Among the many prestidigitating selves inside Vladimir Nabokov is a valet who can palm himself off on readers when the master grammarian is sleeping off his skills next door. As he has said, he “has always been a conjuror: all art is deception and so is nature—see the butterfly mimicking the leaf.” So Look at the Harlequins! is the valet’s fast-talking parody. He becomes Vadim—even Vadim McNab for a while, since Americans have difficulty with the two “o” ‘s that follow—a Russian émigré aristocrat, quick to enjoy puberty, living briefly in Cambridge (Eng) and France, writing poems and novels—ghostly list of books supplied.
He is teaching Joyce and, among others, Browning and Sterne—misspelled Stern by all students—at an American college; he is a self-loving pedant, a lepidopterist, but now the valet gives him three or four successive wives. There is Iris the idyllic sunbather in France, a girl with irresistible thin arms who is eventually shot down in the street by an insane lover. The next wife is a prudish Russian, slow at typing, who frowns when embraced and is unreliable in bed: once when the back of her hand “chanced to brush against the taut front of my trousers, she uttered a chilly ‘pardon’ (Fr)” and fell into a sulk. She leaves her professor and is drowned in her flimsy lakeside cottage during a lucky tornado, leaving, if you remember your Lolita, a very young daughter Isabel who causes gossip in academic circles by going about naked in the house where her adoring father tries to bring her up. She reminds him of lost Iris.
Isabel brings stepmother trouble when the Professor next marries a rumbustious nymphomaniac who has supposed—falsely—that the Professor is about to win “a Prestigious Prize.” An aggressive furnisher, she fills the house with the latest music-playing objects and proclaims that “all art is self-expression,” with awful Freudian overtones. Soon, when she takes to visiting eye specialists, Vadim realizes she is once more on the cheerful sexual prowl; Isabel grows up to be a dolt who goes off with a young American believer to “Sovietland.” Vadim’s marriage breaks up and he begins a long tour of motels.
These misfortunes have not helped Vadim with his chronic neuralgia. Insomnia and an acquaintance with dementia are possibly brought on by a philosophical problem: at point H he can visualize the journey to point P, but at the imaginary point P he cannot visualize the return journey to point H. This, as his next possible wife tries to tell him, is because he has confused the concepts of direction and duration: space and time—something like the dilemma that worried Tristram Shandy, for Nabokov inherits the old Russian taste for Shandyism. Sterne, more than Joyce, is his master in English literature. The dilemma is not solved until Vadim has a seizure, falls over a stone wall (point P) when he is about to return to meet his promised new wife, and we see him fighting his way forward to sanity in a hospital. She seems to embody Reality, and at this point Nabokov takes over from the valet who is no expert on the border line between madness, delight, or the peace of identity recognized.
Look at the Harlequins! is not one of Nabokov’s best fairy tales, but it is good farce throbbing with his well-known obsessions; there is the usual mingling of tenderness and menace and underlying all the exile’s stinging sense of loss. The grammarian now overworks the word “fatidic” (Rare) and in describing a girl he never fails to mention “the clavicle.” The country that replaces his lost native land is language, but he is not, as some have said, the cold perverse aesthete: no one who has read Pnin can say that. One thinks of Sterne again—Sterne who kept off madness by feverishly following his eye—in the erotic insinuation, in the passion for anatomy, in the old comedy of measurement, and the preoccupation with touch. Touch and the navigating eye keep him alive:
At the start of the great seizure, I must have been totally incapacitated, from top to toe, while my mind, the images racing through me, the tang of thought, the genius of insomnia, remained as strong and active as ever…. I derived much entertainment from mapping my sensitive spots which were always situated in exact opposition, e.g. on both sides of my forehead, on the jaws, orbital parts, breasts, testicles, knees, flanks. At an average stage of observation, the average size of each spot of life never exceeded that of Australia (I felt gigantic at times) and never dwindled (when I dwindled myself) below the diameter of a medal of medium merit, at which level I perceived my entire skin as that of a leopard painted by a meticulous lunatic from a broken home….
My lungs and my heart acted, or were induced to act, normally; so did my bowels, those buffoons in the cast of our private miracle plays. My frame lay flat as in an Old Master’s Lesson of Anatomy…. My condition was a horrible form of protracted (twenty nights!) insomnia with my mind as consistently alert as that of the Sleepless Slav in some circus show I once read about in The Graphic. I was not even a mummy; I was—in the beginning, at least—the longitudinal section of a mummy, or rather the abstraction of its thinnest possible cut…. I had some sense of duration and direction.
Or, to turn from insomnia to love: it is the remembered touch of Iris that brings her back as a fragment of memory—our only intimation of immortality? She is seen rubbing cold cream on his back when they are lying on a beach in France.
Through the itch of my skin, and in fact seasoned by that itch to an exquisite degree of rather ridiculous enjoyment, the touch of her hand on my shoulder blades and along my spine resembled too closely a deliberate caress not to be deliberate mimicry, and I could not curb a hidden response to those nimble fingers when in a final gratuitous flutter they traveled down to the very coccyx, before fading away.
But the valet did not write this: his cure for the randy master’s illusions is the knowing scholarly joke. Getting his future third wife, Louise, upstairs while her husband sits below—
In less time than it took her husband, a quick reader, to skim down two columns of print, we had “attired” him.
The several attempts to describe Isabel’s sudden emergence as a beauty range from romantic talk of “richer sheens” to the cleverer throw-away:
The general type and bone structure of her pubescent radiance cannot be treated, however, with a crack player’s brio and chalk-biting serve. I am reduced—a sad confession!—to something I have also used before, and even in this book—the well-known method of degrading one species of art by appealing to another.
What nonsense I have been talking about Sterne! In this particular book one thinks of that other master of fairy tale, that other fisher of styles: P. G. Wodehouse, who, in the above, seems to bring the vulgar Jeeves into action. Half the pleasure of late Nabokov lies in the déjà vu. There is only one serious flaw in the breezy narrative: the chapter on Vadim’s secret visit to Russia in search of Isabel is a flop. It is the only chapter in which, to our embarrassment, laughter fails to draw blood. And that to an addicted Nabokovian is hard to bear.
Strong Opinions is a miscellany of the texts of interviews Nabokov has given, and caustic letters he has written to the press. “You are superficially linked to writers like Beckett and Borges, Mr. Nabokov. Do you feel…?” “Slow minds, hasty typewriters,” the master replies: a send-up of what is ungrammatically called the media. The only interesting thing in the collection is the essay in which Nabokov opens up his guns on Edmund Wilson’s vulnerable Russian. But, as a critic if not as a linguist, Wilson survives the duel.
November 28, 1974