits and word-boys, but whereas De Vries despairs of his fellow beings without ceasing to love them altogether and finds the human condition pretty rough but still the only one we have, Nabokov loves memories, chiefly memories of his family, feels a large and fairly comprehensive distaste for the real, and seems to believe that “words alone are certain good.” Nabokov, of course, is much more amenable to high-level discussion. The riddler always is, with the practically illimitable scope he offers for pattern-tracing, the pursuit of maybe allusions and might-be correspondences, which in the work of Nabokov amounts to a rich and welcome substitute for the old bone of symbolology that time and scholarly dentures have worn away. Unhappy about “evaluation,” an activity as tedious or as hazardous as grading examination papers, our critics turn to free commentary and explication, art grows increasing aesthetic, criticism becomes a paperchase, and never mind what is actually written on the paper…

I WOULD SAY that Pnin is Nabokov’s best book to date. Mr. Stegner opts for Lolita, but his section on Pnin is the most warmly written, and I suspect that only his sense that Pnin is insufficiently Nabokovian and that the admirer of Nabokov is in honor bound to elevate Lolita has prevented him from coming out in favor of Pnin. He goes so far as to acknowledge that

perhaps because the composition is more straightforward and the author’s controlling hand less apparent, Pnin is the most moving and real of Nabokov’s characters. It seems as if both composer and solver, being less involved with intellectual gymnastics, are able to concentrate on the depiction and understanding of a truly human being and his redemptive response to the painfulness of exile.

“Most moving and real…a truly human being…” Yet “Lolita is the greatest novel that Nabokov has yet written.” Few indeed of Nabokov’s fans have questioned the implications of his obsession with the superman hero, arrogant and (except where he himself is concerned) callous, lording it over his “natural” inferiors. That the superman hero may be insane, or that eventually he slips up on a banana skin left in his way by normal, mean, everyday reality makes little difference: we know where Nabokov’s sympathies lie. Perhaps he is a child of the times—this would account for his ready acceptance at a number of levels—but I incline to hope that he will not prove a father of the future.

Chapters of Speak, Memory make this autobiographical work, for me, a close rival to Pnin. In places memory speaks at too great length, but more often with an hallucinatory and almost suffocating density of minute detail before which one’s own memories of Nabokov’s snobbery of peevishness, though only a page or two earlier, fade almost to nothing. When he is writing about someone or something he loves, he is irresistible; when he is writing of someone or something he despises, he can even manage to enlist one’s sympathies, if only momentarily, for the object of his contempt. That Freudianism should draw his scorn is understandable, since its elucidation of mysteries is so much less suave and subtle than Nabokov’s propagation of them. Apparently his hatred of Communism is similarly simple and personal. He tells us—or rather he tells “the particular idiot who, because he has lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me”—that his old quarrel with the Soviets is “wholly unrelated to any question of property.” It has to do with “a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.”

Nabokov’s childhood is not lost—or had to be lost that it might be found again, as it is in Speak, Memory, found with such seeming exactitude and depth and with such delicacy and tenderness. Sovietization has been a professional blessing to Nabokov, providing him with the better part of his motivation as a writer, or with the motivation of the better part of his writing. The notification that his grievance has nothing to do with property (a curious little interlude altogether) was perhaps thought necessary in view of his having told us earlier that his family had “a permanent staff of about fifty servants and no questions asked.” Perhaps it was time some questions were asked—even though the answers forth-coming were far from satisfactory. It may be an instance of his contempt for the reader’s intelligence, or simply of his superb complacency, that having described the peasant girls outside his window, “weeding a garden path on their hands and knees or gently raking the sun-mottled sand.” he adds in brackets. “The happy days when they would be cleaning streets and digging canals for the State were still beyond the horizon.” We can feel vividly for Nabokov at the beginning of the 1920s. in exile (though in exile at Cambridge University), the son of a father who had been imprisoned under the Tsar, now obliged to contend with the “pained surprise or polite sneers” of undergraduate socialists and armchair world-saviors. At the same time, his few references to the lower orders of his childhood (“a bedraggled hag who was gloating over a crimson-plumed hat on display at a milliner’s”) and his casual remark that he was not supposed to chat with the servants and didn’t know how to lead one to suspect that, while he loved and admired his father, it was not his father’s liberalism which he admired.


NABOKOV’S CURIOUS self-righteousness displays itself rather comically when he is recalling his friendship with his cousin Yuri. At any rate I don’t think this self-righteousness is a Nabokovian joke, for he is not given to joking in the presence of memory:

The slums of sex were unknown to us. Had we ever happened to hear about two normal lads idiotically masturbating in each other’s presence (as described so sympathetically, with all the smells, in modern American novels), the mere notion of such an act would have seemed to us as comic and impossible as sleeping with an amelus.*

The hit at modern American novels (not found in earlier versions of the autobiography) surely loses a good deal of its force when we recall that it comes from the novelist who penned the masturbatory epic of Humbert Humbert—though, granted, Humbert was not a lad and presumably not exactly normal either. But the forerunners of Lolita are charmingly evoked here. Colette, whom he met in Biarritz when he was ten, and attempted to run away with, getting as far as a cinema near the Casino. Polenka, “always barefoot, rubbing her left instep against her right calf,” whom he dreamed of but never spoke to, “afraid of being revolted by her dirt-caked feet and stale-smelling clothes,” for though not a servant herself, she was the daughter of the head coachman. And Tamara, who was fifteen when he was sixteen, with whom he was forced to resort to cinemas and to museums until “this or that hoary, blear-eyed, felt-soled attendant would grow suspicious and we would have to transfer our furtive frenzy elsewhere.”

A light down, akin to that found on fruit of the almond group, lined her profile with a fine rim of radiance… Her lovely neck was always bare, even in winter in St. Petersburg, for she had managed to obtain permission to eschew the stifling collar of a Russian school-girl’s uniform…. The rippling of her ready laughter, her rapid speech, the roll of her very uvular r, the tender, moist gleam on her lower eyelid….

Tamara is a closer approach to Lolita, yet the story which Nabokov’s memory tells is funny, and altogether endearing, and far removed from the (let’s face it) thoroughly squalid Odyssey through the perils and discomforts of American motels of Humbert Humbert and his Dutch wife. Another attractive section (however unlepidopterological the reader) is devoted to butterflies and their environment. The “enthusiastic kitchen boy” who brought the young Vladimir a bagful of grasshoppers, sand, mushrooms, and “one battered Small White” is obviously the original of Fyodor’s uncle’s orderly in The Gift, one barely-spoken-to servant re-emerging as another. But then, you track Nabokov everywhere in his own snow—though I doubt there is much literary point in bringing out the blood-hounds every time.

One change from the earlier version of these memoirs, published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence, is worth noting as an example of Nabokov’s agility in mystery-mongering, and in that form of it which he most relishes since it concerns himself. Talking of Russian émigré writers, Nabokov stated in Conclusive Evidence that the one who interested him most was naturally Sirin, who belonged to his generation. “Among the young writers produced in exile he turned out to be the only major one.” He remarked that “Sirin’s admirers made much, perhaps too much, of his unusual style, brilliant precision, functional imagery and that sort of thing,” and went on to mention by name “the most haunting” of Sirin’s novels—Invitation to a Beheading and Luzhin’s Defense. “V. Sirin” was Nabokov’s pseudonym as a novelist writing in Russian, and since the publication of Conclusive Evidence the two novels in question have of course appeared in their English avatars. And so in Speak, Memory, in order to preserve the joke, such as it was, to save it from falling into utter ruin, Nabokov omits the reference to specific titles. And, as it seems out of modesty or out of faint-heartedness (weaknesses to which he is not normally prone), he has removed the sentence describing Sirin as the only major writer among the young émigrés and replaced it by something more acceptable: “Among the young writers produced in exile he was the loneliest and most arrogant one.” Thus he not only salvages the joke but even improves it. The Nabokov-reference in Despair, where Hermann mentions “the well-known author of psychological novels…very artificial, though not badly constructed,” is sub-standard by comparison.


THIS SENSITIVE and graceful life, though in Speak, Memory recorded so sensitively and gracefully, is not invariably so fascinating to read about as it must have been agreeable to live. The far-fetched language is at times doubtfully worth the carriage; these examples are all to be found on the same, strange page: fatidic, Joaneta Darc, praedormitary, muscae volitantes, hypnagogic, palpebral, photisms, flou. The love, the pathos, and the entertainment come near to being out-weighed by the haughty airs, the occasional archness and—an unexpected phenomenon in so sophisticated a person—the tinge of sanctimoniousness. You! hypocrite lecteur!—though not exactly Nabokov’s fellow, and certainly not his brother.

The Waltz Invention (a play) and The Eye and Despair (novels) are translations (and in the first and last cases also revisions) of works by V. Sirin, originally written in 1938, 1930, and 1932 respectively. Each is now attended by a smug and somewhat aggressive foreword by V. Nabokov. The Waltz Invention is also accompanied by a blurb which is so grotesquely illiterate (“the frightening message is delivered with a shuttle to comedy, as indeed the ending is a happy one, because Salvator Waltz is not all there”) as to seem to have been composed by Nabokov himself for the deeper damnation of the very baddest of his baddies. Waltz is in possession of “an infernal machine” which will enable him to destroy the world; as indeed he is about to do when it transpires that the whole action is merely Waltz’s dream while he waits to see the Minister of War. Waltz is loony—which makes hay of the publisher’s claim for the work’s prophetic qualities. Nabokov informs us that the play has no political “message” and that he would not today have attempted to invent “my poor Waltz”

lest any part of me, even my shadow, even one shoulder of my shadow, might seem thereby to join in those “peace” demonstrations conducted by old knaves and young fools, the only result of which is to give the necessary peace of mind to ruthless schemers in Tomsk or Atomsk….

Yet he publishes the book today, even though there would seem to be reason for not publishing it beyond the author’s squeamish horror of the sweaty caps and stinking breath of ban-the-bombers. It is a rather amateurish production, like a late specimen of a style of drama which failed to prosper in the 1920s.

THE THEME of The Eye, Nabokov tells us after uttering the prescriptive gibe at Freudians and the customary boast that his books are “blessed by a total lack of social significance,” is “the pursuit of an investigation which leads the protagonist through a hell of mirrors and ends in the merging of twin images”—which sounds as if he has been studying his own interpreters. Though the story could be represented as Lolita in reverse, the supreme accomplishment of love residing in its non-accomplishment, it seems to me a light and fairly light-hearted piece of mild mystification. Despair is a more substantial and characteristic work, although its central deception falls short of Nabokov’s usual elegance and involution. Its hero, Hermann, murders his double and changes clothes with him, partly in order to collect his own insurance, but chiefly (he informs us) out of sheer aesthetic delight, for the artistic achievement, the mastery of the thing. Hermann’s carefully worked-out scheme fails because of a basic weakness: the reiterated resemblance between the two men exists only in Hermann’s mind; for Hermann. It seems, is mad. But never mind, he gets a book out of it, and a highly gratifying fade-out. The novel contains a smattering of prime Nabokovianisms, such as “Literature is Love,” and “a combination of decency and sentimentality is exactly equal to being a fool,” and this account of the literary triangle:

The pale organisms of literary heroes feeding under the author’s supervision swell gradually with the reader’s life-blood; so that the genius of a writer consists in giving them the faculty to adapt themselves to that—not very appetizing—food and thrive on it, sometimes for centuries.

Hermann’s smugness is foreshadowed in the self-satisfaction of the foreword, where Nabokov instructs us that

Despair, in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it show humanity the right exit. It contains far fewer “ideas” than do those rich vulgar novels that are acclaimed so hysterically in the short echo-walk between the ballyhoo and the hoot.

He continues, possibly because he feels he has been rather negative about the book:

Plain readers…will welcome its plain structure and pleasing plot…There are many entertaining conversations throughout the book, and the final scene with Felix in the wintry woods is of course great fun.

The “final scene with Felix” is Felix’s murder.

FOR MR. STEGNER, as I have mentioned, Lolita is Nabokov’s greatest novel. It is certainly, I would say, his most distasteful, arch, affected, and perverse. It is also the novel which, in virtue of its story, provides the greatest scope for his macabre humor and his lepidopterist’s analytic and classificatory skills. Linguistically it is his most “brilliant” work, and if words didn’t sometimes have meanings it could well be a great novel. As it is though, Nabokov is not going further than the “conventional” great novelists whom he disdains; he is not going nearly so far. Some good, or some devlishly clever, if not always clean, fun is had by the way, but the way is short, it peters out in a maze of tracks which lead nowhere.

“While Humbert is a sexual pervert and a murderer, he is not a rapist; not a seducer of adolescent girls in dark alleys.” Agreed, Humbert tells his “chère Dolores” that he wants to protect her from “all the horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways”; but since he takes Lolita against her will, by threatening her with incarceration in a reformatory, morally (if one may be allowed to use that word just once) he is not strikingly superior to a rapist. Though he talks of his “tragic flaw,” Mr. Stegner doesn’t go so far as one (at least) of Nabokov’s admirers, who finds Humbert not a sexual maniac but a poet, a poet in pursuit of unattainable beauty. True, that checks with the dictionary definition of “nympholepsy.” True, “we poets never kill,” Humbert has remarked; he also remarks. “You can count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Familiar as one is with the vagaries, or the perversities, of contemporary criticism, it is still hard to stifle a small gasp as one watches a critic (not Mr. Stegner) exalting Humbert into a secular saint on one page and on the next savaging the Headmistress of Beardsley School for uttering clichés and mixed metaphors! Words speak louder than actions after all, it seems. Thus the nauseous language of gallantry (parody? But parody is a plea that soon wears thin); “the whole winesweet event,” “hot, opalescent, thick tears that poets and lovers shed,” “the honey of a spasm” (cf., the brisk, ungallant language employed by Humbert after he has succeeded in attaining the attainable: “a quick connection before dinner”). Thus Humbert’s request that the reader should try “to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity”: a jewel fourteen-words long, as long as you don’t think of what is happening, of what it means. Nabokov has succeeded too well with Lolita, too horribly well with Humbert, for the one to serve as symbol of unattainable beauty and the other as symbol of the poet. Here (if there ever can be) there can be no escape into aesthetics.

And is Headmistress Pratt much more than an Aunt Sally, a sitting duck? Nabokov sets up grotesques and then knocks them down adroitly: To feel superior to Miss Pratt or to Lolita’s mother is the reader’s compensation for his awareness of the contempt in which Nabokov holds him. Humbert’s “disgust for the false front of the gum-chewing American teen-ager”—oh dear, one begins to see innuendoes everywhere!—“makes any parent nod in agreement.” So says Mr. Stegner. It is nice that the parents of teenagers should find common ground with Humbert, whom otherwise they might have mistaken for “a madman with a gross liking for the fruit vert.” As for the send-up of motels and roadside restaurants, is it utterly improper to wonder whether a man who takes a young and not notably willing girl to such places is really in a position to complain of the décor, the food, or the noisy lavatories? As satire Lolita is scarcely more caustic than A Modest Proposal would be if it were known that its author indulged a taste for fricasseed infant.

LIKE OTHER WRITERS on Nabokov, Mr. Stegner has splendid fun tracing cross-references, following up clues, and elucidating riddles. Until, while he is attempting to sort out the self-propagating exegetical possibilities of Pale Fire, a hangover sets in. “One wishes,” he says, at least he says,

that critics like Mary McCarthy who find a significant “moral truth” in Pale Fire would somehow demonstrate where they found it, and how, and what it is. It seems to me that in their lengthy explications of the riddles in the novel they fall into the same trap that Nabokov has perhaps fallen into—that is, thinking that form and style alone will bear the burden of greatness and that a novel is outstanding because its structure is fantastically complex.

Pale Fire differs from Nabokov’s other novels, at any rate the most celebrated of them, only in the degree of its tricksiness. All too generally this author, rich in what is given to few writers and poor in what is given to most men, reminds me of Gulley Jimson’s comment in The Horse’s Mouth: “…like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble?”

This Issue

November 3, 1966